Assigning courts by skill level

If it’s winter where you live, you know that it’s the time of year when indoor courts and playing times are limited!  It’s not uncommon to have all courts filled with twenty or more players waiting for games, all hoping to to get good competition in a 2-3 hour window!

Paddle stacking is a common practice, but it’s not the way to get the best possible games.  While some won’t agree, I believe that random stacking of paddles with no consideration of skill level does not lead to a healthy and improving pickleball environment.

Assigning courts by skill isn’t as hard as it sounds.  You just have to be willing to set up skill guidelines, explain them to your members,  work through the initial transition and realize that there will be complaints and bumps.  But you already have complaints with stacking!  Make the best plan for your club and put it into action.  Most importantly, be patient and let the system you set up have a chance to work.

Here’s a sample of how you might set up your plan.  Perhaps you have four courts and you label them like this:

  •  Court 1 – beginners and recreational players
  •  Court 2 – intermediate players
  •  Court 3 – upper intermediate players
  •  Court 4 – advanced competitive players

*Note: These guidelines are a compilation from several sources, as well as some I have added.

      – Beginners:   If you are just learning the fundamentals of the game, you are a beginner!  You might have paddle skills, but you need to learn how to serve, the two bounce rule, how to keep score, and the non-volley (kitchen) zone rules.  You probably look to your partner to help with position and some rules.

      – Recreational players: You know how to serve and keep score, and you understand the two bounce and non volley zone rules.  You tend to hang at the baseline and drive the ball, or you stop in no man’s land (3-6′ behind the kitchen line.)  You can hit the ball if it comes to you, but with little strategy or control.  You may have some mobility problems that keep you from playing in the optimal position, but you love the game, the people and the exercise it provides.

       – Intermediate players:  You are beginning to learn the soft game, but you have more success hitting it hard, so that’s what you usually do.  Your serving goal is simply to get it in, and have no aim point yet.  You are starting to come to the kitchen line, but often you step back to let the ball bounce, or when the tempo of the rally speeds up.  You hit some lobs, but not for any good offensive of defensive reason.  You drive low shots, causing them to go into the net, long or right onto your opponent’s waiting paddle.   You try to use spin, but not with intended purpose or control.  You have longer rallies due to your athletic ability, but you often choose power over control.

       – Upper intermediate players:   You have a better ability to see the “whole” court and are placing your shots.  You realize the power of hitting to the middle, and are also starting to hit some angled shots.  You are comfortable playing at the kitchen line and quickly get back to it when having to step back.  You are able to use power or soft shots to set up points.  You apply spin with a purpose and are more aware of your opponent’s court position.

       – Advanced Competitive players:   You are able to use a variety of shots including lobs, spin, dinks and drive shots with a purpose and at the right time.   You are very comfortable playing at the kitchen line and return to it quickly when forced back.  You are more patient and choose shots based on your opponent’s position, or weakness.  Keeping the ball in play is more important than forcing a low percentage shot.  You use the dink to move your opponent and create an opening.  You can hit serves to your opponent’s forehand or backhand, resulting in an occasional ace.

Court skill assignments are not meant to box anyone into one court.  At any time, players can move to the court above or below their level.  This will allow players to compete one level higher and will help them improve.  They should however, be considerate and not move two levels until they have achieved the appropriate skills to offer a good game at that level.

On the first day you will find players will be confused and perhaps somewhat resistant.  Some will consider themselves higher skilled than they actually are.  The important thing is to be patient!  These issues will work themselves out.

Remember that skill sorting is not a plot to segregate the advanced players from everyone else.  It is simply a way to provide the best games for everyone.  As a club leader, try not to direct players to specific courts unless asked, OR if it’s obvious that someone is continually bringing down the level of play on a higher skilled court.  However, be careful how you handle it.  Pickleball is to be fun, and hurt feelings can create conflict.

Alternative suggestion:  You can use these guidelines with a “shuttle” format.  Winners move up to the next skill court, and losers move down.  Players split when they move to the appropriate court for the next game.  If you do this, don’t hit everything to the weaker player.  I hear lower skilled players saying that higher skilled players won’t play with them, but when they are given the chance, they don’t hit the ball to them!  Remember, everyone is there to play.  Please have a look at a previous post entitled “If you won’t hit the ball to me, why should I play with you?

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5 thoughts on “Assigning courts by skill level

    1. Rich…. if you click the words “if you won’t hit the ball to me, why should I play with you?” where it is listed in my post, it has a link and will direct you there!

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  1. Great post Betsy! We have seen this work successfully in many places and the players are generally the happiest at the courts that are organized. The most conflicts seem to happen when people are being firmly directed to certain courts with no options. One of the best systems I’ve seen was where they had little tags on rings with ratings starting with 2.5. When you were the first to put your paddle on one of several racks in one central location, you also put a tag on indicating your level of play. The other 3 paddles were expected to be able to play competitively 1/2 a point above or below that rating. It worked incredibly well on their 8 courts.

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