I have the good fortune of playing pickleball 4-5 days a week, in a variety of venues, from open play, to lessons, to tournaments. Without question, the number one problem I see with beginner to intermediate players is that their shots arrive to their opponents too high.
When I say, "too high", what I mean is this - any time a ball that you hit arrives to your opponent at their knees or above (in the air, before a bounce) it is "attack-able". Simply put, your opponents can be aggressive with their return shot.
Once your opponents get to the kitchen line, flat or ascending shots across the net set-up an attack. The advantage goes to your opponent, who is responding and can hit the ball hard toward your feet, your body, or an open spot on the court. Control of the point is lost and your chances of winning are less than 50%. Again, any ball that arrives to your opponent at their knees, or higher, is attack-able.
So, what to do? This is where pickleball strategy becomes unique and why pickleball is not just mini tennis.
The solution is to always make your opponent hit ‘up’ on the ball. In almost all cases, when they have to hit up on the ball, they have to hit softly to keep it in play. Ideally, after the serve and return, every shot should land on the court at the depth of your opponents feet. Stop and think about that, ask yourself, what do I need to change to get every shot to land around my opponents feet?
To achieve this you must learn and practice three critical ‘touch’ shots:
- A drop shot from the base line, or mid court, that arcs over the net and lands in the kitchen.
- A dink shot from the kitchen line that arcs over the net and lands in the kitchen.
- A reset block volley from the kitchen line that slows down a hard shot and drops toward the kitchen, or your opponents feet.
Note that the drop shot and dink shot should have an arc and start descending as the ball crosses the net. I frequently see tennis players struggle with this because they swing flat and strike the ball square on the back. It's very difficult to consistently hit a 'flat' soft shot with no arc. The solution in this case is to change your swing slightly so your paddle strikes the ball slightly underneath it. Think of the ball as a clock face - to hit an arcing shot, hit it at 4-5 o'clock, not 3 o'clock.
As stated above, these three shots require ‘touch’ and that is only learned through repetition and practice. Then you must force yourself to integrate them into your game. If your instinct is to hit it hard, you may struggle with slowing it down, but stick with it and you will be winning a lot more points.
©Mark Powell 2021