Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Can-Am Tournament March 26, 2014

The Can-Am Pickleball Tournament was held today at Rincon Country West Pickleball courts.  Each of our two countries was represented by 3 teams of 2 players.

Bert Coates, one of the Vice Presidents of the RCW Pickleball Club was the organizer.

The format of play was that each team would play against each team from the other country in one game to 11 points.

The teams were composed as follows.

Team 1Shelly Lang
Bert Coates
Team 2Allan Schreiber
Garry Buchanan
Team 3Michael Brandon
John Szabo


Team 1Mike Wood
Ken Zacharias
Team 2Marilyn Heimke
Rob Silver
Team 3Wayne Thompson
Jack McFarlane

The Canadians won 5 of the matches and the US won 4. Bert also tallied the total points for each team, and on that score Canada won 78-62.

 Michael Brandon and John Szabo for Canada won 3 matches.  Mike Wood and Ken Zacharias for the USA won two matches. All other teams won one match.

The challenges for the tournament were trying to get 3 teams for each country this late in the season.

Additionally, one player complained that Michael Brandon and John Szabo were playing together.  In that this was not a formal tournament there were no ground rules for who could play and who could not, nor how the teams could be placed.  This is not a complaint that should be ignored, and future tournaments will probably have some ground rules so that competition is fair for all parties.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Pickleball Skill Building

Pickleball Skill Building


Anyone who has played Pickleball knows how much fun it is.  It is hard to play pickleball only once.  But, there comes a time when some of us want to improve our skills in the game so that we can play better and also play against better players.  

If you have played pickleball for some time, you have noticed that your skill has improved.  Shots you would miss are now makeable.  Your serves go in play more often.  But, to really improve skills requires not just playing games, but actually focusing on building skills that are a part of the game.
If you do not know what the skills are that need improvement, or how to go about improving them, then you are kind of stuck.  But, of course, pickleball is so much fun that even then it is not a bad place to be stuck. 

Play in a game of pickleball is composed of 4 components; they are as follows:
  1)      The Serve
  2)      The Return of Serve
  3)      The Third Shot
  4)      The Rally.

Below are drills that combine some or all of the first three, and additional drills that focus on #4.
What can be called the Rally involves 4 types of shots.  Elements of these same shots may be found in Return of Serve, and the Third shot, and drills for The Rally are useful for building skills in them as well.  They are:
  1)      Dinking
  2)      Overhead Shots and Lobs
  3)      Volleys
  4)      Ground Strokes.

The drills themselves that follow are taken from (though usually modified for language only), and we should all appreciate the efforts that went in to developing them in the first place.  There are other interesting tidbits and information on that site as well.

Serve/Return/Third Shot Drills

The Serve

Nothing happens until someone serves the ball.  Serves must land inside the diagonal rectangle on the opposite end of the court from where the server is standing.  That is all that matters.  If the serve goes into the net or outside the box where it is required to land, the server loses the opportunity to score a point.  Do not focus on hard serves or twisting serves or sneaky serves until you can consistently get your serves to land in the proper area of the court.

Drill 1 – One person can take a box of balls and practice serving from one end to the court and then go to the other end, retrieve the balls and do it again from that end.

Drill 2 – Two persons can alternate serving to each other.  Do not bother returning the serve, but collect the ball and then serve it back.  After several serves from one side, switch to the other side of the court and serve in similar fashion.  4 people can do this drill on one court as well, with each person serving to the person on their diagonal at the opposite end of the court.

The Return of Serve

The return of serve is equally important to the serve itself.  Failure to return serve gives the serving team a point, with very little effort.  Hitting the return into the net, or outside the boundaries of the court costs a point.  So, practice returning the ball over the net until you can do it consistently.   

When you can return the ball over the net consistently, then practice returning it nearer to the back line.  The further back your return of serve goes, while still being on the court, the more difficult it is for the serving team to engage in the upcoming rally for a point.  But, do not get ahead of yourself.   

First, be sure that you can return the serve into the serving team’s court with consistency.

Drill 3 – This drill adds the return of serve to the mix, and requires two players, and allows for the practicing of two essentials to the game, serving and return of serve.  When the server serves the ball, the opposing player returns the serve.  Focus on the return is on getting it over the net, and inside the court.  If you are comfortable with your returns, then try to make them go closer to the back line, preferably within the last two feet or less at the back.  The server does not hit the ball back to the returner but gathers it up to practice his/her serve again.

