July 20, 2022
The Secrets of Senior Success
By Alice Tym
“Navigating the autobahn of life in the best way possible is about getting relative with the inevitable at the right time,” writes Matthew McConaughey in his book “Greenlights.” This pretty much sums up the constant transitions that senior pickleball players must make in order to stay on top of their game and on top of the podium.
Pickleball itself is constantly evolving. Rules change. Younger players entering the game have backgrounds in a variety of sports. They bring new shots, spins, and strategies to pickleball. Meanwhile, senior players get older. Knees, eyes, shoulders, feet, ears, wrists, and skin are paying the price for years of work and fun. Seniors want to continue playing and playing well. What should they do when the game itself is getting younger?
First, you should recognize your limitations. If you can no longer run as fast as you once could, do not hit shots so hard that you cannot cover the return. It is demeaning, yes, but if you want to win as a senior, you must accept the fact that placement is preferable to pace. Herb Johnson of Illinois says, “Us old farts just get craftier. What goes across fast comes back fast—you better be ready.”
Arizona’s 5.0 Carl Tietze concentrates a little more on anticipation to make up for the speed he has lost. He positions himself 2-3 feet behind the NVZ line to give himself a little more time to block a hard shot and reset the point. He believes “a high, looping return always works” because it gives a senior more time to get to the NVZ line. “Economy of motion is very important, and you need to pick your shots,” he explains. “My wife, Cynthia, makes sure we eat protein bars and hydrate constantly.” Carl also advises having a good knee and shoulder surgeon.
Alaska and Arizona’s Carolyn Bagley says that speed was one of her assets. As she got older, she learned that trickery beats youth and speed. She now hits softer and uses better placement. “I am more consistent, and I don’t pull the trigger too soon,” she confides. Carolyn focuses on making the other person move. She backs up some on the court to see the point unfold, then gets back in to the NVZ line as soon as she can. As a senior, she is working on playing the soft game to set the point up. Carolyn emphasized an important part of senior pickleball when she said, “I play for pleasure. I say yes to doubles partners that I like to play with, and we have fun.”
Arizona’s Mark Friedenberg was very specific. “I use the same fundamentals as when I was younger. I can rip it as hard as the young kids and reset the ball. Feet, eyes, know where the ball is going, keep your head down—it is all in my book,” he advises. Mark advocates drilling with proper fundamentals. He asks, “What does dinking as a warm-up do for you? Start off stroking the ball and move your feet.” Mark does daily weight training and says it is important for older people. “I work hard. I want to be the best I can be. I am 150 percent better after my hip replacement,” Mark emphasized as he correlated the relationship between hard work and success.
Hard work is also the key to Deb Harrison’s success. “I have been a teacher and a coach all my life and have played every day. I learn new tricks and new ways of winning a point. I practice what I preach here in The Villages in Florida. As a senior, I can’t out-bang people, so I have learned to outplay them,” explains Deb. She immediately sent me a list of suggestions for older players:
Get new tools to play. Learn shot variety.
Get out of trouble with bailouts.
Slow things down and keep it low.
Stretch your opponents out—left, right, up, down. Make them move.
Mix up pace and spin and depth. Keep them off guard.
Use more lobs to give you time and to get your opponents off the line.
Work on your trickery and deceit shots (short angles, short serves, second-shot drops, block lobs).
Work on your core strength/lateral mobility and flexibility.
Wall work/shadow movement.
Watch videos/tournaments for inspiration and ideas for motivation.
Remain hydrated and eat sensibly: fruits, vegetables, low sugars and fats.
Get plenty of rest and protect your skin with sunscreen and electrolytes.
Work really hard on resets and slowing down the pace to avoid going to war and starting the battle. “Cat and mouse” and work the point.
Deb made an interesting point about pickleball, explaining that non-athletes can get pretty good and have a passion for the game. “They do funky things well,” she says, “so get people to pick up a paddle and join a group.”
Texas star Hilary Marold practices and plays with younger players. She feels she can get to the NVZ line, so she does not have to hit a softer ball. She prides herself on getting to every ball and emphasized, “Always, always be ready for the next shot.” She recommends looping more and isolating the weaker player. “The longer the point goes on, the player with greater ability has less chance of being involved. Go for the point early so that the opponents don’t hit to the weaker partner.”
Hilary went immediately into strategy for senior players and says that women must do a lot of accommodating in mixed doubles. It is important for her to be steady and not miss a ball in mixed. She is more aggressive in women’s doubles and enjoys being aggressive. She does not have a set strategy; her strategy “only changes against different people.” She advises, “Don’t be set in your ways. Your mind must stay relevant. Stay flexible and young even as your body gets old. Joie de vivre.” Hilary’s husband, Charlie, is a 5.0 player with more concise advice: “If I have to sit on a couch, shoot me!”
Michigan’s Jim Hackenberg also had very concise advice—“Get a good partner.” He compliments his partners and explains the importance of team chemistry. He credits his mixed success to his wife, Yvonne. “It is 99 percent due to Yvonne,” he says sincerely. “She stresses teamwork and positivity. Yvonne is big on good eating habits and good health habits to stay in the best possible shape.”
Jim’s advice to seniors includes, “As your reflexes and speed decline, there is a higher premium on good court positioning. That extra step makes a big difference. I encourage Yvonne on her return of serve to hit a high, arching return to give her more time.” He believes in the importance of communication—of talking, of saying “Yours” and “Mine.” “Know your role,” he adds. “With Yvonne I am the aggressor. Her role is to keep the ball in play. If I am playing men’s doubles with a stronger player, I stay out of his way. As you get older you must learn from your past, know your opponents’ tendencies, and do a better job of anticipating shots. Use your experience and know the history of your opponents. Have a game plan. Make sure you have a good surgeon and physical therapist!”
Jim also emphasizes that pickleball is a lifetime sport. His mother-in-law is playing and having fun at 95. “We look back at all the friendships we have made and how many places we have seen,” he says. “Now we are teaching our granddaughter and her friends. We never lose sight of the important things.”
There are many wonderful senior players across the country. The common thread I found in these people was productivity. These are people who have been active all their lives. They have learned to accommodate aging by working hard on their physical abilities, their playing skills, and on their strategies. They all love the game, and they have all contributed to making it better for the rest of us. Winners in every way! •
Alice Tym was ranked 13th in the world for tennis in the ‘60s. She’s been named USPTA Coach of the Year and is a USPTA Master Professional. As a 4.5 pickleball player, she won gold in Huntsman, NSGA Nationals, US Open, and USA Pickleball events around the country. Alice is an IPTPA member, SSIPA founding board member, Bainbridge Cup Originator and gold medalist in Spain, Italy, and Germany.