Engage Pickleball Camps are the go-to for players looking for an intense crash course on pickleball strategy; I knew I had to take a class when the roadshow hit New York.
The 16-hour Engage Pickleball Camp took place at the Carefree Racquet Club in North Merrick, a venue where I have attended a handful of open plays. Certified instructor Stéphane Jolicoeur and Senior Pro Pickleball Tour Player Jose Derisi delivered an excellent mix of drilling, strategy, and playing advice to help all attendees improve their pickleball game.
I booked the class back in March after I played pickleball for the first time, so to say I was excited is an understatement. Like a good student, I packed my hydration and snacks and took the 25-minute drive to Merrick, blasting some awesome 90s alternative rock along the way.
The class started with a warning from Coach Stéphane, “You’re not going to like us by the end of the day today…but you’ll love us by the end of day three.”
That set the tone: we were here to work on leveling up, and as they say, ‘no pain, no gain.’
Think Before You Dink
We started with standard dinking drills, always a great way to get acclimated with the court and to get the heart pumping. The second drill during the Engage Pickleball Camp had us focused on the infamous, notorious, inescapable, third shot drop. What I liked about the exercise is that it had us moving back-and-forth, up-and-down the court looking to land the ball in the kitchen from different positions. This was helpful to work on footwork, a pervasive theme throughout the clinic.
When the coaches broke down the mechanics of the dink, it was a bit of a surprise to learn that it’s not the wrist or the elbow controlling the shot; it’s your shoulder. By only allowing the shoulder to be the boss of the dink, you are reducing your margin for error.
When it comes to dinking, the class focused on squaring up to the ball; it’s all about positioning and being ready to hit the shot before it gets to you. Coach Stéphane reiterated this point throughout the pickleball camp, often pointing out players standing at the non-volley zone, yet still unprepared to hit a return.
Play With House Money
Advancing to the kitchen is a massive part of the game, and Jose explained it with simple math. “If you and your partner are up at the kitchen line, you have an 80% chance of winning the shot (assuming you are the same level as your opponents and all things are even). But if you stand back, the odds drop to 20%.” You don’t need to hit a single shot and run to the non-volley zone, but you need to advance forward. At this moment, I knew Engage Pickleball Camps were worth the price of admission.
How to Choose a Pickleball Paddle
After lunch, we resumed with Coach Stéphane talking a bit about paddle construction and paddle types. As a class participant, you are entitled to a free Engage Trident paddle or a $100 discount off another Engage paddle. While I appreciated the opportunity to demo other paddles, I came into the class committed to sticking with my Prince Pro Response. The last thing I wanted was to change a variable while trying to learn. Plus, my recently purchased Pickleball Central Mystery Box gave me enough paddles for a small army. But as the course wore on, and I saw my classmates hitting with a variety of paddles, I did cave. There might be an Engage Pursuit MX in my future. 🙂
Pickleball Doubles: Covering the Middle
We shifted into doubles teamwork and court positioning. As a pickleball rookie, this was another eye-opening moment for me. Coach Stéphane said that when it comes to covering the middle of the court, it’s not so much about who has the dominant forehand or backhand when playing at the non-volley line. Instead, it’s about establishing “roles and responsibilities.” When the opponent opposite you hits the ball, cover the line while your partner covers the middle. If the opponent opposite your partner hits the ball, cover the middle while your partner covers their line. Essentially, this only leaves a low-percentage cross-court shot available. But most important of all, communicate verbally before your match begins and while play unfolds. There is no shame in calling out “YOURS!” or “MINE!”
Engage Pickleball Camp’s Take on How to Beat a Banger
Next on the agenda was the growing trend of how to beat a banger in pickleball.
The coaches explained that you should not be angry at the banger; you should be mad at yourself for feeding them balls to bang. The coaches then went on to demonstrate that no matter how hard somebody hits the ball at you, if you can deposit it back into the kitchen without a high bounce, you can consistently shut down a banger. Easier said than done, but a noble thing to work towards.
The most difficult thing to fight is the urge to punch back harder; it’s a trap I am guilty of falling into 90% of the time.
Zen and the Art of Playing Pickleball
I seek to bring calmness and serenity into everything I do. However, as the Engage class unfolded, it became evident that I bring WAY too much noise to the court, both physically and mentally. Coming from a recreational tennis background, I am accustomed to bouncing on my feet and taking large sweeping motions; I’m always moving. In pickleball, this is wasted energy–with each additional movement creating a greater margin for error. Add that with my attempts to hit the perfect shot every time, and I’m playing with fire and bound to rack up losses.
Another common theme: being intentional. You need to know where the ball is going and why you want to hit it there. This is chess, kids, not checkers. At one point, I hit a banging shot down the middle that sailed long. “What was your intention?” asked Coach Stéphane.
“To try to get them to miss,” I replied.
