The Pickleball Lab - Quarterly

At The Pickleball Lab we are focused on delivering the highest quality videos, articles, analysis and more. We work hard to bring a thoughtful — and sometimes thought-provoking — approach to the game we love. Here are some of the highlights from the last few months. Enjoy!

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Pickleball Strategy: In the Dirt (video)

One of the things that separates levels of players is their ability to finish points. Less skilled players often have to try will be familar with the feeling of having to try multiple times to end a rally.

One common reason for this inability to finish points is that many players are focused on the wrong thing when they get a high ball — hitting it hard. While there is nothing wrong with using speed, in this video we argue for why there is a more important principle in play.

 

Video Analysis: Ben Johns’ Third Shot Drop

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Ben Johns has one of the sweetest drops in pickleball. His effortless approach to getting the ball soft and low is the envy of many pickleball players. Hover over any of the images below for a detailed analysis of the technique Ben uses to execute this beauty.

Johns prepares his body and paddle together, using what is known as a ‘unit turn’. Notice that this happens before the ball lands, giving him ample time to make the shot. The short backswing is ideal for minimizing ball speed off the paddle, which is important for playing a good drop.

Johns prepares his body and paddle together, using what is known as a ‘unit turn’. Notice that this happens before the ball lands, giving him ample time to make the shot. The short backswing is ideal for minimizing ball speed off the paddle, which is important for playing a good drop.

Notice the high-to-low swing path and that contact is made before the paddle starts moving upward. The forward impact point ensures a solid hitting position and it is the open paddle face that gives the ball some height (and spin).

Notice the high-to-low swing path and that contact is made before the paddle starts moving upward. The forward impact point ensures a solid hitting position and it is the open paddle face that gives the ball some height (and spin).

The ball’s flight path is fairly straight, which is a key element to keeping the drop unattackable. While it has enough loft to get up and over the net, Johns’ drop travels on a noticeably flat trajectory. This is in contrast to the high arc that is advocated by some.

The ball’s flight path is fairly straight, which is a key element to keeping the drop unattackable. While it has enough loft to get up and over the net, Johns’ drop travels on a noticeably flat trajectory. This is in contrast to the high arc that is advocated by some.

 

CAN WE PLEASE TALK ABOUT DINKING?

By DJ Howard

Most people who have played pickleball for more than about 30 seconds know what a dink is. After all, it's one of the most commonly used terms on the court -- not to mention the off-the-court references seen in apparel, equipment and jewelry brands.  A large majority of players have a pretty good idea of how to dink and many times when to dink. But I wonder about how many players thoroughly understand why you want to dink the ball in the first place. After all, it is a slow moving ball that the opposition will almost certainly get back in play.

When I teach lessons or conduct clinics I will often ask participants what the purpose of a dink is. Invariably, I get a broad spectrum of responses -- as well as a handful of blank stares! It is clear that many players, even some very good ones, don't know the reasons for dinking. But they have been told it's a good idea, so they do it. Let’s try to shed some light on this topic.

As with other competitive athletic endeavors, each skill your perform should be done with intention. Soccer players don’t kick the ball “just because” and football quarterbacks don’t throw because “they feel like it”. Each of these actions is done in a particular way and for a particular reason. Dinking should be no exception.

While there may be many variables involved with dinking, if we boil it down to its essential elements we are left with two primary purposes of a dink. What are they?

First, you should want to try to keep the ball out of your opponent's strike zone. Sending the ball low over the net means that it will bounce low. A low bounce forces an upward swing from your opponent and that means that they cannot attack the ball without considerable risk of their shot flying long.  If you fail to keep the ball low and instead put the ball in your opponent's strike zone (read, "power zone") you allow them an opportunity to attack the ball with speed and with a strong probability of it staying in play. Keeping the ball lower and closer to the net denies them this opportunity. And that is great news for you!

Second, you should want to dink in a way that makes your opponent uncomfortable. Don't be content simply to bump the ball back right to the middle of your opponent's stance where it will be easy for them to retrieve it. You should intentionally change the pace, spin, depth, or direction of the ball in order to cause your opponent to hit more challenging shots. The variability in your dinks increases the likelihood that they will make an error. That said, while it is a nice bonus when your opponents miss outright, this  is not necessarily the goal. The goal is to pressure them to the point where they hit a ball up into your strike zone. You then gain an advantage and have an opportunity to attack the ball yourself. In effect, you have created an offensive opportunity by pressuring your opponents with effective dinking.


If you want to advance as a player you should not be satisfied merely to get the ball in play - you can aspire to more! But please do not confuse this with trying to hit winning shots. When playing dinks, your two primary goals should be to keep the ball out of your opponents strike zone and to pressure them with movement and variety. Doing so means they will lack an opportunity to hurt you and you will increase the chances that you get something in your strike zone that you can jump on.

The bottom line is you should be intentional about what you are doing with your dinks -- hit them with purpose!  Deny your opponent opportunities to attack and create those same opportunities for yourself.

DJ Howard is a professional pickleball Coach and 5.0 / OPEN tournament player.



VIDEO: SPICE UP YOUR TRAINING WITH DOUBLE-TOUCH VOLLEYS


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WHAT TO DO? THE PICKLEBALL ETHICIST

I run a semi-regular drill session for the pickleball players in our community. We have three indoor courts and there is quite a lot of interest (we usually have the 16 spots fill up fast). We have started making one of the sessions ADVANCED and indicated that it is for the 4.0+ players. But here’s the problem: One of our best players who is USAPA rated 4.5 brings her husband when she comes out. They are attached at the hip and do almost everything together. She’s great to train with but he is, well, really out of his element.

