Monday, January 30, 2012

The Fifteen Foot Rule

Let me pose a very elementary question - you are on the left side of the court, receiving serve.  You return the ball deep, and near the middle, close to the Doubt Line (nice shot), and move up to the volley line ready for the next shot.  Where do you stand?

This is, as I said, very elementary, and the answer is quite obvious.  You have to guard half the court, so you position yourself right in the middle, five feet from the sideline, five feet from the center (all diagrams are modified versions of the standard court diagram from the USAPA Rule Book).
You might cheat a little you your left, to protect your weak backhand, or, if you are much stronger than your partner, you might try to cover more than half the court, but mostly, you and your partner will line up at the X's in the diagram above. 

This is elementary, and quite obvious.  Unfortunately, it is also very wrong.  The experts know this, even though the rest of us don't.  Watch some videos from recent Nationals.  There are points where top players like Dan Gabanek and Jagan Subhas plant themselves virtually on top of the center line, leaving their entire side of the court unprotected.  Why?  What do they know that we don't?  Simple, they know the Fifteen Foot Rule:

Only guard fifteen feet of the volley line.

This is surprising, and a bit counter-intuitive, so I am going to spend some time explaining why the rule works.

The Geometry of the Game

Let's go back to our example.  After your deep-middle return, your opponents have a couple of options.  They can go soft or hard.  Soft means lobbing the ball or dinking it into the kitchen.  Hard means hitting a low, sharp passing shot.

If they go soft, it doesn't matter where you line up.  You will have plenty of time to chase down a soft lob or dink.  Indeed, you could be off enjoying a cup of coffee at Starbuck's and still have time to chase down a dink.

It's when they go hard that you need to be ready, and in the right position.  This is really a fundamental principle of play that applies to many situations:

Position yourself for the hard shot.

You should always be ready, and in position, for a hard hit.  If they dink around you or lob over your head, chase it down.  

All right.  Now let's imagine that your opponent hits a good passing shot that gets by you and your partner.  Where will it land?

Deep!  This is simple physics.  A hard low shot will rise up you the net on their side and drop down on yours, travelling virtually the same distance on your side of the net as on theirs.  Good top-spin will drop it down a bit faster, but, for most players, a passing shot hit from the baseline will land within half-a-dozen feet of your baseline.

Here is a diagram of the possible trajectories of these hard passing shots:

 These shots trace out a triangle that is 38 feet long, with a 20 foot base.  You and partner are at the volley line, which is 29 feet away.  By similar triangles (math alert!  Remember those?), that triangle intersects the volley line in a segment that is 15 feet wide (actually just a touch over 15'3").

Only guard fifteen feet of the volley line.

You don't have to worry about the two-and-a-half feet near each sideline.  If your opponent hits there, it is either a soft shot, and you will get to it, or it is hard, and going out.  You are left with seven-and-a-half feet of court on your side that you have to protect, not ten feet.  You should position yourself right smack in the middle of that 7 1/2 foot zone.  This will put you fifteen inches closer to the center line than the traditional line-up of Figure 1. 

Let's try a second example:  Again you are on the left side, receiving serve.  This time you put the return deep and cross-court, into the server's backhand corner (another nice shot!).  Where do you line up?

Again, there is only 15 feet of volley line to protect, but, in this scenario, your opponent's hitting triangle opens up from the far right corner.  The 15 feet starts at the right sideline.  Both you and your partner should shift two-and-a-half feet over to the right (thirty inches, or one full stride).  You will end up one foot from the center line, with your right foot on the line, or slightly across.

It was these positions that looked so strange in the videos from the Nationals.  Players moved all the way over to the center tee, apparently daring their opponent to hit into the open court, because the return had gone to the far corner.  They lined up, correctly, in the Z-positions above.

To recap:  Don't try to guard the entire volley line.  Line up to protect a fifteen foot stretch.  Your initial ready-position is at Y, but you move to the right or left if the ball is to the right or left of center.

Here is a third example:  Again you are on the left, receiving serve.  This time you try that new fancy slice return you've been practicing, but, you mis-time it, and it lands right at midcourt, and pops up.  Where do you go?

This is much different.  A strong opponent can hit that type of "sitter" with pace to virtually any area from the volley line back.  Forget 15 feet.  You have to guard the entire volley line.  To make matters worse, you will probably have to volley a low shot, which is very hard, and, with the ball at midcourt, you'll have less time to react.

Personally, I would stay deep and try to give myself more room to defend.  Whatever you do, you are in trouble, and rate to lose the point.

This is an important example.  The receiving side has a big advantage in pickleball, provided they return deep.  That advantage shifts on a short return, and the geometry leading to the Fifteen Foot Rule vanishes.  As a matter of personal  strategy, if my opponent returns the serve deep, I usually try to dink the ball, and bring the point back to neutral.  If the return is short, I go for the kill.

The Fifteen Foot Rule in the Dinking Game

The Fifteen Foot Rule seems to apply on any deep ball, but disappear on a short ball.  It must follow, then, that the Rule doesn't apply once we transition to a dinking contest.  After all, an opponent can dink the ball virtually anywhere across the kitchen.  You and partner must guard all twenty feet.  True, yet, oddly enough, the Rule still applies.

Let's analyze.  Suppose your side has dinked the ball very near the center line, and your opponent is about to dink back, as in this diagram:
A dink back to the center will drop quickly, and you had better be in range.  As you can see from Figure 5, that dink will only travel a few feet, leaving little time to react.  A dink to the sideline, however, travels three or four times as far, giving you plenty of time to move to such a shot and play it back.  So, you want to line up closer to the ball.  Our usual Y-ready positions are excellent ready positions for dinking.

More importantly, many dinking bouts end when a dink gets too high, and someone punches it back hard.  A hard volley like that, hit at a very sharp angle, will go out.  You have to guard all twenty feet of the kitchen for dinks, but much less for hard volleys.

Even in a dinking game, the usual principles apply, and we should position ourselves for the hard shot.  

So, pinch in closer to partner that you used to.  Line up at the Y-ready position after returning serve.  If you start dinking, keep to that position, and follow the ball.  If the dink lands near their far sideline, slide over to the center line, position Z, and trust partner to slide over to cover that sideline.  Likewise, if the dink is near your sideline, move over to cover a sharp tap down the line.  Leave the center to partner.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


Pickleball Strategies

by Steven Bloom

I. An Apology

It is probably quite presumptuous of me to write about tactics and strategies in pickleball, since I am, essentially, a novice. Still, this is the way my mind works. I approach every activity theoretically, picking it apart, trying to see what makes it work, and what might actually work a little bit better. I hope that some of my ideas are useful. Certainly anyone who has played against me will happily attest to this fact: I think a better game than I play! If you find any of this interesting, great. If my ideas strike you as naïve and simplistic, then all I can say is "Sorry, sorry, sorry." That ends my apology. And also ends all humility.

Before getting to specific game tactics, I want to lay out the fundamental principles of our game. These really are obvious, but incredibly important. Every tactical decision in the game flows from one of these principles. These form the bedrock for every suggestion that I make, and for every winning strategy.

II. The Four Principles of Pickleball

Principle One:

The first side to the net wins.

This is easy, and something players learn the first time they step onto a court. The net is a huge, huge advantage. Simply picture yourself about to play the ball from deep in the court, looking up at two monstrous opponents, paddles raised, looming over the net and ready to smash back anything you try. You know, and you know absolutely, that you have lost this point.

Get to the net. Win. It is that simple.

