Pickleball Poaching: What to Do When Your Partner’s Getting ALL The Balls

Pickleball Poaching: If you’ve been playing pickleball for any length of time and you play against people who are determined to win, you’ve probably been in the situation where the only time you get to hit the ball is on the serve or return of serve because your opponents hit every other shot to your partner (presumably the weaker player).
At the recreational level, it’s just plain annoying when this happens, because it’s like a game of 2-on-1 and you spend most of your time on the court watching the ball go by. (To get some empathy for other annoying things people do on the court, and to make sure you’re not one of them, check out my article called How to Graciously Get to Play with Better Players (a.k.a. How to Make Sure You’re NOT That Person Everyone Hates Playing With.)

Why It’s a Good Strategy to Hit to One Person

At the tournament level, targeting one person is a common (and usually very effective) strategy for all doubles events, and is ESPECIALLY seen at the higher levels of mixed doubles, where the female is (generally correctly) presumed to be the weaker player (if only due to strength & power differences).
At lower levels of mixed doubles, it can be a mixed bag and, due to the fact that success in this game we love is very much a matter of patience & finesse, it’s not safe to always assume that the woman is necessarily the weaker player.

In men’s or women’s doubles, it’s a good idea to identify and target the weaker player. If you’re not sure who is weaker or they seem to be at about the same level, just pick one person for a few points and if it isn’t effective, try hitting to the other one.
In addition to keeping the ball away from the stronger player, targeting one person increases the likelihood they will make an error because that person may not have time to get ready between shots and it can be intimidating when they feel like all the pressure is on them. Plus, when you and your partner can anticipate which side of the court you’re both hitting to, it makes it easier to make sure that you are covering the line or the middle at the appropriate time.

What to Do When Your Partner’s the One They Are Targeting

My main focus for this article is in response to a reader who asked last month for some tips on pickleball poaching. In case you’re not familiar with the term, poaching is what happens when one person moves out of position to take shots that would otherwise be their partner’s shot to play. It’s what you might consider doing when your partner’s the one they are targeting.
The main reasons to poach are in the hopes of:

5 Tips for Pickleball Poaching
1. Ask Your Partner’s Permission First

This should be a no-brainer, but unfortunately it’s not. If you’re playing recreationally, asking is just the courteous thing to do. You could say, “Hey, do you mind if I take some of your balls if I can get them?” Some people will say, “Heck, No, Please! Go ahead and help me!” Others, will give you an icy glare followed by a, “Thanks, but I’d like to get my own balls.” (Imagine the scorn, the eye-rolls, and the complaining after the game if you hadn’t asked!) In a recreational game, if your partner feels strongly about not wanting you to poach, respect that and refer back to my article How to Graciously Get to Play With Better Players article for ideas on what to do in the meantime. Or, you may decide to try to avoid playing with them again in the future. In tournament play, it is even more important to ask your partner if they mind if you poach so that you foster feelings of really being on the same team (and decrease the likelihood of building dissension). If you poach without asking and (heaven forbid) you miss the shot, you will likely hear a sigh of frustration and a mumbled, “I would have had that shot!” (And, if that happens, and your partner happens to be your SPOUSE, I really wish you the grace of God!) 😉
But once you have permission to poach, it’s more likely that, even if you miss a shot, your partner will perceive it as you trying to back them up rather than you trying to steal their shot.

2. Poach When Your Opponents Are Being Predictable & Don’t Be Predictable When You Poach

If your opponents haven’t established a set pattern, don’t try poaching because chances are it will only move you out of position & they will easily take advantage of the empty court you leave behind you. (This is there reason you see less poaching in the higher men’s & women’s doubles, because players are looking for that opening and ready to take advantage of it.) It’s even worse if you’re predictably poaching because then your opponents are just waiting for the open court.
Instead, wait until there are several points where they have consistently hit to your partner, look for the pattern, and poach only when you are pretty confident that you know where the ball is going before your opponent even hits it.

3. Only Try to Poach When Your Forehand is In the Middle

Not only is the forehand the stronger shot for most players, it also allows you the greatest reach without moving too far out of positions. So if you’re a righty, focus on poaching when you are on the odd (left) side of the court, and if you’re a left, poach when you’re on the even (right) side of the court.

4. Have Your Partner Hit Toward the Middle

When your partner gets in a tight cross-court dinking rally or a head-to-head volley you can’t do much more than just stand back and watch. Instead, ask your partner to hit balls toward the middle. This cuts off the angles your opponents can play and makes it easier for you to step in and take a ball, hopefully catching your opponents by surprise or at the very least giving your partner a few extra seconds to regroup and prepare for the next shot. This is a very important time to call the ball. (For more on calling the ball, read my article, When It’s OK to Talk Like a Top Player Even if You Don’t Play Like One.)

5. Get a Better Partner

And I mean this in the nicest way possible. (If it was even possible to say something like that nicely….) Recreationally, if you just want to have a fun, competitive match, find someone at about your same level and the game will be much better.
If you really want to improve your game, find a partner who is better than you so that you are considered the weaker player and receive most of the balls. This will go so much further toward improving your game than learning how to poach better.
Questions? Comments? Think I missed anything? Please leave your comments in the box below!

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