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Playing Keep-Away from the “Best” Player on the other Team — Good Idea or Inconsiderate Strategy?

Although I absolutely LOVE pickleball, nothing gets my blood boiling like being on the receiving end of “Keep-Away” during rec play.  And it gets me very frustrated.  Every time.  You see, every once in a while, in a recreational game of pickleball, I’m deemed the stronger player on the team.  And the opponents — you guessed it — hit seemingly every ball to my partner.  All in the name of winning the game to 11.  In rec. play!!!  Not tournament play.  Did I mention this is “recreational” play?

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The Shot Chart Tells the Story

This particular blog post has been approximately 4 or 5 months in the making.  Earlier in the summer, my partner and I had just finished playing a match against a very good doubles team. Unfortunately, I must have been considered the stronger player on this particular day — and, consequently, could count on one hand how many balls were hit my way in the course of a 15-minute game to 11.  Of course, the exception would occur when my partner would inadvertently pop up the ball and the opponents would smash it at my feet — as if to say, “there, I hit you one!”

So, like the stubborn and sometimes immature partner I can be, I brooded — and I vowed to write a blog post about this situation.  And shortly thereafter, with the “play-by-play” still fresh in my mind, I created a shot chart of where our opponents directed the balls when I played the odd court.  As you can see from the shot chart, there was absolutely no reason for me to be on the court on this particular day.  I could have just as easily put up a cardboard cut-out of myself and nobody would have known the difference!

It Happens Seemingly at Every Skill Level and at All Venues

We’ve all — at one time or another — likely been considered the stronger player when we play.  Perhaps you’re a 3.5 rated player playing with three other 3.0 rated players — and you never see the ball.  Perhaps you’re a 4.5 player, playing with three other 4.0 players — and you never see the ball.  You could put that cardboard cut-out of yourself on the court and nobody would be the wiser.  It’s not fun.  You also came to play, exercise and work on your game.

And it happens everywhere.  I’ve been “frozen out” of matches at my church where I first learned the game of pickleball, at my “home-town” pickleball club — and at various pickleball venues I visit.  And my guess is, the exact thing happens to you from time-to-time.

Try the Opposite Approach

I like to take the opposite approach — but similarly, I have to be cognizant of not “freezing out” the weaker player — as it works both ways.  You see, I prefer to hit to the stronger players to see how I stack up against a higher skill level.  I want to see how these stronger players move, execute their shots and strategy — and perhaps, above all, I want to see if I can “hang” with them.  It’s not so much about winning in the short-term as it is about improving and learning over the long run.

So, if the opportunity arises to play against a better player, make an effort to hit them the ball.  It doesn’t have to be every ball — but don’t relegate them to being a cardboard cut-out.  By doing so, you will get a better understanding of your strengths and weaknesses, which will only help to improve your own game — even if it means losing a recreational game here or there.

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Coach Todd
About Todd

Todd is the talent behind PickleballMAX. He knows pickleball and demonstrates it on the court as a 4.5 – 5.0 player. In addition to creating content and running the PickleballMAX business, Todd is IPTPA Level II certified. As an instructor at the Ohio Pickleball Academy, he instructs students and runs adult and youth clinics. He also manages tournament desks throughout the tri state for tournaments ranging from 100-500 participants.

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  1. I think there’s two things going on. In rec play the weaker player is usually the one that stays back, either in no mans land or back by the baseline. They are getting attacked because you are at the kitchen like you should be and that alone intimidates them. 2nd problem is 9 out of ten people unfortunately are only trying to win to help inflate their ego and really could care less about learning.

    I’ve gotten to the point where I am considering giving up pickleball for this very reason this topic is about. Once you get to 4.0 level at least around here you’ll see the ball a few times in beginning til they realize then never again rest of the game. You can do what you can to pouch, or try to force them to hit the ball to you but in the end it’s just frustration as you loose game after game as they gang up on your partner then congratulate themselves on a great game.

