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Monday, November 16, 2015

Service Motion

The service motion is most often compared to bowling due to an underhanded arm movement coordinated with a leg stride. Check out the following side-by-side photos to see if you agree.

OK, now just go use your bowling form and serve the ball.

Oh wait, you say you’ve never bowled? Or that hitting a ball is different than throwing it? Well, that sure complicates things. While serving a pickleball is the simplest of all shots, it still requires a basic understanding of technique and how all of the moving parts work together. This post will help to explain that.  But first you must understand the rules related to the service motion as discussed in the post about Service Rules.

As I stated above, the serve is a simple shot. That is because the server is in complete control of the ball. Every other shot in pickleball requires adjusting to the speed, direction, and height of the ball as delivered by your opponent. With the serve, the ball’s speed, direction, and height are all determined by the server.

The serve starts with the ball in the non-paddle hand. The ball is gripped lightly by the fingertips and essentially dropped onto the paddle face as the paddle is moved toward the target.  Notice the “light” ball grip of the server using only 2 fingers in the next photo.

This gentleman holds the ball with his thumb on top. Other players reverse their hand position with their fingers on top…and every position in between.  There is no right or wrong position. The only right position is the one that is comfortable and works for you. The key, however, is the light grip that allows a free and unrestricted drop straight to the center of the paddle face.

The service target should be selected before the motion starts. Note that the server above is looking toward his opponents with the goal of selecting his target area to land his serve. Lots and lots of practice will allow this simple targeting look to be translated by your brain into the actions that your body must take to get the ball to the target area.  

One other technique should be noted in this photo - the server is preparing to stride forward to start the serve. The forward stride is performed with the on-dominant leg (i.e., the non-paddle side of the body). As the service motion starts, the server’s body weight should shift to the rear leg in conjunction with the backswing of the paddle. The reason for the rearward weight shift is evident as the service motion continues.

A smoothly executed stride requires the forward leg to rise above the floor. It is impossible to retain body balance throughout the service motion without a weight shift to the rear leg while lifting the front leg. Most sports require a similar athletic weight-shift to generate sufficient force to propel an object like a ball. Pickleball is no different. The serve requires a weight shift to the rear foot to start the serve and then a shift forward to drive and follow the ball. Balance is essential to a consistent ball drop and paddle swing arc and both are necessary to serve the ball where you want it. The next photo shows the stride and weight shift in progress.

Note that the server’s eyes have shifted from the target and are now only on the ball. Any looks toward the target should already be finished. At this point in the serve, the ONLY focus should be on the ball and guiding the center of the paddle face toward it with the proper power and angle to reach the pre-selected target. A long backswing, like the one pictured, is used to generate more power. A shorter backswing has less power but more control as the timing with the ball drop is easier to judge.

The process of creating inertia with the weight shift is shown in the next photo. The front foot has been planted at the end of the stride and the server’s body weight is shifting onto that foot. Simultaneous with the weight shift, the paddle begins to move forward in its underhanded (low to high) arc - as required by the rules. Also, the ball has been released from the server’s hand and is falling toward the arc of the paddle. Note that the ball is below the waist so contact also occurs within the rules. 

The server’s eyes are still focused only on the ball. That focus should remain through contact. 

A beginner should have the goal of landing the serve in-bounds in the service area. Therefore, a beginner should contact the ball with paddle angled slightly upward to create the arc needed to cover the distance and height needed. As service skills advance, the paddle face can become more parallel to the net at the point of ball contact. This allows the server to hit a lower and harder serve. A good example of paddle position at the point of contact is shown in the next photo.

Striking the ball does not end the service motion. Body weight should continue its natural forward shift even to the point where it completely rests on the front foot with the rear foot off the court. The paddle should follow through to head height. The follow-through should be completed either across the body to the opposite shoulder or over the shoulder of the serving arm – depending on the angle of the paddle arc. The path angle of your swing should be maintained throughout and should be in a line toward your target. A complete weight shift and paddle follow-through are needed to consistently hit your target. They also help to get your body in motion to get to the “ready” position (discussed in a separate post).  The follow-through position is shown in the next photo.

The preceding is a lot of detail for a simple shot. So let’s summarize the key points, first in a Deb Harrison video called Serving for Success and then through bullet points:

  • An athletic weight shift is needed to maintain balance throughout the service motion. 
  • Balance is essential to a consistent paddle arc and ball release, each of which is needed to consistently hit powerful and accurate serves.
  • Look for your target area early and then shift your eyes to focus only on the ball through contact.
  • Power is generated by body inertia and the length of the backswing. Additional power generally means less control for novice players.
  • The paddle arc should be in a straight line toward the target.
Above all else, the service technique must deliver the ultimate essential – landing the ball in the service court.  A service fault ends the rally immediately, as well as ending the potential for an unknown number of additional points.  The potential for 3, 5, or 8 points is lost when the ball lands out of bounds or in the net.

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