Pickleball Points

Wrong footing is today’s theme.

First, let me explain what I mean by “wrong footing.” It has nothing to do with putting on the wrong shoes or feet in the morning. If I am a right-hander hitting a forehand in any racket sport, I will do it either facing the ball, or if I have time, slightly turned, with my left shoulder pointing toward the incoming ball. I will get into position and then step into the ball as I hit it, using my legs and hips to create power.

Try to picture at impact a three-legged stool — left foot, right foot and my right-hand paddle comfortably out in front of me, ready to make ball impact, forming a triangle. I am well-balanced, like a three-legged stool, with my center of gravity somewhere near the center of all three.

When you “wrong foot,” a right-hander leads with their right foot and strikes the ball out near the right foot, with the left leg trailing. Now try to picture a stool with all three legs in a row. Well, you have probably never seen such a stool, because it would not balance — which is precisely my point.

The reason I am bringing this to your attention is that I was recently hitting pickleballs to my wife of 55 years now that she wants to begin playing pickleball again. In her absence from the court, she had fallen back onto the old habit of wrong-footing the ball. As soon as I detected it, I said, “Wife, you are wrong-footing the ball!” I let that sink into her muscle memory, and soon she started to hit the ball 40 to 50 percent better in that very session.

Why then do people wrong-foot? I think it goes back to not paying attention to their footwork, nor being in good enough physical shape to respond to the ball. Reacting, not dictating.

Local pickleballer Mike Smith recently made a good point. Mike, although an excellent athlete, does not have much racket-sports experience, because his background involved team sports such as soccer and baseball. Mike smartly watches his weight and makes a point of staying physically fit.

When I asked him for his observations about players just beginning to play pickleball again, he said, “My observation is that just being physically fit is not enough. Pickleballers need to start playing easy and gradually work their way back, because pickleball fitness, just like soccer fitness or softball fitness, is very specific to each of those sports. I agree with what Maurice Heckscher said to you several weeks ago, about players thinking they are in shape and then trying to break back for a lob. I periodically practice how to recover well-placed lobs.”

As I myself begin to play again after three years of medical absences, I am very sensitive to player bad habits. After a lifetime in racket sports, I can look at your game and immediately see the problem. However, while I can’t see my game, I can analyze where the ball is going and quickly deduce what bad habit is causing it.

Wrong-footing is a sign that you probably are not ready for play and need practice. In my practices, we will attempt to hit 50 cross-courts to our forehands, then 50 cross-court backhands. In order to do that, I need to move my feet and get in position for each shot.

Moving into ideal positions for 50 exchanges is a great physical workout. After several weeks, I will develop a rhythm — a oneness with the ball and court. Once I am comfortable with a dozen or more 50-ball exchanges, I will be confident that I can hit any spot on the court anytime I want to hit it.

The great Bill Tilden started out his book on tennis, “Match Play and the Spin of the Ball,” with this: “Most tennis players look upon the ball that is used as merely something to hit. It is not an individual, separate factor in their play, like their opponent. ... Let me suggest the ball for a moment as an individual. It is a third party in the match. Will this third party be on your side or against you? It is up to you.”

Tilden goes on to write about spin, “Never make any stroke without imparting a conscious, deliberate and intentional spin to the ball.”

My point today is that you will never be able to advance your game to routinely hit deliberate tennis or pickleball shots until you master the required footwork. To be the master of the ball, you must be in position to hit it each and every time.

I am not suggesting that you even want to become the “Pill Pilden” of pickleball, but I do think you owe it to yourself to practice and condition yourself so that you are in charge of the pickleball — not it of you — and get more out of your game.

I was very pleased to see that our own pickleball physical therapist, Bob o at Tidewater Physical Therapy in Ocean View, is offering “Balance” classes to help folks in Sussex County to safely return to the tennis and pickleball courts.

In the next session of “Pickleball Points,” I am leaning toward another serious bad habit that affects most pickleball players returning to the court.

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.