Focus your pickleball on 'high percentage' shots
July 1, 2023 | View PDF
Whether you've played a racquet sport in the past, or are new to pickleball, hitting the ball without thinking about what kind of shot you're hitting is a typical mindset of the amateur player. Focusing on hitting high percentage shots is the way to move from a beginner to a more advanced player in the sport.
What are high percentage shots? They are what they sound like: those shots that have a high likelihood of staying in bounds. That's it. Not ones that your opponent can't return, not hard forehands or super-slice backhands. Not down the line, not inside out.
More like "down the middle solves the riddle".
Your aim in competition is to make fewer mistakes than your opponent. Mistakes in a racquet sport are called "unforced errors". Think about that phrase: a mistake that is voluntary. Why would you volunteer your opponents points? Much of the time it's because we don't understand, or consider, the kind of shot we're returning.
Are you on the defense or offense? Do you have a ball high in the air to hit down at your opponent's feet? Or is it at your own feet? In the end, on defense, just getting the ball back over the net, down the middle if possible, is your solution.
Why the middle? Down the middle forces your opponents (if you're playing doubles) to decide who is going to make the return. Down the middle, for your opponents, means two brains trying to work together. And if they're not good communicators, or haven't played together as a team, those two brains are going to work against each other. They will hesitate on the return and that puts them on the defense.
The other thing about high percentage shots? They stay in bounds. Trying to hit to the court sidelines is self-defeating, especially on defense. If you try to hit an inch, or a foot, inside the far baseline when on defense, you're doubling the difficulty of your return. "Just get it back over" is my mantra, and let the other side beat me.
Sure, it's fun to hit a down-the-line return, or a passing shot (a shot that is hit with the intention of the ball bouncing behind the opponent). But they require a lot of control and if you're on defense, it's tough. When you have good court position, your feet under you, and plenty of time to prepare for the shot, go ahead and make that passing shot, or the inside out (a ball hit from the middle of the court to the sideline) winner.
Avoid attacking balls that come low over the net. Don't be impatient to end the point. Hitting a ball that is low at the net will likely result in you "dumping" it into the net. Keep working the point until you have an attackable ball. At the net an attackable ball is one that is stomach-high (or above) when it gets to you.
The other place to think about hitting the ball? In tennis it's often called the "open court".
I call it the area of the court where my opponent is not. It's easy to get into a mindless round of returning the ball directly to the players on the other side of the net. But if they get pulled to the side (by a setup from your partner) be ready to hit to the area that's wide open.
Avoid attacking balls if your paddle is not in a ready position to hit. I've talked about this before, the "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 when I first started playing, 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. So, "Paddle ready!"
And avoid attacking balls if your feet are not in position, if you're off balance, lunging, or your shoulders aren't square.
Yes, there's a lot to consider in pursuing the lofty goal of only hitting high percentage shots. And sometimes we just want to get out there and swing for the bleachers. It's okay if you want to just have fun. But if you want to improve your overall game and maybe compete on a higher level, go to tournaments, then focusing on high percentage shots will be very satisfying.
Next column: Drilling.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 http://www.FarNorthPress.com.