Friday, March 21, 2014

Pickleball Skill Building

Pickleball Skill Building


Anyone who has played Pickleball knows how much fun it is.  It is hard to play pickleball only once.  But, there comes a time when some of us want to improve our skills in the game so that we can play better and also play against better players.  

If you have played pickleball for some time, you have noticed that your skill has improved.  Shots you would miss are now makeable.  Your serves go in play more often.  But, to really improve skills requires not just playing games, but actually focusing on building skills that are a part of the game.
If you do not know what the skills are that need improvement, or how to go about improving them, then you are kind of stuck.  But, of course, pickleball is so much fun that even then it is not a bad place to be stuck. 

Play in a game of pickleball is composed of 4 components; they are as follows:
  1)      The Serve
  2)      The Return of Serve
  3)      The Third Shot
  4)      The Rally.

Below are drills that combine some or all of the first three, and additional drills that focus on #4.
What can be called the Rally involves 4 types of shots.  Elements of these same shots may be found in Return of Serve, and the Third shot, and drills for The Rally are useful for building skills in them as well.  They are:
  1)      Dinking
  2)      Overhead Shots and Lobs
  3)      Volleys
  4)      Ground Strokes.

The drills themselves that follow are taken from (though usually modified for language only), and we should all appreciate the efforts that went in to developing them in the first place.  There are other interesting tidbits and information on that site as well.

Serve/Return/Third Shot Drills

The Serve

Nothing happens until someone serves the ball.  Serves must land inside the diagonal rectangle on the opposite end of the court from where the server is standing.  That is all that matters.  If the serve goes into the net or outside the box where it is required to land, the server loses the opportunity to score a point.  Do not focus on hard serves or twisting serves or sneaky serves until you can consistently get your serves to land in the proper area of the court.

Drill 1 – One person can take a box of balls and practice serving from one end to the court and then go to the other end, retrieve the balls and do it again from that end.

Drill 2 – Two persons can alternate serving to each other.  Do not bother returning the serve, but collect the ball and then serve it back.  After several serves from one side, switch to the other side of the court and serve in similar fashion.  4 people can do this drill on one court as well, with each person serving to the person on their diagonal at the opposite end of the court.

The Return of Serve

The return of serve is equally important to the serve itself.  Failure to return serve gives the serving team a point, with very little effort.  Hitting the return into the net, or outside the boundaries of the court costs a point.  So, practice returning the ball over the net until you can do it consistently.   

When you can return the ball over the net consistently, then practice returning it nearer to the back line.  The further back your return of serve goes, while still being on the court, the more difficult it is for the serving team to engage in the upcoming rally for a point.  But, do not get ahead of yourself.   

First, be sure that you can return the serve into the serving team’s court with consistency.

Drill 3 – This drill adds the return of serve to the mix, and requires two players, and allows for the practicing of two essentials to the game, serving and return of serve.  When the server serves the ball, the opposing player returns the serve.  Focus on the return is on getting it over the net, and inside the court.  If you are comfortable with your returns, then try to make them go closer to the back line, preferably within the last two feet or less at the back.  The server does not hit the ball back to the returner but gathers it up to practice his/her serve again.

The Third Shot

Nothing happens unless the first two shots are made, but the third shot sets up the rest of the rally, and is the most critical shot for skillful players.

Most new players and even some who have played for years think that smashing the ball over the net after the return of serve is an effective strategy.  While this may be true with unskilled players, it is a recipe for disaster against accomplished players.

Because the serving team must remain near the back of the court until they have hit the third shot, and because the game is in actuality won at the net, being stuck at the back line after the third shot becomes less effective the more skilled are your opponents.

When the serving team has played the third shot, it should allow them to advance towards the net for the remaining shots of the rally.  If the serving team is not able to get to the net, the opposition has a lot of court available to them to play shots that will win them the point, or service break.

So, the third shot should be a long dink shot that just drops over the net into the non volley zone.  Alternatively the serving team can lob the third shot over the heads of their opponents, but that is another strategy that can be learned in later drills.