    Unfortunately the 4.0 games around here are just filled with ex tennis players on a pickleball court playing games with no strategy and hitting it as hard as they can not sure if that’s much better! I need to move, I am hoping at some point to meet people that know what a 3rd shot drop is. I can dream big can’t I ?

      1. 11 points of trauma…..get em back and play a little left handed….encourage the partner to take a shot so as to cause a forced, perhaps less controlled , return shot….

        Be soft on well placed shots

        11 points of trauma….be like me and visit another club, they will know….spend some gas….be a gypsy

    1. I just got through playing today with the leader of a very big group. Sometimes he plays a fair game with me , but today for some inexplicable reason he decided to end the game quickly- probably some faster players were waiting in the wings and he wanted to get it over with. He and his partner hit only to my partner, my partner hit only into the net.
      I managed to get one serve in that they missed so we had one point.I don’t think enough said about the poor sportsmanship that this involves -and the bad example, it sets for the rest of the group.

  2. I find myself playing with weaker players frequently and I am often excluded from playing when my opponents play keep away from me. Sometimes I will return the serve and intentionally stay all the way back just to see if they will even try to keep me back. Frequently they will still hit the ball to my partner at the net rather than to me all the way in the back court. This makes it blatantly obvious that they are doing this.

    When this happens I explain what’s happening to my partner and ask them to stand all they way over on the far edge of the court. This forces our opponents to hit the ball deep into the corner or possibly allows me to poach the shot down the middle. Essentially it allows me and my partner to play doubles while only needing to cover half of the court since they are almost never going to hit the ball onto my side of the court.

    Another option I’ve tried is stacking where when I’m serving the ball my partner is standing directly behind me. When the serve is returned I move to wherever the ball travels and cover the third shot while my partner covers the opposite side of the court. It’s essentially like playing singles pickleball for the third shot but at least it keeps me from being completely shut out of the game.

    But even with these strategies, I don’t find it much fun to play these types of games. Pickleball is most fun when you have four players of very close skill levels. When you don’t have this you just have to focus on taking your shots and not worry about the score.

  3. I’m one of those weaker player who gets hit to most of the balls, so I’m very familiar with the situation. Here are some of my points. (1) At the start of a game, I usually say, “take anything you feel like taking”, especially in poaching and reaching into my half of the court. (2) on the other hand, I understand the benefits of hitting to the weaker player beyond wanting to win–it helps in developing automatic shot selection, which sports psychologists call schemas, and other experts of human behavior call “it-then” automatic reactions. Cognitive scientists have another term, but I don’t recall it at this time. I’ve talked to several high ranking players, and they say that improving was a difficult process in drop-in play, and they improved by playing several days a week, moreso than they played golf or tennis.

  4. I LIKED Tim’s comments. A strategy for playing against someone who freezes you out. I bet with everyone’s help we could create a good list and it could help train weaker players.

  5. I usually hit to the strongest player with good hits and try to hit to the weaker player balls they can return. It’s so funny when you hit a nice ball to a weaker player to return and his partner poaches and smashes it and thinks he’s done well. I just laugh. We are there for fun. Play to everyone and to their level. I do like to play with all levels but also will schedule play that I can be challenged with. Win or lose it’s about including all and having fun.

  6. When that happens to me I just go into poaching mode. If my partner is that much inferior it usually also means that he/she comes to the kitchen line only once in a blue moon. So, go there as quickly as possible and take chances poaching and faking a poach at every opportunity. If my partner doesn’t cover me then too bad….we’re gonna go down anyway. This way I have something to do.

  7. What I have found to help is having the person who’s getting all the balls to say out loud, “my partner would like to play too.” This seems to guilt them into spreading the ball around. It is very important that the weaker player says it.

  8. Most of us never play tournaments. If we aren’t supposed to play to win, why are we even keeping score? “Participation trophies” for everyone?

    1. Hi Rick, Thanks for chiming in. In a foursome, obviously, everyone wants to play — even the best of the four. I suppose I have a different philosophy when it comes to rec games. While I like to win — I don’t like to win at the expense of freezing out one of the players. I guess rec game wins aren’t that important to me. It’s more important for me to improve my game.

