Pickleball is easy to learn and play on your own, but competitive players are always looking for an edge. Once you've learned the basics, it's time to move on to more creative pickleball strategies and techniques.
So, how do you level up as a beginner in pickleball? How do you become a 5.0 pickleball player? Well, if you can build good habits from the beginning and develop your skills with some time-tested pickleball strategies, you'll be dominating the court in no time.
In this article, we'll discuss proven strategies to win more pickleball games, analyze why strategy wins over brawn in pickleball, and go over some common beginner pickleball mistakes to avoid. Let's get started.
Pickleball strategies to win your games
To win more pickleball games, you'll need a smart game plan, an effective bag of strategic tricks, and some basic knowledge of pickleball tactics. Use these strategy tips as a roadmap for your player development.
1. Lob less
Lobs are high, arcing shots. When you shoot a lob over and behind your opponents when they're near the net, it can disrupt your opponent's rhythm and make them move off of the Non-Volley Zone ("kitchen") line.
Defensively, lobs are useful because they give you time to move while the ball is in the air. However, lobs are also risky, since they can open you up to an aggressive return shot from your opponent. Mix it up with drives, drop shots, and dinks.
2. Hit a 3rd shot drop to your opponent's backhand
The third shot drop is a common pickleball strategy, and that's because it works. A drop shot is a shot from deep in the court, hit softly and high, aimed to bounce in the opponent's Non-Volley Zone.
Your opponent won't be able to attack it, and it will give you time to move forward to the NVZ line. For even better results, aim it toward your opponent's backhand.
3. Dink down between your opponents
A dink is a shot hit after the ball bounces in the Non-Volley Zone, intended to arc just above the net and land in the opponent's Non-Volley Zone. If you dink between your opponents, you'll keep the ball low, and they may both move toward the middle of the court, which can expose weaknesses on their sides.
4. Aim for your opponent's feet
Aiming at your opponent's feet has a few advantages. For one, a shot aimed at their feet forces opponents to employ some quick footwork while simultaneously returning the shot.
Secondly, if they do return the shot, they'll have to hit it with an underhand stroke, possibly popping it up high, which sets you up for an aggressive follow-up on your next shot.
5. Add depth to your serve
Try adding more power to your serve and aiming deep into your opponent's service court. A deep serve will keep your opponents further back in the court and force them to take longer to return it–giving you more time to get into position.
6. Keep opponents away from the kitchen line
The kitchen line is a prime scoring position. To keep your opponents away from the kitchen line, keep them on their toes further back in the court. Keep hitting to the player at the back and try to force them to move side to side.
If they get close to the line, you can always lob a shot over their head and behind them to force them back, but be careful not to set them up for an overhand smash!
7. Take more dinks out of the air
Beginning players often develop a habit of defaulting to letting dinks bounce before returning them, but you don't have to. Often, volleying a dink before it has a chance to land can turn the tide on your opponent and disrupt their timing.
8. Return the serve deeply
When returning serves, try high-arcing deep returns. A deep return makes it hard for your opponent to advance to the Non-Volley Zone line, which is what they'll typically want to do.
Keeping them further back in the court also forces them to play a higher ball, which is to your advantage.
9. Move together with your partner
In doubles pickleball, teamwork and coordination are key. Try to stay in sync with your partner, flowing together and maintaining a consistent distance apart. When you don't move together, weaknesses get exposed.
Imagine a scenario where your opponent moves towards the sideline, while you remain in place in the ready position—it leaves a gap between the two of you that your opponents can target.
10. Play low
Keep the ball low as often as you can. A shot that sails just over the net is harder to return, and it increases the likelihood of your opponent returning with a high, more defensive shot.
11. Aim behind your opponent
Getting the ball behind your opponent is always advantageous, as it forces them to move backward to get around the ball, which isn't always easy to do.
Using lobs, cross-court dinks, or a low shot to the backhand side are great ways to put the ball behind your opponent.
As always, the more difficult it is for your opponent to simply return the ball safely, the less control they'll have in terms of making that shot precise and strategic. They'll hit fewer high-percentage shots as a result.
12. Learn a compact stroke
Efficiency makes you quicker and more formidable on the court, and a compact stroke technique will help you spend less time and energy on your shot. In a compact stroke, you minimize both backswing and follow-through.
Try to think of your follow-through as "tossing" or "pushing" the ball rather than smacking it.
13. Be patient
Particularly as you rise in skill, you'll find that at its core, pickleball is a game about strategy and precision. Players won't lose rallies by making simple unforced errors often, and you'll have to outplay them with patience and technique.
Focus on controlling the momentum of a rally and getting into position, and try to keep your opponents moving.
Aim your shots toward different sides of your opponent and different areas of the court. Wait for a scoring opportunity to show itself, and then strike.
Why are strategies important in pickleball?
Strategies in pickleball are what make players truly competitive. At the end of the day, the game of pickleball is not about brute force.
Compared to a sport like tennis, the court is smaller, the ball moves more slowly, and games are mostly played in doubles–so there's much less ground to cover.
This makes tactics and shot placement much more important than simply being able to hit the ball hard or run fast.
That's not the only advantage of having good tactics and game sense. Playing strategically improves communication between teammates since you'll need to plan and execute your strategies cohesively.
This is especially true if you're utilizing more advanced strategies like poaching, shooting an Erne, etc.
That collaborative strategic process makes both teammates better players, and it forces you to think through different aspects of your gameplay. It also helps improve your bond with your teammate off the field.
