Tuesday, September 30, 2014

How to Slow Down Bangers

I started writing articles for the Rincon Country West Pickleball Club in Tucson AZ, to try and improve the quality of play here, and to encourage players at the London Pickleball Club in London Ontario where we spend much of our year, to improve their game as well.

My biggest single objective was to help myself and others to transition from a more tactical hard hitting (banging) style of play to a more strategic, measured approach depending more on a touch game at the net.

It appears that what I have written has been supportive of the mental move that many players I know wanted to make away from squirrel in traffic pickleball to slow and steady wins the race.

But, the problem has always been the tennis players, particularly the good ones who have practical power on their side, and won't move away from a power game until they have to.  Why should they? In truth, the hard hitting game for them is far more measured and intentional than it is for those of us who came from other racquet sport disciplines, so we play squirrel in traffic to their measured play.

Since returning to Canada, I have had very little interaction with the local club, except electronically, and for a small group that have joined me for practice sessions regularly, with some games thrown in. I was not trying to avoid playing with others, but amazingly life here in Canada for my wife and I is far busier than in our winter home in Tucson, and so I have far less time for pickleball here than down south. Cataract surgeries for me, and a knee replacement for her got in the way also.  So, I chose to use my pickleball time to achieve an objective of improving my game, rather than just playing games.

But, last Saturday I was at our local outdoor courts and had the opportunity to play with the club's best player, a former tennis player, John Blackwell, who has regularly beaten us mere mortals with smart positional play, court savvy, and power.  So, I was surprised to see that he had seriously adopted the short game, and that his use of power had been largely replaced with a clean, touch game. I was also shocked at how good his touch game was, though that should not have been a surprise since he is such a good athlete to begin with.  To me that makes him all the more dangerous as a competitor, but his adoption of a broader style of play augurs well for the club, since I think that most people take their lead from him.  If a short, strategic, touch game is good enough for John, it is likely going to be good enough for the rest of the club.

But, one thing I have written about in the past is the approach many take even in recreational games to target a perceived weaker player by drilling shots at them.  When I was involved in directing the Pickleball Association of Ontario tournament a couple of weeks ago, I was disappointed to see in medal matches that the better players in the province were still using this modus operandi, particularly the men in mixed doubles, and therefor disappointed that though players were more skillful than in previous years, there was still this banging, chauvinist approach to mixed play at least.

Recently, I was asked by one of the women in our club how to defend against bangers, and I pointed her to an article I wrote a while back using some video from Brian Staub at The Villages.

I certainly have no qualms about recommending Brian Staub and the videos he has crafted about key points in the game.  After all, he and his partner Phil Bagley are the reigning USAPA Nationals Champions from 2013.

But, some of you might appreciate the approach of a female multiple gold medal winner from The Villages, Deb Harrison.  Deb Harrison has played the game for a number of years and been coaching at The Villages for 10 of them.  She is in the throws of releasing a series of videos, that are worth watching, in which she explains in short segments various aspects of the game.

The first two videos are called Pickleball: Ready Position at the Non Volley Zone, and Pickleball Punch Block: Deb Harrison.  Both of these videos are simple steps to make bangers stop banging at you.  When you play against bangers, you have a couple of choices.  You can walk off the court, which is hard to do in a tournament, though in recreational play it might make a point.  You can put your big girl or big boy pants on and take it, which is not a lot of fun, particularly if you are certain of the result, if not the final score.  But, third, you can learn how to defend it, and make it work to your advantage.  That is where Deb Harrison comes in.

In "Ready Position at the Non Volley Zone", Deb shows you how to position your body to play against bangers.  She invites you to form a wall against bangers, not a fox hole.  She advises players to be square to and at the non volley line, and stay put.  She describes paddle position, body positioning, and paddle grip.  The emphasis is on meeting the ball straight on, not twisted away from it.  In this video her focus is on squaring up the paddle to the line as well,

A very important point she makes is that since 80% of all hard hit balls will come towards your body, that the paddle should be above the wrist and elbow for better control.  When she demonstrates the return against bangers, you will notice that she hits most of the shots with the paddle face slightly open, but blocking not pushing the shot. (The push comes later in the next video).

