If you’re like most, the importance of dinking and playing the “soft” game has been ingrained into your being from the earliest stages of your pickleball journey. Perhaps it’s been so ingrained that you consider the “soft” game the “proper” way to play – as if there were a “proper” way to play pickleball.
And then when you play a game against those who almost exclusively bang the ball – you don’t know the strategies or tactics to defeat this style of play. You become frustrated and annoyed. You then complain that those who bang the ball aren’t really playing “pickleball” and don’t know how to play the “right way.” As a result, you vow to never play with these bangers ever again. Perhaps you can personally relate – or, more likely, you know somebody who possesses this short-sighted mindset.
Now hold on! Before proceeding, let’s first dispel the myth that there is a single, “proper” way to play. In fact, there’s not a “proper” way to play pickleball. And, honestly, it’s the different styles of play that make the game of pickleball so fun and challenging. So instead of disparaging their style of play, learn how to beat this style of play.
What’s a Banger? A Definition.
In pickleball parlance, a banger is simply a person who likes to hit the ball hard and attempt to overpower their opponent. Most players, when first starting out, are bangers – simply because they haven’t yet learned the strategies of the soft game – such as dinking and hitting drop shots.
Banging the ball – particularly if one can impart topspin to keep the ball in – can be a very effective strategy. It’s especially true if the opponent doesn’t possess the requisite strategies and technique to counter these hard hit balls.
Strategies to Neutralize Bangers
There are several different strategies at our disposal to neutralize and counter bangers. It’s important to understand the advantages and techniques for each.
Let the “Out” Balls Go, Well, “Out”
The first strategy is the easiest to execute, yet most difficult to know when to implement. It involves letting the ball whiz on by. When playing against bangers, the tendency for many of us is to hit balls that would have flown beyond the baseline had we just let the ball go.
Remember, there’s just 22 feet from the net to the baseline. It’s not a whole lot of space. It’s imperative, therefore, that we let “out” balls go out. Fortunately, there are several “hints” that will help us identify those instances in which the ball will likely sail harmlessly beyond the baseline.
So How Do I Know if the Ball is Gonna Be “Out?”
There are a number of factors/variables that will help you in determining if the hard-hit ball is likely going to sail harmlessly beyond the baseline or if it’s going to land short of the baseline. I get it. The ball is whizzing at you – sometimes at warp speed. It’s a split-second calculation. I never said it was easy.
Where is your Opponent Positioned on the Court When they Bang the Ball?
The closer your opponent is in proximity to the net when they contact the ball, the greater the chance that the ball will sail beyond the baseline. It makes sense. The ball has less court real estate to traverse when hit closer to the net. The converse is also true. The further back your opponent is in their own court (and away from the net), the greater the chance that that same ball will stay in because there is more court-real estate for the ball to traverse.
Where is your Opponent’s Contact Point Relative to the Height of the Net?
Your opponent’s contact point is simply the point at which your opponent contacts the ball with his/her paddle. If the contact point is low to the ground and well below net height level, the greater the chance that their hard hit ball will fly beyond the opponent’s baseline.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. We’ll cover topspin in just a moment.
How Big was your Opponent’s Backswing?
The size of your opponent’s backswing will also give you a hint about whether the ball will go in our out. With all things being equal, the bigger the backswing, the farther the ball will travel. And if they take a big backswing and they are relatively close to the net (or their contact point is close to the ground), the chance of the ball sailing out is even greater.
Is your Opponent Hitting with Topspin?
Topspin is another factor – albeit a complicating factor.
Most tennis players have the ability to impart topspin.
Balls that are driven hard over the net with topspin dip/drop. If your opponent doesn’t strike the ball with topspin, it will be much more unlikely that they will be able to keep that hard hit ball in the court.
Is your Opponent Hitting With the Wind or Against the Wind?
It is so much easier to hit the ball hard and keep it in when hitting against the wind. It’s much more challenging to keep the hard-hit ball in when hitting with the wind. Make sure you know the wind conditions at all times. It can be a huge factor.
All these calculations must be made within a split second. As a general rule, an effective strategy is to remember the phrase, “chest high, let it fly.” However, it’s simply a general rule and all these aforementioned variables must be factored into your decision-making process.
Volley the Ball Firmly Back at their Feet
A second strategy to neutralize bangers – in addition to letting out balls go out – is to firmly volley the ball back at their feet. Bangers rejoice when their hard-hit ball results in a mid-court “pop-up” where they can once again grip-it-and-rip-it. Nothing makes them salivate more than being able to “reload” again and again.
A firm volley at their feet, however, will prevent the would-be banger from offensively dictating the next shot. The firm volley at their feet will force them on their heels and into a defensive position. Remember, the banger wants to be able to step into the ball and swing with all their might. That firm volley at their feet will put them into a defensive posture – the banger kryptonite.
To execute that firm volley, make sure you’re first split-stepped and in a balanced position with your feet slightly more than shoulder-width apart and your weight on the balls of your feet. With a firmer grip pressure (perhaps 7 or 8 on a scale of 1-10) make sure you extend your arm during the volley. Without this arm extension, your volley will just fall flat and/or pop-up.
Absorb the Pace of the Hard Hit Ball and Block it Softly Back into the Opponent’s Kitchen
Generally speaking, bangers don’t want to get into a “soft” game with their opponents. Therefore, another potential strategy is to block that hard-hit ball softly back into their kitchen – likely forcing them to execute a not-what-they-wanted dink shot with their next shot. If they opt, instead, to bang the ball that you softly blocked into their kitchen, get ready to get out of the way because their ball will likely go into the net or sail beyond the baseline.
In terms of technique – after split-stepping – and with your feet slightly more than shoulder-width apart and your weight on the balls of your feet, simply make contact (and not much else) in front of your body. Unlike the intentional arm extension when executing the firm volley directed at your opponent’s feet, the block volley requires you to be very “quiet” with minimal paddle movement. If there’s any paddle movement at all it’s an ever-so-slightly high-to-low (of about an inch or so) motion in front of your body.
Drills for Blocking
With a partner – and both of you positioned at the non-volley line – begin dinking and have one person speed it up while the other person simply blocks the ball back harmlessly into the kitchen. Have the person speeding it up, progressively, speed it up. Once the person blocking the ball into the kitchen successfully executes blocks of balls hit with various speeds, change roles with your partner so the one initiating the pace is now the one hitting the block shots.
You could also do some drills where the “feeder” positions him/herself at different court depths – some in the transition area and some all the way back to the baseline. The feeder is hitting the ball “hard” at the person across the net at the non-volley line. The partner at the non-volley line should work on simply blocking the ball back harmlessly into the opponent’s kitchen as well as hitting hard/firm volleys back at the “feeder’s” feet.
Another helpful drill is the 2-touch volley drill. This is a drill that you can do without a partner – as long as you have access to a wall. This drill is great as you learn to absorb the ball into your paddle.
Finally, be sure to let some balls go so that you get a better feeling for the balls that would sail out and those that would stay in the court of play. You may be surprised how many balls actually land “out.”
So there you have it. Don’t get upset with those that bang the ball. Instead, learn to defeat this style of play. It starts with letting “out” balls go. And then it takes practice and drilling for the successful execution of the volleys hit sharply at the banger’s feet as well as soft block volleys that land harmlessly in their kitchen. You’ll love the results.
See you on the courts!