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Defensive Pickleball: The Key to Success

Pickleball is an extremely fun, yet complex sport with many nuances. In order to be a successful pickleball player, you must exhibit patience, be content to hit dink shots until they drop, and recognize when you have the opportunity to attack and hit an offensive shot. In my opinion, however, learning to become a solid defensive player in pickleball is the most important ingredient in one’s recipe for pickleball success. When people are first introduced to the game and begin to engage in recreational play, they often focus too much on attacking and don’t exhibit the patience to wait for the right opportunity to attack. What makes this sport so unique is that a person may not be very offensive in terms of skill set, but stellar hands and defensive skills allow him/her to win many matches. Playing solid defense is the name of the game more so than playing offense. Being a good defensive pickleball player will help you neutralize opponents and allow you to transition to offense more easily while you play.

I myself do not exhibit as many offensive weapons as some of the top players in the game, but my ability to play solid defense has allowed me to be a successful tournament player over the past few years. With that said, here are some tips to help you become a better defensive pickleball player.

1. Be a wall: This not only applies to your physical skills but also to your mental game. Whether you are playing against a hard hitter, a finesse player, or a very consistent dinker, your ability to stay mentally strong will allow you to stay physically strong as well. Be content to hit one more ball back than your opponents on every point. It’s likely that if you continue to make your opponents hit shots in each rally, the more likely they will make a mistake. Understand that getting one more ball back in the court than your opponent will translate into more points for you on the scoreboard.

2. Maintain happy feet: Your feet need to be moving before every shot in this sport if you want to become a better defensive player. Using a split step and having a basic ready position before each of your opponents’ shots will allow you to maintain your balance and transfer your weight to retrieve any shot much easier than if you were flat- footed. Pickleball is a sport where players are forced to change directions nearly every point. Staying light on your toes will allow you to move easier on the court, retrieve more shots, and be a solid defensive pickleball player by getting more balls back over the net.

3. Keep your eyes on your opponent’s paddle – it improves anticipation: Oftentimes in racquet or paddle
sports we are told to keep our eyes on the ball and not our opponent. However, in order to increase your defensive pickleball acumen, you must keep your eyes on your opponent’s paddle. By doing this, you will achieve a few key tasks that will improve your defensive pickleball skills. First of all, watching your opponents’ paddles closely will allow you to keep your eye on the ball as well. Second, watching your opponents’ paddles increases your anticipation of where they will hit their next shot. With more and more new, tricky shots coming into this sport (paddle fakes, body fakes, etc.), it is easy to get distracted by watching your opponent’s body. However, watching the paddles before contact will allow you to read where they will hit their shot. This strategy will reveal the angle of their shot, its direction in the court, and will also likely reveal the height of their upcoming shot. Overall, by watching your opponent’s paddle before contact, your anticipation and understanding of the upcoming shots will greatly improve, and will allow you to transition from defense to offense.

4. Practice your defensive skills: Find a regular drill or practice partner to practice these tactics with. Drill often and incorporate these defensive skills into your drills. Make it a focal point to watch your opponent’s paddle – whether he/she is hitting a dink, volley, groundstroke or a smash.

Practice your split step before every volley you hit. One easy way to practice this in a controlled setting is to stand at the kitchen line and have your opponent hit balls at you while at the baseline. This will allow you to consistently simulate an environment where you will have to volley every shot. In this case, you can practice your split step before every ball you hit.

Lastly, incorporate drills that require shot tolerance (your ability to outlast your opponent each rally by hitting one more shot than him/her). You can do this by having a target number of dinks (20, 30, etc.) that you and a partner have to hit in a row. This will allow you to focus on the task at hand, not go for an aggressive shot, and become a mental and physical pickleball wall.

Remember, if you want to take your pickleball game to the next level and win more matches in recreational or tournament play, becoming a better defensive player will allow you to reach your goal. Being a wall, maintaining happy feet while playing, keeping your eyes on your opponents’ paddles and, most importantly, frequently practicing these skills will make you a better defensive pickleball player and lead to increased success on the court.

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