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Welcome to the second edition of For the Coaches. One of the things that instructors are often asked is some version of “what is the different between a 3.5 and 4.0 player?”. Coaches will often be pulled in the direction of talking about technique or power or about the ability for stronger players to anticipate what is coming next. While all of these answers have some validity, I think they miss the mark.

To me, the real difference isn’t that better players hit fundamentally different shots. Even a lowly 2.5 can still (occasionally) serve and return deep, hit a dink that can’t be put away, even play well-executed volleys against a good drive. No, the difference isn’t in the type of shots players make. The real difference is that the better players can hit those high quality shots more often than their less skilled friends. They can play good drops not just once in a while, but regularly. They can serve to a desired target on command, not just when they get lucky.

With this in mind, this edition of For the Coaches is focused on little things coaches can do to help their players become more consistent. Sometimes it is just a matter of positioning yourself differently or choosing a better target. Maybe it is about having a different mindset. In any event, instructors will do well to encourage their players to focus on developing consistency rather than brand new shots.

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Starting Smart

The serve is an important opportunity for players to cause some trouble for their opponents. This doesn’t necessarily mean attempting to hit an un-returnable ball, but hitting the serve in a way that makes it harder for the returners to do what they want with their reply. There are a number of ways to cause trouble with the serve, but one of the most effective is by forcing the returners to move. After all, it is harder to hit a quality shot if you are on the run.

 Standing out wide when serving makes it easier to get a rebound that pulls the opponent off the court.

Standing out wide when serving makes it easier to get a rebound that pulls the opponent off the court.

Servers should consider where they stand when hitting their serve. Standing out wide makes it easier to pull the opponents off the court — not because it is easier to land the ball out wide, but because the ball will rebound on the same angle from which it was hit.

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 The serve will rebound on the angle from which it was hit.

The serve will rebound on the angle from which it was hit.

Of course, standing out wide does not mean that the player must serve out wide. By changing the angle of the paddle at contact (see PCI videos on Fundamentals re: controlling direction) the player can change the direction they hit. But if getting the ball out wide is something the server will try to do regularly (either because it moves the returner or because it exposes a weakness, like a backhand), regularly setting up out wide will make that bread-and-butter serve more effective.

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Pro Tip: Get Your Students To Love Hitting Crosscourt

Any ball that players are trying to hit softly near the kitchen when their opponents are at the line is incredibly risky. Whether they are playing a dink or a drop, they better hit it well or else their opponents are going to pounce (or the ball will hit the net). You can do your students a huge favour by explaining to them that hitting crosscourt will make their lives easier for two reasons: 1) the net is lower over the middle so the barrier is smaller; 2) the distance from the net to the nvz is longer on a diagonal than it is when hitting straight ahead. This increased distance means more space to work with and a greater chance for success.

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Dealing with Challenging Students

The Time Suck

Key Identifying Traits

  • Has a seemingly endless number of questions.

  • Limited awareness that they are taking up a disproportionate amount of the instructor’s time.

  • Not typically aware of when to let things go or allow the lesson to move forward.

  • Very good at sending follow-up questions by email.

What to Do

  • Respect the enthusiasm. In almost all cases, The Time Suck is super keen and curious. They typically ask so many questions because they are genuinely interested in the answers. These people are enthusiasts and as frustrating as it can be when they pull you into their orbit, try to remember that it is usually coming from a place of excitement.

  • Think about others. One of your jobs as the instructor is to make sure that every player gets equal attention. While you may be willing to get into the fine details of pickleball with The Time Suck, you do so at a cost to the other people in the group who just want to get moving or want your attention for themselves. Out of respect for others it is important that one person isn’t allowed to hijack the lesson and take it in the direction of their choice. This means that you will have to shut down The Time Suck occasionally. Saying something like “That’s a really good question to talk about later” is a helpful way to keep the lesson on track.

  • Be willing to set limits. One of the characteristics of The Time Suck is that they are unaware that they are taking up more of your time than others. This could be on the court during the lesson, off the court or even by phone or over email. One of the ways to limit their time-sucking ability is to say something (with a smile) along the lines of: “Hi Mike. I’ve got time for just one question right now, so make it a good one”. By setting the expectations early, you make it easier to make your escape once it’s over.

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At the top of this newsletter was a quote about your student’s takeaways being more important than the lesson you taught. It is amazing how often what instructors think they are teaching is different from what the players are learning. This month’s challenge is to find out how closely alligned these things are. Here’s how it works:

  1. Teach your lesson with a specific teaching point in mind (e.g. a good drop forces an upward hit; a deep return minimizes the damage from a third shot drive; crosscourt is your friend because you have a lower net and larger distance, etc.).

  2. At the end of lesson and without any prompting or review on your part, hand your players a small piece of paper and something to write with. Tell them you’d like their help doing an experiment and that it is totally anonymous.

  3. Ask them to silently write down 1or 3 key teaching points from the lesson — main things they practiced or talked about.

  4. Once done, ask them to add one additional sentence about why that teaching point is important to playing pickleball well.

  5. Have them hand in their papers.

  6. On your own time, review the papers. How similar or different are they? How well do they reflect what you were trying to teach? If they match up exactly, good for you! If not, why not? What could have made your main message stronger?