A New Age in Pickleball

Pickleball is unique in three ways:

1) It has the lowest barrier to entry of all paddle and racquet sports.

2) It largely removes advantages coming from age, gender and even athletic ability. And…

3) It has developed a unique culture where both friendship and activity intersect.

The paddle and underhand serve to lower the barrier to entry. The low bouncing ball and non-volley zone mitigate discrimination. The small court and preference for doubles and “groupy” nature encourage socialization.

But the aspect of age discrimination is eroding. And I think that’s good news for the sport.

Dave Weinbach

Dave Weinbach has won gold in Mens Doubles during both Pickleball US Opens

The inevitable rise of younger players to the top of this sport is near; this is wonderful for everyone and humbling for some, including me. Three years ago Brian Staub, at 56 years old, won Nationals with Phil Bagley (Phil was in his 40s). Two years ago Steve Dawson and his son Callam took silver in the Nationals. Steve was 50.

But in 2016, no player over 50 even medaled in the top three Mens Open tournaments in the nation. Dave Weinbach appears ageless on the court and demonstrates that a player in their 40s can still prevail in the highest levels of play.

I predict that, within 3 years, no player over 50 will ever medal again in the biggest men’s doubles events (except within age brackets). Sad for some. But great for the sport and for the many young players who enjoy it immensely. The sport which works so hard not to discriminate against age is finally giving way.

Kyle Yates

22-year-old Kyle Yates was Dave’s partner for both Opens

Even the USAPA cannot dictate a low enough bouncing ball to stop this train!

Kyle Yates, Ty McGuffin and Ben Johns love the sport and now own it. Seniors like me do our best to simply acknowledge and celebrate this trend. Younger players bring a thrill to the sport that is exciting. And I am a happy resident of Realville!

Pickleball rallies conclude with all four players at the kitchen line. Typically, a popped up ball and lightening fast exchange concludes the point. Suffice to say, youth will prevail in these exchanges.

What are your thoughts on pickleball’s growing trend of favoring younger players?

Win More Points by Being Unpredictaball

I encourage players of all levels to play high percentage pickleball. Aggressive, low percentage shots may be fun for some, but other players will get frustrated at the resulting losses.

Pickleball loves consistency, and more points are lost than won. Many more.

High percentage pickleball is frequently described as hitting the right shot in a particular situation time after time. This is partly true, but not entirely. Many players do hit the same shot in a particular situation consistently, but as their opponent, I’m completely relaxed because I know exactly what to expect.

They are predictable. They are safe. And while safe pickleball wins at many levels and is quite fun, the element of surprise is essential at higher levels. Incorporate a hint of danger into your game.

Be unpredictaball.

Leaping for pickleball

Go for difficult shots and be consistent yet flexible (Credit: Chad Ryan)

Yeah, silly word. What do I mean by it?

In every situation there are several high percentage shot options. For me, high percentage means there is over an 80% chance my shot will be in. The 80% shot should be aimed to throw my opponents off more than the 95% shot.

Such a shot might involve hitting the ball near the sideline to throw your opponent off balance or driving a shot hard and low so it’s difficult to return. These shots nearly always occur at the kitchen line, but driving a third shot from the baseline is effective at times. High percentage play is not the same as predictable play.

This element of surprise generates anxiety and tension in opponents. We don’t want our opponents too comfortable or confident! Uncertain players make more errors. I love it when I know a player so well that I can guess the exact shot they’ll hit.

If I don’t know whether a well-placed dink, drive or lob is coming, I tighten up! Don Paschal was famous for this. He would take a backhand volley off his shoelaces at the kitchen and put it in my chest. Sometimes I couldn’t even see the ball till it crested the net.

Don’t use head fakes. They appear odd. Short back swings help you sell one shot and deliver another. Large back swings foretell hard shots. Decide even before your opponent hits the ball that, if the ball arrives where you expect, you’ll deliver a surprise shot.

Pickleball in center court

Hitting balls through the center of the court can slow your opponents (Credit: Chad Ryan)

Stroke or volley the ball using the appropriate mechanics. Avoid wristy shots that are difficult to control. Moving soft kitchen shots from the sideline to the center creates confusion as to which of your opponents will take the ball. An occasional lob might force your opponents to be uncertain about whether to take a step back from the kitchen line.

Keep your opponents guessing where and how hard every ball will come. Bringing a bag of high percentage trick shots to the court might just win you a few points and a few laughs.

Toes to the Kitchen Line!

Warren Buffet advises investors to buy low and sell high, while Kenny Rogers says you need to know when to hold and when to fold. In pickleball, you must know when to hit soft and when to strike!

Most beginning picklers prefer taking balls after the bounce rather than volleying (hitting the ball in the air before it bounces). They back up rather than advancing to take balls in the air. Great pickleball players love to volley and are adept at moving forward to hit winners. So get your toes to the line and own that kitchen!

Pickleball at the highest level is always won and lost at the kitchen line. No pros have succeeded with a baseline strategy.

