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.

Frequently Asked Questions

How does doubles play differ from singles in pickleball?

Doubles (two players against two players) and singles (one player against one player) pickleball are similar but can feel like completely different games. Two of the main differences are strategy on the court and serving sequencing.

As a single player, you are responsible for the entirety of your half of the court. A doubles player shares the responsibility with their partner. This means that singles players need to be ready to move around much more to cover the whole area, while doubles players will need to rely on teamwork and communication between players.

The serving sequencing for doubles and singles is another big difference. For singles, after a player faults on a ball that they served, the serve goes to the other player. In doubles, the two players on one team get an opportunity to serve before serving goes to the other side. This is why in scoring, singles will just have a number for each side (such as 0-0 to start), but doubles has three numbers (such as 0-0-2). The last number indicates which player is serving.

The only exception to this rule of both players serving before the other team serves is on the first serve, where the second player is the only one to serve before the other team then serves with both players (to mitigate some of the advantage of serving first).

How can I improve my pickleball game?

As with many things in life, practice, practice, practice. You can improve your skills by taking a class (your local recreation center may offer one), joining a beginner’s pickleball league, playing with people who are better than you, and studying new tips or techniques and practicing them.

You may also improve your pickleball game if you increase your overall fitness, so incorporating other cardiovascular exercises into your weekly routine can help you be your best self.

To improve your footwork, try jumping rope, doing ladder drills, and investing in good shoes.

The more you play, the more you’ll learn.

How do you perform a dink shot in pickleball?

A dink shot is a short hit that lands in the kitchen of your opponent. These are helpful to master since they can be difficult to return and can neutralize a ball when your opponent is relying on powerful, hard hits.

To perform a dink shot, you will want to start with your knees bent and the paddle in front of you. You will swing from your shoulder with your wrist and elbow firm. Hold the paddle steady while you make contact with the ball and follow through.

You can aim for the kitchen directly across from you, or you can hit it diagonally across the court.

What is stacking in pickleball?

Stacking is when two players are on the same side of the court for a serve or a return to allow them to easily get into positions that highlight their strengths after the initial serve is complete.

If players have preferred sides (due to a combination of right-handed and left-handed players, weaknesses, or strengths), they can gravitate toward those sides once the ball is in play. But servers and receivers must follow the pattern outlined in the game, so a certain player can’t stay on one side indefinitely.

Because of this, some doubles teams choose to stack. On a serving team, this would look like the server and the non-serving player both standing on the side of the court where the serve needs to originate and then the server moving to the opposite side after hitting the ball. This will leave the two players on their preferred sides. Since the serving team will switch sides as long as they continue to earn points, they will only need to stack every other serve to end up on their favorite sides.

When they are receiving the ball, a team should be in the position where the right court is occupied by server two if the score is even and server one if the score is odd. If that is not your preferred side, you and your partner may consider stacking by having the non-returning player on the side of the court where the returning player will hit the ball from. After hitting the ball, the player who returned will move over to the other side of the court. Because players on the receiving team don’t alternate between points, if they are in their nonpreferred positions, they will need to stack each point.

An alternative to stacking is to simply switch sides while the ball is in play.

The hard part about stacking is keeping track of who needs to receive or serve at the correct time, because doing either one incorrectly will result in a fault.

How important is footwork in pickleball?

Proper footwork can help you win the game. It can help you get to the ball on time to make an effective shot. You will also be able to be more efficient and conserve energy by using proper footwork.

If you want to improve your footwork, you could do some of these drills:

  • Cones: Set up cones so you have to zig-zag through them across the court. Shuffle sideways.
  • Ladder: Lay a ladder flat on the ground or mark out the spaces a ladder would make with sidewalk chalk. Move through the spots while using quick steps.
  • Ghost ball: Play out a point, but without the ball. Start in the ready position where you would normally begin, and then shuffle around the court in places you typically move to during a rally. With no ball in play, you can really focus on shuffling and making efficient steps.
  • Jump rope: If you need to increase your stamina, speed, and coordination, a jump rope is a great tool to help.