For healthcare leaders, it is time to play more like pickleball than tennis

I enjoy playing tennis and prefer the sport over pickleball any day. Yet, I often find myself on the pickleball court instead of the tennis court. Pickleball is the fastest growing sport in America. The sport is booming with more players, teams, leagues, equipment and buzz than ever before.  

Although the two sports have many similarities, their differences are quite profound.

As we think about healthcare and what strategies are needed to support the changing health needs of our nation, I suggest healthcare leaders consider guiding their organizations in a way more consistent with playing pickleball than tennis. Not familiar with the sports? Here are five ways "pickleball thinking" provides more effective leadership in healthcare:

The matches in pickleball are shorter compared to tennis

A pickleball game usually goes to 9 or 11 points and is faster than a set in a tennis match. Being able to play shorter matches is a major benefit in healthcare – simply this means moving on to the next "match", win or loss. One can think of this as learning fast. By having shorter timeframes on the implementation of strategic and operational initiatives, we can understand what worked well and what failed more quickly, then use that knowledge for the next efforts.  Faster learning is a hallmark for building a robust learning health system. This is essential for an effective quality improvement system. While there might be lost points in the process, healthcare systems that are implementing quicker improvements will more likely win the game.

Pickleball requires quick reflexes

During a rally in pickleball, much more so than in tennis, the ball can go back and forth swiftly and can change speeds rapidly, which bodes well for players with quick reflexes. As COVID-19 taught us, healthcare leaders need to have quick reflexes to respond quickly to known and unknown actions.  Quick reflexes is a core talent for resilient leaders. With the strains on the healthcare industry from workforce staffing shortages to vulnerable economic macro-environments, healthcare leaders need to react and adjust quickly, and quick is the key word. Taking this one step further, the importance of being more agile as a leader and an organization is something almost all organizations learned during the pandemic and want to hardwire post-pandemic.  A culture of agility and quickness is what start-up companies are known for. Healthcare organizations that embrace and incorporate that type of thinking will score major points.  

Pickleball is less complex

Everyone can play tennis, or any sport, but it is clear that pickleball is even easier to learn, most likely the reason for its exponential growth.  Tennis is more complex in the fundamentals of the game. Simply swinging the tennis racket takes practice and finesse. Pickleball is simpler; players use a paddle to throttle the ball over the net.   

Healthcare is plenty complex. Trying to simplify the rules as to focusing on what patients and communities need is paramount for a healthcare leader.  Identifying signal from noise and continuously making things easier and frictionless in terms of processes is a core tenet for leaders. We need to better leverage quality improvement methods (and there are many to select) to simplify healthcare processes. Making these changes approachable and simple will move the needle over time. Sometimes, you just need to get the ball over the net. Projects never find success without a starting point. 

Pickleball is a faster game

As one watches pickleball points, it is easy to see that the points are much faster than tennis, especially at the pro level. With mounting evidence that quality has not improved substantially in the last several years and that the progress in reducing health disparities is even slower, healthcare leaders have to move faster - speed is the name of the game. The people we serve don’t need to be patient for better results, they should expect the improvement to happen sooner than the current pace. There is something to be said for picking up the pace.

The pickleball hurts less

I have been hit by both a tennis ball and pickleball many times and the pickleball doesn’t hurt. We should approach the implementation of healthcare strategies today by not worrying about how much it could hurt. Sometimes we become overcautious and over analyze situations before trying. We use phrases like “unintended consequences” to slow down change. These are all real, but we must remember the null hypothesis. The null hypothesis, or the current state, is that healthcare is not great, especially for those in greatest need.  Is what we want to try going to make it worse? We should be methodical but more often ask for forgiveness when testing, piloting or trying something new versus seeking permission. Sometimes, you take the hit, but the hit isn’t always so bad. You quickly recover and then you rebound. 

Of course, these five points of advantageous pickleball thinking over tennis thinking are more anecdotal than evidence-based.  Approaching healthcare leadership like playing pickleball means learning faster, moving more quickly, being agile, simplifying processes, and being more willing to fail by testing changes often.  Sometimes, you have the right players, but they are engaging in the wrong sport. Sometimes changing your play means you win the game. 

Maulik Joshi is a certified tennis instructor, avid pickleballer and a healthcare leader trying to make sure we do our best to get the ball over the net. 

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