We cannot begin any discussion about tennis or Pickleball without discussing the warm-up and stretching. Bob Cairo, the Physical Therapist at Tidewater Physical Therapy & Rehab, conducted a free community clinic at the beginning of the Summer on how to avoid sport injuries. He covered many of the important stretches, while his assistant Mallory showed us what he was discussing. Two new things got my attention. Research indicates that the ankle is much more important to stretch ahead of time. The ankle is apparently talking to the knee and saying, “Get ready, big boy here has started to move and you have some significant stress coming.”
When I learned that every 2.5 pounds lost is worth about 10 pounds of stress on the knees, I started to diet immediately.
All these years, I have lumped “Warm-up” and “Stretching” together, but Cairo pointed out that we really need to do some activity to physically warm the body so it will be better prepared to accept the stress of your activity. Stretch and Warm-up.
Core Exercises became popular a few years ago. Wondering if it was a fad, I inquired and learned that researchers were puzzled while outstanding athletes were beginning to experience the simplest of injuries. They came to the opinion that as athletes specialized in certain sports, they had let other unused muscle groups go unstressed, and then when thrown into any unusual situation they suffered a strain or sprain. Core exercises help keep the entire body prepared.
2. Practice on a Backboard
Once you realize you want to play Pickleball, you need to hit a lot of balls to develop a feel for the ball on your paddle. Most people go out and hit all over the park for several months. Granted, the exercise they and their partners get chasing down all the balls is good for them, but it just isn’t much fun. By hitting on a backboard, or even bouncing the ball on your paddle several hundred times a day, you can expedite the learning process.
3. Don’t Run Backwards, Don’t lean backwards
As you learn, you and your partner will pop balls up in the air. People, whose center of gravity has gone northwards over the past few decades, try to run backwards, or lean backwards, and invariably they fall. Let it go, or go after it properly which is to turn sideways and run to your right or left to intercept the ball.
If you are not laughing in the first five minutes, something is wrong.
At Impact hitting the ball
5. Running Through the shot is a common mistake
Most of you continue to run as you hit the ball greatly increasing the chance for error. When you run through a shot you are not balanced. Also, because there are so many moving parts, every running forehand or backhand is different. As a result, it is impossible to develop muscle memory.
6. Not hitting through the ball
Another common mistake is not hitting through the ball by stopping the swing about half way. Add this to running through the shot and you have a disaster on your hands. Look out fence, ceiling, or innocent bystander. Of course, everyone on your court is safe because the ball won’t be near them
7. Flat Footed
Then there is the player who NEVER gets caught running through the ball because they hit everything flat footed. When you are flat footed, you are always off balance as soon as you need to move in any direction. Watch out, don't kill the grass!
8. Split Step
No, I did not say the old Two Step. I said “Split Step” where you come to a brief stop just before your opponent hits the ball, spread both of your feet, balance on the balls of your feet, with your knees bent, and be ready to move in any direction to react to the opponent’s shot.
It is all, I mean ALL, about balance.
We typically make mistakes and lose points when we are not on balance. On balance means both feet are placed under each shoulder, you are on the balls of your feet, and your knees are comfortably bent. In this way, your body can make those last second minute changes your brain is requesting. As an example, I am on the baseline awaiting your serve, and you hit a serve fairly short. I run (well, once upon before my auto-immune attack when I could run) towards the spot my brain calculated that the ball is going to bounce. Because I can't run, I depend on anticipation by watching my opponent hit the ball and listen to the impact on his/her paddle. Just before my opponent hits the ball I make a split step, balanced and ready to respond in any direction. Once I determine where it is going to land, I run to the impact spot, but as I approach the hitting zone I begin to reduce my stride and use baby steps to make those minute changes for wind, bad bounces, etc. Once I get into baby steps mode I continue to approach and then do another split step to prepare for that shot. The second split step allows me to again bring my body into balance as I prepare to hit the ball. At the moment of impact, my body is balanced and by using my knees as an elevator I hope to hit that forehand or backhand exactly like the last 100,000 forehands. Why is 100,000 important. There are some who believe you need to do any repetitive skill 100,000 before you gain complete confidence.
