Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Soft Hands, an Open Paddle Face, and Eye on the Ball

One of the things I noticed a while back while watching London Pickleball Club games at an indoor venue was the paddle hand of John Blackwell.

John, who will be unknown to American readers, and Canadian readers outside of Ontario, is a former tennis player, and high school coach, and though his skill set might not exactly equate to my favourite tennis player of all time, Roger Federer, they share a couple of particular skilled tennis playing traits in common that translate well to pickleball.

The most obvious common trait to even the casual observer is an open paddle/racquet face, which equates directly to the second  common trait, soft hands.

For most racquet sport players, the paddle or racquet may as well be a hammer, if only in the sense of how tightly we tend to grip it.  

Pickleball, particularly during the early learning stages tends to be a frenetic game, with much intensity. In early stages of pickleball skill development everybody wants to hit the ball hard.  I thought this was a machismo thing, but most women seem to do this as well, probably in their case, in self defense.  Many attack each shot like they are trying to deliver a blockbuster punch, the knockout.

As a result, most pickleball games tend not to be strategic, but more of a pin ball game, reacting to what just happened rather than planning and executing the next and future shots.

It seemed surprising to me to watch volleys and also to participate in volleys, where the ball bounces back and forth between the paddles of two players for a few to several shots as though on a rope. Basically the ball goes on almost a straight line from player A to player B and back and forth until there is a miss hit, or one of the two has enough presence of mind to change  the direction of the ball.

Then I looked at it more carefully and realized what is happening.  Our natural tendency with paddle in hand is to point the paddle in the direction that will send the ball back to where it came from.  That puts the paddle at 90 degrees to the source of the ball, and ensures hitting the ball squarely with the paddle.  It seems to come naturally to us, and in a fast and furious rally, this happens so often and predictably that it cannot just be happenstance.

One of the factors though is the intensity of a fast furious exchange.  It is a bit like the flight or fight mechanism that is built in to us all, both lovers and fighters.  When we prepare to fight we tense up, dial in our focus and then react to what comes our way.  This is true in life, and not only true for less skilled pickleball players but also for the best players.  With the best players, it happens far less frequently, which is the nature of the style of game they are playing, that we might aspire to.

But, how do we get there?  That is where soft hands, open paddle face, and eye on the ball come in.

An open paddle face is a sign of soft hands, but focus on the ball is what slows the game down so you can soften the hands and open the paddle face.

In a furious rally, the paddle hand is a straight line from elbow to end of the paddle.  This is the response that your mind makes for you in the instance of close, fast combat.  It is the result of a contraction of the muscles in the arm, and wrist.

Though it makes sense to tense up in quick hard volleys, most players, particularly those in the learning phases are almost always in this same sense of rigid readiness.  However, most of the time we are not in close quarters, and in fact this heightened state of readiness is actually detrimental much of the time.

The better players, either those with many years of pickleball experience or other racquet sport experience have learned to crank back their grip a notch or two, not only while walking around with a paddle in their hand, but on the court during a rally.

The visible evidence of it is the open paddle face.  Since any of my US and western Canadian friends who read this will not know John Blackwell, I suggest you view the linked video below of Roger Federer and watch his hands.

What you will notice with Federer is that as he approaches contact with the ball his racquet hand is not a straight line extension from his wrist, but his hitting hand is actually behind his forearm about 30 or so degrees.  If he had a hammer like grip on his racquet, it could not be behind, but by the tension of the grip would have to be in line with his forearm.  For a test, squeeze your paddle hand tight, and then try to bend your wrist.  Not so easy is it?

An open paddle face is actually beneficial to controlling your shot, and to managing the power of your shot.  By effectively dragging the paddle a little behind the forearm there is first of all, less wind resistance to the paddle during the initiation phase of the swing, and then at the point of contact with the ball, the muscles of the wrist are contracted bringing the paddle forward and imparting more velocity to the ball, if desired.

The open paddle face allows the hitter to decide direction of the shot at the last instant, since the amount of contraction of the wrist will determine where the paddle is between the 30 degree negative angle at initiation, and the 75 degree positive angle of full extension.  The hitter can cause the contact with the ball to happen at any position between the 30 degree negative and 75 degree positive, which gives plenty of latitude as to the ultimate destination of the ball.

Now, here is where "eye on the ball" comes in.  You might say to me that if you watch the ball, you will miss out on where your opponents are positioned and may make a mistake on where you return the ball. My response is that if you do not watch the ball to your paddle, you are more likely to make a mishit, and it will not matter where your opponents are positioned.

If you watch the video below of Roger Federer, you should be able to notice the frenetic activity that occurs before the ball gets to his racquet, but how his eyes focus on the ball as it draws near, and how his eyes then do not leave the point of contact with the ball until the ball is well on its way.  

