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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Winning with Percentages

Don't play the man; play the odds...

Percentage pickleball. That's a popular phrase today, but one that is not well understood by many players. To some it means to take the first opportunity to crush the ball to win the point...and it goes out of bounds. To others it means making sure that every ball they hit is in-bounds and hope the other team eventually makes an error. In reality, the term refers to every single part of the game and the decisions made continuously during play. Many experts talk about percentage pickleball, but my understanding is that it originated with Coach Mo in The Villages. The information in this article is a combination of some elements he teaches as well as the teachings of others.

Pickleball is a microcosm of life - a series of decisions with the goal of reaching the desired outcome. Pickleball decisions include choices like court position, paddle position, speed and placement of shot, etc. Training helps to learn techniques but can't simulate real game conditions. Past experience helps players make appropriate decisions as they've lived similar circumstances in prior games. Both are long-term ways to learn percentage pickleball. But lessons from experts who understand the percentages can help to short-cut the learning process.

One basic tenet of winning pickleball is understanding that a high percentage of a rally's final shots result from unforced errors. From a percentage pickleball perspective, that means a player must have immense patience. Instead of trying to create a heroic winning shot from a disadvantageous position, create (or maintain) a neutral position while waiting for a ball that can be more easily hit for a winner. The spectacular shot looks good but is not a consistent basis for winning pickleball.

Another tenet of winning pickleball is understanding that placement is more important than power. Every shot made should have an intended target. The target is dependent on the type of shot and player positions. Some targets may be deep in the court. Other targets may be opponents' feet. One article cannot cover all of the potential targets. It is sufficient to learn that a target should be part of the decision-making process. Reading other articles will then teach the appropriate targets for a given situation. One general target that often goes unrecognized is the shot over the center of the net. The net is 34" high in the center and 36" high at the posts. Those extra 2" reduce the margin for error on shots down the line.

A third tenet of winning pickleball is understanding that readiness is more important than court position. While percentage pickleball also dictates that teams who control the NVZ line are more likely to win the rally, even that is no reason to rush to the line if it means being unprepared for the next shot. In that case, lack of preparedness means you likely won't get to the line anyhow. A play should always stop and get into the ready position when the opponent is about to hit the matter where the player is positioned on the court.

A fourth tenet of winning pickleball is to understand that some shots have more room for error and should never be missed. The serve and return of serve are not generally at risk of creating an opportunity for the opponent to hit a winner. Make the best shots that skill levels allow but do not extend the risk-taking to the point where the ball is out of bounds. The serve is especially important since it means an immediate loss of opportunity for that point and an unknown number of additional potential points.

As mentioned above, another tenet of percentage pickleball is that control of the NVZ line greatly increases the odds of winning. Shots behind the NVZ line should be hit with the goal of helping to get to the NVZ line. That means mastering drop shots from all over the court - especially from the baseline and no-man's land. Once gaining the NVZ line, the wait begins. An opportunity to create an advantage - or even a clear winning shot - will arise...for one team or the other. A player's objective here is to outlast the opponent by continuing to hit a safe low shot that forces the other team to the ball upward. If necessary, reset the point back to neutral when at a disadvantage. Then, when the high percentage opportunity comes, smash the ball down for the winner.

The final tenet I want to mention here is best expressed with a line from the Dirty Harry movie Magnum Force - "A man's got to know his limitations". Players develop additional skills as they play and practice. Only the best players can successfully hit even close to all shots. Players must understand where they are along the skill progression continuum. Percentage pickleball means that a player should stick with their strengths and avoid their weaknesses.

This article is intended to hit the highlights of percentage pickleball. It certainly is not all-encompassing in its coverage but introduces the concept. Some of the expert advice that provide more detail will follow over the next several days. It is also recommended that the reader use the A Pickleball Life "book" along the left column of the blog to get further details.

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