“Divorce Court”

May 7, 2024

By Matthew Schwartz


I saw a friend brought to tears recently by her husband’s constant criticism of her while playing doubles together. After the game she refused to team-up with him the rest of that day.

Another woman I know refuses to ever play pickleball with her husband. She says he’s  critical and too competitive. They’ve been married for 30 years and from at least outward appearances have an otherwise wonderful marriage.

I occasionally see husbands coaching and/or criticizing their wives during doubles play. But when the same guy plays with another woman, he’s a good partner, offering only praise and encouragement.

A friend who I’ll call Monica, not her real name to keep peace in her marriage, has a husband who’s hyper competitive. He’s a 3.75 level player, she’s a 3.25 and he frequently coaches her between rallies. She told me, “My husband does not think he is bothering me or stressing me by doing it. But it does and he does. I know when I hit a bad shot. I do not need to be reminded that I hit a bad shot or be asked, ‘Why did you do that?’ Like I did it on purpose.”

“I think the people involved have to look in the mirror and say, ‘Is this behavior helping or hurting our relationship?’” says Shawnee Harle, a mental toughness coach based in British Columbia, Canada. She played point guard in college and was an assistant coach for the Canadian women’s national basketball team in two Olympics. Harle, 62, has counseled thousands of high level athletes. “Do you know anyone who plays better when they’re a target of criticism during a match?” she asks rhetorically. “When they’re stressed?  Until we see it as unhealthy, it won’t change.”       

Harle said, “We don’t change behavior just by addressing the behavior. We have to go underneath and see what’s driving it.” Harle says the critical player believes he or she is helping their partner and doesn’t see criticism as harmful, but in reality is doing it to benefit his or her own ego. And the critical husband is tougher on his wife than a stranger, she says, because “In a longtime relationship there’s no need for approval. But when he’s playing with someone new he’s trying to gain their approval.”

Harle advises couples to use a cue, a key phrase or word when one criticizes the other during a match. It could be as simple as the targeted player saying to the critic, “Stop.” The critic should then reply, “Got it.”

Harle says if all else fails, the target needs to say, ‘“If you want to continue to play pickleball with me, I’m not going to accept your critical remarks during a match. I’ll keep playing [this game I love] but only with someone who isn’t critical. Those are my boundaries. Either you meet them or I’m out.’”

Of the many couples who responded to my interview request, only the aforementioned “Monica,” said things weren’t peachy keen between them while playing together. The others  said they get along just fine.

“It is my personal opinion that the relationship you have with your significant other outside of pickleball is for the most part what will carry over into the game,” Holly Van Delden said in an email. The 61-year-old San Antonio resident says her DUPR (Dynamic Universal Player Rating) is 3.65. She often plays with her husband, Scott Snyder, 66, who has a 3.73 DUPR. Van Delden said, “Scott does not ever criticize or coach me. If I ask for his input after we play, he is gentle with suggestions. I wouldn’t tolerate him frequently criticizing me during pickleball or any other time.

Holly suggests a few comments that targets of critical players can say, including:

-“If I want your help, I’ll ask for it.”

-“I’m not paying you for a lesson.”

-“I already have a pickleball coach, but thank you.”

Barbara and Ted Kazmierczak of Dalton, PA, have been married for 22 years. Barbara, 54, said, “What’s really nice is this is the only sport he can play due to an accident when he was young. He is really so good now and it’s a great time. We have met some great friends we wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for PB!”

Ted, 58, emailed me, “Will she be reading this? Haha.” (I love your sense of humor, Ted.)
Ted said, “Playing pickleball with my wife can be hostile depending on our game. There are times when we could play better together. It has definitely improved from when we started. We enjoy it more often than when we started. So it can only go up from here! I keep it in perspective and am reminded that I’m so blessed to do something I enjoy with someone I love.”

