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Lynn Carlson, Master of the Soft
Author’s Note and update:
The following article was first published as a post in 2017. While some of the information is a “how-to” about converting hard shots to a soft game, most of it is about Lynn Carlson, perhaps the best super-senior on the planet in terms of playing soft and doing conversions. Since this article was written, Lynn has had a number of operations. Through all this, he has seldom been off his pickleball courts for any time at all, if at all. In addition to be physically tough, he is mentally tough. Without going into the details, we believe that few people could ever play through what he has. The best part of it is he still consistently medals, and has continued winning gold medals. One of the most significant of the recent batch has been the Bainbridge Cup international tournament. Lynn and Rodney “Rocket” Grubbs brought the cup back to North America.
Last we checked, Lynn is actively contemplating his next court challenges. Watch this space!
A Simple Strategy for Pickleball Success – “Less is More!”
A conversation about Pickleball Strategy with Lynn Carlson
A lot of people tend to chew up the scenery. I’m a firm believer in less is more, especially on the big screen – Mark Wahlberg, American actor and producer
70% of the time winning teams have less unforced errors (many times significantly less) than the losing teams. – Noel White, Club Statistician, Palm Creek Pickleball Club, from his 2012-2013 analysis of pickleball tournament results.
Your New Year’s Resolution – does it involve finally learning what it really takes to take your game to the next level?
If your answer is “yes”, the key, in a word, is consistency. You’ve heard that, consistently. (Pun intended.) Over and over. Sometimes from us. But….honestly, now….how hard do you work to become even more consistent – with your good stuff? Everybody works to improve their weaknesses if they practice at all, but do you work on your strengths so that your good becomes your better and eventually your best, so your best shots are infinitely repeatable, even at match point, even under the stress of playing against Ralph, your nemesis who trash-talks so well that he hits every hot button you have?
Some people really do think this way, about boiling things down, about being consistent, about repeat-ability. Granted, the “big screen” of competitive pickleballing often features the “scenery” – the hero shots, hard hits, gazelle-like agility, and, (sometimes and unfortunately), the enlarged egos. But that’s not where most of us live and certainly it isn’t how we can improve.
So, alternatively, just for a minute, observe 73-year-old Lynn Carlson, an unheralded 5.0 with near-200 medals in most every major tournament, a quiet guy but one who stands out all the more primarily because he works so consistently on doing less. He wants less hard-hits than soft returns, less heroics and much more placement, less attention on the sideline winner and much, much more on keeping the ball in play, does less too-late scrambling and practices more anticipation of where the ball is going, and then he does this over and over until the 70% rule finally kicks in and you, once again, make an unforced error.
Sure, Lynn is naturally athletic and is very proficient in most all eye-hand-oriented sports (and, annoyingly, is also tall, blue-eyed and pretty trim). But he’s also a guy fighting uphill against aches and pains like most of us, against an arthritic back, a replaced knee, and an ever-tougher field of competitors so in that respect he’s closer to being like you, or at least like A.J.
On balance, tho, in any age-level tournament (especially!) Lynn is the anchor of the team to beat, the model of consistency, the furthest thing there is from a one-shot-wonder. We sat with him recently to discuss his approach to developing consistency in pickleball – so we could list the learnings, shown now below (All italics are Lynn’s words, in addition to stuff in quotes):
- I’m patient – and I work to make every shot a good one. And I set up for a second shot, or a third shot. I’m not much of a slammer. I work on consistency, getting the ball back, not trying to do too much. They’ll make a mistake before I will.
This consistency is earned, not a gift. “God gave me some eye-hand coordination,” he says, “but I work to get myself into the right position for each shot.” This often means that the right-hander’s drop-shot position looks exactly like his dink position – left-foot-forward, ball inside his left foot, slightly right of center, stroking the ball low-to-high with a trajectory that apexes the shot on his side of the net and drops it into the front half of the kitchen (nearest the net) much more often as not.
- But I try not to be overly predictable. Yes, I have patterns (in my shot-selections), like anybody. But my patterns are safe, and I don’t overdo them.
For instance, when in the ad (left) court and hitting a third-shot-drop, Lynn will most often hit his drop to the farthest corner of the opponent’s ad (left) court. But this is generally to his opponent backhand (10-13% of people being left-handed per various studies), and, since his success rate on this exceptionally difficult shot is sky-high compared to most of us mortals, this takes most risk out of his approach.
