Improving your recreational pickleball play

We can all get stuck in a comfort zone. Trying new things and changing old habits can be a challenge at any age, but as we get older our attitude can become inflexible.

Like continuing to try to hit the pickleball like a tennis ball. Or stepping into the receiving box before the second bounce. Or aways being late on your backhand.

All of these errors are the result of lack of movement on the court. And every pro player will tell you that the ability to move is key to better play. So, what does that mean? It's more than just moving your feet; it's staying balanced as you move. Here are suggestions from the pros for improving your balanced movement.

Take small, balanced steps. Just like in dance, small steps in a court game allow for movement to be concise and stable. Lunging can throw you off balance and you can overcorrect. It can also cause joint and back problems, and muscle strains.

Stay on the balls of your feet. Don't get caught flat-footed. Keep your knees bent and you'll be naturally over your feet and balanced. Getting caught back-peddling to hit a shot? You'll be on your heels then, and unable to hit your return with any kind of power or control.

Remain balanced. You do this by having your feet spread a little wider than shoulder width. And knees slightly bent.

Paddle out front and paddle "ready position". This is the one thing I see players fail to do that can improve their game immediately. Get, and keep, your paddle in the ready position. That means, get your paddle out in front of you with your non-paddle hand resting near your paddle hand wrist. (See photo.) To get into the habit of doing this I said to myself "paddle ready, paddle ready" after every shot, and that prompted me to bring my paddle back up after a shot. In this position you have your paddle out in front of you, you're not swinging it up from your knees to make a shot. With your paddle out in front, you're meeting the ball early and have better control. Swinging the paddle up from your knees involves too much motion to get to the ball, and that movement will cause erratic shots: "Paddle ready!"

Transfer your weight. When hitting both forehands and backhands, transfer your weight from your back to front. This doesn't mean lunging or throwing yourself forward. It should be a smooth transition from back to front. Here's a trick for improving the swing of your backhand: Place the face of your paddle directly on the opposite hip of your paddle hand as you prepare to strike the ball. This puts the face in the right position to hit the ball, and gets your body slightly turned so your feet are in the right position to transfer weight.

Follow the flight of the ball. As the ball flies towards you, track its flight with your paddle and take small steps toward its trajectory. Sometimes you can take one short step sideways to get to the ball, sometimes you'll need to shuffle several steps. But try not to lunge.

On lobs, avoid backpedaling. We talked about this in a previous column. Backpedaling is a recipe for injury. Instead, turn sideways and shuffle backwards to where you think the ball will land. Or if you have to run, turn away and run to where the ball will land.

Learn to split step. This is a way to prepare to take the ball when you're receiving the serve, or a shot while you're on the baseline. You see tennis pros do this. It is a small jump (or small bounce) as the ball is hit and coming at you, that allows you to regain your balance, get you on the balls of your feet, and then ready to push off in either lateral direction to get to the incoming shot. You can Google "split step" and see any number of videos on how to do this. It does not have to be a real jump: I use a small up/down motion, just bending my knees a little, to achieve this.

Stay behind the receiving line. When receiving the serve, or the second bounce when serving (remember the two-bounce rule), stay out of the box. It's much easier to run forward to get to the ball after it bounces. When you have to backpedal to hit the ball it's much harder to generate force.

Hitting on the run. This is one of the hardest things to accomplish in a court game. If the ball bounces far enough in front of you that you have to sprint to it, try to get there early enough to stop, and then hit the ball. Being stationary, but balanced, when you hit the return, is best. But if you're still running when you get to the ball, by making sure your paddle is out in front of you, you'll have better control when you do hit your return. Try to "soften" your grip. Holding the paddle too tightly will cause your shot to be too hard.

There are some very good Pickleball websites to help you improve your play. I've listed some below. To get better, you have to get uncomfortable. That means trying things that may not come naturally, and breaking bad habits. But in the end, this is supposed to be fun. So don't berate yourself, keep at it, and remember to smile.

Next column: Court etiquette.

Jim Lavrakas has lived in Alaska for almost a half century. The self-proclaimed "squirrel man" has found a lively outlet in the pursuit of pickleball. You can reach him at