Drilling vs. Playing

By Matthew Schwartz
March 5, 2024

Maybe you can relate to my pickleball journey.

I started playing in the fall of 2021 by taking three group lessons at a community center near Tucson, AZ. There were two dozen players in each hour-long lesson. I loved everything about the sport immediately: the strategy, working with a doubles partner, the sound the ball made when hitting the paddle, laughing after bad shots, net crawlers or lucky hits and celebrating well-played points.

By the time my first lesson was over, I was hooked. When I got home I went online and bought a paddle, court shoes and apparel. Then I took two lessons with three other players. Then I took one private. In between these six lessons I played many games with other beginners. I also watched a ton of YouTube videos.

Within days of first picking up a paddle, I was obsessed with pickleball. Still am.

I soon began playing seven days a week, twice a day on Tuesdays and Thursdays with a couple of other newbies. Most of my opponents were rated between 3.0 and 3.75. I was recently retired and in need of something else to do that would provide exercise besides riding my bike and walking our dogs. I had found it.

Racquet sports weren’t new to me. I played tennis during summers while in college and some ping pong over the years. After six weeks of playing pickleball I had improved drastically. A certified instructor and several experienced players told me I was a 3.5 level player. I was holding my own against 3.75 players and wouldn’t embarrass myself against 4.0’s.

Since those early lessons I have taken only one lesson. Maybe three times my wife and I went to the courts and did some drills. Almost two and a half years since I started playing, I have not improved much. I’m still a 3.5. I’ve stagnated. I’m sure players who started when I did but drilled and took lessons regularly have surpassed me and could kick my butt now.

And I don’t care.

I have no desire to drill or take lessons (I’ve just made myself very unpopular with instructors everywhere). I still have a blast every minute I’m playing.

I’d like to be a 4.0 and hit fewer unforced errors, embarrassing whiffs and those maddening, easy put-away shots that I miss-hit off the paddle edge or into the net or out deep.

But here’s the thing: I just cannot get excited about drilling.

I know that unless I drill on a regular basis, I won’t improve much from playing only games five days a week. I suppose it’s a good thing that I prefer to play against players better than me or at least just as good. I play worse when the opponents are significantly weaker. Like in most sports, I think it’s true in pickleball that we usually play down or up to the competition. I have not entered any tournaments and won’t unless maybe there’s one for players 65 or 70 (I’m 70) and over and I don’t have to drive far. I don’t care about winning a medal and I’ve read many stories about players sandbagging because they were so desperate to win one. How sad.

Of course, plenty of pickleball players do care about progressing. They are not content with being stagnant at 3.5 or whatever level. I totally get that and respect those players. If I were much younger and more competitive, I’d want to get much better.

I would take regular lessons and make drilling a major component of my time at the pickleball courts. In fact, many certified instructors say if you want to improve, you need to drill…a lot. I’ve read articles in which instructors say you should drill at least 60 percent of the time, and some recommend drilling as much as 80 percent.

Joe Matias, a certified pickleball instructor in Arcadia, CA, says “I agree with the 80/20 ratio of drilling more than playing. But in the real world it’s the opposite. I even think it’s less than 20% [of the time spent drilling] for rec game players. The only time drill rate goes up is when I see players start joining tournaments.”

Michael Kinnear is the Director of Pickleball at the Asheville (NC) Racquet Club. “I recommend learning primarily within playing with intention and with drill games rather than mindless repetition,” says Kinnear. “Learning should take with it very incremental small steps until the desired change is natural. This is much more fun and helps you want to put the time in while greatly increasing the number of quality realistic touches. Playing down in skill level is an often-overlooked way to slow things down and develop new skills before using them in competitive play and also supports lower level players wanting to improve and helps our overall community.”

Steven Michaud is a member of the International Pickleball Teaching Professional Association and is the teaching pro at the Two Rivers Pickleball Club in Big Fork, MT. “If you are looking to level up and not stay static, 70 percent, [of time on the court] drill, 30 percent [should be] high level or focus driven play.”

Jill Bates of New Smyrna Beach, FL has been playing for over five years and is a 4.0. She believes she could easily be a 4.5 with more drilling. “For six months last year I drilled at least three times a week for two hours each time,” Bates, 63, told me. “The drill session ended up with skinny singles, which is a great way to practice all of your shots, as long as you use it to practice shots and not focus so much on winning. I played recreation at least four times a week and sometimes drilled the same day. Drilling is a lot of work and I was way more exhausted after a good drill session than after rec play.” Bates believes the drills have definitely helped her improve.

