Nice Guys Finish Last: My Pickleball Etiquette Epiphany

Last night, it was business as usual at my “Advanced Intermediate to Advanced” pickleball league–until it wasn’t.

I was winning a doubles match 8-1.

I hit a wicked hard slice shot from just in front of the baseline.

The ball took a crazy turn and started to gravitate towards my opponent’s head. He just got his paddle up in time and hit a errant ball that sailed into the benches.

He wasn’t happy.

“Hey, I have to go to work tomorrow.” 

I apologized.

“Never my intention to hurt anyone.”

We continued play, and I resorted to much softer tactics.

You can probably guess what happens next.

I lost the match 11-9.

On the drive home I was pissed at myself.

After almost two years of playing the sport, I still don’t know how to keep my pedal to the metal; I’m billing myself The Empathetic Pickleballer.  

But that doesn’t show up in the box score.

Nor does the fact that my opponents are also drilling the ball at me. 

After doing a little research regarding pickleball etiquette and hitting the ball at people, here’s what I turned up:

  • Most players agree that body shots are a valid strategy, especially at higher skill levels. Targeting the core and limbs is seen as fair game.
  • Intentionally hitting balls at the head/face is widely frowned upon and seen as unnecessary and dangerous.
  • When playing recreationally, players suggest assessing the skill level of opponents and avoiding excessive body shots on lesser skilled players if not needed to win points.
  • Apologizing with a hand gesture or verbal “sorry” when you hit someone is considered good etiquette, even if it’s after a strategic shot.
  • Reactions vary depending on location hit – blows to sensitive areas like the eyes or groin warrant sincere apologies. Other body contact is more casually brushed off.
  • Though it may sting initially, pickleball hits rarely cause serious injury. Players are expected to recover quickly and continue play.
  • If repeatedly hitting opponents, players should work on aim and precision to hit open spaces rather than directly at the other player.
  • Overall, getting hit is seen as part of competing in pickleball. Players are advised to have the right attitude, ensure opponents are okay, and laugh it off when tagged.

So a few things I need to work on. Let me know if they apply to you, too.

  • Assuming the players across from me are near my level, I need to maintain a killer instinct throughout entire matches. I know my intention is pure, and I’m never out to cause pickleball injuries. So, regardless of how my opponents react during a point, I need to stick to my game plan and play my game.
  • I do tend to hit the ball at people at the non-volley zone. If I am relying on drives, I want to work on consistently targeting their backhand (or weaker) side.
  • Since I only play pickleball once or twice a week, I need to make the most of the handful of hours I get. Last night, after this minor incident, I got lost in my own head (“This game is dumb,” “I have a million things to do at home,” etc.). I must learn to take a deep breath and immerse myself in the pleasures of the game. After all, this is my leisure time–I’m a fool if I piss it away.

Last night’s pickleball match was an epiphany – my tendency to ease up when opponents get upset is costing me wins. After apologizing for an aggressive shot, I softened my play. While well-intentioned, this empathy contributed to blowing a huge lead and losing. Moving forward, I need to maintain intensity regardless of reactions. Though never out to harm, consistent aggression is strategic pickleball. My kindness is misplaced if it undermines playing my best throughout matches. I must learn to balance sportsmanship with killer instinct if I want to maximize my limited time on the court. This nice guy needs to get comfortable finishing first, not last.

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