This is not about How To Play Pickleball in reference to the rules as you can read on our other website pages - in particular our page titled the 'same title' which is about how to play the game.
In the same way you would describe how a football match or baseball game is played by those that know how to play, pickleball also has an ideal way to be played.
It is an 80/20 approach to playing the game where the 80% represents the major points of the game plan that matter most for anyone who picks up a paddle.
It should be noted that even 5.0er’s have room for improvement and in fact strive to improve in any given moment so never be beyond instruction or open to ideas or strategies that may help you play better pickleball no matter what your rated level.
It can be said that 5.0’s generally play to a game plan which is probably one of the biggest tips any new player could learn to rapidly improve their own game.
So what is your game plan and if you have not got one, what’s the plan Stan?
Play Pickleball 'plan' - in this rundown we will discuss the 80% of what matters most in pickleball play.
General Goal of Play when you 'Play Pickleball'
In brief, get to the kitchen line to give yourself the maximum opportunity to win your point. Yes you have to get your serve in or return of serve, then your 3rd shot is always important as are all your other shots, but the crux is that most points are won from the kitchen line so why does anyone consistently play from the rear of the court? Good question. Perhaps they have not read this article. ;)
Some will read this and find argument to not come to the kitchen line and that playing the long game is the best way to win, however to save argument here I will simply state that when you can nominate any top player that has a game strategy to consistently win from the rear of the court, I’ll be the first to listen to your argument.
Recognize for now that the majority of winning points come from the kitchen line – PERIOD.
It means if you are not playing most of your game at the net, then by default when playing players of the same rating then you are losing or will lose most of your games.
Court position – Yours
Where do you want to stand to start the game? When serving ensure you are behind the baseline and if the server is your partner then be standing behind the baseline also and stay there until you see what the return of serve is doing.
Remember, from serve the ball has bounce twice before you can volley it – (ie volley - hit it out of the air before it bounces).
One bounce on the receivers side and then one bounce on the servers side. If you are standing inside the base line you put yourself at a huge disadvantage to a return of service ball that is aimed to land long just inside the court of play and you need to back pedal. (It is a lot easier to run into a ball than to back pedal from it).
Where do you want to stand to receive service?
Outside the base line by about two feet and close to center of the square to be more in the correct hitting position of any ball particularly the serve that lands long and fast.
Yes many people tend to favor their forehand so will stand accordingly leaving too much court open to exploitation for a good accurate server. The answer is not to compensate your forehand but to get better at your backhand therefor closing off this opportunity and subsequently getting to be a better player.
Serve (an often under exploited opportunity when many play pickleball)
Your serve - Get it in, get it long and get it to a nominated position – typically to the weakest playing aspect of the receiver. Add variety to your ongoing serves. Generally this would be a slow looping or fast low serve to a receivers backhand side or if they are favoring one side of the receiving court then to the adjacent side of that court.
Your return of serve should be a long return of serve 98% of the time primarily to the weakest playing aspect of the receiver be it a looping slow return or a fast low return. Splitting the two receiving players down the middle is also another good option.
A ball that lands mid court gifts the opposition with a ball that has too many winning options and makes it too easy for them to hit and to place.
Third shot - variables
Pickleball stalwarts will impress upon most new players to hit the 3rd shot as a 3rd shot drop (into the kitchen) – however faster more aggressive players don’t necessarily play to this format all be they are happy to use it at any time.
This means that if the opportunity arises from a poor return of serve (mid court as written above) to hit a low fast ball past a player then forget a 3rd shot drop. Again, forget a 3rd shot drop if one of the opposition are still positioned deep (long) on the court.
While a player is long, keep them long. Subsequent returns from a player in this position have an increased probability of being less than perfect thus creating the opportunity to win the play on your return of that shot.
CAUTION: Beware of the “other player” poaching your return if this is ‘normal repetitive play’. Your new opportunity to return in this instance is down the sideline of the intending poacher and this will keep them ‘honest’ (hold their position because you have demonstrated that you are not frightened to slip one down the line if they creep over too much) very quickly.
