If your pickleball skills are getting better in a lot of areas except for that pesky serve, then this one's for you. Maybe you think your serve is too weak or just inaccurate. Either way, if you think it's holding you back, there are several things you can do to better your pickleball serve.
Here are 12 helpful tips to improve your pickleball serve:
- Hit under your belly button
- Learn proper foot placement
- Watch your stance
- Find a target and aim
- Know how to hold the paddle
- Relax your body
- Use your shoulders to swing
- Serve deep
- Rely on your core
- Wear good shoes
- Mix it up
- Practice, practice, practice
Improving your serving in pickleball doesn't have to be difficult. Like many other sports, sticking to the basics and mastering the fundamentals are the true keys to winning. Follow these 12 tips, and you'll be well on your way to serving with control, pace, and depth.
How Do You Serve Better in Pickleball? Try These 12 Tips!
1. Hit Under Your Belly Button
For this tip to make sense, you have to know there are two different types of legal serves in pickleball: the volley serve and the drop serve.
- Volley Serve: This is the conventional serve of pickleball and it’s easy to spot because it’s always underhand, as required by the official rules (4.A.5.c.)
- Drop Serve: This serve was just officially sanctioned in 2021, but it’s not a popular style of serving, especially among pro players. A legal drop serve requires the ball to fall naturally from a height and bounce before serving - it’s different in many ways from a volley serve, but in this context, a drop serve isn't required to be underhand (rule 4.A.6.c.)
It’s worth restating that the drop serve isn’t the preferred serving style in pickleball, in fact, you may rarely see it. Because of that, many players assume that all serves have to be underhand, and they are partially right with a caveat.
All volley serves have to be underhand, while drop serves can be whatever, so long as the ball hits the ground first.
Because of the pervasiveness of volley serves in pickleball, you should approach serving as though it needs to always be underhand. If you're accustomed to tennis, then switching from overhand to underhand serving will take some getting used to. The solution? Give yourself time!
When serving underhand, you want to hit the ball just below your belly button, at your waist. This will be a different height for everyone reading this, but that’s fine. Your belly button should be your marker.
When you do this, your arm will move in a seamless arc upward. The highest point of the top of the paddle head should be just under the highest point of your wrist, which is right at the bend of your wrist joint.
Pro Tip: Think of the way your arm moves as more of a pendulum swinging back and forth than any type of flicking motion.
As you first get started playing pickleball, your serves are going to be stiff and robotic. You’ll feel very awkward, especially if you’ve come from a tennis background, as we said.
The more you work on your serve, the more fluid and seamless your motions will be. Just don’t expect that kind of improvement overnight. You have to work at it and be patient.
The results are worth it though, as this fluidity is also how you build consistency in your serve, which is something you may be lacking right now.
2. Learn Proper Foot Placement
To avoid faulting, you need to be careful about where you put your feet when serving and playing pickleball. There are four specific rules related to service foot faults (4.A.4., 4.L.) that you should commit to memory.
In abbreviated form, those rules state that the moment the ball is hit by the server, they must:
- 4.A.4.a. - Keep at least one foot on the playing surface behind the baseline.
… and their feet may not touch the following areas:
- 4.L.1. - Imaginary extension of sideline beyond the baseline.
- 4.L.2. - Imaginary extension of centerline beyond the baseline.
- 4.L.3. - The playing court, including the baseline.
In other words, when you serve, your feet should start behind the baseline. As you serve, one foot has to be on the ground and still behind the baseline once your paddle connects with the pickleball.
If one or both of your feet enter the baseline, you could fault.
You don’t want to cost yourself a potential point right at the beginning of the game, so learning the optimal foot placement is critical.
Pro Tip: The best way to do this is to have a bystander or partner review how your feet move as you serve. If you’re outside the baseline, they can tell you so you can work on correcting it.
It’s always best to address mistakes before they become too ingrained. At that point, it’s a lot harder to change your technique.
3. Watch Your Stance
Besides your serve technique and the way you stand, you also have to perfect your stance, or how you hold your body. You could end up turning without even realizing it, which is common among inexperienced players.
What ends up happening is that you open up the side of your body that’s not holding the paddle as you serve. This effectively makes your body rotate.
The next time you try to follow through, this rotation will cause you to approach the ball from the side, making it more difficult to play consistently and in control.
So how do you fix your stance?
Pro Tip: Rather than keeping your legs wide apart when playing pickleball, close them a little, and opt for a closed stance, which puts both feet parallel to the baseline, with your non-dominant foot closer to the baseline.
You don’t want to lock your legs together, as that’s too much, but be somewhat open instead.
