Keep Your Eyes on the Ball

Photo by Bruce Yeoug

We’ve all heard this expression many times.  We know to do this but are you sure you continue watching the ball until it makes contact with the paddle and is launched toward your opponents?  Too often, players look up to watch the ball leave their paddle just before it impacts the ball.  Of course, we’re curious if the ball we just hit is heading toward the target we had in mind.  That’s why we look up too soon and fail to watch the ball strike our paddle and why so many of our shots are hit “off-center” producing pop-ups and other types of errant shots.

Watching the ball correctly can help you to hit balls with the middle of your paddle and improve the consistency of your shots. Here is the correct process you should use to keep your eyes on the ball from the time it leaves your opponent’s paddle to the moment it leaves your paddle.

As soon as you can assess the trajectory of your opponent’s shot, move to the correct position on the court, set your feet, bend your knees, and position your paddle in preparation to commence your swing.  As you move into position and continue tracking the ball, try to also notice where your opponents are on the court, and where to target your shot. Continue tracking the ball until to see it strike the middle of your paddle and bounce off toward your intended target.  Do not look up prematurely to track the path of your shot.  Track the ball onto and off your paddle before you look up to begin tracking your shot.

A great way to practice tracking your opponent’s shots properly is with a third shot drill that can be played with two or four players.  Assuming two players participate in this drill, one player is positioned at their no-volley line while their opponent stands just behind their baseline.  The player at the no-volley line begins by serving the ball targeting just inside their opponent’s baseline.  If their serve lands within four feet of the baseline, the returner should execute a third shot drop, targeting the kitchen with their shot.  Because of the distances involved, the ground stroke shot should have a loop trajectory and not be moving with great speed.  This should allow the returner to easily track the ball as it approaches.  To make certain the returner tracks the ball all the way through contact with their paddle and does not look up prematurely, the returner should keep their eyes locked on the spot of contact on their paddle and not look up for a full second after contact.  This will help you to train your brain not to look up too soon.

To make this drill more fun, play out the points and keep score.  The server, who is at their no-volley line, should be able to force their opponent to hit a third shot drop, but the returner can hit an aggressive shot if the serve is short near the middle of the court.  The returner should try to move forward, when prudent to do so and the server should try to keep them back.  As the returner moves forward and hits shots from positions closer to the no-volley line, they should continue tracking balls, but abandon the practice of keeping their eyes on ball for one second after it contacts their paddle.

 If you keep score with this drill, the returner should receive two points when they win, while the server gets only a single point when they win a rally.  This is fair since the server should be able to force the returner to hit a third shot drop that is probably the most difficult shot in pickleball.

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