(Ed. Note) We have updated and are republishing this popular post on the subject of playing within yourself due to requests under the title “Zen and the Art of Pickleball” Enjoy!)
We’ve been meaning to use the title Zen and the Art of Pickleball just ‘cuz we think it’s cool and also ‘cuz we admire some books using “Zen” in their names, such as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance , Zen in the Art of Archery and others. And to legitimize the effort we may be a little Zen-like. Not much, tho. Mainly this is a piece discussing one specific pickleball strategy, and also one tactic that we see players begin to use most regularly when they move to 4.5 and above.
The Strategy – Know Yourself. Play Within Yourself.
Too many players, selves included, have taken lessons or clinics, heard something from the current champion-of-the-universe that represents his or her perception of what they do (usually they don’t really know, either – just like you and we), and also represents what they’d have you do. These include statements like “You gotta get to the line!” or (for some clinicians) “Lobs Suck. Low Percentage Shot!”, or, from the big-hitters, “Rip the ball from the baseline as an approach shot”, and many other “alternative facts”. To repeat, know yourself (know both what you can do and can’t do) and play within yourself (play to your own strengths, and protect your weaknesses).
Stretching it, the Zen Buddhist Eightfold Path can be used to illustrate this strategic point. The Path is one of the Buddhist Four Noble Truths and the means by which enlightenment (substituting “pickleball excellence” for our purposes) can be obtained.
On the Path we find Right View, which helps us to touch reality deeply, understanding what is true for us, and liberate ourselves from false perceptions of ourselves and everything else. If we are going to truly “get” Right View as it pertains to pickleball, we come to understand our pickleball strengths and our weaknesses and, without judgment, we decide what is best on the court. (Here’s another article on staying with your own strengths, if you’re interested.)
But, you’d say, you already know what to do correctly on the court, right, grasshoppah? But does that accommodate who you really are, these days? Let’s take Lynn, who we’ve written about before, and in the face of knee replacement, cancer surgery and other stuff, remains one of the best 5.0 75-year-plus age-group players. Lynn believes that his defense is his offense. He knows himself, understands his mobility issues, knows what he can get to and what he can’t, and with that knowledge tries to set up the same on each shot, and often incorporates a second or even a third drop shot, rather than forcing himself to rush the net inappropriately. Knowing himself, once at the net, he is free to do The Voodoo that he does so well. (Apologies to Cole Porter as well as to Hedley, btw.)
Now, meditate upon the image of Carol, who has had hip replacements and but still keeps up with the other 5.0s pretty well primarily ‘cuz she always looks at the whole court, finding edges and seams where you aren’t, and can,, without overly much speed or power always put the ball right there. She sets up well, too, ‘cuz she uses anticipation and good court knowledge to move to where the ball is most likely going to be instead of trying to scramble, too late, to get where it winds up (which with mobility issues she can’t do). In the words of Ross, another fine player, Carol consistently hits shot that are “annoyingly good”. And Ross is almost correct. Carol knows herself, knows what she can do, and does it, in our opinion annoyingly wonderfully, not just good.
We have seen tournament winners who are missing an arm or a leg, who have macular degeneration, have Afib or even arthritis so extreme we were amazed they could walk or who have had a stroke and are wearing a helmet in case they lose balance and fall over. (These are separate people – not all infirmities exist in any one we’ve seen win, although we admit it’s possible.) And, ‘course, we all saw the famous Mark Friedenberg, before his hip replacements, staggering out to the courts, complaining every step of the way, looking for all the world like he was searching for his walker but instead most always finding a way to win anyway.
One more? ‘K! AJ once lost a close unimportant singles game to Steve, who was riding a knee-scooter after arthroscopic surgery at the time. ‘Course, AJ was also riding one at the same time after the same surgery, but Steve won ‘cuz he simply got more balls over the net and didn’t try to make any hero shots. He’s very capable of hitting hero shots in normal unencumbered play but at that point in time he was encumbered and so he didn’t even try. For a redneck Steve is very smart, and gits ‘er done.
All of the above examples talk of people who have won by doing only what they were capable of doing at that time. Does that sound limiting, ‘cuz you really like to bang the ball from the baseline, even though you know you can’t get to the front fast enough to cover the return when you do? You decide; we think playing within oneself sounds liberating, sorta how operating within your household budget initially sounds confining at first but eventually seems totally freeing. This technique also helps prevent a Pickleball Divorce!
The Tactic: Playing with Situational Patience
How can patience be a tactic when it’s also an attitude, you ask? Simple. You act in a patient manner consistently in certain circumstances. Here are two examples, you can add others:
1. When you are at the baseline and receiving serve, ALWAYS wait for the ball and don’t creep into the court until the return of serve (ROS) has been struck. You can get away with “creep” often enough but far too often you are too far in and wind up having to short-hop the ROS, which most of us can do but none of us can do with as much accuracy iinstead we’re properly behind the ball. AJ figures his failure to do that always has cost him a point somewhere within a match. Irene thinks it’s cost him more.
2. When you are at the line engaged in a dink-a-thon, know that proper play means you only have two choices. One, you can reach a ball that’s above the top of the net (TON) and you put it away. Two, IF THE BALL COMING TO YOU GETS BELOW THE TON ON YOUR SIDE, you WAIT FOR THE BALL TO BOUNCE and then return it where you will. (Many players use the mental trick “Bounce, Hit” to force themselves to go slowly enough.} All things being equal and never saying “never” you do NOT take a ball out of the air which has gone below the TON on your side and which you intend to return softly. That shot should bounce first and you take the shot as it rises to its’ apex. (Short-hopping the ball when it gets below the TON is allowing it to bounce, of course, but again same as #! just above; short-hopping is very hard to control.) Exceptions to this would only be if you can make an offensive lob off a low kitchen volley; take Enrique Ruiz, who is somewhat famous for taking that short, low volley and tossing it over your head. Most seniors, after he’s done that to us more than six times, are either looking for oxygen or for the match to end. Or at least that’s true for us. BTW we think it’s way cool to watch the players who have moved up successfully from, say, 4.0 to 4.5. Inevitably it seems that they are all demonstrating that new skill, letting the ball bounce especially when it’s in-between and tempting. We’d point out a belief we hold; if you make one hero shot and create one unforced error every two times you have an in-between opportunity, you lose. We’d bet the math would support that, although we haven’t worked it up yet. So put the hero shots away.
So, a little verbose, but there you be. One strategy, one tactic. For most of us that would be enough to work on all of this new year. As we often say that’s just our two cents and your mileage may vary, of course, and if so you could advise us here, or add a comment to the post. Thanks for listening!