stackinYou may have heard of “stacking” in reference to doubles pickleball, but if you’ve never encountered it, you probably have a lot of questions. Some of the most common ones we see include:
- What is stacking in pickleball?
- How does pickleball stacking work?
- Is stacking legal in pickleball?
- When should pickleball players stack?
- When shouldn’t pickleball players stack?
Stacking may seem complicated at first, but by the end of this article you’ll understand how, with a little practice, you can bring a whole new dimension to your next pickleball game.
What is stacking in pickleball?
Stacking is just a different way for a doubles team to line up on the court. It’s a pickleball strategy that allows players to play on the same side of the court throughout the game, according to their strengths. However, you must abide by the rules of serving and receiving.
Traditionally, in doubles pickleball, teammates are positioned on each side of the centerline. The serving team stands behind the baseline, and the receiving team is split with one back at the baseline to receive the serve, and the other up at the non-volley zone (NVZ) line.
Each player has an “even side”, and an “odd side” of the court. Regardless of whether you are serving or receiving first, whichever side you start the game on is your even side.
Your even side will be opposite your partner’s even side, and the score will always be even when you are on that side of the court. When your team scores a point, you'll switch places over to your odd side.
You'll also hear the right side generally referred to as the "even side", and the left as the "odd side" (when we say odd and even, we mean from the first server's perspective). That's because the player that started the serve stands on the right side if their score is even, and the left side if the score is odd.
When a team is stacking, they usually start on the same side of the court. Then after the ball is served, one or both players shift to the other side of the court.
How does stacking work?
When stacking, instead of each teammate standing on one side of the centerline, players rearrange themselves so they can move to the side of the court they prefer – either to play to their own strengths, or to take advantage of an opponent's weakness.
The rules and tactics of stacking will change depending on whether you are serving the ball or receiving it - keep reading for more details on stacking on the serve and stacking on the return.
In short, players will line up on the same side of the court with the non-serving/non-receiving player waiting beside them, often by the sideline. Once the serve/return is made, they'll each move into their desired play positions.
To better visualize stacking, check out this tutorial from Briones Pickleball:
Stacking on the serve
When stacking on the serve, usually you begin the game in your traditional positions, with the server starting on the right-hand (even) side of the court. The non-serving partner would position themselves to the right of the server, so as to not impede the serve, while still obeying the rules of serving and receiving.
After a point is scored, the first server has to move to the left-hand (odd) side. When they do, their teammate will simply stand to their left, instead of crossing over to the right-hand side of the court. That way, when play begins, both players can just slide to the right and return to their preferred positions.
Stacking when returning a serve
Typically, when you're receiving the serve, you'll stay positioned near the baseline, and your partner will stand at the edge of the Non-Volley Zone. With stacking there's a twist, and instead, they'll wait out of bounds beyond the right-hand sideline!
The moment you return the serve, both you and your partner will slide to the left. Your partner will already be at the Non-Volley Zone line (which is an advantage), and you'll have to take a few extra steps from the right-hand baseline to the left-hand NVZ line.
This same pickleball stacking strategy works with the positions flipped. So if your partner is receiving the serve from the left-hand court, you'd stand at the Non-Volley Zone line out of bounds on the left side.
When they make contact with the ball, you'll shift right, and they'll move from the left-hand baseline to the right-hand Kitchen line.
Switching and stacking
It's common to see "switching" and "stacking" used in the same context, but they are very different things. Traditionally, switching takes place on the return of serve, and involves the non-receiver switching over to the other side of the court while the receiver takes their place at the NVZ line on the left-hand side.
One of the major advantages of switching is that, as the non-receiver slides sideways to the opposite court, they are able to cover the middle of the court while their partner is moving into place.
Communication between partners is very important, especially if your strategy is not to switch every time - you don't want to accidentally run into your partner!
However, switching can also be used more broadly to reflect a coordinated changing of sides by both players during play – often to disrupt opponents' strategies or to position yourselves more favorably.
When combining switching and stacking, players can use stacking as a way of speeding up a switch, having a player positioned on their preferred side while a serve is made.
