While I don’t intend this Blog post to be an entire Shakespearian soliloquy, I do want to discuss a very important part of the Pickleball game that most of us only have fractions of a second to answer during the course of a match.
As most of you know I have been recovering from shoulder surgery these past several months. Last weekend, I traveled with my wife Ann to Mexico, MO for their Pickleball Palooza tournament. (Congratulations to all the winners and see the results and post of pictures here). I decided to ref several of the matches because I couldn’t play and thought it would be a unique perspective to see the matches up close. In the NFL and other professional sports they call this taking “mental reps” while you aren’t able to perform yet. It was a good experience and I suggest many of you try to referee games when given the opportunity.
So one of the mental reps that I observed the most from watching the play up close was the inability of players to “not hit” the ball, especially those shots that were probably going to fly out of bounds. This was not something with one or two teams that loved to smash winners, or had great hands to block the balls back that were hit at them. This happened to most of the teams at almost all skill levels. In fact at several of the higher skill level matches, it seemed to happen more often. So why do we do this? Why can’t we lay off shots that probably would be easy points for us if we just let them fly on by us?
I think most of us believe we are in control of the point when we are able to make an offensive shot. Balls that are hit at us at waist or chest level are usually ones that we believe are in our “strike zone” and we can put those balls away especially with forehand smash shots. What we soon discover though is that we don’t always put those balls away or the team on the other side returns our smash. We might even hit our own shot out or into the net. We take more of a chance at making a mistake by choosing to hit the ball rather than just allowing the ball to fly by us. In one match I observed a team hit 8 balls that were chest high at the kitchen line and would have gone out by several feet. 2 of those shots were winners. 4 of them were returned by their opponents and the rally continued. The other 2 shots were hit out of bounds and resulted in an unforced error. The team then ended up losing the match by 3 points (when they should have won if they might have been a bit more disciplined to lay off those high balls).
So how do you lay off those balls in the future? Practice, practice, practice… You have to “see balls clearly” to get a good read on them. Part of the process for seeing them clearly is judging the speed and trajectory of the ball. In practice have your partner hit shots from different parts of the court. Have them vary the shot speed and spin on the ball. Get a feel for balls coming directly at you and let them fly by. See if they go long or not. Make a practice game out of it by giving yourself 2 points for every ball you let go by and it flies out compared to 1 point if you decide to hit it and score a winner. However subtract 1 point if you hit it and create a fault. Your partner gets a point for hitting it past you and the ball lands "in" or if they can return your volley. After you practice baseline shots, try cross-court sideline shots. Often this will have a different "feel" to letting balls go or not because you have to judge angle as well as speed and spin. However, the same skill applies to seeing the ball clearly.
Another key to mastering this skill is reading the opponent's body movement and court positioning before they hit the ball. If they load up to hit a big forehand from a few feet behind the NVZ line, they probably will be hitting the ball with flat or upswing trajectory. Even with top spin, there is a good chance the ball will be hit long. If they are hitting the ball from below the top of the net with pace, they might hit the ball long. If they have a weaker backhand shot, they might not be able to control the direction or pace of their shots causing a lot of balls to go long. Reading the pre-shot position of the opponent, placement of where they are hitting the ball from, and whether they are hitting fore or back hand shots can help you anticipate your decision to hit or not to hit the ball.
Finally, I suggest you ref a few matches to get a close up view with the play that is happening on the court. Get a feel for watching the play and see if there are certain balls that you would let go by if you were in the match. Take those "mental reps" and apply them in your own matches. Chances are those same teams will hit similar shots against you in the future.
I'm not quite sure what Shakespeare would think about pickleball? Hopefully the question "to hit the ball or not to hit the ball" will now come into your on-court decision making. You will soon realize that choosing not to hit certain balls is some of the best pickleball "non-shots" you will make and help you win more matches.