As a pickleball instructor, I regularly meet players who have some experience yet find themselves unable to win consistently. I often tell them that the missing piece of the puzzle is a strategic approach to the game. While many players focus solely on improving their technique, they overlook the importance of understanding game dynamics, positioning, and shot selection.
In this article, I’ll go over some of the most impactful strategies in pickleball to help you achieve consistent wins, whether you’re a newcomer aiming to level up or an intermediate player looking for a competitive edge.
1. Keep your serves in bounds
One of the first things that you need focus on in your game is consistency, especially when it comes to serving. The best serve is one that consistently goes in, so you need to strive to get at least 95% of your serves in bounds.
So slow down your serve and stop trying for the ace, which are all too rare in pickleball. Just concentrate on getting it in and give your team a chance to win the rally. A slow and high serve that stays in play is better than a blazing fast serve that falls out of bounds.
Similarly, you must strive to return your opponent’s serve 95% of the time. A service return that goes into the net or off the court is an easy point for your opponent.
2. Hit your serves deep
When it comes to serving, it’s a good idea to make deep serves, ideally bouncing in the back of the serving area about one foot from the baseline.
Keeping your opponent from moving forward on your serve will undermine the power with which they are able to return the ball. This will further set you up for success on your third shot.
3. Think about placement when returning serves
When returning a serve, it’s best to send the ball back deep into your opponent’s court, so that they don’t have the opportunity to step forward and impart extra power on the ball with their hit.
When returning deeply, avoid hitting too close to the sidelines or baseline. A safe return is deep and to the backhand of the server. Another good option is a clever shot that lands between your two opponents causing confusion as to who should return the ball.
A slice return will keep the ball nice and low and possibly force your opponent to hit the ball into the net or out. A topspin return will make the ball speed up upon bouncing, also creating more variables for your opponent to control when hitting the ball.
4. Choose consistency over power and risk
Certain shots carry more risk than others. Generally you should avoid power shots that are headed toward the baseline or the sidelines. Give yourself a few feet of buffer when hitting toward the outer lines of the court.
A safer shot is to hit the ball in the middle of the court, between your two opponents, which has the added benefit of causing confusion as to which one of them will hit the return.
When dinking, similarly think about staying away from the sidelines. Mix up your dink wars with some dinks right in the middle.
When driving, think about taking some of the power off and hitting the ball a few inches higher above the net and shorter toward the baseline.
All in all, if you can play it a little safer, you will cut down on your unforced errors. Slow play your opponents by keeping the ball within the court and letting them make the errors. With this strategy, there is a domino effect of once they start to make errors, they will get frustrated and take more chances and make more errors.
Risky shots to avoid
In general, these shots are less effective and should be avoided:
- The Lob: The lob is a tempting shot when playing with someone with limited mobility. But, as you play more competitive matches, the lob becomes a liability. It might go out or it might lead to giving your opponent a mighty overhead slam.
- Driving Down the Sidelines: It’s always enticing to take the glorious shot of a powerful drive down the sidelines. But, unfortunately, it’s not a high probability shot. For this reason, it should be generally avoided. Sorry.
- Overhead Slams Toward the Sidelines: While we all want to end the point, your end of the point may not be what you hoped for if you are doing an overhead slam toward the sidelines. While you may get the glory, you might also just be hitting it out. So, hit those overhead slams down the middle or toward the corners. At the very least, hit those overhead slams with caution.
5. Get to the kitchen line ASAP
When two players are at the no volley zone line (kitchen line) while their opponents are back, the players at the kitchen line are at a distinct advantage. So, it is imperative that you and your teammate get to the kitchen line as soon as possible.
- Returning team: Once a player returns the serve, hopefully deep, that player needs to race forward to the kitchen line.
- Serving team: Once the serving team has hit their third shot, they must make their way to the kitchen line as quickly as possible. If their third shot is high, then they should wait until it is safe to approach the net.
You do NOT want to get caught in the transition zone. It is difficult to play a ball hit toward your exposed feet and difficult to play a low shot while trying to move forward. So, it is ideal to get to the kitchen line where you have a better angle over the net and your feet are shielded by the net.
6. Anticipate Your Partner’s Third Shot
Reading your partner’s third shot can help you determine whether to run up to the kitchen line or stay back. Here’s what to keep in mind:
- When your partner is hitting a third shot (drive or drop), you need to wait a split second to see if it is safe to move forward. Read the shot quickly and carefully.
- If the drop is high, you do not want to run into the ball being blasted at you. Wait for the fifth shot to move forward.
- If it is a drive, it’s usually safe to move forward and pick up the deflection.