      1. Thanks, Todd, for the response. I don’t disagree with the goal of getting everyone involved in the game. We do that by rotating partners every game and rotating out every two games if people are waiting to play. Don’t think we have to take the fun of competing out of rec play. It’s the competition that makes us better. I’d probably feel differently if I was playing tournaments regularly. I really enjoy your blog! Reading it is making me better, too!

        1. I think the player that’s getting all the balls should say out loud, “my partner would like to play too.” This has helped. It seems to shame the other team politely.

  9. Great article but so sad that this even needs to be pointed out. I have this happen to me all the time, and it sucks. One game, my opponents were so focused on not hitting the ball to me that they hit several shots out on my partner’s side. It was only by virtue of that that we were only behind 10-7-2. As my opponent prepared to serve to my partner, I SAT DOWN on the court at the NVZ line. Even with that, when the ball was returned they STILL hit the third shot as a drive to her. She returned it again, and only then did the opponents notice that I had been sitting down the whole time. He tried to drive one past me, which I returned by reaching up and stayed sitting. He then lobbed over my head. I watched the ball until it was directly over me, and then got up and ran back and returned a winner down the middle. They got so unnerved by this that we ended up winning 13-11. After that, the guy on the other team, who is so consistently adamant about never hitting to me, accused me of being arrogant and rude. Wow.

    1. Kevin,
      I have experienced the same thing where opponents were so focused on hitting away from me they actually hit some balls just out on the sideline where my teammate was playing. I have found the best remedy for the keep away game to be:
      1) If you know that your opponents will play KA, tell them beforehand that you would like to see some balls, hitting to a better player will improve their game, and that this is only rec play.
      2) If they still do not hit to you, then ask your teammate if they mind if you aggressively poach. Your teammate can do a court switch behind you when you poach.
      3) Begin hitting all your balls to the weaker player on their side, freezing out their better player.
      4) Choose other players to play against next game.

  10. Great article. My partner and I are pretty new to the game, but if I am perceived as the stronger player, I get frozen out and my partner gets clobbered. Not only is this no fun for me, but it makes my partner reluctant to play on my team. Very frustrating for both of us.

    A partial solution: we have a group of friends who play a “rotation” game: After each of the four players serves out, the entire group rotates clockwise. If we have 5 or six, one of the waiting players rotates in on each shift. The score on each side of the net continues in place, but the players change.This helps us all focus on our skills, since no one really “wins” or “loses”.

    1. John, I like your idea of rotation because it seems like I am always stuck in a game with all beginners. And like Ginger says, once your paddle is in the losers’ pile, you are stuck there (for life, it seems). I have wondered if rec play with two or more courts could play on a timer so EVERYBODY gets a chance to rotate and play at their own level or above.

  11. Maybe the stronger player has a reputation as an inconsiderate recreational player (rude and anti-social). If the stronger player insufficiently plays down to the skill level of lesser players, the stronger player may be shut out. If the stronger player repeatedly beats lesser teams in lopsided wins, that player will be shut out. Frustrated stronger players should look to themselves. Become a better poacher. Return balls that help weaker players enjoy longer rallies and the thrill of winning more points. Keep the score around even. If this pattycake game gets dull, find stronger opponents, even if you have to drive an hour to the next club. Everyone will be happier.

    1. Hi Diana, In my opinion for the best rec play possible, both sides bear responsibility. Pickleball is very unique in the sense that there are very few sports where you will see such divergent skill sets playing together and, for the most part, getting along and enjoying themselves. I allude to a few of your points here on this post about pickleball etiquette. I think you may enjoy.

  12. Although I agree with all these comments, let me give you something else to consider. Our “rec” play policy states that when a game is finished the “winners” put their paddles in the “winners” pile and the losers in the losers pile. The next game is made up alternately from those baskets. Seems like once you get into the losers basket you are there all day. This gives lots of incentive for teams to want to win and therefore play to the weaker player.
    Does anyone have a better solution for creating teams?

