Pickleball Strategy – How to Improve your game

Pickleball Strategy – How to Improve your game 2019-02-03T19:44:25+00:00

strategic pickleball playPickleball is mostly played by seniors living in Senior communities, and RV resorts. It’s a sport that is enjoyed by all ages, but at present seniors seem to have the most opportunity to play. I happen to be a senior also and have played only with the outdoor ball and mostly play doubles, though I do enjoy singles tournaments. Therefore my comments on strategy will be devoted to outdoor play and may or may not work equally well with the softer indoor ball.

If you are still learning the rules of pickleball and new to the game, or a seasoned player, I hope these points on pickleball strategy will help improve your performance and your enjoyment for a great sport.

General Pickleball Strategy

Strategy is always hard to talk about because there is very little that you can do on the courts that is always right or always wrong. It all depends on what you do well, what your opponents do well, and the situation at the time you make the shot. The best strategies for the beginners are not the same as the best strategies for the advanced player.  Also, it depends on the pickleball equipment you are playing with, i.e. indoor or outdoor ball.

The strategy you select at any given times also depends on your physical condition as well as your opponents physical condition. This is especially true in the Senior Communities.

The ideas presented here are not intended to tell you what you should do, but rather to present you with various idea on Pickleball Strategy that you might try against different opponents or with various partners.

Pickleball Singles Strategy

pickleball singles strategy

What strategy works best for singles matches?

Singles pickleball is easier in many ways, as you do not have to think about where your partner is positioned, how fit they are, or how good they are at a particular shot or return.  It is all up to you, and only you.

On the minus side, it is all up to you and only you, and there is no one to recover a shot for you, so no pressure!

Serving

The most important thing you can do on your serve is to just get the ball in the correct court! Most beginning players lose opportunities for points on their serve, because they make a bad serve. I have observed that the best players don’t always hit the hardest serve, but they usually make the least faults on their serve.

Once you are able to get your serve in consistently, you are ready to experiment with it a little to make it more difficult to return. There are three things you want to try in order to improve your serve which I will list in the order of importance:

  • Try to make your normal serve land deep in the court. The deep serve is more likely to be missed or hit weakly than any other serve you can do.
  • Once you can serve consistently and reasonably deep into the court, the next step is to develop your ability to serve the ball either to a player’s backhand or to their forehand. Start by aiming for the left 1/2 or the right 1/2 of the service court. When you can do that consistently, then start trying to aim to the left 1/4 or the right 1/4 of the service court. If you are making several service faults each game, then you need to aim closer to the middle until your error rate is acceptable again.
  • Once you can serve consistently with most serves landing close to where you aim, then you need to think about adding some variety to your serve. Your opponents are more likely to make mistakes when you give them a variety of serves. You are also more likely to find a serve they don’t like if you give them 6 different looks rather than a serve at the same speed and same spot every time.

Now that we can get our serve in consistently and fairly accurately, we want to add variety to our serve. I will list a few ideas that I and others have tried in an effort to make things difficult for the person returning the serve.

  • Vary the speed of the ball. Occasionally hit it extra hard. If you serve hard all the time, you will find that the other team will adjust and start getting the ball back every time.
  • If you have normally been serving to their backhand, then throw in some occasional serves to their forehand, or vice versa. Try to keep them guessing unless one side is much weaker. If one side is a lot weaker then just keep serving there.
  • Many players will have a bit of trouble with a medium high serve to their backhand that bounces higher. That is because a high backhand is harder to hit for most people than a low backhand. With a little practice, this is a fairly safe serve to use!
  • A fairly easy serve to get in, but which requires more concentration on the returnee’s part is a side slice that jumps to the side when it lands. Even a small jump to the side by the ball is enough to bother many players, especially if you suddenly throw it in when they aren’t expecting it.
  • Throw in an occasional very high deep serve (like a lob). If it lands deep, many players will return it weakly because they don’t like the higher ball. Even some of the best players will hit it out on occasion trying to hit it back to hard. Occasionally, you will run into someone who just hits it so hard you can’t return it. In that case you probably shouldn’t try it again! Variations on this high serve include: lobbing it high and straight with top spin, hitting up on the right side of the ball to make it jump left when it hits, or hitting up on the left side of the ball to make it jump right when it hits. These are more likely to result in faults unless you practice them a fair amount in your practice games. They also work best against the inexperienced players who don’t read spin too well. Although they will occasionally win a point against a good player, the main value is in adding a little variety and causing them a little aggravation.
  • When you reach the point that you have very good control on your serve, you might on occasion go for the sharp angle serve where you aim about an inch inside the corner. This is a highly risky shot and will often result in faults, so its usually best to save it for the practice court or a day when you seem to have really good control of your serve. Being a right hander, I usually use this serve from the right hand court and I try to set it up by having served mostly to their backhand. If they stand to far towards the middle, I’ll throw in a quick sharp angle serve for an easy point when it works. From the left hand side, I might throw in an occasional heavy slice to the extreme right corner and short for a point. Again this is an extremely risky serve, but occasionally when all else has failed and you just can’t seem to get a point, it might be worth the risk!

