This training session, I want to point out what I believe to be the most serious error by most pickleballers returning to the courts, because it is normally a reflection of their state of fitness.
Nationally it is thought two-thirds of all pickleballers are 55 or older, and around this part of the country it has to be 95 percent, so I will cut you some slack ... but you do have to help yourselves as well.
People pay good money to go to Italy to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa and eat great food. We have some great Italian restaurants right here in Sussex County, and, although not as tall, it would seem there are plenty of leaning towers of pickle on every court in the area. With courts outside my kitchen window, I see folks starting to play pickleball again because they say they just need to exercise. Yet as soon as they get on the pickleball or tennis court, they suddenly want to move their feet as little as humanly possible. They move like they have suction cups on their shoes.
They lean and contort their bodies into the weirdest positions, like exotic mating dances you might see on National Geographic, just to seemingly hit the ball without having to move their feet. Two and a half years ago, I wrote about this very subject when so many of you were learning to play pickleball. Let me remind you of some thoughts from that story.
“When I look across a series of pickleball courts, it seems as the majority of the players who have managed to get to the No Volley Zone (NVZ) have nailed their shoes to the court just behind the NVZ, a.k.a. ‘Kitchen,’ and are now leaning to hit their volleys. Many remind me of comedic mimes who pretend they are washing windows.”
When you are leaning to hit the pickleball, more often than not your return will be weak, defensive, and the ball will likely drop into the net or float upwards to your opponents. If you want to see “Leaning in Action,” ask someone to practice overheads on a slightly windy day. Hardly without exception, they will move into what they think will be the correct location and then nail their shoes to the ground. Of course, they should keep moving the feet with hundreds of little steps to adjust to the pickleball in the wind, but they won’t. By the time the ball comes down within hitting range, the hitter is leaning right, left or forward, just before he or she spikes an off-balance overhead into the net while putting incredible torque on their arm.
The correction: Early Prep, Split Step. As you approach the No-Volley Zone, you need to make a split step as you come to a momentary stop with your body weight balanced on the balls of your feet just as your opponents strike the ball. From the split step you are then set to move with baby steps in any of the most likely directions your opponents will/can hit.
Once you see where your opponent is hitting, you move into position to intercept the ball, ever mindful of the No-Volley Zone, to volley or dink from a well-balanced position. You will suddenly discover that your responses are frequently much more effective. Note that as you make those final adjustments from the split step, your partner must adjust with you so your collective center is protected. The split step requires as much practice as every other shot. Start making part of your warm up two dozen split steps each time you play. As we learned from Bob Cairo at Tidewater Physical Therapy, be sure to stretch your ankles in advance because they will be sending proprioceptive signals to other receptors to aid your balance.
A rule of thumb in all sports is that you need 100,000 repetitions to perfect a shot. If every shot you hit is slightly different because you are having to lean at a slightly different angle, time will not be your friend. However, if you move your feet around the court in such a way as to always intercept every ball hit to you the same, and use your knees as an elevator to adjust lower if necessary, achieving that 100,000 repetitions is quite doable.
Summary: Stop being the Leaning Tower of Pickle and get in control of your game. Become more aware of what is happening on the court, and use anticipation to get closer to the action so that you are but a simple split step away from hitting every shot from a well-balanced position of strength.
That’s it for this session. Now I’m going to look up the word proprioceptive.
Note: Quite a few of us have had to use the new Beebe emergency room in Millville on route 17 since it opened in the spring. Congratulations again pickleballers for all your efforts in the fundraiser, especially the Coastal Communities Pickleball League. And Beebe, thanks for being there!
Vaughn “The Baron” Baker is a Senior Olympics gold-medalist in pickleball, and is public relations director for the First State Pickleball Club (FSPC) and captain of the Ocean View Crew pickleball community. He spent his career working with top tennis professionals while working for Wilson Sporting Goods and introducing the Prince Tennis Racket and Wimbledon Tennis Lines. For more information, visit PickleballCoast.com.