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Better pickleball, one step at a time

Progression is often said to be in small steps in almost all skills and sports. Pickleball is no different but often it can be about literally one single step. One of the most important things to understand when playing doubles is what your role is at any particular stage of a rally. The server has a role, the returner has a role but outside of that, there’s not a lot of definition within the language of the game as to what you must or should do. What’s the role of the non-returning player on the receiving team? The serving team player NOT hitting the third shot? They don’t even really have a name but if they understand the roles within the strategic intension of a rally, those players can get an advantage over less aware teams with just one step.

So let’s define a few things. The server’s role is to serve the ball and get play started. As in everything in pickleball, beyond that, what you are supposed to do can be defined by the phrase “it depends”. However, if we are talking about reasonably experienced players with good mobility, the strategic intension of the server is to keep the returner back as far as they can whilst forcing them to give the serving team the easiest shot to hit on return (third shot in rally).  The returner’s role is to return the ball into the court: again, typically as deep as possible to make the serving team’s next shot more difficult.  The player on the serving team that hits the third shot: get it in and ideally as unattackably as possible. So that’s the commonly discussed bit but beyond that it gets pretty fuzzy for most players.

Let’s think about the other person on the serving team when that third shot is being hit. What is that player trying to achieve whilst the ball is being hit? It does depend on the choice of the third shot but there are some fairly universal things to consider. You aren’t active in hitting the ball so you can move a little early. What you don’t want to do is blindly rush to the NVZ, irrespective of your partner’s shot quality: this is a common lower level player error, built on the “get to the NVZ/kitchen as fast as you can” coaching advice.  Your partner gets it wrong, you are an unbalanced target charging into danger.  What you are trying to do strategically is potentially be a bit of a threat to the opposition by advancing, ready to pounce on a high ball. By doing this, you are also protecting your partner to a degree, as they are more likely to be attacked by the returners and they will have less time to get forward. You are the first line of defence and can protect some angles of attack with your movement, as your partner advances behind their shot.

My advice is to take one step forwards into the court as your partner hits their third shot: you want to be one step ahead of where they are hitting the ball from. If it’s a drop, you need to move a little more cautiously after the initial single step in. If it’s not looking good and the returners are looking to hit down on the ball, you haven’t overcommitted and you can take one step back, lower your base, paddle and ready position, ready to defend. By not moving too far, you are able to bail out easily. There’s nothing wrong with moving to the NVZ slowly and not overselling your move forward, especially if you’ve worked hard on your resetting and dropping skills. Look at Ben and Collin Johns from this link: if they see the benefit so should we.

If it’s a drive, you can read the quality of the drive and possibly charge in hard, ahead of your partner, looking to cook the bake part of the “shake and bake”. Alternatively, you can make a good progression towards mid court and look to drop a much easier fifth shot into the NVZ. You are simultaneously a threat and a protector: learning to read body/paddle position of your opponents can help decide where you sit in that spectrum at any stage in a rally. 

What about the initially most inactive player on the court of any rally: the non returning return side player? They are totally unable to hit a ball until the fourth shot of a rally, due to the rules. Are we able to define their role if they don’t even hit a ball? They absolutely can impact on the rally, even before they even hit the ball or ever hitting the ball.

If we revisit the concept of the threat and the protector, this player can simultaneously be both by taking one step sideways towards the middle of the court, timed around the point of contact on the third shot. If the serving team is attacking your weaker positioned returner coming in, being one step closer to “their” side might allow you to intercept the shot hit to your partner, possibly even for a putaway. By making this move around the time the serving team makes contact, you might be able to alter their shot choice, possibly creating an unforced error that you actually forced, just with movement. You need to be careful about “jamming the T” on wide hit cross court returns: this can expose your sideline to attack so a more central return strategy is often preferred. It reduces angles of attack and lets your net player impact more early in the rally. Remember on returns, if in doubt, high, deep and down the middle works almost every time.

You are also encouraging the opposition to attack cross court away from your advancing partner by teasing them with a little extra space behind you. You will almost certainly be able to cover that hole but they are then hitting this ball at the already established net player. There’s no longitudinal movement to worry about (you’re already at the NVZ) so it’s just a side step or two back to cover. This allows you to defend your advancing partner by reducing the intention to hit to them coming in, if a juicy “hole” appears. However, you are aware of the threat, ready to recover one step back or maybe two but you’ve already had a positive impact on the rally.

One of the most common things that comes up at my clinics is how to combat targeting: this is another topic where a one step strategy comes into play to stack the odds back in your team’s favour. Now that’s a piece of advice I share with my paid clients: if you are interested in learning more or working with me, reach out to me via email or social media 

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