Taking a Clinic? Don't Be Selfish

At their best, pickleball clinics run like a well-oiled machine. Players show up early to prepare; the coach is running perfectly on time; drill demonstrations are clear, concise and getting people up and playing almost immediately; the intensity is high — but not over-the top — and players are focused, working hard and having fun. It is great. And to be honest, most of my sessions run more or less this way. But every once in a while, something derails this idyllic situation…

Not long ago, I was running a full day of group clinics in the Southern US (no, I won’t tell you exactly where). In the morning, we had Intermediate Training which was a session clearly identified as being for 3.0/3.5 players. This was indicated on all of our advertising material. We had a group of 12 enthusiastic players and everything was running pretty much as I had hoped.

Any group session is bound to have some variance in skill level — rarely are two people exactly the same when it comes to ability — and so long as that difference is minimal, it isn’t really a problem. People know they will sometimes play with players who are slightly stronger than them, and sometimes with those a little less skilled. It is no big deal; that’s life.

This particular Saturday was no different. There was a group of 4 or 5 who were clearly on the higher side of the 3.0/3.5 divide, 3 or 4 in the middle, and 3 or 4 on the lower end of the spectrum. It was fine. There was one woman in the class who I will call Petunia.

A keen pickleball player indeed, Petunia hustled for balls and seemed really into what we were doing. She wasn’t a very strong player (during prolonged competitive 1-on-1 games she played her way into the lower group) but she was the kind of person I love having in this session — works hard and is eager to learn. Every once in a while Petunia would play her way off the bottom court to the middle group, but soon would find her way back in the basement. Which was fine. Until it wasn’t.

The 3-hour session came to a close and as the Advanced Training (4.0+) group took to the courts to warm up, Petunia approached me. I figured she had a follow-up question about a demo paddle she was trying. I said, “Hi. What’s up?”. She replied, “Nothing. I’m signed up for this next session too”. I must have looked baffled because she continued: “I know I’m not a 4.0 but I just figured…”. The rest of the conversation went like this:

Me: You’re right. You aren’t a 4.0.

Petunia: I know. But I figured it would be a good experience.

Me: For whom?

Petunia: Me.

Me: It probably would be. The trouble is, there are other people here too. And they want a good experience as well. And it isn’t fair to them if there are people who aren’t the right level.

Petunia: Are you saying I’m not good enough?

Me: I’m saying that you fit in well at the last clinic. But even then, when we played competitive games you were generally on the lower court.

Petunia: Well, I’m just not really playing my best today. But I won’t hold anyone back.

This was my clinic and I’m responsible for it. I should have done a better job screening to make sure we didn’t have the same person in two clinics offered at different skill levels. That’s on me. But Petunia’s selfishness is on her. She knew that she didn’t belong in the 4.0 clinic: “I know I’m not a 4.0 but I just figured…” but still signed up anyway. She put her desire over the well-being of others. That’s not cool.

For a variety of reasons I won’t go into here, I made the judgement call that I would leave Petunia in the group rather than asking her to leave. It meant, however, that we now had someone well below the acceptable range when it came to level variance. I did my best to ‘spread the pain’ so that nobody was stuck with her for too long. And as much as possible, I played in as her partner so others wouldn’t have to. But that now meant that she got an unfair proportion of my time, which is also not okay.

So to all of you who are considering taking a pickleball clinic (with me or anyone else) — that’s great. You should do it! Go out and work hard, have fun and learn. But please be considerate of others because they want to have a great time too. Be honest about your level and if you have questions, send a message to the person running the clinic. I’m sure they’ll be happy to help you find the perfect place for you.