Peter Coppola plays six days a week and drills on the seventh. The 61-year-old San Diego resident organized a weekly drills group that met for more than a year. “Then I went away on a five month trip,” Coppola said. “It has been hard to establish that cadence again.” Coppola started playing in late 2019 and believes drilling helped him improve from a 3.3 player to “3.8ish.”

“Most think drilling is boring,” Coppola said. “I’ve had players say, ‘Let’s just play’ after 15 or 20 minutes of drills even though I make the drills into mini games.”

Marcy Sieminski has been playing for two years and says she’s rated at 3.5. “In my first year I drilled and played about 50-50,” the 68-year-old Wall Township, NJ resident said. “Now I don't drill anymore, and I concentrate on playing four times a week. However, I do have friends that still take lessons and drills. Part of the problem is that playing indoors gets very, very expensive. Then to add lessons or drills on top of that you're talking a lot of money.”

Allison Grant of Asheville says she spends 25 percent of her time at the courts drilling. “I know I should spend more time drilling, but it can be difficult to balance with the desire for pure play.” Grant, 57, says the drills make each player think. “Following the drill, we engage in cooperative point play, allowing us to dissect each exchange, analyze what went right or wrong, and discuss strategies for improvement. The collaborative nature of these sessions fosters a deeper understanding of the game and encourages continuous learning.” Grant also practices dinking on a half court set up in her garage.

I know I should drill at least twice a week. But I just can’t get fired-up about it. My entire practicing consists of the five to ten minutes after arriving at rec play and warming up with the three others on the court. Then I want the game to start. I know I won’t get much better this way, and I’m fine with that.


My thoughts of the week, not all pickleball

I’m saddened by the decline of Sports Illustrated. The magazine was once the bible of sports journalism. It’s gone downhill since Time, Inc. sold it and is now owned by a company that is primarily a licensing firm that acquires the rights to celebrity brands. Not a company that apparently cares much about journalism. It’s laid off hundreds of SI employees. The longtime weekly is now a thin monthly. I’ve had a subscription since graduating from college 48 years ago. I won’t renew it. I won’t support a company that’s laid-off so many journalists.

Speaking of Sports Illustrated, good luck to NFL writer and fellow Ohio University alumnus Peter King, who recently announced his retirement. King covered the NFL for SI for many years and wrote an excellent and lengthy online column every Monday for SI and later for NBC Sports, providing a recap of the weekend’s games and extensive, inside the league news.

In his retirement announcement, King wrote: I’m the luckiest man on the face of the earth. To be a long-termer in an increasingly short-term business, to write this column for 27 years and to be a sportswriter for 44, well, that’s something I’ll always be grateful for. Truly, I’ve loved it all.

I can relate, having retired in 2020 after 40 years of television news reporting, the last 20 years as an investigative reporter. I loved it and always said when I’m not excited about the work when I wake up every morning, I’ll know it’s time. During the COVID pandemic, after my photographer/editor was laid off, I knew it was time. I retired 16 months before my contract was up. I wanted to do other things and had been working in the news business since I was two weeks out of college. I thought about my father, who died at 74. Peter King is 66 and I have a feeling he’ll miss writing and will resurface after some time off.

I get annoyed when I see basketball coaches at all levels keep their starters in with a big lead and little time left. Last Friday night I caught the second half of the South Carolina boys high school Class 5A state basketball championship game. The coach of the team up by 19 points didn’t clear his bench until 28 seconds were left. Twenty-eight seconds. Really? You’re worried about blowing a 19-point lead and you couldn’t have put the subs in with two minutes left? The bench players work hard every day in practice all season. I see this especially often in women’s college basketball. I think it’s lousy sportsmanship.

I hear a hit song on SiriusXM by a group that was a one-hit wonder and I wonder: Why couldn’t they produce another hit? But I know how difficult it is to write one great song. That’s why most bands never have one hit.

The Netflix documentary, The Greatest Night in Pop is the greatest music documentary I’ve seen. You don’t have to like the 1985 song, We Are the World, to love this doc about the behind the scenes work to get it recorded.

I miss George Carlin. I think he’d have some smart observations about the way of the world today.

Three weeks until Opening Day. Despite some dumb rule changes, especially starting extra innings with a runner on 2nd, I still love baseball.


(If you want to contact Matthew with a blog idea, email him at mhs7386@gmail.com)