Pickleball Open Play: Playing Up and Down

Coming from tennis I wasn’t quite sure how pickleball open play worked.  In tennis we set up our games and didn’t mix around a lot.  I recall the first time I went to the courts near Surprise which were hosting one of my first tournaments.


My partner and I were trying to find a game during warm-up.  Would someone let us in?  Luckily I asked the right person, “How do we get a game?” And to this day she is one of my closest friends. She was so happy to let some new players in and she was a 5.0 player without a clue who we were.

Pickleball Open Play

Sometimes I will go to places and it’s not always easy to jump into open play. At times someone will invite me to play, but will intentionally exclude the person I am with.  I don’t like that.

I understand that we all want good practice and we want to keep it challenging.   I realize that people feel that they will improve more if they “play up”.  In fact, I play better when I play up.   However, I believe you can do both…practice and play.

When I am at open or recreational play I am all about having fun and playing multiple players and I don’t really cares what level I am playing with or against.  When I play a lower level player I want to give them the experience of playing with someone more consistent so they can play some longer points than they are used to.   I don’t intentionally smash a high ball at them to intimidate them.  Likewise, if the two players are of differing skill levels, I try to mix it up.  I don’t avoid the stronger player and pick on the weaker player.  Nor do I exclude the less experienced player.  This isn’t a competition.  We aren’t playing for a title or money…this is supposed to be FUN!  I want them to see a stronger player reaching out to other levels that need more experience so that when a new person comes in they will welcome them into the group.

Open Play vs. Competitive Practice

Pickleball-Open-PlayWhen I want competitive practice, I set up a time outside of open or recreational play. It is usually a group of 4-6 and it is about playing back to back and maybe playing with a certain partner.   We will intentionally look for courts that aren’t in use or a time when the courts are not used for open play.

From time to time, someone might wander by and want to join.  I explain we are practicing but they can join us for a game or two.  I’m lucky because the players I typically practice with are very welcoming of new players.  However, occasionally, a player may groan a little or give me the evil eye.  But I remember that I was once that player that players groaned at, and I remember exactly how it felt.  I felt disrespected when a player would not play very well on purpose, or would be focused on a game in a nearby court that they found more interesting. (I also remember how good it felt when I as able to surprise them with my ability.)
My goal whenever I go to open or recreational play, is to have fun and to help the people I am playing with to have fun too.  I am going to give the person in front of me the respect that everyone deserves.  We all love this game.  We all want it to grow.  Let’s go have some fun!

19 thoughts on “Pickleball Open Play: Playing Up and Down

  1. Hello, my name is Michell, (Michelle without e) I am Middletown’s Tournament Director. This was so good for me to read. We have 10 outside courts in Middletown, Ohio. We don’t have any 5.0 players, but several 4.0-brink of 4.5 players, that like to get together and bang it out. I have zero problem with them playing together, I want no part of that, being a 3.0-ish player. I do love sitting and watching them play, though. We have some players who get mad, offended that these players will end a game, switch up and play again. Yet, they are 3.5. players and can’t hold a candle to their game. The courts are filled with plenty of evenly matched, yet challenging matches for them to get it on. They get disgruntled, say their words, but yet won’t come play with them, because now the 4.0’s call these few people over, and they say they are waiting for so and so to play. They just want to gripe. I am first to meet a new player, whether new to our courts, or new to the sport, at the gate and help them get adjusted. I will play with the 2.5, take them and teach them the verbiage, show them the basics. I will also play with them in their first few games, when you can see that people are hoping not to have to open their court up and play with them. 95% of our players are open, welcoming, and encouraging. But this is a great topic of discussion. P.S. Come to Middletown and see us!!