If you are more of a visual learner, take a look at this great video which shows you the 3 types of pickleball serve and talks us through why its important and how to use it.

 

Returns

The number one goal on return of serve is to put the ball in play. Every time you hit the ball out of bounds or in the net, your opponents get a point! Those free points are very encouraging to a server! Conversely, making the serving team win every point is often discouraging to the server because they are used to getting some of those free points.

The number two goal on return of serve is to get to the pickleball net. It is easier to win points from the net than it is from anywhere else. The return of serve is the one time that you can usually beat the other team to the net because they have to let the ball bounce before hitting it.

The third goal on return of serve is to avoid hitting a short return. A short return allows the serving team a better chance of getting to the net easily with a dink or to hit a power shot at you which will be increasingly difficult to return the closer they are to you.

Playing against the deep Return of Serve

If you’re a novice through “B” club player, still learning to dink, and not a powerful hitter, your best bet against the deep returns is probably to lob. Although you may not have a great lob, you will find it improves quickly with practice. After a little practice, you will notice that it isn’t easy for your opponents to put their overheads away unless they are very good!

If you are a good player with the ability to dink from the baseline and have a lot of power, then you should mix up your dinks with your power shots, dink when ever possible, and lob or hit low when you can’t! Remember the dink won’t do any good unless you follow it to net!

Playing against the 3/4 court Return of Serve

Many of the tournament players will smack this ball hard and many will hit a dink and come to net. Many more good players could improve their game if they would use the dink instead of hitting it hard in this situation. A good dink will always work, where as a good hard hit will only work some of the time. The Novice and Intermediate players should be working at hitting dinks whenever they get that 3/4 court ball. It will take time to perfect the shot, but once you can do it, you can expect the opponents to make mistakes against it. After you can do the 3/4 court dink reliably, you will have a good chance of making a dink from further back.

Playing against the short return of serve

If you can get to the short return of serve and its a fair amount below the net, then you should almost always use the dink. If you try to hit the ball hard from below the net, it is quite likely to go out or high enough for the opposing team to kill it. If however, you get to the very short ball and its fairly high, then you should probably hit it hard at the opponents because they have less time to react and hit the ball or even to think about letting it go if it was going out.

The Lob Shot

The lob is very much under-rated and under-used by most players, but is a shot that can be highly effective in senior pickleball at the novice through club “A” player. At the open tournament levels, it doesn’t work nearly as well because the top senior players still move well and most have pretty fair overheads but it still is a necessary skill. As the age brackets get higher and the players slow down, the lob tends to works better and better.

At the Novice through “B” senior club levels, many of the players don’t move well and many don’t hit overheads well even when they move well. At this level of play, a good lob at the appropriate moment can be very effective. Even a bad lob will be difficult for many players at this level to put away, where as they might be fairly tough to hit through with a hard drive.

The video below explains how and when to use this shot, so you can take control of the point and force you opponents in to an error.

 

The lob needs practice just like all your other shots and will probably not work well for you until you have used them quite a bit and hit your fair share of bad lobs. However, they are really the easiest shot to learn.

When you hit your lob, you should not be trying to hit a perfect lob that lands on the baseline and wins a point, because you will make too many errors. The real goal with a lob is: to get time to get back in position when you have been drawn out of position, to make the other team retreat from the net so you can move in, to take advantage of another player’s weakness which is the usual reason, or finally you might be trying to win with defense because the other team is winning when you try offense.