Principle Two:

The side receiving the serve gets to the net first.

This is equally obvious. After all, if you are receiving their serve, your partner is already positioned at the volley line. Both opponents, meanwhile, are stuck way back in the court, for a very good reason – the rules dictate that both the serve and the return must bounce. They must play deep, waiting for your return to hit the floor.

You, in the meantime, are hustling up to the net after you return, joining your partner and presenting your opponent with that terrorizing specter pictured in Principle One.

Put these two principles together, and we get

Principle Three:

The receiving side wins every rally.

Naturally, this is an exaggeration, but the receiving team will win 60 – 70% of the points contested.

There are other sports with similar service biases. Volleyball, my second passion, has the same service asymmetry. The receiving side goes on offense first, and has a large advantage. At the elite level, the receiving team wins around 70% of the points. In beach volleyball, where there are only two defenders trying to stop this offense, the "side-out" percentages are even higher.

This serve-receive edge has major implications in the strategies of the sport. If you watched volleyball in the Beijing Olympics, you may have wondered at the atrociousness of the serving. Players would strike their serves with all their might, hitting so hard that they had almost no control over location. Serve after serve after serve were hit out. Why? Surely players at the Olympic level should be able to hit the court!

Of course they can. But their coaches also know that easy serves are futile. Give an easy serve to a world-class offense, and you will watch it come back, right at your face, at about 100 mph. The only hope is to serve tough enough to crimp that offense. So the players serve as hard as they can, risking service errors for winners. Every coach preaches "One ace for one service error is a great ratio!" Indeed, if you can win half of your service points, no team in the world will beat you.

Another sport with a large service bias is tennis, though in tennis, the edge goes to the server. Again, strategies are geared to this imbalance. Players are taught to take care of their service games. The rest will follow. Play so that no one ever breaks your serve. If you can do that, Mr. Sampras, you've got yourself a career.

Pickleball, like tennis and volleyball, runs the same way. Guard your service edge at all costs. Don't worry about the rest. When I step onto a pickleball court, I have one simple goal – never lose a point. I figure if the opponents can't get to two or three points, then they won't get to eleven, and we win. I don't worry much about scoring points – those will come. Instead I put all my energy and focus into preserving our edge when we receive serve. We are supposed to win those rallies, and if we do, we can't lose.

This third principle, although quite fundamental, is one that pickleball players don't really understand. As an illustration, ask fellow players this: "What is the worst error you can make playing pickleball?" Inevitably, they'll answer, "Missing my serve! If I miss a serve, I am just giving away a free point." To which I must reply, "Nonsense." If my partner whales a serve at the sideline and just misses, I don't groan. I cheer. So it went out. We lost a rally quickly, but one we rated to lose anyway. Had the serve gone in, though, we'd have stolen away one of their points. One ace to one error. Great ratio.

No, in my mind, the worst error I make is missing a return of serve. That's a point we were supposed to win. When my return lands in the bottom of the net, then I have really given them a free point. Ouch.

Principle Four:

Keep 'em guessing.

Many times in a game you will have a choice of shots. Usually one of these choices will have a better, long-term chance of success. When I look at the individual phases of the game, I will try to emphasize what I consider to be the "high percentage" shot. This does not mean that the technically correct shot is the best choice. It is equally important to keep your opponents off balance and guessing. I would much rather hit a lousy shot that fools them than a great shot they were waiting for.

For instance, it is normally correct to hit at your opponent's backhand. But if you always aim for their backhand, they will simply move a few feet over, shrink their side of the court, and hit every shot with their forehand. So mix it up, and hit a few shots to the forehand side.

Likewise, service returns should be placed deep in the court. This forces them to stay back and gives you time to get to the net – Principle One. So, occasionally, drop in a really short service return.

Lobs are poor shots (for reasons that I will explain later), but if you never lob, you are too easy an opponent. Hit the "right" shot most of the time, but throw in a "wrong" shot often enough to keep 'em guessing.

III. The Serve

The serve not only kicks off the rally, but it is your first chance to gain an advantage. You can only score when you serve, and, even though the receiving side has the edge, a tough serve can score right away, or generate an easy return. Good serving can tip some of the advantage back to your side. Don't be afraid to miss your serve. Remember, you are expected to lose this point. Pushing hard when you serve has everything to gain and nothing to lose.

When I took up the game, I pictured it to be like miniature tennis, and tried to make shots like Roger Federer. I learned two things very quickly: (1) Pickleball is not tennis, and (2) I am no Roger Federer. Gradually I realized that pickleball is like an even smaller version of tennis, table-tennis, or ping-pong. Pickleball has more in common with ping-pong than with any other sport.

Expert ping-pong players rely on spin. And spin, and spin. This is especially true when they serve. A whiffle ball is just as nasty as a ping-pong ball when it spins, and you should make spins a major part of your service repertoire.

There are four major of types of spin shots – top spin, under spin (also called back spin), left spin and right spin. These last two terms are ambiguous, but I will use them to refer to where the ball is struck. Just as a top-spin ball is struck over the centerline, so a left-spin ball is hit to the left of center. This causes the ball to spin and break to your right, and your opponent's left. This is poor nomenclature, certainly. Left-spin means it breaks to your right? Sorry about that.

We will look at these service spins individually, but we should keep in mind the legalities of the serve. Every serve must be hit underhand, and placed into the cross-court service box. The rules judge that a serve is underhand based on several factors: (1) the ball must be struck below your waist. (2) If you were to draw a line from your wrist to the front of your paddle, that line must be pointing downward, and (3) your arm must be moving upward at the time of contact. We want to serve hard, of course, but we also want to serve legally. A good side-arm motion and wrist snap will put a lot of spin on the ball, but such serves almost always violate (2). Tough serves, yes, but not legal serves.

Service Position

Start your serve about a full step behind the baseline. Most players like to step forward just before they strike the ball, but since you cannot step into the court before hitting the serve, give yourself room to move forward. You can position yourself anywhere along the back half of the baseline, the half kitty-corner from the target service box. Personally, I prefer to line up as close to the center as possible. This gives me a shorter distance to serve, and gives me a straight shot if I choose to serve "down the T". Unfortunately, this also forces me to move quickly to the side to get into position for the next shot. You may prefer to line yourself up for your serve near where you intend to play for the service return.

Next, bend your knees, and drop low. Toss the ball up for your serve, let it drop below your waist, and swing at it, rising up out of your squat and pushing into the ball. This will generate power. Watch a tennis professional serve. They get their power from their legs, not their shoulders and arms. You can't serve an underhand pickleball serve with anywhere near the power of a tennis serve, but the same principles apply. Use your legs and your body to put impetus on the ball.

Notice, I have not said a word yet about spin. The spin comes from your wrist and the paddle face, not from your service position. Use the same starting position for every serve, disguising the spin and location for as long as possible. Consider a perfect serving opponent, serving you while you are in the left court: On the first serve, just as he(1) pushes into the ball, he whips his wrist inward and turns the paddle face to his right. The result is a serve that hits your left sideline and spins even farther outside. The serve completely fools you, and you miss badly. He aces your partner, and turns again to you. You see exactly the same stance, and start. You spring nimbly to your left, but this time he keeps the paddle straight and rockets a top-spin serve right on the center line.

Get the idea? Your paddle face and wrist action will reveal both the spin and your location. But these are last-minute clues. A good server forces their opponents to read and react very quickly. If you start every serve in exactly the same way, then your opponent cannot get a jump on your intent. Try to make every serve look the same, up until the very last possible instant.