    1. Rereading this, I’m not saying you are to only play with your current level, you will become stagnant if you do. But also, don’t put yourself on a court where you are too far over your head either. The situations I’m talking about are levels apart in skill, stamina, and fierceness. Like I said, I have jumped in for kicks and giggles. That’s all I could do was kick the ball as I was defending myself, and laugh. They are all good sports about it and will let you in if you ask. Don’t expect to get babied or for them to change their game either. Be careful what you ask for. 🙂

  2. How do you manage when the only kind of play available is Open Play? Even when there are three courts, there are players that would like to have a challenge court, an intermediate court and a beginners court at times, not open play every single time the group gets together. Trying to wrangle a competitive group at off times is a nightmare. Unless there is a previous agreement, one respected member of the group in charge or everyone acts reasonably, most challenge players get sniped at for trying to play sets together during open play. I’ve had my fair share of trying to please everyone, get some exercise and try to get a good game of pickleball in.

    1. Sharon, since this sport is growing so quickly some areas just don’t have enough courts yet. However, I have seen examples as I travel of towns across America where this growth has caused communities to build more facilities. Hang in there!

  3. Very well said! Your commitment to the game of PB and and your ability to share important ideas with clarity and compassion is refreshing- Thank you for all you do!
    PS if you are ever traveling through Northern CA – the Mt Shasta and/or Redding group would love to organize a clinic/private lessons. Meanwhile, it’s great to read your blogs and share in your success! Bravo!!

  4. Great article, EVERYONE should read this! If you’re doing a clinic when you play SoCal Summer Classic, I would love to go.

  5. Thank you Sarah, I’m going to share this the clubs I play with. I’ve run into many situations where players take this sport so seriously. This isn’t the Hunger Games it’s about fun, learning, and growing the sport. I’ve seen people intentionally slam the ball at the players they want to get rid of. Horrible sportsmanship.
    Thank you again for the wonderful lesson. I look forward to another one and watching you play at tournaments.

  6. Hi Michell my name is Keith Reigel and I live in Kane, Pa. which is a small community of 3500 or so. We had pickleball brought to our little community bout 4 years ago from a couple that visit the Villages yearly. I played tennis for over 30 years all over the world because i was in the Air Force from 1970-1990. I never in my wildest dreams would have thought i would like pickleball when i saw it played. Well, guess what i became an Ambassador for my area and have traveled to several tournaments from Lakewood, New York, Mentor, Ohio, Howell, Michigan and have usually played with different partners in most all of them. I am going to be 66 in november and had no idea where to start when they asked what level so i started out playing 3.5 and have won a handful of tournaments or placed.
    I am in total agreement with you that if you are the better player you don’t show all your skills, but, try and help the newer players learn the game so they can keep there interest. Most of us that play are all over 60 so that cuts a lot of stuff out ( speed, quickness etc. ). But, i will tell you we have a group of 20 + on a weekly basis so i think that is awesome. Still working on the younger ages. Tried a clinic and had no one other than 4 of our regular players. Will try another at a later time and see what happens. I would love to come that way if you could give me an address maybe i can come and see. I always love going to different areas. Thanks for the great information.

  7. I also think a higher skilled player benefits from playing with lower skilled players by working on thier control. You have to be intentional with your shots to ensure that the lower players are getting a consistant game and that requires a great deal of effort on your part.

    I would like to see higher level players doing drill work with lower level players as well. I cant tell you how hard it is to practice a skill when the person who is hitting you balls cannot consistently hit them where you need them.

  8. Most of the time it is just a matter of beginners learning that they should not be playing with advanced players. It is just a matter of being educated on how much of a skill level up they can even handle. We’ve had many injuries where beginners think they can play, and the first dink they get, do a face plant and fall into the net. Each one of us has probably walked on the court to play advanced and suddenly the other three players had to get a drink or “sit this one out.” It is good to mix different levels but only within a certain range. Sure, we’ve all been beginners, but what other sport tolerates mixing of all levels…..even in Rec play.

  9. Thank you so much for your informative article. I just came back from our local outdoor courts. They have 4 courts, 2 which remained empty as the higher level players sat in chairs waiting to play each other. They seemed not be the slightest bit interested in playing “down”. I have seen so much pickleball snobbery it has reconfirmed my beliefs that the true character of people comes out in competition and adversity. Their are a few exceptions. These people are extraordinary, rare among their fellow and probably exhibit high character in all aspects of their life. Sounds like you do, bravo Sarah!

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