How To Poach In Pickleball Without Making Your Partner Want To Quit

Barrett Kincheloe article, Basics, Strategy, Technique 14 Comments

Poaching is one of the most controversial subjects to talk about in pickleball. It’s quite volatile actually. You can win games in a hurry and infuriate your partner all in the same game! Amazing! But this subject has to be discussed because poaching is a pickleball technique that is highly effective, yet incredibly infuriating for some. I hope to clear up the confusion about this by explaining to you the ins and outs of poaching.

First, remember that whether or not you use poaching is going to be dependent on your context. We’ll get into more of this later, but whether or not you think poaching is appropriate is totally up to you and your partner. Don’t worry though; I’m going to give you some recommendations on how to approach this. Let’s get started.

What is poaching?

In essence, poaching is when you steal a shot clearly aimed at your partner. For example, let’s say a soft dink is bouncing over the net for my opponent. Instead of leaving it to my partner, I shuffle into his side of the court and hit the ball for him. To do this, I have to get myself and my paddle in front of my partner to hit it. That’s what poaching is.

Let me tell you up front; poaching can make the poached partner very angry. I’ve seen some people leave the venue after being constantly poached. I’m not joking; It can be incredibly annoying and aggravating.

As you can imagine, poaching is a very controversial subject in pickleball. Having said that, poaching is a very effective strategy to use. And therein lies the problem.

The controversy

I’m going to cover how to poach properly later on in this article, but for now, I’d like to go over some reasons to not poach.

Most pickleball players go out to the courts to have fun and get a bit of exercise. They most likely don’t care about winning, and they may not even care about playing well.

However, they do care about playing. They just want to play. If they get poached, then they’re not playing. And if they’re not playing, they’re not having fun. You see where this goes.

This is what makes poaching so annoying for casual pickleball players to deal with. As a general rule, I never poach my partner if any of these points are true:

  1. They are a beginner.
  2. They are a casual player.
  3. I don’t know them.

Pretty simple, I know. But it’s really important. Being poached by someone you don’t know makes you feel useless. The question that pops up is: “Oh, am I not good enough to return that?” That doesn’t feel great.

If you’re an advanced player playing with a beginner, do not poach them. It can be very annoying if they’re not OK with it. It’s also not going to help them learn how to play. Again, poaching is an extremely useful strategy to employ on the courts. But all of this has to be communicated beforehand. And like I said, most casual players don’t care to play on that level.

Likewise, if you’re a beginner, don’t poach an advanced player. It’s equally disrespectful, especially if it’s a respected player in your area. It would be similar to a white belt (complete beginner) in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu trying to instruct or challenge a black belt.

The beginner poaching problem

The big problem with poaching is that its application is not taught properly to beginners. In advanced pickleball play, poaching is used consistently and effectively. However, advanced players know how to poach, and it’s done on purpose. It’s all deliberate and a part of their strategy. More importantly, poaching has been communicated and planned out between the two partners beforehand.

The problem arises when beginners try to do what advanced players do. This means that they try to replicate the poach as well. Unfortunately, they haven’t heard the conversations that those advanced players have had and thus don’t use poaching effectively and make their partners furious in the process.

Improper use

The other problem with poaching in pickleball is that it’s not done properly. Poaching is a selective strategy, not something you do just because you can. That’s the big problem. Beginners will poach their partners just because they can, or they have the urge to do so. This can lead to disaster.

One of the most common mistakes I see is poaching dinks. Unless your partner has a terrible backhand shot, there is no reason to poach dinks. There are a few reasons for this.

If you’re not there in time to poach the dink, you may panic and pop the ball up. This leaves a huge gap where you once were for the opponent to smash towards. Instead, just let your partner get it and stay on your side of the court.

The other reason to not poach dinks is that you don’t get anything out of it. Again, this all assumes that you opponent literally cannot use their backhand shot, which is virtually never going to be the case. Think about risk and reward. Poaching can be risky, do you gain enough reward by poaching a dink? Most likely not.

How to poach effectively

If you’re playing with a consistent partner or in a serious game, then knowing how to poach is essential. I’m going to share with you everything I know about poaching.

The most common setup

The most common poach you see pickleball is the floater. As I said earlier, a floater is a soft shot that pops up into the air right in your smash zone. It’s a mistake made by the opponent and has to be taken advantage. This is why people poach these shots. They’re just too good to pass up!

This is how it typically works. This image assumes both players are right-handed. Also, pretend that you’re the green dot.

pickleball poach

This is the most common poaching situation you’ll see.

This poach is a three-step process as you can see in the image.

  1. You see a floater coming to your partner’s side of the court.
  2. You side shuffle over to their area.
  3. You smash the ball with all of your heart and soul.

You’re probably asking yourself, “why should I poach this shot, and not let my partner handle it?”

Reason: backhand.

Scroll back up to the image real quick. Notice how the floater is heading for the partner’s backhand? That’s why you poach this shot instead of letting your partner attempt a backhand smash. Backhand smashes are hard to pull off, they’re inaccurate, and they’re not nearly as powerful. Instead, the player who is on the left can scoot over to use their forehand smash which is far more powerful and accurate.