The Third Shot

Nothing happens unless the first two shots are made, but the third shot sets up the rest of the rally, and is the most critical shot for skillful players.

Most new players and even some who have played for years think that smashing the ball over the net after the return of serve is an effective strategy.  While this may be true with unskilled players, it is a recipe for disaster against accomplished players.

Because the serving team must remain near the back of the court until they have hit the third shot, and because the game is in actuality won at the net, being stuck at the back line after the third shot becomes less effective the more skilled are your opponents.

When the serving team has played the third shot, it should allow them to advance towards the net for the remaining shots of the rally.  If the serving team is not able to get to the net, the opposition has a lot of court available to them to play shots that will win them the point, or service break.

So, the third shot should be a long dink shot that just drops over the net into the non volley zone.  Alternatively the serving team can lob the third shot over the heads of their opponents, but that is another strategy that can be learned in later drills.

Both of these third shot approaches will be covered in Dinking and Volley drills later.

The Rally

So, let us move on to the remainder of the rally shots, and we will pick up the skills of the service return and third shot return along with the other needed skills to be successful pickleball players.
As stated above there are 4 main shots involved in the rally for a point, and we will take them in order.


The Dink shot is a shot that drops over the net whether from up close to the net, or from further back on the court.  It is meant to land inside the non volley zone to create opportunities for your opponent to make a mistake, and to allow you to get into proper position for a rally if you have found yourself out of position.  Though it is a defensive shot largely it can be very effective at setting up your next shot as an offensive shot.

Whenever you are practicing your dinks, you should try to make all balls bounce over the net, of course, but in front of the non volley line and they should be short and low enough that the player you are practicing with couldn't kill the ball if he/she wanted to do so. While you will probably have to step into the non volley zone to hit a lot of the dinks, you should immediately step back behind the non volley zone line before the opposing player hits the ball.

If you and your partner aren't able to keep the ball going more than 2 or 3 hits, then don't try to keep the ball too low or too short. It’s more important as a beginner to keep the ball going so you can gradually get the feel of how hard to hit. Just keep practicing as often as you can.

Drill 1 - Both players start by standing close to the non-volley line and opposite each other, dinking the ball back and forth nicely to each other for a few minutes. If you have 4 players, simply pair off players on each half of the court and each pair use their own ball. 

Drill 2 - Both players hit cross court dinks back and forth from one side to another trying to hit fairly sharp angles to each other. Do this for a few minutes and then do another few minutes cross court in the other direction. Do not try to avoid backhands while doing these drills as you need to begin developing your backhand dinks even if they don't work very well in the beginning. Again if you have 4 players, simply have each pair of players hit cross court in the opposite direction.

Drill 3 - Both players dink the ball down the line on one side of the court for a few minutes and then a few minutes down the line on the other side of the court. With 4 players, each pair uses a different sideline.

Drill 4 - If you have 4 players, you should do this additional drill which is to use only 1 ball and dink back and forth between all players trying to practice all of the above directions while doing so. Try to hit 1/2 of the balls back to the player that hit it to you and 1/2 of the balls back to the other player so you are practicing all directions again. The more advanced players can spend more time on this drill and less time on the others. Don't forget to practice this from both the left and right sides of the courts so both you and your partner practice both forehands and backhands.

The previous exercises cover the essentials of dinking at the net, but it is important to be able to initiate a dinking game from wherever you are on the court, such as when playing the third shot.   

The next two drills help in this area.

Drill 4 The 3/4 Court Dink - To practice this with 4 players, have 2 players stand at the no-volley zone line and the other two players stand at about 3/4 court position on their side of the net. The two players at 3/4 court try to hit soft dinks while the two players at the net position try to hit the ball back nicely so they can try another dink. After a little while, reverse positions and practice for an equal amount of time. This might take quite a few practice sessions, but eventually you will get the feel of how hard to hit to make a good dink. This works just as well with either 2 players or 4 players and don't forget that you can practice cross court dinks as well as down the line dinks with this drill just as you did in the short dink drills.

Drill 5 The Baseline Dink - To practice this with 4 players, have 2 players stand at the no-volley zone line and the other two players stand just behind the baseline on the other side of the net. The two players standing just behind the baseline try to hit soft dinks, while the two players at the net try to hit the ball back nicely and near the baseline. After a little while, reverse positions and practice for an equal amount of time. This works just as well with either 2 players or 4 players and don't forget that you can practice cross court dinks as well as down the line dinks with this drill just as you did in the short dink drills.

