I Took a Pickleball Clinic With Professional Player Zane Navratil

Your resident Pickleball Rookie took a two-hour pickleball clinic this past Memorial Day with Zane Navratil and Frank Anthony Davis (F.A.D.), two of the top pickleball players in the world. 

The class was fantastic! 

But first and foremost, explaining to your family that you are leaving a Memorial Day barbecue midstream to take a pickleball class, was met with some inquisitive looks and a single question, ‘why?’ 

Simple answer: When you have an opportunity to learn from the best in a subject area that you are passionate about, you seize the opportunity; that’s why! And three months into my pickleball journey, I felt the timing was perfect for attempting to improve my game and start to work on upping my skill level.

Zane had just wrapped up The Franklin NYC Open at the USTA’s Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in my hometown of Flushing, NY. The five-day event boasted a $125,000 purse and brought many top players to the zip code. Like many pros, to maximize their time in a region, a clinic was set up in nearby Melville, Long Island at Pickle N’ Par, a state-of-the-art facility. It was my first time visiting the much-hyped pickleball hot spot, and I sensed that PnP has its loyal “regulars.” 

The entrance to Pickle n’ Par makes you feel as if you have arrived. The club is located in the upper left of the photo.

Located in a virtually unmarked office park, you get the feeling that this is the type of pickleball club setting that will sweep the nation. Both players commented on how fortunate we were to have such a great place to play and referenced that they have to travel quite a distance to hit their nearest indoor pickleball spot. Zane, a former CPA, even joked about sniffing out a franchise opportunity.

The pickleball clinic promised to teach technique and strategy in a fun and inclusive environment, and it delivered on all fronts. I joined 15 other passionate pickleballers in the final session of the day, which was designed for 3.5-level players. After snagging a gold for singles and doubles play (a silver for mixed doubles) at the aforementioned Franklin NYC Open, Zane had to be operating on fumes; and if he was feeling any fatigue, he did a masterful job concealing it. His energy was high, instruction on-point, and he remained fully engaged throughout, generous with his tips and time.

Regarding the instruction, the three biggest takeaways for my personal game:

Pickleball Clinic Lesson 1: Third Shot Drop

Coming over to pickleball after being a casual tennis player for most of my life has advantages–and disadvantages. I recognize that I need to ditch the habit of looking to drive the third ball deep. Though the logic hurts my brain, the “Third Shot Drop,” is a lightly hit shot designed to land in the opponent’s kitchen, as shallow as possible. The shot is designed to neutralize your opponent’s attack while allowing the serving team to advance to the non-volley line. And as I’ve freely admitted, being willing to hang tight at the kitchen line is an area I need to improve. I can give you a euphemism that it’s a “learning opportunity,” but I need to get over my fear of getting nailed in the face.

After a few drills, we broke out into gameplay to reinforce the Third Shot Drop, but if you did not hit a Third Shot Drop, you automatically lost the point. Ouch.

Pickleball Clinic Lesson 2: Ready Position Drill

F.A.D. illustrated that “looking athletic” with your ready position is fool’s gold. You can play the part, but if you’re at the kitchen line and the paddle is not held out in front of your chest, with a slight tilt up hanging over the line, you’ll miss out on valuable time. And as you likely know, hand speed in pickleball is critical. The more I learn about the sport, the more I recognize how vital mindfulness is (maybe I can combine my recent mindfulness certification with pickleball!). Early in his playing days, Zane worked hard to ensure that he was in ready position. To this end, he had us hold a pickleball in our non-dominant hand and bring it to touch the paddle after returning a shot. We did this repeatedly to ensure ready position for every ball hit our way. Simple, yet effective. Since it wouldn’t be prudent (or likely legal) to carry a second ball onto the court during a match, Zane recommended substituting your hand for the ball. And after some time, you might not need any reminder or cue at all.

Pickleball Clinic Lesson 3: The Perfect Pickleball Warmup Routine

The pros asked the group how much time we usually spend warming up during our regular play. Once we stripped through the bullshit, it became apparent that most of us do not warm up properly, mainly to maximize our limited court time. We were asked to reframe our thinking. The reality is we hit many more shots (as far as volume) during practice than during a game. So why not enjoy the practice and reduce the odds of injury during gameplay? Logical! And the routine they showed us was fantastic, a bit different than anything I’ve experienced during my first pickleball league.

The clinic ended with the opportunity to return Zane’s serve. He toyed with a few of us, showcasing a sick amount of spin. But he wasn’t sadistic: on request, Zane was willing to let you know which direction the ball would spin. I did manage to return the serve. Though let’s be honest, I’m sure the top-ranked pickleball player was showing his humanity–and that’s not always readily accessible from professional athletes.

The clinic was well worth the price of admission and, frankly, worth missing a few hours of a family barbecue. But the best part…there was plenty of delicious food waiting for me upon my return.

Thanks to Zane Navratil and Frank Anthony Davis for a great clinic. I hope we cross paths again.

I have another pickleball clinic coming up this August. I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes.

A sweaty Pickleball Rookie takes a rare selfie with pickleball pro Zane Navratil.

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