The Mental Game of Pickleball: 5 Strategies for Success

Pickleball has won the hearts of millions of Americans. In 2023, pickleball was named the fastest growing sport in the United States for the third year in a row. In the competition for people’s free time, pickleball is crushing its competitors and winning the hearts of players everywhere.

What do you need to be a winner at pickleball? Sure, you need to understand the rules, have the right equipment, and practice to hone your skills. But what will truly give you an edge over the competition is your mental game. Let’s dive into some strategies for success in the mental side of pickleball.

1. Feel Prepared

Yes, having an excellent dink shot and being able to nail an overhead shot are essential skills. But almost as important as having the skills is believing that you have them. When it comes time to use that overhead lob return you’ve spent hours practicing, you must believe you will nail the shot. Otherwise, you may falter, hesitate, or hold back from smashing your swing. Feeling prepared gives you the confidence to execute the shot when the time comes.

What is the best way to feel confidently prepared? Practice. Spending time with a coach, pickleball buddy, or pickleball ball machine will reassure you that you’ve trained for that moment on the court. You’ve felt yourself execute a precision shot consistently. You know you haven’t left it to chance. You are ready. All that preparation leads to confident, effortless execution on game day.

2. Use Positive Self-Talk

“This other team is so good; we will never beat them.” If you go into your game feeling like you will lose, you are probably correct. Negative self-talk prevents you from excelling on the court. Instead, try giving yourself pep talks. “You’ve got this! You’ve been practicing, training, and honing your skills. You’re a highly skilled player.” You can also be more specific. “I’ve got great ball control.” or “I’m great in the kitchen.” Positive self-talk is a powerful tool. It increases confidence and melts anxiety.

3. Visualize Your Play

Tap into your mind’s subconscious by visualizing yourself playing great pickleball. Picture everything about a shot exactly as you want it to be. Your feet are planted firmly, your grip is perfect, and your swing is flawless. Imagine as many details as you can about that moment.

Go through this process with several different pickleball shots. By creating these mental movies of yourself hitting successful shots, you forge a cognitive memory of how the moment should happen. When the time comes for it to occur on the court instead of in your imagination, your subconscious can call on that memory to make the dream into a reality.

4. Focus

Life is full of distractions. When you are on the pickleball court, you have bills that need to be paid, a parent you’ve been meaning to call but haven’t, dishes in the sink at home, and a car overdue for an oil change. Those things don’t go away when you pick up your pickleball racquet. But if part of your brain is focused on what you will tell your mom when she asks why you went so long without calling, that’s less brain space dedicated to beating your opponents.

It may not be only life off the court that pulls your focus. If you are playing in front of an audience, it is easy to get distracted by crowd noise or comments from spectators. That’s a great way to ruin your chances of winning. Remind yourself to ignore the crowd and focus on your play. Instead of spectators, the distraction may be players on a neighboring court. But the solution is the same: tune them out and focus on your game.

Leave distractions off the pickleball court. You may find it helpful to make a conscious decision: “For the next hour, I am leaving everything else behind. Right now, I’m only thinking about pickleball.” Other mindfulness exercises may help, too. Deep breathing can help you concentrate on what is happening in that moment rather than outside distractions.

Worrying about those dirty dishes won’t get them washed while you are on the court, so let go of that distraction. You can pick it up again once you’ve loaded your pickleball bag into your car. Until then, focus only on pickleball and finding the pickleball strategy you need to win your match.

5. Focus on Your Strengths

Even professional pickleball players have weaknesses in their games. But like you, they also have strengths. A winning strategy involves playing to your strengths and avoiding your weaknesses.

If you have fantastic footwork, focus on keeping points going. Your fancy feet will allow you to continue to make it to the ball, sustaining a point until your opponent makes a mistake. On the other hand, if your feet could use some work but you have exceptional shot precision, aim to end points quickly by going for winning shots just out of your opponent’s reach.

Of course, you can’t rely on only one strategy or type of shot. Your opponents will quickly notice the pattern and use it to their advantage. Even if your backhand is weak, you should occasionally use it so that you keep the other players guessing. Throw in enough of a mix to keep everyone guessing. But prioritize your strengths, focusing on them to help you get the “W.”

Pickleball is about community, fun, and exercise. But there’s nothing wrong with wanting to win. To help drive you toward that winning “11,” don’t neglect your mental game. It is as essential a component in your play as having a great serve or mastering the drop shot.

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