If you’re somewhere around the intermediate or the more advanced 4.0 level, getting better at pickleball is a matter of constant practice and drilling. If you want to get better, you have to take drills seriously. You’re probably saying, “but Barrett, I would rather watch my brand new succulent grow than do some boring drills!” I’m here to tell you once and for all that pickleball drills don’t have to be boring! You just have to be creative in how you approach pickleball practice.
In this article, I’m going to teach you how to drill properly, which drills to do, and how to have a blast while doing them. Stick with me, you’re going to learn a lot from this article! But first…
Why drill in the first place?
Why are drills an essential part of your pickleball journey? The #1 reason is that drilling the same shot over and over again trains muscle memory. The more you train your muscle memory, the more confident you’ll be and the more you can focus on other things during a match.
The last thing you want to be doing during an intense match is consciously thinking about your shots. You have to allow your subconscious mind and your muscle memory to do all that for you. This is why drilling is so important. The more you do it, the better you’ll get.
How to design a great drilling session
When you’re thinking about getting a drilling session together, it’s essential that you have a plan and purpose in mind. Why are you drilling? Are you getting ready for a tournament? Is there a certain part of your game that’s driving you crazy? Are you trying something new?
All of these questions are good to ask so that you have a reason for doing it. The more reasons you have for drilling pickleball, the more likely you are to actually go out and take it seriously.
Find the right partner too!
You should try to find someone who’s going to treat the drilling session as seriously (or not so seriously) as you will. Find someone around your skill level or someone who at least has similar goals. This will help to make the session as smooth as possible.
I typically drill with my co-host, Jana Lightfoot. We have the same goals and we work really well together. We always have a blast, but we work hard when we’re drilling. It’s a great combination! Find someone that’s going to match what you want to get out of it.
Okay, let’s get into the drills!
Dink for points
A great drill to start out on is dinking for points. As you know, surviving long dinking rallies is an essential aspect of pickleball. Dinking for points allows you to take the serve, return and third shot drop completely out of the equation. This allows you to focus more time on dinking while also keeping it competitive by tracking your score.
Depending on what you need to work on, you can do straightaway dinking or cross-court dinking. Whatever is best for you and your partner.
You play pickleball just as you usually would, but you’re only going to hit to one side of the court. For example, if you’re doing cross-court dinking, then the half of your partner’s court in front of you will be considered out. So hitting a ball that is outside the centerline is considered out. If you’re drilling cross-court dinking and you win a point, you will switch sides just like usual.
You don’t have to keep playing for points if you don’t want to though. If you or your partner notices that a mistake keeps happening, stop the game and focus on just that for a bit.
This is such a great and easy drill to do! You can fit it in no matter if you’re in a drilling session or if you’re warming up before open play. Triangle dinking focuses on moving your opponent and practices different types of straightaway dinks.
The way it works is simple. Check out this graphic:
See how the three dots make a triangle? That’s the triangle that I speak of. The whole point of this drill is to hit those dots in sequential order. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Hitting around the area is fine. The big point here is to never hit to the same spot twice. If you hit to the left, the next dink should not be to the left. It should either be up the center or to the right.
One of the biggest mistakes I see intermediate players make is that they dink to the same spot over and over again. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great thing that you’re getting the ball over the net, but you’re not doing anything to fool your opponent.
In order to open up your opponent’s defense, you have to dink to different spots. You have to move them! The triangle dink drill does exactly this. It trains you to hit to where your opponent isn’t.
This drill is also great for practicing your forehand and backhand. Since your partner is also hitting in a triangle, you’ll be forced to hit to your partner’s left or right with either your backhand or forehand. This creates tons of different types of shots and situations that make things more interesting and fun!
This is a really fun drill to do that has the occasional effect of making you burst out in laughter.
As you know, pickleball can be a frantic sport. Your reflexes have to be sharp and ready to go at all times! This basic reflex drill will help. Here’s how it works:
Both you and your partner will be standing at the kitchen line just like usual. Dink back and forth as you normally would, but don’t do anything too crazy. Out of nowhere, bang a hard drive right at your partner. His job in this drill is to calmly block the shot successfully but to also not pop it up.
Pop-ups happen a lot in pickleball. A hard ball will be coming right at you and if you’re not ready, you’re toast!
This drill will help to train your reflexes, but also your ability to block the shot softly and confidently.
If you have a bucket of balls at your disposal, you can do this drill a bit differently. Instead of dinking back and forth, you can just hit soft shots to your partner without returning them. Then, without warning them, bang one at them. But don’t make it obvious! The more subtle it is, the more effective the training will be for your partner.
Things to remember
The most important element to understand when blocking hard drives is to have your paddle up and in front of you. Having your paddle up in the ready position is one of the basic fundamentals of pickleball. It will help you to position your paddle correctly when the shot is coming. So when you’re doing this drill, be consciously aware of that.