Preparation: Watch the ball leave your opponents paddle, listen for spins and mishits, speed towards the spot your brain thinks it will land, do a split step so you can make any last minute adjustment, get balanced while you take your racket back early, and then swing somewhat horizontal to the ground, follow through slightly upwards ending up pointing your paddle where you want ball to land. A faster follow through will increase the speed of the paddle and the ball. If you watch the best racket players in the world, they do exactly what I have described here but it is difficult to see because it happens so quickly. BUT, at the moment of impact they have stopped momentarily, balanced themselves, and hit the ball.
Bend your knees. It helps you improve balance by lowering your center of gravity, gets you down closer to the ball, better prepared to make last minute adjustments, and then helps you spring towards the next shot.
Confident Follow Through: The secret to a great ground stroke. How do you get confidence? Practice. When I played tennis, I practiced hitting the ground stroke to within 8 inches of the baseline, hour after hour.
Watching the ball is the most underrated problem in sport. Most of us miss shots because we were not watching the ball closely. I try and see the writing on the ball and attempt to watch it hot the face of my paddle.
Develop a Backhand: Same principle as forehand, but most folks fear it. If you don’t have a backhand, you need to position yourself on the court to favor your forehand…which then opens up more of the court to a good player.
In tennis my backhand was much stronger than my forehand because I practiced it so much. When someone attacked my backhand, they were hitting to my strength.
The key is to get balanced before you serve. Have some idea where you want to serve it based on what has happened in the game. The two bounce rule really negates the need for a super serve. Placement is much more important. Unlike tennis, a safe serve to the middle is really all you need. Remember, a fast serve is going to come back sooner.
EXCEPT, a good player might get used to the same serve time and again. So you need to be able to periodically throw in the riskier short serve, and/or deep serve to keep your opponent off balance.
The Deep serve pushes the returner back behind the base line which typically forces him/her to return shorter, giving you a better opportunity on the second shot.
Some folks hit the lob serve, but be careful because a good player will just take it as an overhead. A wide serve might come back wide to you so be prepared. A short serve allows the opponent to immediately get to net.
A serve delivered from very low is difficult to read for the opponent. Georgia has one of the better serves which she hits almost as if she were delivering a bowling ball.
Remember, warm up with a few serves before you begin because some of these balls are harder, some softer, and they carry long or short.
The Return of Serve
So after the serve, the next most important shot is the return of serve. It can be a flat return, a lob, a topspin return, or under spin return. A top spin is normally hit faster, but comes back faster. But the sudden increase in speed can catch someone off guard. A flat return is the safest shot to hit and a slow flat return hit deep gives you time to get to the kitchen. But it is more subject to the wind. The under spin has the highest error percentage but can override the wind longer and really create havoc when hit near the opponent’s feet.
Placement is the secret. Where you hit the return creates the opportunity, or lack of opportunity, for the following third shot. If it is deep and slow, it gives you more time to get to the net. If it is deep and to the feet or backhand, it is more difficult for them to return possible creating a short return from them. When I really need a point, I tell myself to watch that ball being served and try to read the logo or letters on the ball. An old adage here is TO PLAY THE BALL, DON’T LET THE BALL PLAY YOU.
The volley, the shot you hit at net, is not a ground stroke. There is the forehand volley, the backhand volley, and the half volley when you pick it up immediately on the bounce. There are high volleys where you hit down into the opponent’s court, and the low volley where you attempt to return it without hitting up and creating an opportunity volley for your opponent.
The entire strategy of Pickleball is to keep the ball low to your opponent and create the opportunity by forcing them to hit up to your team so you can make the volley.
The volley is simple. With your knees bent and your body balanced just behind the kitchen line, turn your body at the waist right or left and with your paddle “Open the door, close the door.” A high volley is like punching the ball with an open handed palm or back of hand and a stiff wrist. Open the door, close the door. In the event you get slightly more time and arehitting down, you can snap your wrist as part of the punch.
Most people should hold the paddle in the backhand position, even support it with your free hand, and just keep blocking it back.
The lower volley is where you get in the most trouble. Bend the knees to get down close to the path of the incoming ball, bend at the waist right or left as you take your paddle backwards, and the response is more delicate, a softer punch for more control back low across the net into the kitchen.