Drill 6 Dinking Game - To help you concentrate and have some fun while learning the dink, you can play a game with four players where everyone has to dink and you lose the point if the ball lands behind the no-volley zone line. You can still play to 11 points, but you have to start the point nicely to each other for this game to work.

You could also play this game with 2 players, but you would have to agree to use only 1/2 of each side of the court for this to work. You can decide whether to practice this from down the line sides or cross court sides.

The serve should be initiated as in a normal game, but must be from the non volley line to inside the no volley line diagonally to the server’s position.

Overhead Shots and Lobs

Overhead drills are not going to work very well until the players have first learned to lob well enough to hit a lob to the player practicing overheads! After you can lob fairly well when returning a ground stroke or volley, then you are ready to attempt these drills.

These drills are necessary not only to develop your overhead skills, but also to develop your ability to return an overhead smash with another lob. You will find that if you do these drills your lob will improve as much or more than your overhead improves.

Drill 1 – One player stands on one side of the net at the baseline and hits lobs to the other player who hits overheads back at the first player. The first player tries to hit high lobs that land between the no-volley line and 3/4 court.  The second player tries to hit overheads back at the first player so that it can be lobbed again. Rotate between lobbing and hitting overheads often.

Drill 2 – This drill for 3 players has two players on one side of the net hitting lobs to the one player on the other side of the net.  The pair stand at the baseline and hit lobs to the single opposing player who practices hitting overheads to both corners and down the middle. Though the objective is to get used to hitting overheads and lobs, the player hitting overheads can attempt to hit kill shots when all parties agree, as this practice is useful as well.

Drill 3 - In this drill, you have two teams on opposite sides of the net with one team lobbing and one team hitting overheads. Advanced teams should be trying to put their smashes away while the lobbers should be trying to lob high and deep. When possible, however you also should try to be consistent while doing so. More beginning teams should be considerate of what the other team is trying to do when they lob or smash.

The Volley

Volley shots are differentiated from dink shots largely by velocity and that a volley shot is meant to be hit out of the air.

Drill  - The simplest volley drill is for either two players or four players to stand at the no-volley line and volley (hit) the ball back and forth. Each player should attempt to hit the ball to the other player in a manner that will allow them to keep the ball going. At all levels, the goal should be to hit more and more shots between misses.

For beginning players, this might mean you are hitting the ball fairly slow and high and possibly even to the forehand. As you improve, you might hit the ball a little firmer and even try to hit to their backhand more often. You will find that all players at all levels will do best if you don't hit the ball right at them.

As players improve, you can hit the ball harder at each other and intentionally hit some to the backhand and some to the forehand and some right at the other player. If you are having long rallies, you can get more aggressive. If your opponent is starting to miss too much, then you should slow the ball down until he/she is successful again.

With only two players, you should practice not only volleying the ball straight ahead, but also crosscourt using both backhands and forehands. With 4 players you will get to practice both, but you should practice both from the left side and the right side of the court.

Remember, the goal is to practice and keep the ball going, not to hit so hard the other player can't get it back!

Ground Strokes

Ground strokes are shots that are taken further back in the court and where the ball has bounced in front of the hitting player.  When practicing ground strokes, it is best to work on trying to have long rallies and trying to place the ball deep and near the corner of the opponent's court. The ball should be hit firmly, but do not so hard that the practice partner can't return the ball. 

Drills for All Players

These drills are the easiest because you are hitting the ball back to where it came from and are doing so without being on the run. However, after doing all 4 drills you will have practiced forehands and backhands both cross court and down the line from both sides of the court. These drills can be done with two players as described, or you could do them with 4 players keeping two balls going in opposite cross court directions or opposite sidelines.

Drill 1 - Players practice hitting cross court balls to each other from the right side of their respective courts.

Drill 2 - Players practice hitting cross court balls to each other from the left side of their respective courts.

Drill 3 - Players practice hitting down the line on the right side of the court.

Drill 4 - Players practice hitting down the line on the left side of the court.

