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Let the Pro Pickleball Quest Begin…From Beginner to Pro in One Year!

As we kick-off 2020, we’re excited to announce our collaboration with Rob Nunnery (“Pickleball Rob“) as he embarks on his Journey To Pro Pickleball”.  After just recently starting as a complete pickleball newbie (with a background in competitive tennis), he’ll be attempting to go pro before the end of 2020! 

We love audacious goals and are excited to be the platform for Rob’s updates as he chronicles his journey to becoming a professional pickleball player!

We look forward to keeping you up to date as Rob reports back on his progress and gives us some useful tips along the way that help him improve his competitive game. We’ll be publishing updates on a regular basis (twice monthly).  So check back here, or sign-up for our newsletter -if you haven’t already- and we’ll send you an email every time Rob posts.

Without further ado, here’s Rob’s first post below. 

Hi, I’m Rob Nunnery.

I didn’t know pickleball existed just a few months ago.

Now, my goal is to be one of the top pickleball players in the world by the end of 2020. 

Where did this aggressive goal come from? On the surface, it’s a little ridiculous. 

I’m not a recent college grad in top shape that has been playing tennis at a high level.

I’m a 34-year-old guy that has an advertising business. I’m a little slower on my feet than I used to be and quite a few pounds heavier. 

However, I would say that I have the raw skills and hand-eye coordination required to take on the challenge.

I’ve always wanted to publicly take on a big goal and document the entire thing, but I’ve never had anything that really got me excited, until now. 

I’ll be guest writing here at PickleballPortal as the outlet to chronicle my quest.

I have no idea how this is all going to turn out, but I believe the next year is going to be a lot of fun, and I’m excited to share it with you.

I’m going to approach this challenge using my friend Craig Clemens 4-step approach to mastering any skill.

This is Craig’s process.

  1. Immersion – You must live + breathe your skill nearly all hours of the day
  2. Application – You must DO your skill, at least 5 days per week.
  3. Mentorship – Going at it on your own is never as fast as with a teacher. Learn from and play with those that have already accomplished what you are hoping to accomplish.
  4. Time – You can’t hack this. It will take time and repetition along with the first three items.

I had a former podcast called Fail On where I interviewed world-class performers (Craig was one of them) on how they overcame failure to create success. What I learned through interviewing high performers is that failure is inevitable, but it’s how you adjust your approach moving forward that makes all the difference.

A Little Background On Me

Growing up playing competitive tennis as a junior and then as a college tennis player, I’ve been involved in high-level competition for most of my life up until 2011.

That’s the year that I got out of playing and coaching tennis.

During my coaching days, I was fortunate enough to teach high profile people such as Will Ferrell and the US Ambassadors.

I played high-level club tennis in New Zealand in 2011 and that was the last time I played in a competitive sport until now.

*Club tennis is a team format played in different countries that’s similar to what you would see in a college tennis match. Players range from ex-college tennis players to current and former pro players.*

Discovering Pickleball

In the summer of 2019, I was introduced to pickleball by my buddy Adam Franklin (Franklin Pickleball). He shared how fast the category was growing for them and mentioned that most of the top players are ex-college and ex-pro tennis players.

Prior to Adam telling me about the sport, the only other reference I had of pickleball was a video I remembered watching on Facebook of Gary Vaynerchuk playing at a court in Austin, Texas with Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick.

Not to get too ahead of my story, but to round that out full circle, I now live in Austin and play at that court often. We also shot videos for our membership site, GrowPickleball.com, at that very court this past November.

At the beginning of August, I started digging around online for local pickleball lessons in Austin. I found a guy named Calvin Keeney that popped up online. It said he was a certified instructor and gave lessons at Austin Tennis Center. 

Calvin says he’ll provide the paddle and that I just need to show up tomorrow morning at 8 am. I’m so stoked.

Upon arrival the next morning, I’m greeted by Calvin who looks roughly my age, maybe a bit younger. He tells me he also teaches tennis and we chat briefly about the coaching profession.

At the start of the lesson, Calvin breaks down the basic rules along with the main differences from tennis that I should be aware of.

He explains the scoring and also talks to me about the kitchen line.

All I want to do is hit the ball. I’m getting a bit anxious, but understand I need to learn the rules.

I learn what a third shot drop is and remember thinking, “What a stupid shot, you must only hit that if you aren’t good.”

Calvin feeds me some balls while I’m back at the baseline and I wail away as any tennis convert would. 

I remember thinking, “This feels good. This game’s easy. I’m going to finish this lesson, start a blog about it and become a pro pickleball player!”

