Friday, August 29, 2014

Why Play in Pickleball Tournaments?

A number of years ago I took up the great and fun sport of pickleball.  As it turned out I quickly developed an affinity for it.  Most people who play one game of pickleball play two games of pickleball.  It takes two games to get you hooked, though some are hooked the first moment they step on to the court.  Then, of course there are some slow learners who take a bit more coaxing.

But, with my background in squash I also developed some skill in it, not nearly as much as I thought, mind you, but enough to make it interesting for me and for playing partners.

At the place I first played the game, Rincon Country West RV Resort in Tucson Arizona, I got in on the ground floor as it were.  We had new courts, and new paddles to use.  So, the possibility existed to become a big fish in a small pond.  Some of us did.  Others not so much.  But, we had fun, and to an extent got comfortable in our fun, not wanting to disturb it.

But, then I went home to London Ontario one Spring and lo and behold they were playing pickleball there. Suddenly, I went from being a largish fish in a small outdoor pond to a medium sized fish in a larger indoor pond.

That experience was not as comfortable in the short term, but was in fact rewarding and leads me to why I am inviting readers to sign up for a tournament.

First off if pickleball is not fun for you go do something else.  Secondly, if your idea of fun comes from how many games you win in any day, and the competition is what is most important to you, then you are much younger than me, since along with not remembering what I had for breakfast, remembering how well I did on any given pickleball day is gone after I step off the court.

But, humans have in them a survival instinct, which makes most of us competitive to one degree or another. With age it usually gets tempered by experience and humbling knowledge of our own mortality.

For many of us that competitiveness is more personal than directed outwardly.  By this I mean, that I, as a case in point, want to improve my game of pickleball for example, so I want to beat the me of yesterday by improving my skills and strategies.

Don't get me wrong.  I prefer to win games more than to lose them, but I do not lose one moment's sleep worrying over a point or game lost that day.

So, if you, like me, want to have fun, play pickleball and challenge yourself to get better, how best to do it?

One of our better players at Rincon had challenged a number of us to sign up for the Tucson Senior Games tournament at Voyager over the last few years.  We declined for at least two years, then last year one of  my favourite playing partners from Canada came to Rincon in his motorhome and we signed up for and played at the Senior Games.  We had so much fun, that we signed up for 3 more tournaments and then I played another one with another partner.

So, why play in pickleball tournaments?

Here are the best reasons I can think of.

1) Take the fun you have getting together with the same people day in and week out, and then surround yourself with maybe 150-300 people just like you, playing pickleball to have fun and meet new people, and then feel the electricity in the air, and see all the smiles, win or lose.

When 150-300 people with the same addiction as you are gathered in one place it is like a large AA meeting, except that rather than trying to overcome the addiction you are feeding it.  Consider it a large self help group.

2) Pickleball can get a bit stale, still fun though, when you play the same people with the same tendencies time and time again.  At a tournament you play somebody new, and win or lose, you meet someone new, and learn some new things.

After the first tournament at Voyager, my partner and I started to practice because we saw things we had never seen before, and we wanted to adopt them.  We won a couple of matches and lost a couple, even met some folks who invited us to play at their club later on.  We also watched some matches of the best players around and had wow moments when we saw how the game could be played.

3) Tournaments tend to last 2-3 days or so.  Imagine the fun you have playing for a couple of hours at your local club and make it day long instead of just a few hours.

You don't get kicked off the court after a couple of hours.  You can play and watch pickleball all day long if you want.

My partner and I were deluded by the people we were beating at Rincon into thinking we only had to show up to win a medal at Voyager.  What they and we did not know was that the best players at several clubs were going to be there and that they had had their egos stoked just like us.  So, in that tournament we won a couple of matches and lost a couple, but we had a GREAT time.

When we got back to Rincon, someone said to us that we got humiliated, so maybe that would put us in our place.  We responded that we had the best time ever playing and that we learned a lot.

So, then we started to focus on getting better.  Yes, we wanted to win more games at tournaments we entered, but winning was secondary to seeing the improvement in our game and meeting new friends, who shared our love for the game.

We never did win a medal last winter, but we won big time.  If I had any more fun, I would have to be twins. I communicate regularly with some of the folks we beat or lost to (can't remember the results) and am eager to get back down south to see them again and to see how their game has progressed since we last played.

