This video was recorded at Palm Creek Golf & RV Resort in Casa Grande, Arizona. Examples of pickleball strategies were clipped from the videos and edited to create short instructional videos. Together the short video clips form the outline of a Core Pickleball Strategies class. Below are the videos and my talking points, Hopefully, there is something in the material that 'speaks to you' and raises your game a notch! Enjoy. - Steve Mueller
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While I was putting this project together, I viewed a recorded conversation with Barney McCallum.  Barney was one of the original founders/developers of pickleball from Bainbridge Island, WA.  I would encourage you to listen to this excerpt before you get into the action videos below, because I think you will find it lends validity to the strategies discussed.  I call them "core" strategies, because they have their foundation in the very design of the game.

They wanted to create balance; take away some of the advantages of super athletic types to get longer rallies, and to achieve more competition across a broader cross-section of players.  So they eliminated the overhand serve, created a large non-volley zone, and implemented the two bounce rule.  This in effect choreographed the first three shots of every exchange.  They made every exchange begin with a ground-stroke rally.  Have you ever felt it is hard to score points in pickleball?  That is because it is!  They adopted badmitten scoring where you can only score points when you are serving, and then gave a huge advantage to the Receiving Team; an almost free pass to get to the net.  So, the first strategy of the game is to take advantage of the design of the game and use your free pass to "get to the net"

1. Getting to the Net


Arguably the number one strategy in all of pickleball is getting up to the net ASAP.  That is to say getting up to the non-volley zone line.  These video clips illustrate how a team at the line can dominate play.  It is where you want to be.

2. Deep Returns


It is the Receiving Team who have an inherent advantage in getting to the net and dominating play.  The key to exercising that advantage is executing a deep return of serve.  This allows the person returning the serve time to get up to the net where their partner should already be.  It also has the effect of keeping the Serving Team back near the baseline, because they have to let the ball bounce before they hit it.

3. Invitations


So, what if you do not make a deep return of serve?  Well, you are potentially relinquishing your inherent advantage by "inviting" the Serving Team to join you up at the net.  They have to move forward to return the ball.  So, now you are on equal terms.  That is the best case scenario for a short return of serve.  Worse case is that the short return bounces high near the non-volley line.  In that case you have set-up an offensive shot for the Serving Team, and are going to get the ball pounded at you in close quarters.  In so doing, you have not only relinquished your inherent advantage, but you have managed to 'reversed the tables' and are now on the defensive. 


It has been several years since I developed this material.  It is ironic that the one thing that I personally found most significant is the least watched module.  I would encourage people to view it.  If you are not conscious of the advantages of consistently deep 'returns of serve' in your game, this concept is something that can have a significant impact on improving your game.  It did mine!  If you would like a more detailed (long-winded) explanation of the disadvantages of 'inviting' your opponents up to the net, Click Here to view a recording we did on the subject years ago.  - Steve 4/25/2017

4. Leveling the Playing Field


With the deck stacked against them; what's a Serving Team to Do?  Answer: Get up to the net ASAP to 'level the playing field'. How?  You have three realistic shot options at this point of the game; the blaster, the lob and the drop shot. If you have a strong ground stroke shot, you can try to blast the ball through the line.  This can be effective at lower levels of play, initially.  However, do not get too dependent on it, because as you play more experienced players it will become much less of an effective option.  Much the same can be said for the lob shot, where you hit the ball over the heads of your opponents back near the baseline.  Initially, it can be very effective, however, as you move up the ratings people tend to be more mobile and the shot all but disappears in 5.0 play.  The drop shot is a lightly hit ball that drops just over the net into the non-volley zone.  If properly executed the shot allows both Serving Team partners to move up to the net before the Receiving Team can hit the ball.  It is also a defensive safe shot which forces the Receiving team to hit the ball under-handed with few options for an offensive shot.  The drop shot is the most effective way to 'level the playing field'.  The drop is worth mastering, and will serve you well right up through the ratings.

5. Regaining the Net


It is never too late to level the playing field.  If the 3rd shot of the game doesn't get you to the net, there is the 5th, 7th, 9th etc. to try it again.  Likewise if you have been pushed back from the line, try to regain the line.  

There is a natural tendency to meet power with power.  That is to say if the ball is hit hard at you, your first instinct is to smash it back.  This is not necessarily the best strategy, and certainly not for trying to regain the line.  Slowing up the play with a drop shot gives a better opportunity to move forward.  Watch how these teams are constantly trying to create an opportunity to move forward.

6. Make Safe Shots


Not trying to hit a winner with every shot is a very significant factor in separating out better players from the rest of the pack.  Top rated players make lots of safe simple shots through the course of a game.  Around the courts you will hear this referred to in a number of ways: "keep the ball in play", "don't try to make every shot a winner", "let your opponent make the unforced error", "the centre is your friend", etc.  (Ed. note: In this video, when the screen flips horizontally, what follows is a slow motion repeat of a small portion of the segment you just viewed.)

7. The Art of Gifting


By some estimates, 75% of rallies are won by the opposing team making an unforced error.  So, it follows that reducing unforced errors is an extremely effective strategy for winning more games.  A very simple error to attempt to remove from your game is not returning the serve.  We call these 'gift points', because all the serving team had to do was get their serve in that big box in front of you, and for that you gifted them with a point.  If you and your partner are giving 3,4 or more gift points per game, you are making it very very difficult to win.  It is the equivalent of spotting your opponent points before the game.  Like starting down 4-0, or 5-0, etc.  Here is a composite game to drive the point home.

8. Forcing your Opponent to Make Errors


Better players study and exploit weaknesses in their opponent's game.  I have observed a pattern where really good players may start-out losing to an unknown opponent, but quickly make adjustments based on "holes" in their opponent's game, and begin to take over the play.  

