Pickleball is the kind of sport that is both easy to play and difficult to master. This is the hallmark of brilliant game design. The big question is: what kind of pickleball instruction do you need to become a better pickleball player?
Over the years I’ve amassed an enormous amount of experience when it comes to improving in sports and hobbies. I’ve done it so many times that I’ve developed some principles and techniques on how to improve.
The first thing I’m going to talk about is principles. These are the things you have to internalize to become good at pickleball (or anything for that matter.) These are personal things. Shortly after, we’ll discuss some practical ideas for how to get better at pickleball. This article also assumes that you have the basics of pickleball down such as proper paddle swing, positioning and footwork.
If you’re ready to take your pickleball game to the next level, then read on!
You just have to believe you’re great
I’m not one for going down the self-help rabbit hole, but there’s something compelling about positive internal belief systems. To illustrate this, let me tell you a story. I’ll try to be as non-cliche as possible.
At the beginning of my freshman year of high school, I joined the marching band with nothing to play. To this day I still don’t understand how I was allowed to join, but it happened. I was lost throughout that first month of summer band camp. I was delegated to the percussion section to play xylophone and marimba because I previously had experience with the piano. But once I saw and heard the percussive sounds of the drumline, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
In high school marching bands, the drumline and the rest of the band are different. Even though they march together, they like to remain separate and have different social and cultural structures. Drumline is very strict whereas the rest of the band typically isn’t. I wanted to join the drumline so badly, but I didn’t have any experience so they wouldn’t let me. In fact, they wouldn’t even let me touch the drums. Strict, to say the least!
But I wasn’t going to be deterred.
Instead of slouching around and telling myself that it can’t be done, I got my mom to take me out to Guitar Center to buy my first pair of sticks and a drum pad.
I practiced relentlessly.
I practiced so much that my hands would be raw and blistered by the time I was done. At school, I would listen closely for every little detail in the cadences (drumline songs) and then try to replicate them in the best way possible. I even drummed softly on my desk during class.
I was going to succeed in this or else.
But this was just the first part of it. The technical work is the easy part. It’s the belief system underneath it all that matters. I truly believed that I could do it. There were no doubts in my mind. Trust me, there were ups and downs, but the underlying belief in myself was solid as steel.
Almost every waking hour during that time was dedicated to thinking positively about the drumline. I thought about it constantly, and I dreamed about it as well. All of that visualization and positive affirmation is what led me to practice relentlessly which translated to getting good enough to march with them a month later at the second game of the season. A few years later I was drum captain.
I did it!
If you don’t truly believe that you can be great at pickleball, then you probably never will be. Don’t get me wrong, it takes hard work and dedication to be good at something, but it starts with believing that you can.
The most productive tool that I used (without me knowing) during that time was visualization. I visualized myself marching with them and playing. You have to do the same with pickleball. Want to get better with those cross-court dinks? Visualize what it would look like to get better at it, then practice relentlessly. Believe it, or else!
Learn from your mistakes
In a perfect world, no one would ever get mad at any mistake they make, but that’s just not realistic. Even as someone who has 20 frustrating years of golf experience, I still get mad sometimes when I make mistakes. But learning how to convert some of those frustrations into productive thoughts is one of the keys to learning how to consistently stop these mistakes in the future.
Here’s the point I’m trying to make in a nutshell: if you’re too busy getting mad at the mistakes you make in pickleball, then you’re also too busy trying to learn from them in the moment.
You can learn so much from your mistakes, no matter what area of life we’re talking about. But in pickleball, you can learn from your mistakes while you’re playing.
Let me give you an example. I remember one match I kept hitting my third shot drops into the net. When the first one went into the net, I didn’t think anything of it. When the second one went in, I got curious. But when the third one went in, I knew something was wrong. Instead of getting upset about it, I constructed an action plan for myself.
I told myself: “Look, you’re missing a lot of these right now so obviously it’s a pattern. Let’s just try to get it over the net and not worry if it lands in the kitchen or not.” It sounded like a good plan to me.
It helped a lot.
Here’s another thing about getting upset on the court. By visibly showing your opponent what makes you upset and frustrated, you’re also showing what strategies should be used against you. Getting upset at yourself could also expose your weaknesses to them. This means that you will lose even more than before.
Realize that pickleball is a game of error avoidance
This is one of the main principles in pickleball and is what a lot of pickleball concepts are based on. Pickleball is all about surviving on the court until your opponent makes a mistake. Most points are won in pickleball purely because someone made an error. Forcing your opponents to make mistakes is the primary way of winning.
Don’t get me wrong; there are plenty of times in pickleball where putting away a shot with an overhead smash will win you the point. But think about this, what led your opponent to pop up the ball for you to smash in the first place? No advanced player is ever going to do that willingly. 99% of the time, your opponent popped it up because you made them do it.
This is why people talk about pickleball as a game of error avoidance or survival. Yes, you can win points by smashing them back, but the reason was that your opponent made the error.
If you’re a beginner or intermediate player, the best way to avoid errors is just get the ball over the net. There’s another reason which I will go into next.
