The Time My Student Cried
It’s not very often that you have to stop a lesson because of tears. But not long ago, that’s exactly what happened. It caught me by surprise and ever since has had a significant impact on me.
I was working with a group of 8 players who were all hovering around the 3.0 level. They were a keen bunch and were willing to work hard. Our focus that morning had been on starting the point effectively: using the serve and the return to cause trouble for their opponents. We had practiced hitting the serve with speed and with spin. We worked on returning the ball not down the centre of the court but towards the weaker opponent. It was good. It was fun. It was normal.
But after a quick water break and discussion about some local club controversy (should they tell Gary that his serve is illegal?) it was time to move on. It was time for us to work on the third shot.
I sent two players to the far side of the court to act as the returners. I hit the serve and they dutifully returned the ball and established their position at the net. When the return came back to me I caught it and asked the group: “so, what should I do with this next shot”. Everyone, as though they had all read the same instruction manual, agreed that (obviously) I should drop the ball in the kitchen.
I nodded and asked the returners to play the point again. I served, they returned the ball and formed a wall at the NVZ. This time, instead of catching the ball, I hit it. But I didn’t do what the group advised. I didn’t drop the ball in the kitchen with a slow, arching shot. Instead, I stepped into the ball and drove it low and hard down the line. The player at the net got his paddle on the ball but couldn’t handle the speed of my shot; he just didn’t have enough time to react. His ball popped up high and was easy for me to put away as a winner.
The players stood there in silence, shocked that I didn’t play the drop that everyone had expected. “You can do that?” asked one woman. “Of course”, I said, “you can do whatever you want. If you think that you can overpower the net player, driving the ball is actually a much smarter play than dropping it. The drop is really hard to hit”. The players looked at each other, bewildered. It was at this point that I noticed her. Susan, about 50 years old, put her head down and covered her face. She was crying.
I went over to see what was wrong. I’d been in coaching situations before where something personal was affecting a participant: a spouse had recently died; a family member was ill; a pet was missing, etc.. I assumed something like this was at play here.
“Are you alright?” I asked. She nodded, her face now wet with tears. “I’m sorry” she said. “It’s just, well, another coach has been telling me that I have to play a third shot drop. And I’ve been trying really hard but, well, it’s just really frustrating to miss so often. I felt like a failure. And now to hear someone tell me it is ok to do something else, well, that makes me really happy. It’s a huge relief”. And with that, she threw her arms around me and gave me a hug.
I was shocked. I knew that people were often surprised when I advocated thinking about driving the third shot rather than automatically dropping it. But I didn’t think it would have this kind of impact. I didn’t think it would bring a grown adult to tears.
Many people erroneously believe that the ‘right’ thing to do on a third shot is to drop it in the kitchen. That if you hit the ball hard you are somehow playing pickleball poorly. You get called a “banger” or a “slammer”, you are derided for your lack of skill. But the thing is, in pickleball you don’t get points for doing the ‘right’ thing. You get points when you put the ball in play once more than your opponents.
It is true that against strong volleyers or if you are hitting from far back in the court, the drive may not be an effective shot. If you don’t hit it well enough, good volleyers can handle the ball and not just put it back in play, but can hit offensive shots against it. So it is important that the third shot drop is something you learn to hit, especially as you move up in the ranks.
But if your drive is better than your opponent’s volleys, or if the return is short and you’re moving into the court and getting close to your opponents, the drive can be an great option that is more effective and less risky than the drop. Even top 5.0 players use third shot drives if they think they can outmatch the net team. Instructors make an important tactical mistake when they take the third shot drive off the table. It is a legitimate shot that can help you to win points.
But instructors make another, more important, mistake when they teach that a person has to play a drop. They put unnecessarily difficult expectations on their students — especially those who are just getting into the game. The drop is an advanced shot that takes excellent touch and paddle control. It is a shot that if hit poorly (i.e. too short or too deep), almost automatically results in you losing the point. It is indeed something one must develop to play the game at a high level. But for novice and intermediate players, a regular third shot drive can serve them very well. That doesn’t mean they should’t work on developing a drop, but there is no need to be dogmatic about its use.
When instructors — and groups that certify instructors — promote the drop as being the “proper” third shot to play, they are revealing something about themselves. They are showing that either: 1) they have a poor understanding of pickleball tactics; or 2) they are out of touch with the realities of most novice and intermediate players who are looking to have fun and play a little better.
Susan, the woman who was brought to tears, is an example of the collateral damage inflicted when you use a one-size-fits-all model for coaching. She was told that she had to do something that she was not equipped for. And because the authority — the instructor who gets paid to tell people what to do — told her she had to do it if she wanted to play properly, she saw herself as a failure when she missed her shots.
The coach (unintentionally, I’m sure) took the fun game of pickleball and turned it into an exercise in humiliation and fear. So much so that when these burdens were lifted from Susan, they were replaced by tears.
Let’s consider this a call to action. I’m encouraging all instructors to resist the temptation of telling their students that they have to do one thing or another. Not only is is poor advice from a tactical standpoint, but it psychologically paints the student into a corner.
Instead, let’s talk about the options that are on the table and when we might choose one over the other. Let’s discuss the advantages and drawbacks of playing different kinds of shots in different situations. Let’s encourage players to learn to do more advanced things, but let’s not try to force them into a one-dimensional game style.
Let’s not put people like Susan in a position where they feel like a failure but see no clear way out. Instructors often have much more power and influence than they think. We also have a duty to be aware of the myriad ways in which that influence can impact our students. When it comes down to it, be an instructor is not really about teaching tactics and technique.
It’s about teaching people.
Mark Renneson is a 5.0 player and professional pickleball coach. He is the founder of Third Shot Sports and author of 20 Drills and 10 Games to Play Better Pickleball.
He can be reached by email at email@example.com.