Know what shot to hit, when to hit it and your skill to do so. The object is to get and keep the ball in play and take the opportunity to force or win a point at the ‘right time’. Do not set yourself up for a forced error.
• Hitting a hard fast ball that is either too low or too close to that net typically results in a ball that fails to clear the net or if it does lands too long and out of play.
• Hitting a ball that is waist high or higher to a player standing at the kitchen line is set up to result in a lost point.
• A lob from rear of court is low percentage and is set up to result in a lost point. Lobs by design and with perfect execution increase their winning possibility when made closer to the net.
• Treat placement of shots as important as how hard you hit it. A soft ‘placed shot’ out of reach of a player beats a hard shot within reach of a player every day of the week.
Winning shot set-up - (If you play pickleball to win)
NOT EVERY SHOT SHOULD BE A WINNING SHOT. The 'play pickleball' game plan is a strategy and often patient game – not every shot can be won or needs to be won.
It means that getting the ball back takes precedence to winning the point on any many occasions.
Certainly make the return as difficult as possible for the opposition, with the notion of setting the point up to get a return of play that makes it easier for you to make a winning shot. You need a think ahead strategy to win a point which might be 2 or 3 or even 4 hits into the future.
Doubles play is Team Play
Doubles play is just that. Doubles is not singles, it is doubles. This means that two people work as a TEAM to win a point. There is no my side or your side in a competent communicating doubles game. Poaching which can be a very effective point winner would be made redundant playing this rule.
There is also no rule to say that all shots to the forehand side player should be taken by this player. The attack and or surprise from a competent back hand player is made redundant if this rule is played.
When you play pickleball to win, the most appropriately placed player to take the shot SHOULD TAKE THE SHOT if they feel they can make it period. Again, doubles play involves two players trying to win the same point – it is not a doubles game being played singularly.
Communication is a must as is partner unison and court coverage and backing up of each other. Strategy discussion is also a good point winner.
LEAVE IT - judgment
Sometimes you don't have to technically 'play pickleball' when you play pickleball. - Understand or be aware of the flight of the ball in relation to your position on the court and court line.
Points can be won and points can
Don’t hit a losing ball that is on its way out of court in an attempt to win the point. It is OK not to hit a ball and in most instances it is preferable not to hit a ball that is judged line-ball and above to be going out.
A hard hit ball that is hit from below the net is tempting to hit when playing at the kitchen line on the other side but winning the point is better with a ‘Leave it’ call; so too is any ball hit when the trajectory suggests it will land outside of play.
Yes you will lose some points on any leave it call but always be aware of where you are on the court and the flight of the ball so that you can make that ‘Leave it’ judgment .
Passive / Aggressive
There is time to be passive in play and time to be aggressive in play and it should be dependent on court playing variables, (too many to mention here). Passive play means to play percentage shots and hope for the opposition to lose the point. Aggressive play means to play with an aim to win a point without committing an unforced error.
Attacking / Defensive
There is time to be attacking in play and time to be defensive in play and it should be dependent on court playing variables (too many to mention here). Attacking play is play that can result from a strategy that purposely sets you up to win.
Defensive play is play that you are forced into because the opposition has by plan or default set themselves up to win a point by placing a ball that applies a significant degree of difficulty for you to ideally return it.
Volley the ball
Volley the ball whenever you are in a position to do so. This cuts out precious time for an opponent to set up for an ideal return. A great time to exercise this in particular is when a staid player of pickleball continues to play the 3rd shop drop and their return sees the ball hit just a bit too long and high. Exploit their poor return by volleying the ball.
There is no sorry in pickleball when you Play Pickleball
Being hit by a hard hit pickleball will not kill anyone. It may make a temporary pickleball tattoo at worst but that’s it.
So if you think hitting a ball directly at a player increases your chance to win a point then do it.
A low hard ball or a softer hit neck high ball is difficult to return and it is a valid, legit and legal shot. Use it when appropriate and be unapologetic about it.