But then he will drop-shot into the middle, perhaps every third time from the ad-court. And from the deuce court he reverses his process, hitting two out of three into the middle, with the occasional ball going not diagonally but to his directly-opposite opponent at their baseline. “It doesn’t pay to be too easy to read,” he says.
Even his use of misdirection needs to fit his criteria for consistency. The misdirect kitchen-line punch shot is wildly effective – by trifling slightly with his hand position (even he isn’t sure how he does this!), he changes placement of his kitchen-line backhand punch-shot to, not just your backhand, but, instead, slightly left center mass on your body – all without taking his eyes off the false target you were expecting him to hit.
He doesn’t necessarily expect that to be an outright winner, (although it often is), but he does expect it to set up a poor return and an easy follow-on put-away. “But I can’t hit that shot as easily down sidelines in the ad-court,” he says. “The tendency of the ball is to go left, and I don’t want to risk it going out!”
- A good defense is a good offense. I try to get to the place where I can hit the ball the same way every time. I hit my dinks like I hit my drops. And I try to anticipate. Based on the shot we hit, I move right away to where the ball is most likely to come back.
This plays out in a very regular, a very, well, CONSISTENT way. For instance, whenever Lynn returns the ball, (from the back court), he follows the exact path of the ball in to the net. He doesn’t overly pinch down on the opponent nor does he go routinely to the middle of his box or crowd the middle. “As soon as we hit the ball, I move, he emphasizes. “I go with the path. If we both do that, my partner and I can cover 15 feet of the width between us and we will let them have the other 5 feet. That 5 feet is wide but it’s not deep….it’s a pie-shaped target and it doesn’t go back very far. For them to get the ball away from us, into that 5 feet, they have to hit the ball soft, and I can slide over and cover that pretty easily.”
Dinking with Lynn is predictable but not easy to handle. He will hit a ball to you twice, then typically go once to your partner, than back to you, and so on. But no two of the dinks are exactly the same. “I want my opponent to have to move,” he says. “But if they aren’t ready to move, they might make a mistake. And that’s what I want.”
And he’s indifferent about whether he takes the ball off the bounce or in the air. “I just don’t want to short-hop shots. I think there are really only a couple of people around who can take a short hop and make a quality soft return out of it nearly every time. Most people who rely on short-hops will put the ball up eventually.”
He is rigorous, however, about WHERE he takes the ball if he is taking it off the bounce, either for a drop-shot or a dink. (Remember, he’s hitting them both in the same body position using the same motion.) “I want the ball to come up and just being to drop. I will drop a foot back if I have to to clear the room for that. And then I lift the ball into the front-half of the kitchen.”
4. I don’t always believe in “conventional wisdom”, but what I do always needs to be consistent and repeatable. Take my shot-selection at the kitchen vs. at the baseline, for example.
We found that concept to be pretty interesting. Whenever Lynn can he will position himself to hit forehands from the back line but will mostly always choose to hit backhands at the kitchen-line. “I don’t believe in ‘forehand takes the middle’ when it comes to the kitchen”, he says. “Think about it! If you hit a backhand, you can place the shot wherever you want, here, or here,” he points. “Or you can misdirect it here! But you can do that because you aren’t swinging at the ball! Take a major-league hitter who swings at the ball – he really has no idea where the ball is going, left, center or right-field! But if he punches or bunts the ball he can place it wherever he wants to!”
So, swinging at the ball creates an imprecise shot. Removing the “swinging” part, allows you to place the ball. But this is completely in opposition to the conventional wisdom of “forehand takes the middle,” isn’t it?
5. I stay with the plan. If things go badly, I stay with the plan more. It’s the right plan.
And, maybe lastly, Lynn isn’t easy to rattle if a game isn’t going well. “I can handle almost any hard shot I can reach,” he says. “Since I know that, I don’t panic. I just get to the ball and get it back.” He doesn’t play differently if he is way behind, and he certainly doesn’t want to change anything at game point. “Too many people try to get that last point over with too soon,” he says, grinning. “That’s a problem. I just want to keep it in play….and you know what will happen eventually,” he says.
Yes. We know. We eventually make a mistake, 7 out of 10 times, by count. Point to Lynn, and eventually and as often as not, game and match, too. Consistently.