I’m exaggerating a bit, but it was fair to say that I was confident with a paddle in my hand from the first day. I knew it would take awhile to actually get good and understand the game and it’s strategy though. 

I also know the top pro players are not only crazy talented, but also have a ton of pickleball reps. I have a lot of catching up to do.

So, I started playing. A lot.

My First Week In Pickleball

Calvin was able to introduce me to some different pickleball groups in the Austin area and everyone was so nice and receptive out of the gate. I don’t know if it’s the same in other areas of the country, but the Austin pickleball crew is solid gold.

After my first lesson with Calvin, I was introduced to Matt Laz who runs a full-time pickleball coaching business.

He invited me to play at a session run by a local junior player and his mom, Wyatt and Ashley Stone, the very next day.

Thinking back to that session, it was pretty bad. It was my first time in a “playing” situation.

At this point, I hadn’t really had a chance to practice any shots. I had zero idea on strategy and didn’t understand why everyone was only playing doubles.

Coming from a tennis background, I can hit shots and feel comfortable with the paddle in my hand, but I had no idea on what the best strategy should be. I don’t know where to stand or how to keep score.

I’m super grateful for meeting Wyatt and Ashley because they’ve been so nice with introducing me to different groups and players in the area.

That next evening, I played some more with Wyatt. Ashley was telling me all of the ins and outs of improving at pickleball, the tournaments I need to play and everything in between.

It was the first time that I was able to practice hitting some shots and drilling which helped a ton. Going right into playing games was really tough for me. I didn’t yet know what I could and couldn’t do with the ball. It turned out, not very much at the beginning.

I was able to practice the slow game (dinking) which is just both players up hitting it soft and low over the net, so that the opponent can’t attack. Although I’d pride myself in tennis with having good hands, I’m still struggling with the feel of pickleball at this time. 

I was able to practice groundstrokes to start figuring out what kind of spin I can actually put on the ball and how to control it.

Calvin also mentioned a group that plays at an indoor gym on Mondays and Fridays, so I headed there on Monday, three days after getting my first lesson. 

I told you, I’m hooked at this point. It’s like a healthy drug.

Each day during the first week I felt that I was getting a little bit better and really enjoyed the practice and seeing progress.

It’s frustrating as a tennis player because I’m used to putting the ball wherever I want, especially in a touch/feel type game. The ball feels dead coming directly from tennis and putting the ball away is more difficult in pickleball because the ball travels much slower. 

It’s more about patience and keeping the ball low when you are up at the kitchen line rather than putting it away. A common mistake for me was (and still is) attacking balls that are too low to attack successfully.

Stepping It Up A Notch

Through Ashley and Wyatt, I was put in touch with Tory Plunkett and Christina Dorman. They invited me to a morning session that they do down in San Marcos at Texas State University, where Tory is the head women’s tennis coach.

So, on Tuesday, four days into pickleball, I joined their group of the top players in Austin.

And I got destroyed. It was insanely frustrating and humbling, but an absolute blast. I’m not used to being pushed around a court by people ten years older than me. 

Playing with this group has helped me improve really quickly.

I know from my early days in tennis that I improved the fastest when I was playing with better players. It forced me to adjust and get better.

When I was first learning tennis at 12 years old, my dad entered me into a bunch of tournaments that I had no business playing in at the time. I lost my first eight matches before ever winning one. While it wasn’t fun, I improved much faster than if I were playing kids my same level or below.

I played with Christina’s group the next few days and graciously took more beatings.

And when I say “played with Christina’s group,” we’re talking a solid three-plus hours of pickleball every day. Coming into pickleball not being in great shape, my legs are shot after every single session for the first month or so.

For those of you reading this that don’t play, but are interested, it’s such a good workout and much easier on the body than tennis.

I think about Atlanta (where I grew up) and ALTA which is an adult tennis league that has massive participation. I can 100% see pickleball being a better alternative. It takes up less space, games are quicker, it’s much easier on the body, way more social and honestly way more fun.

I believe it’s only a matter of time.

At this point, I’m enjoying getting the reps of seeing and playing more balls. I know I’ll get better by seeing more game situations and also drilling shots that I struggle with during game play.

Out of the gate, I recognize that I need to have a stronger serve and a more consistent return. Missing returns is the ultimate sin in pickleball. It’s a free point for the serving team and that’s a big deal because you can only earn points if you are serving.

I also need to work on the consistency of my third shot drop which is meant to just be a low, dipping ball at the opponent’s feet from the baseline. At this point, I’m dropping way too many of these in the net rather than at their feet. I’m also opting to drive way more than I should.