This will prevent you from over-rotating or overextending your backswings and ultimately improve your serving accuracy.
4. Find a Target and Aim
When playing pickleball, what are you aiming for? That seems like an easy enough question to answer. You’re serving the ball to the opponent’s side as the rules require.
Well yes, technically. But that can be easier said than done, especially for beginners. Many of them just want the ball to go over the net and stay in bounds.
But even for more experienced players trying to perfect their serve instead of just getting it over the net, the way they envision the ball traveling versus its actual flight path can be two very different things.
This underscores the importance of selecting a target for each shot, especially your serve. For instance, you might aim at your opponent’s backhand if that’s a weakness for them.
Pro Tip: For crafty individuals, it's never a bad idea to aim deep in a service area. Know this target before each serve - study the spot for a moment, imagine the ball heading in that direction, then serve.
Yes, you need to add a few extra steps to your serve before you hit the ball, and it all should happen relatively quickly if you’re doing it right. But targeting is a great way to improve your accuracy.
Unfortunately, serve accuracy won't magically improve overnight. But that doesn’t mean this technique will never pan out. Rather, it requires patience and practice.
5. Know How to Hold the Paddle
Whether you’re playing with your favorite pickleball paddle or a loaner, holding it correctly will go a long way toward improving your serve. The eastern grip is a gripping technique that's great for beginners to start with, as it's a neutral grip that works for forehand and backhand without adjustment.
The eastern grip goes by many names including the handshake, and that's because if you removed the paddle from your hands, you would look like you're going in for a handshake. Handshake is a gripping technique recommended for beginners. It's also a simple grip to get right.
There are of course more styles of gripping the paddle than just eastern, such as western and continental. So let's look at all three.
We'll rely on a few basic visual cues to show you how to hold each grip style. Take note of the V-shape created between your thumb and index finger as you hold the paddle.
Holding the paddle directly in front of yourself with your right hand, use the V of your hand to form the following grips:
- Eastern (Handshake Grip): The point of the V is toward the right edge of the top bevel of the handle.
- Western: The point of the V is located between 1 and 2 bevels clockwise to the eastern grip, putting the V closer to the same plane as the face of the paddle.
- Continental (Hammer Grip): The point of the V is toward the left edge of the top bevel of the handle.
Pro Tip: Since you won’t be able to check your hands when playing pickleball, get used to how each grip feels. You should get used to the eastern grip first.
If you’re trying to change your grip habits, every time you pick it up, check where your hands are, then rotate into the proper position. This will reinforce the right way to hold your paddle.
At first, changing your grip is going to be conscious decision after conscious decision, but that won’t last forever. The more you play, the less you’ll think about changing your grip and the more you’ll just do it.
6. Relax Your Body
As the adrenaline of the game fills your veins and you get more defensive on the pickleball court, you might begin stiffening up. Beginners are also likely to be quite stiff just out of inexperience.
Remember, serving and hitting the ball is all about fluidity. Channel your inner Bruce Lee and be like water - fluid, and never stiff.
When you feel your body tense up for any reason, this is your cue to change your stance.
Pro Tip: If you feel like you may be tensing up, try broadening your serving stance a little; a stiff stance is often the result of your legs being far too close together.
Once you loosen up and become more fluid, your serves will play out more consistently. You’ll also spare your muscles so you can feel light and springy on the court.
7. Use Your Shoulders to Swing
As you know, service motion in pickleball should be like a pendulum. If you start at the elbow or wrist, you’re going to end up flicking the ball, which does nothing to make it sail across the court, especially with any power or conviction. You’ll also lack in the accuracy department.
Although you hit the pickleball with your hand (well, technically, with the paddle, which is in your hand), the momentum you generate with each serve and subsequent swing begins in your shoulder.
Pro Tip: Remember, upward motion is key. As you extend your arm, you can then move the paddle and follow through with the serve.
If you do indeed have tennis experience or a background in any other paddle sport, using your shoulders to swing shouldn’t be a new concept to you in the slightest.
You can easily adapt this technique to pickleball.
8. Serve Deep
Admittedly, serving deep isn’t the most beginner-friendly strategy, but as you begin improving your serves and your pickleball playing in general, you'll want to pick up more techniques to become a better player.
This is where serving deep comes into play, especially for your opponent’s backhand.
We’ve discussed deep serving on the blog before, but as a recap, when you serve deep, you make it more challenging for your opponent to get to the kitchen and you may also limit their ability to return the serve.
Pro Tip: Serve deep to your opponent’s backhand. Most pickleball players have a weaker backhand compared to their forehand. That won’t be the case with every player you come across, especially at a tournament level, but it will be for most.
