Thinking about pickleball strategy, one might imagine players focusing on a choice between a post-game dip in the pool or drinking an Arnie Palmer. But, pickleball has changed. No longer is it the sport just played at retirement communities in the sunbelt. With people of all ages now competing, the level of play has risen.
Pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in the United States and is on a similar trajectory around the world. People who play the game all seem to love it. Similar to tennis and table tennis, and played on the court size of badminton, the sport is played with a paddle, a ball (much like the recess Wiffle balls filled with holes), and a three-foot-high net. It can be played indoors and outdoors.
Learning the Game of Pickleball
Having just learned the game a few weeks ago, and not making the type of progress I’d hoped for, I tried watching some games from national tournaments featured on YouTube. The goal was to pick up some tips to improve my play.
The first three matches I viewed all featured a pickleball player from Madison, Wisconsin by the name of Dave Weinbach. Weinbach and his partners – unlike tennis, doubles is more popular than singles – won the three matches I watched. So, as I learned, pickleball has its own star, Dave “The Badger” Weinbach.
Dave Weinbach: The Roger Federer of Pickleball
Weinbach’s list of achievements in pickleball is staggering. He has won 112 gold medals in competitive play and is a 10-time U.S. Open Champion. He is also a nine-time USAPA Nationals Champion.
Outside of pickleball, he serves as President and CEO of Weinbach Investment Management in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s married and, together with his wife, is raising three boys.
We caught up with him as he was en route to Sarasota, Florida for a pickleball tournament. Knowledgeable, open, and articulate, Weinbach shared with us his thoughts on pickleball strategy and the state of the sport.
Pickleball Strategy: 17 FAQs with Dave Weinbach
1.) Sports Feel Good Stories (SFGS): If the sport of golf is about the short game, what is the game of pickleball all about?
Weinbach: The keys are making fewer unforced errors than your opponent and forcing your opponent into errors. And, that’s where I spent a lot of my coaching time and training with players. Forcing errors on your opponent can make life harder for your opponent. Making fewer unforced errors gives your opponent more opportunities to make errors.
2.) SFGS: What is your approach to the game?
Weinbach: We take it match-by-match. When we know the opponents we’re going to play, my partner and I will discuss our approach, and how we want to attack the match in terms of strategy.
3.) SFGS: How much of pickleball at a pro-level is a mental game?
Weinbach: That’s a tough call. Because pros have such nice physical skills, I think the mental aspect of the game is probably 25% to 35% of the game.
4.) SFGS: Can you talk a bit about the importance of the third shot in pickleball?
Weinbach: It’s the most important shot in all of pickleball because that’s the shot that allows you and your partner to move from the baseline to the kitchen line, where you really need to be to play successful pickleball.
You might like Pickleball Paddles Guide.
3rd Shot Pickleball Strategy Video with Dave Weinbach
Pickleball Strategy: Dinks, Drives, and Drop shots
5.) SFGS: Do you hit more drives or drop shots?
Weinbach: On the third shot, I’d say I hit about 80% drops and 20% drives.
6.) SFGS: How important is the service in pickleball?
Weinbach: The serve is not as important in pickleball as it is in tennis. The return of serve is more important.
7.) SFGS: What techniques do you find most effective in the serve?
Weinbach: The key to the serve is hitting the ball with some pace and hitting it deep. One of the things that I try to teach when serving is to make sure all of your weight, all of your momentum, is going forward to increase the pace of the ball.
8.) SFGS: What is your strategic approach to the dinking game? Where do you aim?
Weinbach: My number one goal is to hit an unattackleball dink. The way to evaluate if a dink is successful is if it is unattackable. What I determine early on in the match or even prior to the match, for each player, are they better on the forehand or their backhand. Some players are better are their backhand than their forehand. I’ll target the weaker player’s weaker side.
Pickleball Strategy: Spins and Lobs
9.) SFGS: What types of spin are most effective in pickleball?
