Pickleball Unforced Errors – The Mental Side of the Game

In this post we're going to talk about an aspect of the game of pickleball that plagues beginners and experts alike.  Whether you're still learning pickleball or competing in tournaments - unforced errors in pickleball can really impact the match

What is an unforced error in pickleball? 

An unforced error in pickleball is when a player makes a mistake or commits a fault on a returnable shot. For instance, simply hitting the ball into the net on an easy return shot. Reducing your unforced errors in pickleball is a fundamental strategy that will allow you to win more games.

It is "unforced" because your opponent has done nothing to win the point.  You did it for them.

Unforced errors simply hand the point to your opponent. Essentially, you've gift wrapped the point for them.   

These are the best points if you’re on the receiving end and the worst points if you’re the one causing them. But, there is hope…

Why Are Pickleblall Unforced Errors Important?

Keep in mind that most points are lost by hitting the ball in the net or out of bounds, rather than the result of an outright winner. One of the fundamental strategies in pickleball is to keep the ball in play.

Good players always give their opponents a chance to mess up. When in doubt, hit it under control down the middle. Playing it safe isn’t going to win you any style points but, it’s going to win you actual points. Those are the ones that matter.

My biggest pet peeve in pickeball also happens to be an unforced error.  Its when the serve doesn't land in bounds.  This is an easy example of an unforced error that ended the point without your opponent having to work for it.

Related:  I interviewed 3 5.0 level Pros and the owner of Pro-Lite Sports - what I learned about pickleball paddles will shock you!

I've heard 5.0 Pro Teammates Dave Weinbach and Kyle Yates talk about their strategy.  They each talk about consistency and keeping the ball alive.  

Kyle always says, they try to outlast their opponents.  You can outlast your opponents if you don't beat yourself.  At the heart of this mindset is eliminating unforced errors.

Another strategy Kyle mentions is trying to keep the ball down.  That means their shots are not easily teed up on and smashed back in their direction.  They force their opponent to hit low to high, teeing up shots for Kyle and Dave to put away.  

To top it off, Dave openly says the game is about consistency and they win a lot of tournaments because they just don't make a lot of unforced errors.  

Here is a humble pro player breaking the game of pickleball down into its simplest form.  I love it!


Pickleball Unforced Errors - A Mental Game Within The Game

It can be very helpful to evaluate your unforced errors. Learn from “what happened” when you miss a serve, return, groundstroke, volley, or dink. When you evaluate your shot (or anything else for that matter), remember that the brain learns from a “positive statement” of what to do.

For example, when you hit a serve or return into the net (or out), tell yourself what the correct thing is to do. Namely, hit the ball smoothly a foot or so above the net and near the baseline.

Simple, reinforced instructions bring your brain back to the fundamentals. If you’re like us, you have to continually pound that back into your brain. After trying too hard to get fancy on a serve, I’ve been known to audibly tell myself in a calm yet firm voice “keep it safe, go deep and center.”

These small self-reminders can help keep the mental side of the game in check, and reduce your unforced errors. 

Have you ever hit a bad shot and asked yourself “what are you doing?” Negative self feedback exists too, and it can be destructive. Be careful with how you’re correcting yourself mentally.

Negative words can have a negative effect. For instance, when you say “don’t hit it into the net” research shows that the brain sees and hears the verb (HIT) and the noun (NET). It misses the negative (DON’T).

Parents make this mistake all the time, myself included - it is better to tell your kids to close the door softly, rather than don’t slam the door. 

The brain hears slam and door. The more you think about it, the more examples you’ll find where you’re making this simple but preventable mistake. Now that you’ve got it on your radar, you have a huge advantage and change the way to speak to yourself (and others).

This can help reduce unforced errors big time!

It is also very important to learn to accept the outcome of each shot, and be as non-judgmental as possible. Like in golf, there are no bad shots.

There are pure shots and topped shots (insert your favorite miss) but they are all just shots with certain characteristics. You will play and enjoy pickleball (and golf, or whatever) more when you don’t add “value” or judgement to the outcome, shot, or play.

 Learn from your mistakes, and enjoy the activity; and don’t be that jerk or psychopath screaming at yourself on the court. Be humble in your good shots, and learn from every shot (good or not so good), and move on.

Pickleball Unforced Errors

The point is, negative words can produce negative feedback and negative results. Positive words are more likely to yield positive feedback and positive results, Sometimes the simple things are also the hardest things to implement.

Ways to Eliminate Unforced Errors in Pickleball

Your brain will try to help you hit your target, and you can be as general or specific as you want. Here is an example we use all the time - “Aim small, miss small” means to have as tiny a target as your skill allows.

Positive intention will help with all of your shots. Before serving try this.

Walk yourself through HOW you're going to serve it and WHERE it’s going to go like this - “the serve goes over the net by one to three feet, and lands near the baseline and toward my opponent’s backhand.” 

Your brain has been told the instructions and now you body is ready to execute. Give it a shot, no pun intended!

The return and groundstrokes have pretty much the same intention. Learn and practice the basics on all of your shots, briefly walk yourself through the process mentally and soon you will be playing better.

The more you do this, placement and control will become high priorities for you, and will lead to shots that eliminate unforced errors, keeping the ball in play, and allowing your opponent to make the mistakes.

Pickleball Unforced Errors - The Fundamentals


Like shot selection and shot execution, footwork is very important. Read your opponents paddle, and get into position early, and bend your knees. Make a smooth swing and strike the ball in front of you.

Remember the three “P”s.
Preparation … anticipate where the ball will land, get into position early with a smooth swing.
Placement … hit the ball above the net, and in-bounds.
Pace..keep the ball in play at all times.

These are three things beginners and experts alike try to implement every time they step on the court.  

Unforced Errors and Shot Basics

The Serve - You should never miss a serve. 4.0 and above rarely miss a serve, the understand the value of consistency. Practice getting all your serves in with proper pace and placement.

pickleball unforced errors

source: pickleballnaplesfl.com

The ReturnYou should never miss a return. Practice hitting your return with proper placement and pace. This really sets up the whole point. text here...

The Third ShotThis is the key shot in pickleball. Practice your third shot drop (lands in kitchen), and third shot drive (usually hit hard and down the middle).

The DinkDink shots should arc the highest on your side of the net and come down softly in the kitchen. This take practice. Don’t focus on trying to skim the ball over the net. It’s about arc and where the ball lands in your opponent’s no volley zone.

The LobLobs should be high and deep, creating a difficult return for your opponent and increasing their unforced error opportunity.

Pickleball Unforced Errors - The Mental Mind Game

Mistakes are part of the game, and good learning opportunities. Treat them as such. When you make an unforced error, tell yourself where you should hit that shot next time, and how much pace should be on it.

This will help you stay sharp mentally and reduce unforced errors. Good luck!

As we close out this topic, I can tell you just writing about this has been therapeutic for me. That’s how big the mental side of pickleball is, and how important eliminating unforced errors can be in improving your game.

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