Some weaknesses are more universal.  For instance it is generally agreed that most players have a stronger forehand than backhand.  So, hitting to your opponent's backhand as a general rule is a good strategy.

9. Setting up the Kill Shot


As I played pickleball more in the beginning, I began to get more kill shots, and I thought I was getting pretty good.  My modest partner tried to tactfully let me know that like a game of chess, he had in fact set-up my dramatic shot a couple of shots before.  Soon I realized he was placing shots to get one of our opponents out of position so that they would 'pop' the ball up.  Often times I was the recipient of that desperate little pop up.  Here are some good examples of set-ups for the kill shot.

10. Covering the Court


The diagrams in this module do not translate well to a website like this, because when I present it in person I stop the video to explain the diagrams.  In both the dinking and full court diagrams there are two main points to make.  First, partners need to shift laterally depending on where the ball is on the court.  If the ball is on the other side of the net, but on your side of the court, you need to shift slightly towards the sideline to cover any shot down the line.  When you shift, your partner should shift slight towards the centre line to close the gap between the two of you.  The second point is you need to move together.  The dinking videos will make this very clear.

11. Being Unpredictable


Doing the same thing in any given situation on the court can make you a very easy person to play against.  If the person you are playing knows the shot you are very very likely to make, it allows them extra time to get into position to counter it.  You need to exploit predictability and to be unpredictable yourself.  The first three examples are called a 'cobra'.  It is a meant to look like a dink shot, but a quick flick of the wrist turns it into an unexpectedly hard shot to the body.  (Again the horizontal flip screen shows you in slow motion the 'unpredictable' part of the video you just watched)

12. Pop Goes the Weasel


I think poaching gets a bad name. The term has such negative connotations.  'Pop-goes-the-Weasel' or 'Jack in the Box' would be far more descriptive of this very effective move.  Unfortunately, my campaign to change the name is going nowhere. 

Poaching is a special case of exploiting predictability. Generally, you will see the ball hit to the deeper player and/or the perceived weaker player, and the partner near the net cuts off the shot.  When it works it is an extremely effective way to end a rally.  When it doesn't work, ....well, I 'll just leave it up to your partner to let you know how they feel about your stealing their shot.

The End


If you have made it all the way to this last video, congratulations!  You have passed the class with flying colours. 

I welcome your feedback on the materials presented here. I love talking pickleball.  Like many players I am sure I talk a better game than I actually play. No harm done. You can make comments below. (not on my play, please; on the materials, thank you :-)

Finally, enjoy this nostalgic tribute to pickleball in the good old days (2013).

Pickleball Shootout Spreadsheet Template

Totally unrelated to the above material, I needed a place to direct people to Download some other material I developed.  
This is a spreadsheet template I created to help organize and run pickleball Shootouts (Sometimes called a ladder).  It is a fun and very competitive way to organize pickleball play. The template is a LibreOffice Calc spreadsheet.  LibreOffice is a Free office suite, almost identical to OpenOffice suite.  Either will work just fine.  I have been using one or the other for over ten years, and they are great.  You can download and run them in Linux, Windows and on Macs.  Did I mention they are FREE? 
For more detailed written information download the Pickleball Shootout Spreadsheet (PSS) Instructions first.  
I have put together an on screen video tutorial for organizing and running PSS.  View it here or you can view it on YouTube at:  In either case, be sure to right click and select the highest resolution.

If you decide to download PSS, make sure you download the score sheet PDF, too.  I have also added a copy of a handout I did for a shootout here at Palm Creek.  It is meant to explain the scoring to players taking part in the shootout.  feel free to use it as a template for your own handout.   - Steve Mueller
Since its release in the Spring 2015, there have been revisions to correct bugs we have discovered.  Below is the latest revision as of August 13, 2016.
Download the Shootout Score Sheet Now
Download a copy of sample shootout handout

Update: (4/25/2017) Since releasing this material, I have received a lot of feedback; for which I am grateful.  As a result of that feedback, I have modified the original template to create an alternative version.  The original version was based on my experience as a snowbird in a very large club.  Snowbirds arrive down south in the autumn, play for up to about 20 weeks, and then head home.  So, in the original version a player's score and ranking are based on an average of his or her scores for up to 20 weeks.  It is still great for that or similar situations.  

However, in this version a player's score and ranking are based on an average of a player's scores for his most recent 10 weeks of play.  In other words, it is a rolling average.  A player can play for an infinite number of weeks, but her score is based solely on her last 10 weeks of play.

This version is better for situations:
  • Where there is a very broad array of player's skill levels and experience.
  • Where there are a number of very new players who's skill level will likely improve very rapidly as they become more familiar with the game.
  • Where the club plays the year round.  
  • Where clubs are trying to establish an overall and up-to-date ranking of the skill level of its members. 
All the instructional and scoring material above are applicable to this Rolling Average version.  The only difference is that when a player plays their 11th week, you over-write their 1st weeks score with their latest results.  On the spread sheet where it says Week 1, you can change that label to Week 11.  Likewise, week 2 becomes week 12, etc.  In both versions of the spreadsheet, it is crucial to remember that the week of play is the players week of play; not the the number of weeks the competition has been running.  If you think this version is more applicable to your situation, here is the link:
Once again, if you have questions or comments, my email address is at the top of the spreadsheet, and likewise I welcome your feedback.  - Steve

Pickleball Referee Scoring System


This is a pickleball referee training video that shows the scoring system we use at the Palm Creek Pickleball Club in Casa Grande, AZ.  This system has evolved at the "Creek" over the years nurtured by the Gearharts; Jeanne and Tom.  They have trained a generation of referees over the years, and to them we are forever grateful.