To be successful, the lob has to be hit fairly high. A low lob that would otherwise hit the baseline might be smashed by the tall net player standing just a little behind the no-volley line, but a high lob landing a foot inside the baseline might be out of reach of that same tall player who managed to move back to 3/4 court while attempting to hit the ball. Another reason to hit your lobs high, is that most players have more difficulty judging the ball and timing their swing when the ball is high. The higher the ball, the more difficult it is to do an overhead.

In actual competition, the best senior players can usually reach and smash almost all balls except when they are surprised or off balance from a shot. However, most of them can’t hit the ball hard enough or place it well enough on a deep lob to put the ball away. Most will put a lot of the short lobs away, although if you guess where they are going to hit the ball, you can get most overheads back.

Lobbing will only work if you can at least return their smashes most of the time and you also need an  opponent who either doesn’t have a great overhead or tends to get excited and miss when you return several of their overheads.

The greatest danger in lobbing is that it can be so successful, that when you run into a team that destroys lobs, you can’t make yourself quit.

Dinking

The dink is a shot that seems to be ignored by the Novice players and is the last choice of the club “C” players. It is one of the required shots for the best tournament players. Most players could probably improve their game quite a bit simply by becoming proficient at this one shot. It is probably the one shot a player can hit, that a small women can hit as easily as the strongest man as it doesn’t require strength, but rather good touch and control.

It is a shot that could be used by players of all abilities with practice. Everyone can’t learn to hit the ball hard or to jump in the air and hit a hard overhead, but everyone that can hit the ball in the middle of the paddle can learn to dink and acquire some degree of skill at it. The more you practice it, the better your dink will be.

What is a Dink

A good dink is a softly hit ball that is hit at the feet of a net player either forcing him to hit the ball after it bounces or to volley the ball from below the net level. It may be hit from anywhere on the other side of the net, but is typically hit from a position as far back as 3/4 court and as close as a few inches from the net. The very best players can hit the dink from behind the baseline and using a good pickleball paddle for spin can make it almost impossible or at least very hard to return the ball.

Why Use The Dink

If you are close to the net and you have to hit a ball from below the net level, then you are forced to hit the ball upwards making it extremely difficult to hit the ball hard and keep it in the court. When you are forced to hit the ball upwards, it also increases the possibility that the opposing team will be able to hit the ball downwards hard and win the point. The answer is to dink the ball back so that the other team also has to hit up. At this point, both players typically dink the ball back and forth until one of the players hits the ball to0 high and then the other players smashes the ball as hard as they can.

When your team is serving, the other team will return the serve and typically run into net so that both of your opponents are at net when you hit the ball. This is a big advantage for the returning team! If you can hit a good dink and run into net without them killing the ball, then you have taken away their advantage.

Strategy

Pay attention to which shots are winning points and which are losing. If something works then keep doing it. If it doesn’t work, try something else and be willing to change strategies at a moments notice.

Movement is key, make sure you are anticipating your opponents next shot and position yourself accordingly to create a winning shot.  One thing that does make a difference to your game and ability to get around the court is your footwear.  You do not have to have the most expensive pair of pickleball sneakers, but have a pair of good pickleball sneakers on with keep you comfy and put an added spring in your step.

Pickleball Doubles Strategy

pickleball doubles

How can you improve your doubles game?

Playing with a partner adds a whole new dimension to the game and can really improve your enjoyment of the sport, in my opinion.  Also, as you get older, playing doubles is a little less strain on your body and can allow you to play competitively for longer.  This is probably why I play more doubles than singles now-a-days!

However, the strategy for playing doubles is different in many aspects to playing a singles match and there are things you need to think about to be successful.  After all, you want to win, don’t you?

If you prefer watching, rather than reading, take a look at this great video of how to play doubles pickleball, or read on, or do both!

Hitting Strategies for Doubles

Because the serving team has to let the ball bounce before hitting it, they are at a disadvantage to the returning team, but only if the player returning the serve follows his/her return in to the net. That leads to a rule for the serving team.

The Rule: If the player returning serve doesn’t come to net, you should always hit the ball back to him and come in to net yourself!

Assuming that both players on the returning team come to net, the member of the serving team that is hitting the ball has three choices:

  1. Hit a high deep lob
  2. Hit a dink shot and come to net
  3. Hit the ball hard at the opponents in hopes they will either miss or make a weak shot that you can attack.