Also, if you’re having trouble popping up the balls, make sure you loosen up your grip. This will let the paddle absorb most of the force, instead of your hand and arm which will remove some of the power. Additionally, you can try removing your pinky finger from your paddle grip. I’ve seen some of my students do that with great success.
This drill can lead to some body shots, so consider wearing eye protection if that’s a concern for you or your partner.
Third shot drop and returns
We’ve heard it a million and a half times. The third shot drop is the most important shot to learn in pickleball. It’s very true. And thus, we have to create a drill that practices this. I’ve got a simple one for you that is great for practicing this difficult shot.
One player will stand at the baseline and the other at the kitchen line just like it would be in a real game. The person at the kitchen will feed balls to the person at the baseline who will then attempt the third shot drop.
This is a very repetitive drill, but for good reason. The whole purpose here is to train muscle memory. Force yourself to do 50-100 of these and you’re destined to get better at it. It’s best if you bring a bunch of balls with you. If you hit it into the net, your partner can just pull out another ball to keep going and save time.
If you’re receiving…
This isn’t just a drill for the player doing the drop shots. It’s also a drill for the player at the net.
You’re not just feeding the balls to the player. You’re working on hitting your returns to the net Or, if the drop shot is too good, then you’re working on dinking it back over.
Also, if you’re the player that is receiving the third shot drops, make sure that you feed the balls correctly. Don’t just hit them randomly. Make sure that you’re feeding balls that are realistic and that are in. Remember, we want to make these drilling sessions worth the time, so feeding balls correctly is critical.
Back and forths
This is a cool little pickleball drill that works on distance control and drop shots. I love this drill because it gets you moving on the court and practices your finesse.
To do the back-and-forth drill, you will both start at the kitchen line. One player will dink the ball over and the other will return it. The player who returned the ball will then take a big step backward. Then the player at the net will hit the shot a little deeper. You repeat this until the player being drilled has reached the baseline. At that point, you’re basically doing third shot drops
When you make the third shot drop you will now walk towards the kitchen line. You will do the same thing as usual but once you get there it’s your partner’s turn. Your partner will now back up to the baseline and you’ll feed him the shots. The player who is feeding should have multiple balls on them in case someone messes up.
When you’re doing back-and-forth drills make sure that you split step when your opponent hits the ball. As you know, footwork is a central component of pickleball. If your footwork is off, then the rest of your game is going to be off.
How to split step
I’ve got an entire video published about split stepping, but let me give you a few tips for the purpose of this article.
The move is very simple. Right before your opponent makes contact with the ball, stop in your tracks and spread your stance. This allows your body to get into balance and prepared for the shot to come.
So as you’re working your way back towards the baseline, or forward towards the kitchen line remember to stop and spread your stance before making contact with the ball.
After you’re done doing some back and forth drills, you can move on to its bigger brother, the kitchen run drill. We do kitchen runs all the time and is the most popular drill among my students. There’s a good reason for that.
Kitchen runs are the ultimate drill that gets you ready for the hardest part of pickleball, getting to the kitchen and transitioning to the dinking game. Not only does this drill train your third shot drop, but it trains your ability to get to the kitchen effectively. Both of these are essential skills to have on the courts.
To start the kitchen run, one player will be at the kitchen line and the other will be at the baseline. The player at the kitchen line will feed a ball to the other player who will attempt a third shot drop. From this point onward, the player at the baseline will now try to get to the kitchen just like they usually would in a real game.
However, the player at the kitchen line will do their best to keep that from happening. Again, just like in a real game. If that third shot drop was too high, slam it! Make it as difficult for them as possible.
This drill is way more fun than it looks and it’s amazing exercise. Like I’ve said before, you’ll use this all the time in a real game. As the person at the baseline, you have two goals. The first goal is to actually get to the kitchen line by making a good third shot drop. The second goal is to win the point with the dinking skills that you drilled earlier.
You’ve probably heard of skinny pickle before, but if you haven’t, welcome to the wonderful world of complete and total exhaustion! Skinny pickle is a great way to get some great exercise while also training your entire arsenal. I’ve saved this drill for the very end for a reason. This is the drill that you’ll end your session on.
Skinny pickle is for two players and is exactly what it sounds like. You play pickleball just like you normally would, except you only use one side of the court. Hince the name, skinny pickle.
Play pickleball just like you usually would, but make sure that you incorporate the areas of your game that you’ve been drilling before. You spent hours drilling certain techniques, now you have to put those techniques to the test. Playing skinny is one of the best ways to do that.
One important thing to be aware of is that you may hit some of your serves out. The reason is that you’ll be serving straight ahead of you instead of cross-court and thus the distance is much shorter. Just keep that in mind.
Now go drill!
Now that you know how to structure your drills and which ones to do, go out there and do it! I promise you that it will make a remarkable difference on your skill level. I hope this article was helpful to you. If you have any questions, please let me know in the comments below.