If you’ve ever set out to play a game of pickleball at your nearby local courts, chances are you have witnessed open play: a window of time during the day when pickleball courts are first come, first serve (literally) to the public.
In most cases, some system will be in place to hold your spot in line, whether through a paddle rack or benches. However, other times, you might find that open play can feel like pure chaos, with people fighting over court space or hogging a court for hours at a time.
So, what’s the best way of navigating through open play to achieve the best experience possible? Let’s look at a few ways to make your time at open play less stressful, as it can be one of the best ways to play the game and meet new pickleball partners.
What is Open Play?
Open play consists of a predetermined timeslot during the day when pickleball courts are available and accessible for all players. The benefit of this free-for-all approach is that you don’t necessarily have to have an entire 4-player playgroup scheduled beforehand. Simply show up with your paddle and form a group with other locals who are there to play.
The open-play format is arguably the best way to make friends and become more connected to your local pickleball community, as you will end up playing alongside and against other passionate players you don’t know yet.
Open Play Court Etiquette
Most pickleball players approach open play from a similar perspective that this will be a friendly exhibition. However, that’s not always the case.
There are a few things everyone should be considerate of when approaching open play courts. Openly communicating with your playgroup, focusing on your training goals, and showing good sportsmanship will allow everyone the best possible experience.
Because anyone can join, players of varying skill levels often get paired up and might face off against a team in APP training mode. It’s essential to have open conversations with who you’re sharing a court before playing to determine how comfortable everyone is with the level of gameplay.
Not that you need to hold yourself back – I think open play is also an excellent opportunity to test new shots you’re working on and honing in your abilities. However, it’s still important to be mindful of when it’s okay to give it 100%: there’s no need to fully send a drive into 82-year-old Jeff, who’s picking up the paddle for the first time.
Focusing Your Training
Sometimes you’ll be queued into an ideal situation in open play, where everyone is at a similar skill level and wants to play at that level. This is the perfect opportunity to work on that shot you need to improve, and by all means, go for it!
But not all open-play games are made the same. As we’ve mentioned, players of all skill levels and age groups will be permitted, so you won’t always be able to work on that third shot drive you’ve been dreaming about.
The best way to enjoy open play while being productive is to hone in on just one part of your game. Whether in your dinks or testing a new backhand serve, find what shots you can consistently work on in your playgroup without disrupting the match-play experience. While you might want to crush Ernes for every point, that might get old fast for your fellow competitors.
Above all else, sportsmanship will ensure that open play remains a good time for everyone. Pickleball isn’t solitaire: you’re responsible for everyone who’s on the court with you, not just yourself.
It’s different when playing with a group or club with dedicated skill levels. Competitive play involves targeting an opponent’s weakness, and when you have an advantageous matchup, you will play to win. However, taking advantage of that weakness in open play will often lead to a dull and often “feels bad” situation for your opponent.
Again, you might be matched up with someone of lesser or higher skill than you – and that’s okay. Pumping the breaks and not completely freezing an opponent out of the game will allow you and them to learn more about it. There’s nothing wrong with slowing it down and honing your dinks; open play is the perfect place for upping your defensive game.
Pickleball was initially made to be a social game where friends and family could come together to play a sport and have fun. It’s important to remember this during open play, where the format is tailored to coming together with other pickleball fans and playing the game you love. It’s also why some people find pickleball so addictive.
Solving The Crowded Court Problem
The biggest hurdle for open play is in spots with limited court space. We’d all love to be able to play on the 100 bayside courts in Miami at the upcoming Pickle Games every weekend. Still, the more likely reality is that your local pickleball facility only has a handful of courts.
As pickleball continues to grow across the nation, we must accept that until more courts are built, everyone has to share the ones we already have. Here are a few of our favorite approaches for making sure everyone gets a turn at open play.
Follow The Rules
Before we get into our top ways of maintaining a civil player rotation during open play, you should first see what rules your court is already enforcing. While a paddle rack seems like an ideal solution to some, court regulars might favor sticking to a tried-and-true system unique to your local courts.
If you’re not digging the old schoolhouse chalkboard system that’s in place, it’s worth approaching the organization in charge of open play with a new solution. Open play is a social experience, and it’s all about having these types of conversations in order to seek compromise and optimize the experience for everybody.
This is a classic method that many courts still swear by: simply put a paddle down next to the net of the court you want to play at, and other players will stack them up next to them to claim next.
A significant disadvantage to this is that paddles then start to clutter court space. One way of mitigating this is to use some sort of stand or bucket near the fences to keep the paddles out of play.
The natural evolution of the paddle stacks is found in the paddle rack. Many local courts and pickleball facilities have begun installing large paddle racks where players can place their paddles to claim their spot in line.
The system is simple and effective. Slot your paddle in, paddles will then be selected in order from left to write, and wait until your paddle is selected and hit the court!
This is a fun and easy way of keeping track of who's up next during open play! Simply spin the sign clockwise to designate who gets to play next.
Whiteboard and Dry-Erase Marker
This method is sweet and simple – A classic list-style format where names will be prioritized based on who signed up first. Once your name is called, go up to the board, erase it, and hit the court!
You also have the added bonus of learning everybody’s names the more matches you get in.
Winners and Non-Winners Brackets
If there aren’t a ton of people crowding the courts waiting for a chance to play, a “winners stay” approach is a fun way of mixing things up. Instead of rotating out all four players at the end of each game, the team that wins will get to hold priority and stay for another game.
This adds a fun, competitive element to open play. Winners are rewarded for their successful teamwork, and losers can hop back in the waiting queue for redemption.
In order to prevent one team from monopolizing one side of the court, many open play winners-bracket formats will enforce a 3-game limit to winners. This way, you don’t have to worry about having a set of 5.0+ players come in and completely dominate the courts.
Champion Your Pickleball Community
Hopefully, these tips and guidelines can help shape your open play scene into a more welcoming place. Everyone should look forward to hanging out at the pickleball courts, especially during times when everyone should be able to join in.
Yes, it can be aggravating to have to wait your turn at times; but with a sound waitlist organization strategy and the right mindset, you’ll find yourself enjoying the downtime in between games just as much. Find a nearby court, meet up with the local pickleball community, and enjoy open play!
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