Trying out different pickleball strategies is fun too. It keeps the game exciting and enriches the experience. Variety is the spice of life, they say, and that's also true in pickleball. Mixing up your shots keeps your opponents guessing, too.
Lastly, committing to perfecting specific strategies helps players improve certain skills. If you feel your drop shots are weak, for example, you can focus on strategies that make more frequent use of drop shots. In that way, you improve your skill and become a more well-rounded player.
Do pickleball strategies matter when you're a beginner?
Yes! If you want to play better pickleball, you have to play smarter pickleball.
Although beginning players will lose rallies more often by making unforced errors, winning strategies may be different for newer players than for experienced ones. Even so, strategy is still very much a part of the game.
Why pickleball strategy matters for beginners
Having a good sense of strategy is what will quickly help you take your pickleball game to the next level. People who have just learned the rules of pickleball or have only played a little will lose points by making simple mistakes.
However, outplaying your opponents with smart shot selection, strategic shot placement, and superior footwork are all key to outplaying your opponents.
3 pickleball strategies for beginners
If you're new to pickleball, here are a few strategies to initially focus on:
Keep your eye on the ball
This may sound simple, but beginners do often find themselves looking at all sorts of places—at the ground as they move, at their opponents' feet, etc. When you stay locked onto the pickleball, you can better track its path and where it's headed, and you'll miss fewer shots.
Set your feet when hitting
Having your feet set in place when you hit a shot increases your control and power. In general, you should be aware of your body's movement and positioning.
Move with control and steadiness, which will keep you from getting off balance and allow you to move to your next position more efficiently.
Paddle out front: hit the ball in front
It's usually best to keep the ball in front of you as this will help you control its trajectory.
In a frantic quest to make contact with the ball, beginner players will sometimes follow the ball with their arm and flick their wrist to return it, which eliminates all control.
Instead, focus on keeping the ball in front of you, your paddle in front of your body, and making contact with the ball in front of your body, too.
Train yourself to do this, and your game will instantly improve.
How to deal with bangers
In pickleball, a "banger" is someone who usually likes to hit the ball hard; trying to overpower opponents with powerful drives, and controlling the pace of the rally.
There are a few things you can do to counter a banger's strategy. Don't try to defend against hard shots with hard shots, for one. Instead, keep the ball low, which will make it harder for them to hit a high-percentage drive.
Secondly, block their shots and make bangers move. Hit to both their backhand and forehand side, and keep them moving around the pickleball court.
If you're playing doubles, make sure to move together with your partner and communicate well. If your movement becomes disjointed and creates large gaps in your coverage, the banger can slam a powerful drive right through that gap.
Be patient! With efficient movement, solid fundamentals, and smart pickleball instincts, you'll find an opportunity to win the rally.
On that note, bangers are a great reminder that powerful drives are useful! Some players focus so much on softer finesse techniques that they rarely hit powerful drives, and both kinds of shots should have their place in your pickleball arsenal.
Pickleball doubles strategy vs pickleball singles strategy
Strategies in doubles pickleball and singles pickleball vary, and much of the difference lies in the players' ability to cover the court. In doubles pickleball, players have much less territory to cover, so reaching the ball is less of a challenge. This affects a few core aspects of gameplay:
In singles pickleball, you might try to hit shots away from your opponent and keep them on the move. In doubles pickleball, players have an easier time reaching the ball, so this strategy is less effective.
Instead, doubles teams should focus on varying their shot selection, hitting them to different angles, and looking for opportunities to make shots that their opponents will have difficulty returning.
Keep in mind whether your opponent is left-handed or right-handed, and whether their forehand or backhand is weaker. If they don't like to hit on a particular side, you can send more shots in that direction.
In singles pickleball, it's important to hit big, deep serves toward the baseline. Deeper shots give you a little more time to move and react to the opponent's return-of-serve. When you're the serving team in doubles pickleball, you can afford to vary your shots and their placement more.
As with the initial serve, in singles pickleball, you'll usually want to hit a deep return shot. In doubles pickleball, you'll often benefit from hitting the return-of-serve shot between your two opponents to create confusion and disrupt their momentum.
In general, you'll find that hitting the ball up the middle is more effective in doubles than in singles. The opposite is also true: you'll win more rallies aiming for the sidelines and corners in singles than doubles.
Common mistakes beginner pickleball players make
There are certain beginner pickleball mistakes that are more common than others. Here are some we see often:
Staying in no-man's-land
In pickleball, the area between the kitchen line and the baseline is referred to as "no-man's-land." no-man's-land is too far from the net to reach dinks or aggressively volley near the NVZ line, but it's close enough that it makes hitting groundstrokes difficult.
Usually, you only want to be in no-man's-land when you're on your way to the kitchen or the baseline.
Hitting every shot hard
Don't hit every shot hard. Powerful drives are a useful tool, but they shouldn't be the only trick in your book. Always mix up your shots, and aim to outplay your opponent with strategic shot selections and varying paces.
Using an incompatible paddle
Your paddle should complement your style, the size of your hand, and your preferred weight. It should also feel comfortable and balanced in your hand.
There are all sorts of considerations that go into finding the perfect paddle, from the materials it's made of to the core thickness and the size of its sweet spot. That topic is better suited for a separate article, but do your research and find a paddle that's a good fit.
Playing your best pickleball is as much about mental skills as physical skills. Once you start thinking strategically about pickleball, the game's complexity really begins to show itself, and you'll have more fun—and win more games!
What do you think is the most important skill in pickleball? What tried-and-true strategies do you find yourself going back to again and again?