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Monday, October 10, 2016

The Most Important Shot

What would you answer if I asked you what the most important shot in pickleball is? Would it be the third-shot drop? The serve? While I have no scientific survey to tell me what the predominant answer would be, I would guess (with some admitted self-projection) that the results would be something like this.

Frankly, no answer is wrong - depending on your perspective. But this post is intended to change your perspective...because I have recently gained a new perspective on the question. 

But before I give away my answer, let's quickly review the series of posts from last week. Those three posts focused on controlling the controllable, being balanced when making a shot, and being relaxed on every shot, respectively. 

I read or viewed the expert's advice in those posts after working with Marcus Luke during his recent visit to Cummings Cove. I watched how Marcus explained (during lessons) to players about controlling the point by focusing on the current shot. Then, I had my IPTPA skills test with Marcus.  Upon completion, he commented on my calm and relaxed mental and physical demeanor during the test and that I needed to incorporate those elements into my play. 

All of that combined to make something click in my brain. I figured out that the most important shot in pickleball isn't a specific skill shot but is...the next shot, regardless of what it is.

Think of it this way. The only time that you control the rally is when the ball is on your side of the court. Therefore, your next shot will always determine how the rest of the rally will play out. A good next shot increases the probability of winning the rally and a bad next shot decreases that probability. In other words, your next shot is the best immediate opportunity to gain an advantage.

If you can accept that premise as true, what does it take to make a good next shot? Let's break it down into some specific elements.

Positioning and footwork

I can personally attest to thinking beyond the next shot with regard to positioning and footwork. When I had to move laterally to return a dink, I stretched with my paddle arm instead of taking an extra step. I did this because it was easier to get back into position for the ensuing shot. A second example was returning a shot when advancing from the baseline to the kitchen. I often failed to stop and made the return while moving forward in order to get to the kitchen as quickly as possible.

In both situations, I was not focused on the immediate task - making the best next shot - but some other goal beyond the next shot - getting into a better position. The result was a shot that created an advantage for my opponents more often than not. A stretch return dink was popped up or a moving groundstroke/volley was hit long or out of control.

Instead of stretching wide for a dink return, I am now making the extra step to get in front of the ball. This allows an easier shot to my target and reduces the likelihood of an unforced error. 

Instead of rushing toward the kitchen, I am now stopping and emphasizing the split step. Being stopped and in position early to make a shot allows me to hit a much more controlled ball and better control the rally. Sure, it takes me an additional shot (or two) to get to the kitchen, but overall results are improved because I better control the opponents' shot-making options.

To some, it seems counter-intuitive to give up position in order to make a better shot. But the key to remember is that you control your next opponent's shot with your shot. Ceding position isn't penalized if you make a good (and smart) shot. For example, moving laterally to make a good dink means that I don't have to rush to fill the vacated area because I just made it harder for my opponent to hit there. Focusing on the next shot rather than looking ahead ultimately allows for a more relaxed and calm approach to shot-making.

Shot selection

Being in position allows more than improved execution of basic shots. It also allows a wider selection of shots. Where a drop shot or dink might be the best option, rushing or stretching limits your options. Of course, directional options also become limited as reach increases or time decreases.

There are preferred next shots that should be used to gain advantages. These have been discussed extensively in many posts and are too numerous to mention here. General guidelines are to keep the opponents deep and exploit their weaknesses, such as a backhand. Hit the shot that would allow the ball to get to opponents' feet, i.e., use soft shots when hitting up and use hard shots when hitting down. Ensure that you know these preferred shots and targets and focus on hitting them on the next shot in order to improve your chance of winning.

Constructing a point

Along those lines, some players think two, three, or more shots ahead. That's a great way to play as it allows them to construct a point. But these players do not ignore the next shot to focus on the following second or third shot. In fact, they know that the next shot must be their entire focus or their point construction plan falls to pieces. Their next shot determines their ability to finish the point as planned.

In summary, don't come up short in making the next shot count. Failing to plan and execute the next shot ultimately leads to a more difficult rally.

In closing, I would like to again thank Marcus Luke for bringing the concept to life for me.

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