(1) In my previous life, I taught college, and so I am supposed to know about gender-neutral discourse. But I am too old to use inane modernisms like he/she and too cranky to abuse grammar by using “them” to refer to solitary, albeit androgynous, pickleball players. All the fictional players in this guide are male, and are referenced with masculine pronouns

Serving Percentages

A common question is this: What percentage of my serves should go in? This question was asked at a recent clinic, and the visiting poobah declared, "95%. If less than 95% of yours serves are going in, then you are serving poorly." I don't buy that. Indeed, I do not think that serving percentages are very meaningful – that is not a statistic that really tracks winning. A better measure is this: Take the ratio of your service winners to your service errors. These are the gimme points. A gimme to them when I miss a serve, and a gimme to us when they miss a return, or hit a weak return that sets up an easy point. Aim to win at least as many gimme serves as you lose. In other words, you should make as many service winners as service errors (One ace, one error. Great ratio!). This has nothing to do with the percentages served in. The harder you serve, the more you can afford to miss.

Under Spin Serves

This is the most common serve in expert table-tennis matches, and so, by analogy, it ought to be very common in pickleball. It isn't. I tried it for a while, and still use an occasional under spin serve as a surprise, but my backspin serve is pretty weak. Let's analyze:

The serve is performed by hitting the ball low, and whipping your paddle downward, generating this backspin. A great under spin ping-pong serve will just barely cross the net, hit the table, and bounce backward toward the server. The receiver is forced to reach way into the table to retrieve the ball, and has almost no chance of making a hard offensive shot.

There are three drawbacks to this in pickleball: (1) We are not allowed to serve short in pickleball. The serve must be in the service box, which is set back in the court, not in the forecourt. (2) Even if we make a legal short serve, i.e., just inside the service box, this helps the returner approach the net, which, Principle One, is just where he wants to play. A ping-pong player can't jump onto the table and rush up to the net. (3) The rules insist that our paddle is angled downward when we contact the ball on a serve. If you snap your paddle downward to create backspin, chances are quite high that the paddle is at an illegal angle when you strike the ball.

Indeed, the only way that I have been able to hit an under spin serve with consistent depth and pace is to use a sidearm motion and snap down on the ball. That serve is not legal. I have tried holding my paddle angled downward, and knifing it under the ball. This seems to be legal, and delivers a lot of spin, but the ball tends to go short, and pop up high. That's a poor serve, so I keep that one on the sidelines, except for a rare, Principle Four surprise serve.

I have not rejected the tactic, and I will keep working on my "knife" serve. Wicked under spin is very tough to handle, but a legal under spin serve hit with depth and speed seems beyond my skill level. It wouldn't surprise me, though, if someone were to develop such a serve.

Top Spin

This is the easiest serve to master. The laws require us to strike the ball below our waist, and in an underhand motion, but nothing in these laws restricts our follow-through. We can hit the ceiling if we want. This fairly natural follow-through brings our paddle up and over the ball, which imparts top spin. So this is the most natural serve, under the laws of the game.

Top spin tends to force the ball downward after it crosses the net. As such, even a very hard hit serve seldom goes long. You can hit these serves a lot harder than you'd expect.

If even the waterboy giggles at your serve, try some top spin. Take a bucket of balls out to a court and practice rocketing your paddle up and over the ball. Make sure that your serve is underhand, not sidearmed. In no time, you will have a fearsome serve, and the waterboy will be asking for your autograph. Trust me. This is the simplest way to improve your game. Don't worry about missing serves. You will develop more accuracy over time, but remember, when you serve, they have the advantage. So take some risks. Serve tough and snatch back that advantage.

Side Spin

As a right-handed player, I generate right spin by starting with the paddle near my side. When I move up and into the ball, I snap my wrist out and to the right, striking the ball outside the center. Likewise, a left spin serve is done by snapping my wrist, and paddle, inward, and hitting the ball a little left of center. I tend to aim these serves at the center of the service box, letting the english on the ball pull them toward the side lines.

The left spin serve is my bread-and-butter serve, since it breaks to the backhand side of a typical (right-handed) player. Perhaps half of my serves have left spin. But then, Principle Four, I will mix in some top spin or right spin serves to the other side of the box, just to keep them from cheating too much to the backhand side.

Should You Serve Short? DeeP?

In general, serves should be as deep as possible. A short serve brings your opponent forward, which is his goal anyway, and allows him to hit sharper angles on the return. Still, Principle Four trumps all. You have to throw in some occasional short serves.

IV. The Service Return

When we receive the serve, Principle Three, we should win the point. We have the advantage, and the most important goal on our return is not to blow that edge. We will look in detail at our various returning options, but there is one simple rule: Get it in. Did you hear me? GET IT IN. Still not clear? GET IT IN!

In spite of my advice, people still miss returns. Why? What causes you to make return errors? I don't know, but I know why I botch returns. There are three common causes to my mistakes.

Type I: The serve was too good.

OK, I'll admit it. I'm no world champion. Hit a really good serve at me and I'll muff it, just like anyone else. So what should you do when you miss a serve that was really too tough for you? Nothing. Maybe applaud a little, and compliment your opponent. Then move up to the volley line and let partner worry about the next serve.

If you lose a game because you played stupidly, ouch. That really hurts. But losing when your opponents play great? That's fun. That is the way it is supposed to be. If they play great, occasionally, enjoy it. Don't worry over it.

Of course, if your opponents always play great against you, that's another story. Maybe you are not making things tough enough for them. Or, perhaps, they really are too good. What can you do? Either keep playing, and losing, and let their skills improve your skills. Or find an easier game. But don't hang your head. Great play should be appreciated.

Type II: Getting ahead of myself, particularly with my feet.

I always try to move forward when I return the serve, getting into position at the net for the next play. On very rare occasions (okay, not so rare, not rare at all, grr, grr), I focus so much on getting into the right net position that I flub this shot. Obviously it is crucial to concentrate on the shot at hand, and then, and only then, prepare for the next shot. This is a really stupid error and I hereby promise never to do it again. Right.

Type III: Trying to do too much.

I am a very aggressive player, and if I have an opportunity to hit a winner, I take it. If I get an easy serve, I will blast it back at a sideline, hoping to put the point away, or force a weak reply that we can volley for a winner. Some of these shots, unfortunately, play out much better in my head than on the court, where I miss and hit the ball out. Is that bad? That depends. Remember, you expect to win 60-70% of your service return points. If you can play aggressively and keep those percentages, fine. For example, suppose you go for four return winners in a game. Two of your hard shots lead to easy points, a third goes out, and the fourth is handled, leading to an even rally. Those are very good percentages. This is good pickleball. Keep it up.

Being very aggressive has some subtle payoffs. For starters, you are practicing those hard shots. In time, you will get better and hit less of them out. Moreover, nobody likes serving against an aggressive returner. Your opponents are likely to press on their serves, trying things beyond their skill level, and missing. Once you get an aggressive reputation, you will start winning freebie points, where you don't even have to swing your paddle.

So be aggressive, and don't worry about occasional mistakes. Keep that 60-70% target in mind. If you lose the point on half of your aggressive returns, then tone it down.

Of my three types of return errors, only one of them is really a true blunder. There is nothing wrong in losing to a great shot, nor is it a mistake to miss an attempt at your own great shot, particularly if you make more of those than you miss. Only the mental error is a true lapse. Missing a shot because you are thinking about the next ball, or what to have for lunch, or the last name of your high-school sweetheart (Ellen …, Ellen …, rat's, I can't remember), those miscues are really bad. Keep your concentration up. Keep your focus.

