A Case Against “Coaching” in Pickleball

Conspicuously unique to the sport of pickleball is the practice of friends, acquaintances, and sometimes complete strangers providing tips to their doubles partner during recreational play. While some welcome the feedback, to others, it feels a lot like criticism. Players fall into several places on the sport’s learning curve, steep improvement, slowed progress and plateau. Some people just want to be left alone to play, others want to be the best they can be and welcome any feedback, and those in between may be working on specific skills or techniques in order to move closer to proficiency and can get distracted and flustered when faced with unsolicited feedback during a game. I welcome others to coach me…unless I think that we are similarly-skilled, which can be tricky because many of us believe that we are better than we actually are. I make plenty of mistakes, but afterwards, I often realize what I should have done. Pointing out an obvious error by saying stuff like, “Shoulder high, let it fly” is irritating; however, well-delivered feedback, when properly understood, absorbed and executed, can help rapidly raise a person’s level of play, sometimes significantly. Those of us (like me-of-the-past) who offer unsolicited, well-intentioned feedback believe it to be beneficial to the recipient. But what if we’re wrong?

Even when prefaced by a chance to opt out with something like “May I give you a tip?” amateur coaching during recreational play puts the receiver in a tough spot. Does she decline at the risk of seeming stuck in her ways and hurting the offerer’s feelings; say nothing in an attempt to keep the peace; or accept, which only encourages the (possibly unwanted) “coaching” to continue? In January, after grappling with the issue for months as the facilitator at at place with a large range of skill levels, I decided that it was time to change my ways and encouraged others to do the same, “I’d love it if everyone would join me in resisting the urge to coach other players – unless asked – or unless helping out on the beginner court.”

Like solving a math problem, playing pickleball involves following an algorithm of sorts. While there may be several ways to get to the desired result, certain methods and techniques will lead there more efficiently than others. As a person improves, she sees, understands, and implements the correct steps more easily. Interrupting that process by providing tips in hopes of hastening her pace towards proficiency isn’t necessary, nor is anyone’s responsibility but her own. For those of us who’ve engaged in “coaching,” giving it up isn’t easy. It requires sustained restraint to keep quiet while observing a person not playing the “right” way, but I have come to believe that it can and should be done. For the most part, I’ve been successful at ending the practice myself, as have a number of others; however, not everyone is willing to make the change. Eventually, I let go of the idea that I needed to try to enforce the posted “no coaching” policy because it simply led to frustration. Instead, players are armed with the knowledge that others should not be offering them tips and that they can and should reject unwanted feedback from others.

Several months after quitting the practice of “coaching,” the urge to do so has lessened, and others’ gratitude for the policy change supports the switch. Sarah Ansboury says, “[T]he better partner you are, the more you will get out of your partner.” I agree. Instead of offering suggestions, providing positive feedback to a partner when she makes a good shot allows her the chance to be the become the best pickleball player she can be at her own pace and in her own way. This spectacular sport is growing and changing in good ways. We have a duty to ourselves and fellow players to grow and change too.

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