The Ball is NOT a Dog!
Call a dog by its name and it comes running. A pickleball is quite different. If anything, it runs away from you! Seems obvious? Then why do most pickleball athletes (yes, you ARE an athlete!) seem to almost stand still and wait for the ball to come to them like an obedient dog?
Let’s explore this situation by evaluating the 3 primary pickleball situations you will experience.
- Solo or partner practice
- Fun and friendly competition
Now rate yourself in terms of energy/intensity on a 1-10 scale with “10” being the highest when you answer these questions, regardless of your playing level.
- When you are practicing (rallying, drilling, or with a ball machine) ________
- When you are playing casually with friends _______
- When you are competing in tournaments _______
If your numbers are the same, then you are on your way to rapid improvement. What numbers are ideal? While a “10” is probably too intense, being a consistently solid 7 or 8 is an optimal goal to target for most players. The BIG question is how to reach this target! Here are some tips on becoming your best without necessarily pushing yourself too far past your personal and individual comfort level.
What should be the items on your checklist to reach ideal “readiness” AND “playing” intensity levels? Let’s simplify to 3 body parts to help you play your best, whether practicing with a ball machine, in a friendly neighborhood game, or in a high-level tournament.
- EYES – The average pickleball point lasts about 9 hits. This may sound short, but keeping your eyes in a state of “high focus” for those 9 hits is a key to playing better. This ability to track the ball both early and throughout each point will help you anticipate and trigger both movement and paddle preparation. BENEFIT: Playing Ability – No doubt about it, when you are “more ready” for each shot, you will react faster, start moving earlier to the ball, and therefore have better balance and hit better shots more consistently.
- FEET – While it is not necessary to keep bouncing on your toes energetically throughout each point, it is extremely helpful to slightly bend your knees so your weight is on the balls of your feet and not on your heels. How much to bend your knees? Just enough to that when you look down at your feet, your shoelaces are hidden by your knees! BENEFIT: The benefit of improved fitness is fairly obvious. The more you move, the stronger and faster you will become. And, since pickleball combines aerobic and anaerobic benefits, you will improve your endurance. The result? Better play through an entire match, even close and long ones that challenge everyone on hot summer days!
- HANDS – One of the most misleading instructions in pickleball is to have a “firm grip” on the paddle. A little extra firmness on block volleys to add more rebound ball speed is fine but, generally speaking, try and hold a relaxed grip whenever you are not hitting the ball and a little more relaxed than you would think when you are hitting the ball! Why? Holding the paddle with looser hands allows players to prepare their paddles more see that relaxing your grip also allows you to swing more quickly (producing more power!). Try it and see for yourself! BENEFIT: Faster hands means you will handle more shots more easily and be less intimidated by harder hitting players. The result? You will keep the ball in play longer and therefore more points will end with your opponent making more mistakes! No question about it.
HOW TO PRACTICE
Now that we have focus points for practice and play, let’s be more specific about exactly how to most methodically practice shots or patterns you want to improve. Practice can be divided into 3 different scenarios, each one being very important building blocks towards playing better pickleball:
- Blocked practice – repeating the same single shot over and over again. A ball machine, backboard, rebounder, or partner feeding balls sets you up for a blocked practice session.
- Serial practice – repeating the same pattern of shots over and over again. A ball machine that oscillates side to side or a partner balling balls can create a serial practice session.
- Random or open play – Pickleball is an open sport, like tennis, basketball, baseball, softball, football, volleyball, etc. Closed sports include activities like golf, where your “opponent” doesn’t interact with your performance. Using a ball machine on random, or drilling points with a practice partner can create a “random” practice situation that is close to competitive play.
- Ball machine – Using a ball machine to practice can help anyone improve more quickly, but there is a dangerous trap of laziness or complacency that many players fall into.
- Choosing a Practice Partner – This may sound simple, but it’s not. Most people lack the motivation to focus properly in practices to truly help raise their playing level in competition. As the saying goes, “Practice as you play and you will play as you practice.” Finding the right partner who is similarly motivated to improve can be challenging. If you find someone, bring the balls at least half the time to keep them as a steady practice partner.
Raising your focus, energy, and movement levels will definitely raise your playing level quickly. The challenge is to practice the same way that you would like to play. It’s kind of like going to the gym and feeling better. Once you get the “adrenaline rush” that comes from energetic and successful play, you will be on the road to recovery from thinking that the ball should act like a dog and come to you. Nope. The ball is NOT a dog. It won’t come to you; you must move to it!
Joe Dinoffer is a Master Professional in both the USPTA and PTR, has been recognized with numerous national awards including the 2019 City of Dallas Humanitarian Award for contributions to inner city tennis, and has conducted clinics and exhibitions in over 50 countries. Joe is the author and editor of 9 books and more than 20 DVDs, has more than 300 published articles in various tennis and pickleball magazines, and has aired many instructional tips on the Tennis Channel. Plus, Joe’s YouTube channel has more than 2 million views and growing! His latest book “Words, Wisdom, and Whimsy” is the second volume of an illustrated series called “Poems from the Heart.” In 1994, Joe founded OnCourt OffCourt, Ltd., a company dedicated to serving the tennis, pickleball, fitness, yoga, and physical education industries with innovative training aids and educational tools. Today, he has designed and manufactured more than 150 creative products being distributed and used in 100 countries worldwide.