Return Positioning

I prepare to receive serve by standing about three-quarters of the way to the left side of the box, with my feet on the baseline. I crouch down, putting my weight on my toes, ready to spring forward, or to either side, but particularly ready to leap to my right.

It is much easier to move forward than backward. This positioning means that I will have to take four strides or so forward to handle a short serve, but only one step back to play a deep serve. Even with this positioning, I have to retreat quickly and set up on a deep serve. If you find that you have trouble with that, then start even deeper, a foot or two behind the baseline.

Likewise, cheating over to the left lets me take almost every serve with my forehand. I may have to move far to my right on a good serve, but the service box is small (only ten feet wide), and I emphasize springing to the right with my starting position.

Watch the server. Most players aim their serves, and all of their shots, looking directly at their target. If you know where they are aiming, you can anticipate and move quickly to the right spot.

Pay attention to the spin on the ball. The paddle motion will always tell you what type of spin you are getting. If you know the spin, then it is easy to counter that spin. There are two spin counters – you can use the spin yourself, or power through it.

Using Spin

Once a ball is spinning, it wants to keep spinning in that direction. If a spinning ball hits a wall, or your paddle, the ball reverses direction, while the spin remains. This makes it appear as though the spin has also changed. Thus a top-spin ball, bouncing off of your paddle, continues to spin, but, because the ball is now moving back at the server, that top spin is now under spin. Likewise, a left spin serve breaks to your left, and the server's right. If it bounces back, it now breaks to your right (and their left).

Top spin becomes under spin, and vice-versa. Left spin becomes left spin. Right is right.

The easiest way to deal with spin is to maintain that spin. If you hit a left spin serve with left spin of your own, then you aren't fighting any of the angular momentum of the serve. Likewise, counter a heavy top spin serve with under spin. These are easy returns. See the spin. Maintain the spin. Let them deal with it.

Power Spin

You can also return a ball with an opposite spin. Your opponent hits a top spin serve and you bring your paddle up and over the ball, generating your own top spin. This is fine, but much of the energy of your spin will simply counter the rotation that was already on the ball. This will result in a return that is much flatter, with a lot less top spin than you expect. Flatter balls sail longer, so give yourself some leeway. Don't aim at the endline.

Finally, you can always just put out a flat paddle, and let the ball bounce back. Keep the spin in mind, though. A spinning ball does not bounce straight back. The ball will angle off the paddle in the direction of the spin. Thus, a top spin serve will bounce upward off of your paddle, going higher, and perhaps deeper, than you'd anticipate. That won't usually kill you on a return, since the opponents must let even a high floater bounce, but if you pop a ball up like that later in a rally, once volleying is legal, you've lost that point.

This suggests a strategy. Volleying will be legal on the next ball over. If you can hit a hard top spin return, you will often get a sitter floating back. Smash, boom, end of point. Nice strategy, but it is hard to generate a lot of top spin if the serve itself is tough and spinny. You are usually better off using the serve's inherent spin rather than trying to muscle through your own.

Return Placement

In general, you can return the ball short, or near a sideline, or deep. We will look at each of these.


The classic, high-percentage return is deep and near the middle. Remember our goals: Get the ball in. Get to the net, ideally with the opponents still back in the court, away from the net. Returning deep gives you time to rush up to the net, and keeps at least one opponent back.

Let's take a typical situation. You are in the right side service box, returning against two right-handed players of equal strength. A ball returned right up the middle will be to the server's backhand, and his partner's forehand. So the server will let his partner play that shot, and sprint forward to cover the net. That's not so good for you. Place the ball two feet over to the left, and the server will take the shot as his partner charges forward.

I like to draw an imaginary line right down the court. To the left of that line, the server will handle the ball, while a ball to the right will be taken by the other player. If you put your return exactly on that line, then either player could take the shot. You create doubt, confusion. On a good day, neither player goes for the ball and you snag an easy point. More often, one player will take the ball, but the doubt slows down his partner, and he won't be in position, at the net, for the next play. The best return lands deep and smack on that line.

This is a tremendously important concept, enough so that it merits its own special terminology. I call this the doubt line.

The doubt line is an imaginary line dividing the court. Any ball on the doubt line could be played by either opponent, with no advantage.

Essentially, the best service return lands on the intersection of the baseline and the doubt line.

Of course, your opponents are almost never of equal strength. Playing against me, and, say, Mr. Federer, nobody would be stupid enough to hit the ball to Roger. Pick on the weak player.

The stronger player is likely to cover more of the court, essentially moving the doubt line over to one side. Roger, for example, has told me to cover any ball hit in the bleachers. He'll get the rest. It is still very good tactics to hit the ball on the doubt line. Just remember, the location of that line has changed.

Mentally place the doubt line about a foot from the center line, toward a player's backhand. Then move the line away from the stronger player. Watch their tendencies as the game progresses, and adjust the doubt line accordingly.

Again, the best, high-percentage return lands deep and near the doubt line.

The next best return is to hit a deep ball to a player's backhand. This strategy singles out one player, and that allows his partner to move easily into net position. That is a drawback, but well worth it if your return gets a weak reply. In our scenario above, facing two equal strength righties, this strategy calls for me to hit the return down the right sideline, near the back corner. The server releases quickly to the net, but his partner must still make a tough backhand play with both of us at the net and ready. Notice, though, that this strategy leaves less room for error. If I aim at the doubt line and miss by a foot to the right, I free up the server, but the ball stays in. If I aim at the sideline and miss by a foot, I've hit out, and lost the point. Deep middle is safe as well as effective.

The third option is to place the ball to the other back corner. This is a relatively weak choice. One player releases while the other player is hitting from strength, a forehand. Still, players never expect this return, which means, by Principle Four, that you should put a few balls into that far corner. This can be particularly effective against the stronger player, odd as that sounds. If the doubt line is way over to your right, then this player will be cheating over in that direction, essentially leaving the corner wide open.

Short Returns

Mostly, forget this shot. This brings them forward, where you don't want them, and shortens the time that you have to get to the net. You make their life easier and yours tougher. That's a poor combination, except for Principle Four. As soon as you sense that your opponents have rooted themselves to the baseline, waiting for your patented deep return, then plop one just over the net. Nothing is more satisfying than watching their faces fall when you catch them flat-footed.

Side Lines

These are the aggressive returns that I like so much. If I get an opening, either because the serve was too short, or bounced up too high, I like to aim hard angle at a side line. It's a deadly shot if you make it (and if you miss, though the wrong side dies).

Lob Returns

A new strategy is becoming popular in our area, thanks to a clinic run by a local instructor. That teacher recommends lobbing back the service return, hitting a high, lazy return deep into the court. Why? Two reasons: (1) Such returns are very easy and safe, and so meet my first and foremost rule for returns, they go in. (2) They give you plenty of time to get up to the net, and prepare to volley, which is the other key objective in your return game. Get to the net!

Indeed, if you are 110 years old, and need a bus to get you the 16 feet from the baseline to the volley line, then I would recommend this strategy. For anyone else, forget it. What’s wrong with this tactic? It is hard to find a place to even begin my rant. Picture this common game scenario: You are playing against a very uneven team – an expert paired up with a fairly weak player. Under normal strategy, you would return the ball to the weak player, or to the doubt line, which is very close to that player. You will often get an easy ball next, but even if they make a good shot, the weak player will certainly be out of position, and, occasionally, you may even find the expert out of place by a few feet. You have a big Principle Three advantage, and expect to win most rallies when they serve.