Keeping your eyes focused on the ball near contact and until completion of the contact and follow through of your stroke acknowledges the importance of your spine in controlling your paddle/racquet.   The spine is the axis of your swing.  If your head is focused on the ball, then it is not disruptive to the axis and the swing is smooth.  But, if you lift your head to see where you are going to hit the ball to during that address of the ball and stroke through it, you disrupt the axis, and the results, though predictable are erratic.

This is particular important for shots at the back of the court. but is also significant when dinking or playing a controlled short game.  

Part of the essence of eye on the ball is to keep as much of your body as quiet as possible.  You are effectively keeping parts of the body that will only get in the way of a good shot out of the play.  

I hope this is helpful.

In the near future, I hope to comment on how this relates to playing short sharp volleys at the net, since there are some differences.

Enjoy this video called "Roger Federer - The Lord of Tennis".  If you cannot see the video link below use this direct link.


Sunday, July 27, 2014

Mixed Doubles

Recently, the following dialogue occurred between myself and one of our local female players as a result of other things going on at the time, but it is relative to an issue that has bothered me for a long time, playing mixed doubles.

This is her partial statement that opened the dialogue:
I wish you men would lower the testosterone level!!!!!
Being largely a smart ass, I responded as follows:
She would like men to lower the testosterone level.  In that our testosterone level is 7-8 times higher than in females I guess we could try somehow.
Surprisingly, one thing that raises testosterone in males is being in the presence of females.  So, if we men were to live in a pickleball playing monastery, particularly one dedicated to the patron saint of pickleball (or all athletes) St. Sebastian, we might be more mellow.
Of course if all men were in monasteries, then over time there would be no more men or women.
It seems to be a conundrum.  Maybe we will just leave well enough alone.
But, my friend was not mollified by my response and so came back with:
I think in my humble opinion men won’t lower their testosterone levels because they could not take the humiliation of being beaten constantly by women.  Be honest!!!! 
As I am not from the let sleeping dogs lie camp, I felt it necessary to respond, and since I was not totally satisfied with my own response I realized that the issue has much to do with other thoughts I have been having about playing mixed pickleball.
Ok, testosterone is not the real problem here.  Attitude is.  But there is still more to it than that.
I have watched the best women and the best men in North America play in tournaments, in mixed and gender sections.  The best men are stronger, faster and often smarter strategically, which has more to do with spacial reasoning, I think, than anything else.  This is what you are confusing with testosterone. . . .

A mixed team tends to lose to another mixed team when the woman on the losing team and her male partner do not play smart.
Men can and will pound the ball at a woman, particularly if their mothers did not raise them right.  A smart male player does not need to pound the ball at anyone to win games. . . .

All things being equal, if you want to win at pickleball, hit your ball to the weaker partner, or even better to the holes on the court, which tend to be near the weaker partner. But, too many men who have limited their play to local recreational play learn to use power instead of strategy to win games.
As the skill levels increase, physical power takes a back seat to brain power. When you play smarter than they do, and limit their opportunities to use their only weapon, power, against you, then the pounding will stop, and they will have to learn how to play the game properly.
What follows mostly predates the above response, but lead to me formulating the above in my mind.

Until the Fall of 2013, I had not given a lot of thought to playing mixed pickleball.  But, last year a woman friend from our London Pickleball Club and I played together in the Provincial pickleball tournament, and were handled fairly easily by a team of players who were certainly better than we were on that day at least, and particularly understood the strategy of mixed doubles pickleball better than we did.

Basically, they hit every ball to my female partner, and I was pretty much helpless, or so I thought, to do much about it.
This past winter, I had occasion to meet up with a female 3.5 player, who winters in Phoenix area with her husband, and was looking for a good partner to match up with for tournaments this coming winter. Apparently, unable to find a good partner, she settled on me.

