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".

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