How Do You Increase Focus in Pickleball? The Mental Game

No matter how big a lead you have in pickleball, if you lose focus you’re out. The mental side of the game is often overlooked, but it’s exactly what could give you the edge you’ve been looking for. While many players may choose to train their physical techniques outside of real matches, it's often the mental training that can lead to powerful positive change. A few simple strategies and tactics are all it takes to go from “What just happened?” to “I’m in control here”.

Proven techniques like visualization, positive self-talk, pre-point routines, and deep breathing all increase focus in pickleball. For the best results, eliminate distractions and stay present. Prepare your mindset before a match, touch base during the match, and analyze efforts to focus after.

Though it’s possible to simply list these techniques as ways to improve focus, that won’t help you much. We need to dive into the nitty-gritty to find out how to activate each strategy and why or how it works; so if that sounds good to you then let's get started.

The Mental Aspect

When you’re on the pickleball court, you aren’t just playing a game of pickleball – you’re playing a game with your mind and emotions. Sure, there will at least be one person on the opposite side of the net, but pickleball is as much a mental game as it is physical.

We're going to walk you through several factors that combine to form the mental part of pickleball. In fact, you'll find that all of them stretch far beyond the boundaries of the baseline - touching many parts of our lives. The most common mental obstacles players report facing are performance anxiety, a fear of losing, overthinking and overanalyzing moves, giving in to distractions, and not wanting to come across as too competitive.

When you step on that court, remember that there’s nothing more you can do to improve your fitness or shots at the moment - rather than divert your energy to either of those, shift your focus on maintaining a positive good attitude and staying focused on winning until the end - regardless of the obstacles and distractions that will surely come your way. Expect challenges to arise, because they always will!

Cultivating the Winning Mindset

Your mindset is the way you approach the game mentally. It’s what you think about, and whether or not you can stay focused. Knowing this, we can extend the mindset to include your overall emotional state because your brain controls and processes your emotions.

What we're striving for here is a winning mindset. If you can play a game of pickleball with calm confidence and good sportsmanship, from beginning to end, all with an unwavering belief that you will win, you have a winning mindset. A winning mindset doesn’t just happen on its own or overnight. It’s something that needs to be learned and practiced, so approach this as a marathon and not a race. This builds the mental toughness you require to push through and remain positive no matter what comes your way.

Setting Clear Goals and Objectives

There are two types of goals to set as a pickleball player: short-term objectives and long-term objectives. Here's what you need to know and master with both:

Short-Term Goals

Short-term goals include any small or single-step goals you want to achieve in the sport. This might be perfecting your serve, focusing on footwork, improving your fitness, or having a better attitude during the game. Setting clear short-term goals and reaching them one by one are the stepping stones to reaching your long-term objectives.

A key to goals is that they are measurable. Examples could include training for one hour a week or playing every weekend for 3 months. They are defined and include numbers to help you measure if you are reaching the goals or not.

Long-Term Objectives

Long-term objectives span longer timeframes or bigger events than those in short-term goals. An example of a long-term objective might be to compete in a major national championship by next year, or even to win it.

While goals are specific and measurable with metrics, objectives don't require defined numbers. They are simply words and goals are the building blocks to achieving an objective.

The Key to Objectives and Goals

To be successful, you need to make sure that your short-term goals ladder up to your broader objective. You'll focus on achieving your goals one step at a time. And every instance you master one short-term goal, you move on to the next one.

Take stock of your progress every month or so. Give yourself a way to determine if you’re making progress or not beyond the measure of your goals - for instance, is your backhand better than it was last week? Did you keep your temper under control?

The Power of Mental Imagery and Visualization

Mental rehearsal is also known as mental imagery and visualization. This is a technique you can borrow from sports psychologists to improve your pickleball performance with the power of your mind.

To practice mental rehearsal, choose something about your game that you want to improve or achieve, such as hitting the perfect drop shot. Now see yourself hitting the ball just over the net, dying upon impact - repeat this mental exercise over and over again until you can see it clearly in your mind, frame by frame.