When you use deep serves primarily to force your opponent to use their backhand, if your opponent can return the ball in time, their return will usually be quite weak.
Sometimes, your opponent will recognize that they can’t make the strongest backhand, so they’ll run around the serve. This allows you to hit the next shot at your comfort.
This doesn’t mean that deep serves are exclusively used to force a backhand, of course. You can and should use them for forehand shots as well. Mixing it up will make you even more challenging on the court.
9. Rely on Your Core
After learning the basics of serving, many pickleball players are interested in increasing the power of their serves. This way, the ball can easily reach its destination every time, aiding in consistency.
It's all part of reaching the pinnacle of serving, where you can vary the speed of your serves; this is even one of the distinctions between a 3.5 and a 4.0 rating.
Well, the better you are at serving, the more strength you’ll naturally accumulate in your serves. But always serving with power isn't ideal. It opens you up to predictability, which is a polite way of saying that your serving advantage is a weakness.
So be sure to mix up the speed of your serves as well. But, if you're on a quest for more power, there's one thing you can do to get there quicker.
Pro Tip: The quickest way to get more power has nothing to do your upper body; it’s all about your core and legs. Begin engaging these muscles as you play pickleball, as they’re some of the strongest in the body.
Switch from a semi-open to an athletic stance as well. In an athletic stance, your feet should be spaced out farther than your shoulders, with your knees inside your feet, your chest over your feet, and your back neutral.
Keeping your back neutral is incredibly important - positioning your back in any way other than neutral will overextend and overwork your back muscles and potentially injure them.
You’re not squeezing your core or leg muscles as you serve. Compressing your leg muscles, as you do in the athletic stance, is enough engagement to hit more powerful serves.
10. Wear Good Shoes
Pickleball doesn’t have an official uniform, although we'd love to see Paddletek's threads earn that distinction. But even without an official USA Pickleball rule on uniforms, we all know that that doesn’t mean anything goes on the pickleball court.
A basic pair of shoes probably won’t cut it for any part of a match, serving or otherwise. You need court shoes that are lightweight and very supportive, so you can move around with ease on the court.
The best pickleball players, after all, almost seem to levitate with how effortlessly they glide.
Pro Tip: Make sure the shoes are comfortable as well. If your feet are squished, your toes are rubbing against each other, or your heel is rubbing against the back of the shoe, you aren’t going to play your best.
11. Mix It Up
By now, you’ve probably noticed the concept of mixing it up throughout this article. It’s crucial for taking your serve to the next level. While playing pickleball, you should use every opportunity to serve the ball in different ways.
Just because the volley serve is underhand, that doesn’t mean there’s just one way to volley serve. There are limitless ways to get creative with it, while still fitting the official criteria for serving.
If you don’t mix up your serves, your opponent will easily be able to see what you’re going to do and either circumvent your next serve or respond to it with a swiftness and accuracy that can catch you off-guard.
Pro Tip: Try learning one of the following serves and add it to your pickleball repertoire:
- Drop Serve: The drop serve gets dogged by traditionalists, but it can be a great way to add some variety to a beginner’s serve. When drop serving, you bounce the ball and then hit it after it bounces, giving you the freedom to backspin or topspin the ball. You also have room for aggression with a drop serve.
- Hook Serve: By introducing some side spin into your serves, à la hook serves, the ball will curve somewhat. If you’re left-handed, expect a right curve, and if you’re right-handed, a left curve.
- Lob Serve: The lob serve also increases the ball’s trajectory, elevating its bounce beyond what you get with a standard pickleball serve.
- Power Serve: To increase your speed when hitting a pickleball, do a driving serve. Go low and hit hard.
12. Practice, Practice, Practice
You know the saying – practice makes perfect! While it looks like the most skilled pickleball players just rise in the ranks naturally, that’s not the case.
You only see them participating in tournaments and other competitive events. Behind the scenes, they work their tail feathers off practicing and training.
You need to do the same. Playing pickleball games is a great way to practice, but you can correct your techniques more gradually and without pressure by practicing on a pickleball court with a friend.
If you’re doing something wrong with your serves, practicing gives you the freedom to run repetitive drills until you learn the right way to serve or correct an error in your current serve.
You can also try out new techniques on the practice court without the pressure of a game.
A Better Pickleball Serve Starts with You
Whether you’re a complete pickleball beginner or have a few games under your belt, bettering your serve will instantly elevate your player status.
That doesn’t make proper serving the easiest thing to do, but by following these tips and committing to practice, you'll begin acing your serves!