Wes Gabrielsen’s Five Elements for Continuous Improvement
“God gives talent. Work transforms talent into genius.” – Anna Pavlova, Prima Ballerina and Choreographer
“To uncover your true potential you must first find your own limits, and then you have to have the courage to blow past them.” – Picabo Street, Professional Ski Racing Champion
“The separation of talent and skill is one of the greatest misunderstood concepts for people who are trying to excel, who have dreams, who want to do things. Talent you have naturally. Skill is only developed by hours and hours and hours of beating on your craft.” – Will Smith, actor, singer, athlete
Can ordinary folk really learn better play from just watching and listening to the truly top-echelon pickleballers? After all, they just have natural talents far beyond our measly gifts, right?
Well, we believe you certainly can learn from the best. For instance, Wes Gabrielsen, age 29, winner of 60+ major gold-medals, international pickleball champion, sponsored by Pro-Lite Pickleball – clearly among the world’s best p-ballers – is not only amazing to watch when he plays but also has a plan that he can articulate on specifically what it takes for him to improve his skills.
Yes, he’s a very good athlete and, as we learned, he always has been. But he studies what works and what doesn’t, determines how and when he should use his strengths on the courts in different situations, and works to shore up his weaknesses so he can get better. AND it turned out he’s also got a formula for continuous improvement that we could all use to improve our own games. We talked with Wes recently to ask him how it all works for him.
Q. Wes, can ordinary mortals become as awesome as you?
A. Oh, man (laughs) – I’m just an ordinary guy who loves sports, but, that’s sort of the point. I’m not awesome; I just work hard. Some of the top guys are impressive looking physically; they’re totally chiseled. Obviously, I’m not. In fact, one of my regular partners and good friends, Brian Ashworth, once said “You and I are successful because we make the most out of the least!” I think that’s true. We both work hard to overcome our lack of natural athleticism.
Q. “Making the most out of the least” sounds weird, especially coming from somebody who seems like “Joe Natural Athlete” and who’s had your results. What do you mean by that?
A. For me there are a few guiding principles, like staying soft and having patience, especially in big matches. Alex Hamner and I were playing in the 2015 So Cal Classic 19+ Mixed Doubles bracket and were figuring out our strategy. I told her, “Soft and Patient wins the race.” What I meant was that patience and staying soft with dinks would help us win that day. I like that. I think that’s more “me”. I’d also add a few other things. Strength and Skill are important. And Shot-tolerance, too. All those can be learned and developed.
Of course I’ve always enjoyed sports: I played baseball, third base, for many years; played soccer, goalie, at the club and high school levels; played many years of tennis in high school and in college, and now I focus on pickleball and golf. So, yeah, I have lots of sports experience and some talent, I guess. The talent was really fostered through my parents’ guidance – both were good athletes and coaches and were my coaches for some sports. Their philosophy was to allow me to play all sports and pick a few I enjoyed. As a result, in addition to the baseball, soccer and tennis, I played football, basketball, hockey, track and field and golf, and some pickleball, too.
Besides being good athletes and coaches my parents were both educators and fostered a very academic environment at home and set high expectations for my performance. I am forever grateful to their loving guidance – it allowed me to become an effective teacher, coach and athlete in my life. Because of that academic environment, I’ve always been sort of an analytical nerd; even in high school I was always tracking my results in everything. And I was absolutely willing to do the work, especially if somebody was beating me on something. If they could do it, I wanted to learn how, too. And I’m still that way. So, no, I’m no “natural.”
Q. Well, we wrote down your “Big Five” – Soft, Patience, Skill, Strength, Shot-tolerance. How did you develop those things?
A. Let’s start with Skill. Skill is a learned proficiency, while talent is a gift. We – anybody – can develop at least some skill. In tennis as a player I started with very foundational stuff – how to hit the ball while at the net, first, and then worked my way back to the baseline. Later, as a coach, I taught that everybody can get better. If you have talent, that’s a bonus; your skills are sharpened, but everybody improves with practice and work. Personally, I still love to work to improve. There’s always something I take away from every tournament that I want to work on.
You’ve heard the expression “The harder you work, the luckier you are”? For me, the harder I work, the better my skills are, and then the luckier I am!
Q. OK, so how about Soft and Patient?
A. Soft and Patient go together. Soft – you don’t play at the top levels if you don’t have a solid soft game. Take the top 25 players – none of us would have a very good career if we couldn’t play the soft game. Learning to convert hard shots to soft, learning to stay in a dink, differentiating between a good shot opportunity and a better shot opportunity to move from defense to offense — that’s all key to the soft game.
And Patient – I anticipate well, and I move to get to where I can hit a good shot, not just any shot. Moving is a big part of my game.