This is how you use poaching effectively. This strategy is common, but it requires one thing beforehand. Read on.

Stacking can make it easier

Advanced pickleball poaching strategy revolves around stacking. If you don’t know how to stack, don’t worry about this part.

In mixed-doubles pickleball, you will 95% of the time see a right-handed male on the left side of the court. The reason is simple: greater upper body strength equates to more power smashes. Since he’s on the left side of the court, he will be covering not only the forehand smashes up the middle, but also the forehand poaches for his partner.

If you’re stacking, make sure the player with the best smash will be able to take care of the forehand smashes easily.

Communication

If you take anything away from this article, please let it be this:

Poaching is all about pre-match communication. This is essential. If you don’t communicate how poaching is going to work, you’re almost guaranteed to run into issues.

Think about it this way. What’s the most common requirement that you see on job postings? It’s something like, “Must have exceptional communication skills.” You see it all the time. Well, the same thing works in pickleball.

Most of the work that surrounds poaching is done before the game even starts.

My co-host for the Pickleball Kitchen Podcast, Jana, and I play together often. Before every match begins, I look at her and say “I’ve got shots in the middle and floater poaches.” She nods. That’s it. That’s the extent of our communication.

She now knows that if I’m on the left side and a floater (a ball that’s popped up into your smash zone) is coming towards her side, I’m going to scoot over and destroy the ball. Jana now knows two things:

  1. She can stay relaxed and focused on her game while I take care of floaters.
  2. She has to get out of the way quickly, or she’s going to block me or worse, get hit by the paddle.

Seriously, I’ve seen people get hurt because someone was trying to smash a shot that came up the middle, but the other player didn’t get out of the way. Another great reason to communicate all of this beforehand.

Please keep in mind, the communication I have with Jana is very simple because we play together all the time. But if you’re working with a new partner, your talks may need to be longer than this.

Only poach when needed

Similar to using spin shots, third shot drives, and lobs, poaching should only be used selectively. Treat it like a tool. You can only bring certain tools out of the bag if you need them. Approach poaching the same way.

Wrapping up

I hope this article has helped you navigate the muddy waters of poaching. If I learn more advanced principles behind poaching, I will update this article. How has your experience been with poaching? Let me know in the comments below!

Comments 14

  1. Thanks . I switched from raquetball during pandemic. I love pickle ball but it’s more frustrating to me for some reason

  2. I’m fairly new to the game, and I didn’t know stacking was allowed. I thought you had to switch sides when you won a rally. Are you saying to cross over to the other side after you serve t9 maintain the stacking?

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      So the trick here is to not think of it as switching sides. But the serve switching service courts. Only the server has to switch sides, not necessarily the other player.

  3. Agreed that that it aggrieves people…but…if there is room to poach, the partner was too far back in the first place. If the partner of the poacher can’t understand that they need to be at the nvz line, then they are likely to complain about a stolen ball, because of their cluelessness.

  4. So, here’s when I poach:
    1. When the opponent sets up a floater and my partner is clearly back and unable to take advantage, especially when their body language telegraphed the shot.
    2. When I have a weak or beginner partner and our opponents are avoiding me and hitting everything too him/her. A quick poach makes them play more honest.
    3. When the opponents have left a big gap in coverage and can be “killed” by a quick, well aimed poach.
    4. When I instantly reach, by instinct and instinct alone, in which I quickly apologize for stealing my partners shot (because those shots seldom help).

    When my partner poaches (and some do – constantly), I simply tell them they can poach as needed, but it
    1. better be a point or a clear strategic advantage, or it is unwelcome.
    2. better be covering a mistake in position on my part

    I agree: poaching a dink is almost always met with a loss of side or point, so avoid. It is better for the partner to learn how to dink, than to steal them myself.

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  5. The number one reason I poach is too put away a ball that is over the net high enough to put down with power. Lots of these shots only the poacher can put away because if let go to ones partner they will have to hit up on the ball. As a team you want to put away balls that are hanging up too high. Let your partner know why you hit that particular shot and encourage them to do the same to improve their game.

  6. A better player told me “poach all you want as long as you make the point”. Good advice. If you poach but don’t get a point out of it, you shouldn’t have poached. I have played with much better players such as Steve Cole who did not mind my poaching. After I poached and apologized he said “don’t worry, you put it away didn’t you”

  7. Thanks for writing this article! I’m a left handed female player trying to “break into” open pickleball play at the park! This isn’t easy, and with the open play being dominated by male “smashers”, it’s been difficult to convey play is “backwards” on my court side. I literally state that I’m left handed before play, hoping I’ll be left open to play a forehand shot! I didn’t know it was called poaching! Maybe communicating poaching play first, will help.

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      Author

      You’re welcome, Laura.

      I’m not totally understanding your comment. Can you help me learn more about your situation? I would like to help if possible.

    2. You are going to need to learn how to stack. Otherwise it will always be awkward playing with right handers

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  8. Good article Barrett. I’m just learning the game of pickleball and have read some articles on poaching but wasn’t sure when to do it. This makes it clear. It will help my game and my communication with my partner. Thanks.

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