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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Pickleball Statistical Analysis - Unforced Errors

I have watched a lot of movies in my time. I can honestly say that my favorite movie line is Clint Eastwood's "A man's got to know his limitations" from a Dirty Harry movie. Nothing could more accurately describe the first strategy recommendation from Noel Whites' pickleball study mentioned in my post on Pickleball Statistical Analysis. The first conclusion listed by Noel was:

70% of the time winning teams have less unforced errors (many times significantly less) than the losing teams.

What does this tell us? It says that the team with fewer unforced errors will win 7 out of 10 games on average. That means players should give up the hero aspiration that creates attempts to hit risky winners. Instead, players should make greater efforts to keep the ball in play while waiting for opponents to err.

Now, let's dive further into the analysis to see how it makes sense.

First, let's define "unforced error".  In Pickleball Terminology, I defined unforced error as "A player missing a shot that should normally be made". Noel's definition is similar: "any ball that is hit right to the individual and he/she has an easy opportunity to do anything they choose to in the return hit because they do not have to move much, lean, reach, etc. to hit the return AND the individual hits the ball into the net or hits it out". He also notes that unforced errors change with the level of play. In other words, "unforced errors at the 4.0+ level of play may be considered a forced error at a lower level of play".

The study also notes that "most players, maybe 85%, seem to have little idea how much real impact unforced errors have on who wins and who loses". I assume that is one reason why he undertook the study. That certainly is the reason I chose to include it here. From the study:

"The average total number of UE’s (unforced errors) per game is 16. That averages 4 UE’s per player but typically one or two players of the four has a high majority of the UE’s. Considering there are 180 hits per game (on the average) for games at the 4.0+ level, 16 UE’s translates to about 9% of the total hits in the game. 9% seems like no big deal but this 9% of hits ends up being a powerful determiner of winning and losing because…….the average number points earned per game that come from UE’s is 6. Given that most games usually have only 15 to 21 total points scored before one team wins means that anywhere from 28% to 40% of the actual points scored in a given game come off of Unforced Errors."

Noel surmises (and I agree) that lower level matches - at the 3.0 and 3.5 levels - would show an increasing percentage of points lost due to unforced errors. While he did not complete a full analysis of play at the lower levels, he did have statistics comparing the number of shots per game. In comparison to the 180 hits in 4.0+ games, the numbers declined to 140 hits and 128 hits at the 3.5 and 3.0 levels, respectively. Assuming that lower levels of play equate to more inconsistency, it seems reasonable to also assume that more unforced errors occur at these levels. Combine the increased number of unforced errors with the reduced number of total hits, the percentage of rallies ending with unforced error grows significantly. As Noel states, "you can easily speculate that Unforced Errors play an even bigger role in the winning and losing of games at the 3.0 and 3.5 levels".

Okay, that's a lot of numbers that probably cause many heads to spin. So, what is the bottom line of this analysis? I will make three recommendations:
  1. Show more patience. Keep the ball in play more and let your opponent make the mistake that ends the rally.
  2. Use the soft game more. Power has its place. It is perfectly acceptable to hit a ball hard when your opponent gives you the opportunity by making a mistake. But most of your game should be predicated on setting up that opponent error.
  3. Practice, practice, and practice some more. The soft game is a game of touch and feel that takes time and work to perfect.  
Only practice and patience can lead to fewer unforced errors. Fewer unforced errors leads to more winning. That's not myth. It is statistics.   


  1. Good stuff !!! Love the stats !!! Shared online, would love to read more of your stuff.

  2. Is there a special score sheet to track players enforced errors? If you have one, can you share it please?

  3. I agree with Bob...if you have a "Stat Sheet" that tracks unforced errors (hard hits, soft shots, serves, receiving etc) that would be awesome. Would love to see it.