This article talks about the universal pickleball club problems of court utilization, pickleball safety, and etiquette. Almost anybody starting or running a pickleball program soon encounter problems which stem from one (or both) of two underlying issues:
- Too many players wanting play on too few courts.
- Players are of very mixed skill-levels
Basically those first two issues are pickleball court utilization issues. In addition there are third and fourth issues that sometimes causes very grave concerns, combined here for ease in writing about them):
- Basic etiquette and safety (plus a link to 150 pickleball excuses for every occasion)
The purpose of this article is to help people who are starting or running a pickleball club to understand a few options for addressing the first two issues, and to identify some of the “rules of behavior” that lead to good pickleball etiquette and safety. We will take ‘em in order. Remember that much of this is OMHO (In Our Humble Opinions) and you can accept or disregard as you choose. (This link to 150 pickleball excuses for every occasion seems relevant for some reason.)
- Too many players wanting play on too few courts
Clubs starting up often have too few courts available or perhaps they have enough court space but limited time to use them (co-use with tennis, for instance) – which amounts to the same thing. Given the exploding popularity of pickleball almost everywhere this is a fact and no matter how you address it, IOHO, any attempted solution will annoy some people. That’s life. However, there are a few proven solutions that come close to getting good court utilization with small numbers of courts or limited time.
- A challenge court system is easiest. Establish one court (or two courts if you have that number of players) for beginners, another court for more advanced play. Advanced play, you’re expecting to take a rip (hit) now and then. People line up or draw numbers (also “d” below for a white-board-based method of lining up.) First four in play a game. Winners stay on for a second game and split up. Next two come in. Now only the one winner who is there for the first game stays on and three come off…the one who has won his/her second game plus the two who lost. The next three come in. As you come off, use Do a paddle rotation. Initially if you have a big group you draw numbers. First four play. Numbers 5 to infinity go in line and put their paddles in that order somewhere…by the handles in a cyclone fence along the courts, on the floor next to the courts, wherever. After the first four play their first game the next four paddles are picked up by their owners and those four go in. The original players go to the back of the line.
- A chair rotation is handled identically but people sit on chairs and wait….moving up the line of chairs as people come off a court. Note: in either case, after the first complete rotation of chairs or paddles, people are welcome to go BACK in line if they want to play with others in order to mix play up and to avoid having the same foursome always playing together. There can be “rules” about no foursome always playing together if that is a problem in the club.
- A Round Robin is a good answer to keep people moving and playing with different people. A RR is run this way: people sign up on a numbered list. They remember their number. A RR sheet corresponding to the number of people wanting to play then is constructed. Each game you look for your number and play with those folks. The next game you will play with different people. Each game it’s different. You may have a “bye”, or sit out a game, if there is an odd number. You need to have RR player sheets for EACH number of players who may be present. Generally we keep RR player sheets for 6 to 35 players in Palm Creek (AZ). You will need less in Bend with fewer available courts. Look under Organized Play for the Round Robin player sheets if you want them.
- A good friend who summers in Reno uses this method, called the “white-board rotation.” This is essentially a more sophisticated challenge court system. He has four courts but the concept could be used with 3, e.g. the Boys and Girls Club if there is enough room there for three. On 2 courts, players are rotated from a list taken from a dry erase board is posted next to the court. People add their name to the bottom of the list. Players come off the top as needed. Their names are erased and so on. The winners stay and split. You would leave the third court for “Aggressive Play” (he calls it “advanced court”, or “aggressive play court”). You can play there at any level but if you play there you need to be ready to take a hit. On that third court you challenge in by partners. Winners stay on and play a maximum of 2 games. By keeping the winners together you don’t water down the competition by splitting 2 good players with maybe 2 lesser players that have challenged. (We have never seen this personally but the guy who does it is another past President of our club in Palm Creek and if he says it works, it works. We really like the idea for at least three courts; it could work for two if you have enough players evenly divided.)
- Players are of mixed skill-levels. Lower level players don’t like playing with advanced players as they get beat up. Advanced players don’t like playing with lower level players as they don’t get good play. Both points of view are valid. Unfortunately, at some point the advanced players often simply refuse to play with “lesser” players. This is rude and IOHO it also slows learning, as one of the best ways for people to learn is to play with better players. Advanced players have the right to expect competitive games during same-skill-level periods but do NOT have the right to refuse to play when there are open-play, mixed skill-level periods. In any event, how do you address this situation, which I admit is often nasty?
- Provide periods for both open-play and for same-skill-level play at different times.
- Rate players or have them self-rate. I would STRONGLY suggest that you immediately go to skill-level ratings (2.0, 2.5, 3.0 up to 5.0) instead of “A”, “B”, “C”, or “Beginner”, “Intermediate” and “Advanced”. Follow this link for more on this subject.