Playing pickleball at your local club gets a bit repetitive.  Playing with new people puts a spring in your step, win or lose, unless wining is the most important thing for you.  Then, you go back to your regular club with a new attitude, new skills, and new friends outside your regular group.

If you are enjoying something and a new wrinkle would magnify your enjoyment, wouldn't that sound like a good idea?

Find a partner and go play a tournament.  You will not regret it.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The All Important Third Shot

Many of the best pickleball players on the tournament circuit seem to pay little attention to the serve and return of serve.  If your serve is in play that is often good enough, though some of the better players might juice the serve from time to time to keep their opponent honest.  As well, the return of serve is often nothing special, though there are a few placement strategies that can create some advantage.

But, the rally really begins with the third shot.  A properly played third shot sets the serving team up to meet their opponents at the net, to create balance in the rally.  Poor execution of the third shot gives the team defending the serve an advantage, because they are already at the net or should be.

The third shot allows the serving team to get into or to force a short game on their opponents.  The short game is the equalizer for pickleball enthusiasts.  If you are playing against heavy hitters, especially good ones, they can drive shots at you, through you or by you in the blink of an eye, but only if you give them the opportunity.

The short game sllloooowwwwssss everything down, and allows you to control the flow of a rally even if you are up against the blasters.

So, how do you get into that transition successfully?  Well, the answer is like it is for most shots in the game, Practice.  But, what are you trying to practice.

The video linked below and here if you cannot see the pic below has two of the better Florida Villages players father and son Brian and Matt Staub showing what it is, how you prepare for it, and how you execute it, even if it does not achieve its initial objective.

First is how to hold the paddle.  The Staubs recommend the Continental Grip and it is pictured below.  As they describe, it creates somewhat of an open paddle face, which helps with the arc that is required for the ball to do what you want it to.  The Continental grip is a very useful grip in almost all situations and should probably be the go to way of gripping a paddle for most players, at least until you have the facility to change grip on the fly for a particular purpose.

Typically, the third shot is being taken from further back on the court, and the objective of the shot is to land it in the kitchen area softly, eliminating hard shot returns by your opponents, thus allowing you to advance to the net and get into a short game looking for the advantage to put a shot away or seriously challenge your opponent.

Even if you practice this shot, and execute it pretty well, the kitchen area is small enough that a not bad shot is often not good enough against smarter and stronger players.  The Staubs show a split step transition method where if your shot is not good enough for you to advance all the way to the net, you can take a step or two, prepare for the return, dump into the kitchen again and advance a few steps closer.  The video shows this method well.

So, if you have watched the video, how do you practice this all important shot so that it is a key piece of your arsenal of shots.

Third Shot Drill

Well, lately we have modified a drill that we came across that seems to be very effective to build skill with the third shot.  You can do the drill with 2 players on opposite of the net or in pairs with 4 players.

One player stands near the kitchen line, say on the left hand side of the court and feeds soft balls towards the back of the same half of the court to the person actually doing the drill.  The objective is to give the player doing the drill balls that are a lot like the return of serve would be in speed and trajectory.  That person then tries to return the ball to the kitchen, where the first person continues to feed balls back for return after each shot.

How we do the drill is that each time the person doing the drill gets a shot in the kitchen we count it, with the objective of him/her getting 10 balls into the kitchen.  In a row might be nice, but 10 in period is the objective.

After the person doing the drill has gotten 10 balls in the kitchen, he/she then comes up and the other player retreats, and they start the drill over again with the other player hitting for the kitchen.

You can repeat this drill as often as you want, but trying to get 10 balls in the kitchen adds an objective and a little personal competition into it that seems to help the focus necessary to dial in this important shot.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Winning Isn't Everything

Most people familiar with the above 1/2 quotation from Vince Lombardi remember the second half of that quote as well: "It's the only thing."

I am here to tell you that as it relates to getting better at pickleball  Mr. Lombardi, God rest his soul, is wrong.

Yesterday, I traveled with 3 of my PB playing buddies to the Research in Motion (RIM) facility in Waterloo Ontario for some indoor play with their local group.  In part we went to play there because the Pickleball Association of Ontario (PAO) tournament is going to be there next month.  But, additionally, we wanted to go there and play with two of the best players in the province, Paul Leeder, and Looey Tremblay.

The 4 who went are very interested in getting better at the game, and so that was part of the conversation down and back.

