January 23, 2023
Transition Zone for Improvers
By PPR’s Jeff Rausch
When I started playing pickleball years ago, I was told to run as fast as I could to the non-volley zone, and if I could not make it, I should take a split step, return the next shot and continue moving forward to the non-volley zone line as quickly as possible. I have played competitive tennis for over 50 years and know how to volley well, but I found I was moving so quickly and was so out of sync that I could only hit a ball that was within my reach and many balls flew by me.
Eventually, a good pickleball instructor asked me why I was running so hard and taking a split step a few feet from the non-volley zone instead of just moving forward under control, with my weight forward and paddle in front of me. That question changed my game and I now make it to the non-volley zone in the same amount of time as before, BUT I find I am in control throughout the transition, and it is a much more enjoyable process while also being much easier on my body.
Traveling from the baseline to the non-volley zone should be viewed as a simple destination and not a long and complicated journey. Many beginner and improver players often discount the importance of the transition zone. What actions can you take to simplify your transition through “no-man’s-land” to ensure that it sets the stage for the rally to develop in your favor?
When watching beginner or improver players, one of the first things I notice is that, in general, they either run out of control at full speed to the non-volley zone (as I did when I first started playing) or they make it a long journey with multiple stops along the way while wandering all around the transition zone. The third group is less common but most effective. This group moves through the non-volley zone under control with their paddle in front of them, ready for any ball that comes their way. These players understand that the transition zone is not an area to be feared or lost within, but to be moved through purposefully with the intent of reaching the non-volley zone line.
As the player moving forward through the transition zone, you should be moving forward under your own control at a comfortable pace. My analogy is a visual of a “flip-flops on the beach” scenario. Imagine you are walking in the sand toward your destination with purpose and not stopping to pick up sea shells or to enjoy the view. Accelerate and/or decelerate your pace, keeping your paddle in front of your body while continuing your movement forward to put yourself in the best possible position to contact the returning ball.
If you allow yourself to be put in a position where you need to move backward, you will not be able to contact the ball in front of your body and it will take you longer to get to the non-volley zone line, thus allowing your opponents the opportunity to maintain a more offensive position.
As you move forward, be ready with your feet approximately shoulder width apart, weight on the balls of your feet and paddle in ready position.
When transitioning forward, always keep your paddle comfortably in front of you. Be nimble with your movement, accelerating or decelerating so that your contact point remains in front of you and you can continue your forward movement after you contact the ball. Get ready with your paddle in front of you in the correct place for contact so that you can either drop or drive the ball. Keep your wrist fixed through the shot with your paddle angle squared off to the path of your ball (don’t flick your wrist) and follow through directly toward your intended target. This will increase your accuracy and consistency while pulling you forward toward the non-volley zone line.
Flexibility with your shot selection should be based on variables such as the depth and angle of your opponent’s shot, opponents’ positioning, your opponents’ readiness (Are their paddles in the correct position?), your strength and your opponents’ strengths and weaknesses. The more accurate and consistent you are, the more you can vary your shots to take advantage of any weakness your opponents may have. For example, if you notice that an opponent does not have the paddle in a good ready position, and you have a good opportunity to drive your shot, then do so. If the ball is hit to you below your knees and your opponent is in a good ready position, then your best shot will often be a drop.
The key is to be ready to use any possible option within your arsenal based on what makes the most sense at the time. In the end, shots from the transition zone are often not winners by themselves, but are important shots to set up the rally and get you in the correct position to control the rally.
You should strive to be moving forward, under control, with your paddle in front of you when you contact the ball; without even trying, you will be transferring your weight forward, which allows you to more accurately direct the ball while also helping to pull you forward. Your speed should not be any faster than you can take a step, under control, to either side, using your outside leg. Do not stop to evaluate or to admire your shot—always be prepared for the next shot, with your paddle in the ready position comfortably in front of your sternum.
I recommend two players do the following drill:
One person should start at the non-volley zone line, feeding or tossing a ball so it bounces in front of the other player at the baseline. The baseline player moves through the transition zone, playing out the point. The player moving toward the non-volley zone should initially focus on hitting the ball so that it arcs below the sternum of the feeding player. The goal is to keep moving forward while keeping the paddle and contact point in front of you while returning the ball to the feeder at the height you are practicing.
When you are consistently successful, change the target to the waist, then the knees, then the feet and then into the non-volley zone based on your skills. I ask the person at the non-volley zone line to hold a few balls in their hand so they can continue feeding if a ball goes in the net or off target. The goal is slow, steady, continuous movement forward. When appropriate, players should pause or stop their forward movement, such as when their opponent has an attackable ball that may be returned with pace, so that they can prepare accordingly. Improving your skills within the transition zone will enable you to layer in more challenging targets by reducing and/or lowering the target height.
Incorporating these techniques into your transition will increase your ability to get to the non-volley zone under control and with consistency, which should leave your opponents with the task of working harder to win points.
Remember to have fun! •
Jeff Rausch is a PPR clinician and 2022 Pro of the Year, head pro at Lost Creek Country Club in Austin, Texas, and a four-star certified racquets professional.