The Overlooked Importance of Breathing

For most of us breathing comes naturally.

But in some physical pursuits whether stretching, running, weight lifting or giving birth, our breathing instincts may differ from what is best. We actually hold our breath when we ought to exhale or inhale.

Top athletes, unlike me, recognize the importance of deliberate breathing particularly in the midst of a strenuous exertion. Since pickleball is a sport which requires both relaxation and exertion, deliberate breathing may be helpful.

Breathing woman

Credit: sankarwaits

One particular friend grunts every time he hits a ball, and sometimes even when he doesn’t hit a ball! Grunting always involves exhaling. Monica Seles and Jimmy Conners were famous for their grunting.

So if you find yourself holding your breath during a point, trying grunting every time you hit the ball. If you can do so quietly, all the better. And if your partner is getting all the balls, don’t forget to breathe anyway.

I would love to hear other comments on how breathing affects your pickleball game!

Seeing the Net as the Third Opponent

I was watching FIFA World Cup soccer with my wife, Paula, a few months ago. So many goal opportunities are lost when shooters sail balls over the goalposts. Great for field goals in American football. Not so much in European football.

When a shooter resolves to strike within the goalposts and force the goalie to make a save, good things happen. The same is true in pickleball when players resolve to keep the ball over the net and in play.

Pickleball nets

Nets can cause just as much trouble as opponents! (Credit: John Beagle)

When you and your partner resolve to hit every ball over the net and force your opponents to hit a winner, good things happen! Not every time, but more often than we think.

It may be helpful to think of the net as your third opponent. Do I subconsciously hit balls into the net rather than let my opponents hit a winner?  I play routinely with Nick Williams and notice that he can play entire games without hitting a ball into the net.

Pickleball is such a simple game. I decided yesterday to hit every ball over the net. It helped, but I sure failed a lot.

I would love to hear your thoughts on techniques to keep balls in play.

4 Methods for Dealing with the Smug Lobber

One of the primary reasons tennis players migrate to pickleball is to avoid rotator cuff injuries related to the overhead smash. Additionally, lobbing in pickleball is relatively difficult compared to tennis because the court is so much smaller. So players with fantastic overhead smashes may not see a lot of lobs.

Pickleball overhead

Credit: Chad Ryan

While there are several effective strategies to counter the banger, there are fewer effective strategies to contend with the smug lobber. Have a shorter and less mobile player with a weak overhead smash get lobbed over and over again. Or lobbed and then dinked in turn repeatedly until they are exhausted.

Sort of a cat and mouse game. There is very little the exhausted player can do to erase the smug smile off the Cheshire Cat. Here are four options for dealing with the smug lobber:

1) Learn to leap like Michael Jordan and crash an overhead smoking into the corner. For some of us, this option is not viable. We have a hard time getting our shoelaces off the floor and we lack upper body strength.

2) Finish the game, tap paddles and never walk back in the court with that player on the opposite side again. This is not a bad idea for those of us whose frustrations mount when lobbed repeatedly. This is a better option then getting a concealed carry permit!

Overhead smash

Credit: Chad Ryan

3) The third option is to bear with it and simply hit overhead smashes back to the center line and try to endure. It may help to stand a couple feet behind the kitchen line to be better prepared for a lob. A corollary to this option is initiating the lob yourself. Unfortunately, most lobbers happen to have great overhead smashes and do so with glee.

4) Ask the lobber to desist. Not in the existential sense, but to simply stop lobbing. Tell him or her that it’s simply not fun.

Regardless of what route you take, don’t get discouraged. Pickleball is often a game of out-thinking and outlasting your opponent. Eventually the lobber may lose their cool, make a mistake or get tired of their own game. Wait for your opening to strike or work on sending those balls flying toward the baseline.

In the meantime, if you want to play pickleball that’s less a war of attrition, there’s nothing wrong with that either! Play the game that’s the most fun for you.

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?