Sunday, November 9, 2014

Short Game - Playing Against Heavy Hitters

Recently, Deb Harrison, an accomplished 5.0 Pickleball Player and medalist from The Villages in Florida started producing short instructional videos on various aspects of the game.  In a few minutes she is able to present and dissect fundamental pieces of the game of pickleball.

Though I referenced the first two of this series of 4 videos about dealing with Heavy Hitters, I have reprized those two and added the other two that are relevant to the topic of how to play against bangers.

If in your browser on your device you can see the picture and video link, then click on it.  If, like me you use an iPad as your primary web browser, then click on the title of each video below which provides a link to the video.

Ready Position at the Non Volley Line

Deb Harrison takes us through a progression that starts with being ready at the Non Volley Line. Here is what I said about this instruction video:
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.
When executing this shot, you have a measure of control over where it will end up, and this comes with practice.

Your paddle angle determines the direction the ball will take, and the softness of your hands will determine how much of the velocity of the ball coming to you remains on your return. A ball coming to your paddle at 30 miles per hour will not leave your paddle at that speed if you just meet the ball with no velocity behind your stroke, and grip.  The paddle absorbs the velocity of the original shot, and the softness of your hands determines how much velocity remains. 

In the second video Deb moves forward with the progression of defending against hard hitters.  
... 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.
One of the most important aspects of the Punch Block (push the paddle 3-4") or the Freeze Block (hold the paddle in place and let the ball come to it) comes from her description of the wall.

When playing against heavy hitters the tendency is to get out of the way, and take a half hearted swing at the ball.  Deb has shown us to make a wall of our body and paddle to defend, not cower. The first sense we have of a wall is a straight structure from top to bottom, but she adds a very important wrinkle to our wall.  Her wall is actually concave, if not in initial presentation, then at least in excecution.

A real problem that many of us have is getting the ball down at our opponent's feet, and up over rather than into the net.

So, think of your wall as concave.  It angles down at the top, and up at the bottom.  So, if in fact it were an actual wall, and not a moving wall of your body and paddle, a ball hitting near the top of your concave wall would be directed down and a ball hitting at the bottom of your concave wall would be directed up.

How many times have you had your paddle extended up to block a shot and had your return go long. With this happening to me lately I have taken to looking at my paddle position immediately after the shot, and to no surprise every time my paddle face is flat and not turned down a few degrees.   Mystery of the long shot solved.  Now, if I can only put that into practice.

So, use your paddle to form the bottom or top of your wall. Angle it up at the bottom, and down at the top.

OK. So, being able to receive the shot of heavy hitters at the non volley line is one thing, and adding a little velocity to it with a punch block is another, but returning velocity with velocity is another matter all together.

But, essentially the rules for a volley return are largely similar to the block shots above.  You still want your feet positioned properly and want to meet the ball in front of you (against your wall).

But, what changes is the follow through.  Unspoken but obvious if you watch Deb's video is that your eye must be on the ball at the point of contact.  In fact, it should be tracking the ball to your paddle, and then should remain focused on the point of contact beyond the actual contact with the ball.

Part of being able to impart velocity to a shot and have it go where you want it to go is keeping your upper body quiet.  In that you are positioned at the non volley zone and prepared for a shot to come your way, your lower body is already in a state of preparedness.  But, quiet in the upper body means that your head is locked on the point of contact, so that all body motion is rotation at the shoulders. One objective is consistency.  If you keep your stroke consistent, including your body motions then the outcomes are more predictable and controllable.

Pickleball: Smackdown Your Opponents Mistakes

The 4th video in the series of playing against heavy hitters is actually about dealing with opponents mistakes.  I have left it in with the playing heavy hitters videos because heavy hitters are often enamored of their power shots and do not notice their mistakes.  But you should be noticing them and taking advantage of them.

Though the Smackdown deals largely with balls that come at you that are higher than they should be, which are obvious.  But, also balls that come over the net even a few inches too high are candidates for a good old fashioned smack down. or sort of up before smacking down.

Anyway, the key remains where your paddle is facing at point of contact.  Remembering the wall that you have created, high shots come to the top of the wall, and should be met with a paddle face slightly turned down.

You will notice that Deb is meeting these shots out in front as usual, and that the action she puts on the ball comes from her wrists.  Her shoulders remain steady, and her wrists do the work.  At contact she snaps her wrists.  This brings the ball down as it crosses the net and if played properly should put it at your opponents feet giving you an advantage on the play.

Though she does not demonstrated it beyond a brief explanation a shot that comes to you that is low, but still high enough to do something with is handled much the same.  The paddle angle is consistent with where on the slightly concave wall you receive the ball, and again the wrist is snapped.  The wrist snap is intended to impart top spin on this ball so that it comes over the net and then makes its way to the ground at the feet of your opponent.

The overhead Smackdown is easier to grasp and execute, but the ball that comes at you lower and then is returned to a tough place for your opponent is worth the effort and practice it takes to get it working for you.

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