What I saw in England
For two weeks this last June, I had the fantastic opportunity of being invited by Pickleball England to give a series of clinics and lessons at numerous clubs in 7 different cities and towns all over the UK. Club levels ranged from 2.5 to 4.0 with a few players solidly crashing the 4.5 threshold. As a Pro Player and a Level 2 IPTPA Coach who’s given clinics all over the US, Mexico, Canada, the Netherlands and Spain I thought it may be of interest to share my thoughts and observations about Pickleball in the UK and how it compares and in some cases differs from Pickleball elsewhere.
Growing Pains and Pleasures: I first experienced UK Pickleball two years ago as part of a Paddletek/PPF European Clinic Tour and, boy have I seen growth. Not only has the number of players exploded but the level of organization, enthusiasm and community outreach is definitely comparable to what I see in the US. Two years ago the players I worked with saw the sport as a limited go-to recreational activity but now, two years later the same players talk about their Pickleball in terms of ratings, international tournaments and Pickleball travel. Their hunger for more play, more coaching and more resources was palpable in every club I visited. But the enthusiasm inevitably brings some challenges -
Limited Court Access and Play Time: First and foremost is limited play-time. Most clubs need to reserve court-time in Sports Facilities that share space with other sports like badminton, basketball and in one case indoor cricket(!) As a result play time is limited to 2 hours with an occasional extra hour when lucky. This small window of time complemented by the large number of players creates a few issues (not all negative - more on that later.) Players want to start immediately, with very little warm-up and no time for drilling. And who can blame them? The funnest part of playing, is, well, playing. But when club organizers suggest a drilling court or a drilling time-slot I could see the eyes roll. The one exception was Alan Speller with Runnymede who makes a point every week to pull out the ball machine, reserve a dedicated court and drill with his small committed group. But mostly, it’s all about rec-play.
One noticeable advantage of a multi-purpose sports facility is the fact that badminton lines are already drawn. As you know, badminton lines match pickleball lines almost perfectly and save a great deal of time in terms of set up. Having these lines also makes it easier to convince a new facility to give Pickleball a try since there’s no need to draw new lines. But the unintended consequence of using badminton lines is that the all important Pickleball NVZ (Non-Volley Zone aka Kitchen) line is different. The badminton line is 6.5 inches from the net whereas the NVZ is 7 inches from the net. Although 1/2 an inch doesn’t seem like much, it makes a world of difference, for numerous reasons - A) It discourages dinking since there’s a bigger chance of giving your opponent an attackable volley B) It encourages too much lobbing since players are closer to the net. As an aside, although there’s nothing inherently wrong with using the lob as an offensive or emergency defensive shot, I noticed that the lob was used way too much from all parts of the court and at all times. I had one of my Bristol clinic groups count the number of points won using the lob during three practice games. The tally was 3 points won and 12 points lost. Granted UK players are not the only ones guilty of using the lob too much, but the frequency of its use was noticeable. I’m convinced the faux NVZ line is partly to blame. C) UK players will not be tournament trained. Playing with the wrong NVZ line creates habits and style of play that will not help players in the long-run if they want to play official tournaments. And since in recreational club play NVZ foot-faults are never called, players will be thrown off their games when they’re called during tournaments. I suggest clubs buy some removable painter’s tape (1.5 inches wide) or non-stick masking tape and get used to a regulation NVZ line.
Most Common Errors: 1) Without a doubt the most common error I saw in the UK was hitting the ball into the net. And this was at all levels of play. My students will recall with dread the practice games we played where a net-error cost them double. If you can reduce your net-errors your game will shoot up exponentially.
2) Players’ obsession with rushing the net. Aggghhhh. So painful to watch :) My clinic participants will remember me saying “Don’t chase rubbish.” Be patient with your (and your partner’s) third shot, and wait for the opportune time to get to the kitchen line. If your shot is too high, stay back, play defense and try again.
3) Banging. Granted this is not a UK-specific problem. Most new players will bang their third shots, their fifth and seventh and nine shots and everything in between. Makes for a fun time and a great way to vent your frustrations. But you will never improve. If you want to get better, learn the third shot drop. And dismiss other players that will rationalize their limited stroke selection with “This is where the game is headed.” Well, no. The game is headed to a more complete game which does include a 3rd shot drive but MUST have a third shot drop.
The Wonderful: 1) Limited court time is not all-bad. I will say that in every single club I went to and facility I visited the sense of community and family either matched or surpassed what I’ve experience elsewhere. After work players made an evening out of Pickleball and were excited to go out after their games and either have dinner together or go to the pub. What I’ve noticed in the US that sometimes our play time can be up to 4 or more hours and by the time we’re done playing, we go home and don’t have either strength or desire to socialize. Maybe here in the US we should play less and socialize more?
2) Singles is not an after-thought. As somebody who loves to play singles it was fabulous to see how many UK players are committed to complementing their doubles game with singles, creating leagues and even dedicating whole evenings of singles-only play. Granted singles is a completely different animal and it isn’t for everyone, but to see this type of motivation to making singles grow was refreshing. I wish players in the US cared as much about singles as they do in the UK.
In conclusion, my visit to the UK was eye-opening. Sure there’s still a lot to work on - i.e. figuring out how to juggle mixing in different levels of players into their recreational games while still allowing space and time for competitive players to improve their game. Court time is a challenge. And the difficulty getting equipment was noticeable. But the dedication I saw by the directors of Pickleball England Karen Mitchell and Frank Arico as well as all the club leaders I met is not only contagious but inspiring. If the motivation, dedication and esprit de corps I saw continues, I predict the UK to be the driving force of Pickleball in Europe and eventually give US Pickleball a run for its money. As for me, I can’t wait to go back for the pickle, the people and the ale. Thanks again UK for inviting me into your homes and allowing me to share my love of the game.