Stop hitting shots you know you can’t make
Look, we’ve all done this. And yes, I proudly include myself. I’ve tried the backhand third shot drive more than once to everyone’s hilarity. But when you’re trying to win in pickleball, you have to leave these shots on the shelf. Whether it’s the third shot drive or some fancy backspin shots, nine times out of ten, they fail if you don’t know how to use them. By attempting these shots consistently, you’re actively lowering your chances of winning the game.
There’s nothing wrong with trying new shots in recreational pickleball. I do it all the time. But leave these shots for practice/experimentation time. If you’re trying to improve and play well, use the shots that you know and are proven to work.
The key to refrain from hitting these shots you don’t have is to stay calm on the court. It’s easy to get too excited and try to do something crazy. We’ve all done it, but the more you keep these shots on the shelf, the more likely you will practice the ones that matter and thus get better at the game.
Dink to the backhand, not the forehand
One of the best ways to consistently lose rallies in pickleball is to dink to your opponent’s forehand instead of their backhand. For the vast majority of players out there, the forehand stroke is going to be more powerful and accurate than the backhand stroke. Also, a backhand shot is typically harder to perform and is often going to be a player’s weaker stroke.
Remember, pickleball is about error avoidance. By dinking to your opponent’s backhand, you’re allowing them to make a mistake, not you.
This problem is amplified even more if you’re playing with a brand new set of pickleballs like the JUGS indoor balls. Right out of the bag, these balls (and other brands) bounce much higher than if they’ve been played with for a few months. The higher the bounce, the more likely your opponent will drive it right back at you! So keep it low and keep it to their backhand!
Include third shot drops in your warm-up
Everyone likes to warm up before playing pickleball, but what is the actual purpose? It’s common to see people casually hitting the ball back in forth with no explicit aim in mind. It’s OK, I used to do it too, and sometimes I still do. But ask yourself, what is it for? Are you going to be making those kinds of shots throughout the match? Most likely not.
Besides physically warming up by jogging in place and doing stretches, you should warm up based on what kinds of shots you’ll need.
This is the best way to warm up for pickleball.
And what’s the most difficult shot that you will always need in pickleball? The third shot drop.
After you’ve done your stretches, the third shot drop should be your primary warm up. There’s nothing wrong with dinking back and forth, but the third shot drop takes priority.
Here’s a simple drill you can do. Have the player across from you stand at the kitchen line. He’ll hit the ball to you; then you do a drop shot back to him while backing up towards the baseline. Keep doing drop shots until you hit the baseline. Then, do your regular drop shots as if you were doing them for real. The great thing about having another player on the other side is that they can give you feedback. Have them call out to you if a ball is too high and praise you when you get a good one.
Reconsider your paddle choice
This is one of my favorite topics in pickleball and one that I talk about often with people when I go play. What I’ve found throughout my time playing is that most people are using paddles that do not compliment their game nor their physicality.
Before I go any further, I’m a firm believer that your skill and technique as a player will always outweigh the paddle you use. I’m not someone that thinks your paddle will fix your game. But I do believe that your game can suffer because of an incompatible paddle. Using the right kind of paddle is necessary but not sufficient to play pickleball well. Your pickleball paddle is an extension of yourself and should simply compliment you.
Having said that, have you ever sat down and truly considered how your paddle is affecting your game? Do you know for certain that the paddle you’re using is the best for you? First, let’s talk about weight.
Weight is the #1 most important factor when you’re looking into getting a new paddle. Nothing else comes close. If I had to apply a percentage value, I would say that 90% of your decision should go towards weight.
There are a few signs that you’re using a paddle that’s too light or too heavy for you. Before we get into it, please understand that it can be tempting to blame mistakes on your paddle. You should only consider the symptoms below if they are consistent, not if they happen occasionally.
Here are a few symptoms that you’re using a paddle that’s too light for you:
- You think that you’re not getting the kind of power that you could be getting.
- Your overhead smashes are going into the net.
- You’re completely missing the ball.
Do you have a suspicion that you’re using a heavy paddle? Read on.
- Your overhead smashes are going out of the opponent’s baseline.
- Hard swings feel like a chore.
- Your arm is getting fatigued after every match.
If you’re consistently having any of these problems, then you may be using the wrong kind of paddle. Depending on your situation, try out other paddles that are lighter or heavier and see what happens. Do the symptoms improve? Then you’re getting closer to your preferred weight range.
The other aspect you have to choose is the core material. Don’t worry; this is the easy part. For 95% of players, I recommend a polymer core. Polymer is a chemistry term that means “many units.” It describes the molecular structure of plastic, or in our case, polypropylene. When you read polymer, just re-read it as plastic. The vast majority of paddles being made today have polymer cores in them.
In general, polymer cores give you the best of both the power and control worlds. I recommend these paddles to pretty much everyone. If you have arm strength limitations, then go for a paddle that’s under 7 oz if you can.