Hitting from the base line

Unless you’re staying back for the serve, get to the kitchen line! (Credit: Michael D. Martin)

Do you prefer to wait for a bounce rather than smacking balls in the air? First, this requires a lot more energy. Second, it exposes your feet to your opponents. Third, taking a ball after it bounces gives your opponents much more time to react. Fourth, striking a ball before it bounces allows more offensive shots that may surprise your opponents.

For many of us, volleying is not as instinctive or safe as ground strokes. The wrist action involved, especially for low balls, can be awkward and inconsistent. Try punching the ball with a firm wrist. Bend your knees if possible so your line of sight is closer to the ball and net level.

Punching a pickleball

Good “punching” technique (Credit: Ron B)

Either punch the ball back deep to force your opponents to stay back, or block the ball with almost no forward motion to drop the ball just over the net. This latter shot can be extremely effective, especially with us less mobile players! Drill with a partner and just focus on punching balls back.

Another volley method is using topspin as in table tennis. Keep your body square to the net and the paddle perpendicular to the ground while using a sweeping forehand or backhand motion from your elbow upward. Keep the stroke compact. How much wrist you use depends on your comfort level, but start with a firm wrist.

Pickleball at the net

Playing at the net (Credit: Michael D. Martin)

Tennis has evolved away from a serve and volley game to a baseline game. With some notable exception, many tennis players prefer hitting pickle balls after they bounce rather than volleying. Ping pong players never volley. In the highest level of pickleball, most winning shots are volleys, not ground strokes.

Hitting volleys requires that you get to the kitchen line and own it! Don’t back away unless lobbed. Love taking balls before they bounce. Learn to wine and dine at the kitchen line!

It Takes a Thousand Hours

Malcolm Gladwell convinced us that 10,000 hours of practice leads to greatness. Do the math. Many of us don’t have 10,000 hours of pickleball left! That’s twenty hours per week for ten years. Plus, while my skills are improving, my body seems to be declining… slowly, I hope.

Clock

Credit: Kylesteed

But one thousand hours is a reasonable goal. I have probably logged about 1,000 hours.

My pickleball journey is a long series of plateaus. Advancements came quickly at first, than much more slowly. But my comfort level with the soft game and in nearly all other aspects of this quirky sport is high after 1,000 hours of play.

Hitting third shots and kitchen dinks, for example, simply takes practice for most of us. Doing this in a competitive situation where there is some pressure might accelerate the learning curve.

Notebook

Keep track of progress! (Credit: CeresB)

Start logging your hours and see whether you agree that, at the 1,000 hour mark, you have reached a level of pickleball play that is quite enjoyable. Hey, that’s still a lot of pickleball!

In doing so, you may find you’ve also reached a new fitness level and developed a few new friends.

Comments?

 

Raise Your Floor… Not Your Ceiling

Sorry, no HGTV tips here. Just PickleballSpeak!

Ever had one of those days on the court where nothing feels right, nothing goes right and the weakest player in your community is smiling because he or she just collected their first win from you and will never, ever let you forget?

Pickleball winners

Pickleball winners (Credit: Michael D. Martin)

First, if there is any joy in winning, why not give a little joy? Second, we’ve all been there. But some players, whether in recreational or tournament play, are able to perform well no matter the opponents, ball, venue, wind, temperature or emotional state. They have raised their floor to a level of consistency that gets past those first rounds of tournament play until the muscle and mind are in sync and performing.

My wife and I showed up late to the beautiful Freedom Park courts in Palm Desert a couple days ago just after I took two silvers in Marcin Rozpedski’s tournament. We planned to just drill slowly that morning, but within a few minutes we were facing some outstanding players who were feeling great and banging away. One even had my Selkirk Omni 31P XO paddle (I love getting beat by someone with my paddle)!

Anyway, in order to prevail, we really had to focus and play well with almost no warm up! I was afraid that I would have to donate my trophies to the club otherwise!

Pickleball jump

One way to raise your floor is to jump off of it! (Credit: Chad Ryan)

My floor is often too low, but here are a couple things I think about to try and raise my floor:

1. Find your rhythm by watching the spinning ball. Which way is it spinning? Did I see the blur of my paddle hit the ball? Don’t be distracted by opponents or your partner. There is only a ball and a beat. Feet dancing. Back, bounce, swing. How many balls can I return in a row without mistakes?

2. Be consistent rather than banging away. Bangers often have low floors because balls either go long or in the net. Give every ball a life by hitting over the net and in. Make your opponents beat you with extraordinary shots. Then smile and congratulate them.

3. Warm up for at least 45 minutes prior to an important first match. Get relaxed. Hit at least ten great third shots in a row. I smile at players who spend lots of time and money going to tournaments and then warm up for only ten minutes prior to their first match when they know that their peak performance normally doesn’t occur till after an hour or two of play—and that they can sustain that level for many hours.

