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Why No Man’s land is actually the ZOO

In the early days of pickleball in the UK, there was a school of thought that after hitting a return or a third shot drop, you needed to charge to the No Volley Zone/kitchen as fast as you could. This was probably due to the older nature of the initial player demographic and the reticence of players from other sports, especially tennis, to play the game “from the line”. As I said in a previous article, pickleball is won at the NVZ.  Charging to the line irrespective of your shot quality is a recipe for disaster: poor footwork, reduced reaction times, pop ups and panic.  I’d like to reposition that guidance as “you need to earn your way to the NVZ as quickly as possible

What does “earning” it mean? It means that the quality of your shot dictates where you are placed to hit your next shot. You need to halt your forward movement BEFORE your opponent makes contact with the ball.  This means you may get stopped in the dreaded “No Man’s Land” between the baseline and the NVZ.  Similarly to reframing the guidance, I’d like to alter the perception of that area of the court.  It’s much better to think of it as the “transition zone” as you are transitioning from baseline to kitchen. Tyson McGuffin calls it the “land of opportunity” and I wholeheartedly agree. I like to merge the two concepts and call this area the ZOO: it’s wild in there, can get a little scary but can also be lots of fun and worth spending time there! It’s the Zone Of Opportunity (ZOO) and where 4.0 and above players are made: the best players can transfer through this area to create a even strategic level from the initial disadvantage of being away from the NVZ.

So how do you do it? Firstly, as I mentioned above, you need to stop moving forwards before the opponent makes contact with the ball.  If your shot is too high or too hard, you are probably stopping mid court. It helps to try to stop in a good athletic ready position: if you know what a split step stance looks like, that’s gold standard. Some key tips: knees bent, wide base (feet wider than shoulder width apart), a low position (as it’s probably coming at your feet), paddle not too high (again it’s coming at your feet so a low paddle is helpful).

Get ready for impact: the ball is probably coming fast and low. However, rather than getting tight, you need to stay relaxed. Any time there is pace coming your way, you need to defeat your natural instinct to tense up (fright respond to freeze). Grip that paddle loosely: 2 to 3 out of ten, like for a dink. The incoming shot already has pace so you just need to “ride” it. Using two hands on the backhand side can also help control the power: I’ve recently started doing this more and more without consciously trying to do so. It seems to help me absorb power and soften my grip.

A horizontal paddle with a backhand stroke is preferred as it makes it easy to alter your paddle angle with small movements of your wrist. And on your paddle angle, a 45 degree angle is a good starting point: it gives enough height for gravity to do its magic and let the ball land softly on the NVZ. With a two handed stroke, the dominant hand does the work on the angle and the non dominant hand is the additional stabiliser. You’ll need to adjust paddle angle for each shot based on where you are and the pace of the incoming ball but you’ll soon develop a feel for the best angles to launch the ball back into the NVZ.

Make contact forward of your body, so you can watch the ball onto your paddle and maximise the range of movement in your arm. Backhand is preferred: similarly to volleys, it’s much easier to be defensive with your backhand.  Why is this so? It keeps your elbow away from your body. If you get “jammed up”, your torso is restricting the movement of your arm, mainly the elbow.  Three quarters of all volleys and defensive shots are best handled with a backhand. With your paddle out front playing a backhand, you can cover a huge area comfortably and avoid your elbow or torso getting in the way.

And if you don’t get it quite right and the transition reset is too high? Don’t panic and just follow the same basic process: move forward or recover back based on your shot quality, get in that athletic ready position before your opponent makes contact and absorb what comes at you.

The only way to practice this is to drill the stroke. The first stage is to start smack bang in the middle of the transition zone, already set in that wide, low, balanced ready position with paddle low in backhand position central of your body, well forward of your torso. Find a willing partner to hit balls that you can comfortably reset into the NVZ. As your confidence grows, increase the pace of the feeds and vary your position further back or nearer to the NVZ.

Once you have developed the feel, you can go do the “concertina” drill. Start at the baseline with your drill partner feeding to your feet. After every stroke, move one step forwards, get ready and play the stroke again.  In the space of six or seven shots, you should be at the NVZ. If you miss a stroke, go back to where you hit the last shot and repeat until successful. This will help you learn to go from moving to ready by following a set pattern and actively stopping early.

Finally, you can do the full “work your way in” routine by starting at the baseline and trying to come in, with your drill partner trying to keep you back. You can easily turn into a game by scoring points based on your successful resets into the NVZ: one point per successful reset and a bonus point if you establish at NVZ, then play out a half width point. Alternate between feeding and resetting: the first to a set number of points wins. This brings you into a full reactive match play repetition where you are making real “reads” on when to stop and the success of your shot.

As you go through your pickleball journey, you will start to see how seemingly different strokes have a commonality. I wonder if resetting from the Zone Of Opportunity is related to anything else about resetting?

1 thought on “Why No Man’s land is actually the ZOO”

  1. I love this article and the ZOO, I’m definitely working more on transitioning to the NVZ, especially as I’m playing against quite a few bangers right now, who also like to lob. Being in the ZOO, gives me options I feel. Thanks Rob 👏

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