Friday, April 11, 2014

Pickleball - Hit 'em Where They Ain't

 William Henry Keeler was one of the best baseball players in professional baseball in the 1800’s.  He was probably good enough that he would have been a pretty good ball player in the last century as well.  But, one thing that was distinctive about him was that he was diminutive, so he had to be better than most just to play.  He stood 5’4 ½”, and weighed in at a hefty 140 pounds.  Hence, he carried around the moniker, “Wee Willie Keeler.”

Wee Willie was a pure hitter.  He was what ball fans would call a contact hitter.  He is in the Hall of Fame, but he is probably best known for the advice he gave to hitters, which is why I brought him up.  He said: “Keep your eye clear, and hit ‘em where they ain’t.”  Okay, so you retired school teachers out there might want to critique his grammar, but the man was, in fact, articulate and erudite.

Ball players of the modern age would do well to take his advice to heart, but I contend that pickleball players would also gain by pondering and appropriating his words.

Anybody who has played pickleball has noticed that their game improves with more play.  However, they will also note that there comes a time when play alone will no longer make their game much better.  There is a diminishing return to the benefits gained from more games played.

So, those wishing to improve their game are likely to then spend time on skill building drills and exercises that they find published somewhere, or that they create themselves.  One of my friends spends a lot of time in a year hitting balls up against a wall, and this has given him a very fast paddle hand.  Other friends have focused on dinking drills, serving drills, lobbing drills, all of which are readily available and which can be practiced though usually with at least one willing partner.

But, there is only so far you can go with your game by building skills, just as at a lower level of competence, there was only so far you could go just playing more games.

Most of us like to go out to the courts with our group of players, take a few warm-up shots, and then get into a game.  Very few even want to do skills work.  Those who have done the work to build up the skills so they can use them in a game do advance their game much further than those who want to just play.  They don’t necessarily have more fun, and for many fun is just being able to hit the ball and hang around other players who feel the same.

But, this is addressed to those of you who want to get to another, higher level of play.  Maybe you have watched some 5.0’s play in tournaments either live or on YouTube videos, or have watched some better players in your own club, and contemplated that you could do that, whatever that is.

Well, before we breakdown Wee Willie’s quote, let’s take two from another more famous ball player, cum philosopher, that great New York Yankee catcher of the mid twentieth century, Yogi Berra.

Yogi had two things to say that are pertinent to this discussion.  Many other bons mots that he offered to the world have at least humorous value, but often held a gem of wisdom.  First he said: “You can observe a lot by watching.”  As well, he famously said: “Baseball is 90% mental.  The other half is physical.”

You Can Observe a Lot by Watching

Pickleball players are a lot like everybody else.  We tend to see the world and what’s in it not as it is, but as we are (Anais Nin/Stephen Covery et al).  We bring our history to the game, and it tends to permeate our play.  Tennis players make good pickleball players, but they often end up being pickleball playing tennis players, instead of pickleball players.  Some will wonder why that long looping forehand is not as successful as it was when they first started playing pickleball.  You can pick out the tennis players who have not yet become pickleball players by watching them.

The same is true for former squash players like me, racquetball players and badminton players.  Those of us who have come from another racquet discipline see the pickleball world through the glasses of our racquet experiences, and it is challenging to go in a different direction, which is necessary to advance our game.
One of my favorite players never played a racquet sport before his 60’s.  He had worked in construction so he knew how to hold a hammer, and a set of pliers, which amazingly translated into a continental grip, which is one of the racquet grips suitable for pickleball.

But, as well, we would be playing a game and he would come to me and tell me to play one of the opposition players in a certain way.  And, invariably he would be right.

You see, he was watching and was observing tendencies, and then would capitalize on them during the game.  I was too busy hitting the ball to notice.

He is a proof to me that to advance your game beyond just skills, you need first to be observing what is going on around you with a fresh set of eyes, not tainted by past history, but with a childlike wonder at what is going on.

Baseball is 90% mental.  The other half is physical.

So, let’s take a look at Yogi’s other quote before we look to Wee Willie.  Baseball is one American pastime that has been analyzed statistically to death. There are stats for most things that happen in a baseball game, and that fascination with statistics tends to override the reality that baseball is a cerebral game, like every game of skill.

Many years ago, I did work for the Toronto Blue Jays, and was trying to introduce them to a statistical measuring computer system to assist them in dugout decisions.  To my surprise initially, the field manager at the time, and the General Manager were concerned that the computer would make them less reliant on their gut feelings that were the basis of so many of their on field decisions.  I assured them that although the statistics did not lie, they were not required to make a decision based on the stats, but could still use their intuition.

They knew what I did not at the time, being a 30 something wet behind the ear pseudo computer geek, that intuition is a powerful tool in sport decision making.  It is the essence of the cerebral.
Pickleball, played at advanced levels is a very cerebral game.  If you are getting to play pickleball at a high level and are not using your head for more than a hat rack, then you are losing a lot of games, many more than you should.

