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  • Writer's pictureSerendipityPTW

Pickleball: The Importance of Ankle Control, and How to Improve It.



Picture the game.


You’re up at the kitchen line, exchanging volleys with your opponent while standing near the center of the court.


As is the eventual fate of all good volleys, someone eventually pops the ball. Unfortunately, that someone just so happens to be you this time.


Your opponent seizes the opportunity, skillfully angling the ball to the corner of your court.


With a herculean effort, you manage to quickly maneuver over to the corner, miraculously returning the shot.


Not to be outdone, your opponent this time chooses to hit the ball to the middle of the court. Your partner hasn’t managed to get themselves into position. It’s all up to you.


It’s okay though. You’re confident that you can quickly shift your momentum from right to left in time to get there.


You begin to maneuver over, but something disagrees with you. Your right foot tilts inward, and you feel a sharp pain as you roll your ankle.


Ouch.


By the time you recover, it’s too little too late. You shake your ankle out for a moment, but the pain persists. Ankle sprains are no fun, and you end up walking around with a fun little limp for a couple of days while you let everything heal up.


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Good ankle control is critical in pickleball for a number of reasons. It plays a big role for our balance, our ability to execute good footwork, and helps to prevent certain injuries such as ankle sprains.


So, what contributes to our ankle control? Shoes are a part of it, as is having good strength and control through the muscles of the lower leg (especially the muscles on the inside and outside, which help our feet to ‘tilt’ in and out). You of course have your ankle ligaments as well, but these are essentially your body’s last line of defense.


If you wear genuine pickleball shoes out on the courts, these are of course designed to provide good stability out on the courts. If you choose to wear a different kind of shoe, make sure that it’s one that offers good stability. You can get an impression of this by holding the shoe up and trying to turn the shoe inwards and outwards. If the shoe has a lot of flexibility here, it isn’t going to protect you much from rolling your ankle.


Regardless of your shoe selection, also be sure to take a look at the tread on the bottom from time to time. If the tread is starting to wear down or you notice that you’re starting to slide a bit on the courts, it’s probably time to invest in some new footwear. Nothing lasts forever, after all.


Then there’s ankle control and strength. Essentially, what you want to do is train the muscles of the lower leg to be able to keep the foot neutral even during more rapid or intense movements. In the event that something does cause the ankle to begin to roll out, these muscles should be able to quickly engage to pull the foot back to neutral.


There are many ways to work on this, and each person may have a different starting point but the most effective methods are going to involve challenging balance exercises and quick movement drills or plyometrics. (Though do be aware that if you’re just starting out, these may be something to work up to as opposed to being a starting point! Proper conditioning is always essential.)


How intense are we looking for, here? Well, it depends on how hard you play and what your goals are, really. I’ve seen everything out there, from players whose movements are all very calculated and controlled, versus those who will ram into a fence or hurtle themselves to the ground to return a ball (please don’t do those things, seriously). Both types of players are going to place very different demands on their bodies, so the right program and intensity for each will differ.


As a general rule of thumb, you want to be able to complete balance and control activities that are more challenging than you expect to be doing out on the courts, so that you can always be confident in your body’s ability to respond to unexpected challenges.


There’s a huge variety of exercises that will help with ankle control, but just to name a couple of examples, you may consider exercises such as ski hops, free standing lunge variations, and single leg balance activities. If the difficulty is appropriate for you, you should find that the ankle ‘wiggles’ a bit, but you shouldn’t feel as though you’re about to fall over due to the challenge. On the other hand, if the ankle isn’t moving at all, you’re likely not picking an exercise that is tough enough to give you progress.


We at Serendipity Physical Therapy and Wellness are well versed in helping people improve factors such as ankle control and pickleball performance, in addition to addressing issues such as aches, pains, or tightness that may also impact your play.


If you’d like to improve your game or get back out there with less pain, achiness, or weakness, please give us a call at (239) 232-8155, or send us an email at Contact@SerendipityPTW.com. We would love to see how we can help get you moving at your best!


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