Why? Because skill-level ratings have definitions. I can tell people what skills they need to possess to be a 3.0 instead of a 2.5, for instance. Consistent definitions do not exist for “Advanced”, etc., or with “A”, “B”, “C”. Here’s a little more yet on this subject.
(IOHO, the more “Advanced” players in Bend are currently playing at around a 4.0 level with only a few at 4.5. Most are not yet playing at the 3.5 level. This is typical of a new club.)
- Structure RRs by skill-level if there are enough people in a given level to warrant it.
- Alternatively, if you have only a couple of courts, designate one “Intermediate” and another “Advanced” (forgetting for the moment about skill-level definitions) and have people wait to get on the court they want. If you have three courts, have “A”, “B” and “C” or Beginning, Intermediate, Advanced – all this depends on how many people in the group in each level. Also see section 1 (a) above for more on this subject.
- Basic Etiquette and Safety on the courts
- To begin, and again IOHO, Pickleball is only a game. It is not a metaphor for life. It is not even a profession. Nobody makes much money playing pickleball. You will not eat differently tonight based on your success during a recreational pickleball match. We need to keep in mind that we are playing a GAME! Much of what follows is based on that concept.
- Begin each game by acknowledging the other players, introducing yourself if you don’t know them. If you do know them, tip a paddle towards them on the other side or salute or stand on your head or whatever is appropriate to let them know that you know they are there and are saying “hey”.
- During open play (mixed skill-levels), players play with all skill levels. No complaints. Good sportsmanship is the rule. If you are a significantly stronger player, if you have limited time available to you, and if there is an
“advanced court” option, go wait there for a stronger game. In any event, can the whining. It makes you look older.
- If you are playing against a team where there is a significantly stronger player, play against the STRONGER player. You will forget about who wins a given game tomorrow, but if you play against the stronger player you may learn something.
- If YOU are the strongest player of the four, play to the weakest players in a way they can handle and learn from. Sometimes you can even ask people what they are working on (e.g. drop shots, lobs, returning balls hit to their backhands, whatever) and if they tell you, hit them shots they can use to work on those shots.
- At the end of each game, find something positive to say to the other team at the net. “Nice game” isn’t always appropriate if in spite of your efforts at sportsmanship you have won 11-0. But “you made some great shots!”, or “much closer than the score”, or “Wow, we were lucky today!” would be just fine. At least, “Thanks for playing with us!” is nice. NEVER leave a game without acknowledging the other team.
- If the ball is out, and it’s on your side, call it out. If it’s close, give the benefit to your opponent. This is hard to do when the game is close but do it anyway. If your opponent does not do it, suck it up and you do the right thing anyway when it’s your turn. (One of us is not perfect on this one, btw, but – spoilet hint – he’s working on it.)
- If you step into the kitchen on a volley, or if your partner does, call it on yourself. Be very cautious about calling kitchen or serving faults on others. Most of us are at an age that we would doubt that we can clearly see a serving violation (illegal serve, foot-fault on baseline) – it’s 44 feet away at worst and about 23 feet away at best! (C’mon…you can’t find your keys in the morning until you find your glasses, which are already on your head, but you can clearly see a tiny foot-fault violation at 44 feet? Hah!)
- Never ask for, or accept, line calls from spectators.
- If spectators continuously comment on the play itself, while this is normal and fun, ask them not to if their comments are loud, disruptive, argumentative, hostile or combative. Even if (OK, ESPECIALLY if) they are on your side!
- NEVER yell at, swear at, or say a hostile or sarcastic word to your partner or your opponent in anger. We repeat, NEVER! (one of us finds this almost impossible to do but we keep trying, we keep trying….)
- Do we need to add that, since we are playing a social game, it would be NICE if you apologized if you break wind or belch? Amazingly enough, we DID need to add this as I’ve seen people who purposely belch on courts, loud enough to strip chrome off bumpers. Many of us consider this rude. Some of us consider this funny. Respect those who are more refined, you insensitive churl! (At the moment we don’t know anybody who can break wind on demand but, associating with senior geezer-jocks as much as we do, we suspect they’ll show up at any time now.)
- Trash-talking, which is teasing your opponents in a fun and lighthearted way, is part of pickleball. It’s one of the things that distinguishes us from our more formal and reserved counterparts who play tennis (unless of course they are playing “Team Tennis” – in which case they are just as “bad” as we are!) But be careful – don’t trash-talk someone who is sensitive, who you don’t know, who is a weaker player or can’t for any reason trash-talk back. Do we need to say the obvious – don’t trash-talk someone’s physical or mental limitations, use racial or other politically incorrect statements (at ANY time in your life!), and etc.? Statements like “You could have got that before you lost your leg!” would NOT be considered appropriate. Among peers, “you could have got that LAST year!” might be considered appropriate. Just be careful.
