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SEPTEMBER 5, 2019
Pickleball is arguably the fastest-growing sport in the United States, especially among baby-boomer retirees. This game is similar to tennis, but is played on a smaller court (44 ft × 20 ft) with a solid paddle and a perforated polymer ball much like a wiffle ball.
Pickleball’s popularity may be due in part because it is a very sociable sport (men and women can play equally well), and it is much easier on the body than tennis. Many high schools as well as colleges and universities have included pickleball in their physical education programs.
Pickleball was invented by a family on Bainbridge Island, Washington, in 1965 and has gradually spread across the United States and around the world. The sport now has more than two million players worldwide, including the USA Pickleball Association, the first professional pickleball league.
Unlike tennis, in pickleball you can only score when you are on serve, and the server only gets one service fault, not two. When playing doubles, both players serve the ball until a serve is missed or until the other side wins the rally. After any combination to two missed serves or lost rallies, the opponents get the serve and an opportunity to gain points. Thus, it is critical for a player to be able to consistently execute a successful serve at least 95 percent of the time. This article explains how some theories of variability can be applied to developing and maintaining a consistent serve in pickleball without mathematical calculations; these are just my empirical observations.
The serve in pickleball must be executed with an underhand motion similar to slow-pitch softball. The ball must be struck at a height below the server’s waist and the paddle head must be below the server’s wrist when the ball is contacted. As a result of these requirements, the serve is generally not used as an offensive weapon in pickleball as it is in tennis or racquetball. However, ball speed, spin, angle, and depth of the serve can help prevent the return of the serve.
The following are my rules for developing a consistent serve by reducing variability:
Rule 1: Stop worrying about getting your serve in
Newer players tend to worry about serving the ball or overthinking the situation, especially if the game is close. As a result, they are not relaxed and have a hard time swinging through the ball with a smooth motion. This makes the serve erratic, and the player just gets more nervous and erratic on the next service opportunity. I often tell new players I am helping, “Stop thinking about getting your serve in. Just hit the ball correctly, and it will go in.”
Rule 2: Minimize the number of motions you use to serve the ball
Some players take two or more steps toward the baseline as they serve. Others toss the ball up slightly before striking it. Still others make a sweeping backswing before striking the ball. Every motion taken during the service will always have some variability (error) in it. Therefore, minimize the number of motions and the length of those motions to reduce the sources of error in your serve. Once you have minimized the number of motions used in the serve, concentrate on performing each motion as consistently as possible.
Rule 3: Stop ‘tampering’ with your serve
W. Edwards Deming’s famous Funnel Experiment teaches us to stop tampering with our systems. Serving a pickleball is a system! Unless you are a top pickleball player, try to serve into the middle of the service area as deeply as possible on every serve. Only the best players should try to serve wide on the line or short serves to pull the receiver to the net. Aim for the center of the of the service area and let natural variability carry the ball left, right, deep, or short (Rule 1 of the Funnel Experiment). Stop adjusting your service motions to compensate for what happened on the previous serve (Rules 2, 3, and 4 of the Funnel Experiment). Many players do this during a game. They move left or right along the baseline if a serve goes too far right or left, or they move farther back from the baseline if they hit a serve too long. These reactions (and many others) amount to “tampering,” and the success rate of your serve will suffer.
“Tamper tamper is the game
Try to make it all the same.
Squeak and tweak it every day,
Off we go to the Milky Way.”
Rule 4: Keep your eyes locked on the ball until you strike it
Many of us have a tendency to look up to where we want the ball to go at the last instant before the paddle strikes the ball. Keeping your eyes locked on the ball will reduce variability in your serve—guaranteed. Why? Because lifting your head as you strike the ball adds another motion to your serve and another source of error. Looking up while striking the ball during a serve, backhand, forehand, dink, or smash is one of the hardest mistakes for any pickleball player to eliminate from his game. It takes concentration.
Rule 5: Practice
This may seem obvious, but too many people do not practice their serve other than a warm-up serve or two at the start of a game. When I have a match, I get to the courts early and practice serving while applying the four rules above.
Practice is good for when you “get the yips.” Getting the yips is every pickleball player’s nightmare; suddenly, your serve deserts you, and it keeps getting worse. The more you try to get it back (tampering), the more it eludes you. I experienced this firsthand a while back, and I finally realized that the only solution was to get back to basics and find where my service “system” had gone wrong. Within half an hour, while practicing, I found a flaw that had crept into my service motion and eliminated it. My serve quickly returned to normal.
Rule 6: Have fun
After all, it’s only pickleball!