One other volley is the swinging volley from mid court. Because the Pickleball is so unpredictable relative to a tennis ball, and the sweet spot of the paddle is so small, you really need to watch the ball closely to improve your margin of error.
There is a Backhand Volley, not a forehand volley hit from your backhand side. Some folks might be better served by almost always hitting a backhand volley in fast exchanges.
Again balance and footwork is important. Just as your opponent begins to hit their volley, do a fast split step so you will land balanced and ready to move right, left, or backwards for a lob.
Finally, there is the drop shot volley, or soft handed volley, where you actually relax your wrist when the ball hits your paddle to take all the speed off the ball and just let it softly return into the kitchen. We will get into this with the Third Shot practice.
The Lob - Do as I say, not as I do.
The lob is a ground stroke with an upper trajectory. It is either a defensive lob or an offensive lob. In such a small court, the defensive log is almost always trouble. One reason for this is that your weight is moving away from the net when you hit it and you will invariable hit it too short.
You are much better off taking advantage of the kitchen and hitting a soft ball there. On the other hand, Offensive lobs score points because the player is balanced and from that position can hit a dink, a hard shot down the middle, or a lob. The defender cannot anticipate which shot you will hit.
Recovering from a lob hit over your head requires team work. If I am on the backhand side, and someone lobs me I have two options. I can turn sideways and drop back, or if my partner has a play on it will call “switch”. My partner has a much better chance running diagonally than I do moving backwards. If there is a switch, then in this case I will begin to move to the side just vacated by my partner and then work my way back to get parallel with him/her. Once back, we then once again move as a team, and try to retake the net as soon as we can.
Hitting an overhead is different than other shots. It is similar in motion to a baseball pitcher as they deliver a pitch. If not comfortable with the overhead, let it bounce and hit a simple volley or ground stroke.
"My Side - Your Side"
There is no such a thing as My Side – Your Side., it is Our Side. You are a team, you move forward and backward as a team, and you move sideways as a team. The ball down the middle is typically taken by the best shot at that moment. Your forehand might be better than my backhand. So you have toknow your partner better than you know your opponents.
Play the Point - not the Shot
I think in too many cases players get involved in the shot, not the point. Practice allows you to become so proficient you no longer think about the shot, but rather the point. Every point has a rhythm, and better players, even if they don’t realize it, stay tuned to the rhythm, and will try to change it if need be. I might speed it up, or slow it down, if I find someone has started scoring on me. This is why typically you will play back and forth in Pickleball without a change in score, and then suddenly someone breaks out and scores six or seven points in a row.
Sometimes I hear someone say “Great Volley”, when in fact the winner started two shots earlier when I hit a very deep shop down the middle resulting in a short return to my partner who then hit a very good drop shot. This forced the opposing team to run to the net and just pop-up a return which I smashed down the middle.
At the top level of all racket sports, there is a lot more going on than you can see. In many cases, the folks doing it are not even aware of what they are doing because they are just natural athletes. But you can bet they have practiced.
I played tennis at a much higher level than I deserved because I became a student of court sports. I was fortunate to have worked with the best tennis players in the world, and enjoyed many dinners with them and their coaches talking about these subtle points. The story that drives the nail about practice is as follows. After Billie Jean King defeated the favorite Chris Evert at Wimbledon, there was a famous national television scene where the camera followed her as she made her way through the crowd to a pay phone to call her father. I organized a dinner the following week with Chris and the president of Wilson Sporting Goods. As we were discussing Wimbledon, the president asked Chris what her father said when she spoke with him on the phone.
She reflected for a moment, and then said “He told me I wasn’t watching the ball, and bending my knees” which are the most basic elements of hitting the ball.
So you have hit 100,000 forehands, 100,000 backhands, ditto serve, return of serve, volley, lobs, etc. You get the point. Right? Now you have to get match tough. It is completely different. Mentally it is tougher, physically it is tougher, and requires a different discipline. How do you get match tough? Play matches. I have seen a lot of top players lay off because of an injury, and then when they return, although they have practiced, get knocked off the court until they reacquired this element to the game. After the great Bjorn Borg laid off from tennis for a long period, he decided to stage a comeback. His practice sessions were well chronicled at the time. A mutual friend saw Bjorn play his first match and he was shaking. His run of tournament attempts was disastrous and he retired.