5 Keys to Playing Smart Pickleball

One of the reasons I love pickleball so much is that it’s a sport that virtually anybody can enjoy. It’s easy to learn and regardless of your age, level of fitness, or experience playing racquet sports, you can grab a paddle and start playing after only one lesson. But soon you’ll want to do more than simply hit the ball over the net and that’s the perfect time to build up your pickleball knowledge.
No matter where you are on your pickleball journey, understanding the fundamentals of optimal play is crucial to improving your game, and more importantly, having more fun on the court. I cover tons of things at my Bootcamps including something I call Smart Pickleball. It’s a group of skills and techniques that in my opinion, if you take them to heart, your level of play will increase significantly.

My Mantra

But I want to be clear, if you’re doing something that works for you, keep doing it. There’s no reason to change something that you’re happy with just because I or any other coach says so. These are skills that you can add to your arsenal, not replace what you’re doing successfully.
Sound good? Great! Let’s dig into a few Smart Pickleball tips.

Paddle Up

I’ve said it thousands of times, most points are won at the kitchen line and you control play at the net, you control the point. Great, but how do you do that? Well, the first place to start is with your paddle, or rather the position it’s in when you hit the ball. In order to be ready to handle any shot that comes at you, your paddle needs to be pointing in the right direction – at 10:00 or 2:00 depending if you’re right- or left-handed. When your paddle’s up you’re ready to block drives, hit punch volleys or smack attackable balls. If your paddle is held low, you’ll be more likely to hit the ball into the net or leave it up for an easy put-away. There are not many guarantees in life, but one of them is that you’ll see a major improvement in your game simply by keeping your paddle up and being ready for whatever shot is hit your way.

The Deep End Part 1

If most points are won at the NVZ, then it makes sense to keep your opponents away from the party line. When you’re serving, one of your opponents is already at the NVZ, so the best way to keep their partner from joining them is to force them to stay back to hit their shot. And that means hitting a deep serve. When you hit a short serve, you’re actually inviting your opponent into the court and putting them on the fast track to the NVZ. Now I can already hear you, “But, Prem, I have a killer short, angled serve that just clears the net.” And my response will always be, “That’s great! Continue using it, but not every time.” Serve it up once in a while to surprise your opponent but don’t rely on it as your primary serve. What happens if you don’t hit it perfectly? Your opponent will attack that short serve and be at the NVZ in no time. Remember, a deep serve will never hurt you.

The Deep End Part 2

Switching to the other side of the net, when you’re receiving serve, the most optimal shot is to hit your return deep. Again, we want to keep our opponents away from the party line, and a deep return forces the serving team to wait for the ball to bounce – because of the two-bounce rule – to hit a good shot. A deep, soft return is ideal to give you time to get to the party line and it forces your opponent to generate all the ball speed.

Dropping It

It’s time to talk about the drop shot. And before you ask, no, it’s not just the third-shot drop. To be clear, a drop shot is a ball that falls into the kitchen and is only used when your opponents are at the kitchen line. Remember, if your opponents are back, keep them back. And a drop shot can be hit anytime: on your third shot, fifth shot, or ninth, etc. depending on how the point is playing out. Regardless of when you decide to hit a drop shot, try to practice enough so you can hit them consistently from anywhere on the court. For more information on How to Drop, please see my Drop Shot Master Class.

Smart Progress to the Kitchen

Many people come to pickleball from tennis thinking that they are basically the same thing. But pickleball and tennis are different sports with different strategies. Unlike tennis, I’ve never seen any team win at pickleball solely by staying at the baseline. You might get a couple of points from your opponent’s unforced errors, but as strategy goes, points are won at the NVZ. The reason is pretty simple. When you’re closer to your opponents you see the court better and have more space to hit into their side of the court. But how you get to the kitchen is critical. Many of you are told to rush to the NVZ ASAP. This can be true but it depends on a couple of things. Did you hit a deep serve or a deep return? How’s your foot speed? If you’re serving, is your partner moving to the NVZ or hanging back?
You definitely want to move to the kitchen, but only when the timing is right. You don’t want to get stuck in no person’s land and have balls drilled at your feet. And you don’t want to race to the kitchen and run past the ball. The smart play is to make steady progress to the kitchen line. If you hit a bad shot, do your split step and get ready to hit your next one. Then move closer and repeat until you’re at the line.
I hope you keep these Smart Pickleball tips in mind next time you step out onto the court. I’d also love to hear from you. What are some of your go-to shots or techniques that help you play better pickleball? And if you want to learn more about playing Smart Pickleball or our popular Bootcamps and clinics, check out www.thepickleballguru.com,
Go have fun at the Pickleball Court and remember . . . it is only Pickleball!

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