Teaching Strategies

How Pickleball Makes Me a Better Teacher

An experienced middle school math teacher compares her experience learning pickleball with how she teaches her students.

April 11, 2024
Natali Kuzina / Shutterstock

Pickleball is all the rage right now, and I have jumped on the bandwagon. I strolled into my first lesson with no paddle, improper shoes, and no idea how to play. I didn’t even know what kind of ball was used. Regardless of my lack of preparation, I was welcomed by the coach and started playing. The coach set me up with a loaner paddle, and I started dinking with another beginner player. The first lesson was so welcoming and fun that I decided to return for more.

As a 20-year-plus teacher and very beginner pickleball player, I often compare my pickleball learning experience with how I am teaching my students.

  • Do my students feel welcomed even if they show up unprepared?
  • Do my students want to come back to my class no matter that they made mistakes and had to do basic practice?
  • Do my students feel they are supported in their growth based on my positive encouragement?

I reflect on these questions, and even though I still struggle as a pickleball player, I am becoming a better teacher because of it.

Hands-on practice

As I mentioned in the 2022 Edutopia article “5 Ways to Stop Thinking for Your Students,” the students should be doing the talking, the writing, the working—not the teacher. The same idea applies to pickleball or any physical activity. To get better at the skill, the learner must be on their feet, paddle in hand, and practicing with other learners. The learner must make mistakes and learn from them in real time.

Imagine this outrageous scene: The pickleball coach stations himself at the front of onlooking students, who watch him hit balls for an entire hourlong lesson. I doubt any of the students would return for another lesson with this coach.

This instructional structure happens too often in classrooms: The learners passively watch the teacher do the majority of the hands-on practice. As I design my lessons, I make an effort to plan activities and opportunities to get my students on their feet, writing implements in hand, while I watch them collaborate and problem-solve.


My first pickleball class was designated as “beginner,” but it was quickly apparent that there was a broad range of players: Some were beginner beginners like me, and some seemed ready for a full-fledged tournament.

The coach quickly assessed our individual levels by watching us take turns serving. Because my serves rarely landed in the correct rectangle of the court, I was appropriately placed with a group of players who had never held a paddle in their life. The coach rotated between groups, but he spent most of his time with our group teaching us the basic rules and techniques.

The group assignments were not static—one of my group mates was moved to the adjacent court, and another player joined my group to work specifically on his follow-through. Even though I was not moved to a more intermediate court during my first lesson, I knew it would be possible once I improved my basic skills.

I reflected on how I could use group work to support differentiated instruction and practice in my own math class. The groups do not need to be static, but ever-changing to meet the individual needs of my students. If one group is working on solving systems of equations with substitution, I can swap out students to place them in a group practicing the particular skill they need at that time. Maybe one of the students in the “solving by graphing” group would benefit from joining the “substitution” group for a bit more practice.

Like the coach, I can give a particular group more attention and feedback as needed while also keeping an eye on the other groups doing more intermediate and advanced work.

Coaching and Feedback

The role of the coach is to watch me play and offer immediate and actionable feedback based on my current actions (as opposed to a summative assessment that might be based on my score at the end of a game). This aligns with Peter Liljedahl’s research on giving feedback based on “competencies in student actions.”

Thinking about how I can be more coachlike in my classroom, I believe it’s important that I watch students do the work and offer feedback rather than checking only for correct answers. If my pickleball coach only saw where the ball landed rather than what I did to get it there, I would be missing out on an abundance of feedback on my posture and paddle control that would make me a better player.

Accomplished player and longtime math teacher Nmita Sarna shares her experience of how pickleball influences her interactions with her students: “In the beginning, I didn’t understand the game at all. As time went on, I understood the game a bit more and slowly started to enjoy it. I think what got me attached to this game was the fact that I could play with a partner. My weaknesses felt safe in the hands of this partner that I trusted completely.

“As a teacher, I recognized that this concept was important in my classroom, too. Whether the ‘partner’ next to my student is another student or me as their teacher, it was crucial that my students did not feel alone in this journey of learning math.

“My students should feel supported and encouraged. In my court (classroom), their weaknesses are welcomed. Practicing with them on paper and on the board and gaining their trust in me is valuable. Allowing me to give constructive feedback and confidence has definitely helped them become better players in this game of math.”

Whether you decide to try pickleball or any other new activity, pay particular attention to how you learn new skills, what techniques your coach uses to help you improve, and what makes practice more effective for you. You might find that similar techniques and approaches will work with your students. Often the experiences we have as a novice learner inform our practice to help us to become better teachers.

In this case, the source of reflection came from pickleball. Is there a sport or hobby thats made you a better teacher? If so, how? Share with your fellow educators below.

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Teaching Strategies

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Edutopia is an initiative of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.