Serves – Lost and Found: Regaining Your Serve

(WARNING: The following article discusses the very unpleasant business of losing your pickleball serve. If this kind of thing makes you nervous, please go here and see pictures of cute puppies instead.)

We have both lost our serves several times. Anything can kick it off. You’re at a clinic, they teach a new serve, you work on it. Suddenly you can’t even remember your old serve – it’s gone, as if in a dream. Or you want to get a serve deeper into the wind, fidget with your serve mechanics…and poof, no serve. Or you are out of steel-cut oats and have to eat instant oatmeal for breakfast…and, voila, your serve is gone. The initial trigger varies, but the feelings are similar. You are about to serve, and suddenly you start thinking about stuff you have taken for granted, things that until this very moment were not conscious but completely automatic…maybe your serve motion, maybe where you are dropping the ball. You shake your head, focus, serve, and the ball goes four feet right, nearly hitting your opponent in the Ad court.

“Well, THAT was weird,” you tell yourself. You sorta felt like you are an alien creature in somebody else’s body, a body that won’t listen to you. Huh. How about that. But that’s just once, no problemo. So your next time at bat, you relax, take a deep breath, concentrate more, step in….

….and hit it five feet left, nailing the fence. After five or six times of hitting it every which way from Sunday, you realize this is real. You can no longer serve, whereas up until this point you could have put your every serve on a dime…well, on a blanket, anyway…with never a second thought. And this stays with you, this hollow, anxious, sick feeling in the pit of your stomach…after all, everything you have worked so hard for in your game is useless if you can’t serve. And the more freaked out you get, the worse your serve gets, until, finally, it’s almost impossible to get any kind of a serve in. Others tell you, “Forget trying to serve. Just drop the ball and hit it, like you’re returning the ball to the other guy for him to serve.” So you try and – yikes! – there it goes out of bounds again. There’s no way you can get that ball into the diagonal playing court.

Worst of all, this strange feeling, (actually this new reality), seldom disappears by the next day. The muscle memory of the new anti-serve takes over and you are….well, not to be rude….you are “in trouble”. (You may substitute freely between the quote marks.)

BTW, we have had well-meaning folks tell us that it’s actually impossible to lose one’s serve – they can’t even imagine how that could happen to anyone, inferring perhaps that we are lying to them. Of course all this really means to us, who have both lost our serves multiple times, is that it’s never happened to them … yet. And it will, or anyway it should, especially if there is any justice.

Next steps? Well, if you are compulsive (like A.J.), you will now spend hours on the courts trying to straighten this out, hitting buckets of balls, looking for a silver bullet. Or, if you are not compulsive (like Irene) you will have a second glass of wine with dinner and wait until the next day. Neither of these approaches works, although arguably Irene’s will make you feel better temporarily.

So..what does work, to find what was lost? Here is our three-step approach for regaining one’s composure and finding a serve:

1. Understand that “gone forever” is catastrophic thinking. It’s unlikely that you will lose your serve forever. The longest we ever saw anyone lose their regular serve was three years. So take a breath. But, actually, at our age 3 more years might be all we have, so here’s the next point.
2. Forget for the moment trying to recover your original serve and focus all efforts on developing a backup serve. Backup serves have multiple purposes. They insure you can play in that next tournament, and they virtually eliminate the performance anxiety and fear of shame associated with not having a serve. The following approaches are worth a try. One of them may work. Or not. No silver bullets here, either.

Do it backwards. A backhand serve can be done either facing towards the target and stepping into the ball and extending your arm straight out, or standing with your feet across the court (parallel with the base line) and extending your arm towards the target at about 90 degrees from your body’s direction. Try it. Admittedly it feels strange at first, but those who serve backhanded regularly say it’s totally second nature to them. (If you’d like to see a backhand serve done by a master, look at this clip of Byron Freso. Having played with and against Byron many times, we can testify to how MUCH he gets on this serve – but Byron is strong as an ox. You don’t need to hit it as well as Byron, just get consistent. Note how simple his motion is and emulate that.)
There is also the underrated “Mark Nelson serve”, where you fix the paddle at a downward angle, with the back of your hand facing the net, and come through with a straight arm, low to high. This, done well, can top-spin the heck out of what is essentially a backhand serve hit from the forehand side. (We’d be better off showing you this sometime as it’s easier by far to show than describe.)
There is also the side-serve (similar to the position of a backhand but reversed so that you stand sideways and come straight across your body at the target from the forehand side.) This works very well for a younger 5.0 woman player we know, and it’s a serve she developed in response to – yes – losing HER serve.
There is the Bear serve, courtesy Al Hager. He stands, right foot forward at the line, takes no step (no moving parts), has his paddle out in front of him, shifts his weight forward and wrist-snaps the serve towards his target. He gets tons on this serve, but, then, he has wrists of steel. Byron Freso does essentially the same thing with the same result but does it backhand – again, all wrist, but gets tons on it.

There are more alternative serves – many more, actually – but you get the point, right? Develop a backup. Besides the more important benefits mentioned above, it also adds variety – you will win an occasional point simply serving differently to even a very capable opponent who is expecting to see a different serve.

3. You remember what’s important with real estate? Location, location location? In learning a new serve, it’s Drill, Drill, Drill. Sorry, but in order to get past the mental stuff and become totally comfortable serving again, you’ll probably need to put some time into it. We would estimate that hitting 500 balls with your new-to-you backup serve will make you comfortable with it. (A.J. hit many more than that the last time he went through this, Irene fewer. Figures.) But hitting 500 is easily do-able over a five-day week, two hours at a time. Make every shot as repetitive and careful as possible. Go through your pre-shot routine. Visualize your target. Extend your hitting arm towards the target each time. When you make a bad serve, look down at your feet. See if you are aligned properly. Drill properly. Proper practice produces positive results, or something like that. Sloppy practice produces…well, slop. Garbage in, Garbage out.

At some point you may want to try your “old” serve again. Go ahead. Sometimes it re-appears as if in a dream, as if it’s never been gone at all. But sometimes you find you are better off with the new serve and you wonder if the old serve didn’t disappear for a reason? Maybe it was Kismet? Fate? Nah…while God did not send us a memo on this, we suspect the universe doesn’t care about your serve. At least it certainly doesn’t care about ours. But work on it anyway – you’ll find a second serve, and then a third. With a little extra effort you can wind up with three or four serviceable serves. And, truly, at that point you can stop worrying entirely about getting the serve in; you’ll always have some serve that will work. Fate favors the prepared, after all.