After a couple of months of attending open plays at two local facilities, I wanted to add more regularity to my pickleball play–and get a bit more competitive, so I entered my first mixed doubles pickleball league.
Even though the program is a 30-minute drive from home and runs until 10:30pm (past my usual bedtime!), it was well worth it. I’ve met some good people, had some great matches, and am learning more about America’s fastest-growing sport with each passing day.
The league kicked off with a random pairing of players. Each week, five players are grouped, and the people you play with rotate based on your standings. As the weeks unfold, you get matched with pickleballers who are closest to your skill level, determined by wins, losses, points for and points against.
Here’s a breakdown of my pickleball league experience.
WEEK 1: I showed up at the facility and collected my league t-shirt. As an introvert, I’m not always great at meeting new people, though once engaged, I’m all good. Participating in pickleball open plays, and now in this league is an excellent way to step out of my comfort zone. After brief introductions with my initial pairings, we started to play. Unsure of what to expect from this pickleball league which invites players of all levels, I played courteously. And by that, I mean that I adapted my playing style and aggressiveness to that of my opponent–something I often do, for better or worse. I take no pride or joy in winning points against weaker opponents. My goal, as always, is to have some fun, grab some exercise and just be grateful to be out and active. My results are mixed, win a few games, lose a few games, but enjoy myself every game.
WEEK 2: The second week presented a dramatic shift in my opponents’ experience. I found myself on a court with three players who were far superior in skill, strength and stamina. I was intimidated (and in awe) at the pace of play, particularly at the kitchen line. Up to this point, the most consistent piece of advice I’ve received from fellow players is to get to the non-volley line as quickly as possible and stay out of no man’s land–or else pay the price. And while I was able to escape punishment against lesser players, it quickly became apparent that if you want to score points against serious players–you have zero chance if you’re chilling near the baseline. Over the course of four games, I maybe scored five points in total, and I was playing with an experienced partner. The best advice of the night from one of the guys who kicked my ass.
“Stop trying to be so perfect with your shots and going for winners, hit the ball back consistently and your opportunities will come.”
WEEK 3: I received an email alerting me that the league standings can be viewed online. I promptly visit and find myself sitting in the bottom third. Something inside of me ignites, and I commit to showing up for Week 3 with a purpose. I went in with a simple plan: hit the ball back consistently and work on ball placement. It worked out well, but the level of play was nowhere near as high as my results from the previous week knocked me down to play lower competition. But I racked up a handful of wins that helped me ascend the ladder.
WEEK 4: By far the most competitive matches I have experienced thus far. I even found myself a bit winded during the first hour since the pace of play was aggressive. But there were some fantastic points and some really good times. Pickleball is a unifier. I am also now in tune with one of the biggest problems impacting my game: as soon as I play against “bangers,” people who can hit the ball HARD, I drift back from the non-volley line. When I acknowledged this behavior with one of my partners, she said, “What’s the worst that happens? You get hit in the face? The ball is plastic.”
True. But still not inviting. 🙂
After one of the more competitive games, where my partner and I squeaked out a narrow victory, I overheard my opponent telling his partner that I stepped into the kitchen. Upon hearing this, I approached him, announced myself as a relative newcomer to the game, and asked for clarification on what he saw. “I turned around after hitting a shot and saw you exiting the kitchen.” I apologized and asked for clarity on the rule–but he was not interested in a conversation. #soreloser
Upon further rule review, you can enter the kitchen for a ball that bounces but not for a volley–nor can you allow the momentum of a shot near the non-volley line to take you into the kitchen. If I did violate this pickleball rule, it was unintentional. Plus, if you find your opponent in the kitchen, the best strategy is to nail the ball right at them in the kitchen, as they must let the ball bounce first: fat chance!
During another match later that night, as fatigue set in, I clumsily dropped the ball after calling out the score during my serve. I asked if my opponents wanted the point, and they politely declined, chuckled, and we continued to play.
WEEKS 5 – 7: The two Wednesday-night leagues I participated in have concluded. I finished as the 8th and 9th seed respectfully out of 40 people in each league. Not too shabby for a pickleball rookie.
The 8th position secured me a spot in the finals during Hour One. I teamed with a solid player who is probably about 7 – 10 years older than me. The problem? We were pitted against the top-seeded team, who were maybe 19 and 20 years old each. Oh, and they are bangers, using every bit of their tennis training to shove the ball down your throat at every turn.
On the drive over, I reminded myself of all the things I needed to do to at least give this unbeatable duo a challenge: Deep serves, third shot drops, do not fight power with power, and do my best to turn the match into an absolute Dinkfest. But words and thoughts are not actions; once you are faced with real-world situations, the best-laid plans become a moot point.
We lost the first game 11-1.
Sensing we weren’t much of a threat, though I’m sure our opponents knew that before the first serve, the hard-hitting duo let up, making several sloppy errors. There were several long points, including a few that I’m proud of. But the match still went in their favor, this time with a score of 11-9. The truth is, once we jumped out to a 6- or 7-point lead, the superior team refocused, locked down, and closed the show.
During Hour Two, I was the top seed in the “B-bracket,” just missing out on playing with the Big Boys and Girls by one slot. My teammate was a player I had never previously hit with or seen play. Right off the bat it was clear we were a good tandem; I delivered consistent shots with good placement and he lurked the non-volley zone with good reach and an above-average passing shot. We had some good points, but our victory was never really in doubt as we methodically chopped down our opponents.
As I’ve mentioned, I loved playing in a league. I enjoyed the consistency, the people, and the ability to track my wins/losses/points. However, the experience reiterated that the gap between 3.5 and 4.0 players is significant, and crossing over will not be easy. But I am up for the challenge!
I have already signed up for the summer. Thankfully, the playing hours are a bit earlier. I mentioned earlier that the league runs later than I usually stay up. The issue is that by the time I get home, I am still jazzed and it is difficult for me to fall asleep. And when I finally fade, I awake the next morning to find that my resting heart rate is elevated from my baseline. A quick look at some data from my Whoop tells the story.
I like having a pickleball league to look forward to during the week. Not only does it anchor play on my calendar, but it allows me to scout my opponents and experiment with different strategies. I also enjoy having a win-loss record, which currently stands at a mediocre 25-23. The tracking of wins and losses gives me something additional to play for, sort of like a cherry on top of the pickleball sundae.
Joining a pickleball league is highly recommended! If you currently play in a league, please share your advice below.