A few good pickleball tips might be exactly what you need to turn points you regularly lose into winners. If you’re trying to beat that player at the park who always gets the best of you, reading these tips could be a game-changer.
Are you looking to take your level of play to the next level? Please read on.
Winning Pickleball Strategies
One note: Playing pickleball usually means playing doubles. Our tips for improving your game were written with this in mind, although nearly all of our suggestions also work for singles play.
1.) It’s not a race.
It’s better to keep the ball in play rather than try to force every shot to be a winner. Be patient and wait for the other team to lose points.
2.) If you can’t stand losing, get to the kitchen line!
Teams win games by consistently hitting un-attackable shots and getting to the kitchen line. It is much easier to win rallies when you and your partner are at the net (seven feet from the net) vs. the baseline (22 feet away).
No matter what your skill level, you must get to the kitchen line. You might think, “my volley is not that good” or “I might get beaned.” Your volley skills will improve with practice. You’ll have a better shot of winning than playing from the baseline. And the pain of possibly being beaned. Well, remember, it’s just a Wiffle ball, and it doesn’t hurt much to be hit (beyond your pride).
3.) Take advantage of service returners’ biggest advantage.
When returning serves, the receiver must hit a return and quickly get to the no volley zone (NVZ) line. This is non-negotiable. This is the returning team’s most significant advantage: the opportunity for both players to get to the kitchen line first.
4.) Assume every shot is going in! Assume every shot is going in!
This one is so important I had to write it twice. Some shots will look like they’re way too low to clear the net. Others appear to be hit much too softly to make it that far. Or, maybe a strong wind keeps a long shot in play. If you’ve played pickleball for a while, you know you can be surprised.
Make it a habit to anticipate the other team’s success with shots. Assume it’s going in on anything remotely close. If it doesn’t go in, you’ve won the point. If it does go in, you’ll be ready.
5.) Get ready.
The ready position – ready stance and holding your paddle – for volleying in pickleball is slightly different from tennis. Most tennis players have their racquets with the head at a 12 o’clock position so that the head is the equal distance for hitting a forehand or backhand volley.
Try holding the paddle’s head at an 11 o’clock position for pickleball, slightly favoring your backhand. Since your backhand can cover more territory, giving it a somewhat more accessible path to hit a shot puts you in a position to play high-speed balls coming right at you. And, yet still, you’re able to cover the forehand side.
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6.) Shorter strokes for pickleball folks.
If you’re a tennis player, please note that the pickleball court is significantly shorter than a tennis court. You don’t need to make as big a swing for the ball to clear the net as you do in tennis. Big swings put you at a disadvantage for preparing for the next shot. Keep your swings short. Finish with the paddle facing the direction you want the ball to go, not in the middle-ready position that tennis players do.
7.) Patience is bitter but its fruit is sweet.
Patience is not only a virtue; it’s an excellent quality to have in pickleball. Don’t try to be overly aggressive unless an opportunity presents itself.
Think of playing blackjack at Vegas. The house has such an advantage because players make the first move on whether to hit or not. The house wins many games with bad hands because players bust. Likewise, in pickleball, the team that moves first frequently loses points because the first movement leads to an error.
8.) Watch and learn.
You can learn a lot by watching the game being played by top pros. Check out YouTube for past championship games and instruction videos. Or, go to a local tournament to catch some action live. Don’t get too caught up in the score; instead, focus on strategies and techniques.
When volleying and a drive comes your way, “If the ball is shoulder-high, let it fly.” One of the most significant differences between new players and more experienced players is that seasoned pros win more points by deciding not to play balls that are hit too hard. Knowing when and how to duck can mean a lot of points for your side.
10.) Loosen up that grip.
Use a loose grip on your paddle – especially when dinking. If you squeeze the handle too tight, the energy from the arm, hand, and paddle to the ball will make the ball pop more and probably too high for an effective dink. On a scale of 1 – 10, if 10 is a death grip, and one is barely holding on, apply a 4 to 5 level grip on your paddle when dinking.
