Do you hear it? Do you that low grumbling on pickleball courts when spouses play together? Playing with a spouse has unique challenging dynamics. In fact, many players in the pickleball community have given up on playing with their spouse, and there’s often curious wonder from spectators at seeing couples who somehow can play well together. While it can be tempting to walk away from even trying to be a successful spousal pickleball team, it can be worth the effort to figure it out. After all, you have a built-in partner for pickleball travel, to learn with, and to become an effective team together. The potential is exciting.
As far as the difficulty of playing with one’s spouse, I can totally relate. Ted and I now play well together, but, believe me, it’s been a process. In the early days, here’s what would happen. When he would miss a shot, I became irritated. I would roll my eyes, and inside I was indignant. How could he hit the net, AGAIN? How could he hit the ball out, AGAIN! For his part, Ted felt it was important to constantly let me know what I was doing “wrong.” He’d chide me to hit the ball more gently, or to hold my paddle up, or to stop taking his forehand. Ted took on the role of being my personal “coach” and constantly let me know what I needed to do to play better. Granted, all of his ideas were spot on, but under his constant coaching my play deteriorated, as to me, it felt like continual negative feedback.
The day things started to turn around, was the day I happened to sit next to a new female player waiting on the bench for our turn on the court. I groused to her about my unhappiness of playing with my husband and our lack of success; this woman happened to be a psychologist (oh happy day!); we had an opportune and enlightening conversation about the dynamics of spouses playing with each other. In a nutshell: here’s what I learned. First, because I love my husband, I have high expectations for him. I see him as intelligent, athletic and very capable, and it did not fit my vision to see him making errors. Hence, the irritation. And an irritation which only served to erode our success, which means that said irritation had to go! In comparison to how I treated Ted, I looked at how I treat other players who make errors. I am usually “saint-like” in my patience with other players, so it became a revelation of thought, that perhaps because I love this man dearly, I could extend him the same patience I would extend to a virtual stranger? I have tried to internalize this, and when we play, I realize that we are out having fun playing a sport we love and that the learning is a process. I focus on making it fun while also recognizing my husband is a great athlete who will only continue to get better at pickleball.
Since then, I have also changed how I communicate with Ted, and instead of feeling demoralized by his “coaching” I have assessed what I need and how my psyche operates so that Ted can still coach, but in a manner which really helps me. During a game, to be successful, I need to know what I am doing "right." The more I hear positive reinforcement, the better I play as I am more confident and relaxed. Everyone responds to positive comments, so I work hard to tell Ted “great shot” or to click paddles and to create a happy harmony. As far as comments about my play, I assertively told him I’d rather hear it during a time-out, or after the match. I welcome his comments when we are drilling, and small pointers during play (hit their backhands). If he has to tell me something during the match, he can do so, but the focus and the majority of our communication need to be on what is going well because positive reinforcement helps me to relax and feel confident which translates into a winning game.
If you love your partner (and I know you do), treat them with love on the pickleball court. Realize that they are trying their best and that the more you recognize accomplishment, and be patient with their progress, the faster they will improve. If you find yourself feeling irritated or dejected, do some soul searching and define what is happening. Then communicate this to your spouse. Be specific about what causes you to shut down or which of their actions impedes your ability as a player, and then offer the alternative of what you need, or what will help you to play better. Most partners want to play better and to win more matches. Most partners will respect this process if indeed they want to be better pickleball players. (I mean, who doesn’t want THAT!!) The goal is to be a smooth-running machine with an understanding of each person’s unique idiosyncrasies, with a big dash of smiles, high-fives, and the love we have and need to show to this most important person in our life.
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