Partner Play and The Pickleball Divorce
Remember that old song by Tammy Wynette? About D-I-V-O-R-C-E? Pickleball partners we know might sometimes hum that after playing a mixed doubles tournament with their spouse. Sometimes (we’ve heard) they even take action.
“Wait, what?”, you protest. “My spouse and I are close. We’ve been together for, well, forever! We know everything about each other – likes, dislikes, hot buttons —.” Ahah, and there’s the rub! We’ll talk about hot buttons and the stress pressing them causes in partner play, but for the moment let’s do some stage-setting.
So…you’re on the courts with your spouse, smiling and having fun with your best girl (or guy) and your opponents. Then one of you, this time we’ll make it the right-handed wife currently in the left court, watches a ball go through the middle without moving. Her husband gives her a mild questioning look. “You ALWAYS take those middle shots with your backhand!” she says. The game resumes.
Next time, after the opponent returns her serve, she hits a nice soft third-shot drop into the middle, but the ball bounces a bit too high and the opponent smashes it at the husband, who doesn’t have his paddle up but makes a nice catch with his chest. She says, “Sorry, hon.” He turns and says (opening mouth and inserting foot), “Not so high!” (“Tell me something I don’t know”), she huffs to herself. Now she’s feeling somewhat stressed, but determines just to keep her mouth shut and play on. The game resumes.
Hubby next tries the same third shot drop which hits the top of the net, as do his next three drops; net, net, net. He turns and says “You’re not getting to the kitchen fast enough!” What? She gives him “The Look”. He flinches. His stomach growls as the prospect of someone fixing his dinner that night disappears. His stress increases. The game resumes.
Every single pickleball game is composed of good shots and unforced errors. But now, even when he makes an error, it appears to her that he’s always seeing something she’s not doing right. And when she makes an error, even if he doesn’t look at her, it appears she can see by “the set of his shoulders” (or some other physical ‘tell’ without him ever turning around) that he’s annoyed with her. Stress meter is moving up. In response, he’s now very cautious about taking anything that’s hers or saying anything. His play becomes more passive. This appears to her to mean he’s so annoyed that he’s not even trying any more. The game resumes, again, for awhile. Then they lose.
Any of the above can be reversed, gender-wise, without losing accuracy. (E.g., all the “his”-es can be “hers”, and vice-versa.) But as said it’s still all true and there’s an obvious reason this happens. If you are playing with your spouse you know all their hot buttons. You know their play as well as they do, perhaps better – or think you do. And all of the shots you know YOU should always make you insist that she – or he – should always make (even though, if you’re being truthful with yourself, you’ll admit you don’t always make, either)!
So your expectations of the partner are expectations you actually have of the unattainable but perfect “you”… the you that always serves deep, returns deep, hits good drop shots, covers the middle rigorously, doesn’t go for hero shots, plays remarkably consistently, and encourages the partner spouse when he (or she) makes a mistake, like AJ’s poaching Irene’s go-to-the-middle-topspin winner with his infamously weak wrongly-angled sideline shot that’s somehow “just out” by three feet for the fifth time in two games. (Just an example; not to pick on AJ, of course.)
The questions that remain, then, are two. First, given that most males are capable of being wonderful on the court with everyone except their spouses, should any guy ever try to play tournament doubles with their spouse? And, if the answer is still “yes, they should try”, then the question that is left is “Can they play well together?”
We enjoy posing good, relevant questions, but unfortunately we do not all have the answers. Look at the results for yourself. Irene took AJ back twice previously after two separate Pickleball Divorces. This third time she metaphorically moved out, lock, stock, and barrel. No mas pickleball-pairing for the deadly duo.
To give him a little credit, AJ has been trying to affect a reconciliation. And to give her credit for being bigger than he is, Irene is thinking it over and preparing quite an extensive honey-do list as potential alimony. Given the quality and quantity of her demands (e.g. he does not yet know how to re-tile a complete bathroom) and the 78% probability that AJ is not capable of exhibiting any meaningful change on the courts (and probably knows it at a primal level), we are not overly optimistic about their chances. If we were to make suggestions, however, here are three ideas they might focus on:
- If you are at the net and your partner, behind you, commits an error, do not turn around. Instead, give him a thumbs-up. We’ve seen good players touch hands after every shot…good or bad. We imagine that works, too.
- Come up with a good defusing phrase (preferably totally silly) that you can each use when the other commits what is (at least in your opinion) a blunder. Our favorite expression used by good friends who played partners at 5.0 is “Nice Ass!” She made up the expression but now they both use it.
- If you’re losing big-time and you’re in a tournament, you might try taking a time-out and switching into a totally different strategy. We have seen folks change who is left-court when stacking, or change their poaching routines. We think the idea here is simply to break up the other team’s successful strategy without getting annoyed at each other, which in our experience never works.
Of course, we don’t know if Irene and AJ will ever get together on the tournament courts again. Certainly they could try the above changes if they do. We hope, given what good theater they are on the courts, that it does revive their team. We cheerfully admit to being interested in seeing them, together, out there at least once more. Laughter is the best antidote for stress, after all. Even if it’s our laughter and at them and not with them.