Rehearsal is the keyword here - try to run through the entire moment like you were watching it on TV. Do this as often as you can and at least once before a game. The more often you do it, the easier it will become and the quicker it will take to play the clip in your head.

Staying Calm Under Pressure

When your mind experiences stress, your cortisol levels spike. This hormone causes everyone's body to react in less than favorable ways, although it can show itself uniquely from person to person. Playing under unneeded stress isn't conducive to performing your best. Since everyone's cortisol shows up differently, it’s a good idea to start noticing what your body does when it’s stressed so you know what signs to look for.

Your body might be telling you it’s stressed during a game if you:

  • Breathing: Experience a change in breathing, perhaps with shortness of breath or breathing much faster than normal
  • Heart-Rate: Feel your heart racing in your chest
  • Aches and Pains: Suddenly get a headache or neck pain
  • Sweating: Start sweating, especially in your palms and feet
  • Lack of Attention: Lose focus or even go deaf for a short period, when you don’t hear anything going on around you

When we’re stressed, a part of the brain called the amygdala takes over. This is where we process emotions, anxiety, and fears, and it’s what triggers a fight or flight response in us. It's a critical physiological element to our species' survival, but on the pickleball court, it's not as helpful.

When the amygdala takes over while we're under stress, we lose the ability to think calmly and rationally - that's where preventable errors occur and poor decisions get made.

The good news is that you can minimize these signs of stress and prevent the amygdala from taking over by staying calm and taking a few deep breaths to start thinking again. Grounding yourself, practicing mindfulness, and many other techniques are incredibly helpful in overcoming this innate biological mechanism.

Pre-Match Preparation

What you do before a game is just as important, if not more so, than what you do during a game. It may be many years ago for some of us, but think of it this way: Do you remember what it felt like to take a test back in school? If you didn't study, the moment the test was handed to you, your nerves kicked into overdrive, and by the last question you just hoped to pass the test.

But if you studied hard before the test, you probably felt like a rockstar walking into the classroom - oozing confidence and enthusiasm - almost like you were excited to test your mettle. You were prepared to face whatever questions awaited you on that piece of paper.

Well, it works the same way with pickleball.

5 Techniques for Preparing Mentally Before a Pickleball Game

All you need is the right information to prepare mentally before a game, so feel free to use some or all 5 of the following techniques and you’ll walk onto that court ready to ace the test.

1. Visualizing Success and Positive Outcomes

Visualizing can be a great way to win the mental game in pickleball. When you visualize, you choose one of the short-term goals you want to achieve, then you close your eyes and create the experience of achieving it in your mind. It’s like playing a movie in your head, but you’re the star of the show. And this show is so real that all your senses are involved, and it feels like you’re living that scene.

Researchers have found that visualizing something well enough and often enough is almost the same as doing it. Your brain doesn’t know you’re not really smelling the court, hearing the crowds, and hitting a wicked backhand spin dink; so neurons fire up and create new pathways or strengthen existing pathways.

It's a clever trick you play on yourself, using your mind to fool your brain into taking action even though it's simply a thought. It's meta, but powerful nonetheless. Visualization has been shown to improve muscle memory, motor skills, and coordination, and it’s so effective that even Olympians do it.

If you want to try visualizing, start by being very clear on what action or event you want to see in your mind. Let’s say you want to hit the perfect serve, your visualization could look like this:

  • Close your eyes and take some deep breaths to relax your body, then imagine yourself there on the pickleball court.
  • Hear the people around you, smell the sweat on your forehead, and see the ball and paddle in your hands.
  • Now watch and control your mental movements, frame by frame, serving the ball exactly how you want to.
  • See the ball following the trajectory you want, see it spin, and notice the position of your body throughout the exercise.

Practice this visualization over and over, as many times and as often as you can.

Visualizations don’t have to be limited to actions – they can incorporate your attitude too. Use this technique to imagine yourself calm, positive, and in total control during a game, and you’ll soon see a difference in your emotions when you really do compete.

2. Breathing Exercises and Relaxation Techniques

You most likely know that breathing deeply can calm you down, but you may not know exactly why. Here's how it all comes together: Deep breathing calms the mind because it sends more oxygen to the brain. When the brain gets more oxygen, it relaxes. Deep breathing also activates the parasympathetic nervous system, your internal system for rest, so you stay loose but ready to tackle whatever comes your way.

