Most people who teach pickleball to seniors are unaware of the responsibility they are taking on. It's not just about the equipment, rules, where to stand on the court and how to hit the ball. As the sport’s popularity explodes, there is a pickleball health crisis looming, especially for senior players.
The danger involves a devastating number of falls being witnessed on the court. Pickleball is an easy game to learn and play, especially for those who were not athletically inclined in their youth or not particularly active since their younger years. But the ease of the game often fools players into playing beyond their current physical abilities.
A skilled and thorough pickleball instructor has the responsibility to help his or her students avoid serious injuries. This can be accomplished with a simple physiology lesson and then incorporating the concepts into beginners classes.
There are four basic fitness components:
• Strength: The muscles ability to do work
• Endurance: The ability of a muscle to work over a period of time
• Flexibility: The range of motion in a joint
• Balance: As we age, there’s a decline in these components, which drastically affect balance—the body's ability to stay upright
There are two basic principles of balance we need to learn:
1.The wider the base, the better the balance.
2.The lower the center of gravity, the better the balance.
Being unaware of how the aging process can drastically affect a player’s ability to perform during a lesson or while playing, puts seniors in danger.
Another important factor is the effect of the ball and paddle on the thinking process. I’ve noticed while instructing adults that they’re just big kids. Give them a toy and the brain has but one thought—the toy! If the student is only concentrating on hitting the ball, it’s very difficult to go back and reintroduce the importance of the feet. However, if the first lesson stresses the concept of balance, even during the course of actual play, when the ball takes over the brain, there is a correlative reference point.
I’ve had great success introducing a short physiology lesson and the principles of balance before the interference of the ball. This is easily demonstrated and has taken place every time I teach a beginners class. Only after these important safety lessons are presented and practiced, does the class actually get to hold a paddle and ball. Once they get the equipment, of course they want to hit the ball, even if it's just tapping it to themselves. At this point I just wait. More start tapping then—presto—the knees straighten and feet come together. I stop the class, ask them where their feet are, I love the look of understanding! The reference point has worked.
Another great demonstration highlighting the loss of the base and balance is to roll a ball to one of the beginners and ask him or her to simply pick it up. Presto again—the student’s feet come together with little or no knee bend. They invariably bend from the waist, immediately putting their body out of balance.
The awareness and practice of the balance principals needs to become an ingrained way of life for seniors. And not just while playing pickleball!
Part 2: It's All About the Base
The next step of my introductory lesson involves adding footwork practice using the newly learned wide base concept. Most pickleball players think their shoulder width is an adequate width for their bodies. Perhaps this is true when they’re standing in a line at the movies, but not when they are on the pickleball court.
The second principal of balance has to do with a lower center of gravity. Unfortunately, as we age, we move less and less. This lack of motion leads to stiffness. The more stiffness, the less motion—a vicious cycle! I’m fond of the Arthritis Foundation’s motto “Motion is Lotion,” because it’s so true. In order to lower the center of gravity, the knees must bend. I make certain I always introduce my students to the best form to use in bending their knees. The verbal cue I give them is: “bend your knees like you’re putting your buns on the edge of a chair.” Tucking the butt in while squatting is stressful on the knees.
Once my students understand how to establish a wider base of support with a knee bend, it's time to introduce the side step. While this isn’t a natural movement, in pickleball it’s an essential skill. I make certain to remind students not to cross one leg over the other. This crossover will totally eliminate a player’s base of support.
Perhaps the most important step in the game is the drop step. How many times have you heard: “Don’t back up.” Simply put, it's dropping either the right or left foot back toward the base line maintaining the wide base.
Until recently, the USAPA listed not backing up as #1 on their educational goal chart. When a player backs up, the knees tend to straighten, and the weight moves to the heels. The head is no longer over the base, since the base has disappeared. This causes many players to fall.
The worst sound I’ve ever heard was a head hitting the court following this move.
Here are three reasons to use the drop step:
• It demonstrates how to avoid backing up while still being able to chase down a ball over the head
• The base is maintained at all times
• It can help a player get into the correct position to execute ground strokes
Here’s how to execute a drop step:
1.Drop a foot back toward the baseline (foot 1). At the same time, lift the toes up on the other foot enabling that foot (foot 2) to pivot on the heel
2.Feet should be parallel and there should be the same width base with knees bent
3.From this position, if the ball is close, a side step can be used to reach the ball, or if it's further than a side step, foot 2 can continue in the same directions so the player can run toward the base line. ADVANTAGE: The wide base and balance maintained!
Students should practice a drop step with both feet. After 10 to 15 minutes of footwork, concentrating on the wide base and lower center of gravity, most of the class will start to feel the “burn” in their quadriceps .
At this time, with an aware instructor, the level of strength and endurance the class possesses can be observed. A student with the onset of fatigue will have difficulty maintaining the knee bend and the wide base. These folks need a little rest. This is a perfect time to demonstrate some stretching, both dynamic and static—a reminder to the class that endurance and strength will take some time to regain.
Pickleball is addicting, but injury will only delay the pickleball fix. I often give students “homework” during the “rest time”—leg strengthening exercises that can be done at home. To quote a classmate who also teaches seniors, “Work those quads, the most important muscle in your body!” Without quadriceps strength, mobility is very difficult!
So, remember, it's all about the base! Pickleball is a fabulous activity for all age groups. I have been told that 80 percent of unforced errors are caused by poor footwork and poor balance. If this percentage is close to accurate, it’s a compelling reason to start with footwork when teaching any age group. The health benefits of pickleball for seniors are well documented. If incorporating this information into your instruction prevents falls and injuries, it’s well worth adding this approach to your teaching.
Sharon MacKenzie is a USAPA Ambassador in Indian Land, SC. She received a BS in Physical Education with a minor in Biology at the University of Maryland. She has taught and coached 32 years in Montgomery County, MD, and has been teaching seniors since 2005.