With too much COVID-19 time on my hands, I started observing a spider that started its web each night, anchoring onto the nightlight just outside the door. It would build that web so that curious flying insects, like moths attracted to the light, would become ensnared in the web. Admittedly, the insects don’t look that appetizing, but I understand they are high in protein.
The spider constructed a web at night, and I knocked it away each day. Sure enough, the next night, the spider, rather athletically, spun another web, and it was always smartly done. It covered a rather large area, and it was tightly enough spun that few insects could avoid it.
Backtrack to when we were all playing pickleball most of the day, every day. Several times, I was playing with partners whose shot selection was frightful. After the 10th time they hit a poorly selected shot directly to their opponent, I would — gently, I might add — ask where they were planning to hit the ball.
Twice, the answer was something like, “I never thought about it. I just hit it.”
That’s the kind of answer that leaves you ensnared in the web, my friends. If you are just reacting to the ball, there is a good chance the spiders on the other side have intentionally hit it to your weakness in hopes they will ensnare you in their web.
I was observing Rick Bell giving a clinic earlier this week, and one player who had developed a nice game, at least mechanically, fell into this category. Rick asked a question of them that really puts this entire topic under a spotlight.
He asked, “What second shot were you planning?” To a blank stare, he elaborated, “Let me ask another way: After you hit the ball to your opponent, what would be your follow-up shot?”
The player in the clinic answered along the lines that their second shot would be in response to their opponent’s shot.
Rick continued, “Well, then — let me ask you yet another way. If your first shot was hit exactly to the spot you wanted, then what would be your second shot?”
Finally, you could see the lights go off with this player.
In fact, in top competition, players might think three, or even four shots ahead to bring their opponent into the web.
Every time you hit a ball in play, or practice, it should be hit it with a plan. My dear old tennis coach at the University of Maryland, Doyle Royal, who died last week at the age of 102, constantly reminded us to never hit any ball without a specific purpose.
Of course, to plan your shots, you need to appraise your opponents. Are they right- or left-handers? Just for fun, I might say to my partner in recreational play, “Hit it to the left-hander,” and often they will say, “Which one is that?”
Remember what I said about the moth — easily ensnared.
Let’s imagine you have absolutely zero backhand. Then why hit to the forehand of your left-handed opponent, who most likely will make a great cross-court to your backhand? Why not hit to their partner, who might have an equally bad backhand?
In pickleball or tennis competition, there are players who like to attack, and there are players who defend and are called counter-punchers. Counter-punchers typically can run like the wind and chase everything down, and eventually they wear down the attackers physically, like moths struggling in the spider’s web. Or, they wait until they get that very easy shot to their strongest shot and put it away.
So the point here is to hit each shot with the same planning the spider puts into spinning a web. Or, if you identify with the moth, then you need to plan your shots so you don’t get ensnared in their web.
If the shoe fits here, one way to get beyond this point in your pickleball development is to practice with friends on any available court, or even a parking lot. You want to practice enough that you get to a place beyond how to hit each shot to where to hit the ball.
By the way, insects must be high in protein, because this spider outside my door is getting very big and strong. To protect myself, I posted a sign facing outwards on the door, “Warning: The Spider General warns that old fat humans are very low in protein and therefore dangerous to a spider’s health.” Now there is a strategic planning!
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.