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The Real Reason You Aren’t Improving

by Guest Author

The Real Reason You Aren’t Improving
by Pickleball Legend Steve Dawson

Today I want to get a bit deep with one of my favorite topics – mindsets. 

“A few weeks ago I felt like I was rapidly improving, but then I started losing and now feel like my game is in decline.” This goes back to the “Upper Limit Problem,” which will be introduced below. 

When leaving the familiar stratosphere of the Zone of Excellence to the almighty Zone of Genius (this will make more sense as you read on), our minds find stubborn ways to subconsciously bring us back to “reality.” 

That reality is nonsense. 

And the 4 Main Barriers keeping most Pickleball players back from the Zone of Genius are:

  1. Feeling Fundamentally Flawed: “I don’t deserve to be better than 4.0, I’m not that good of an athlete” 
  2. Disloyalty and Abandonment: “If I improve my game, who will I play with”
  3. Belief that Success Brings More Burden: “If I improve my game I’ll just create more problems for myself” 
  4. Crime of Outshining: “If I become too good, others will get jealous/annoyed and won’t want to play with me”

We often hear advice about giving ourselves “permission to be happy.” And that’s good advice, but the opposite version of this advice is also extremely important: you should give yourself permission to be unhappy. I’m not joking. 

Allowing yourself to feel unhappy, angry, depressed, disappointed in your pickleball game…It’s wildly important if you want to be successful, whether in pickleball or life. Why? 

It goes back to the paradoxical effect that we talked about last week: once you remove the guilt that comes from doing something “self-destructive,” a lot of the times, you’ll no longer want to continue on with this behavior in the future. You’ll give yourself an opportunity to look at yourself in those moments…and reflect.  

Pickleball can be a frustrating sport when you start to compete. Even the top players in the world have meltdowns and disappointments. These are professionals with the HIGHEST levels of self & life discipline. It’s not a coincidence that they allow themselves to express unhappiness and self-defeat in those circumstances. 

The Key

And the more they do it, the less they do it. If that makes sense. The key is to identify the pattern and put it into a much bigger framework of your Pickleball Mindset. Which leads us to this idea of the “Upper Limit Problem.” Many of us have a “comfort zone” when it comes to mindsets, be it about life or pickleball. 

And what happens is that when we start getting out of this comfort zone, when we begin to level up…we find ways to self-sabotage and pull ourselves back down to this comfort zone. A psychologist once described this by suggesting that we all live our lives in 1 of 4 operating zones: 

Zone of Incompetence
Where you’re consistently doing a task you’re not good at and have no desire to improve upon. 
“I’ll always be bad at pickleball but I’ll just make a joke of my poor skills and just goof around” (i.e. 2.0 Player) 

Zone of Competence
Where you’re consistently doing tasks that you ARE good at, but others could do them just as well. 
“My Pickleball game is ok but since others play ok that’s just fine by me” (i.e. 3.0-3.5 player) 

Zone of Excellence
Where you perform activities and tasks extremely well. You’re comfortable here, but you’re still capable do going even bigger and better things.
“My pickleball game is improving but I feel like I’ve plateaued” (i.e. mostly 4.0 players) 

Zone of Genius
This is the zone where you are in touch with your best, most growth-minded self. Many call this a “flow state.” It’s the state of mind that all athletes aim to achieve and talk about. 


“I’m looking for pickleball competitors to give me opportunities to face different obstacles.” It’s also a humble state.  (i.e. 4.5+) 

There’s nothing wrong with the Zone of Incompetence and Zone of Competence as it relates to pickleball. But you’re here to improve your game at whichever zone you’re currently in…

The 2.0-3.5 player typically requires more structural coaching. Whereas the 3.5+ player typically requires more mental coaching. And so many of our readers are “stuck” in the Zone of Excellence. 

*Pickleball Hall-of-Famer Steve Dawson is the owner and creator of the famed Pickleball Master Course. Of course, we’ve secured 10% off for The Dink readers just in time for the holidays. Give the gift of better pickleball. Click here and use the code THEDINK for 10% off.

Of course, we don’t all experience all four barriers, but most of us experience at least one, and often a combination of a couple. Regardless of which barrier is most prevalent, the end result is the same. 

As we begin to flirt with the Zone of Genius, deep seated beliefs and mindset patterns trigger (due to the four barriers), and we drag ourselves back to the Zone of Excellence. Most don’t even realize this is happening. The semi-enlightened call this “self-sabotage.” But those that truly believe that our mindsets dictate our decisions know better. 

So to bring it full-circle, allow yourself to be unhappy, but also allow yourself to believe in yourself. For pickleball players looking to take their game to the next level, we encourage you to think.

What are the mental barriers and excuses you make from believing in the very real fact that you WILL be an incredible, Zone of Genius, Pickleball Player? 

– Steve

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