The Pickleball Lab

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If you like pickleball and you like variety, you’ll love this week’s party-in-your-inbox. We have for you a mixed bag of skills, drills, explorations of technique and pickleball thoughts for your consideration.

Push yourself to be a great defender with the Lob Retriever Training Challenge. Check out our exclusive video that will teach you a trick to finish points the first time you get a high ball. Take a deep dive into the sweet technique of the Ben Johns third shot drop, hear from DJ Howard about why we don’t fully understand dinking and watch a video that shows why you might practice dinking a lot but then play games that are virtually dink-free. We’ve also got a video that highlight’s why Catherine Parenteau is so consistent and a bunch of other goodies too. Here we go!


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.

 

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.

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.

Parenteau’s Stable Face (Video)

Catherine Parenteau is an elite player who has an incredibly dynamic game. She can beat her opponents with power or precision, and her steadiness under pressure is renowned. In this exclusive video, we look at one of the key features of her technique that allow her to be so solid on the court.

Training Challenge: Lob Retriever

Getting beat by a lob is brutal. As soon as you let that ball bounce you are in a world of trouble. That is, unless you get get yourself out of this sticky situation.

This drive after retrieving a lob would earn you 2 points in this Training Challenge.

This drive after retrieving a lob would earn you 2 points in this Training Challenge.

Goal: To be able to recover after being beaten by a lob.

Purpose: To develop great defensive skills and even the possibility of resetting the point.

Method: Stand at the NVZ while facing the net. Have a partner toss or hit the ball over your head, back toward the baseline. Turn and chase the ball and try to return it in the court after just one bounce. Record how many points you earn (see scoring system below) after 6 forehands and 6 backhands.

Equipment: A basket of balls or a partner who will send the ball back after it is retrieved.

A high and deep lob can be considered “bronze level” defence. In this Training Challenge, it is worth 1 point.

A high and deep lob can be considered “bronze level” defence. In this Training Challenge, it is worth 1 point.

Adaptations: Make the challenge harder by sending the ball closer to the baseline or with less height; Make the challenge easier by sending it higher and not so deep in the court.

Notes: The kind of return you send can be thought of on a scale. While sending a lob of your own is the easiest to accomplish, it is likely to be smashed back by an opponent, making your life difficult again. A drive may be a little more effective (it gives opponents less time to react) but it is also riskier because it is close to the net. A drop is likely the most effective option, but it is extremely high risk.

Players are encouraged to practice retrieving good lobs from different sides of the court. For this challenger, players should hit 6 forehands and 6 backhands and award points as follows.

1 Point: Send a high lob landing past 3/4 court.

2 Points: Send a fast drive no more than 1 paddle above net.

3 Points: Send a drop no more than 1 paddle above net that also lands in NVZ.

Lob Retriever

 

Why Don’t We Dink (video)

We know this has happened to you: It’s almost time to start the match. You spend a tonne of time warming up at the kitchen line, getting your dinks ready to go. They’re feeling great — low and tight to the net, maybe even with some spin. And then the game starts and POOF! No more dinking to speak of.

The lack of dinking in matches is something that many pickleball players complain about. In this video, we take a look at why so many competitive matches are void of extended dinking rallies. Click the picture below to see where the dinks went.

 

What To Do? The Pickleball Ethicist

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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?


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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