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.

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