In the previous edition of For the Coaches I addressed the importance of teaching tactics. I suggested that when problem-solving with their players, coaches too often neglect tactical thinking and instead treat every deficiency as a technical one. I argued that this is a little like being unclear on what you are trying to build when going to the shed to pick the right tool to work with. It is important to start with the tactical question of what are you trying to do? before trying to figure out how to do it.
But sometimes the tactics are crystal clear; everyone knows what they are trying to do and why it is a good idea. But there is something about how the player is using their body and paddle (i.e. their technique) that is letting them down. That will be the focus of the edition of For the Coaches.
— Mark Renneson, Pickleball Coaching International
Style vs Technique
If you have the chance to go to a tournament featuring pickleball’s best players, you might notice that the pros seem to occupy space on the court differently from one another. Not because they are on different planes when it comes to skill, but because of something more nuanced in their behaviour and comportment. You will come across the high-energy ‘kid’ who is bouncing around like a super-ball. You’ll see the slow and methodical veteran who seems to have all the time in the world. There is the super-intense player who doesn’t seem let a point go by without an audible “come on!” and there is the player who seems to have ice in her veins even under extreme pressure.
Similarly, you’ll notice different approaches to how the players move to and then hit the ball. When serving, for example, you’ll see some players take big, circular swings while others are compact and linear in their approach. Some will have their body open to the court, while other face sideways. You’ll notice some players hit their drops with topspin while others send a flatter ball, or one with backspin. Some players will use two hands on their backhands while others use the more traditional single hand. The point is, you'll see quite a variety of technique if you are looking for it.
So what to make of all of this? Given that the best players in the game don’t all hit the ball in the same way, how does one make a determination about which technique is best for their students? Is each technique as good as all the others? Is there a ‘right’ way to hit the ball?
At PCI we don’t believe that there are right and wrong ways to hit a ball. There is no moral imperative or absolute truth related to pickleball technique. But we also believe that some techniques are more effective than others at doing certain things, and those are outlined in the PCI page called technical fundamentals. As far as we are concerned, there is plenty of room for players to have their own unique styles. What is important is to figure out whether the style a player shows has a negative, positive or neutral impact on their ability to do what they want with the ball. We don’t mind seeing players bring some of themselves to how they play — in fact, we quite like the variety. The trick is to make sure that those idiosyncrasies don’t come at the expense of performance.
A nice example of performance-limiting technique is the ‘bowling’ method of serving. Since it relies almost exclusively on the arm to send the ball (as opposed to hips, core and body rotation), this technique is rather limiting in its ability to generate speed. So the bowling serve isn’t wrong, per se, but it has significant enough drawbacks (and very few advantages) that we don’t recommend it.
Similarly,a western forehand grip when playing balls to the backhand side make solid contact and control more difficult. This grip also has the tendency to tilt the paddle face downward, making hitting in the net more likely. Players who reach for balls rather than moving are less likely to be precise when they make contact. Those with big swings on volleys will have a tough time when balls come fast at them. There is empirical evidence that some elements of technique are more effective than others so we definitely don’t advocate a policy of anything goes.
When to Change Technique
Depending on the skill you are working on and the severity of the change, asking players to change their technique can feel a little like major surgery. It is not uncommon that players have significant setbacks when attempting technical changes and this can be frustrating and demoralizing to both the player and the coach. So when should coaches encourage changes and when should they ‘let things slide’?
When it is dangerous. If players are moving in a way that has a reasonable chance of leading to an injury, it is a good idea to initiate a change. This could have to do with how they move around the court, or with how they swing the paddle.
When it is ineffective. If a player cannot so what they want because their technique holds them back (e.g. it is tough to generate power when hitting smashes with just the forearm) they are due for a technique adjustment.
When it is limiting. One of the roles of the coach is to anticipate a future that players cannot yet see. If a player is hitting the ball in a way that diminishes their potential for the future (e.g. the bowling action serve has a very low potential upside when it comes to generating speed and topspin) then a coach should consider a change. Part of the challenge is to articulate to the player why 'what is ‘working’ for them now might not be suitable down the road.
The Evolution of Technique
If necessity is the mother of invention, desire is the mother of technique. Again, how players use their body and paddle should be a reflection of what they are trying to do with the ball. As pickleball evolves as a sport, so too do the techniques players use as they play it. The game is getting faster so players are looking at ways to cause trouble with speed, as well as avoid it as needed.
A good example of this will be the paddle position at the net. While elite players will use a more neutral paddle preparation when their opponents are far away (when they have more time to react), this changes as their opponents get closer. This is when you will see the paddle preparation adjust so that it is tilted more toward the backhand, almost as if it is a 'shield protecting the player’s body.
Technology also has a role to play in the development of technique. Paddle manufactures know that being able to produce spin (especially topspin) can be the difference maker whether a low ball can be attacked or not. In pickleball’s infancy, it was commonly understood that balls below net level were not to be hit with speed since the upward arc meant anything hit fast was liable to go long. But this is changing as paddles do. Players who want to excel now must develop the ability to generate speed and spin off low balls, using just their wrist. This technical evolution stems from a technological one.