What the player should choose to do depends not only on where the return of serve goes but also on the player’s ability and his partner’s ability and the ability of the opponents. The perfect shot for the perfect player is of course to make a perfect dink and follow it into the net thereby taking away the returning teams advantage. However since we are not all perfect, I’ll go on.

Return Strategies for Doubles

As the partner of the player hitting the ball, what you should do depends a little bit on knowing what your partner is likely to do and of course that depends a bit on where the return goes.

While everyone doesn’t agree, I feel that the very worst thing you can do is to start running madly to the net before you know what your partner is going to try and do. By running to the net before your partner hits the ball, you pretty much take away your partner’s option to lob, because you are now a target.

If your partner hits a hard shot, you often get caught moving rapidly forward when they hit the ball at you. This makes it extremely difficult to adjust to the ball or change direction. You pretty much take away the option for your partner to just play a nice safe return, because it could be hit hard at you. On the other hand, there have been a few times when running madly to the net did actually work well and when you are hitting a lob, you can tell your partner GOING UP or STAY BACK or something to stop his mad flight to another bruise.

Recommended Approach

The approach I recommend is to first try and figure out what your partner is going to do and move accordingly. That’s fairly easy after you have played together a few times.

If you recognize that your partner is going to dink, then you should start moving forward with him. If he hits a good dink, you both will have moved all the way to the net. If he hits it to high, you should both immediately stop and get ready to defend. Then adjust by going forward or backwards according to what happens next.

If its a deep return and your partner looks like he is going to lob, wait to see if the opposing team is going to let the ball bounce before moving in to net.

If your partner looks like he is going to hit the ball hard, move in a little bit and wait to see what happens. If they hit a short low ball, you should move in and normally attempt to do a dink. If they hit a short high ball, you should move in and either kill the ball or dink depending on your opponents skills.

Having said the above, I must acknowledge that there have been a couple of matches where my partner receiving the return of serve has hit it so hard and so low consistently, that the opposing team was popping the ball up and therefore I also dashed madly to the net before he hit the ball and it was very successfully against those particular teams. Again, as I said at the beginning very little is always wrong or always right, but you should normally play the percentages.

Returning the ball high and slow or hard and low

If you hit the ball hard and low on your return, you will probably get more errors or weak returns from the serving team, but you will usually make more errors yourself. You also have less time to get to net before the ball is returned at you.

If you hit the ball higher and slower, you will probably make less errors yourself, but will usually get less errors from the opponents. Keep in mind that a high deep return gives you a lot more time to run into net before the server gets to hit the ball. If you’re tired or have bad knees or just have trouble moving into net for any reason, you should probably use a higher deep return when possible.

Every day and every game and every opponent is a different situation. One game you might be making all your hard low returns and they might be causing the other team to make errors, so you obviously wouldn’t want to stop. On the other hand, you might suddenly start making faults yourself, in which case you should usually switch to a little higher, little softer return to avoid giving them points. If you and your partner both make two service return errors, that’s already 4 points for the other team.

The soft return is a great shot and is great for beginners and intermediate players.  It is also one of the easiest shots to learn as the below video shows.

 

Remember the number one goal mentioned above, if you’re having trouble doing what you would like with that tough serve and you’re trying to win, just put the ball in play no matter what!

There are exceptions to every rule. You might one day find yourself playing a team that seems to win a point on their serve every time you return safely, but has trouble getting back your hard deep return. In that case, you might have to continue returning the serve hard and low even though you are making more errors than you like.

The Story of Tom The Lobber

If a player, whom we shall call Tom The Lobber, can hit a perfect lob every time, you might think he should always hit that perfect lob. Unfortunately, on Monday Tom The Lobber played with a partner named Timid Tim who was really very good except he could never seem to return an overhead smash, so every time Tom The Lobber lobbed the ball, the other team smashed at Tim and of course Tom and Tim lost every time Tom lobbed.

On Tuesday, Tom The Lobber was excited because he was finally playing with a different partner named Fast Freddie whom he knew had the ability to return smashes and was very fast on his feet. Unfortunately, every time the return of serve came to Tom The Lobber, Fast Freddie was already running to net, and when Tom The Lobber lobbed the ball, Fast Freddie would get creamed by the opponents so poor Tom had to quit lobbing.

