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Monday, September 5, 2016

Practice Makes you Better

Nobody is perfect...and there are no perfect pickleball players. Acknowledging that fact is a start to getting better. Understanding that practice is the activity to accomplish that is the next step. To help us better understand how to use practice to get better, here is an article from Gale Leach called How to Practice Pickleball.

How to Practice Pickleball

I asked a few players what they do to practice. A few said that they don't practice and just play, working on shortcomings at the same time. Most, however, said that practice is essential to improving their skills. They say that only with practice do elements of their game become automatic, allowing them to play better all around, and I agree. Most people's practice fell into three categories:
  1. Correcting something that isn't going well;
  2. Perfecting a skill;
  3. Doing drills to stay on top of things.
Whichever group fits you - practice, if done correctly, will get you there. First, determine what you need or want to work on. Second, make sure you're doing it correctly so you don't have to “unlearn” it later. Most practice requires another person to help you by throwing or hitting balls to you.

Correcting Part of Your Game

Some players commented that elements of their game “disappeared” sometimes and suddenly they weren't hitting overheads properly or their serves weren't accurate anymore. Have someone watch you and suggest what you might try to change, or pay attention to your stroke, timing, and/or your body position to figure out what the problem might be.

Once you've identified the problem, practice doing it the right way (or at least a different way), concentrating on only that thing. In a little while, the “new” method should become habit, and you won't have to think about it anymore.

Perfecting a Skill

Many people use drills to help them become better in a certain area. Players mentioned these areas most: 1) dinking, 2) serves or groundstrokes, and 3) backhand weakness. A couple of people mentioned some fun ways to practice the first two.

Pat Kane loves a game called “Back Ball” where players stay back near the baseline and must let the ball bounce before hitting it -- no volleying allowed. This game really improves the accuracy of your ground strokes, and it's fun.

Another game variation improves dinking. In this game, the non-volley zone line is considered the baseline and balls hit beyond that line are “out.” Playing this dinking game is great for practicing the dink in a competitive situation. Players who don't yet feel comfortable with the soft game can use this method to get better at it quickly.

As for backhands, the best answer is to have someone hit balls to your backhand side repeatedly until it's easier. Again, you have to analyze what you're doing in order to decide what other things to try. One player mentioned that instead of using the standard backhand he's used for years (imported from his days as a tennis player), he's trying something new that he saw another player use. Check out the section in this web site where I discuss different ways to hit backhand strokes.

Practice Makes You Better (if not perfect)

Practice really will make your game better. However, remember that your body is eager to learn whatever you teach it, and it will accept bad or wrong information as eagerly as good. This means that you should always try to "do it right." Sue Gardiner said, "Repetitive practice and immediate feedback is so important for learning." Having someone watch you play and analyze what you're doing wrong or what could make your game better can be a big help. Sue said, "I was struggling with a good serve in the (Senior) Olympics. My women's doubles partner ... analyzed my serve first and determined that I was trying to hit the ball too high in the stroke. So I served around 75 serves from both sides concentrating on hitting the ball low and giving it some topspin. It worked great."

Playing with people who are better than you are will improve your game. But practice of all sorts, including drills, will help you, assuming you can know what you should work on or change. Denise Williams wrote, "When players just go out and play and don't try to learn and perfect and strategize shots, then they are just holding at status quo. It it essential to take the things you learned while practicing and apply them in a game (like drop-in) and be willing to make mistakes to improve your shots. So hopefully you have an understanding partner."

Bob Halpin has many great tips on his web site, and he shared some with me regarding practice. "I like to practice hitting ground strokes back and forth from the baseline first. Then move on to one player up and one back for a while, hitting firm groundstrokes and firm volleys. Nobody trys to put it away while doing these drills. Then one player up and one back with the back person practicing dinks [drop shots] from the baseline and the net player simply hitting it back nicely to him. Then lobs and overhead practice, which is the only way to get good at both. Volleys to each other from the non-volley line starting at 1/2- to 3/4-speed until the ball is going back and forth 6 to 10 times each time. Then speed up the hits until someone starts to miss too often. I like to practice singles using 1/2 of the court so I can practice my doubles stratagy even though we only have 2 people. Reaction volley drills are great,. but are difficult unless the players are fairly good. After doing everything above, you can play games and still practice if you don't worry about winning all the time. Play a game where you lob a lot and a game where you dink a lot."

Are You Perfect Yet? 

If not, folks I talked with say you should practice. It will help develop your game and improve skills that need attention. While much of pickleball is mental, developing automatic responses and honing your skills will make you a better player. Perfection is only more practice away.

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