Most pickleball players that I know fall into one of two categories, the purely recreational players who are more social than focused on victory, and the highly competitive players who want to win come hell or high water.  Though I understand the rationale of both groups, its like Liberals and Conservatives (or for American readers Republicans and Democrats) in that there is a divide between them with no apparent bridge between them.

However, I think that the purely recreational players are often not as purely recreational as they let on, and the highly competitive players are generally legends in their own minds, and so not really all that and a bag of chips.  It seems to me that the thing that keeps some players purely recreational is the win at all costs play of many of the highly competitive players.

It shows up in attitudes to practicing the skills of pickleball.  It takes two or more players to practice most skills, though with a wall and a ball there are things one person can do to improve in some areas.  But, the problem that occurs with practice is like it is in most things, and that is attitude.  There are many players who want to practice "on" their opposite numbers rather than "with".

I have watched players practice where at least one of them is trying to beat the others in practice, which somewhat defeats the purpose.  The objective of practice is to build skills into muscle memory by repetition.

Yesterday we met a player who exemplified what getting better is all about.  The lady I am referring to just started playing the game last December, and after 8 months of being a sponge for the game has a pretty good game already, and is eager to get better, and there is no doubt in my mind that she will.  It all started yesterday with a game she had with one of my friends against myself and another friend.  After a number of rallies she asked her partner what had happened to cause them to win or lose the point.  She then took what she had heard and applied it immediately.

So, for her, the game was a practice where points were kept.  During the morning she asked a few of us a number of things based on what she had observed.  She was there to learn, and winning was not important.

In a game a little later on, my US doubles partner and I played against her and another competent player. My partner noticed something in her partner and tested him early on with a shot to his backhand and then one to his forehand to see how he handled them.  It was obvious that he, unlike most players, was better on his backhand than on his forehand.  We called them both to the net, and told them our observation.  The objective was not to win games but to improve, and we wanted them to have the same opportunity as we did, so we shared.

If our sole objective was to win a game, we would have kept our mouths shut and just taken advantage of her partner.  As it was, we let him know how we would play him so he could adjust.

So, yesterday I got the opportunity to play with Paul Leeder and against Looey Tremblay.

I wanted to play with or against Paul, because he is always coaching on the court, either coaching his partner or coaching the opponents.  You cannot play a game with him and know less than you did when you walked on the court.  You can only get better if you listen and adapt what he says.  He usually makes his comments immediately after a rally so you can remember what went right or wrong, and adjust accordingly.  So a game with him is really also a practice where you keep score.

Getting to play against Looey, though I would have like to have been on his side of the court as well, was equally educational.  Looey has a very nice smooth stroke, and amazing accuracy.  He painted the line on my backside 3 times in two games with beautiful shots that I would like to think I cut off from happening the 4th and 5th times as I started to learn his tendencies, though that could be me being a legend in my own mind. He makes the game look effortless, and though he is quieter than Paul, there is much to learn by observing him, his court positioning, his preparedness for the shot, and his shot selection.

So, here is the lesson taken away from our trip.  To improve at pickleball, you must care less about winning today, and more about getting better.

The focus on winning leads to another challenge of life.  I used to tell people who worked for me that they could, after 10 years of working with me, have ten years of experience or one year of experience 10 times. Actually those who were going to repeat the 1 year of experience never lasted 10 years, but that is another matter.

So, here is my advice and it is worth every penny you pay for it, and hopefully more.  Play recreational pickleball to get better at the game.  Take time to get better and to make those around you better.  If the highly competitive players become more instructive then the purely recreational players will become less purely recreational because they will have a chance to improve their game, not get hammered any time they try a different shot.

As one of my fellow travelers said yesterday: "If when we play together, I get better, then you get better."  In his case it is true, because that is his objective.  He wants to get better, but it is not a secret.  Amazingly, I have noticed that as he shares information he has with others, and listens then to information coming back to him, he has gotten much better, and everyone he has shared with has had that same opportunity.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Pickleball Refereeing

Recently, in Dorchester Ontario, a suburb of London Ontario, Dave Hall and Ken Twilley two of our better area players, conducted a referee clinic for 10 of us, doing something that both of them do very well, giving back to the game.  Both are local area ambassadors for the sport and take that seriously, and in recent years area players have benefited from their enthusiasm and knowledge.