- The corollary to the above is obvious. ALWAYS compliment people on outstanding “hero” shots or on a really great game. (Not on every point, but when it’s most appropriate, you silly goose.)
- Play your strongest game against better players but work on stuff you need practice on with the weaker players. We will often individually tell our partners “I’m working on (say) placement today” and they know that will mean that we’re not necessarily going to put every shot away. Saying this beforehand gives you a chance to gauge what your partner wants out of the deal. Recently Irene had a friend tell her “But I want to win this game!” when she said that and so they played a bit harder – against a comparable team, and did win, and she left the practicing for the next game.
- Do not take advantage of a person’s physical limitations when you play them socially. If someone cannot go back for a lob when they’re at the line because of physical limitations, for instance, why lob over their heads? It’s a cheap shot, you won’t learn anything by doing it, and you certainly will not be respected for it. Anyway, perhaps they have great hands at the line and you could learn something by hitting shots to their strength and trying to make good shots out of their returns. (It’s appropriately a different story in tournaments, believe us, but even there some limitations apply. Examples of good sportsmanship abound from tournament play. Makes people better people, yeah? And refer to “a” – it’s just a game!)
- At the end of a game, if you believe another player would benefit from an observation about their play, DON’T OFFER IT. Who made YOU court-captain today? Most people don’t want observations about their play and will not take it well. Even if they ask, be very cautious. See the next point.
- Eventually even YOU will get to the point when you are a senior player. Just teasing, but it really is that kind of a game and most of us do get there before too many years go by (thankfully, as most of us don’t have that much time!). At that point you inherit the obligation to, in fact, give advice WHEN ASKED, if you believe that the party is really sincere about wanting it. Everybody handles this differently but we believe we should, at that point, give no more than ONE piece of advice at a time. Let them work on that. Then, some other day, go on to the next thing.
- Don’t overplay your current physical condition. (“JUST ONE MORE GAME” has caused way too many accidents!)
- Hydrate. This means “drink water”. This means YOU. Especially in Arizona, where people don’t seem to sweat, but in other places as well. Like Bend. Like everywhere. Drink BEFORE you are thirsty. Otherwise it’s too late.
- If a ball comes onto your court from another court, STOP PLAY AT ONCE. Same if you hear the yell “Ball On Court!”
- Stretch before and AFTER playing. We know, We know, everyone says that, we all say we do it, but we don’t. So be a trend-setter and do it.
- Plus, don’t just swat it back. Pick it up and toss it to the player on the other court, unless the nets are tied high enough above the ground to allow the ball to go under the net. Then swat it courteously in the direction of the opponent.
- If you hit a ball into another court, immediately YELL “Ball On Court!”.
- If a ball is going towards another court, do NOT chase it ONTO the other court. Stop, yell “Ball on Court”, and let the other people stop play and retrieve the ball.
- If you are crossing an active court to get onto a vacant court or to leave a court, wait until their current point is over. Ask them for permission to cross their court. Like a few of these, this is both an etiquette and a safety issue but I put it here, in safety, as it’s obviously unsafe to do otherwise.
- If a ball breaks, safely remove it from the court.
- If ANYTHING falls on the court, quickly remove it.
- If you see someone who displays signs of dizziness, weakness, or lack of concentration, keep an eye on them. Recommend a time-out if you think it necessary for their sake.
- If you see someone playing with “bad” shoes…sandals, non-court-shoes, leather soles of any kind, stop play. Bad shoes are disaster on the hoof.
- If you are near your partner with an overhead slam opportunity where you may hit them, stop play. Let the ball drop. Lose the point. Do NOT hit your partner. Stay conscious of where they are.
- If you can go back more safely for an overhead than your partner, (if their mobility is limited), YOU cover the overheads. Likewise let them cover for you if the situation is reversed.
- When going backwards for a lob, turn and run backwards, DON’T SHUFFLE BACKWARDS. I have seen SO-O-O many falls happen because someone shuffles instead of turning and running. This is a hard thing to do correctly, btw, and needs to be practiced.
- Only a few of us need to be reminded of this one, but don’t dive for balls.
- If someone falls on the court, all play STOPS until their needs are addressed. If you have a full-blown pickleball club you should also have a DeFib unit as well as a full-blown first-aid kit. You should also have people trained up on the DeFib and on CPR. Every year, there should be ADDITIONAL people trained up on both processes.
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