While the husband is a nice guy, he drags down the whole group and anyone who gets partnered with him ends up losing out and essentially having their time wasted. In normal circumstances we would tell him he’s in the wrong group but in this situation, we risk losing our main star, his wife.

Is there any way for us to keep her but ditch him?


High Performance Coaching Tip: Get Gambling

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Being a great player isn’t just about performing when there is nothing on the line — it’s about coming through in the clutch. But while many players train hard, not enough of them practice under pressure. If you want to be someone who rises to the occasion, it is vital that your practice sessions simulate match play as much as possible. That means creating situations where you feel pressure the way you would in a match. So, what can you do? Get gambling!

Next time you are training, find a way to make a bet. This could be a one-sided bet (e.g. “If this return doesn’t land within 3 feet of the baseline, I’ll do 10 pushups”) or it could be one that sees players competing for a prize (e.g. “the losing team buys the post-practice drinks”). Whatever you choose to do, it is important that you feel tournament-like pressure when you are playing. It is only by becoming comfortable in this environment that you’ll be able to perform at your best in it.

VIDEO: IN PRAISE OF THE SHORT RETURN

Conventional wisdom has it that like in doubles, it is smart when playing singles to hit the return of serve deep. The argument goes something like: “A deep return is good because it means the server will have to hit their third shot from farther back, giving you more time at the net to see and handle the ball. And in singles, this is especially important because you have to cover the whole court by yourself”.

But as you can see in this video, this might be a strategy worth reconsidering. Check out examples from the pros to see how deeper might not always be better.


HIT THE BALL WHERE YOU WANT IT TO GO

By Rick Norris

Seems simple enough, yet many exclaim "I just want to hit it!" or " I just want it to go over and in!". While that may be a first step (perhaps), we can't stop there if we want to play more competitively or even just more effectively.

Hitting the ball where you want it to go means we must CHOOSE/PLAN rather than react. This is a good step toward formulating a strategy beyond 'just over and in'. IF we choose a target, our brain has a chance to get more involved. IF we choose a target in a moment of quiet before having to perform, our brain has the opportunity to say, "Hey, that's a lousy idea...do something different" or "Yes, good idea, let's go with that!". CHOOSING/PLANNING creates the possibility for reflection and that’s a good thing.

Use the ‘Quiet’ Times

The two easiest times of "quiet" are before serving and before returning serve.  If we don't approach those two shots with a good idea of our intended target, we are wasting an opportunity to formulate a strategy and implement it.  Each time I serve, I'm nearly in full control of my efforts (within the constraints of the rules and external forces such as sun, wind speed and direction, etc.).  I should certainly take advantage of this quiet time to pick a serve to the forehand, backhand, deep, short, angle, into the body, etc.. 

Even if I do want to 'just get it over and in', I can plan my serve, possibly a relatively high trajectory that lands deep(ish) in the backcourt away from the sidelines.  As I have success doing that (or missing slightly one way or another), I should be building confidence in my ability to adjust and hit different and more effective serves. 

For goodness sake, don't just hit the ball and let IT choose where to go!

Give Your Brain a Chance to Talk

The service return is perhaps the second quietest time available to me and I shouldn't waste it.  I may not know exactly where my opponent will hit the serve, but I can still play the odds by deciding what my best return off the forehand would be...or the most effective backhand return...or reminding myself to look out for that tricky serve my opponent employs from time to time.  If all I do is plan what forehand and backhand returns I'll use, I'm likely covering the majority of serves that might come at me.  Again, I have a quiet moment for my brain to say, "Good idea!" or "Boo, hiss, that'll get you creamed; do something else".  Again, I don't want to just hit the ball and leave it to fate.

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When Pickleball Is Like Trekking Through the Snow

There is an age-old story about setting goals and keeping them in sight.  It's about a trio who were trying to figure out the best way to get across a snow-covered field in the most efficient manner.  One fellow looked down at his feet and put one in front of the other until he reached the other side.  However, when he looked back, he saw he had veered off course by just a few degrees with each step, causing him to take a much longer, curving path across the field. 

The second trekker chose to pick a spot a few steps ahead and walk there, then pick a spot a few more steps ahead and walk there until he reached the other side of the field.  When he looked back, he saw a zig zag pattern in the snow that meant he walked a much greater distance as each segment of his travels went off line ever so slightly. 

The third in the group decided to pick a spot on the other side of the field and walk toward it, never letting herself lose sight of his intended target.  As you might guess, she walked the straightest path toward the goal and the other side of the field.

We must train ourselves to be like the third walker in the story...picking a goal/target before leaving/hitting and keep that goal in mind.  Effective shots don't result from the one step process of just hitting the ball, nor can I be very effective if I segment my strokes into tiny components like backswing, contact point, follow through with no regard to the final product.  The best results will come from having a goal/target in mind and then doing what is necessary to "hit" that target!

As we implement a target strategy more effectively, we can more easily formulate strategies and build our confidence from attaining certain goals.  We can build and build along a path that will lead us straight to our target. Now, go hit the ball where you want it to go!


What’s On Mark’s Phone?

PRO pickleball Presents…

Our friends at Pro Pickleball (check them out on Facebook) shoot some really great live video. And when you shoot as much as they do, every once in a while you’ll see something really neat. This clip comes from the 2019 French Open.

Parting Thought

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Players who improve are players who take a critical look at their weaknesses. While it makes sense to avoid them as much as possible in competitive play, they won’t get better on their own.

Not sure what your weakness are? Here’s a thought experiment: if you were coaching someone who was playing against you, what advice would you give them? Would you tell them to pick on your backhand? Would you suggest they use a lob to make you move? Would you tell them to engage in dinking rallies as much as possible because your soft game is suspect?

Whatever advice you would give your opponent says something about where you should spend your training energy. Take a serious look at your own weaknesses and then get to work building them up!

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