Chapter 5

Pickleball Strategy

The Dirty Dozen: 12 Pickleball Strategies for Beginners

You’ve figured out the rules, how to keep score in pickleball, and when you must let the ball bounce. Once you’ve moved beyond these pickleball basics, it’s time to become more strategic. Rather than just focusing on getting the ball over the pickleball net, you can consider what shots to hit and where to place them in your opponent’s court to gain an advantage. Here are 12 pickleball strategies for bringing your game to the next level:

1. Serve Deep

Strategy starts with the first hit of a point. Aim for powerful serves that land toward the back of the service box. Because pickleball rules require a serve to bounce, a deep serve forces the returning player back toward or even beyond the baseline. That gives you time to prepare for the return.

2. Return Deep

For all the same reasons you want to hit deep serves, you also want to hit deep service return shots. An arcing, high shot prevents your opponent from moving toward the net. It may also force them to hit a higher return ball, which you can take advantage of on your return.

3. No Cooks in the Kitchen

The Kitchen, a slang term for the non-volley zone (NVZ), is dangerous ground. It’s prime scoring territory for your opponents. If you hit deep, powerful shots, you can keep them away from the net and out of the Kitchen. When possible, force players back, deeper into their court.

If they do move forward, consider a lob shot that goes over their head, driving them into the backcourt. Just ensure the lob will go over them so you don’t set them up for an overhand smash back at you.

4. Less Lobbing

A lob is a high, relatively slow shot. You can use lobs effectively, particularly when you hit them to land behind an opponent at or near the pickleball net. When your opponent has to reach a ball behind them, it disrupts their rhythm and forces them back from the net.

Lobs also work well when you feel off-balance or that a rally’s pace is too quick. These slower shots allow you time to reset or change your placement on the court while they travel slowly over the net.

While there are good uses for lobs, you should use them sparingly. They come with risk because their slowness gives your opponent time to prepare for the return swing. That can lead to quick, aggressive returns that will be difficult for you to reach.

5. Dividing Dink

Dinking is a soft shot hit from your NVZ, aiming to barely clear the net and have it land in the opposite NVZ. Placing your dink between your opponents can create confusion. If both players move toward the ball, you will expose unprotected areas on their sides.

6. Attack Dinks

It can be tempting to let dink shots bounce before you return them. As your skills develop, consider attacking dinks and volleying instead. A dink volley disrupts the other side’s timing and forces them to make a return without time to prepare.

7. Target the Feet

If you hit your shots toward your opponent’s feet, you force them to use quick, unplanned footwork to move out of the way and be able to return the ball. That leaves them out of position for an ideal return.

If they can successfully shuffle to a position that allows them to return the ball, they will likely have to use an underhand stroke, scooping the ball out of the air on its way down. In many cases, that leads to a high, floating shot, which gives you time to set up for an aggressive return.

8. Lay Low

When in doubt, keep your shots low. High balls give your opponent more time to reset, prepare, or maneuver into position. You want the other player to be reacting rather than planning. Quick, low shots force them to do that. Lower balls also tend to result in high, defensive return shots, which allow you to make big plays.

9. Shrink your Stroke

A quick, compact stroke allows you to spend less energy on your shot and react to fast plays with control and power. Pickleball paddles don’t require the full backswing and follow-through you see in tennis. Keep your swings smaller, tighter, and controlled. Imagine you are pushing the ball instead of smacking it.

10. Have Patience

Pickleball strategy for beginners is often just “try to hit the ball back and not break any rules.” Once you move beyond that, you will find unforced errors are uncommon among skilled players. During a rally, you need patience as you await opportunities to force your opponents out of position or hit shots that leave them vulnerable on your next return.

Focus on moving the other players around their court and wait for an opportunity to present itself. That patience will pay off when you hit a point-winning shot.

11. Attached at the Hip

The best pickleball strategy for doubles play is to move with your partner. Maintain consistent spacing. Be aware of where your partner is moving. Respond with your own movement so you fill any gaps left as they shift to reach a shot. Staying equally spaced and moving together prevents you from exposing openings your opponent will take advantage of.

12. Third Shot: Backhand Drop

A backhand drop can be a great strategy on the third shot of a point. A drop shot is a ball hit from deep in your court, near the baseline. Because you hit it softly, it “drops” into the opponent’s court, bouncing in their NVZ. That prevents them from attacking the ball and gives you time to move toward your non-volley zone.

If possible, aim your drop shot at your opponent’s backhand side, which makes your short even more challenging to return.

If you are just beginning to explore pickleball strategy, pick just a few of these tips to add to your game, adding more as your comfort level and ball control increase. If you are a seasoned player looking to elevate your game or impress your doubles partner, integrating the full dozen into your play should have you reaching that winning score of 11 more quickly and with more finesse.