In this instance, the server would move, unimpeded, to the opposing side of the court with minimal communication or coordination that could be intercepted by the opponents.
Pickleball stacking hand signals
It's a common pickleball stacking strategy to implement a system of hand signals for clear and discrete communication. The player at the Non-Volley Line will usually make the signal behind their back, so that the other team can't see.
- An open hand means switch
- A closed fist means stay
Some teams will also make the smart move of having a signal for a fake stack/switch as a way of confusing their opponents and creating scoring opportunities.
Is stacking legal in pickleball
Stacking is perfectly legal in pickleball. For each point, a specific player must serve from a particular service court, and a specific player must return that serve from the opposing court. Other than that, there's little restriction.
According to rule 4.B.7. in the 2023 USA Pickleball Official Rulebook:
"In doubles, with the exception of the server (see 4.A.4) there is no restriction on the position of any player, as long as all players are on their respective team’s side of the net. They can be positioned on or off the court."
While 2023 brought some changes to the pickleball service rules, such as the ban on pre-spun serves, it hasn't affected stacking or switching.
Does handedness matter in stacking?
Handedness absolutely matters in stacking. In fact, a teammate being left-handed is one of the most common reasons for stacking – since it allows both players' forehands to face towards the center of the court.
Half stacking vs full stacking
Since it's more complicated to stack when you're on the receiving team, some players prefer to stack only when they're serving. So, stacking only when you're serving – thus, half the time – is called "half stacking".
When to stack
Understanding the logistics of stacking is one thing, but knowing when to stack is far more valuable. Here are some of the best times to stack in pickleball:
- Keeping both forehands in the middle – perfect for when one teammate is left-handed and the other is right-handed.
- Complementing your strengths and weaknesses – such as empowering a stronger forehand while mitigating a weaker backhand in the center.
- Maintaining momentum – letting you exploit opponents who are struggling to adapt to your movement on the court.
- Destabilizing your opponents – mixing things up when your opponents have the momentum can help you reclaim the upper-hand.
When fully understood and properly utilized, stacking is another powerful weapon to add to your arsenal.
When Not To Stack
While stacking can be an excellent strategy, it can have its downsides, too. You shouldn't do it all the time or just stack for the sake of stacking. In fact, there are plenty of examples where stacking can do more harm than good:
- Inviting opponents to exploit a weakness – if one teammate is right-handed and really struggles with their backhand, you don't want to stack in a way that puts their backhand in the center.
- Negating a player's strength – if you force a player with a much stronger forehand shot onto the side where they'll have to play their backhand, you're limiting that player.
- Putting both players' backhands in the middle – unless that's their stronger asset, you risk limiting the reach of both players and giving yourselves a disadvantage.
- If stacking causes you to make more errors – stacking is an advanced concept, and if you need to develop your fundamentals. Practice until you can stack without thinking!
Other things to remember when stacking
Here are a few extra tips and tricks to help you excel at stacking:
Create time and space for your team to move
You'll need to return the serve in a way that ensures you have enough time to execute the switch without consequence. Hit your service returns deep with less pace and a little arc.
If you can, hit your return to the opponent directly across from you, instead of back cross-court to the server who is in line with the court you are moving to. It'll give you a few more seconds to get into position since that player is slightly further away.
Be aware of the gaps
Think about any empty space/coverage that your opponents could exploit while you're moving. Players with a strong drive can zip a hard shot into any unguarded space that may open as the stacking team moves.
Remember the score
Keeping track of the score will help you remain 3 steps ahead of your opponents, and better plan your offensive and defensive strategies.
Be prepared to stop
Moving forward while you hit the ball could cause errors, so be prepared to stop and split step to make a shot, then continue into the correct position.
Stacking is an advanced strategy that allows players to line up on one side of the court at the beginning of service, then shift positions as play commences. It's an effective way of keeping the upper hand and playing to your strengths.
Do you stack often in pickleball? Do you find that it helps you win more games? What's the hardest part about learning to stack well? We want to know how we can make stacking easier for all players, so don't hesitate to reach out!
On the other hand, if you're wanting to put your new-found stacking knowledge to the test, why not tap the button below to check out pickleball sessions near you!