    1. Hi Ginger, Thank you for your comment and feedback. I agree with the strategy of hitting to the weaker player in this scenario — just not to them 95% of the time!!! The “stronger” player wants to play as well.

      1. A game is poorly designed if it is not “played to win”. All games should be “played to win”. If you need to resort to “my partner wants to play too”, it is a poorly designed sport.

        This is why you see mixed doubles as being the worst in high end PB. At least in all male or all female games you can arrange for some parity and not have this problem.

  13. I have told opponents in rec play that I’m keeping track of MY errors during the game, and that “last game, I only had three. Send more balls my way and see if you can force me to make more.” It worked. I got more shots, and, yes, made more errors. 😄 And got lots more practice!

  14. Yup, last game I was ignored so badly that I briefly left the court to chase a loose ball before someone sprained their ankle. The ball never hit my side all the while.
    My partner did not appreciate my leaving.
    She refuses to play the net.

  15. This is a regular occurrence in rec play and of course tourney play for me. I spin it to be practice for our tourney play. I can’t control what they do but I can control what I do and think. It helps me to be patient, pick my moments, make the best of my moments and support my partner. On my side I purposely hit it to the stronger player often to get their game back at me/us. I had a high level player tell me about rec play, “most of these people come here to win, this is not a tournament. You don’t need to win, practice your shots, the score is not important.” It changed my perspective completely on rec play. Yes winning is nice but improving my game and how I think is better. My doubles partner, my wife and I enjoy rec play much more now.

  16. I’ve seen this happen too often in rec play and it’s totally ridiculous. Rec play is to improve your game, no matter what your level, yet too many people seem to have the goal of winning at all cost. I get it in a tournament, but just don’t get it in rec play. Then when you try to challenge people on it, some will act like they don’t know what you’re talking about. Others will laugh because they like what they’re doing.

  17. Great article and this subject is a major problem in Pickleball. As you say, it is the major strategy in Rec play. However, it is rude and anti-social.

    The best approach that I have found is to say a few things to the players before you start. “Hi there, just to let you know, I am in a mode of extending points and will simply keep the ball in play, so if you would like some rallies, hit a few balls my way.”

    The main point that I try to emphasize to the Pickleball world is that the sport today is blessed to have the better players willing to play with all levels. The better players, however, will arrange their own games like it is done in tennis if the weaker players never hit the ball to the better players. The answer to the problem is 2 fold:

    1. To the better players — reset the point, don’t smash winners, extend the point and try to have longer rallies, work on your finesse and placement.

    2. To the weaker players — hit to the better players. If one player is really good at hitting a drop shot into your kitchen, hit that player the ball as it will be an easier ball for you to play than a hard drive designed to beat you down.

    I recognize that the larger percentage of players are trying to win the point as soon as possible. Watch their faces when a little higher ball comes their way. Then watch the pace that they hit the ball. It is no wonder balls are cracking. While watching a player smash a ball for a winner, I have started to say, “Now flex your muscles.”

    There is nothing wrong with hitting a winner but don’t play every game with the intent of winning the point as quickly as possible. Work on some defense and think like a wall where where you simply get the ball back in play.

    1. This game is not for athletes. Perhaps that is why it is so popular and why when actual athletes come in, like tennis players, they are hated on?

      Is there any other sport on the planet where it is not played to win in rec play?

  18. In a tournament, it’s good strategy!….In a social game with friends, it’s a bad strategy for the reasons you outlined.

    1. It depends on your opponent. If they are the kind of “want-to-win-at-all-cost” I would return to the weaker one…

    2. Totally agree. Another related issue is the number of “good” players who refuse to play with beginners. Surely an occasional game with others of a lower rating would help to increase the skills of the playing base and benefit the game of pickle ball overall. Perhaps there is a difference between being a “good” player and a “skilled” player. A matter of social etiquette?

    3. As a strong player I see this all the time and it doesn’t bother me. At any level you should play to win. Anything else is not genuine and true to the game.

      Also, “if you are not hurt don’t cry!”

      1. OMG, an actual sane person.

        Unfortunately the courts are filled with these whining participation trophy types.

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