11.) Third shot mastery is critical.
First comes the serve, second comes the return, and third comes to the serving team looking at two players at the NVZ line. This is why the third shot is the most critical shot in virtually every point. A drop shot to the kitchen is usually your best move. Mix it up with some hard, low drives.
Dave Weintraub, the legendary pickleball player, likes to hit drop shots for his third shots about 80% of the time. The other 20% are primarily low drives.
12.) Don’t go when the ball is low.
When all four players are at the kitchen line, hitting a winner is tough when the ball is below your knees. Don’t go for it. The margin for error of either hitting into the net, hitting it too far, or placing it where an opponent can put it away is just too significant. Wait for a better shot to be aggressive. Sometimes the best strategy is to wait for a better time.
13.) Tried and true winning shots.
Some general guidelines for shots (knowing you’ll want to vary these suggestions occasionally to surprise your opponent):
Serve: Serve deep with pace.
Return of serve: Deep with pace to server’s backhand or weakest player’s backhand.
Third shot: Drop shot to the kitchen to middle of court favoring one of the player’s backhand side.
14.) Never say die.
Try your hardest on every shot to put the ball in play. Sometimes, your opponents will make a mistake by just getting the ball over the net and in play one more time. Even if you’re down 10 – 0, stay focused. You’re still in the game until it’s over, and runs are not uncommon in pickleball.
15.) Exploit your opposition’s weaknesses.
All is fair in love, war, and pickleball. In tournament play, you and your partner may decide to focus on hitting shots to the weaker opposing player.
Look beyond the overall competency of each player’s game. Where are the strengths and weaknesses for each player? Maybe, one player has a hard time hitting overheads or struggles with volleys from hard drives. It’s good to file that information.
16.) Talk to your partner.
Communicate with your partner regarding who will hit shots – especially shots in-between the two of you and lob shots. Some one-word instructions are good to use, e.g., Me, You, Bounce, etc. Let your partner know if you think the ball is going out.
17.) Defending spins.
Understand spin from the direction of your opponent’s paddles upon contact with the ball and after.
Here’s the indicator: the direction of the paddle alerts you which way the ball will likely go if you hit a flat return. For example, if the opponent makes a chopping slice, the paddle goes down. So, if you hit a flat return, you’re more likely to have your shot go down (frequently resulting in the ball going into the net and a loss of the point).
If a server’s paddle goes left to right, you’re more likely to hit the ball to the right. As a returner, you must make adjustments based on the spin. For example, if it’s an under-spin serve (a chop serve), counter with topspin or hit the ball slightly higher.
18.) Answering a lob.
If a lob shot forces you to run back to hit it, your best bet for the return is to hit a drop shot to the opponent’s kitchen cross-court. If you hit a lob shot over your opponents’ heads, it’s an excellent time to come to the NVZ line.
19.) Respect the net.
Many players hit too low of a trajectory on their shots. The chances of the ball falling short into the net is too great. Give yourself more room. Think higher and softer shots that drop over the net into the kitchen.
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20.) Don’t be predictable on your serves.
Vary your serves in terms of location, pace, and spin. The toughest servers mix it up and don’t fall into predictable patterns.
21.) Down the middle can confuse opponents.
When your opponents are side-by-side either at the NVZ line or baseline, look to hit shots between them to confuse who will play it potentially. This works well on serve returns.
22.) Easy on the lobs.
Lob shots should generally be used sparingly. Given the short length of the court, hitting successful lob shots is difficult. If you try a lob, your best bet is over a player’s backhand side.
23.) Aiming your shots.
When one opposing team player is up at their kitchen and the other is back, hit un-attackable shots to the player furthest from the net. However, hit attackable shots at the feet of the player closest to the net. Players closest to the net have less time to react, and the ball has less of an opportunity to slow down than if you hit it to the player furthest from the net.
24.) Paddles talk.
