Ratings, Probability and the Algorithm of Pickleball

What separates a beginner from an intermediate from an advanced pickleball player? It’s complicated.

Although it’s easy for most to understand these familiar descriptions, the United States of America Pickleball Association (USAPA) site provides a link to Player Skill Rating Definitions for forehand, backhand, serve/return, dink, 3rd shot, volley and strategy for ratings from 1.0 to 5.0. Based on the descriptions for each, I’d separate them as follows:

  • Beginner – 1.0 through 3.0
  • Intermediate – 3.0+ through 4.0
  • Advanced – 4.0+ through 5.0+

Connecting the Player Skill Ratings with the more familiar terms, a person should consider him or herself an intermediate if he or she (they) can hit forehand shots with depth and control, choose to hit backhand shots (as opposed to avoiding them), have consistency and control with their serve and return of serve, understand and use the drop shot to get to the net, and when there, exhibit patience in waiting for an attackable shot, volley medium-paced shots, understand the difference between hard and soft play and be somewhat familiar with court positioning and stacking.

Cornwall Park in Bellingham

In order to participate in a USAPA tournament that will affect their rating, a player will need to obtain an initial two-digit rating for doubles, mixed doubles and/or singles, which may be (and often is) different for each. They can either self-rated or ask a qualified person to observe their play and provide a rating. By default, this two-digit rating is visible to all other USAPA members and is used for tournament purposes. Once a player has participated in at least one tournament, they will receive a four-digit rating, rounded (from its calculation to ten digits) to the near thousandth, which will be updated quarterly. A person’s rating will increase or decrease based on how they perform at tournaments, which can be sanctioned (100% effect), medal match only (80%), or unsanctioned (60%). The USAPA has chosen pickleballtournaments.com as their software provider for the next three years. A player may play “up” (above their rating level) but not “down.” Beating a lower rated player or team will affect a player’s rating less than beating a higher rated player or team, based on their probability of winning, calculated from a version of the Elo Formula. A player or team “takes” points from a team they beat. The actual rating isn’t as important as the difference between a singles player and their opponent’s or a doubles team’s average and their opponent’s average. The bigger the difference, the more that is at stake in terms of the after-match point increase or decrease.

The Future of Outdoor Pickleballs: Franklin X-40

According to USAPA Ratings Administrator Bonnie Williams, “This specific version of Elo’s formula was agreed upon and chosen by the USAPA ratings committee, PickleballTournaments.com and PickleballRatings.com. Transparency is being addressed and expected to go live Jan 1st. Other player’s 4-digits will most likely not be visible but the combined team’s rating will be visible.” 

The Elo rating system is a method for calculating the relative skill levels of players in zero-sum games such as chess. It is named after its creator, Arpad Elo, a Hungarian-American physics professor.” The formula key and version of the formula chosen for use for pickleball tournaments is:

The USAPA’s Version of the Elo Formula (Background: Pickleball Central)

Examples of USAPA Ratings Calculations are shown above for each of the three types of tournaments (sanctioned, medal match only and non-sanctioned). A simple way of looking at a team or player’s post-contest rating change is to consider the difference between the ratings of a team or player. Note that when a higher-rated team beats a lower-rated team, their rating increase is small compared to that of a lower-rated team’s rating after beating a higher-rated team and ranges from 0, when a team with an average rating 1.0 higher than their opponent wins, to 0.100, when a team with an average rating 1.0 lower than their opponent wins in a sanctioned (every match is refereed) tournament.

As a player improves, they will become familiar with strategies like court positioning, moving with their partner and the best shot to make in a given situation in order to increase their odds of success. The right choices to make are supported by statistics. In 2012 and 2013, Noel White, Club Statistician, Palm Creek Pickleball Club collected data from at least fifty mostly 4.0+ level pickleball matches. Although the raw data is no longer available, A Pickleball Life‘s Paul Aaron sifted through it and in February of 2016, produced five short articles, one for each topic included in what Noel called the Results Nutshell: return of serve, drop shots, getting to the net, unforced errors, and conversions. Just like blackjack, there really is a way to play in most situations that will increase your odds of winning, which is what I like to call “The Algorithm.” Following The Algorithm, several parts of which Sarah Ansboury includes in her Pickleball Ten Commandments, is the same as playing the percentages (but sounds cooler). It includes things like hitting a deep serve and return of serve, and using a third shot drop to get to the net while keeping your opponents back, if possible.

Having just celebrated my two-year Pickleballiversary this week, I can say that the longer I play, the less I realize I know. I do my best to follow The Algorithm…but it’s nice sometimes to simply go outside and play what I like to call the Crack Cocaine of Sports.

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