Coaches Top Tips

Top Tips from Paul Telling of Runnymede Club and IPTPA Level II Coach

TIP # 11 - Service matters

Following on from a previous tip, here’s another way to make practice fun.

Once you’ve mastered getting your serve in, you should consider what you can do to make it a real weapon.  (Imagine how many points are won on serve in tennis.)  To do this you might need to master a

– hard serve down the centre line

– short, angled serve to the front corner of the service box

– high-bouncing, lobbed serve

– serve with some side or top spin

– really powerful “boomer” (maybe even with a step or two before contact ?)


So, when you play your next game with friends, go fully “tennis” and give servers TWO serves.  That way you can all practice serves not currently in your arsenal, knowing that if it doesn’t come off you still have another chance to play your normal serve and get the point underway.  NB  Clearly have in mind what you are trying to achieve with your first serve; don’t just reproduce your “old faithful”.

TIP # 10 - Fed up with being lobbed?

If you’re playing against opponents who are lobbing time and time again – perhaps they’ve noticed either you or your partner are not as mobile as you might be – you need to take some action to improve your chances.

Contrary to what I and other coaches have always told students, getting tight up to the kitchen line is probably working against you in this situation.  Both you and your partner taking a couple of small steps back will give them less area to aim into – and put you nearer to where the lob might land, increasing your chance to “run it down”.

In extreme cases where it’s just one of you who’s being lobbed, consider adopting a more “tennis doubles” formation; one up and one (nearly) back.  Doing this does leave one side of the court exposed to a stop (drop) volley, however.  So the net man needs to be very agile and should probably stand one sidestep nearer to the centre of the court than usual.

NOTE:  If you play a decent drop into the NVZ, or a shot to their weaker side (often backhand side) you may be able to take away their ability to play the lob.

TIP # 9 - Don’t hit it back to them!

There’s a theory that we are somehow “hardwired” to hit a ball back to our opponents.  It may have something to do with our formative years when we played ”catch ball” with family and friends.  We tried to keep a rally going as having to continually pick up the ball from the floor was no fun. Result: we threw the ball “nicely” for our friends to catch.

But in pickleball we want to end the rally; so we need to think about hitting the ball to the left or right of our opponent. Break that old habit and you’ll have much more success.

TIP # 8 - One for the organisers

Playing a club championship or an inter-club match, and given the likelihood you won’t have unlimited court time, it’s often a good idea to play “timed” games.  This means that each “rubber” will finish after a designated time, for example 10 minutes, rather than when one teams reaches 11 points.  Work out how many “rounds” you can fit in (allowing for some down time between rounds) and make up your playing schedule accordingly.  This way you can be sure you’ll have the competition finished in your allocated time.  Blow a whistle to start/stop play and have players report their final score to you.

But please don’t use the number of actual points scored by each pair in the round and total them up to ascertain your competition winner.  This puts too much emphasis on winning points quickly – which leads to rushed play with little or no finesse.  Much better is to award the pair (or each member of the pair if they will be changing partners for subsequent “rubbers”) with 4 points for a win, 3 points for a tie, 2 points to the losers’ if their score is within one point of the winners and 1 point if they lose by two points. Then add those points to find your overall winner for the session.

TIP # 7 - Very quick, but effective, tip

Don’t stand rigidly facing directly at the net when waiting for a ball to be hit by your opponents. Rather, stand facing the ball.

TIP # 6 - Any lefties on-board?

Use your pre-game warm up to check out whether your opponents are right or left handed. Since most players prefer not to have balls hit to their non-dominant hand, you’ll need this info to know where to place your shots for maximum disruptive effect.

TIP # 5 - Drop shot geometry

The 3rd, 5th, 7th …. shot drop is one of the hardest (and least practiced!) shots in pickleball.

It’s fairly obvious we want the ball to be on its downward path as it passes over the net; this means that it’s apex (highest point) must be on your side.  In fact, geometry tells us that the apex should be pretty much exactly above your NVZ line. That helps visually, I think.

Extra tip: try tossing the ball, underarm, from the baseline into the opponents’ kitchen to get the feel of the required trajectory.

TIP # 4 - Service Return Speed

The ‘gold standard’ in service returns is one that is not hit too hard – and maybe even looped a bit – as long as it lands deep. The longer your return is in the air the greater time you have to join your partner at the net and set yourselves in a dominant position. (Even better if you can aim the return between your two opponents to cause maximum confusion!  “Yours!” “Yours!”)

But don’t fall into the trap of becoming too readable. Mix in the occasional ‘ripped’ drive return.  Surprise is a great weapon!

TIP # 3 - Played a cross court? Protect “down the line”

Your partner has played a pretty decent cross court shot which has taken the player opposite you wide – but he/she’s gonna run it down. Now, whatever you do, don’t get beaten with a down the line shot. To avoid this you’ll need to move slightly towards your sideline – and so as not to open up a gaping hole between you – your partner will need to move a bit in the same direction too. “What happens if the return is so sharply angled it beats my partner crosscourt” I hear you say ?  Answer: tell them they are better players than you and deserved that great point!  End of!  Just make sure they’ve had to work for it.

TIP # 2 - Having problems with the drop shot?

You know the situation, you and your partner have battled hard; you’ve established a dominant position at the net and have pushed one or both of your opponents to defend from the baseline.  They drive the ball hoping to give themselves an opportunity to regain position at the NVZ.  There’s a gaping hole into which you have just have to ‘plop’ the ball – but even though your opponents don’t possess lightening speed, they still reach your not-quite-short-enough drop shot.

The answer to why your shot sails too long maybe in your grip on the paddle.  On a a scale of 1-10 (one being just two fingers gripping the handle, to 10 being an ‘iron’ fist) you need between a 2 and a 3 to execute this shoot properly.  Relax the grip for greater success on the drop (or ‘stop’) volley – and there’s no need for any follow through. 

TIP # 1 - What do you want from your game?

Pretty obviously you want a fun sport that gets you fit and into the company of like-minded people.  But most players asked that question would certainly add that they’d like to improve and play at a better level – even if they claim not to be “competitive”.    Wanting to get better at anything is a natural human trait.

And most pickleball players reckon they can achieve that goal by playing more often, competing against better players, “trying harder”, etc.  The bad news is – that almost certainly won’t work. The key to improvement is PRACTICE!   The trouble is “practicing” is not as much fun as “playing”.

So how about trying to incorporate practice into a game; best of both words, right?  Let’s see how we might achieve that.

Why not:

For beginner level players:

Include a rule in your games where any ball hit into the net incurs a double penalty  i.e. if the serving team makes that mistake the serve moves on, AND their opponents receive a point; if one of the receiving team makes the mistake, the serving team get two points.  The net will quickly become your enemy!

For improvers:

Totally ban lobs during a game for a part of your session; the rally is lost by anyone playing a lob.  A lob can be a useful shot, but is extremely difficult to execute consistently, especially against stronger players.  A lob is often used as a “get out of jail card”, but how much better not to have to go to jail in the first place !  Learn to start playing shots that are unattackable and you’ll not need to lob nearly so much.

And for the tournament level competitors:

Play a normal game except that the 3rdshot MUST be played as a drop.  You know this is probably your weakest shot, but you really do need to master playing it from all places on the court and even against hard-hit shots if you want to progress up the ability ladder.   (N.B. in proper games/matches playing the 3rdshot as a drop is not recommended when (a) the service return is short, (b) the returner has remained on their baseline and (c) the service return has you off balance or out of position.)

There are loads of other “weaknesses” that can be addressed by modifying normal game rules slightly.  Use your imagination to make practice fun.