Q. You move really well, for sure. People often say you’re light on your feet.
A. I don’t think so, because it’s hard to be light on your feet when you wear size 15 shoes (laughs….).I’d agree that for the first ten or fifteen feet of a sprint I’m pretty quick, but not so much after that. But remember the third-base and the goalie experiences I had? I learned to anticipate and move early to where the opponents should hit the ball, not that they always did. That learned anticipation has helped me improve my pickleball game. That’s really what I think people are talking about, when they talk about my lightness and movement.
Q. We get it. And that leaves us with Strength and Shot-tolerance.
A. Strength comes before Shot-tolerance. You need to have strength in all aspects of your game and then use it to develop shot-tolerance later.
I can give you an example of my working on strength. You know I’m ambidextrous, but most of my power in pickleball was off my left side. And yet certain people, like Enrique Ruiz, were beating me pretty often in singles and that was frustrating me. So a good friend said “Can you learn to hit the ball harder right-handed, especially in singles?”, and they were right. So I practiced – a lot – and developed some pretty decent power on the right side, too. And my singles game started to improve.
Earlier I had learned to develop power and strength in tennis. We were coached to understand that power comes from the core. It’s all about mechanics, not brute force. You can learn to develop strength and generate more power in your shots. Developing and tightening your core, getting your body lower and loading up are all keys to hitting an effective, powerful shot in any racquet sport. Generating power in pickleball is just like in tennis; the strength comes from the waist down – use quick feet to get your body set and get lower with your body. As a result, you get low and load up to hit a harder shot. You don’t have to be a ripped athlete, like I said to do this. Just like in tennis, this process of hitting harder is all about whip, and I grew up watching Pete Sampras demonstrate this process in tennis. Overall, you just need to use your body correctly — especially your lower body.
Q. So does strength come just from proper use of the lower body?
No, it’s also the effective movement I talked about before. Effective movements sets up strength in your shots – how you move to the ball and then into the ball. My friend Jennifer Lucore used to say I must be a good dancer, because she noticed how well I can move and I’m light on my toes – but actually I’m a terrible dancer. I do love music, but in fact I play an instrument so I don’t have to sing or dance. But like I said before, my feet are big and I need to move them. I keep them moving just about all the time. But I get there to the ball, get set, get low, and then load and unload with the stroke.
Q. So now we’ve developed Strength in core, and we’re ready for “Shot Tolerance,” which is…what?
A. Yeah….well, I was taught early that a good tennis player has excellent shot tolerance. Shot tolerance is skill combined with a mindset. Essentially it means that a player is willing, able, and prepared to hit one more shot into the court than their opponent. Within a rally I don’t want to be intimidated or caught unaware of how to handle any shot. I want to develop extreme shot tolerance for each and every shot, in each and every point. This is a concept I pound into the heads of my tennis players and something that we practice on a consistent basis. My goal is to always be able to return any shot effectively over the net one more time than they can hit it back to me.
Q. And you need shot-tolerance in competitive pickleball?
A. Absolutely you do!
Tim Gardner, my drilling partner and great friend, and I practice this concept on a weekly basis. During tournament season we drill usually 3 or 4 days a week for 2 to 3 hours. During this time we practice shot tolerance, mainly with our dinks. With all four potential angles of dinking, we drill by hitting consecutive shots to a selected target number. Usually we drill however long it takes to hit 100 dinks in a row back and forth, before moving onto our next angle (straight ahead, cross court, etc.) We usually ramp up the frequency of drilling and intensity before Nationals. For instance, this year we drilled 4 or 5 days a week in the two months before the Nationals. As a result of our hard work, by the time I got to the tournament, I knew that any shots I had to hit in the tournament would be routine, and I could focus on the spots I wanted to hit my shots to, not my technique.
And this is another thing. To improve, I think you have to have good partners you can work with and learn from. Tim’s guidance re-energized my love of drilling and fitness, and future Pickleball Hall of Famer Steve Paranto provided invaluable strategy mentorship. These are the two main reasons I’ve had the success I’ve enjoyed in pickleball. I owe almost everything to those two and to my good friend and mixed partner Christine Barksdale who re-introduced me to the game 5 years ago.
Q. So how did all this help you in the Nationals?
A. In the quarter-finals of Open Men’s Doubles in 2014 Enrique and I were up against Tim Nelson and Mike Gates. Remember, in the circle of the top 20 and 25 guys, if you aren’t good at dinking and being patient you won’t be good against those guys. If you can’t dink, you won’t have a career. And Mike may be the best dinker in all of pickleball – just GREAT hands! Enrique and I won, but almost a year later, at a tournament I was in a conversation with Mike about that match. Mike told me he had watched a video of the match. And in ONE rally he counted 84 cross-court shots he and I hit to each other at the net. And that was just one of many long rallies! I had extreme shot-tolerance going in, which gave me patience and lots of confidence. It’s a tough strategy to stay with, but it worked.
