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Monday, May 1, 2017

Lessons from Low Country 2017

If you're not winning, you better be learning...

I went to the 2017 Low Country Pickleball Classic with high hopes but moderate expectations. My hopes were based on the partner factor - I had the same partners as 2016 when we finished with a silver in men's doubles and a gold in mixed doubles. My expectations were tempered by pre-tournament discussions and practices with these partners, though. In the end, the results were disappointing but not unexpected - we finished in 4th in both men's and mixed. So what did I take away from the tournament? Let's walk through some learnings.

Playing Outdoors

I learned to play pickleball on outdoor courts. I loved to play outdoors primarily because the ball was so visible. Much of my success is due to fast hands. But hand-speed only comes into play when I can see the ball - it's direction, it's speed, and it's spin - early in it's flight. Consistent and even sunlight provides that. So my confidence in outdoor play was high despite it being my first outdoor play of the year.

But this tournament proved my confidence was over-rated. Two elements came into play that I had never experienced in the past.
  1. Wind - I have dealt with windy conditions in the past. Hiawassee was far windier, for example. But the winds in prior tournaments were always from the same direction. I learned to adjust based on the direction and speed. The conditions in the Sun City courts were unique to me.
    Each court at Sun City is completely surrounded by a 9'-10' foot chain link fence with lots of enmeshed windscreen. This created a swirling wind that changed direction depending on my position on the court. In one spot, the ball might move 2 feet from left to right. In another spot, the ball moved 3 feet from right to left. This resulted in my playing much more tentatively than I like. In early-day play, I rushed the aggressive shot - to beat the wind-caused direction change - and hit several into the net. My adjustment was to become less aggressive and place the ball rather than hit it. I effectively ceded control of the point to my opponents.
  2. Shadows - There was a bright and low sun on both days I played, with starting times of 8:00 am each day. My assigned courts were interior courts. The sun angle, windscreening, and fence banners meant that a portion of each court was in shade while most of the court was sunlit. Again, this created a new situation for me in which the ball was constantly moving between sunlight and shade. It was surprisingly distracting, causing difficulty to judge speed and depth perception. The lack of full confidence in judging the ball just added to my tentativeness.
There is no simple learning that can be derived from the outdoor factor. One simple conclusion is that I should make an effort to play outside more frequently. But the reality is that the conditions I described could not be anticipated nor could they be duplicated. Instead, I will conclude that I need more patience in my game. Instead of going from one extreme - badly hitting finishing shots - to the other extreme - ceding control, I should stick with an aggressive game that extends the point until I get a more certain winning opportunity. Easier said than done, though. But it is called percentage pickleball.

Playing Style

While my partners stayed the same in the tournament, we did not face a single carryover team from last year. In fact, every team I played was entirely new to me with no experience in any past tournaments. Playing at the 3.5 level, I found the styles wildly varied. Every team was strong but their strengths differed - some had soft games while other were more bangers. Frankly, playing teams with such variability was much more difficult than playing 4.0+ teams at my usual recreational gym.

The learning is that playing with the same people week-in and week-out develops a playing style that adapts to those players...but may not work well against outsiders. The reality is that regularly playing the same players allows one to play the tendencies of the player rather than adapting to new playing styles. The conclusion is twofold. First, it is necessary to play against different styles. That means moving around to different venues. It also means that frequent tournament play is important. Second, more drilling and less playing will strengthen one's overall play without allowing skills to devolve to just playing another person's tendencies.

Summing up, I walk away from Hilton Head with several learnings:

  1. Play outside more.
  2. Be more patient.
  3. Play different people and styles.
  4. Drill more and play less.

As an aside, I had one more learning from the tournament. Several players I had never before met approached me with compliments about this blog. It made me feel good that people are reading it regularly and finding it of value. The tournament was rewarding if for no other reason than it gave me incentive to continue to plug away. Besides it helps me to never stop learning.

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