To get used to each other a bit, she arranged for us to play with a 4.0 mixed couple that were elevated recently because of their performance in 3.5 tournaments this season.  They have played a lot of games together and are a very competent team.  This woman I played with, and who I had only recently met, but not seen play, was a very competent 3.5 player.  So, she had to get used to playing with a leftie, and I had to get used to playing with her style of play.  
We were playing the match as though it were a tournament match, including discussing strategies and approaches to the game.
The team we played against were relentless in playing to our disadvantages, which they apparently saw as her not being as mobile as me, and having less reach.  BUT, they did not pound balls at her.  Because we were playing at our own levels, the game was mainly a short game, with a lot of net play, and very few hard hit balls.  The objective of their play was not to overpower her, but to keep the ball away from me, and to make her defend at the net.  We too, played more to the woman, though for me, more by accident generally, as I was looking for what I perceived as the best opportunity to score a point, and did not catch on to the strategy of the game until it was over.
Because we were stacking, they knew that she would always be at the left side of the court, and almost every return of our serve came back to her in the deep left corner, on her backhand side, requiring a good dump shot from her from the back corner just over the net in the kitchen area so we could get up to the net.
When they served, we did not play our return shots back to the female partner necessarily, which was a strategic mistake on our part.  Their third shot was almost always a dump shot over the net on my partner's side of the court.
I think that about 70% of all shots were made by the women, and to some extent the other male and I were ancillary to the game, which I did not realize at the time.  He was able to break into the play by poaching from time to time, and I was a little less so, since I was not as aware of the strategy as he was.  He did coach me on some of the strategy during breaks in the play, when I asked.
Even though I did not get to play my FAIR share of the shots, it was instructive and very enjoyable because it was a thinking game, and I had to keep on my toes at all times.  You can imagine how difficult it was for me to do two things at once, thinking and being on my toes.  Since my partner is only about 5 foot nothing in heels, she had to be on her toes anyway.
So, here are the lessons learned for mixed tournament play, and they generally translate well to club play. 
You have to play to the opposition weaknesses, and on the assumption that you have equal skills, the main difference will be reach, where the female often has less than the male, and speed where a male who is longer to begin with usually, might be better able to get there, wherever there is.  The reach and speed gap are very dependent on the particular team, but almost always exist.
Where a gap like that exists, it is more effective to play a touch game than a hammering game (hack and whack).  With a hammering game, a good mixed team will take you apart, and either force you to the short touch game, or just beat you period. If you allow a good male partner to hammer balls at your partner you are likely to lose.
A good touch game compensates as much as possible for the reach, speed gap of the two partners. Playing the ball at the net with relentless and patient dinking, looking for the opportunity for a poaching put away or for the hole between the partners is very effective.
Also, there was an incredible amount of side to side at the net when my partner was on the left and the opposing woman was at the net across from me.  That allowed for both women to play a cross court dinking game that eliminated both men from a lot of the play.
But, the guys had to be on our toes looking for the opportunity to break into the play or for the shot from our female opponent that was checking to see if we were in the play.
Being able to play mixed doubles and protect your partner, or make it enjoyable for all is really about building skills and playing those skills.
At least that's what I have been thinking, or was thinking in early April of 2014.

Recently, we got together as a mixed group to do some practicing and to play some games.  

In one particular mixed game, my partner and I were doing well, with no strategic intent in our shots, just playing what we were given.  At one time, the male on the other team, faked a pout, dropped his paddle on the ground and said: "I'm here too, you know."  Since he is not that tall, it was a good reminder, but in fact was missing the point.

For the next while, I told my partner to hit every ball she could to him, and I tried to do so as well.  As I noticed what transpired, I realized that the problem was not that we were ignoring him, but that his partner was hitting her shots to me much of the time, which I returned to her, and when she hit shots to my partner they were returned to her as well.

It is good positioning strategy to square up your body to where the shot is going to come from.  If a shot is hit to a player in the back left corner of the court, it is appropriate to be squared up so that your body is forming a 90 degree angle with the straight line that is between you and the returning player.  That means that you are not squared up to the net, but to the opposition.  Consequently, when that ball comes to you, your most likely shot is to return it to from whence it came, unless you choose a redirection to somewhere else. Redirection is a more difficult shot.

In pickleball, the man in mixed doubles groupings often, though not always, tend to be ball hogs, playing the squirrel in traffic game, which is fraught with opportunities for their opponents to make lots of nice kill shots.

Honestly, I think the woman that started the dialogue at the top of this posting is largely correct. Testosterone and male ego get in the way of a lot of fun on the pickleball court.  Men are by their nature hunter gatherers, and women are nurturers.  Yes, men can nurture as fathers know, and women can bring home the bacon as we all know.  But men will hunt with the tools that work for them, and will apply this same methodology to playing sports, since sports are really a metaphor for combat.

Men will apply brute strength to any number of challenges, from removing the top of a jar to hitting a pickleball as long as that works for them.  I no longer try to power tops off jars, but use a device to assist me on the tricky ones.  I also no longer try to blow pickleball shots past my opponents.

I also tend to not walk on the court in recreational play if I know that one of the opponents is just interested in a display of testosterone, and when this only becomes obvious during the game, I either hasten up the ending to get off the court, or in the future will just walk off the court.

The real fun in pickleball is in the game, not in the final score.  I would rather win than lose, I think, but frankly in the scheme of life does it really matter?

Here is a short video from the Pickleball Channel with 3 tips from Jennifer Lucore and Alex Hamner for playing doubles.  These three tips apply in mixed or in gender doubles.  The first and most important one is "Have Fun".

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Add More to Your Serve

Pickleball players either take their serves too seriously, trying to juice the ball with spin or trying to figure out how to trick the opponent, or they do not take their serves seriously enough.  In fact, there is a separation between less skilled players who tend to be in the former group and the more skilled players who tend to focus on putting the ball in play only.