There are many ways to relax your body and use simple breathing exercises before a game of pickleball. Some that you may want to look into include progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), guided imagery, meditation, autogenic training, and biofeedback.

Choosing a relaxation or breathing technique and using it regularly teaches you how to bring yourself into a state of calm focus quickly and easily, which you can use before any game to prepare. After years of doing this, you'll be something of a pickleball yogi. But even if it's something you do before each match, you'll benefit all the same.

Go through one of the relaxation exercises before a game, but make sure you have an easy breathing exercise you can do on the court if you start feeling anxious or your body starts giving you signals that stress is setting in.

3. Developing a Consistent Routine

A routine is a set of actions that we follow to get something done. Over time, with repetition, the routine can become a sort of ritual and we don’t have to think about any of these actions – they happen on autopilot. A shorter way to say this: developing positive and effective habits. Setting up a pre-match routine and turning it into a ritual is a great way to kickstart your positive auto-pilot right before every match. If it’s done correctly, you alert your brain that something important is about to happen, and your brain becomes trained to be fully present and engaged for this big event.

Start being purposeful about what you do before a game. Follow the same set of steps every time as you prepare to play, and use the other techniques in this article to prepare your mind and emotions to stay focused. Keep doing this in the same order until you get the results you want, which tells you that your routine is working well for you.

4. Nutrition and Hydration

Your body and mind need the right fuel to function at full speed, so make sure you know what to eat before playing pickleball and stick with what works best for you. We recommend that you avoid fatty foods, and finish a snack or meal at least 3–4 hours before the game kicks off. And at a minimum, keep your body hydrated by drinking at least 16–20 ounces of water 2–3 hours before the match, and another 6–10 ounces 15–20 minutes before the game starts.

Feel free to sip on water throughout the game as needed.

5. Sleep and Focus

Before a pickleball match, get at least 8 hours of sleep. We know, it's easier said than done, but the 8-hour rule isn't some arbitrary number assigned to sleep. It's proven to improve your ability to concentrate, keep your reflexes fast, and increase your attention span during the game.

To get the best quality sleep, go to sleep at the same time every night. Avoid alcohol, coffee, and caffeinated soft drinks, and turn off all screens at least an hour before you go to your bedroom (we also know these are incredibly challenging asks). Keep the room dark and cool, and make sure that the bed and pillow are comfortable.

In-Game Strategies

You’ve done everything you can to prepare for the big game, so let’s take a look at some strategies you can use to maintain your focus during the match and avoid distractions. Some of these techniques are carried over from the pre-match preparations and some are brand new. But all of them are clear and easy to follow.

Mastering Self-Talk

Self-talk is the way you talk to yourself in your head, where no one else can hear you. If you are putting yourself down and being negative in there, it can be difficult to recognize at first.

A common sign to look for is a persistent feeling of insecurity or not feeling good enough. If you get these feelings during a game, then you’re probably engaging in negative self-talk.

To flip the negative self-talk into a more positive approach, do something about it as soon as you become aware of it. The most effective starting point is to drown out the negative chatter with positive statements and actions.

Stop negative self-talk by repeating positive affirmations in your mind over and over. Develop a mantra like "I can do this" or "I can handle whatever happens next." Or if you feel like it, simply tell yourself what an awesome player you are and that you’re a winner. Anything positive is headed in the right direction.

You can also actively look for things to be grateful for and give thanks for these things in your head. And keep visualizing your next move or winning the game to leave no doubt in your mind that you’ve got this.

Maintaining Focus During Breaks

During a break, it’s time to recharge your mind. Pickleball is uniquely social compared to other sports, so don't skip the time to kick back with your friends or make new friends altogether, but you should take a couple of seconds to regain your composure for the competition at hand.

Take a few deep breaths and check in with your body. Are you feeling good? Do you need anything? Give it to yourself. Do a few stretches and as you do, keep breathing and visualize winning this game.