Let me give an example of using your head in pickleball.  One day this winter, my partner John Szabo and I were up at Palm Creek preparing for a tournament there that weekend.  We were playing a game against two guys we had met over the last year and both were rated at a higher level than we were.  In this particular game, we got up 10-4, and were cruising to a victory.  After we got our 10th point, we were at the net, and one of our opponents, who has a good sense of humor, said to us: “You know that 11th point is the hardest one to get.”  Well, we did get the 11th point, but it was not enough since they got 13.  He got in our heads that game, and every game since where we have gotten a good lead and had that 10th point, I have had his voice in my head.  Our opponent used his head and got into our heads.

So, on to Wee Willie’s advice, but we will break it down into its two components.

Keep Your Eye Clear

Keep your eye clear is more metaphorical than actual in the sense that there is a tendency in playing pickleball to focus on the ball coming to you or going from you, and not seeing the rest of the play, not seeing the forest for the trees.

Some times in pickleball, the ball is coming so fast that you can only react to it, and taking your eye off the ball is bad for business.

But, how often do you actually look at the positioning of your opponents and gauge what opportunities that leaves for your shots?  How often do you even notice that one of your opponents is left handed, or that one tends to stay back from the non-volley line a step or two?  Do you see how they communicate or don’t and how they handle shots down the middle?

Wayne Gretsky and Gordie Howe were two of the best hockey players of the 20th Century.  They shared one thing in common that was uncommon among their peers.  They had great peripheral vision, and could see the play unfolding before it did.  Gordie Howe never seemed to move in his later years, but was always where the puck was.  Wayne Gretsky could thread a needle with a pass.

In skilled pickleball, you have to be thinking at least two shots ahead of the current shot.  So often in pickleball, when one partner misses a shot, he does so because his partner put a weak shot to the opposition who, in turn, gave that other partner less opportunity to make a good shot than was needed at the time.  A forced error often develops over 3 or 4 shots.

So, keeping your eye clear is about seeing how the play is developing, and what opportunities and challenges that means for you and your partner.  This then allows you to be proactive in handling the situation and turn disadvantages into advantages.

Most players play the balls that come to them.  In fact, that seems intuitive, but is a defensive stance to play.  What if you look for the opportunities to play your opponents’ weaknesses that you are already aware of or are gathering more awareness of, and seek to capitalize on?  What if you take a strategic look, not just a 
tactical look?

Hit ‘em Where They Ain’t

Talk about something that is intuitive.  Of course, we want to hit them where they can’t get them.
We may want to do that, but how many of us hit shot after shot right on to the paddle of our opponent?  The other day, I hit three shots right on to the paddle of our opposition.  All shots were at their feet, but so were their paddles, and so for three shots I made them look good.  It was not until the 4th shot that I went down the middle. That was an eye opener for me.  I had time to set up each shot, and each time I hit for their feet, which is normally a good idea, but I did not take into account where they were positioned on the court or their hand position, and made it a lot harder than it had to be.  I risked an unforced error on my part by not hitting to the holes on the court.

It is important to focus on the ball, so that you can get to where it is going if it is for you to play.  But, focus on the ball should not imply ignoring everything else that is going on on the court.
Here are a few things to see out of the periphery that are to be stored for later use, or put to more immediate use in the rally.

When you served to the backhand of the opponent, did he/she move around the ball to be able to hit you a forehand in return?  For an opponent to turn an obvious backhand into a forehand tells you a couple of things.  First, the obvious is that like most other people the opponent is not as comfortable with his backhand.  But, second, it means that the opponent has wheels, and the ability to move quickly on the court, that is an advantage for him/her but can be stored up and used later by you.

Were your opponents returns of your serve deep, and where were they deep to?  Were they deep to your or your partner’s backhands, or were they shallow?  Was your opponent just putting the ball in play or was there a strategic advantage he/she was looking for?

Was your opponent able to put the third shot just over the net into the non volley zone accurately and consistently?  Where did he/she go for in the non-volley zone, the center, or the sides or nowhere in particular?

Were your opponents lurching for the ball at the net, or were they consistently in position for your shots and patient in looking for an opportunity to take the point?

The various phases and components of the game should raise questions for you about the play of your opponents.  Watching how they handle the components and phases should give you food for thought, and opportunities to capitalize on gaps.

When you see what the gaps in their play are, then you can become aware of where the gaps are on the court, and you can Hit ‘em where they ain’t.

Good players get to a place in their game where the game slows down for them, and they have time to observe their opponent, and adjust their play accordingly.  This means that they have more than one way of playing any particular shot, even though they might have preferences.

You cannot get to this style of play without having learned the basics of the game, and developed the composite skills necessary to handle the ball in all circumstances.  But, this is where the game gets even better, and more fun.

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