When it comes to price, try to stay anywhere between $60-100. This is the sweet spot where the balance between quality and price are the most aligned. You will see very little improvement in paddles going over $100 except the newer Selkirk paddles. The same goes with paddles lower than $60. I have a page that’s dedicated to the paddles that I recommend in case you want to check that out.
Have more patience at the net
If you’re new to pickleball, then you may not know what patience means in a pickleball context. Let’s cover that first.
In pickleball, having patience typically means waiting for a ball to bounce instead of trying to hit a hard-to-reach or hard-to-make shot out of the air.
An example that you see the most often is when both teams are at the kitchen, and the opponent hits a low dink at you. But it’s not just any dink. It’s the kind of dink that you could easily let bounce and hit back, or you could take it out of the air if you reach forward enough. These situations can lead to disaster if you’re not mentally prepared.
If a player lacks patience, what will they do? If you guessed that they would reach for it and attempt to hit it out of the air, then you’re correct! There are a couple of things that can go wrong when this happens.
- You can’t reach far enough and the ball hits the end of your paddle and goes into the net.
- You reach forward too aggressively, and you pop up the ball for your opponent to smash.
This can also happen with drives and smashes at the net. Everyone loves smashing the ball if the opportunity presents itself. But sometimes people will attempt to smash when the ball is too far into the kitchen or too low to the ground. Instead of patiently waiting for the ball to bounce, they instinctively hit it, and it goes right into the net.
What should you do instead?
Be patient! As pickleball players, we have a natural tendency to want to lean in towards the ball as it’s coming over. But if you think you can’t reach for it, bail out and wait for it to bounce. This is going to give you the highest chance of success. It will also allow you to collect yourself before you hit the shot. The key is to stay calm. Here are some tips:
First, realize that you are much better off taking the safe route. Don’t take the risk, because the risk doesn’t give you much in return compared to just letting it bounce and dinking it back over. I can understand taking the risk of hard-to-reach smashes, but even then you can go the safe route.
In terms of physical movement, here’s what I do:
- When you realize that one of these moments is happening, stay relaxed in your legs.
- If you’re going to be patient and let the ball bounce, take a calm step in whatever direction you need to go in.
- Execute a slow and patient stroke on the ball.
Acquiring more patience at the net will change your game radically. It will transform all of those unforced errors into solid, calm dinks back over the net.
Start playing with a set partner
As you know, in recreational play, people will typically play with whoever is paddle-stacked with you. Honestly, that’s how I typically play because I like play with and against different people.
But if you want to start playing better, more consistently and especially if you want to compete in tournaments, then finding a set partner to play with is critical.
The #1 reason why you should play with a set partner is a combination of communication and trust. Once you play with someone for long enough, you will learn how they play and function on the court. With that knowledge comes predictability. And with predictability comes trust.
But If you’re playing with a random person, you won’t know if they will get out of the way if you try to poach a shot from them. Or even worse, what if a ball is coming down the middle and you don’t know if your partner (who is on the left) will take the forehand?
These are all things you want to avoid and playing with someone consistently will get rid of most of these issues.
Play against people who are much better than you
In pickleball, you have to be willing to lose to get better. Sometimes, the most educating experiences are the ones where we lose the most. I’ve been utterly decimated by 5.0 tournament players who have competed at Nationals. It’s humbling and educating to say the least. But it’s also essential for getting better. Yes, it feels bad, but you’ll get over it in the morning! Trust me!
Now I’m not saying that you have to play against better opponents all the time. And I’m certainly not saying that you should purposely lose. But it’s harder to learn how to play pickleball effectively if you don’t play against people that will challenge your abilities and make you a better player.
When you’re getting smashed by people better than you, make sure you ask them questions. “How did you beat me so badly?” is a question that I try to ask. Listen to what they have to say and take it to heart. These are invaluable experiences, especially if it’s someone like a top tournament player either regionally or nationally.
Smash for effectiveness, not power
I always know I’ve had a pickleball session that was filled with overhead smashes when my upper back muscles are strained. Overhead smashes are a lot of fun, but they can easily go wrong.
Look, I’m the kind of guy that needs this advice drilled into my head on a daily basis. Your overhead smashes should be based more on efficacy than power. I know this sounds weird, but hear me out.
Consider this: how much power do you need in a smash to make it effective? Let’s say that you smashed a ball at an opponent and the ball clocked a speed of 60mph. (I have no idea how fast these balls go by the way.) Let’s also pretend that your opponent couldn’t get to the ball? If you didn’t smash the ball as hard and the speed dropped to 55mph, would you be worse off? Would your opponent be able to get it?
Oftentimes, smashing the ball harder doesn’t equate to better performance. In fact, you could be worse off. The harder you smash it, the less control you have. It’s more likely to go either out or into the net.
Focus on positioning and strategy instead. If you’re smashing too many balls into the net, focus on pointing the paddle face towards the target instead of using all of that wrist action.
Thank you for reading all the way through! It’s one of the most important pieces I’ve ever written, and I hope it was useful for you! If you don’t already have some of these habits, it will take you awhile to assimilate them. Stay patient and keep practicing!