Since Tom The Lobber couldn’t lob with Fast Freddie running to the net so quickly, Tom had to resort to hitting the ball hard because he had never learned to dink and didn’t like to do it. Unfortunately, Tom didn’t always manage to hit low and the team that had returned serve and was now camped at net would again hit the ball hard at Freddie. Fast Freddie was really very fast but because his partner hit the ball so hard, he was often still running forward when the ball was hit at him, which made it very difficult to change direction or adjust to the ball. Fast Freddie made some great gets, but at the end of the day everyone was calling him poor Bruised Freddie

On Wednesday, Tom The Lobber got stuck with another partner called Hapless Harry who had earned his nickname because he was a very poor at net and nobody wanted to play with him. After a few points, it became apparent to Tom The Lobber that with Hapless Harry running to the net they had no chance at all. So Tom suggested to Harry, that every time the serve was returned to them they should lob and try not to go to net except when it couldn’t be avoided. After a few minutes, it became apparent that Hapless Harry was really good at lobbing and the opponents had little patience when their smashes kept coming back. Tom and Harry went on to win their next 5 matches and Hapless Harry is no longer called Hapless. Together they are called the Happy Lobsters and are much feared in the ranks of the “C” and “B” players.

Moral of the Story

The moral of the story is don’t be afraid to switch strategies and try to find a strategy that fits your abilities and takes advantage of your opponents weaknesses. To do that you have to attempt in practice to develop all your skills. That means practicing trying to dink, trying to lob and return overheads, and hitting overheads. It also means not running around all your backhands, but rather trying to improve it. It means having fun and trying a few goofy shots in hopes that one might work! It means not always trying to win your practice matches, but rather trying to work on a particular skill.

True Life Strategy Stories 🙂

Dinking in Doubles

When you use the dink depends a little on how good you are at it, but you will need to use it when someone makes a good dink to you. If your dink is too high they will probably kill the ball, and if you try to kill the ball from below the net you stand a good chance of hitting the ball out.

When the other team is at the net and hits a short ball that you can’t get to until it is already very low, then the best shot is always a dink. If you make a good dink, you will have just as good a chance for winning the point as your opponents. On the otherhand, if you hit that low ball hard, you are likely to either hit it out or hit a high ball that the other team can put away.

When you are the serving team and the other team has returned the ball and taken a position at net, a good dink can get you to the net and neutralize their advantage. You should dink whenever their return is short enough to be within range of your dinking skill level. For the best players, that might extend to behind the baseline, but for most of us it will be somewhere shorter. Be your own judge, but keep trying to extend your dink range.

How can a dink improve your game and why do you need it?  Take a look at the video below which demonstrates the strategy behind dinking.

 

Opponent Weaknesses

The other day I was playing a fairly serious match and my partner and I were losing about 12 to 3 in a game to 15. The other team had been lobbing a lot and we had too. However, we were making mistakes and the other team was not. All of a sudden, we hit the ball hard at one of the players at net and he missed what should have been an easy shot. We did it again and the same thing happened. So for the rest of the match, we hit everything as hard as we could at the same player and we won 15 to 14 much to their disgust.

The important thing to note is that we noticed his mistake and changed our strategy and won the game! I don’t know how often I have watched either tennis or pickleball matches, and seen a player miss a shot of some type and look very awkward doing it and the opponents would never give them that shot again! Pay attention to your opponents mistakes!

On the same day, I started playing a game with the player who had missed all the volleys. I knew that he was not as good at net as either opponent and that they would hit all balls at him and we would probably lose by playing offense. On the other hand, I knew that he was exceptionally good at lobs and that furthermore one of the other players overheads was a bit erratic and the other player had a very good overhead but didn’t hit it extremely hard!

To make a long story short we drove them crazy with lobs and my partner happened to volley better when he did have to go to net and we won fairly easily. (after hitting 1000 lobs) Again, the main reason we won was strategy. With a different strategy, we might have be beaten soundly.

Having different strategies you can try will not always win the match, but it will always help and if the opponents are only a little better than you, it might make the difference. Every once in a while, it will help you beat a team that you really shouldn’t!

For the Love of the Game

Regardless of if you are playing doubles or singles pickleball, each game is unique and the strategy you choose to use depends on your opponents, their weaknesses and your strengths and weaknesses, as well as your partners.

Work hard on the basics of your serve, return and third shot choice until you are happy they are at a good enough level to compete.  And remember, your strategy will and should change during the game, depending on how your opponent(s) capabilities and your own performance that day.

However you play, I hope you enjoy this great sport and keep fit and active.