Saturday with Christina’s group was another humbling experience, although I was able to finally win a few games. My frustration level is fluctuating between high and extremely high because I feel like I shouldn’t be making the mistakes that I’m making. 

Pickleball requires a lot of focus because if you get distracted for even a split second you’re likely to make an error and miss.

Steady Progress And Learning From Defeat

Over the next few weeks I start to feel a bit more solid. 

I focused on hitting a better third shot drop and it was coming along nicely. I start to understand basic strategy. I start to see what other players are doing and why their way is better than my way.

A big issue I’m running into is a lack of patience in the points. I’m going for too big of shots too early and I’m not as precise as I need to be with my control of the ball. I find that when I stay patient and play the slow game and focus on keeping the ball down, I eventually earn a high ball rather than trying to force it.

In tennis, when you crash the net you are looking to be aggressive and put the ball away. In pickleball, it’s not entirely different, but it’s much more difficult to earn a putaway ball. Hence the need for patience.

I know I’ve harped on it a bit already, but I really want to recognize the kindness of the pickleball community that took me in.

What I found out rather quickly is that Christina’s group had all the top players in the Austin area. I’m so grateful she invited me out the first week I started playing.

Starting off by playing with her group was super frustrating and incredibly humbling at the same time. Oftentimes, I’d leave those sessions having to remind myself that this is part of the process. I have to take these lumps to continue to learn and get better. Even if I keep losing for awhile.

If I was winning all the time, I wouldn’t be getting better.

I can only get better by (at first) losing. 

Lose, learn, lose, learn on repeat until lose eventually turns into a win. And then I get a glimmer of hope. Maybe all of these beatings are actually going to pay off.

I came into learning pickleball with the approach that I want to play with the absolute best players that will take me in. They took me in from the first week and it’s helped me progress quickly.

Not only did Christina’s group take me in, but when I showed up with the loaner paddle that Calvin let me borrow at my lesson, Christina gave me a top of the line Selkirk paddle that actually made a huge difference.

It took a couple weeks for me to start getting some regular wins. I didn’t know how to keep the ball down. I didn’t have the patience or skill to actually dink, and I just tried to hit heroic shots all the time.

Getting beat on repeat forced me to change my strategy. 

I learned that I’m going to have to figure out how to hit drops. I have to be able to slow the game down, reset rallies and keep the ball less attackable.

What I’ve Learned From Christina’s Group

I’ve been able to learn so many things from everyone in the group that I play with, but some that stand out are as follows. 

Playing with Kevin, I learned the need to hit “reset” shots. You can attack Kevin all day and he will sit back and give you nothing in return. He always seems to be able to neutralize offensive shots that are hit at him. I knew I’d need to learn that because it’s so effective when he does it to me.

Walter’s taught me to keep the ball down. If the ball is left a millimeter too high, he’ll make me pay. He’s forced me to get better at keeping my dinks and thirds really tight. I’ve started to find my spots that I need to hit in order to keep it out of his striking range. I’m not always able to do it, but he makes me better every single day.

Christina’s been amazing at showing me how to soften my game up to make it less attackable. She told me I need to be able to dink 100 times in a row if I have to. Not that I necessarily should play like that all the time, but it definitely needs to be a tool in my arsenal. She’s been great at helping me round out my game from the raw skills that I showed up with.

Brandon’s given me a good lesson in what happens when I attack unattackable balls. His hands are so quick that if I go for an offensive shot too early, I’ll pay for it nearly every time.

Grant’s unorthodox style and nonstop chatter and light-hearted trash talk always reminds me that this is a game and it’s meant to be fun.

Joel’s taught me the importance of drilling. He’s really the only person I drill with and I always make big strides after sessions with him.

Joining up with the Dorman’s group, I walked straight into a knife fight. No one was taking it easy on me and that’s one of the things that I appreciate most.

If my goal is to get better, I don’t want people taking it easy on me. I want their best, so I know exactly what I need to do to get to that level. So I can understand which shots work and which shots I can’t get away with.

I’m now four months in since that first August lesson, but it feels like it’s been much longer. Likely because I’m playing four to five days per week with high-level players (5.0+). 

Some days I play and I don’t feel like I’m progressing, but I know that reps are reps. The more points I play, the more reps I get, the better I’m going to get. Even if it feels like there’s not a ton of progress happening.

Obviously at the beginning, there was a steeper curve of improvement, but eventually, the progress levels off a bit and I feel like that’s where I’m currently at. My gains aren’t as great or as noticeable right now, but that’s just part of the process.