Coach pointed out several spots on the court where my opponents were vulnerable, and a soft shot could have done more damage or, at the very least, kept me in the point. And that is another resounding takeaway: increase your odds of winning a point by not playing cute or striving to be perfect: keep the ball in play. Think about it. A shallow dink might be beautiful, but hitting the ball into the net kills everything. A deeper dink that easily clears the net has you fight another day.
Pickleball is much more Zen than I realized: small movements, keeping things efficient, staying calm in the storm. And I appreciate the fact that Engage Pickleball Camps are willing to keep it real with some tough love.
Next on the agenda, volleys: block volleys, punch volleys, and roll volleys.
One mistake I am guilty of is bringing my paddle too far back. To demonstrate this flaw in my game, Coach Stéphane stood behind me as I volleyed, and more times than not, my paddle would clank with his, an indication that I was pulling my paddle too far back as opposed to resetting it in front of me. Being ready at the non-volley line consists of being squared up with the ball and having your backhand paddle face open and prepared to strike.
The coaches did an excellent job breaking down the kinds of balls you will see at the kitchen line:
Red-light balls: Unattackable; these should be dinked back to keep the point alive
Yellow-light balls: You have options; if you choose to attack, use caution
Green-light balls: ATTACK!
Playing pickleball was compared to driving a car. When you first get your license, you’re moving and reacting to everything around you. Then, once you get comfortable, you’re able to time things perfectly and respond with a calmness that comes with experience. Lesson: Do not play pickleball like you just got your driver’s license.
Serves, Returns and Lobs
During our next drill, we worked on serves and discussed the importance of getting the ball in and keeping it deep; all other service goals are considerably less important. With only one serve to get it right in pickleball, you can’t afford to miss more than a serve or two per match. However, the most critical shot to strive for 100% accuracy surprised me: the return. If you miss a serve, you don’t give up a point–but if you miss a return you do give up a point. I appreciated the perspective as I will never hit a service return into the net or long again (well, I’ll try not to!).
I’ve written before about how I sometimes use my pickleball lob to frustrate opponents. The thing is, that lob is hit from the transition area. Foolish me never realized that lobbing from the non-volley line is a viable option. In this case, you deceptively sneak in a lob during a dink battle to catch your opponent off guard. By elevating your arm angle and increasing your paddle speed by just a touch, you can drive your opponents backward. Bonus points for hitting it to their backhand side.
Engage Pickleball Camp Says, Forget Winning (kinda)
Throughout the Engage Camp, there was a healthy amount of gameplay where we were allowed to practice what we were learning in real match situations. We were continually reminded to improve our game and concentrate on the areas that need work instead of just trying to win points. It’s hard to put that competitive spirit on the shelf, but essential if you want to improve.
There is another time when you need to suspend your desire to win–and that’s with the first three shots of any match. When it comes to the serve, the serve return and the third shot drop, you can’t expect to hit “winners.” Instead, these shots are setting up your “winner.” Coach Stéphane drew a comparison: Going for winners on these points is like shooting a basketball as soon as you get it. You might score (unlikely), but it takes several passes to set up the open shot. In this regard, pickleball is much more a defensive game than beginner players realize. If you are a pickleball rookie, strive to get the ball back and try not to pop it up in your opponent’s “green-light” zone.
At the end of the class, the two coaches used another player and me to demonstrate several “real” points. I botched four out of the first five points, including falling victim to my first ever Around the Post shot hit masterfully by Coach Jose. It wasn’t until the coaches and the other students pointed out that we were trying too hard to win that things shifted a bit. You increase your odds of your opponents making a mistake by simply keeping the ball in play and waiting for your moment to strike. This simple shift allowed us to snag a few points, though I’m sure our coaches were being generous. But the lesson was clear: try too hard to win in pickleball and you won’t stand a chance.
Summary: Engage Pickleball Coaches Are Legit
Both Stéphane Jolicoeur and Jose Derisi had the pickleball experience, patience, and, most importantly, the teaching ability to share a wide array of information with our group of 16 people. I consider the course a resounding success. Despite acute soreness, I was disappointed when the pickleball class was over–and that’s the ultimate compliment.
Engage Pickleball Camps are a great way for busy professionals or people with limited time to cram in a lot of information, drilling, and playing over a brief period of time. Our group was surprised to learn that it was the first time Stéphane and Jose had run a clinic together. While it is clear they each have their own view on how to play the game, I found their styles to be complementary and am grateful for the time we all spent together. I also appreciate their love of the game and open-mindedness/acceptance of how the sport is evolving.
Overall, I found the Engage Pickleball Camp to be well worth the price of admission. Each day offered up fresh fruit, protein bars, and water. The information was dense, but it never took away from our time on the court.
I left the class feeling a bit more confident about my playing ability. Six months into my pickleball journey, I am ready to set some new goals: play in several tournaments and perhaps become a certified instructor to teach beginners and children in an effort to help the wonderful sport of pickleball continue to grow.