As a pickleball instructor, whenever I work with a new student I stress two strategic principles that – all things being equal – will set them up for immediate success on the pickleball court:
- Get to the Non-Volley Line at the First Opportunity
- Hit the Ball at your Opponents’ Feet
While these strategies are, obviously, not the only two, these two will, inarguably, make you a better pickleball player.
1. Get to the Non-Volley Line at Your First Opportunity
To play winning pickleball, it is absolutely critical to get to the non-volley line at your first opportunity.
How Close to the Non-Volley Line Should you Get?
It is important to remember that “getting to the non-volley line” means just that – “getting to the non-volley line.” It doesn’t mean positioning yourself two feet away from the non-volley line, or nine feet away from the net.
As a general rule, you will want to be just an inch or two away from the non-volley line. Of course, there are rare exceptions when you may want to retreat from the line just a bit to give yourself just a little more reaction time during quick volley exchanges.
Why is it so Important to get to the Non-Volley Line?
Being positioned just behind the non-volley line has several inherent advantages:
- By being just seven feet away from the net you will be able to hit most shots that are higher than net height with a descending blow. Hitting the ball with a descending blow makes it much easier to keep the ball in play.
- It reduces your opponents’ reaction times. Because you are closer to the net (and to your opponent), it will be easier to hit the ball past them.
- It reduces your opponents target area (where they are trying to hit the ball) and makes it that much more difficult for your opponent to hit the ball at your feet. Afterall, the net is protecting you (your feet) when you are positioned close to the line. If you back up just a bit, your feet are exposed and it is much easier for your opponent to hit the ball at your feet.
- Being positioned so close to the line reduces angles that your opponents can exploit. By backing up just a bit, your opponent can now leverage additional angles that they didn’t have when you were positioned close to the line.
Theoretically Speaking, Which Team Should Get to the Non-Volley Line First?
Which team should be able to get to the non-volley line first – the serving team or the returning team? If you answered, “the returning team,” you are correct. Remember, in pickleball, the ball has to bounce on each side before hitting the ball out of the air.
So let’s think about this for a moment. The person returning serve has to let the serve bounce before returning it. No different than tennis. Because you can win points more easily from the non-volley line, the return of server should return the serve and immediately come and join his/her partner – who should strategically already be positioned there as the serve is executed – at the non-volley line.
Remember, unlike tennis, the serving team has to let the return-of-serve bounce before they hit it out of the air. Because of this condition, both the server and the server’s partner would be strategically wise to stay back near the baseline until the ball bounces.
So now, both players on the team that returned serve are positioned at the non-volley line, while the serving team is back further in the court waiting for the return-of-serve to bounce. Advantage, receiving team. They have gotten to the non-volley line first and are poised to control the rally.
So what does this mean for you?
2. Hit the Ball at your Opponents’ Feet
Regardless of where your opponent is positioned on the court, an important strategic rule-of-thumb is to hit the ball at your opponents’ feet. Think about a ball that is hit at or near your feet. It is difficult to return without popping it up and giving your opponent the opportunity to slam the next one.
“Regardless of where your opponent is positioned on the court?” What does that mean? Simple. Consider the following:
- If your opponent is at their non-volley line, dink or drop the ball at your opponents’ feet. Force them to hit “up” on their next shot. It they are forced to hit “up” on their next shot from the non-volley line, it will be extremely challenging (and low-percentage) for them to hit it hard and still keep the ball in play.
- If your opponent is in no-man’s land (perhaps you call it the transition zone or opportunity zone), take some pace off your shot and hit the ball at their feet. It’s more effective to take some pace off and hit a shot that lands at their feet than to hit a ball hard that is chest high.
- If your opponent is stuck or loitering at or near the baseline, keep them pinned back and hit the ball at their feet. You have the clear advantage. Don’t give up this advantage and needlessly bring them up to the non-volley line.
Therefore, even if it means taking pace off your shot, hit the ball at your opponents’ feet. Keep them on the defensive. You will be amazed how successful that tactic is.
For more pickleball strategy tips, be sure to check out our pickleball strategy page. See you on the courts!