Watch your opponent’s paddle closely before they hit the ball. You’ll gain a sense of direction, pace, and spin. This is especially important on serves.
25.) Missing a service return should be rare.
Unless you face an exceptional server, there’s no excuse for missing a return of serve. Your highest priority is to put the ball in play.
26.) Plan your third shot in advance of hitting it.
It’s almost a certainty that both opposing players will be waiting by the kitchen line when you hit your third shot. Before the return of serve comes back, know what shot you’re going to hit. Perhaps your shot changes if the ball comes to your backhand or forehand, but have a plan.
Pickleball champion Dave Weinbach hits drop shots on about 80% of his third shots and drives on the other 20%. What’s your plan? Decide before you serve.
27.) Dink volleys.
When playing the dinking game with all four players at the kitchen line, look to hit balls in the air when you can safely do so. This gives your opponent less time to prepare for your shot. Speeding up play puts pressure on your opponent.
28.) Hit the “At ’Em Balls.”
Don’t be afraid to hit the ball right at one of your opponents – an “At’ Em Ball.” If you aim your shot with pace at an opponent at the NVZ line and target their hip or shoulder, or sometimes directly in the middle of the body, it can end a point quickly in your favor.’
This type of aggressive move is particularly effective when your opponent has hit a drop shot that forces you to run from a long distance, and your momentum will put you in a bad position to hit a return shot. You need a winner. Sometimes aiming at the person is a safer bet than hitting a shot that hits the line.
Don’t feel bad about hitting this type of shot – it’s part of the game.
29.) Gather intelligence while warming up.
When warming up with opponents, test both their forehand and backhand sides. Determine the relative strength of each. Also, hit some ball right in the middle to see which side the player prefers to hit from.
30.) Move together.
Doubles players move in unison. If your partner receives a shot that carries him far right, you must move directly and cover more court.
31.) Agree who hits the 50/50 balls.
Determine with your partner who will hit 50/50 balls (ones that come right in the middle between players). Many teams have the unspoken rule that “forehand rules” if both players are right-handed for both groundstrokes and volleys.
But, if a righty plays with a lefty, or one player is an excellent volley player, your team has some decisions to make.
32.) When approaching the NVZ line, stop before your opponent hits the ball.
When you’re trying to get to the NVZ from the baseline, you may be moving quickly. But you should stop when your opponent hits their return so that you’re balanced and in the best position to hit the ball.
You don’t always need to get to the NVZ line after one return. It might take a few returns to work your way up to where you want to be.
33.) Determine the speed of play when you’re serving.
When you’re on a winning streak, I recommend playing fast. Momentum can mean a lot in pickleball. Keep your partner in their serving groove by returning balls, so they don’t have to run and retrieve. Keep them focused on their serves.
34.) Serve it up.
Try to master at least three serves. Consider including a hard, deep topspin serves, soft sidespin serve, and a deep soft serve in your service bag.
35.) Scrap the ambidextrous forehand.
At virtually every neighborhood pickleball court, there’s that one player who switches hands with the paddle to play forehand on both sides. A certain skill level is required to pull off this feat. But, it doesn’t translate well when playing against better players when the pace is fast. Give it up. Learn how to hit your backhand.
36.) Experiment when playing with weaker players.
In pick-up play, you’ll frequently want to play only players who are evenly matched or better to improve. But, lots can be learned by playing weaker players. Everything tends to slow down a notch giving you time to practice drop shots, work on that topspin lob, and try out new serves. Take advantage of the opportunities.
37.) Test the forehand side of opposing volleyers on hard drives.
When opponents are at the net, and a short shot has been hit to you, try hitting a hard, low drive to one of your opponents’ forehand sides. At the net, many players are prepared for backhanded volleys. A shot that comes with pace to their forehand side will frequently catch them off guard.
38.) Vary your service starting position.
Some players position their return starting position to protect their weaker side – usually their backhand. Please take advantage of the angles that present themselves to hit that softer side or try to ace them at their big opening by starting your serve either far left or far right.
