Pickleball 101: Essential Techniques
and Strategies to Improve Your Game
Pickleball is all the rage nowadays, and for good reason. It’s an easy-to-learn game perfect for kids, adults and older adults alike. Pickleball is terrific if you want to improve your health through physical activity, reduced stress and anxiety relief. Plus, it teaches valuable life lessons like patience, teamwork and sportsmanship. You can even make new friends on the pickleball courts!
As with any game, pickleball has a learning curve — especially if you’re accustomed to tennis, badminton or ping pong. So, how can you get better at America’s new favorite game? Use these five techniques and strategies to improve your game.
1. Improve the Basic Skills
Before stepping on the court, you need to hone basic skills. Pickleball is fast paced, so getting your fundamentals correct is essential for success. Work on these abilities to prepare your body for the games ahead.
Pickleball is all about the paddle and the ball. The ball may be small and light, but it moves fast. Hand-eye coordination is essential for connecting the paddle with the ball and controlling your shot.
Practice to improve your hand-eye coordination. Consistent practice improves your muscle memory because your eyes track the ball better.
Singles play in pickleball means having to cover the entire court. The ball could land anywhere inside the boundary, so you need to move around quickly. This part of the game is where your agility comes into play. Improve your agility with plyometric exercises, such as pushups, jogging and jumping. This type of training improves physical performance and pickleball agility.
Pickleball matches vary in length, depending on how fast you and your partners play. A complete game may take an hour or more and requires solid stamina. You can increase your stamina with activities like walking, jogging, biking and swimming. Follow the CDC’s recommended 150 minutes of weekly exercise, and you’ll be ready.
2. Pick the Proper Paddle
Playing your best pickleball match means having a paddle that suits you. Your paddle should fit naturally in your hand and match your playing style.
Your biggest decision comes between control and power. When playing, do you thrive on defense or aggressive play? Defensive players tend to grab paddles with small sweet spots — the area of the paddle where contact from the ball provides the most accurate response from the paddle — giving them more control. Aggressive pickleheads gravitate toward paddles with large sweet spots, providing more power. Your opponents will be amazed when the ball speeds past them!
Another critical factor in pickleball paddles is the weight. You want a paddle that feels natural to carry. Prioritizing control may make lighter paddles more attractive to you, whereas heavier paddles are better for power players. Your paddle’s weight is essential for avoiding arm injuries, so test different paddles to see which is best for you.
The next thing you should consider is the grip size. Do you prefer spin or control in your pickleball play? Selecting a narrow grip gives your wrist more power over your shots. You can do back spins and throw off your opponent with each return. Larger grips make your shots more stable, but be careful because they can strain your arm.
3. Practice the Basics
Success in pickleball comes a lot easier if you drill the fundamentals. You’ll become a much better player if you learn and practice these five shots.
Every round of pickleball starts with a serve. Your initial hit sets the tone for the match, so choose wisely. Pickleball uses underhand serves, which are easy and more natural. Overhead serves are not allowed in pickleball the way they are in tennis.
Dinks are a pickleball shot where you hit the ball just over the net. They are soft hits to keep the ball in play, typically landing in the non-volley zone — or kitchen. As the name suggests, players cannot volley from the non-volley zone. Dinks are strategic shots because they help you control the game, slow the pace and reduce errors.
Volleys bring an entirely different type of play to the pickleball game. These shots occur when you hit the ball before it touches the court. You’ll typically see more aggressive players go for volleys because they want to grab control of the game. If you’re a beginner, volleys may be challenging to come by. However, mastering volleys gives you an upper hand. Practice volleys with your partner or hit the ball against walls for solo practice.
Sometimes, you need to take risks. Lobs are one of the riskiest shots in pickleball, but they can be a game changer if you ace them. Hitting lobs means the ball goes high into the air and lands in the back side of your opponent’s court, making it harder for them to hit. You risk losing the rally, but lobs could garner multiple points in the game.
While similar to dinks, drop shots are a unique shot in pickleball. A drop shot sends the ball barely over the net, forcing your opponent to race to return it in time. Offensive players typically use drop shots, whereas dinks are more of a defensive move. It’s also worth mentioning drop shots have a higher trajectory, and players returning them may hit a power shot.
4. Get Used to the Court
Playing pickleball can throw you off if you’re used to sports like tennis. For reference, pickleball courts are 44 feet long and 20 feet wide, whereas tennis courts are 78 feet long and 27 feet wide. Given that tennis courts are about double the size, pickleball can take time to get used to. At first, you may run too fast to cover more space, only to mess up your timing.
The best way to get used to the court is to practice with the smaller dimensions. If you don’t have a court at home, draw one on your driveway or back patio using the proper measurements. Run from side to side to get your body and mind accustomed to the smaller size.
5. Fine-Tune the Intangibles
You can drill your fundamentals and build your skills all day to improve at pickleball. However, what will put you over the top is your intangibles. These skills are less obvious but remain essential to your game.
Pickleball is popular because you can play in singles or doubles. Do you have friends or neighbors who like to compete? Ask them to play a doubles match!
If you play doubles, you must build trust with your partner by enhancing communication. Communicating on the court helps you coordinate shots and avoid mishaps. Practice verbal or hand signals to indicate your next move. The wall ball technique from earlier is also helpful in doubles practice.
You may feel tempted to go as fast as possible in pickleball and send power shots every time. However, you’ll learn patience is a virtue in this game. Rushing your serves or shots can cause unforced errors and make winning easier for your opponent. Instead, take a calm and focused approach to your game. Let the game come to you, and pick your battles wisely.
While patience is handy in pickleball, you can become a terrific player by incorporating selective aggressiveness. This theory means you’re only aggressive in advantageous situations. For example, you and your opponent may be in a rhythm going back and forth. Break up the rhythm by sending a smash over the net. Sometimes, this aggressive approach is too risky, so only bring the heat sparingly.
The last skill you need to have is enjoyment. What good is pickleball if you’re not having fun? This sport is an easy recreational activity you can play indoors and outside. Running around with your paddles and balls improves your physical and mental health. In fact, a 2023 study shows pickleball improves personal well-being, stress, life satisfaction and other essential psychological variables. Find people you like to play with and have fun!
Progressing Pickleball Play
Pickleball has quickly become one of America’s favorite pastimes. You can play no matter your age — just grab your gear and find a court! If you enjoy pickleball, use these five techniques and strategies to up your game and unleash your inner picklehead.
About the Author
Ava Roman (she/her) is the Managing Editor of Revivalist, a women’s lifestyle magazine that empowers women to live their most authentic life.
When Ava is not writing you'll find her in a yoga class, advocating for body positivity, whipping up something delicious in the kitchen, or smashing the patriarchy.