A Pickleball Lesson With a Pro - 4th in a Series of 12 Helle Sparre
R.E.S.P.E.C.T. It was our honor and pleasure to take a pickleball lesson with Helle Sparre. A grand dame is defined as a woman who is socially prominent, respected, and experienced, who is accomplished, influential, and a senior figure in a particular field. That is a perfect moniker for Helle; grand dame of pickleball.
Helle was born in Denmark, and she has a incredibly impressive resume in tennis. By the age of 19, she was the #1 ranked player in her country. She competed as a professional in all four major grand slams - The Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. Once ranked as high as 49th in the world on the professional women’s tour. Helle developed a system and authored a book called Dynamite Doubles (Amazon affiliate link).
When Helle began playing pickleball she adapted her novel system to her new sport. After adding new impressive credentials to her resume with her own success using it, she started teaching it to other players.
We met in a park in Mesa, AZ which has only two courts. It is a well kept secret, so I won't divulge the location, but Helle might if you take a lesson with her ;-). There are several places where she can teach around Phoenix, but on a bright beautiful winter day in Mesa, we began our two hour lesson.
Once again I recorded most of our lesson with my GoPro Hero 7. (Amazon affiliate link). The recording of our two hour lesson took me hours to watch because there was so much content packed in it. I took eight pages of notes! I'm going to distill a few tips that are already profoundly changing our game play - for the better.
For new players, getting the ball back over the net is the first goal and we think 'hallelujah" when we're successful. We are often thankful when our opponents change directions to our partner, or we try to end the point early with a put away so we can stop with the silly dinking. Our goal (before we knew better) was to get back to the slamming. To progress in the sport though, we are told time and time again, that we need to develop our dinking game. The more you play, the more you realize the truth in this advice.
With more playing experience (and hopefully good quality drilling), when we have better paddle and ball control, we start getting the ball back with more consistency. Then we can begin selecting our shots better and placing them with more accuracy.
Helle explained some of the basics of dinking, not just the mechanics this time, but the strategy. There are offensive, neutral, and defensive choices to make every time we hit the ball. Getting the ball back over the net and in bounds will always be the first goal, but when we can accurately choose and make shots, the real strategy begins. Many of us learned, when on defense especially, that we should hit the ball to the middle. For new players that is likely still the best strategy to reduce errors. But with experience, the ability to place shots and move the other players around at your will becomes your advantage.
In her Dynamite Doubles system, Helle uses the terminology "Blocker" and "Workhorse" when describing the player positions in relation to the geometry of the court. Players have different responsibilities on the court based on their angle relative to the ball. The blocker has what she terms a "Little v" - a small area of responsibility and the workhorse has the "Big V", a much larger area of the court. Most of us were taught to face the net with our paddles up. Helle taught Ky and I to both face the ball. That means one person is parallel to and facing the net, and their partner is at an angle to the net also facing the ball (one foot back), and is covering a wider angle of the court. As she said, "You never play a ball game without facing the person who has the ball". If instead we both square off and both face the net directly, we leave a gaping hole in the middle. With the "Little v and Big V" set up, you and your partner cover for each other and have "double doors", and together you let fewer balls pass you down the middle.
Helle has amazing paddle and ball control. She doesn't like to place her returns to the middle because when a ball is hit there, it gives less information about who will return it. When competing against strong players, either of them has the option to take the middle shot and we are momentarily unsure of where the ball will be coming from and where it will go. Your opponents will have an advantage because they have many options of where to put the ball and you have less time to react. This is especially true when playing against one left handed and one right handed player and they are stacking to keep their forehands in the middle.
Winning points is ultimately all about reducing our errors. When returning an opponent's shot, the highest percentage shot is sending the ball back to the direction from which it just came. How many times do we make an error when we are consistently hitting good dinks diagonally cross court and then decide to dink directly in front of ourselves, only to put the ball in to the net or pop it up? Perhaps we do this in an attempt to change the dinking away from ourself and to let the other two people in on the game, but increases our errors. Likewise, if someone dinks directly in front of us, we need to send it back directly to the same person. Try it, less errors!
Helle says diagonal shots are building shots, to be put at your opponents' feet and setting you and your partner up for attack balls which should be hit straight ahead. The opponent in front of you has less time to react, increasing chances of them hitting a poor shot.
When you know Helle's Dynamite Doubles strategy, and you direct your ball to the correct opponent, there should be no surprises for you OR your partner on what the next shot will be. That "OR" is in caps because we often play as though we're expecting our partners to read our minds and know what we'll be doing. If we don't put the ball in a predicable place for both of us, our partner may be out of position for the next shot or get slammed. That, as I can personally attest, is a sure way to get a grumpy partner. If we change directions, especially while at the NVZ line dinking, and we don't make the best dink, that surprise will get likely our partner a bullet to the body.
Ky and I have been playing pickleball for almost four years now. We have had so many generous people share tips, techniques and drills with us. For strategy however, most players just work on figuring out what seems to work best for them, and their shots are opportunistic rather than planned like well designed offensive football plays.
Have you noticed though, that most players don't share tips on strategy. Either they don't really know the best way to play strategically, or it's a well kept secret. If they know, they don't seem open to sharing it, possibly so that they can keep winning. The beauty of taking lessons with pros is that they are willing to share all the beans. Every time we take a lesson it's up to us to take those ideas and incorporate them in to our game by drilling and consciously adding skills to games. The idiom "full of beans" means lively and spirited or energetic and enthusiastic. I'm so happy to be getting more full of beans by learning pickleball strategy!
As another saying goes, the proof is in the pudding. The same day that we took our lesson from Helle, we wanted to try out some of the techniques. After a picnic lunch at the beautiful park, we headed over to the awesome new courts in Gilbert. Despite arriving after noon, the courts were still hopping since it was a perfect weather day in the desert.
Our game flow was so much smoother and we worked much better as a team by just applying a couple of the basics to our play.
Two more tips (out of so many) we really liked from Helle are:
1. Imagine that you have four eyes while playing, two in your head and two on your paddle. If your paddle is too far back or facing down, it cannot see the ball. Keep your paddle eyes on the ball.
2. Watch this little video clip for a tip for returning balls that clip the net cord and shoot off in a direction you weren't expecting. It actually pertains to a mindset for the whole game as well.
We will be digesting and practicing all that incredible Dynamite Doubles content that Helle taught us for those two hours, for a very long time.
CJ Johnson of Better Pickleball did an awesome job interviewing Helle who explained the basics of her system here. I encourage you to watch it to see some of Helle's diagrams which make the concepts easier to visualize.
If you are fortunate to live in the Phoenix, AZ area I would highly recommend a lesson with Helle. Your second best option would be to take a look at Helle's website http://www.dynamitedoubles.com/ where you can subscribe to a video course that goes over all of her strategies.
Four pickleball lessons with pros down, and eight to go. If you're enjoying my lesson summaries, please SUBSCRIBE and share my blog with your friends. Thanks!
Happy Pickling from Arizona!