Both of these third shot approaches will be covered in Dinking and Volley drills later.

The Rally

So, let us move on to the remainder of the rally shots, and we will pick up the skills of the service return and third shot return along with the other needed skills to be successful pickleball players.
As stated above there are 4 main shots involved in the rally for a point, and we will take them in order.


The Dink shot is a shot that drops over the net whether from up close to the net, or from further back on the court.  It is meant to land inside the non volley zone to create opportunities for your opponent to make a mistake, and to allow you to get into proper position for a rally if you have found yourself out of position.  Though it is a defensive shot largely it can be very effective at setting up your next shot as an offensive shot.

Whenever you are practicing your dinks, you should try to make all balls bounce over the net, of course, but in front of the non volley line and they should be short and low enough that the player you are practicing with couldn't kill the ball if he/she wanted to do so. While you will probably have to step into the non volley zone to hit a lot of the dinks, you should immediately step back behind the non volley zone line before the opposing player hits the ball.

If you and your partner aren't able to keep the ball going more than 2 or 3 hits, then don't try to keep the ball too low or too short. It’s more important as a beginner to keep the ball going so you can gradually get the feel of how hard to hit. Just keep practicing as often as you can.

Drill 1 - Both players start by standing close to the non-volley line and opposite each other, dinking the ball back and forth nicely to each other for a few minutes. If you have 4 players, simply pair off players on each half of the court and each pair use their own ball. 

Drill 2 - Both players hit cross court dinks back and forth from one side to another trying to hit fairly sharp angles to each other. Do this for a few minutes and then do another few minutes cross court in the other direction. Do not try to avoid backhands while doing these drills as you need to begin developing your backhand dinks even if they don't work very well in the beginning. Again if you have 4 players, simply have each pair of players hit cross court in the opposite direction.

Drill 3 - Both players dink the ball down the line on one side of the court for a few minutes and then a few minutes down the line on the other side of the court. With 4 players, each pair uses a different sideline.

Drill 4 - If you have 4 players, you should do this additional drill which is to use only 1 ball and dink back and forth between all players trying to practice all of the above directions while doing so. Try to hit 1/2 of the balls back to the player that hit it to you and 1/2 of the balls back to the other player so you are practicing all directions again. The more advanced players can spend more time on this drill and less time on the others. Don't forget to practice this from both the left and right sides of the courts so both you and your partner practice both forehands and backhands.

The previous exercises cover the essentials of dinking at the net, but it is important to be able to initiate a dinking game from wherever you are on the court, such as when playing the third shot.   

The next two drills help in this area.

Drill 4 The 3/4 Court Dink - To practice this with 4 players, have 2 players stand at the no-volley zone line and the other two players stand at about 3/4 court position on their side of the net. The two players at 3/4 court try to hit soft dinks while the two players at the net position try to hit the ball back nicely so they can try another dink. After a little while, reverse positions and practice for an equal amount of time. This might take quite a few practice sessions, but eventually you will get the feel of how hard to hit to make a good dink. This works just as well with either 2 players or 4 players and don't forget that you can practice cross court dinks as well as down the line dinks with this drill just as you did in the short dink drills.

Drill 5 The Baseline Dink - To practice this with 4 players, have 2 players stand at the no-volley zone line and the other two players stand just behind the baseline on the other side of the net. The two players standing just behind the baseline try to hit soft dinks, while the two players at the net try to hit the ball back nicely and near the baseline. After a little while, reverse positions and practice for an equal amount of time. This works just as well with either 2 players or 4 players and don't forget that you can practice cross court dinks as well as down the line dinks with this drill just as you did in the short dink drills.

Drill 6 Dinking Game - To help you concentrate and have some fun while learning the dink, you can play a game with four players where everyone has to dink and you lose the point if the ball lands behind the no-volley zone line. You can still play to 11 points, but you have to start the point nicely to each other for this game to work.

You could also play this game with 2 players, but you would have to agree to use only 1/2 of each side of the court for this to work. You can decide whether to practice this from down the line sides or cross court sides.