39.) Don’t get caught up watching.
Don’t get lulled into complacency by watching an excellent exchange between your partner and the opposing team. Anticipate a shot coming your way soon, so be ready.
40.) Put away winners.
When an attackable shot comes your way, ATTACK! If you have opponents out of position, hit it to the open area. If you can hit it down at their feet and hard, do so.
41.) Stay back on your serve.
Resist moving in front of the baseline after your serve. You cannot hit a volley on your next shot, so being in front of the baseline could put you in a wrong position if your opponent hits a deep return (which they usually try to do)—ditto for your teammate.
42.) Consider an occasional poach.
The “up player” at the kitchen line crosses over the court after his teammate hits a return. You might catch your opponent off guard, especially if your partner has difficulty getting to the kitchen after a return.
The most important part of the poach is communication. If your partner doesn’t know you’re going to poach, you will both end up on the same side of the court, leaving one side utterly vacant for a put-away.
43.) Learning the lob.
Understanding geometry is essential. Hitting a lob cross-court lengthens the court significantly, allowing more space for your shot to land in bounds. The baseline to baseline is 44 feet. The baseline corner to corner cross-court is approximately 48 feet.
Topspin is a good idea if you can hit it reliably. Topspin will allow the ball to drop quickly after passing the opponent allowing the shot to remain in bounds. It will also push forward off the court, drawing the opponent even further back.
Picking Your Paddle
After playing pickleball for some time, I was looking for a “step-up” paddle. You see, I’ve been playing with a Z5 for about one year.
Two things happened in the course of one week that greatly influenced my paddle decision. While playing at a local park, one of my opponents was hitting serves that seemed to jump off of his paddle. I had to struggle just to get a paddle on many of his serves. After our game concluded, I asked him what paddle he was using. His answer: The Selkirk Amped Epic.
Shortly thereafter, I had my first official pickleball lesson from a teaching pro. I asked the instructor what paddle she might recommend for me. Her response was, “You should buy a paddle from this company based in Idaho called Selkirk.” After watching my play during the lesson, she recommended the Selkirk Amped Epic.
So I tested both the Selkirk Amped Epic ($149 SRP) and the Selkirk Vanguard Invikta ($199 SRP). The Invikta is an elongated paddle which to me seems more like a tennis racquet. Whereas the Epic looks more like a traditional pickleball paddle – closer to a table tennis paddle.
Advantages of the Selkirk Paddles
With both paddles, here were the three biggest advantages I experienced:
1.) Way more pop on my serves and drives. Being able to hit a harder serve and drive is a distinct advantage in games.
2.) I no longer had the feeling that my paddle had some dead spots. I love the consistency for drives, drops, and dinks.
3.) More control. I have a tendency to play impatiently. Initially, as a means to test these paddles, I determined in advance that I wouldn’t be the first to try to hit the ball hard in a dinking rally. Over time, I found myself winning more of those types of exchanges. I felt my Selkirk paddles were much more consistent and reliable.
The Invikta was the first elongated paddle I played with for an extended period of time. The additional reach for short shots and speedy drives has really improved my game. For that reason, the Vanguard Invikta wins the head-to-head match-up. But, really, you can’t go wrong with either paddle.
We hope you enjoyed our strategies, tactics, and tips for improving your pickleball game and our insights on a step-up paddle. If you have other suggestions, please let us know via our contact page. Thanks.
By Mike O’Halloran with Mark Goblisch, Joe Burke, Roger Burke, Jim Waldvogel, Mary Jo O’Halloran, Dave Smith, and Jon Engeswick.
Mike is a former tennis teacher who finds himself more frequently on pickleball courts than tennis courts. Mark, Joe, Roger, Jim, Dave, Mary Jo, and Jon have all contributed to Mike’s pickleball knowledge and this article.
You are on our 43 Court-Tested Pickleball Tips To Win Points (and Elevate Your Game) page.
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