Finger on paddle

Player showing proper finger-on-paddle-face form (Credit: Baliboa Racquet)

4. Grab your paddle more firmly with your finger on the face. This can reduce the wrist action required in strokes. Wrist action in pickleball is tricky because players cannot “grab” the ball with topspin as in tennis or ping pong. Striking the ball more squarely with a firm wrist improves consistency.

5. Drill, baby, drill. Spend less of your time playing games, and more time drilling with a partner.

Some players have very high ceilings and very low floors… and they find it difficult to attract great partners. Players with lower ceilings but much higher floors attract great partners. Being a top club or tournament player demands consistently strong performance through ten to twenty games.

I would love to hear other thoughts or tips from players on raising their floor level of play.

 

The Future of Power Pickleball: Will the Bangers Win?

We veterans love the soft game with its long rallies. The USAPA does its part by making rule changes to preserve the soft game and protect the nature of pickleball to keep us happy. Instructors remind frustrated students who want to wail on wiffle balls that consistency and patience are rewarded.

Many young people along with tennis and racquetball players put down their paddles because they find the soft game so dreadful. So far, no player has been able to achieve a 5.0 rating without some level of mastery of the soft game.

Dinking

Dinking slow and steady (Credit: Michael D. Martin)

And all the while, uninformed spectators find the 50-stroke rallies confusing and boring…

Why don’t they just hit a winner and finish the point? 

But perhaps the spectators are not so wrong.

Last night I played with a 25-year-old college tennis stud that got me rethinking where pickleball might go. He hit the ball so hard and low that put away volleys were unthinkable.

Just try to block the ball back,” I told myself. These young tennis players love Morgan Evans’ longer Signature Paddle by Selkirk. And like Morgan, they’re hitting with amazing speed and topspin.

A ball hit very hard within an inch or two of the net with topspin might land near the kitchen line.

Makes it tough to volley, even with my larger Omni 31P Paddle! With a bit of practice and focus, it’s not so hard to hit a ball within a few inches of the net. Hey, the net is only about 22 feet away and waist height!

Slamming

Can you defend against slams? (Credit: Chad Ryan)

So I predict that, at the highest level of play, doubles rallies will get shorter rather than longer in the coming years.

Much shorter. More like singles.

Serves and returns will not simply be preliminaries but will become more aggressive shots that are vital to the outcome of the point. Just as there is one setter in volleyball, expect that one partner will hit every third shot while the other partner (who happens to be of basketball proportions) performs the spiking role to pounce on a popped up volley.

Tactics may involve the forward player acting as a decoy or even blocking the opponents’ visibility to the ball until the last moment. Volleyers on both sides will frequently leap or straddle the kitchen corner to put away shots near the sidelines. Most points will involve the ball hitting the floor only twice—the service and return.

Then, watch out!

Pickleball and basketball

Will pickleball requirements become more similar to basketball’s? (Credit: Baliboa Racquet)

I’m not saying there will be no place for soft shots, but I can imagine the soft shots punctuating aggressive play. Even now, a barely perceptible trend is emerging where attackers, not the defenders, are more likely to win the point.

A lot of this might depend on whether the injection-molded ball (Onix Pure 2) or a rotationally-molded ball (DuraFast 40) prevails in top play. But my theories on which ball encourages the power game are still in process.

Okay, I’m probably wrong about all this. I hope I’m wrong and rallies get even longer. But the sport is going somewhere, and younger athletes than me will define that path.

Then again, perhaps the USAPA will dictate a nerf ball!

These blogs make wild speculations so easy and forgivable. What matters much more than my opinion?  Your opinion. Please blast away!

 

Pickleball Calm

Few sports demand the abrupt transitions between calm and intensity so common in pickleball. I played doubles recently with one of the finest athletes over 50-years-old whom I’ve ever met. In his first game, he played completely relaxed yet raised his intensity and focus perfectly at critical moments. He played flawlessly.

Pickleball reach

You’ve got to keep your calm under pressure! (Credit: Michael D. Martin)

In the second or third game, after making a few mistakes, he begin to tighten up. As he tightened, the calm and relaxation disappeared, and he compensated by raising his intensity throughout every point. Mistakes flowed. Frustration mounted. And at the end of several games, he was both exhausted and discouraged.

Pickleball calm is essential in this quirky little sport. This is unnatural for many tennis players and other athletes. But at the present stage of this emerging sport, it is mandatory… and fun. I simply wouldn’t last during long kitchen rallies with prolonged intensity, happy feet and bent knees.

Bent knees

Don’t play with bent knees all the time (Credit: Michael D. Martin)

Some of the finest players, like Aspen Kern and Mike Gates, almost appear lazy. They are relaxed but keenly focused.

No need to keep your knees bent throughout every point. Stand up, stay alert, and watch the ball come off your opponent’s paddle. Think of each point as a long dance which could be sustained for minutes.

Meditating

Get into a meditative state (Credit: Tina Sbrigato)

And breathe!