The serve should be initiated as in a normal game, but must be from the non volley line to inside the no volley line diagonally to the server’s position.

Overhead Shots and Lobs

Overhead drills are not going to work very well until the players have first learned to lob well enough to hit a lob to the player practicing overheads! After you can lob fairly well when returning a ground stroke or volley, then you are ready to attempt these drills.

These drills are necessary not only to develop your overhead skills, but also to develop your ability to return an overhead smash with another lob. You will find that if you do these drills your lob will improve as much or more than your overhead improves.

Drill 1 – One player stands on one side of the net at the baseline and hits lobs to the other player who hits overheads back at the first player. The first player tries to hit high lobs that land between the no-volley line and 3/4 court.  The second player tries to hit overheads back at the first player so that it can be lobbed again. Rotate between lobbing and hitting overheads often.

Drill 2 – This drill for 3 players has two players on one side of the net hitting lobs to the one player on the other side of the net.  The pair stand at the baseline and hit lobs to the single opposing player who practices hitting overheads to both corners and down the middle. Though the objective is to get used to hitting overheads and lobs, the player hitting overheads can attempt to hit kill shots when all parties agree, as this practice is useful as well.

Drill 3 - In this drill, you have two teams on opposite sides of the net with one team lobbing and one team hitting overheads. Advanced teams should be trying to put their smashes away while the lobbers should be trying to lob high and deep. When possible, however you also should try to be consistent while doing so. More beginning teams should be considerate of what the other team is trying to do when they lob or smash.

The Volley

Volley shots are differentiated from dink shots largely by velocity and that a volley shot is meant to be hit out of the air.

Drill  - The simplest volley drill is for either two players or four players to stand at the no-volley line and volley (hit) the ball back and forth. Each player should attempt to hit the ball to the other player in a manner that will allow them to keep the ball going. At all levels, the goal should be to hit more and more shots between misses.

For beginning players, this might mean you are hitting the ball fairly slow and high and possibly even to the forehand. As you improve, you might hit the ball a little firmer and even try to hit to their backhand more often. You will find that all players at all levels will do best if you don't hit the ball right at them.

As players improve, you can hit the ball harder at each other and intentionally hit some to the backhand and some to the forehand and some right at the other player. If you are having long rallies, you can get more aggressive. If your opponent is starting to miss too much, then you should slow the ball down until he/she is successful again.

With only two players, you should practice not only volleying the ball straight ahead, but also crosscourt using both backhands and forehands. With 4 players you will get to practice both, but you should practice both from the left side and the right side of the court.

Remember, the goal is to practice and keep the ball going, not to hit so hard the other player can't get it back!

Ground Strokes

Ground strokes are shots that are taken further back in the court and where the ball has bounced in front of the hitting player.  When practicing ground strokes, it is best to work on trying to have long rallies and trying to place the ball deep and near the corner of the opponent's court. The ball should be hit firmly, but do not so hard that the practice partner can't return the ball. 

Drills for All Players

These drills are the easiest because you are hitting the ball back to where it came from and are doing so without being on the run. However, after doing all 4 drills you will have practiced forehands and backhands both cross court and down the line from both sides of the court. These drills can be done with two players as described, or you could do them with 4 players keeping two balls going in opposite cross court directions or opposite sidelines.

Drill 1 - Players practice hitting cross court balls to each other from the right side of their respective courts.

Drill 2 - Players practice hitting cross court balls to each other from the left side of their respective courts.

Drill 3 - Players practice hitting down the line on the right side of the court.

Drill 4 - Players practice hitting down the line on the left side of the court.

Drills for Advanced Players

These drills are much more difficult and are intended for advanced players who still move fairly well on the court. Each drill gives one of the players practice on hitting while running and the other player practice in changing the direction of the ball while standing still which is harder than returning the ball back in the direction it came from

Drill 5 – One player stands on the right hand side of his court and alternately hits the ball down the line, cross court, down the line, cross court, etc.  The other player will be running from side to side and hitting every ball right back to the initiating player.  The drill can be done from the left side as well, and also players will alternate positions.

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