- Do not run in front of your partner before they have hit the third shot as it will be a distraction to your partner.
7. Stay prepared with correct paddle/body position
As you approach the kitchen line, you should draw your paddle up in front of you and place it at the 11 o’clock position. This will allow you to protect yourself if there’s a ball being blasted in your direction.
When you reach the line, you need to do a “split step.” This is where you place your weight evenly on both feet, back straight and knees bent. You do not want to hit a volley while running toward the kitchen line. Your momentum may carry you into the kitchen and you will not have as much control hitting the ball while in motion.
8. Punch your blocks
After you have returned the serve and raced to the net, you and your partner are in the power position. In order to maintain your advantage, you need to keep your opponents back. Do this by punching your blocks. You do NOT want to swing at a drive.
There isn’t time to bring your paddle back to swing. Instead, hold your paddle in front of you and wait for the ball to come to you. Then, punch the ball with a short punching motion, using either your backhand or forehand.
If the ball is coming directly at your body, use your backhand to defend. If it is coming right at your right shoulder (and you are right handed), your opponent is trying to “chicken wing you.” It is a place very difficult to defend.
In that case, shuffle to your left and punch it with a forehand. As you punch the ball, try to keep your opponent back. Aim for their feet about a foot from the baseline. As always, avoid hitting too close to the baseline or the sidelines. Keep it safe.
9. Avoid the temptation of the soft return
You may be tempted to hit a soft ball when your opponents are back. While this may occasionally be successful, I warn you that it is not the right shot. A strong player will race forward and gain the advantage from your soft shot. Or, you might just hit it out or into the net. The safer, more consistent shot will be to punch the ball back at their feet.
Advanced pickleball strategies
As your game improves, you will be employing more advanced skills. Here are some strategies that you should begin to include in your game.
10. Use a third shot drop to regain control
When your opponent returns your serve, driving the ball with all your might may seem like fun. But when you are playing against 4.0 players that are standing at the kitchen line opposite you, the drive becomes ineffective. They will simply block your drive and send it careening back at your feet with ease.
In this case, what you should do is hit what is called a third shot drop. This involves returning the ball more softly so that it lands in your opponents’ kitchen, forcing them into a defensive position in which they must dink the ball back to you. This will keep your opponent from being able to block or drive the ball back at you while you and your teammate are back.
The key to a good third shot drop is hitting the ball so that it reaches the apex of its flight about 5 feet in front of the net, so that it starts its downward trajectory well before it crosses the net. This will help you regain balance and control of the rally.
But don’t hit that third shot drop right at the corner of the court next to the sideline. Give yourself a larger margin for error.
You’ll need to get consistent on your third shot drops, a shot that will set you apart among intermediate players. For an in depth explanation of how to hit effective third shot drops, check this article.
11. Roll the ball over the net
When you are trying to return a drive low to the net, try to do a roll. This is a volley in which you are raising your paddle vertically, whether a forehand or a backhand, as the ball is striking the paddle. This will help you hit balls that are exceedingly close to the net without popping the ball up.
12. Mirror your opponent’s paddle position
As you try to move forward to the kitchen line, you may be caught in a defensive position in the transition zone. As a general rule, when your opponent’s paddle goes up, your paddle should go down.
So, get yourself in the defensive position and try to field those aggressive shots your opponent will drive at your feet. You do not have to hit a gorgeous shot. In the defensive position, your goal is just to get the ball back over the net and survive until the next shot.
The opposite is also true. When you hit a beautifully low dink, and your opponent’s paddle goes way down to the court surface to hit the ball, your paddle should go up, in preparation for their shot. Paddle mirroring is a technique to get your paddle into the right position before your opponent has even hit the ball.
13. Stay patient during dink wars
Dink wars are a vital part of pickleball. The key to a dink war is to be more patient than your opponent. Wait for your opponent to make a mistake. Maybe they will hit it into the net, try to lob it over you and hit it out, or they will pop it up too high.
In the case of them hitting a dink too high, you must take the opportunity to speed up the ball. Strike the ball with power, preferably driving down the middle of the court.
Your opponents will try to speed the ball up on you as well whenever you hit a shot too high, so be prepared. Look at every shot with an eye for where the ball will be hit if they speed it up. Make sure your paddle is in the right position in the case of a speed up. You won’t have a lot of time to readjust.
The overall strategy recommended is to play it safe and play the odds. Consistency is everything. It is better to take the safer shot and allow your opponents to make the mistakes rather than risk hitting the ball out. By playing a tight, consistent game with solid shot choices, you will find that you are having longer rallies, making less unforced errors, and winning more games. So get out there and play it safe.