You will probably also notice that there is no forward movement of the paddle during her return.  Her hands are soft in holding the paddle, so a hard shot coming against her paddle meets only enough resistance to redirect it to where she wants it to go, but with the zip taken off it.

Unsaid, but easily understood is that the person banging the ball at you is using a lot more energy to attack you than you are using to defend, which becomes more important in a tournament as the day wears on.  When the bangers flag towards the end of the tournament, Deb and those who use her approach are more likely to remain fresh as daisies, at least relatively.

In the second video, with more to come, Deb demonstrates the punch block defense against bangers. In the first half of the video, she builds on the previous video which focused on balls at the body to show how to take high and low balls in a similar manner with important variation.  Low balls cannot be met with a square paddle face, nor can high balls.  Low balls need to come up and high balls need to come down, so paddle position becomes important once again.  For low balls, the paddle face needs to be more open, and for high ones the paddle face needs to be more closed.

One of the most important things she demonstrated, which is particularly obvious in the slow-mo part of the video is that her eyes are on the ball as it meets the paddle.  This is very important, and if you remember nothing else from the video, this point alone is gold to improving your pickleball skill set, if it is not already part of your game.

She then progresses to the main focus of the video, the Punch Block defence.  To the previous shots, she adds a slight punch of a maximum of 3-4".  She stresses that it is important for now to not take a swing at the ball, but to punch it only.  Punching it adds some velocity to your return, but not by sacrificing probability of success.

The punch block is a selective shot.  Like any shot in your arsenal, it should be used strategically. If someone is banging hard at you from the back line, then the soft hand square paddle block takes velocity off the ball, forcing the banger to come to the net hard where you are already positioned. But, if someone is banging at you from mid court, then a punch block makes more sense.  The punch block takes the heat off the ball, but puts it back at your opponents feet.  The idea in both cases is to make it harder for a banger to keep banging and to force them to come to you on your terms.

Though her next video is to be about swing volleys, it seems appropriate to me to build the skill of these first two videos before moving there, and that is how she has set it up.

I am looking forward to more from Deb Harrison.  You can subscribe to her videos on YouTube by looking for Deb Harrison and clicking the Subscribe button.

As she says in her subscription page: "Solid fundamentals are critical to your pickleball success."

Well, here are two examples of fundamentals that will improve your success against the heavy hitters.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Strategy then Tactics

In a recent email communication with one of our good over 65 male provincial players Bob Cook-Abbott, he told me about a method that some of the USAPA coaches have adopted which makes amazingly good sense.

When Bob and I and most of you readers started playing the game, we got into the thrill of hitting the ball first, and then hitting it harder after we got the hang of it.  We learned the basic service, kitchen line, point scoring rules, and then went off to hack and whack with each other.  I am assuming that Bob had as much fun as I did in those heady early days.  The games are fun, and the people who play pickleball are as much fun to be around as the games.

To play games with your friends and then go for lunch and a coffee afterwards is not a bad slice of life.  When I was younger, and playing football and rugby, we went for beer after and rehashed the game we had just played until we were no longer sober enough to recall it.  But now with pickleball, especially when most of the players are seniors, we don't need the beer to forget the games, so when we go for coffee we don't particularly talk about the games we just played, because we all have better long term memory than short term memory, so we talk about pickleball from a more broad perspective, and just enjoy each other's company..

But, to put the problem that I have been trying to articulate on this site for some time (ad nauseum) in a different perspective, Bob gave me a clue to what is wrong with our instruction in the game, and leads to how slowly players develop.

As I spend winter in Tucson, Arizona, I regularly trek up to Palm Creek which is the Southern Arizona RV Resort mecca for pickleball.  Palm Creek built 24 beautiful courts a couple of years ago, and as Ray, the hero in Field of Dreams heard a voice say: "If you build it, they will come", come they have.