Weinbach: A slice or underspin is very effective. I use underspin on my returns of serve and on my third shot drops. The other spin that is particularly effective is topspin. It brings the ball down quickly, whether it’s a third shot or a hard drive, topspin is really, really important in pickleball.
8.) SFGS: For the average player, lobs seem like a very low percentage shot. What are your general thoughts on how often the lob shot should be deployed?
Weinbach: The lob can be effective, but the key is to do it at the right time. A good time to hit a lob is after two or three dinks when you catch your opponent leaning forward. That’s when you want to put a lob up. A lob can be very effective, but you have to be disciplined for when you do it.
Pickleball and the State of the Game
11.) SFGS: What do you like most about pickleball?
Weinbach: The people. I’ve met so many new friends through pickleball, and for me personally, it captures my competitive juices. In the past, I’ve competed within sports my whole life, tennis and table tennis, so I found pickleball at a great time about 15 years ago when I had stopped playing competitive tennis. I was very fortunate to meet some really good teachers of the game early on.
The way I found pickleball is when my parents moved from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Surprise, Arizona, one of the pickleball hotbeds around the country. In a community called Sun City Grand, I met some of the best players who taught me to play the game the right way.
12.) SFGS: Did you have a particular instructor who made the most difference in your game?
Weinbach: Early on, Pat Kane was really my first coach and my mentor. He’s seventy-five now, but we still play when I’m in Surprise. In addition to Pat, I was able to meet a lot of people who taught me the ropes and how to play. They took a young hungry kid, eager to learn, who had a tennis and table tennis background… you know you couldn’t invent a more perfect game for my skill set.
13.) SFGS: What sport do you think most closely resembles pickleball?
Weinbach: I would really say it’s a combination of tennis and table tennis.
14.) SFGS: What pickleball achievement are you most proud of?
One of my biggest accomplishments from a tournament perspective was winning back-to-back US Open titles. The first and second U.S. Open, my partner and I, Kyle Yates, which was featured on CBS Sports Network, so it got a lot of attention, which was great for the sport.
15.) SFGS: What has made you so successful at pickleball?
Weinbach: Well, some of the physical skills: the hand-eye coordination, the footwork, and the hand speed, the ability to read the paddle, where the ball is coming, the reaction time, and having a sports background. When you combine that with some wonderful teachers that I met from day one. You know, I don’t think I ever got into any bad habits.
Pickleball in 10 Years
16.) SFGS: Where do you see pickleball as a sport being in 10 years?
Weinbach: Well, we’re at about 10 million pickleball players today, and that’s a big number, and here’s why. When you get to 10 million players, that’s when the major sports companies like Nike, Under Armor, and Adidas become interested and want a piece of the action. We have to get to that point in America when we’ll see a lot more sponsorships.
A group of us – many from Utah – are starting the PPA (Pickleball Players Association), this is a professional tour with 10 tournaments per year with prize ranges from $55,000 to $155,000. Previously, the biggest prized tournaments were in the $30,000 to $40,000 range.
Many people don’t realize that pickleball, in addition to being the fastest-growing sport in America, is also by far, the fastest-growing sport on earth. I get the question a lot, “Is pickleball going to be an Olympic sport?”
And, it may not be in my lifetime, but my dream would be to coach the first USA Olympic pickleball team. I think it will happen. It’s probably not 10 years away, but maybe 15 years. There are not enough countries that play it yet.
17.) SFGS: Why is pickleball so popular?
One of the great things about pickleball is that anybody can play it. I don’t care if you’re 4 years old or 104. There are so many pickleball courts going up all over. It’s a very easy sport to learn, and there are not a lot of barriers to entry. You know all it takes is a paddle, someone to play with, and a ball.
By Mike O’Halloran
Mike is the founder and editor of Sports Feel Good Stories. While a newcomer to pickleball, he finds his love of tennis and table tennis has shortened the learning curve — but, not by that much!
You’re on the Pickleball Strategy With Dave Weinbach page.
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