Now consider the new lobbing strategy. The expert will call and play this ball, no matter where in the court you lob. Thus his weak partner will release and get to the net. That high, slow return gives him plenty of time to get into position as well. So, when the volleying starts, the weak player will be ready and set at the volley line. Well that’s not so good! There was no way that player would get into such a nice position if you had returned normally. Strike one. Now the strong player is taking his time and lining up what rates to be a very hard shot. Ouch. Strike two. The lob return will bounce up around shoulder height, and that formidable foe has moved around the ball, and is preparing to launch a rocket forehand. He may hit at either line, or up the middle, or at someone’s feet. Whatever his choice, if you don’t come up with a great play, you’ve lost a point. Strike three. You’re out!

Still not convinced? Okay, we’ll use T-ball rules and unlimited strikes. Your main aim, once you can volley, is to force an opponent to pop a ball up high, which you or partner can smash. If you put a return deep and low, the natural stroke will put that ball up high. Point won. Your opponents must make a strong shot to survive your natural net advantage. This is Principle Three. The serving side scores a point only because of an error, or a really strong shot. Normal, unspectacular rallies usually go to the receiving team. But if you bounce your return high, the natural stroke will bring the ball back low, and hard. Unless you come up with a great shot, you will miss or pop that ball up. Strike four. You have ceded all advantage to the bad guys. The receiving team plays offense, and should have a big edge. But if you lob a little lollipop back, you may be in a nice position on the court, but you will be playing defense, and forced to play spectacularly well to avoid losing a point. That’s strike five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, and eleven. Game over.

This advice incenses me. I can’t believe an expert would give out such horrible, tactically backwards instruction. This is like teaching a chess player to move his king to the center of the board on the first four moves. You might survive this strategy, if you are the Bobby Fischer of pickleball, but if you are that talented, why are you reading my advice?

V. The Money Shot

The Money Shot is what I dub the third shot in every rally. This is the most crucial shot in pickleball, and most points are won or lost on this shot. This is when champions crow and goats bleat. Master the Money Shot, and you'll be bathed in glory. Don't, and you will leave hearing the echoes of the waterboy's giggles.

Here's the typical scenario, one that happens point after point: Your side served, they returned. You've shouted out "Mine!" and moved into position to play the Money Shot while your partner charges to the net – you did call the ball, didn't you? Partnership communication is important enough that I will devote an entire section to it. For now, though, keep in mind the previous section, on the service return. They are aiming the return at your doubt line, hoping you will both let the ball go, or, at the very least, be confused enough to be out of position once the volleying commences. To counter this, decide as quickly as possible who will play the ball. Yell "Mine" and let partner scurry to the net, or "Yours" while you hustle forward. Whose responsibility is it to call the ball? That's not very important, but I will offer a suggestion later. For now, just make sure somebody calls the ball.

Anyway, there you are, all alone, deep in the court. Both intimidating opponents are at the net, eager, hoping to crush any shot of yours that's at all less than perfect. This is the nightmare envisioned in Principle One, and it is up to you. What now? Essentially you have four options (five, if you include running away in tears): A lob, dink, passing shot, or body shot. We'll take those in order.


This, obviously, is an attempt to put the ball high over their heads and out of reach. Personally, I consider this to be a relatively weak tactic. Most of the true pickleball authorities disagree (with one notable exception – see the footnote in section vi), so I had better work hard to make my case.

The lob comes from tennis, where it is an important shot, for two reasons. First, the tennis court is large. If a ball is lobbed over your head in tennis, you have to run a long way back to retrieve the shot. Second, as such, the very threat of a lob forces you back. You can't stand right on top of the net, volleying awesome angle winners, when you know that your opponent can place a ball over your head and deep. That is too much territory to cover. So, the knowledge that an opponent might lob compels a volleyer to hold back, staying perhaps eight to ten feet from the net.

Now turn to pickleball. The first reason no longer applies, since the court really isn't very large. Even a successful lob over your head and near the back line is not too difficult to run down. As for the other reason, this is made completely moot by the very rules of the sport. In pickleball, you are not allowed to volley in front of the seven foot line. Players hang back eight to ten feet, not out of fear of a lob, but because of the edicts of the laws. Thus the tennis reasons for lobbing do not apply in pickleball. Remember, pickleball is much closer to ping-pong than it is to tennis. Would you lob in ping-pong?

Let's look at a lob in practice. Say an opponent tries to lob over my head. What will happen? I've got a pretty good jump, and can reach ten feet. If the lob is lower than that, I'll smash it. Point won. If it is higher, but hit hard, it will go long. Point won. What about a soft lob high enough to get past me? Let's turn to partner. This is very important. If your opponents lob a ball, the player nearest the shot tries to get into position to play an overhead smash. The other player must run behind his partner and prepare to play any ball that passes too high for partner, but lands in the court. This is easy. There is always time to cover the court behind partner on any lob that is high enough to clear partner, but soft enough to stay in.

Let me emphasize this point:

As soon as you see a lob going toward your partner, run behind and get into position to play the ball. Failure to cover your partner on a lob is a major blunder.

So, the opponents hit a perfect lob, out of my reach, yet in the court. Partner is back and plays the ball, bringing the rally essentially to neutral.

Lobs often lose the point directly. At their best, they simply level the rally. That doesn't strike me as strong strategy.

Let's put some numbers to these. At my skill level, about half the lobs are within my reach, and I get to hit an overhead smash. I miss a few, and some are returned, but we probably win the point on nine out of ten short lobs. Another quarter tend to go long, and we still win about half the points on the good lobs. My math says we win 82½ % of lobs. Wow! I love to play against lobbers.

This is not to say that you should never lob. A lob may be more effective in singles than in doubles. The single player has no partner covering the deep ball, so a perfect lob can win the point outright. Lobs can also be very productive against a strong player with a weak partner. The weak player will never run back to cover the lob, so a good lob will also win the point, rather than break even. Finally, playing outdoors, when your opponents are facing the sun, lobs are great ploys. Here, you aren't really trying to lob over their heads and out of reach – rather, you are trying to place the ball between the player and the sun. It is virtually impossible to make out a yellow whiffle ball against the blazing sun.

Then there is the overriding Principle Four. I hate lobs, but still throw in an occasional lob just to catch them napping. Since most players know that I hate lobs, my rare lobs often score.


The dink shot is a short, soft shot designed to land just over the net and bounce low. Think of this like a drop shot in tennis, and we should start by considering that tennis drop shot.

The drop shot is a wonderful and dangerous tennis maneuver. Again, the court is large. If an opponent is deep and you drop in a nice little dink just over the net, chances are you will win the point outright. Even if your opponent is quick enough to get to the ball, the low bounce will curtail any kind of power shot, and you will probably see a dink right back, but one that you are prepared to play. Unfortunately, if your opponent reads your drop shot and reacts in time, he can get to the net just as the ball is crossing over. At that point, the ball is literally sitting on a platter, and he can blast it. Hence the wonder and the danger.

What about pickleball? The court is small enough that a dink shot should never drop untouched. But, pickleball rules don't allow a player to bomb the ball as it crosses the net. You are not allowed to attack the ball in the air in front of the seven foot line. And a good dink never goes anywhere near seven feet from the net.

This makes the dink a perfect pickleball shot. All you can really do, in response, is step forward, wait for it to bounce, and dink the ball meekly back over the net.

