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.

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