In the sport of Pickleball, like most sports, we all want to know the secret ingredient, or the fancy spin technique, or the power hitting and smashing, that it will take to win. As I watch players in our league play week in and week out, I can't help but notice the teams that are winning. They play a consistent, patient game. Meaning they keep the ball in play and are consistently getting the ball over the net until their opponents make an error. I have also noticed this in my own game as I have played throughout the years. I can try to get more spin, but it goes in the net, or try and place that ball right on the line, but the ball goes out. I am just beating myself when I do this, and helping my opponents win. Hey wait, I want to be the winner here!
So I took to the internet to see if there was any statistical data to support my experiences and assumptions on making errors. I found a study Noel White conducted on this very subject in his Summary of 2012 & 2013 Tournament Play Research. When you look at the data there is one thing that winning teams are doing the majority of the time, and it isn't anything fancy or secret.
"70% of the time winning teams have less unforced errors (many times significantly less) than the losing teams."
Noel describes in his study that "An unforced error in my research is - - any ball that is hit right to the individual and he/she has an easy opportunity to do anything they choose to in the return hit because they do not have to move much, lean, reach, etc. to hit the return AND the individual hits the ball into the net or hits it out.
Note: unforced errors at the 4.0+ level of play may be considered a forced error at a lower level of play. A 4.0 – 5.0 level player is capable of fully handling a hit to them with some pace, spin and even requiring a moderate arm extension as an “easy” return. However that same kind of hit coming at a 3.0 - 3.5 level player would not be considered a candidate for an unforced error (if hit out or into the net) because the ball is not an “easy” return hit at this level of play."
It really is this simple. Reduce your unforced errors and you have a better chance of winning.
Furthermore, this study focused on higher skilled players, 4.0-5.0, stating that 28%-40% of total points scored are off of unforced errors. Based on the statistics from these higher level players, Noel guesses that in lower level play at least 50% or more of points scored are from unforced errors. Half or more of the points scored in a game are based on our own errors! Making it even more important in our recreational leagues and pickleball communities that reducing our unforced errors is key to winning.
The moral of the story...
Consistently keeping the ball in play is your best friend when playing pickleball. The team that is more consistently getting the ball over the net and into the court and avoiding the easy shots hit directly to your opponent, will be in the winning bracket more often. Let your opponents beat you, instead of beating yourself by giving away points with unforced errors.
Avoid trying to force those fancy spin shots that go into the net or get set-up for a slam, or whaling on the ball with those power shots that fly out or aiming at the line that always hits just outside the line and goes out. You are only defeating your team by creating unforced errors. Instead, practice being patient and consistent and keeping that ball in play. Get that ball over the net and into their court and let your opponents make the unforced errors. Statistics show that when you make less unforced errors than your opponents, you will be winning the majority of your matches!
Start taking a look at how you are playing and check-in with yourself and see when you are making your own unforced errors. It's no fun to lose to yourself! Let us know if you have noticed a difference after paying attention to your own play and how your patience and focus on consistency has helped your play.
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