Pickleball, when played at a really high level, is probably a very boring game. Dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, until the cows come home.

How effective is a good dink? I want you to imagine a singles tournament among three players. Player A is a monster, six foot nine inches tall, with arms so long he has a wing span of a 747. Moreover, any ball that comes within his mammoth reach is pulverized. This freak has broken more pickleballs than I have hit. Player B is quick, I mean really quick. He covers a court faster than Rafael Nadal. No one can put a ball past him. Player C is an 80 year old woman, with no upper body strength at all. She can barely get the ball over the net, but every ball she hits is the same. It just clears the net, drops and bounces up a few inches. Her shots move, and bounce, like a wad of pancake batter. There's our tournament. I don't know who will win, but I certainly won't bet against C.

Here's some homework for you. Stand in front of a mirror and ask two questions: (1) Are you six foot nine with the wing span of a 747? Yes? No? (2) Can you cover the court faster than Rafael Nadal? Yes? No?

If you are one of the unlucky few who actually has to answer no to both of these questions, then learn to dink! A perfect dink completely neutralizes the point. All that net advantage from Principle One? Gone with one dink.

Passing Shots

The passing shot is simply a hard, low shot into one of the open alleys left by the net players. There are three of these alleys – down either side line and up the middle. In many ways, the middle passing shot is the most effective. A shot past an opponent on a side line needs to be placed precisely, or it will go wide. In contrast, the middle shot never sails wide. The middle shot can also be played by either net player, which casts the usual doubt. Should I take it? You? Sometimes both go for the ball, and hit each other's paddles rather than the ball. Other times neither player moves for the shot.

Once again, we have a doubt line. There is always a point along the net where either player might take the ball. That is your target. Find the doubt line and hit low, and with a lot of pace. Your force the opponents to react in a split second, and communicate their plans. This is very hard. The doubt line passing shot is safe, and very tricky to return. This shot is probably the highest percentage Money Shot.

Virtually every play in doubles has a doubt line, even a lob. Lob too short and the ball is played with an overhead. Lob deep enough, and the partner plays a groundstroke. Thus there is a point of confusion, a doubt line, where the ball is really too deep to be played overhead, but not out of reach. Put the ball there, and the front player may hit a poor overhead, or decide too late not to swing, and block out partner.

Try to locate the doubt line on every shot. If you can make a strong, aggressive play, fine. But, if not, aim at the doubt line. Watch a few games. See how many points end when one player makes an error, anticipating, wrongly, that his partner would play the ball. Get the idea? Aim at the doubt line!

Body Shots

For this shot, you aim low, and hit the ball as hard as you can, right at a player. Since you are hitting hard, try to get top spin on the ball, so it will dip down and stay in the court if they let it go past.

If you are volleying, your shots will typically be much more effective and powerful when you reach out to either side. Even a backhand volley is fairly easy, simply angle your paddle downward and snap the ball back toward the side. In contrast, it is very hard to volley a ball hit low and dead center. You have to twist your paddle down to reach the ball, leaving you no leverage, and no angle. Even if you get to the ball, you will often pop it weakly back. That is why a tough body shot is so hard to play. (This same twisting motion is required to play back a volley aimed right at the shoulder of your hitting arm. The visiting muckety-mucks recommended this body shot.)

The body shot must be hit hard. If not, your opponent will step easily to the side and play a forehand. Thus the speed of your shot must beat their foot speed. This makes a good body shot very risky. If you hit it hard enough to defeat their reaction time, then there is a good chance that the ball will go long. So, theoretically, the body shot is a low percentage play. Yet it seems to be a high percentage shot in practice. Why? Here is some more homework for you:

Question: My opponent rears back and whales a ball 90 mph right at my private parts. Do I (a) Leap nimbly to the side and watch the ball sail long, or (b) screech like a little mouse, drop my paddle, and cover up?

Since this is homework, I won't give you the answer, but I am willing to drop a little hint: The answer isn't (a)!

VI. Volleys

The number one rule of net play is readiness. Most players understand this, but they aren't really prepared. The typical player stands tall near the volley line, paddle held high and perpendicular to the net, ready to reach to the forehand or backhand side. Put a ball near me and I will whomp it. But this is wrong, in two ways.

First, the proper paddle position is with the face toward the play, not perpendicular. Most experts recommend keeping the paddle in a backhand position. This allows you to move quickly to the backhand side, swing your arm and paddle over for a forehand, and to block back a shot hit dead center. That center shot is a real killer if you hold your paddle perpendicular to the net. You will never have time to react and position your paddle.

Second, ready means low, not high. Your opponents won't aim high, they aim low. And it is hard to reach down for a ball. The ideal volley position is this: Legs spread apart, weight on your toes, crouched low, with your paddle up, in a backhand position, guarding an area about six inches above the net. Essentially, you should be a tightly wound, three-directional spring, ready to bounce left, right, or up.

Why up? As I said, it is hard to reach down and hit a ball well, but it is easy to move up and keep the paddle in a good position. If a ball is hit hard and high, let it go and watch it fly out. If a ball is hit hard and low, you had better be in position. Finally, if the ball is hit high and soft, you will have more spring in your legs if you start from a crouch. This means you can jump higher, and reach for overheads.

Having your "spring" loaded and ready to jump left or right is more obvious. This increases your range for passing shots. This also helps with body shots. If you can move to either side, you will have better control than if you take the ball at your midsection. Try to take a volley to your side, and punch the ball sharply downward, and at an angle. If you hit the ball forward and flat, you will usually be hitting it to an opponent. Down and away is much better. Hit where they ain't.

The crowds love it when two net players rally back and forth, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop. Good for the spectators, but lousy pickleball. Don't play catch with an opponent. Aim to a side, or down at his feet. Make him miss the ball, or pop one up, so you can smash it. Be aggressive(2)!

(2)This beautifully phrased advice, “Don’t play catch”, is due to Barry Ford and appears on the usapa web site. Ford also dislikes lobs, so I consider him mandatory reading.
I have read many other strategy guides, and have happily stolen sound advice. For example, Richard Movsessian, at, recommends service returns about a foot toward the backhand player, and so hints at the doubt line. Still, the doubt line terminology, and the importance of the doubt line for other phases of a rally, is mine.


Suppose you are volleying on the left side of the court. Your three-directional spring position makes it easy for you to leap out to your right and steal a ball from your partner's side of the court. Such rude behavior is called poaching. Should you poach?

Cons: (1) If you miss the shot, you look like a real idiot, and nobody will want to play with you, ever again.

(2) Even if you make the shot, you leave partner feeling grumpy. One partner has said to me, on more than one occasion, "You know, I'd like to play too."

(3) Unless you are very quick, you have gotten yourself out of position for the next shot.

Pros: (1) It is much easier to volley a ball off to the side than one head on. When you do move to the right to steal a ball, you are in a perfect volleying position. It is easy to punch the ball farther to your right, for a really tough angle, or to whip the ball back across your body cross-court.

(2) A left-side poach, for right-handed players, means a forehand attack. This is stronger than leaving it for partner's backhand.

(3) Principle Four. It is much, much harder to play against opponents who spring from side to side at the net, than stationary opponents. Even when you miss your poach, and look like such an idiot, you have gotten into their heads. They will be thinking about you on all their shots.

It is pretty obvious that I am a poacher. Grumpy partners be damned! I also encourage my partners to poach, particularly to their forehand. "If you can reach it with your forehand, smash it."

