Breaking Down the First Five Shots in Pickleball

Breaking Down the First Five Shots in Pickleball

As a full time coach, I work with different types of pickleball players throughout my week. I have the newbies, who are just learning how to make contact with the ball. I work with the intermediate students, who are hungry for more strategy and shot selection tips. I also work with advanced players, who are always prepping for tournament play and focus on tedious mechanical adjustments and physical fitness to help them reach their goals. While there are many differences in how I teach each student group, one thing that never changes is my desire to teach the "why" of a particular shot or strategy. When players understand why they are doing something, they are more likely to commit to shots and have a better sense of what strategies are working and which one's aren't. When it comes to the first 5 shots in pickleball, I teach the same objectives across all levels of play. The level of difficulty and execution varies across different levels of play, but the objectives are always the same. Here is my in-depth look at what I teach my students about these shots and what we are looking to accomplish with each one. 

The Serve - Just get it in. I'm kidding...I believe all of us are a little better than that! Of course, as we are learning to make contact with the ball, it is all we can do at the beginning to direct that ball and get it in the right box. As we develop and gain more consistency, we should be looking to use our serve as more of a weapon than "just getting it in." I teach all of my students to get their serves as deep as possible. If we miss a serve, we don't want to miss it into the net or wide, we want to miss it long. This shows that we are focusing on getting the serve as deep as possible to make the opponents job of moving in more difficult.

Play around with different trajectories before you start messing around with different spins. I see a lot of new players who start trying to use "cute" serves with crazy and hard to hit spins before they develop a consistent serve. The problem with trying to be really cute with our serves, is that we often end up hitting low percentage serves, missing into the net or wide. Instead of trying to use weird spins, start playing around with different heights of your ball. We often think that hitting a ball as close to the net and as hard as possible is going to be the best possible serve. Truthfully, these hard and low serves often only make it halfway through the transition box and don't get as deep as we would like. These are also the types of serves that these new tennis to pickleball players are comfortable hitting. Work on throwing in a lob serve or a serve that is hit with a higher trajectory to get it back to the baseline. This will give you a better chance of hitting the ball deep and give your opponents a little bit of trouble with their returns. 

The first spin we should really start adding to our serves is top spin. This allows us to be more aggressive while keeping the ball in. Going for sidespin out wide is usually too low percentage to go for consistently. Top Spin is your best risk-reward play on the serve. 

The Return - Again, miss deep. As the returning team, we have the ability to put max pressure on the serving team. The returning team has the opportunity to get to the kitchen line first and keep the opposing team back. On your returns, we should be looking to hit the ball deep and get to the line as fast as possible. Just like the serve, we don't want to find ourselves going for small margins and missing wide or into the net. By missing on the return, we end up giving up free points to the serving team. My aim is always to the middle portion of the court and towards the base line. Aiming middle helps me keep the ball in the court while hitting over the lowest part of the net. It can also cause confusion on the opposing team as to who is going to hit the next ball, and it eliminates crazy angles that the serving team can use to hit difficult-to-handle third shot drops. Also, play around with different trajectories. Laser returns aren't always the best shot selection here. When we are trying to get to the line quick, they can actually hurt us. The faster we hit it, the shorter amount of time we have to get to the line. Start incorporating a higher and loftier return to give your opponent different looks and to give yourself more time to get to the kitchen line. 

3rd Shot Options - Drop, Drive or Lob. There are a lot of different thought processes on when to hit a drive or a drop and when to incorporate a lob. My own personal opinion on this is actually changing and I do believe it all depends on your skill set, your partner's skill set and how you approach the 5th ball. However, the most important question here isn't which shot to hit, the question we need to answer is why we hit each shot. The answer is the same for all 3 options...we hit 3rd's to get to the kitchen line. Many new students and low percentage players use the third shot drop and third shot drive to try and win the point. Maybe they go for a really steep angle on the drop or they continuously go for line winners on their drives. You may get some free points off of good drops and drives, but we shouldn't be using these shots as winners. We want to play higher percentage than that. Use them to set up your next ball to give you a better opportunity to get to the kitchen. Use the lob to get to the kitchen. Don't just watch your thirds and expect your opponent to miss. Be ready for the ball to come back and remember what your objective is...get to the line!

4th Shot - When we are hitting our 4th shot (as the returning team,) we are in a position to apply pressure to our opponents trying to get to the kitchen. We should be leaning into the kitchen looking to take anything out of the air that we can. By taking balls out of the air and punching or rolling them back to out opponents feet, we can keep pressure on and make it difficult for them to get in. If a good third shot drop is hit, chances are we can still let it bounce and apply pressure. Develop the skill to take a step back and hit a rolling shot back towards your opponents feet as they come in. The more aggressive you can learn to be on your 4th shot, the longer you can keep your opponents under pressure on your next (6th and 8th) balls. Here is what we don't want to do. Don't invite them in by conceding to the dink too early. If they are still in transition or back at the baseline, hit the ball back to them. By trying to drop the ball in the kitchen, we invite our opponents in and make their job easy. We also don't want to hit winners through the sideline. When our opponents are back, play the long game and keep hitting balls to their feet. By going for short angled winners, we often miss into the net or wide and give up free points. Hit through the back of the court and keep applying pressure as long as you can. If they get to the kitchen, that's fine, just make it hard as possible and don't give them any freebies before they get there. 

5th Shot - After our 3rd shot drops and drives, chances are we are going to have to follow that shot up with another ball in transition. Remember, our goal with our 3rd's and transition balls is to get to the kitchen line, not to win points. We should always be ready to take an aggressive 5th ball at our feet and reset it into the kitchen. We do this by stopping early, getting low and getting our paddle in a low ready position. By doing this, we allow ourself to handle those hard transition balls at our feet and put them into the kitchen so we can move up. We don't want to find ourselves swinging aggressively through these balls and trying to win points in transition. If we are driving low balls or short balls in transition, we are either going to hit them out, into the net, or our opponents are going to end up getting a ball they can put away. The 5th and 7th balls should be dropped in your opponents kitchen to allow yourself to get to the kitchen safely at a higher rate. We become more effective creating offense from the kitchen line. Even if I end up taking a ball out of the air halfway through transition, I'm still looking to block it into my opponent's kitchen (Collin Johns probably does this better than anyone.) So use your transition balls to neutralize the point, and look to create offense once you get to the kitchen line. 

By understanding the "why" of each shot, it helps us commit to shots without having so many options going on in our brains. Of course, all of this takes practice and development. You won't be able to read an article such as this one and automatically be able to implement it. Create a plan for each ball in different situations and begin drilling those balls until they become your go-to shots. You can make adjustments from there as there are always exceptions to the rules we create for ourselves, but having basic rules of thumbs for each shot will help us gain consistency and improve our success on the pickleball court!

Please feel free to reach out to me with any questions you have! I am certified teaching pro in Augusta, GA and I help students improve their skills every day! If you would like me to help me with your game, please reach out me about my video analysis services so we can get your game headed in the right direction!

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