Don’t get distracted or drawn into any drama during the break. If someone is complaining or talking negatively to you, walk away and avoid that person at all costs. You might be on a break but this is an important time to keep your head in the game.

Developing a Robust Pre-Point Routine

A pre-point routine is a group of actions you take before starting a point. Doing this establishes a sense of familiarity and comfort because there’s a predictable pattern of behavior before each point. This puts you in control, so you’re more confident.

Start creating your pre-point routine by setting a goal you want to achieve. Get ideas for your routine by asking other players about their routines. Some might tell you that they don’t have one, but if they think about it, they will realize that they do. You might even help them uncover what they do with a few more questions.

Now put your pre-point routine together. Keep testing and experimenting with it until you get the results you want and the routine becomes second nature.

Using the Power of Body Language

How you conduct yourself during a game affects your mental state because your mind takes cues from your body on what’s going on around you, and it then reacts how it thinks it should. This means that you can use positive body language to “trick” your brain into thinking that you’re playing the best game of your life (whether this is true or not), and your brain reacts by staying focused and sharp.

3 Tips for Maintaining Positive Body Language in Pickleball

1. Master the Art of Confident Posture

An upright, balanced stance sends a message to your brain and other players that you’re confident in your pickleball skills and you’re in this to win. When you walk around as though you own the court, your brain starts believing that you do, and your opponents’ brains start telling them that you’re a force to be reckoned with.

If you want a confident posture, stand tall and keep your shoulders back. Hold your chin up and look people in the eyes, only looking away if it makes sense or you have to. Relax your face and smile quickly and easily, to show that you’re calm and at ease on the court. Do regular mental check-ins to see how you are standing, and correct yourself as often as you need to.

2. Communicate Positively with Teammates

When it comes to interacting with teammates, what you don’t say is just as important as what you do. Your body, facial expressions, tone of voice, etc. all speak volumes and these form part of non-verbal communication.

To set the right tone and show support and encouragement without speaking, smile often, nod when it’s appropriate, and make eye contact with your teammates. Pat them on the back or give them a high five when something good happens, and touch them briefly on their arm or back to reassure them when things don’t go your way. As the bond between you and your teammate strengthens, so will your game and your ability to move as one on the court – giving you a huge advantage over opponents.

Try not to engage in anything that’s considered to be negative body language, such as crossing your arms, frowning, and avoiding eye contact. Being negative won’t help you or your team, so recognize these actions and stop them immediately, both in yourself and other team members.

3. Control Facial Expressions and Gestures

Facial expressions influence your brain much more than you might think. Controlling your facial expressions in a way that tells your brain you’re focused and winning the game is a simple but effective tactic to enhance performance.

To maintain a neutral or positive facial expression during a match, keep your mouth relaxed and slightly upturned in the corners. You can even let your mouth open gently, to look more self-confident and composed.

Post-Match Analysis

The game might be over but your efforts to improve your focus aren’t. As soon as you can, sit down for some post-match analysis, where you get to explore any errors and setbacks during the match, remind yourself about the importance of resilience and staying positive, and come up with strategies to regain focus and momentum so you come back stronger than ever.

Evaluating Your Mental Performance

Be brutally honest with yourself about how focused you were during the match. Write down how often you lost focus and for how long, and what things distracted you.

Next, think about how you felt during the match and how you made your teammates feel.

It’s important to evaluate all of these aspects so you can take steps to improve these areas using the pre-match techniques and strategies outlined above. Working on your mental game is a continuous loop: You move from pre-match work to the real game. Then you analyze things and find yourself back at the pre-match work. The more loops you complete, the more focused you become in pickleball.

Learning from Mistakes

Embrace setbacks as part of the journey. Reframe your thinking with the idea that there are no mistakes, there are only opportunities to learn what doesn’t work and to find things that do. This is how you improve your game, and it’s what keeps the game of pickleball interesting.

Armed with this new attitude, you’re sure to become resilient. And the more resilience you build, the easier and faster you can bounce back from a setback or challenge on the court and stay focused.