Planned Poaching

If we are going to poach, perhaps we should plan our poaches ahead of time. Certainly some strategy guides discuss and encourage this strategy. This requires some advance communication. You can discuss this verbally, before the serve, in whispers, or you can give hand signals. Here's a possible scenario. Your partner is receiving the serve and you are in net position. You signal with one finger behind your back, which translates to, "I will hold my position", or with two fingers, announcing, "I will cross." Partner returns the serve and stays deep on defense. This leaves half the net open, and the opponents will usually play their ground stroke to that side of the court.

When you had signaled with two fingers, "switch," you wait until the last possible moment and then leap over to the other side of the court. Partner also rushes over to cover the side that you abandoned. If you fool the opponents, you will have an easy shot to volley.

We can jazz this up. You and your partner move to the center line. You can even juke around a bit, faking one way or the other. At the very last instant, one of you will spring to the right, the other to the left, according to the signals. If you do this well, you leave the opponents with, essentially, a fifty-fifty guess as to which side of the net is open.

This sounds like fun. I can't wait to try it. Uh, yes I can. Why should we make them guess which half is open when we can seal both sides? I'd much rather have partner rush forward so we can cover the entire net. So planned poaching doesn't seem that wonderful, but there are some situations in which planned poaching would be quite effective. I can think of four scenarios:

(1) Godzilla and Rafe. Suppose we partner up my two players from the dink section, the 6' 9" monster with the speed freak. I'd certainly let the monster cover the net, and keep Rafe deep. But I wouldn't recommend any tricky poaching schemes. I'd tell Godzilla to stand right in the center. Force them to hit a side line and let Rafe run those down.

(2) As a Principle Four change of pace. Throw in an occasional one-back, one-up look, just to mix it up, and signal your poaching strategy.

(3) In emergencies. Sometimes a player is forced deep and will not easily get back to the net. If the play has forced your side into this one-back one-up positioning, then the net player should signal. The players will move side-to-side as signaled.

(4) To cover weaknesses. Suppose my partner is left-handed and receiving serve on the left side of the court. Our normal position will put the middle of the court on both our backhands, and that is very weak. As soon as partner returns the serve, I should move left, and partner should rush over to the right net side. We are not trying to fool our opponents. We are simply moving into a position more suited to our skills. In fact, when partner serves from the left side, we should immediately switch in the back court. A lefty-righty combo should always put the right-handed player on the left side of the court. Any other starting line-up should prompt an immediate switch.

VII. Communication

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of communication on the court. You and partner should be talking, yelling, or whatever on every single close ball. If there could be any doubt on who should play a shot, then someone must speak up. Consider the Money Shot. Decide as quickly as possible who should play the ball. Scream out "Mine" or "Yours" as soon as you can.

Who should do the yelling? I'd rather see both players talking than neither, but if you want a rule, try this: The server is in charge. A ball hit back to the server will travel cross-court, a longer distance, which gives the server more time to react. Thus it is easier for the server to carry the calling responsibility. This can be extended to other plays – the cross-court player calls.

I prefer to let both players decide. The first player to judge the ball yells out and partner obeys. If you prefer to designate a caller, fine. Cross-court is a good rule. You can also designate the player with the loudest voice. It doesn't matter. Just make sure that someone calls out every close play.

Communication hardly ends here. Consider this scenario: A ball is hit hard, near your partner and the side line. Partner hesitates an instant, and then decides to let it go. It lands in. Oh no! On the very next play, they hit another at the same line. This one is clearly overhit, and is going out, but partner lunges at the ball and volleys it into the net. What an idiot! When will he learn … to find a better partner? Huh? Both of those errors are your fault, not his. 100% yours.

On a hard hit ball, both players have responsibilities. One player has to concentrate on playing the ball, and nothing else. That player must put all his effort into making the shot. The other player must let him know whether or not to try the shot.

As a general rule, if you don't hear from partner, the ball is in. Play it! It is not your job to figure out where the ball will land. That's partner's call. If partner isn't sure enough to shout "No" or "Out" or "Let it go", then play the ball.

This is worth repeating:

One player concentrates on the shot at hand. The other makes the line call.

There are other areas of communication. Let's follow the first three points of an imaginary game.

Point one: A player tries a short service return. The server charges forward and launches a vicious angle forehand that misses by two feet. He groans and hangs his head. His partner, meantime, is steaming. He glares at the miscreant, and even rolls his eyes to the fans in the stand.

Point two: The other team serves, and this point is a mirror image of the first, ending just as sadly when a forehand spews wide. "Oh what a stupid shot. I can't believe I missed it so badly." "Are you kidding?" asks his partner, "That's a great shot. You have to go after a short return. You can't poke it right back – we'd get killed. That's absolutely the right shot choice. Keep swinging."

Point three: The second server goes, and this turns into a long net rally. Eventually the server nets a tough, low, backhand volley. It's a volley he should have made, but the shot was not easy. "Sorry partner. I should have made that shot." "Maybe, but I wimped out on the last volley. I had a chance to swing hard. Instead, I punched it back and set them up. I'll make them work harder next time."

Three points, three errors. The score is still zero to zero. But we all know which team is going to win. Communication is not simply about tactics. You must also keep partner upbeat. If partner is terrified about muffing a shot, then he won't make a great shot. If partner can't play well, then you can't win.

VIII. Hand Swapping

When I first started to play, two experts encouraged me to try hand swapping – when a ball was hit off to my left, I should move the paddle to my other hand and play the shot left-handed. This, so they promised, would increase both my range and my speed, allowing me to play back balls that I couldn't even reach otherwise. That was interesting advice, and it sounded fairly easy, particularly since I am more or less ambidextrous. So I tried it. No more. I've given it up, and I will try to convince you to give up hand swapping as well.

Let me start my argument with another bit of homework. Stand in front of a mirror with your paddle in your right hand (left-handed players should make the appropriate corrections). Using very slow, exaggerated motions, transfer the paddle to your left hand and reach out as far as you can to your left. Now repeat this experiment, but keep the paddle in your right hand, and stretch out as far as you can with your backhand.

You will notice two things. First off, as the experts claimed, you have a much longer reach with your left hand than backhanded. However, they were wrong about speed. It is slightly faster to keep the paddle in your right hand – the hand swap costs a little bit in quickness.

How will this play out in a game? On a ball hit very sharply to your left, you would do better stabbing at the ball with your backhand. When you need speed, but not reach, don't switch hands. However, if the ball is hit softly, but way off to your left, so that you really have to run to get to the play, then you lose no time at all swapping hands while running after the ball, but the extra reach from your left hand may well keep you in the point. In other words, the hand swap is a very good strategy in a real emergency situation, going far to your left for a ball that is truly out of your reach.

There are other ways to extend your reach in sports. I have been trained for this in my other sport, volleyball. Watch our phenomenal gold-medalist, Misty May-Treanor, in action. She flies across the sand, diving this way and that, and playing up the ball perfectly to her partner on shots that no other human on earth could even touch. I can't even dream of defending like May-Treanor, but I do know the proper techniques. On a ball spiked off to my left, I have been trained to dive out toward the ball, and reach out, as far as I can, with my left hand. Likewise, on a ball hit to my right, I dive and stretch with my right arm. This combination, diving and stretching, maximizes my range, and adds a good foot or so to my reach in every direction. Diving increases your span, and allows you to contact the ball just before it hits the ground, thus giving you the maximum possible amount of time to make the play.

