Pickleball Competition: Getting the Most out of Playing Up or Down

One of the things I enjoy about drop in Pickleball is the mix of competition. One game I’m playing against opponents with a skill level similar to mine. The next time I’m up against a 4.5 player or beginner. I know not all drop in locations mix the levels like this but I think it is great for the game. I mean it is good for the game of Pickleball and it is good for my game too. Let me explain more.

If you’ve played youth sports, you get used to opponents who have a similar skill level because they are in the same age group. Even in high school, the teams are separated by skill level as is the case with teams having a junior varsity and varsity squads.

The great thing about adult sports is if you are not playing in a tournament or league, competitors may not be separated by skill level. I know not everyone likes this idea. The beginners don’t want to go up against advanced players because they hit the ball too hard. Advanced players don’t want to compete against beginners because it is boring or not challenging. However, the mixing of skill levels promotes camaraderie and prevents Pickleball from being ruled by clicks.

So, what to you do when playing against someone much better or worse than you?

Competing Against Better Opponents

When I compete against better players, my goal is to learn as much as possible. I don’t worry about winning or care about it because it’s not likely going to happen anyway. I remember playing against my first 4.5 player. I learned two things I will always remember.

First, take the ball as early as possible. In other words, I saw him put his feet as close to the kitchen line as possible on each rally. Then he would lean into the kitchen and extend his paddle to be ready to take an early shot. I saw the advantage of this as he could be more offensive since the ball was higher when he contacted it way out in front of his body.

The second thing I learned was to be more offensive. It is definitely comfortable for me to be offensive when someone hits a high ball to me shoulder height or above. However, it wasn’t second nature for me to be offensive with balls hit around my mid section. I quickly learned in playing better players to be offensive with lower balls outside of my comfort zone. I had to be. Otherwise, I would never get the opportunity to end a point.

Besides the level of play, there can be other challenges when playing better players. One is they may give you advice during the game. Sometimes this occurs because they want to help you and sometimes it is because they are your partner and they want to win. In the latter case, it may not be welcomed advice if it comes across as being critical. However, if it’s good advice I feel like I’ve learned something valuable regardless of how it came across.

The second challenge of playing with better players is you may not feel confident. Then this lack of confidence negatively impacts how you play. If this occurs, remind yourself that you have nothing to lose. The better players have the pressure as they are expected to win.

Sometimes, you may even beat them unexpectedly because you elevate your level of play. This happened to me when playing against a 4.5 male player in doubles. The other three players on the court including me had a similar skill level and were not anywhere close to a 4.5. For some reason, the 4.5 player’s game became inconsistent at the end of the match so my partner and I won. It was very surprising and quite enjoyable!

Competing Against Opponents Who Aren’t Quite as Good as You

My friend Paul runs the Pickleball program at the YMCA. The Y only has three courts so they break up drop in play into three groups. Court 1 is for beginners, Court 2 is for social play, and Court 3 is for competitive play. He does ask that intermediate and advanced players to play at least one time each session on the beginner court. This creates a great opportunity for more advanced players to give back.

So, the moral of the story above is that playing against people less skilled than you give you an opportunity to do some teaching. It doesn’t mean you need to verbally give instruction. Just by playing with less skilled opponents, your play is a model for them. They can decide to learn from your play if they so choose.

Playing down also gives you a chance to work on your own game in an environment where you are not likely to lose by practicing a shot outside of your comfort zone. I have friends who are strong tennis players but they make a lot of mistakes when dinking. Playing down can give them an opportunity to practice this shot in game situations.


In the movie Forest Gump, his mother said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get. I feel the same happens in Pickleball when going to drop ins. Different people show up each time and this means you can have a variety of skill levels. Take advantage of the opportunity to play up or down when it comes to you and get the most out of it.

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