Darlene Varnadoe Pitts, 66, and her husband Michael, 72, live near Atlanta. She says she has a 4.2 DUPR, he’s around 3.9. They’ve been playing together for four years. Darlene said, “He’s the most laid back, calm person and I’m a bit of a maniac. I get angry if he doesn’t hustle (in my opinion) or makes dumb shot attempts. I don’t like this about myself so in our last tournament, I wore a rubber band on my wrist to snap it when I’m frustrated. We won the tournament but he played really bad in one game so my women’s partner said she needed to check my wrist for bleeding!”

Darlene, that’s a great idea about the rubber band. And thanks for your honesty and the funny line from your women’s partner!

Sunnee Clark of Lake Lure, NC, said she and her husband, Curt, “get along when we play pickleball mixed doubles. I think I express bigger disappointment though when he misses a shot compared to his disappointment when I miss a shot.”

Cindy and Ken Cardinal of Asheville, NC, have been playing together for two years. He’s more advanced than she is. Cindy said, “Ken's occasional coaching during matches is fine. We may occasionally disagree in recreational play on the court, which seems no different from any other exchanges when we have a difference of opinions.”

I found a wonderful comment about couples playing together on Reddit, the social media website. A guy wrote, “My wife and I have been partners since we started three years ago. We have medaled at tournaments at every level we have played at. Most of the time we got along just fine. We always left it at the court. Even though I behaved badly at times when I didn't measure up to my distorted view on how good I was. Very unexpectedly my wife was diagnosed with a rare but treatable form of blood cancer. Guess what folks? Pickleball doesn't mean s***. Get your priorities in line and figure out what's important in life. It has given me a new perspective on what's important. I smile and laugh on the court now and I'm extremely happy when I get my wife out on the court. It's supposed to be fun. Let it be fun.”

My thoughts of the week, not all pickleball

When I’m playing pickleball and the other team has a guy who only bangs, I get frustrated if I have a partner who just drives everything right to him because my partner also doesn’t have a soft game. But unless my partner asks for advice, which is rare, I bite my tongue and keep dinking and dropping on the banger the best I can.

I think the Stanley Cup playoffs are thrilling. The problem with hockey is it doesn’t translate well to television because it’s hard to follow the puck. I think hockey is the most exciting sport to watch in person.

 I have written previously about taking two days a week off from playing pickleball to rest my 70-year-old body. Recently I played 10 straight days. I just couldn’t resist. The weather was beautiful, I had a new paddle I love and I was playing well. As I write this, it’s my first day off following that streak. My upper back is sore with knots and my legs feel heavy.

I’d never play pickleball without protective eyewear. Not worth the risk. One hit square in an eye could do serious damage.

Every day I see a Facebook post from someone playing pickleball in Hoka sneakers. That’s just a fall waiting to happen. I like Hokas and wear them off the court. But the steep heel to toe drop makes them clunky and potentially dangerous for pickleball. Folks, they are not court shoes.

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem says in her new book that she shot and killed her 14 month-old dog because the puppy, named Cricket, was a danger to her kids and in her words, “less than worthless” as a hunting dog. Even Noem’s political allies are angry, and of course they should be. The murder has sparked so much outrage that Noem has taken to blaming the news media and saying she was misquoted in her own book. She should’ve taken the dog to a trainer and if that failed, to a shelter. But taking the puppy to a gravel pit and shooting her? Noem also wrote that she killed her goat in the same gravel pit on the same day 20 years ago.

Yeah, that’s the kind of person I’d want leading my state.

Happy 93rd birthday to Willie Mays (on May 6th), the greatest baseball player I’ve ever seen. He could do it all. Despite missing roughly 270 games due to military service, the “Say Hey Kid” hit 660 career home runs. That’s 54 fewer than Babe Ruth. Mays played in at least 150 games for 13 consecutive seasons. No one else has done that, including Cal Ripken Jr. and Lou Gehrig.

And unlike many sluggers from the recent past, Willie Mays, 5’10”, 170 pounds, did it without steroids.

For more tips on couples playing together, check out this article.