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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Strengthening the Backhand Ground Stroke

Have you ever felt like you are a wearing a target on your backhand side as your opponents continuously pepper that side with shot after shot?

There is only 1 reason this is happening – they have discovered it to be a weakness ripe for exploitation. The inability to hit a powerful backhand (or any shot for that matter) means that a player must hit the ball with more arc to enable it to clear the net. And a higher shot means your opponent has an easier return. Rather than concede those points, it is time to fix the problem by identifying the cause of the weak shot. The first step is to have another player evaluate your swing compared to the basic backhand groundstroke technique.

My clinics have a wide variety of skill levels among the players and the backhand is inevitably the weakest part of their game. There are generally 4 reasons for a weak backhand.

1. There is very little follow-through. The photo below shows the proper sequence  of the swing including the long extension of the paddle arm toward the target after contact with the ball.

 if the swing ended just after contact, a fraction of a second past the point shown in frame 4. The ball would not be struck with the same force...because the inertia of the follow-through is omitted and because the swing up to the point of contact is softer. This must be the case in order to stop the swing so suddenly, even if it is done subconsciously.

2. The swing is across the body rather than around the body. This mistake is both hard to describe and even harder to illustrate. The following photo shows a correct swing 

 that the swing is led by the paddle hand and is away from the body. The body rotates with the hand as the arm is locked at the elbow and pivots from the shoulder.

A flawed swing is led by the elbow instead of the hand and the paddle is drawn across the body rather than around the body. Imagine the elbow remaining bent - as in the far left part of the photo sequence - and the elbow dragging the paddle hand to the right. The paddle never reaches a parallel position facing the net. The angle of the paddle face causes it to scrape across the ball instead of making solid contact. Because the elbow is bent, the follow-through is well short of proper extension. While there may be some body rotation, it adds nothing to the power of the shot.

Scraping across the ball causes side spin that some players actually like as it may be effective against their opponent. That may be true…for now. Future stronger players will love the weak shot.

3. Improper body position. The body is perpendicular to the ball’s path rather than in a parallel position.

This position allows only the arm to swing the paddle and, in the worst case, only the part of the arm pivoting from the elbow. A much weaker shot results when the torque from the body rotation and the full swing from the shoulder are eliminated. The following short video  from Mark Renneson called Boosting your backhand discusses this problem.

The starting point to help narrow down what causes the weak backhand is to check the follow-through position. Each of the swing flaws described in 1 and 2 above will have little to no follow-through. A simple method to both validate and correct the problem is to place a ball under the paddle-arm shoulder. If the ball falls out with the follow-through, proper extension was attained. The ball would stay in the armpit with a short follow-through. A pickleball is hard, though, and can be uncomfortable in the armpit. Instead of a pickleball, a foam youth tennis ball works well as a substitute. These are available in packs of 2 at Dick’s Sporting Goods.

4.  Ball contact in the wrong spot.  Some players can have a near-perfect swing and still hit a weak shot if they allow the ball to pass the optimum contact point.  Let's repeat a photo to illustrate.

The proper ball contact point is the center position - just in front of the knee and foot.  The paddle is naturally parallel to the net due to the hand position through the swing.  This allows the wrist to remain locked as well.  Both factors add power to the shot.

Now imagine hitting the ball mid-torso - where the paddle hand is in the 2nd position from the left.  Contacting the ball at that point means the wrist must twist to force the paddle face to the proper angle.  The timing of the swing as well as the power is lost and the result is a weak shot.

Beyond those 4 weak shot problems, there is 1 other problem that must be mentioned. Some players keep both hands on the paddle when hitting a backhand.  Virtually everyone I’ve seen using this grip recently converted from tennis. A 2-handed grip certainly helps to add power to the shot and it also helps to add topspin. However, there is a major disadvantage to a 2-hander in pickleball compared to tennis. The paddle is much shorter than a tennis racquet. With a short paddle, a player needs to extend his arm to reach low, high, and wide returns. A 2-handed grip means you have to get your body closer to the ball and, therefore, further out of position for your next shot.

The bottom line is that good pickleball play requires a complete game. A player cannot afford to have a weak side like a flawed backhand swing. Get some help to figure out why your backhand is weak and then go drill, baby, drill using groundstroke drills until that weakness no longer can be exploited.

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