Having good footwork – particularly at the non-volley (kitchen) line – is an all-too-often overlooked and under-appreciated pickleball fundamental. That shouldn’t be the case, however.
Afterall, having solid footwork puts one in the best position to get to the ball, successfully hit the ball (making contact in front) and recover after hitting it. Good footwork also allows one to do this efficiently – without unnecessary movement or an unnecessary expenditure of energy – and without committing non-volley zone faults.
It All Starts with Proper Positioning at the Kitchen Line
Proper pickleball kitchen footwork begins with proper positioning at the non-volley line. A general rule-of-thumb, when at the non-volley line, is to be positioned just an inch or two behind the line.
When you are just an inch or two behind the line, you will be protected by the net on shots that would otherwise hit your feet. Being close to the line also limits the angles that are available to your opponent.
Keep your Hips Square to the Ball
During non-volley line exchanges, whether they be dinks or volleys, the goal is to keep your hips and body square to the court and to the oncoming ball – and to avoid excessive “reaching” for the ball.
Staying square allows you to maintain your positioning along the line without needlessly stepping into the non-volley zone. It also prevents you from being in a vulnerable position after execution of the shot.
Instead of stepping forward and into the non-volley zone, stay back – with your body square to the ball – and “let the ball come to you” while keeping both feet behind the line.
On Shorter Dinks, Keep One Foot Planted Outside the Kitchen While Stepping in with the Other Foot
There are certainly times, however, on shorter dinks, for example, when it is necessary to take a step into the non-volley zone to hit the ball. In these instances, try to maintain one foot planted outside of the non-volley line, lunge forward to contact the ball, and then return that foot once again behind the non-volley line.
This is much easier than entering the non-volley zone with two feet to hit the ball and then attempting to reestablish both feet once again outside of the kitchen.
Drop Step the Deeper Dinks to Give Yourself Additional Space
When your opponent hits a deeper dink to you – perhaps one that would land at or around your non-volley line – you have to make a split second decision about taking the ball out-of-the-air or letting it bounce. If you let the ball bounce without adjusting your feet, you will likely get jammed and may pop the ball up for an opponent’s easy put-away.
If a dink is hit at your feet on the right side, simply pivot on your left foot (keep that left foot planted) and swing your right leg back. This creates more space to execute a comfortable dink. Then simply pivot back on that left foot, returning your right leg once again so that your body is square to the oncoming ball.
Do the same when the ball is hit at your feet on the left side. Pivot on your right foot and swing your left leg back. Presto!!! You are no longer jammed and you have created sufficient space to execute an effective dink. Finally, pivot back and return your left leg so you are once again square to the ball.
Dinks Requiring Lateral Movement – Slide and Lead with your Outside Leg
For those dinks that require a bit of lateral movement to return them, keep your body square to the court and slide along the line (just behind the line) until you are able to contact the ball comfortably in front of your body. For these slide steps, you will want to lead with your outside leg.
Don’t forget after executing the dink to move and correctly position yourself for the likely next shot. And practice and drill this way, too! All too often I see players – when practicing cross-court dinks, for example – positioned next to the sideline and not returning to the center of their respective court.
Avoid Crossing Over Whenever Possible
For those of you who have started playing pickleball with a tennis background, the tendency when moving along the non-volley line is to routinely “cross-over” when executing dinks and volleys. Crossing over simply refers to the action when one leg completely crosses over the other.
The downside of needlessly crossing over when hitting dinks is that it all-too-often results in a ball that is too close to your body (your foot or knee, for example) at contact – which means you didn’t contact the ball in front of your body and likely sacrificed a bit of control.
Crossing over also makes you vulnerable on your next shot if your opponent decides to hit one right at you or behind you. Staying square, however, keeps the ball directly in front of you, which means you are much more prepared to handle your opponent’s attack.
Cross-Stepping, Combined with a Slide Step When You Have Extensive Ground to Cover!
The technique is fairly straight-forward but does require practice and repetition so that it becomes second-nature.
For a ball hit well wide to your left, take your right leg and cross it over your left leg. Then slide your left leg (now positioned behind your right leg) to the left. Likewise, for a ball hit well wide to your right, take your left leg and cross it over your right leg. Then slide your right leg (now positioned behind your left leg) to the right.
It’s important to note that the further out the ball is, the more explosive the first step needs to be.
Final Thoughts on Pickleball Kitchen Footwork
Effective and efficient pickleball footwork at the kitchen line is just as important as having fundamental shot-making technique and a well thought out game plan and strategy. Make sure you practice this often-times underappreciated fundamental.
See you on the courts!