I was unsure why I signed up to take a referee clinic.   Dale Carnegie wrote a well known book in 1936 "How to Win Friends and Influence People."  I don't really imagine that refereeing pickleball games will win friends, and on the scale of things that are really important in life, it is not one of the main areas to influence people.  But, a referee does help tournaments get played, and I like to play tournaments, and so helping them to be played seems like a good thing.

But, Dave and Ken guided us in the different perspective of refereeing from playing, and among many things showed us how referees are to be unobtrusive in a game.  I failed that unobtrusive bit, but am encouraged to try again. Perhaps I will remember that I am not the entertainment section of the program and do what referees do best.

Of course, what is it that referees do best?

Well, there's the rub.  Referees do not watch the game per se.  Referees are like that kid you hated in school who could always find a dark cloud in every silver lining; you know, the negative kid.  Referees are the muck rakers of the game.  Aside from telling you the score, which you probably already knew, and who is to serve, which you probably already knew, they will only tell you when something that happens is your/a fault.
Think of it as being married.

Referees watch for specific things.  If a referee gets a stiff neck, it means that he or she is watching the ball, which as players we know is really important. But no, referees are to watch lines, the back line during serves, and the no volley zone lines during the rest of the rally.  They might see other things and when called on can render judgement, but they are primarily looking for and adjudicating faults during the serve, and at the net during the rally, and any other rules violations during the game.  Oh, and they have to keep the score.

I stated that referees may be called on to render judgement.  This usually occurs on a ball that one side calls out and the other side thought was in.  Often the referee, if focused on the non volley zone will miss line calls, which are primarily the purview of the players anyway, and so it is more likely for the referee to say he/she did not see it to change it from what was called.

But, what can happen, and happened in our practice games the other day is that often opponents do not go to the referee to challenge a line call by the opposition.  During one game, I was sure that a ball called by the team going for it was in, and that team called it out.  I felt like the kid in school, because I wanted to raise my hand and say: "Ask me.  Ask me." But, I didn't and they didn't and so the call stood.

A referee is issued 4 pieces of equipment, a clipboard, a pencil, a score sheet, and a clothes pin marked with a 1 on one side and a 2 on the other.  Pickleball referees do not wear zebra stripes like hockey or football referees, and no chest protectors or face masks like baseball umpires.

Uses for the score-sheet, clipboard and pencil are obvious.  The clothespin is not used, as one might conjecture to indicate the referee's view of a game played badly, by placing it over his/her nose, but is for keeping track of the first server and the second server as the game progresses.

Referees need only limited math skills.  They must be able to count to 21 sometimes, 15 with some regularity in tournaments where there is a losers bracket, and 11 most of the time, though games tied at 10, 14, or 20 that must be won by 2 points can increase the need for more advanced math.

Referees also have a limited vocabulary, at least during games.  They call out the score, and the server, like 5 3 2, where the serving team is leading with 5 points to their opposition's 3 points, and the second server of the team in the lead is up to serve.  So, they do have to remember three things all at once, but have their score-sheet and clothespin to help them keep it straight.  3 things at once for seniors can be a bit of a challenge, but since we know that aging is not for the faint of heart, focusing long enough to remember and speak three things is not that big a deal.

Aside from that referees have four phrases to remember at the beginning or conclusion of most rallies "side out", "first server", "second server", and "point".  The other word he/she can utter as required is "fault".

When a team has lost its serve, the referee calls out "side out".  This means that it is time for the other team to serve the ball.

"First server" or "second server" is the call to advise the serving team which of their two players is supposed to serve next.  It doesn't tell them which one of them is to serve.  It is up to them to figure out where they are supposed to be on the court, though the referee, by using his clipboard, score-sheet and clothespin knows, but he's not telling, unless the serving team makes a mistake; at which time he/she will call out "fault".

"Point" is what the referee says when a rally produces a point for the serving team.

Jeff Shank at The Villages in Florida has two videos on refereeing that are good examples of what it takes to referee a match, and I have linked them below.

The first video is an oral presentation by Jeff on the things to do as a referee to keep score and to do the job.

The second video was a partial sample game and then a section of some of the faults that are to be looked for and called.

Here is another video produced at Palm Creek in Casa Grande Arizona, that demonstrates the skills of a referee, including the use of the sophisticated equipment that one has available.  In this video you can see the clipboard and the notations and changes as they happen during play.

