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7 pickleball mistakes beginners make that are holding you back

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Better Pickleball

Published on: Jun 3, 2024

Max Ade about to hit a ball during a game of pickleball

New to pickleball? If you're a beginner, it's easy to feel overwhelmed by the many YouTube videos and player tips telling you how to get better at pickleball. Although their advice is usually well-meaning, it can sometimes be incorrect or just not right for your skill level.

This happens quite a bit, but don't worry. As full-time coaches with over ten years of playing experience, Tony and I have learned a thing or two to help shorten your learning curve. In this article, I'm going to share seven actionable tips that you can use to get started right in pickleball.

These tips can save you plenty of time and headaches, especially if you're only just learning how to play pickleball. By getting it right from the start, you'll have a solid foundation for success and avoid having to unlearn bad habits later on.

Pickleball mistakes that are holding you back

Here are the seven main beginner mistakes and how to correct them. Once you've read through them all, why not put them into practice with a few pickleball lessons?

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Improper grip

One of the most fundamental aspects of pickleball is maintaining a proper grip on your paddle. An incorrect grip can limit your control, power, and overall shot execution. Despite this, most players don't give their grip a second thought.

Brandon Mackie demonstrating a grip on the JOOLA Ben Johns Perseus 3 pickleball paddle
Brandon Mackie demonstrating a grip on the JOOLA Ben Johns Perseus 3 pickleball paddle

As a PGA Golf professional, I know just how important a proper grip is. While you may see some interesting golf swings on the tour, you won't see improper grips. Your grip is your only connection to the golf club, so getting it wrong can have a huge effect on your game. The same goes for pickleball.

One common mistake I see among new players is they'll grip the paddle too far into the palm of their hand. This grip limits maneuverability and makes it challenging to generate power or finesse your shots.

Solution - the continental grip

To rectify this mistake, try the continental grip. To find it, imagine you're going to shake someone's hand: extend your paddle hand and slide your paddle into your hand. The V shape formed by your thumb and index finger should rest on the top bevel of the paddle handle.

This positioning provides greater control over the paddle, facilitates a wider range of shots, and allows for easy transitions from forehand to backhand.

If you come from another racket sport, such as tennis, you can start with the grip you use in that sport. Just be aware that this grip might make certain shots in pickleball more difficult, and you may need to modify it later.

Brandon Mackie demonstrating a continental grip with a pickleball paddle
Brandon Mackie demonstrating a continental grip with a pickleball paddle

Poor ready position

Think about a sport that you've either played or watched. Before a player begins to move, the athlete positions themselves so that they can react to what's coming their way.

In pickleball, the "ready position" gives you the best chance to move effectively and react quickly. If you're ready to move in any direction, you can better anticipate your opponent's shots. Instead, I see many beginners standing tall with little knee bend, flat-footed, and with their paddle held by their side.

This type of stance puts you at a disadvantage. Standing flat-footed restricts your movement and can slow your reaction time. It's like trying to run a marathon in flip-flops: you're just slowing yourself down. Then, if your paddle is at your side, you'll waste valuable seconds raising it to a position where it can hit the ball.

Solution - athletic ready position

Here's how to establish a strong, ready position:

Make your stance a little wider than shoulder-width, flex your knees, and feel your weight on the balls of your feet. For the paddle, extend your arm in front of your body with your elbow in front of your body and the paddle in front of your midsection.

Player preparing to return a serve in a game of pickleball
Player preparing to return a serve in a game of pickleball

Faulty footwork

Tony and I always say we'd rather partner with players who have great footwork but flawed strokes than those with great strokes but flawed footwork. That's how important your footwork is.

Being in the right spot at the right time to hit the ball is dependent on your feet. Proper footwork is a learned skill that allows you to move efficiently around the court and improves your reaction time.

One of the most common footwork mistakes I see is players "running through the shot". The ball lands ahead of the player, and as they move to hit it, they continue moving forward during their stroke. This extra motion generates additional energy that often sends the ball flying out of bounds.

Pickleheads co-founders Max Ade and Brandon Mackie returning a shot in the middle of a pickleball game
Max Ade and Brandon Mackie returning a shot in the middle of a pickleball game

Solution - the split step

The best way to control your body and the energy it generates is to learn to use a "split step". This subtle move involves stopping your motion by hopping or stepping onto the balls of your feet. You then land in a position similar to your ready position.

This puts you in a balanced stance, ready to move in any direction to return your opponent's shot. A great way to practice the split step is to run from the baseline toward the non-volley zone (NVZ) line. Then, when you are halfway or mid-court, perform a split step.