Q. You’ve mentioned strategy. How would you characterize a winning pickleball strategy?
A. It’s similar to doubles tennis; it’s mainly around identifying your Setup and Offensive players and insuring you both understand your roles. For instance, typically in mixed doubles, the woman is going to be the setup person. The job of the setup person is to be rock solid with her or his dinks and place the ball so that his or her partner continues to have an opportunity to be involved in the play. When I am the offensive player, I then move more into the middle. And she will keep going cross-court when she can in the hopes that one of their returns will be a little bit “up” and I can get into the act.
When I played with Enrique at Nationals 2014 (mentioned above) he was the setup guy in every match except the one against Nelson and Gates. Our opponents were going to him in every other match. He was the setup guy; I was the offensive guy. Our strategy was successful, so we kept winning. Because of our success, then, Nelson and Gates changed their target. They hit every ball to me, so I became the setup guy and Enrique the offensive guy, which was a fun shift.
And roles change depending on who you are with. When I was playing (competitive) tennis, I could play both roles, and I think I still can. For instance, I’m going play one event with Scott Moore next month at the Grand Canyon State Games, and he’s got great offense, so I will probably be the setup guy. So it varies.
Also, a lot about winning is who you are playing with, of course. For instance, Brian Ashworth and I have played a lot together this year, and I’ve played a lot of successful tournaments in mixed with Christine Barksdale – having a good relationship and being good friends with your partner helps. But just having a similar strategy or style of play works, even with people I haven’t played with before. A prime example was the recent USAPA SW Regional Championships in AZ. Gigi LeMaster and Matt Staub were my partners and we played great together! I had often played against them but never with them. But I knew we had similar mindsets and used similar strategies. So I didn’t have any doubts that we’d make great partners.
Q. And it seemed to work out.
A. Yeah, we were fortunate – we got two “Golds” in the SW Regionals. It was really fun…which is another thing that’s very important….the fun part. You do all this preparation, and drilling, and developing strategies, and then you just have to let it go. I don’t analyze too much once a tournament match is going. I just let it flow. Every tournament has its own energy; I just find it and flow with it. Have fun with it.
Q. Let’s take a different look at playing for a moment. What do you see lesser-level players doing that you would want them to do differently? Given your formula for continuous improvement and all….
A. In general what I see at the lower levels is that people don’t want to dink. Maybe they can hit hard, maybe they came from tennis. But based on the equipment we have (in pickleball), they can’t power through someone. If you can’t dink, you won’t get far. They especially seem to have problems with the backhand dink. When looking to improve, players of all levels can go to YouTube, The Pickleball Channel, your Pickleball.biz site, and several other places for resources on any shot, especially the dink. And then they need to drill and drill some more.
And once they get better, they’ll need to work on patience. There are some rallies where the better players don’t see the ball. This can get frustrating in recreational play. It could be the greatest exercise…pick your battles. Pick a group that meets your needs. In McMinnville, we have a great group of people, but there aren’t many 5.0 players around. As a result, I realize in some games I won’t see many balls hit my way – as it all depends on who you play against. So I’m forced to work on my patience, like hitting a smart, safe shot when I do get the opportunity during a rally. It also allows me to work on other shots I want to try out – one can always fine tune a shot in any scenario, regardless of the skill levels of the other players.
Then, to move from intermediate to advanced players, learning when and how to attack is huge. How to take a higher dink, hit it hard and master different spins. Use a good variety of spins, top and underspin especially.
Q. Final question….do you have thoughts about the evolution of pickleball, where the sport is going?
A. Great last question! In the longer term, pickleball should be a fully recognized sport, maybe even an Olympic sport. That could be 20 years down the road though. So, before that, we need to have an international event, similar in format to a Davis Cup or something, for global visibility. And the prize money needs to continue to get better, which will attract more of the people who are now playing professional tennis. Once they get into the picture, the way the game is played will change significantly. They all learned tennis like I did…from the net back to the baseline…so they already have a really good sense of what a short game can be. And they have much more speed and power than we are used to seeing today. So the game will evolve significantly. But like I said, this will take years. We’re seeing some of it now, but it won’t happen overnight.
Q. Sorry, now it’s really the last question…a follow-on. Where will you fit in?
A. I think by the time all that happens I won’t be able to play at a National level – I’ll be too old! (laughs….) But I can certainly imagine coaching one of those top people if they’ll have me, although I’d miss teaching high school a lot. I’ve been playing pickleball since middle-school, I know the game, and of course I love to coach. So that seems natural, that I’d love to be coaching a top player in some capacity. It would be great fun.