Understanding pickleball strategy at the cellular level only comes with experience. Last October, Irene and I went to the Huntsman Games in St. George, UT. We went to watch Susie Dougan (our houseguest and a good friend from Bend, Or.) play mixed with Bob LeRoy, another good friend and excellent player, in the 75+.
My aha moment about “cellular pickleball strategy” didn’t come right away that day. To be honest, it’s a little hard for me to even watch the 75+ division. Most all of them are folks I have either known or known of, and I kept seeing myself beating them like a drum (to use Joe Biden’s phrase), although to be accurate I’m seeing myself as a 4.5 64-year-old instead of a 2.5 74-year-old -and reality tells me I may never again play as well as some of these guys, and in point of fact they’ve beaten me often enough anyway back when they, too, were 4.5 60-somethings…so why would I think I can beat them now, or could?
As to that last, I actually see pickleball differently when I’m sitting on the sidelines. I’m sure we all do this a bit, but I almost never make an unforced error when I’m sitting down watching. Plus my pickleball strategy for playing the other people when I’m not on the court can be outstanding, and it’s all I can do not to jump up, call a time out for my friends and start coaching at staccato speed.
Recognizing that at my age I may never have time to make this quality of friends again, if I had to start over I would still force myself to keep silent, but not necessarily because I want to.So watching Susie and Bob was very interesting, a non-word that in this case I mean as “stressful”. But it was also great! I (and Irene) taught Susie to play pickleball up in Bend. An ex-tennis player, she had picked up pickleball quickly. She’s kept at it and has gotten much, much better, even better than the last time I saw her play a couple of years back.
But I was still stressed in part because I knew their opponents. Both Dick Johnson and Alice Tym have been formidable for a long time, and they’ve kept being formidable as they’ve aged, just in different brackets. Alice was an Olympic athlete at one time and she has strokes better then good players half her age. Dick has been winning gold medals for as long as I’ve known him and it reminds me a bit of Mark Friedenberg’s long run of successes – when he showed up people expect him to win, and it’s the same with Dick now.
In this case they would have been disappointed or at least wrong. Dick and Alice played very well, but Susie and Bob played lights-out. They won the first game, first match 11-0 and the second maybe 11-4-ish. The second time in the Gold/Silver they beat Dick and Alice in three, not quite as easy but decisively.I’ve known for ages that Suzie could play under pressure. but in the last points she took over the game.
The last few points were especially instructive for me. It was obvious that Dick was focused on her but she kept coming right back on him. He kept ripping shots at her mid-section and she kept getting high and punching them back down. She had the hands of a 20-something and the heart of a lioness. In the last, very long rally, she finally put the ball away right at Dick’s feet. That was a shot even the great Freidenberg couldn’t have made every time.
So why was this instructive? Because Susie has continued to execute and improve by working on the same stuff that made her good early on. Court positioning, getting high on slams, playing strong at the net….all those skills are still there. In my own case I was always looking for a new, more-silver bullet. Some pickleball strategy or skills that would make me a dominant player. And I often ignored my strengths to work on these weaknesses, which to me seemed obvious and limiting.
The reality is, I realized, that my skills weren’t all that limiting and I didn’t really need new shots. I see that now. If I went back to age sixty, learning pickleball all over again, I might do it differently. I’d go with my strengths first. Going with a “strengths-first” attitude, I could been more relaxed. I might have enjoyed tournaments more. Who knows, now?