The same principles could, theoretically, apply in pickleball. Still, who in the world would be stupid enough to dive after a pickleball? Uh … me? I can't help myself. Too much training, too much brainwashing. I see the ball and this submarine klaxon goes off in my head, Dive! Dive! Dive! and I am on the floor before I can think of anything else. At about that time, as the pain settles in, it occurs to me that this wasn't so smart, that a beach is a lot softer than a gym floor. I vow never to try this again, until that klaxon sounds …

So how does my spectacular diving fare? Most of the time, I miss the shot. When I do get a ball back in play, the return tends to be poor, and I am on the floor, completely out of the play, leaving my poor partner to cover the entire court, as they put away the next shot. I can count on one hand the number of points that we have actually won thanks to my diving. This is not a very useful tactic.

Emergency hand swaps aren't as dangerous or painful, but they aren't much more effective. If you do make some miracle save, then, as with my diving, the next shot is usually a sitter for the opposition, while you, meanwhile, are miles off the court. Emergency hand swaps win about one out a gazillion points. Still, one out of a gazillion is better than none out a gazillion, so why not? It really can't hurt to try for miracles, and I see nothing wrong with such effort.

The problem with hand swapping, at least for me, came on other points. I found myself playing shots with my left hand that were hardly emergencies. I would play a ball two feet to my side with my left hand. These were shots that I could reach easily with my backhand, but I was so enamored with the hand swap that I played them left-handed. Then, one day, I made a left-handed shot on a ball that I used to step around and hit with my forehand. When my weak lefty shot came rocketing back, it was time for some soul-searching.

I may be ambidextrous, but my backhand is still 300% better than my off-hand. No doubt, the world's greatest pickleballer hits the ball really well with this off-hand, but I will bet you a quarter that he hits it even better backhanded. And I will risk another quarter and bet that your backhand is better than your off-hand.

It is time for a guilt check. Does some of this make you uncomfortable? Do you occasionally play a ball with a hand swap that you could have hit easily with your backhand? If so, then find a blackboard and write, one hundred times, "I will not hand swap. I will not …"

Do the math. You win one out a gazillion points, but lose three or four points a game because you played a poor off-hand shot instead of a tough backhand. Give up hand swapping and win more games!

Looking over this guide, I can see that I am sounding like one of those weight-loss quacks, promising amazing results for no sweat at all on your part. "Lose 25 pounds, guaranteed, simply by applying our special, patented, brown mascara!" Here I am telling you how much you can improve your game if you simply give up lobbing and hand swapping. "Do nothing. Win 20% more games!" I really am a quack.

IX. Variants

Variants are games or drills you can try for fun, and to emphasize certain skills. So, a variant might emphasize dinks or lobs. The variants that we have tried have another, more immediate, purpose – dealing with awkward numbers. Too often, at our gym, we do not have exactly four players. We have tried a number of variants that use three players, and I will describe those shortly. Sometimes we end up with too many players, five or six. In that case, we simply sit players out, a boring and pretty unsatisfying solution. I have been thinking about possible variants that would let everyone play. Here are my suggestions.


Triangle is a variant of pickleball with three players on one side of the court, a center player, and two wings. Most of the rules are the same, but with these exceptions:

Rule 1: The center player can never play a ball once it bounces.

Rule 2: The wings must let a ball bounce before playing it.

Thus the center player volleys, and can only volley, while the wings can only hit ground strokes.

Rule 3: As in ordinary doubles, a side gets two servers. The center player never serves. If the serving side scores a point, the server moves to the other box to continue serving. The center player moves to the first box, and becomes a wing. The third player is now the center.

And so, the center player changes whenever the center's team scores a point, and that is the only time centers are changed. If the first server loses the point, then the other wing serves. This is exactly like ordinary pickleball.

Rule 4: Before a wing serves for the center's team, the center must be off the court and behind the baseline. The center is not allowed to enter the court (and move into net position) until after the serve.

Since the service return must bounce, the center cannot play that second ball. So the center has to avoid interfering with this next shot. I recommend that the center stay back, and out of the way, until a wing has a clear path to the second ball.

This is an interesting variant. Two players must play ground strokes, and so, this can be used as a practice drill to emphasize that phase of the game. Likewise the center can only volley, and this, too, makes for good practice. When playing against a Triangle, it will be hard to hit outright winners. Three players are covering the court, and two are back on defense. Dinking becomes really important. In particular, if you dink very short and near the center, that player will not be able to play the shot. Remember, once a ball bounces, the center cannot hit the ball. On a good dink, one of the wings must run up, play the ball, and then get back deep (since they cannot take the next shot on the fly). So Triangle can work as a dinking drill.

Triangle can be played with six players, or with five, a normal two against a Triangle. Obviously the three-side should have a big advantage, and will win most games, but don't underestimate the power of the net. Since both players can volley on the two side, the twos will do much better than expected, and the games rate to be pretty competitive.

Thin Court

This is a variant we have tried with only three players. Two play against one, but the single side only has to cover half the court, the service side. So the single side is long and thin. The single player gets only one service turn in each rotation, and serves as in singles (thus, from the right side when the score is even). The doubles serve as usual.

Our Principles apply here, of course, and the net is a gigantic advantage to the single player. Typically, the single player receives a serve and hits the ball back straight up the thin court, and then moves to the net. This makes for a very hard Money Shot, with the net guarded and no real angles to attack. It is very hard for the doubles side to score a point. As a result, this is not a very even game, with a big advantage to the single player. I have only tried this a few times, but won every game easily as a single, with very lopsided scores.

Some players have used Thin Court in singles, when a strong player plays against a weak opponent. Thin Court is a big handicap, and can even out skill levels.

Full Court

In this version, one player takes on two, but must cover the entire court. The rules are exactly as in normal doubles, with the single player serving twice in each rotation. This, too, is not a very even game, and the doubles should win most games, but our usual Principles still apply. Once the single player returns serve and moves to the net, it is still hard to score. The Money Shot is tough even against a lone opponent. As a result, such games tend to be surprisingly competitive, and even relatively weak single players hold their own. I have never seen a player really blown out.

Playing one against two is quite a workout. Try this version the next time you have only three players. But rotate the players each game – don't leave some poor soul in the hotseat for too long.

Short Court

This variant is very much like Thin Court, with the single player covering only half the court, and serving only once, but we divide the court from front to back, not side to side. Thus every shot into the singles court must be short, even the serve. In our gym, there are lines painted onto the floor for other sports that serve as these short endlines. If you don't have such lines, mark an endline with shoes, or towels (and be lenient with "out" calls).

The two-side must use a lot of short, angled dinks to win a point. Thus Short Court is a great game to practice your short game. The Money Shot is still hard, but you will find that you have many more options in this variant than in Thin Court. Of the three two-on-one variants, this is the most even, and the most competitive.

This is a wonderful dink training game, and we often play a Short Court game as a warm-up drill. You can try this one-one-one or two-on-two. It is a great way to loosen up, and to practice your dinks.

Short Court can also be used as a handicap – one side plays full court, the other a shortened court.

X. Conclusion

If you have reached this point, then either you like to peek ahead to find out who done it (the upstairs chamber maid), or you kept with me and read my work. In that case, I thank you, and hope you found some interesting suggestions.

This, like my game, is a work in progress, and I intend to revise this. Feel free to e-mail suggestions to me at You can also send along jeers and criticisms, although for you, I should admit that this is some other Bloom's address.

Happy pickleballing.

Steve Bloom

September 14, 2008