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Saturday, November 5, 2016

A Matter of Feet

One of my axioms for both playing and teaching is "hit it hard when hitting down and hit it soft when hitting up". This is a simplification of many lessons studied and learned the hard way...on the courts. I'm thinking about an even simpler way of communicating that principle, but I'll explain it only after setting it up with an article from Jeff Napier called Aim For The Feet.

Aim For The Feet

As I was moving up from beginning to intermediate pickleball, I was told many times that with an offensive shot I should “aim for the shoes,” or “aim for the feet.” It’s good advice, but it took me a while to realize just how good it is.

When you can develop the habit of noticing where your opponent is standing, and try to put the ball right at your opponent’s feet, they can seldom return it well. Consider your opponent’s shoes a target. If you can smash the ball to their feet, it is an almost guaranteed win. But even dinks and backcourt shots that land at their feet are hard to return offensively.

The difference between an ordinary shot and what I’m talking about is that you consider how far the opponent is from the net, and place the ball to hit the floor right there, at that very distance. Ideally, you’ll also have the direction right since the opponent may be more able to scoop up a ball with a forehand or backhand if it is to the opponent’s left or right, instead of dead center.

Occasionally, you’ll get this shot so perfect the the ball will actually bounce off their shoes.

Aiming for the feet is easiest if you’re hitting a ball that is considerably higher than the top of the net. You can also use a forehand with topspin for a lower ball.

Problem solver: If when you aim for the feet, the ball is often too high or too low, consider switching to the Thumb Guide Grip.

Most people think hitting a ball to the opponent's feet applies only when hitting the ball hard, such as with a smash or volley. These are the "offensive" shots that Jeff discusses above. But he only briefly touches on the topic I want to develop - thinking about your opponents' feet on every shot.

My new axiom is "hit the shot that gets the ball to the opponents' feet". But let me clarify. That does not mean that your opponents' feet should be the target of your shot. It simply means that your default objective should always be to keep the ball low. It means the same thing as "hit it hard when hitting down and hit it soft when hitting up".

I'll first state the obvious. When a ball is hit hard, it will travel in a straight line for a greater distance than a softly hit ball. The softer the hit, the greater the arc and the quicker the drop. With that basic concept in mind, a look at the line of sight between the ball and your opponents' feet will determine how hard you can hit it. In the following photos, the line of sight is represented by the dashed line. The solid line(s) represents the potential shots. The pictured players are your opponents and your are playing from the right side.

Line of sight at knee level
The first example shows a ball below the net - at knee level. Obviously, a hard hit ball would either go straight into the net, go high to your opponents, or go out of bounds. The best shot here is the dink - which gets the ball to your opponents' feet.

Line of sight at 5-6 feet
The second example has the ball being hit from a higher position, nearly 6 feet off the surface at head level for a male of average height. The line of sight in this case allows a hard hit ball to travel in a straight line to the opponents' feet. That would be the best play. 

The same is true of balls struck from a higher position. As the ball climbs in height, the line of sight clears the net by wider distances. All balls from above 5-6 feet should be hit hard and down.

Ball above the net but below 5-6 feet
The next example is the toughest one to deal with. The ball is above the net and hitting it hard seems obvious. But a hard hit ball to your opponents's torso level is very returnable - and often comes back harder than you hit it. Remember Joe Baker's teachings that the first shot in the fast game better create an advantage or the first hitter is likely to lose the rally. The best way to create an advantage is a low shot. However, the laws of geometry simply do not allow a hard hit ball to get low. Therefore, the smart play is a softer shot that allows the ball to drop, as illustrated in the next photo.

Some will disagree and say that hitting an offensive shot is the better choice. I won't disagree. A hard, level shot targeted to specific areas, like the armpit of the paddle arm, is a good shot. Those shots should be part of everyone's repertoire. The axiom "hit the shot that gets the ball to the opponents' feet" is intended to be the default thought. It is always the safe shot. But the safe shot can be bettered when circumstances dictate. Axioms like this should be automatic, but conscious decision-making can over-rule them.

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