Life Lessons from Pickleball

Mark Fogel COVID-19, Games, HR & Sports, Mark Fogel

Let’s end the summer on a light note, as I want to talk about my new obsession, Pickleball. For those who have never heard of it, here is a brief history:

Pickleball was invented in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, a short ferry ride from Seattle, Washington. Three dads – Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell, and Barney McCallum — whose kids were bored with their usual summertime activities — are credited for creating the game. Since then, Pickleball has evolved from original handmade equipment and simple rules into a popular sport throughout the US and Canada. The game is growing internationally as well, with many European and Asian countries adding courts.

You can find me at our local courts on Long Island 3 to 4 early mornings each week, weather permitting. I have been a tennis regular for over 20 years, however I have become addicted to this fascinating game. From afar. it seems like a simple doubles game played by seniors. Small court with a low net, whiffle-type ball, and paddles. But calling it simple is the furthest from the truth. It is a technical game, mixing speed, agility, finesse, skill, and a little bit of luck. My analogy is that pickleball is to tennis as snowboarding is to skiing. There is a growing number of twenty, thirty, and forty-somethings now playing too. And there are championships – pro and amateur – played at Indian Wells, CA  and Naples, Florida each year for the diehards.

With COVID impacting us here in NY, I missed playing from mid-March to the end of May. Since then, it is one of the few recreational opportunities outside of golf and walking that I can pursue, and it has helped me keep my 40 pounds of weight loss off. For all the HR folks looking for a wellness program during COVID gym shutdowns, paddle and racquet sports need to be added to the mix along with walking, running, biking and other outdoor activities.

So, my discussion today is life lessons from of all things Pickleball. I will share both playing and life lessons all in one.

The seven key elements to Pickleball and business:

  1. Keep the ball in play
  2. Be patient
  3. Let the other person make the mistake, then seize the opportunity
  4. You can only score when your team is serving
  5. Move in unison
  6. Keep proper distance between you and your partner
  7. Remember it is only a game

Let us start out with the most basic premise of the game. First you need to keep the ball in play. In fact, the game is designed to force you to let the ball bounce once before hitting it on each team’s first shot. This allows for a flow of volleys. In business, you need to keep the ball in play as well, especially when you have an idea or concept that you are introducing. The proverbial third shot is the key to keeping a rally going. Next time you need to move an idea or project along, think about what you are going to do with that third shot.

Second, this is a game of patience. When I first started playing, I would bang as many shots across the net as possible, but better players feed off hard hitters by returning shots with spin and accuracy. Usually for winners. The best games are played by hitting low angled “dinks” that barely clear the net. Forcing opponents to stretch and move off the court. Hit enough dinks and you eventually get a clean shot to hit for a winner. Which leads to my third point, let the other team make a mistake, and seize the opportunity. These two go hand in hand, patience and letting the other team make mistakes. In business, we need to be patient and keep our ideas and projects moving. Going for the kill or quick win is a low percentage play in most sports and businesses.

My fourth point is this – you can only score points when you have the serve. In business you need to be in control of situations. As recruiters we want to control the environment and the interview. As generalists, we want to be in a position that our activity has impact and the organization responds. But you need to be serving to do so.

Most pickleball games are doubles, which means you and your partner need to form some synergy. One of the basics in the game is to move in unison towards the net whenever possible. Simple concept that often goes array. In business, we need to move with our partners both in and outside of HR. Failure to do so usually results in loosing points or even the game. In business we call this “alignment”.

In addition to moving in unison, good picklers try to keep about 8 feet of space between them. This is the best distance to cover the most space on the court. So, although you move in unison it is important to keep a proper distance. Same in business, where teamwork and individual contribution that is maximized by the team’s proximity to help when shots go astray is key.

Finally, we all need to remember it is only a game. And one that usually plays to 11 points for the winner. Normal games run from 10 – 25 minutes. When your done, you tap racquets and get ready for your next game. Most days, I play 4 or 5 games. You win some and you lose some. In business we have multiple priorities and projects. Some we win and some we lose. The important thing is to keep moving and to not let the losses get in the way of the bigger picture.

Are you ready to play?