“Man, such a little thing….”, A.J. said this morning as he was eating his cup of coffee, an unfortunate phenomenon experienced by many Keurig “K-Cup” devotees who pack their own little coffee containers and occasionally forget to wipe every single grain of coffee off the edge. Leaving even one coffee grain on the edge, a tiny little thing, insures the container will not close and 50% of the grains will wind up in the liquid, making it a bit chewy.
‘Course that’s only coffee, but little tiny things are also important in sports, and hence are important in pickleball. On the larger level, the basics often define your result – and the goal of every athlete, every pickler no matter how occasionally he or she plays, should be to execute proper mechanics throughout. And in proper performance of the basics, it’s the tiny details, the little things, that mean everything, really.
Shall we illustrate? Let’s! Several days back, A.J. had an opportunity to play with one of his favorite people, who we will call “Win”. Win is one of the best near-75-year-old players around, we’re sure. What makes Win so unique on the courts, besides the undisputed fact that he is a naturally gifted athlete, is that he thinks a lot about details and mechanics, he spends hours watching other good players, he makes lots of mental notes, he roles them into a personal strategy, and then he focuses on executing that strategy.
Personal strategy? Isn’t strategy the same for everybody? Well, no, it shouldn’t be, anyway. For instance, in pickleball, Win often can be heard to say that “my offense is defense.” To Win that means that he wants to convert almost anything you hit into a soft shot and he wants to land his soft return shot in the front-half of the kitchen nearest the net, and he wants to do that, over and over again, until you put a return up just THAT much too high, and he then typically “cobras” you, meaning he misdirects and strikes someplace where you are not ready. This personal strategy works beautifully for Win – his age limits his mobility but by staying true to his personal philosophy he can still compete at least a bit with the 30-somethings blasters who have the strength of ten and can get to anything like The Flash and back again…’cuz he can recover from most all their shots, using this plan.
But talking about what Win wants and does (in other words, his returning a soft shot into the front half of the kitchen) is different than describing how he does it, or, in this case, how A.J. wasn’t doing it. When A.J. is playing with Win he is motivated to play his best, but today he left his “A” game at home and with only his “J” game in attendance was hitting the top of the net with most of his mid-court drop shots. A.J. and Win therefore lost a close first game and only just won a close second game although (if you are to believe the USAPA ratings of the four people playing) the odds were that they should have won both games pretty handily.
After the second too-close game, Win took A.J. aside and mentioned that he (A.J.) was setting up on his mid-court drop shots just a little too far back, “and you don’t have enough stroke left to get the ball over the net!” What this meant was that A.J. was moving well enough to the ball and even was stopping properly, but where he was stopping was maybe six inches or so back from the optimal position. So then he reached about six inches too far and wound up hitting the ball up towards the top of his paddle instead of in the middle, with no leverage left on the shot to complete the drop successfully. Result? Bit Hat, No Cattle…another pretty shot hitting the top of the net.
Six inches. A little thing. Not a lot. But enough to cause a problem. In the next game, with Win having gone on to greener pastures, A.J. and a different player beat an even tougher team much more handily. A.J., focusing throughout the game on getting six inches closer to the ball, thinks he may have made 100% of his drop shots from mid-court. Who’s to say he didn’t? He thinks he did, they won easily, and he came home feeling better.
Why did he feel better? Not because he won the game, (winning a recreational game isn’t exceptionally important – by the afternoon A.J. couldn’t even remember who he had played), but instead because he had a new idea about problem-solving mid-game. Hit the top of the net with his mid-court drop shot? No problemo; he’s got the solution, or at least one solution. Get six inches closer to the ball. Not two feet closer…he wants to be able to see both his paddle and the ball, and he doesn’t want the ball bouncing up into his body. He wants to get to…we might as well say it….the perfect place, although pickleball is not a game of perfect. He, and you, want to get the little things right. And we suppose it’s good fortune but there are a lot of little things we know we can work on in our pickleball games, aren’t there? The opportunity for continuous improvement, for progressive revelation, as it were, is certainly there.
Could this problem-solving methodology forecast an entirely new way to self-coach? Maybe, maybe not. But often we see people focused on how many unforced errors they make, and maybe we don’t see them focused often enough on how to fix those errors. Certain of our friends count their errors. They can prove, thereby, that if they make six or less unforced errors in a game, they win 85% of their games or some such. (These numbers were made up to illustrate the point, although you can search on this site for “unforced errors” and find the original research that does back up that claim.) But do they have their corrections in mind as they record their mistakes? Maybe, but maybe not enough.
Please keep in mind that we agree that it’s important to know if you are making too many unforced errors, and tracking errors can be valuable. But maybe the real trick (for us, at least) is to be conscious of which errors we are making most often and, most importantly, to know how to quickly fix those errors mid-game. Often a very small thing…a distance of six inches on A.J.’s set-up in this case…will be creating the error. And by identifying what the one (or two) small thing(s) we can do when we make a specific unforced error is the first step towards real improvement.
“But,” (we hear you thinking), “with all this identification, don’t I wind up with – what – ten or twenty things that relate to all the various errors I make?” Maybe, and maybe this number sounds daunting and the concept sounds negative (identifying all those mistakes isn’t exactly positive thinking) but we believe it’s actually very useful indeed.
Why? Because the bottom line of looking for the small things is this. If we can each create a personal “book of corrections” that we carry in our heads (or even on small notepads tucked away in our bags), we can refer to a hypothetical “number six” when we are hitting the top of the net with our drops in a particular day and we can try the correction that worked before. This is a positive approach to eliminating a problem – doing things that worked before will most probably work again. And with these “fixes” in our pocket we can then focus on the larger issues involved with developing our own personal strategy of play, a thing we’ve mentioned briefly here, but itself a much bigger issue that we will save for another discussion at another time.