One of the things to remember in refereeing is that a referee is like the net post, only possibly better looking. That means that the referee is a Permanent Object for purposes of the game being played.  So, should a ball in play strike the referee, the referee can say "Ouch" if it hurts, stronger words are not appropriate, but must remember to call "fault", since the player who has hit the referee has either lost the point or serve for his/her team.

Where I was nervous about refereeing prior to our clinic, I realize that it is not that difficult, and might even be fun.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Getting In to the Short Game with Heavy Hitters

People that want to advance their pickleball game have to learn additional skills as their game progresses. One of the most important skills is hitting the ball at the net.  This is called dinking and is a skill that requires practice to acquire.

Those who have played the game for some time have realized that you cannot power the ball past better players, and lobbing over their heads is not often a high enough percentage shot to be effective.  Both types of shots are periodically effective, but a steady predictable diet of them leads to defeat.

You have to get to the net to increase your chances of winning a point, and then you have to maintain the net to improve your odds more.

So, many of us work on the third shot drop by the original serving team, to dump a ball over the net from anywhere on the court to allow us to get to the net.  The problem with that is that most of us are not 5.0 players who have practiced that shot a million times, so it is not always effective.  But, practice and using it in games will make it better, trust me.

So now we are at the net, and isn't this just jim dandy.  Here we are playing a dinking short game, just waiting for our opponent to make a mistake and hit it into the net.   But, as our opponents get better, since we are not the only ones working on improvement, they start looking for the holes in our short game.

If you remember my piece on Mixed Doubles you might recall the video at the end of Jen Lucore and Alex Hamner describing 3 tips for improving doubles play.  The first tip was to Have Fun, and that is the key tip to remember whether working on skills, or playing games.  If you are not having fun, it is time to pick up some other pursuit.  Those who find pickleball too stressful might take up quilting, while those who find it dull might want to take up something like juggling chainsaws, though there are other options.

Their second tip was a key one for this article, and that is to Look for the Holes.  In any game of pickleball, your opponent gives you holes on the court to hit to to score points or to make returns difficult.  When playing the dinking, short game it is easy to forget that the objective is to win the point, and so become enamored with the short game for itself.  You may be like me, and just when you think you are doing a great job dinking and returning what comes your way, your opponent drives a ball down the middle of the court where you aren't.

But, typically as skills progress, a number of things come into play.  Third shot drops tend to be imperfect, and even the nearly perfect can be returned with pace by an alert opponent.  As well, when the short game is going along swimmingly, the opponent hits a ball that is harder to control, and a volley rally ensues.

The other things that happens often is that your competitor is not as enamored with the short game as you are and seizes opportunities to hit harder shots than you were looking for back at or to you, and you go from slow and steady wins the race to fast and furious leaves you standing on your head trying to get back into the play.

So, how do you break down fast and furious to get back to a more controlled rally?.  In fast and furious, the quickest hands, and the least obvious mistake usually results in the point.  But, in a short game rally, patience and endurance is more important.

A number of us have been discussing this and have had ideas of how to get things back to smooth and steady, but yesterday Brian Staub on  presented the answer, which is actually the second part of an answer he was giving early to how to defend hard hitters.

His first video of significance to this topic was about the Step Back Defense.  Essentially, the Step Back Defence is moving from your set position at the net back a step or two to set up a bit off the kitchen line. You then set up as you would at the kitchen line, in the same body position and readiness.

If you have stepped back from the line, you have a little more distance available to you between you and your opponent to be able to defend the result of imperfect play by you or your partner.

The second video is about Blocking.  Where the Step Back Defense allows you to have more space in front of you to defend a hard shot, Blocking is a type of shot that takes the pace off the returned ball.  It can be combined with Step Back Defense, or can be used at the net to slow the game back down.

Blocking is essentially about having soft hands on your paddle, so that your paddle absorbs a hard hit ball, rather than projecting that same power back in your return.  As well, in the Block shot, you can use either a gentle push motion or a slight cut back stroke to put back spin on the shot.  The main idea is to take the pace off the ball, and put it back into the non volley zone.

If you watch the best players in a rally, you will see the short game happening, and then somebody makes a mistake, and a furious volley ensues.  But, with the best players, that volley somehow gets slowed back down again often, and the short game is back on.

Now with these two videos above, you know how they do it.