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.

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