Pickleball and Leadership


by Katherine L. Poehnert, M.Ed. Psych., PCC

I am an avid (and some would even say addicted) Pickleball player. In case you don’t already know, Pickleball is a combination of ping pong, badminton and tennis, and is the fastest growing sport in the country. I started thinking about how the game relates to leadership and decided to do some research on the subject. Was I surprised when I found several articles and books on the subject!  As with most sports, there are many correlations with leadership skills…this article explores a few of those.

First- some background on Pickleball basics: It is played on a small tennis court, with a net that is slightly shorter than a tennis net, and there is a no volley zone in front of the net known as “the kitchen.” While it can be played as a singles game, it rarely is…it is almost always played with two teams of two players. Games are generally played to eleven points, and if one team does not score any points, they are considered to be “pickled” (although I say, “don’t worry, it’s no big “dill “if you get pickled!)

While it is played by all ages, it was originally developed for those of us who are a bit older and looking for fun, social interaction and exercise that is within our physical abilities as we age.  Many tennis players switch to pickleball, and, in so doing, learn to be adaptable , as the scoring, rules of play, and even the mindset may be different from tennis…. Just as many new leaders who have gone from individual contributors to managers must learn to do.

There are some obvious leadership qualities that apply to probably any sport, such as focus, cooperation, adaptability, and teamwork. Let’s look at how they apply specifically in the game of Pickleball.

5 Pickleball Principles

1. A player’s internal dialogue (stinkin’ thinkin’) affects the game, and thus the likelihood of winning or even enjoying the game, which can, in turn, affect both partners (the team).

Work with leaders is so often focused on the lens through which they see themselves and the world. This determines their self-talk, which affects feelings and, in turn behavior and the impact that has on all aspects of their leadership. When insight is gained around this, and empowering internal dialogue is inserted, leadership growth can be exponential. Cognitive restructuring is a vital tool in a coach’s toolbox.

2. Pickleball is about having fun and enjoying the process- yes, winning is important, but recognizing the process is often equally as important as product, and sometimes moreso.

Helping leaders to have “fun” (often a dirty word in corporate America)  is very important in terms of team dynamics and morale.  Leaders are often so hyper focused on “results” that getting there (the process) is often less important. There is usually a price to pay for this: low morale, low productivity, poor communication, etc.

3. The lines on the court are there for a reason; they help us determine if a ball is “out” or “in”  or if the server is serving to the correct spot.  But sometimes going outside of the lines wins the game. This is particularly true when performing an Erne (named after its inventor) where the ball is hit from outside of the kitchen line, on the side of the net outside of the base line, or when your team mate jumps into your box to hit a ball you might not be able to get.

The best leaders know the rules (professional, industry-wise, or company-wise) and know the intent behind these rules, but they also know that creativity and innovation often happen outside these rules. Risk is often required to achieve success.

Likewise, a leader may sometimes jump in during a crunch to help a team member but knows when to stay in his or her box and let the team member succeed or fail on his or her own. Micromanaging a team is a sure way to create a disempowering culture. If a Pickleball partner constantly jumps in front of his or her teammate (we call it poaching), it  would result in anger, discouragement, and feelings of inadequacy, not to mention that one player would never get the chance to show his or her skills. This might win the game, but at what cost??

4. If you don’t communicate clearly and simply with your partner during a game, many points can be lost. You will hear a lot of “me,” “you,” “me,” during a game, as each partner lets the other know if he is going or not going for the shot. Many collisions, as well as lost points (and even injuries) have occurred when that communication doesn’t happen.

Clear, concise, and simple communication is obviously an important leadership skill, but is probably one of the biggest issues within most organizations, whether between managers and teams, between business units, or even between team members. Effective collaboration and quick decision-making can only occur when communication is effective as well.

5. Strategic thinking comes into play as in any sport and does not negate the fun aspect of the game. When you know an opponent’s weaknesses and strengths, or your own teams’ weaknesses and strengths, you consciously or unconsciously utilize them in play. I have played several times with a great hitter in his 80’s, but I know he has difficulty running quickly to the net for a ball, so our strategy is that I will take those balls and let him stay back, where he can hit very hard and low. Likewise, if you know your opponent is a banger (smashes hard into your court) you have to be prepared to be close to the net and learn how to punch the ball back, or, at the very least, don’t set the ball up in a way that allows them to bang it. Sometimes strategy comes into play in deciding who will team up best with whom to increase winning odds as well.

Strategic thinking, of course, is critical for leaders. Unfortunately, many leaders spend more time firefighting than fire marshalling. To be strategic, one must rise above the day-to- day, see the bigger picture, and know how to marshal individual strengths in order to “win the game.”

In Pickleball, as in leadership (and in life!) enjoy the process, communicate well, be strategic when necessary, HAVE FUN, and try not to get pickled!!!

Elevate your Leadership Potential

To learn more about leadership and executive coaching, reach out to Katherine for a consultation.