Pickleball Tips: The Leaning Tower of Pickle

Date Published: 
Feb. 9, 2018

In the previous pickleball lesson session, you learned how important it was to be balanced and focused early on the arriving ball.

When I look across a series of pickleball courts, it seems as the majority of the players who have managed to get to the No Volley Zone have nailed their shoes to the court just behind the NVZ, and are now leaning to hit their volleys. Many remind me of comedic mimes who pretend they are washing windows.

When you are leaning to hit the pickleball, more often than not, your return will be weak, defensive, and the ball drop into the net or float upwards to your opponents. If you want to see “Leaning in Action,” ask someone to practice overheads on a slightly windy day. Hardly without exception, they will move into what they think will be the correct location and then nail their shoes to the ground.

Of course, they should keep moving the feet with hundreds of little steps to adjust to the pickleball in the wind, but they won’t. By the time the ball comes down within hitting range, the hitter is leaning right, left or forward, just before he or she spikes an off-balance overhead into the net, putting incredible torque on their arm.

The correction: Remember — early prep, split step. As you approach the No Volley Zone, you need to make a split step as you come to a momentary stop with your bodyweight balanced on the balls of your feet just as your opponents strike the ball. From the split step, you are then set to move with baby steps in any of the most likely directions your opponents will/can hit.

Once you see where your opponent is hitting, you move into position to intercept the ball, ever mindful of the No Volley Zone, to volley or dink from a well-balanced position. You will suddenly discover that your responses are frequently much more effective.

Note that as you make those final adjustments from the split step, your partner must adjust with you so your center is protected.

The split step requires as much practice as every other shot. Start making part of your warm-up two dozen split steps each time you play. As we learned from Bob Cairo at Tidewater Physical Therapy, be sure to stretch your ankles in advance, because they will be sending proprioceptive signals to other receptors to aid your balance.

A rule of thumb in all sports is that you need 100,000 repetitions to perfect a shot. If every shot you hit is slightly different because you are having to lean at a slightly different angle, time will not be your friend.

However, if you move your feet around the court in such a way as to always intercept every ball hit to you the same, and use your knees as an elevator to adjust lower if necessary, then achieving that 100,000 repetitions is quite doable.

Summary: Stop being the Leaning Tower of Pickle and get in control of your game. Become more aware of what is happening on the court, and use anticipation to get closer to the action so that you are but a simple split step away from hitting every shot from a well-balanced position of strength. Remember: early prep, split step, your point — Yep!

‘So you want to be in the Sports Business?’ continued…

When we last communicated, my passenger jet did an evasive dive to successfully land at a runway in the African desert. After landing, we continued taxiing down the single runway at a military post oasis.

We slowed as a military Jeep-like vehicle shot out toward our moving plane with a man in military uniform. The vehicle came very near, intercepting our path as the pilot continued to slow, but I am not sure if he ever came to a full stop.

The military man, a colonel, grabbed onto some kind of ladder dropped by the crew, and he climbed aboard. There were no announcements, nor safety demonstrations, as our pilot did an abrupt 180-degree turn and started his takeoff in the opposite direction from which we had landed, which seemed a bit unusual.

By then, however, I realized the entire air base was surrounded by soldiers wearing a different uniform than the colonel we picked up. Typically, that’s an indication there might be a problem. There were tanks surrounding the air base, with their cannon pointing inward, not outwardly as in a defensive position. Another good indicator! Yikes — toward me!

The pilot did an evasive “out-of-here” takeoff, and we headed on towards Casablanca. I started to sing “Up, Up & Away,” the song by the Fifth Dimension, to celebrate the fact that we were remaining in this dimension.

Upon landing in Casablanca, I later learned the airline had a contract with the Moroccan military to bring soldiers to and from the bases they were manning along the Algerian border — all part of the Western Sahara War.

You might remember I was unable to call ahead to Casablanca from the Canary Islands, as there were no cellphones in those days. When the plane landed, I retrieved my luggage and started to look for a telephone. There were no phone booths, but in the center was a giant of a man sitting at a card table with one old phone that no doubt Bogart used to call Bergman when he said, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”

While I was standing there among fluttering robes, with no idea how to communicate with phone man, a burly Arab started pulling at my jacket sleeve. He was trying with hand signals to tell me he could drive me to town, but I said I would take a taxi. But when I soon discovered there was not one taxi available, I went back to my big burly best new friend and said, “Casablanca.”

We then walked three or four hundred yards to his old grease-spattered automobile, parked under a bridge. I was very uneasy, and getting increasingly so by the minute, but he already had my gear stowed away in his trunk by the time I caught up with him.

We started the drive to the Hyatt in Casablanca, and I noted the directional sign as we departed the airport indicated Casablanca 36 km to the right, but that was not the way he was heading. The next directional sign said 42, and the next 60 — always farther into the desert.

Finally, I roughly instructed the fellow in basic hand language to pull to the side of the road. When he came to a full stop, I pulled out the business card of the fellow in Casablanca I was visiting. On one side of his card he had sports equipment, but on the other side he had military guns. I pointed to the guns, and then the address, and then pointed backwards and said, “Now!”

To be continued after training Session 4: The Forehand.

Vaughn “The Baron” Baker is a Senior Olympics gold-medalist in pickleball, and is public relations director for the First State Pickleball Club (FSPC) and captain of the Ocean View Crew pickleball community. He spent his career working with top tennis professionals while working for Wilson Sporting Goods and introducing the Prince Tennis Racket and Wimbledon Tennis Lines. For more information, visit