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Why are Tennis and Racquetball players good at Pickleball?

27. July 2016


Why are Tennis and Racquetball players good at Pickleball?  The simple answer is transfer of learning.  A more complex answer will include the theory of inherited physical abilities.  For now, let’s consider the concept of transfer of learning.  Defined, it is the gain or loss of one’s proficiency to perform a task based on previous practice or experience.  How many times have we heard, “Softball has really messed up my golf swing” or “Racquetball has destroyed my Tennis game”?  On the other hand, after we see a Pickleballer hit a great overhead we often assume that he/she must have been a Tennis player in their previous life.


Near transfer and far transfer are two different ways motor or physical skills can be developed.  Far transfer occurs when skills of one task or situation transfers to a very different task or situation.  Elementary physical educators often use a movement-education approach, which emphasizes basic movements such as running, jumping, throwing and hand-eye coordination activities rather than specific sports. As children develop these skills, they will be better prepared to perform them in the context of specific sports.


Many of the skills developed while participating in one sport will often have a very positive influence on the performance of tasks in a very different sport.  Overheads, ground strokes, volleys, short angles, striking moving objects, court and spatial awareness, and strategies are all skills that are shared between Tennis, Racquetball and Pickleball.  Yes, there may be slight differences on how to perform those skills, but the transfer is typically very positive.


Negative transfer or the loss of skill proficiency, should be virtually nonexistent if athletes are aware of the potential aspects of a new skill that are different from those previously learned.  For example, the basic strokes in Racquetball and Badminton emphasize a powerful release of the wrist, while the Tennis stroke requires a firm stable wrist.  Good Pickleball players may use both techniques depending on the specific type of stroke.  For example, when hitting a ground stroke, a serve or returning a good dink shot a firm wrist will increase control, whereas smashing a floater should involve a powerful wrist snap.


The most effective transfer is near transfer that occurs from one task to a very similar task.  Practicing repetitions of specific skills in a semi or formal situation and then performing those skills within a different set of environmental conditions such as a competitive game or contest (target context) is one typical example of near transfer.  When we combine skill elements with environmental elements we are now engaging in an important concept called specificity of learning. The most effective practice is that which most closely approximates the movements of the target skill, environmental conditions, and the psychological demands of the target context.  In other words, you should practice the way you are expected to play, which leads into another important concept. 


You need to spend time practicing and refining specific skill techniques to get better.  Unfortunately, most Pickleball players only play the game. Only playing the game will strengthen already existing skills that may or may not be very proficient.   Practicing bad or inefficient techniques will only consolidate and reinforce those techniques. Focusing on a few very specific skills and techniques before playing can significantly speed up and elevate one’s competitive level.  Many helpful techniques can be found in the Pickleball Bible available at purepickleball.com.


Author: Dr. Rick Lambson


Dr. Lambson is a physical educator/exercise scientist and athletic coach who has taught and coached students in elementary through university graduate programs. Rick graduated with a doctorate degree in exercise science from Brigham Young University and is currently the Physical Education and Human Performance Department Chairman at Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah.

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