But, in the video linked here  and attached below, 3 of the better players on the planet show us three different types of serve, all of which are easily achievable with practice, and which may be significant improvements on the two methods above. The focus is not on how to do the serve, since that is intuitively obvious, but in what it is and why it matters.

In the video Jennifer Lucore, displays and explains the high soft serve.  Jennifer is a 47 year old female 5.0 player from Oceanside CA, who partners usually with Alex Hamner, a 50 year old 5.0 player from Carlsbad CA, also featured in this video for mixed doubles, and more often than not comes away with a medal, and more often than not the gold medal.

Jennifer displayed the High Soft Serve.  The High Soft Serve is a looping serve to near the back line of the court.  Some of the good things about this serve is that it is able to be done by most any player with a bit of practice, that it has a slow arc providing time for the receiving team of course to prepare for it, but also providing time for the serving team to be ready for a return.  It is also meant to be served to near the back line of the court, which puts the opposition receiving it behind the back line to make contact and return.

One thing in its favor is that it is a good mix 'em up type of serve, to keep the opposition guessing at what is coming.  As well, one of the things that few take into account is that the velocity of a ball hit to you is the velocity that you have to deal with.  For example, if someone hits a hard ball to you, you can just block it and return a ball that still has pace on it.  But, if someone serves you a looping slow serve, you have to put all the velocity on it to return it, since it has almost none on its own.

Next, Alex Hamner, Jen Lucore's usual women's dounles partner, presented the Power Serve, a low hard serve directed to the back of the court and either on the forehand side of the court for the returning player or to the backhand side of the returning player.

The purpose of this serve besides mixing up your serves is to keep the opponent back near the baseline, or to catch your opponent off guard if they have been creeping in awaiting your serve.

The power serve is an easy serve to miss, and should be practiced regularly if you plan to use it.  If you only hit 80% of your Power Serves I would recommend that you discontinue their use until you are 99% certain of getting your serve in.  If you and I are of equal ability, and I am going to get all of my serves into play, and you are going to miss 2 or 3 during a game, I prefer my odds of winning.

The third serve demonstrated by Bob Youngren is called the Soft Angle Serve.  Bob is a 70 year old 5.0 player from Fallbrook, California, and he winters in Surprise AZ, along with many of the better players in the country.  So, those of us who are seniors can relate to him a little better except for the 5.0 part.  At least he looks old.

This is a serve that should have only one purpose, in my opinion.  First of all, it is a short serve near the edge of the court.  If the opposition are stacking, then usually the opponent not receiving is positioned near the outside edge of the court at the non volley line.  The serve is to the corner of the court near where that player is positioned and a short serve will bring them both together, or stuffed, at that point, quite possibly off the edge of the court.  When the receiver returns the serve, he or she then has to scamper across court to cover the far half of the court.  This tends to leave a hole on the far edge of the court for a quick down the line return of the service return, by the original serving team.

Since I am left handed, I stack with many of my partners, and have been beaten by the third shot on occasion from this kind of serve.   In the video, Alex Hamner is the receiver, and Jen Lucore is at the edge of the court.  Since Alex is right handed, she either has to take the serve on her backhand as she does in the video, or rotate off the edge of the court to take it on her forehand.

Because stacking is used most often when one player is left handed, and one right handed, the situation is somewhat different in that situation.  A left handed player will approach a ball to the front corner of the playing area without breaking stride and has more options for handling the serve, which tends to minimize the damage that can be done with it.

First, I tend to focus my eyes on the paddle hand of the server, watching how it is turned and the velocity with which it meets the ball.  That gives me a jump on the serve to begin with.

Second, a short serve is often a bad strategy since it invites the opposition to the net.  Now, both opponents are at the net, though the receiver has to scamper across court.  A deep serve would have placed the receiver say at the back left hand corner of the court.

If you have served the Soft Angle Serve to me at the front left corner, I have to cross the court horizontally about 15 feet to get to the middle of the side of the court I plan to protect.  If you have hit a deep serve to the back left corner of the court, I have to move 21 feet diagonally to get to the middle of my side of the court.  I am pretty sure I can cover 15 feet of court faster than I can cover 21 feet of court.

As the video shows it is a serve best served to the receiver's backhand, and so can be effective for this purpose only when both players use the same paddle hand.  Otherwise there is no front corner where the partners will be stacked with the receiver no his/her backhand.

But, it is a variety serve, and things that can cause confusion can be advantageous.  The better players have seen it all, and so are not likely to be fooled or confused by this move.  Most of us are not in that category of better players and some of us easily confused on our best days by most anything.

The video gives us some serving ideas, ideas that should be practiced before putting into use.  If your serves are going to fail 20% of the time, you put yourself at a disadvantage in the game.