Drills for Advanced Players

These drills are much more difficult and are intended for advanced players who still move fairly well on the court. Each drill gives one of the players practice on hitting while running and the other player practice in changing the direction of the ball while standing still which is harder than returning the ball back in the direction it came from

Drill 5 – One player stands on the right hand side of his court and alternately hits the ball down the line, cross court, down the line, cross court, etc.  The other player will be running from side to side and hitting every ball right back to the initiating player.  The drill can be done from the left side as well, and also players will alternate positions.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Playing to Lose

Pickleball Strategy
 at Rincon Country West Pickleball Club
Playing to Lose
Many people play pickleball to lose.  By this I do not mean that they are consciously trying to lose, but that the things that they are doing make losing almost a certainty. 

What follows are 9 sure fire ways to reduce your score and give your opponents an advantage, whether that is what you wish to do or not.  In that this is not an article about golf, reducing your score is not a good thing.

It is true that winning is not everything, but beating yourself at a game that all pickleball players love does not strike me as anything to aspire to.

So, here are 9 ways to shoot yourself in the foot, figuratively, and give bragging rights to your opponents.  If by chance, you are doing these 9 things and your partner is not, then you may find yourself looking for a new partner.

The things are courtesy of Coach “Mo” from

1     1.      Frequently Miss Your Serve

If you watch the advanced pickleball players, particularly in 5.0 level games live or those  that are available on the internet, you will notice that 5.0 players rarely hit a serve that is anything but putting the ball in play.  So, if Yoda Friedenberg, one of the top senior players in the world doesn’t seem to think that trying to beat his opponent with his powerful, slicing serve matters, why do so many players at levels 3.0 and below try to beat their opponent with their serve?

The answer is simple but counterproductive.  When I started playing the game I developed a hard serve because other new players I played against did.  It is fun to beat your opponent with a hard serve.  What is not so fun is when your serve goes in the net or out of the court.  Over time, your new friends get used to your serve, and the net result is that you do not get many service aces, while you hit 10-30% of your serves out.

So, what at one time worked to your advantage is costing you points.

Here is where you can take a tip from the best in the game.  Practice serving your ball into the correct court all the time.  Hit them until you can make them with certainty.  If you hit a ball out on your serve try to understand why and correct it.

But, here is a clue.  If you get your serves in almost all the time, because you have practiced it, and you miss the odd one, you probably lost concentration on the lost ones.
2     2.      Frequently Miss Your Return of Serve

As important as it is to not miss your own serve, it is even more important to not miss your opponent’s serve when you are supposed to return it to him or her.

Missing a return of serve gives your opponent a point.  I cannot figure out how missing a return of serve would be a winning strategy.

Again observing the best players, return of serve is very important, and they tend to return serves deep to their opponents.

How do they achieve that?  They practice returning serves as much as they practice making serves.  If two of you are on the court, and one of you is practicing serving, then it would seem to be pretty easy for the other one of you to be practicing returning serves.
      3.      Keeping Out Balls in Play

When your opponent hits a hard ball that is coming for your head, it is so easy to hit that ball back.  It feels like a badge of courage to stand there and take it like a man/woman and then beat him/her with your amazing return.

But, stop to ponder for a moment.  If a hard ball is coming at your head, it is probably rising.  It may even have a stewardess on board.  In all likelihood it was on its way to the next county, and you just kept it in play.  If in your exuberance you slammed your ball out of the court, and your opponent was not the great gentleman/woman that you are, he/she probably let it go out, and counted the point.
In effect most rallies where a player does not let an obvious out of play ball go become two point rallies.  By this I mean, that your opponent went from losing the point if his ball is allowed to go out, to winning the point.  A loss of serve for your opponents becomes a point, or a point you would have had becomes a loss of serve.
      4.      Low Percentage Shots

Situation – Your opponent hits a very difficult FAST, hard shot at you.  Because you are all that and a bag of chips, or because the adrenaline is flowing at hyper speed, you decide to hit a low percentage sharp angled shot back for a winner, rather than hitting a defensive shot.

When someone drives a ball at me, I want to show him how smart I am and beat him with the return of his own shot.  More often than not, I will attempt to make myself look good by hitting a tricky shot to get him.  The problem with this idea is that it works often enough to reinforce it, but is really far less effective than other less sexy alternatives.

For most pickleballers shot accuracy is one of the most significant challenges we face.  We can hit balls against a wall all day, and even hit almost all of them where we want them to go.  When we are just doing drills with a partner who is helping us practice shots, almost all of them go where we want them to.   But, in a game, our opponent is not as accommodating as a wall or a practice partner, and what happens is often unexpected.

In a game, unforced errors are a significant cause of lost points and lost games, and low percentage 
shots are a major contributor to unforced errors.

