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.


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