Inconsistent control

Maintaining control over the ball is an essential skill, but it's one that many players struggle with. This is often due to an overly long paddle swing, which can add unwanted energy to the ball and cause it to fly higher and further than intended.

This is often the source of the dreaded "pop-up", where the ball bounces too high off the paddle face, making it easier for your opponent to smash the ball. I bet you've done this once or twice!

Solution - shorten your swing for consistency

To best control your shots, make contact with the ball when it's positioned in front of you. Any swing where you're behind the position of the ball is considered a backswing.

You should also make sure you can see your paddle in your peripheral vision. If you lose sight of the paddle, it has likely gotten behind your body, and the backswing will be too large.

Brandon Mackie swinging to hit a ball in pickleball
Brandon Mackie swinging to hit a ball in pickleball

Doing too much too soon

A good pickleball game is built on layers of practice. Take spin for example. Some players can easily spin the ball, but this can be both intriguing and baffling to new players. They may even (wrongly) believe that mastering spin is essential for success.

However, what you first need to consider is whether you have the foundational skills necessary to start mastering spin while maintaining consistency in the rest of your game. Before adding spin to a shot, first ensure you have a consistent swing and solid footwork. Once you have these skills, you can start experimenting with spin.

Solution - focus on the fundamentals first

While advanced techniques like spin may seem appealing, it is far more beneficial to concentrate on mastering the core elements of the game first. This includes developing a solid grip, proper footwork, and consistent strokes.

By solidifying these foundational skills, you'll build a strong skill base to start introducing more complex techniques later on. By focusing on the basics, you'll not only improve your current game but also prepare yourself for advanced play in the future.

Being afraid of the non-volley zone (NVZ)

At some point during your pickleball journey, has someone told you to stay out of the kitchen? The non-volley zone (or "the kitchen") is the source of many misconceptions.

Some players find it intimidating and hang back closer to the baseline. This puts them at a disadvantage, though. When you're further away from the NVZ, it becomes harder to make effective shots and respond to your opponent's volleys.

Here's a quick overview of how the NVZ works:


Solution - embrace the kitchen

Learning to use the NVZ is a game-changer. However, I want to point out that your strategy should change depending on whether you are the serving team or the returning team.

If you're on the returning team, you can move confidently to the NVZ as soon as you've returned the serve. This way, you can take advantage of the forward position. Otherwise, if you stay closer to the baseline, you'll give the serving team your positional advantage.

Just a word of caution: this strategy does not apply to the serving team. Here, you need to be more methodical as you move to the NVZ. This is because of what's called the "double bounce rule". Learn more about it here:


Challenging the net

Do you know who the best player is in pickleball today? It's the same as it was yesterday and as it will be tomorrow. It's the net.

No one beats the net. If you hit a ball into the net, you lose. However, beginners often have this idea that the perfect shot is one that is low to the net. They're often so afraid of popping up a ball that they try to hit shots that continually skim the net, increasing the risk of hitting the net itself.

Solution - higher clearance over the net

Give yourself more clearance over the net. Sure, no one wants to give their opponents an easy chance to smash the ball. However, would you rather your opponents smash it back, giving you a chance to defend, or hit it into the net and end the rally?

I tell my students to imagine they're giving their opponents the chance to make a mistake. After all, we've all been on the receiving end of a pop-up floating above the net only to hit it into the net or far out of bounds.

Pickleheads co-founders Max Ade and Brandon Mackie returning a shot in the middle of a pickleball game
Max Ade and Brandon Mackie returning a shot in the middle of a pickleball game

Bottom line

While starting a new sport like pickleball as an adult can be a challenge, it's also incredibly rewarding. Many of us have never tackled a sport with this much enthusiasm, and the temptation to improve quickly is strong. However, improvement is a journey that requires patience and consistent effort.

Take this lesson from Steph Curry, arguably the greatest three-point shooter in NBA (National Basketball Association) history. Curry reportedly shoots 500 three-point shots each day. That's 3500 a week and countless more over his 15-year career. However, the reason he made it to the NBA was that he was practicing them long before he got there.

This just goes to show that proficiency in any sport is based on a number of factors, but it is ultimately a journey. Pickleball offers an opportunity for lifelong learning and improvement. So, remember to be kind to yourself and take your time. Every game is a chance to learn and have fun.

Tony and I look forward to supporting you as you build your skills, layer by layer, and share in the joy of your progress. So, embrace each moment on the court—not just for the victories but for the continuous personal growth and the pleasure of playing the game.


About the author
Better Pickleball
Better Pickleball was founded by pro coaches CJ Johnson and Tony Roig to help players unlock their full potential on and off the court.
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