Down the middle is almost always a safer shot, from a percentage standpoint than nibbling at the edges.

It is beneficial to remember in a game against stiff competition, and particularly in a tournament, that the adrenaline rush we are getting makes most shots harder and longer. 

When preparing think about percentages.

5    5.      Taking away Your Partner’s Forehand with Your Backhand

Situation – You and your partner have gotten up to the net.  Your opponents put a ball to the center line.  You are on your backhand at the center line, and your partner is on his/her forehand. You take the shot.

What is wrong with this situation?  If you trust your partner, then a forehand is almost always a better controlled shot than a backhand.  If you step in and take the backhand shot, two things are possible, three actually.  First, both of you go for the ball, because your partner expects to take a forehand, and one or both of you miss hits the return.  Two, you take the backhand shot, but have now put yourself out of position because your shot lacks the strength of your partner’s forehand, and the opposition puts one away on your forehand on the outside of the court.  Third, because your backhand is weaker than your partner’s forehand, the ball goes in the net or out of play.

The proper strategy to play this is to have communicated with your partner beforehand about who is to take what shots.  If you know that your partner is to take center shots on his forehand, and you are to take center shots on your forehand, then neither of you surrenders positioning, trying to take a backhand shot that leaves you out of position for the next return.

6    6.      Get Upset with Your Partner Poaching

Some people get upset when their partner poaches a ball that is obviously coming to them, even if they put the shot away.

Poaching a ball in front of your partner can be a very effective strategy, but it needs to be understood and used effectively.  In fact, it can be very beneficial to work the play so as to set up your partner to do a poached shot for a point winner.

Here is an example.  You serve from the right hand court, intentionally to the (your) left side of the opposition player you are serving to.  He returns the ball to you on the right side but somewhat deep. 
You hit a loopy slow shot back to him, again on the left side of the court, and you and your partner move to the net.  You have somewhat baited him to return that ball to you.  When he hits the ball to you, both he and his partner have their eyes on you, since you are on the line of trajectory.  You, as part of the bait have your paddle in a ready position, as though you are going to take the shot, which you need to do anyway.  Your partner steps in front of the ball and slams down an easy point winner. 

That is a textbook poach shot, because you have the eyes of your opponents on you, and your partner has supported what was a misdirection by stepping in.

7    7.      Balls not at Your Opponents Feet

Anyone who has played the game for a reasonable amount of time knows how difficult it is to hit balls that are at your feet.  So, if we know that, how come we hit so many balls that are higher, like waist high, and expect to win points and games?

Balls played at your opponents’ feet are not guaranteed point winners, but they do make a return more difficult, and put the opponents on the defensive, often setting up a point winner a few shots further down the line.

Part of winning pickleball is shot placement, and there are few better places than at your opponents’ feet.

8    8.      Staying Back from the No Volley Zone Line

The game is won and lost at the No Volley Zone line.  Period.

If you are serving you cannot get there until after the second shot.  If you are receiving serve you can get there right after you return the serve.  Smart players drop balls into the No Volley Zone, and make you get them.  If you are back from the Zone, you cannot get there in time, or are forced to make a weak shot in defense.  If you are there, you are in the play for all intents and purposes.

If your opponents have not advanced to the No Volley Line a very effective play is to hit the ball to where they are but at their feet.  The effectiveness of this type of shot is also an indicator of how important getting to the No Volley Line is.

9    9.      Hit the Ball Too Fast for Good Placement

There is an immediate satisfaction of hitting a hard, fast ball back at your opponents.  The problem with that is that there is little margin for error, and hard and fast increases the error rate, a not beneficial combination.

Pickleball, played well, is largely a touch game.  The best players sacrifice power often for accuracy.  In fact, they would like to see you try hard, fast shots, particularly from the touch shot that they have moved you out of position with.  That makes your hard, fast shot a desperation shot, and often results in an unforced error, or sets them up for a point winner.

Too often, players will remember the hard, fast shot they beat their opponents with, and forget the 4 that went into the net or out of the court.  If your opponents are particularly wily, they might even compliment you on your winner, while keeping quiet when you drill one into the net, or out of the county, to help reinforce your Superman powers, and lull you into a false sense of security.

Pickleball is a very fun game at whatever level you play it at.  But, there comes a time when you want to do better at it.  Avoiding the 9 errors above is part of the process of getting good at the game.