Celebrating Success

If you have a good game or you do something you’re proud of, take time to tell those you love and celebrate. It doesn’t have to be at a scale to rival the grandest quinceanera, but it’s important to acknowledge your victories - they will positively fuel future performance.

More importantly, extend these celebrations to your partners. If they do something well, give praise freely and celebrate their successes with them. If you know they tried hard to win the match, acknowledge their efforts and be proud of them. This grows team spirit and brings a more positive atmosphere with you into the next game.

Increase Your Focus Today

Improving your focus in pickleball can significantly improve your game, no matter what level you’re on. Be prepared to play the long game and commit to small regular improvements over time for maximum growth and development.

You can start cultivating a winning mindset and achieving your goals today by incorporating mental preparation techniques such as visualization, positive self-talk, and rituals. The mental game is just as important, if not more so than the physical game. Over time, you’ll master your mind and emotions.

So, stay positive, stay focused, and keep getting better.  

Frequently Asked Questions

There are a few common questions that people have about the silent mental game of pickleball. This section aims to be a helpful resource where you can get answers to these questions.

How do I maintain focus when playing against a difficult opponent?

When facing a difficult pickleball opponent, focus on yourself. You cannot control them but you can control your own mind and body. Use visualization and a pre-point routine to play your best point. Repeat this on the next point and the next, until the game is done.

Doing this helps you forget who you are facing and turns your attention to what matters – scoring. This technique helps you break your bigger goal of winning the game into manageable chunks, one point at a time. Never show weakness or doubt. Just keep coming back to the point you are playing at this moment.

If you do this, your opponent will probably end up wondering how to handle playing against you because you will be a worthy adversary.

How can I regain focus after losing a point?

If you lose a point in pickleball and need to regain focus, take a few deep breaths to send oxygen to your brain and keep calm. Have a ritual that you perform to get back into things, which can be as simple as tapping your paddle on your knee or nodding your head.

Your opponent doesn’t need to know that you are losing focus. Keep these actions as discreet as possible, so you can recover without giving the game away (so to speak).

Points will always be lost along the way, but how you react to them is what can make a difference in the outcome.

Can I improve my focus during practice sessions?

You can improve your focus during pickleball practice sessions by testing out and repeating techniques that strengthen this skill. Try visualizing actions, positive self-talk, and deep breathing exercises, to see what works for you.

If you find techniques and strategies that work in practice sessions, repeat them as often as you can. If they are effective in practice sessions they’ll work in a real game, and give you a toolkit to draw on when you’re struggling to concentrate.

For the best results, try setting a goal for each practice session and evaluate the session after to see if you achieved your goal. If you did, then set a higher goal to reach in your next session. If you didn’t, then analyze where you went off track and take the time to work on this next time.

How do I avoid distractions during a match?

The best way to avoid distractions during a match is to mentally prepare before the game starts. Use visualization to see yourself blocking out all noise and disruptions as you play. If there’s a distraction during the game, take deep breaths and use positive self-talk to ignore it.

The truth is that there will always be distractions during a game. There’s simply no way to avoid them. It’s a good idea to test ways to stay focused and practice them beforehand, so when you need to get your mind back on a game quickly, you can.

How do you gain confidence in pickleball?

You gain confidence in pickleball by playing the game, learning techniques to strengthen your focus, analyzing matches to improve your weaknesses, and training your mind to be more confident in your skills. If you don’t know where to start, ask a more experienced player for guidance.

If you do ask someone for help, look for someone who is a better player and who has achieved things you’d like to achieve in this sport. Be open to hearing what they recommend and always respect their time.

Confidence isn’t gained overnight, so keep taking small steps in the right direction. Before you know it, players might be asking you for advice on their game.

How do you stay calm when playing pickleball?

Recognizing stress and taking a few deep breaths is the best way to stay calm when playing pickleball. When you stop to take 2–3 deep breaths, one after the other, extra oxygen rushes to the brain. Your mind then relaxes and this makes you feel much calmer overall.  

Next time you’re feeling stressed, take note of what your body does. These are the signs your body gives you that tensions are starting to rise, and you know when to start deep breaths to calm down. If you’re on the court and your body starts giving you the same signals, take action by starting deep breaths immediately.