Palm Creek has the best club for building skills in pickleball south of Phoenix, and possibly in the whole state of Arizona.  They combine Open Play, with Skill level Play including Round Robins and Shootouts.  They also have instructions at all levels of the sport, and up their game each year.  They have all courts running at least 12 1/2 hours a day throughout the winter season, and players from Palm Creek regularly do very well in tournaments, including their own excellent tournament for non residents in March.  They are committed to helping the raw beginner build skills to compete against better players, and they also provide opportunities for the better players to play each other and hone those skills.

You can see from their blog web site that they take the game seriously but for fun.  They must be doing some things very right, since the 2015 USAPA Nationals will be moved there which is a big feather in their cap.

A look at their court schedules starting this December is a clue as to their attention to details, and addressing the needs of all who pick up this fun sport.  There is one luxury of the southern locations, and that is that they have dedicated pickleball courts that are available all day long and into the evening.  That allows them to cater to all levels and needs.

In places where court time is rationed, it is a challenge to build skills, but a part of that is attitudinal.

The point that Bob was trying to make was that some USAPA coaches are moving towards teaching Strategy first over Tactics.

If you think about it most of us learned tactics first, and a lot of our games had a squirrel in traffic quality to them, and many of them still do, particularly if we play against better players.  In fact, if you follow the USAPA progression from 1,0 to 5.0 levels of play you see that strategy only slowly starts to work its way into the mix as you progress up the levels, until strategy and skill merge totally at the 5.0 level of play.

As Bob said to me in email:
I have started to buy into a concept expounded by some USA coaches: learn strategy first (these are relatively easy concepts about control, 3rd shot short, net play, positioning, low risk shots). THEN practice technique to implement strategy (3rd shot short is not an easy learn so most casual players avoid as high risk!). I realise we need both.
Since the game is so relatively new in most locations in North America, we have done what we could do to learn with no real solid basis for our learning. Now, those of us who have played for some time have to relearn, and unlearn to get better.

But, for new players, we can adopt methods like at Palm Creek of teaching them well. One of the better techniques for teaching the game is to show video in a classroom setting. There are excellent videos of top level players in USAPA Nationals, and other major tournaments and all are available on YouTube.

I favor showing these videos to students of the game early on, to demonstrate what can be done, and how great the game is played at a 5.0 level. These videos show strategic, patient play leading into immediate tactics to win points.

For those who learn by seeing live better, take them to a tournament to watch the best players there and to see how it is done. If they have been playing for a few years, invite them to enter a tournament at an appropriate level, so that they can learn the difference between being king of an ant hill and fighting to climb the mountain of a tournament.

Next rather than just showing players how to hit the ball, we should be showing them where and when at an early stage.

So many players are enthralled with spin serves and returns that are probably fun except for the fact that they failure rate is very high.

So here are some strategies to get across very early on:

1) A serve that is not in play is a loss of an opportunity to score. Serve inside the boundaries and forget being cute, until getting it in is mastered, at least.

2) A short return invitees the opponents to the non volley zone so practice returning all serves long near the back line, but not out. An out of bounds return or one in the net gives the opponents a point. Hitting it short lets them get to the net first and first one to the net has an advantage.

3) Watch where the serve return team moves after returning your serve, and either drop your third shot over the net into the kitchen, or if they hang back put it at their feet. If they do not want to take control of the kitchen area, then don't let them. Take it for yourself, or if they are there get there as quickly and prudently as you can.

4) Work your way to the net and engage your opponents in a short dinking game to balance the skills and scales with power hitters and then look for the opportunity, with patience, to move them to a place where you get a chance at a kill shot that has higher percentages of success.

The main skills of the game are included in these strategic points. There are drills on this site under Skills for practicing each of the skills necessary to effect these strategic points.

So, if we are going to introduce people to this great game, let's introduce them properly to what this game is really all about.