So, I’ve given you a glance of my playing routine and my progress just starting out. 

I play 4-5 mornings per week and have been since August. 

We are fortunate to be able to have an indoor tennis court backup at Texas State if we have bad weather, so it’s really nice not being weather dependent on playing.

I’ve had a couple breaks from playing. Once in August when we were in New Zealand for a couple weeks and also now in December when we are in Europe for a couple weeks.

When I get back, the engines are revving up and I’m going into full training mode. 

What’s Coming Up?

My first-ever pickleball tournament is a non-pro event in Oklahoma in January. 

I’m playing the 5.0/19+ Men’s Doubles event, the 5.0/19+ Men’s Singles event and the 5.0/35+ Mixed Doubles event. I’m partnering with a couple of local Austin friends and it should be a blast.

Playing this tournament, I’m simply looking to get tournament reps before my first pro event in February. 

By tournament reps, I’m unfamiliar with tournament play, so I want to experience the process before playing in pro events the remainder of the year. 

I want to start playing with a bit more pressure. I want to get used to timeouts being called. I want to adjust to opponents calling close balls out. 

All the things I don’t run into with my local play.

While my quest is to become a top pro, I’m not feeling life and death type of pressure here. I’m not taking it too seriously. 

It’s a fun, lighthearted goal that I’d love to accomplish, but at the end of the day, it’s pickleball and not my livelihood.

I’m just so grateful that I found the sport and have met so many kind people that I can now call friends. 

I’ll be updating you twice a month here on my progress and tournament experiences.

Thanks for reading and I’m excited to share this journey with you.

Rob Nunnery

Partner at GrowPickleball

To follow along on a daily basis, follow @pickleballrob on Instagram.

Photo of author

About Dan Langston

With experience in the ecotourism industry and time well spent as a fly fishing guide in the remote absaroka mountain range for 6 years, Dan brings a unique perspective on customer service to the digital world. As the operator, Dan is now committed to revitalizing Pickleball Portal and plans to build a support system for content creators and provide helpful information for the pickleball community. dan@pickleballportal.com

9 thoughts on “Let the Pro Pickleball Quest Begin…From Beginner to Pro in One Year!”

  1. Hi Rob,
    I got such a kick out of reading this. I too grew up in Atlanta with Jr. Tennis and ALTA
    and then UGA (but I am MUCH older than you). Transitioned through Platform Tennis
    (big in the NE) and then to pickleball a couple of years ago. At first I can remember thinking
    these “3rd shots” are like the most ill-advised, dumbest drop shots I have ever seen, “who in
    their right mind would do this” … Now it all seems so normal. I think there is still huge opportunity
    for someone like yourself with your background. I have no doubt you will be successful and as you said, even if you don’t make it to the top, you will have a blast on the journey — I don’t think the same can be said of tennis. Good luck and I look forward to following you…
    Chris Ford

    • Hi Chris,
      Thanks so much for taking the time to read the post, and I’m glad it resonated with you also growing up in Atlanta.
      Win or lose, it’s going to be a lot of fun chronicling the ride over the next 12 months and I really appreciate you following along.
      Go Dawgs!

  2. What a great post and an exciting goal, Rob! I’m happy to have met you at the beginning of your journey and look forward to seeing where you take this. Wishing you the best of luck in 2020 and beyond!

  3. I am beyond excited to be a part of your journey Rob! From the first day Walter and I met you, we knew instantly the amazing potential you had. We could not be more grateful you choose to train with us. The experience you have brought to us has been invaluable.

  4. Hi Rob… found your story and read about your ambitious goal to play at the “Pro” level as while searching for resources as I too have set this goal for myself, though not nearly as aggressive a time frame as yours. 😉 I do not have your athletic background as I have never played at the college level, but have played competitive tennis for quite some time and although a bit long in the tooth (Older) have managed to maintain my fitness and drive to always improve and strive for “Lofty Goals!” Heck, what’s life without a good challenge or adventure…BORING!!!

    I have no clue where your journey will take you, but like all aspirations, it’s the time you spend reaching for your dreams that is most precious and I look forward to following you on your journey and seeing how it all plays out!

    All the Best!


  5. Hi Rob…Love your article about your journey. I too am on a quest to go pro, the Senior Pro Tour. I’m using YouTube as my coach and learning tool. It looks like you have reached your goal in becoming pro, as I see you are playing with some of the best in the game. Although I need more work on my game, I feel that I’m not far from obtaining a 5.0 level. My question for you is, how does a person get into the pro circuit? I just want to know how to take my next step when I’m ready. Looking forward to your response. Pete


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