If you find yourself constantly playing pickleball from the defensive side, then we'd argue you aren't playing defensively. Playing defensively is ultimately a tool for regaining control of a rally, not to be confused with struggling to keep the ball in play. So if you find yourself more like the latter and less like the former, then you've come to the right article.
We've reached out to some of the brightest minds in pickleball to pull a list of 9 defensive tips together for you. They're meant to take players from playing in a state of panic to playing in a state of purpose.
To give you a sneak peek, we'll be covering the basics of defensive positioning, footwork, and shot selection. You’ll learn how to anticipate your opponent's moves, force them into making mistakes, and seize every opportunity to go on the offensive. By the end of this article, you’ll have a practical understanding of how to move from playing in a state of panic to playing in a state of purpose. That's what ultimately makes a formidable defensive player in pickleball.
So, whether you’re a beginner or an experienced player looking to up your game, this article has something for everyone. Let's begin by aligning on two basic concepts - defending and resetting.
How Do You Defend in Pickleball?
Defending in pickleball requires staying in a ready position, anticipating your opponent's shots, and moving your feet quickly. Keep your paddle up, use your non-dominant hand for balance, and try to force your opponent to hit difficult shots.
The unsung hero of defending in pickleball is making the game harder for your opponent. It's far more difficult than it sounds, especially when your opponent is aggressive.
But what happens all too frequently is players get absorbed in just trying to keep the ball in play that they end up hitting their opponent's strike zone as a consequence. This feeds the aggressive monster.
So at worst, your shots should at least make it more challenging for the other side. This is ultimately how a player can take control of a rally, and ruin the flow their opponents may have. This is the premise of resetting.
How Do You Reset Points in Pickleball?
To reset the point in pickleball when your opponent has the upper hand, slow the pace down and make high-percentage shots. Soft shots and lobs can buy you time, disrupt your opponent's rhythm and force them to fault. This requires patience and strategy.
What Is the Difference Between Playing Defensively and Resetting the Point in Pickleball?
In pickleball, playing defensively means responding to your opponent's shots to avoid losing a point, whereas resetting means shifting the game to a more neutral footing. By playing strategically and patiently, defensive players can reset to go on the offensive and control the rally.
9 Tips to Master Pickleball Defense
Every tip throughout this list is engineered to help you make the most out of a defensive position, reset a point, and ultimately set you up to attack when the time is right. This list is thorough, so buckle up.
1. Stay Balanced and Ready
When it comes to defense, being balanced and ready can help you react quickly to your opponent's shots and stay in control of the game. So, what does it mean to stay balanced and ready in pickleball?
First and foremost, it's important to have a stable base. This means keeping your feet shoulder-width apart and your knees slightly bent. This will allow you to move quickly in any direction and make sudden stops without losing your balance.
Keep in mind that a stable base is crucial for both offense and defense, so regardless of which metaphorical footing you're playing from, it should at least be a physically stable one.
Balls of Your Feet
To maintain your balance and readiness, you should always be on the balls of your feet, ready to move at a moment's notice. Avoid standing flat-footed or on your heels, as this can slow you down and make it harder to react to your opponent's shots.
One common mistake that many pickleball players make is standing too upright, which makes it harder to move quickly and react to shots. To avoid this mistake, remember to get low. This means bending your knees and keeping your center of gravity low to the ground.
What Is the Ready Position?
In pickleball, the ready position involves having your paddle up in front of you, with your elbows slightly bent and your knees bent. This position allows you to react quickly to your opponent's shots and move around the court with ease.
The ready position forces a player to keep a stable base and play lower to the court, when combined with pivoting from the balls of your feet and the posture of the ready position, it's the ultimate combination for giving a player the best chances of getting to any shot.
2. Anticipate the Shot
You don't need a master's degree in tasseography to master anticipating where your opponent's next move. We're thankful this is the case because anticipating your opponent's shot is one of the most important defensive skills you could acquire. So how do you do it? It's multi-faceted, and without removing any clarity, let's look at a few ways you can build your sixth sense on the court.
Well, it all starts with reading their body language - as it should, when you take into account how humans communicate most often. 55% of human communication is non-verbal, 38% is vocal, and only 7% is through the form of spoken words. This is one of the reasons FBI agents have a keen interest in body language. While remaining vocally silent is as simple as keeping your mouth shut, keeping your entire body void of motion and emotion is extremely difficult.
Bringing this back to the pickleball court, simply watching your opponent closely can be enough to find subtle cues to what they have planned next. Is their body position facing a particular direction? Are they shifting their weight from side to side? Do their eyes look to their destination before they hit? These are all clues that can help you anticipate their shot.
Another thing to keep in mind is common shot patterns. Most players tend to have preferred shot types and tend to rely on them during the game. The most obvious example comes from bangers, refusing to classify this as a style of play, you can bet a directionless drive is headed to your strike zone.
But for those who play more strategically, you'll find that shot patterns either fall in the sequence of play or are situational to the flow of a rally. For instance, a sequence pattern might be their reliance on a third shot drop every time. A situational pattern might be found in a scenario like a dink rally, where any time it heads to their backhand, they respond with a backhand spin dink to send it cross-court.
Not to get too philosophical here, but every human loves patterns, there's comfort in repetition, so if you can get in tune with specific situations during a game, you'll most likely pick up a few clues on what the other side is going to do next.
Playing Style and Strengths
Understanding your opponent's playing style can also impact your defense. Pay attention to their shot patterns and tendencies. Are they aggressive players who like to take risks? Or are they more defensive players who like to play it safe and keep the ball in play? By understanding their style of play, you can adjust your game plan accordingly.
Playing style is directly informed by strengths and weaknesses. Think of it this way, a player lacking soft hands will lean into playing more aggressively to compensate. Not specifically related to that example, playing style and skill can reveal themselves in several ways. Position, such as favoring the kitchen or baseline, avoiding their backhand, etc.
So if you find yourself on the defensive in the middle of a game, collect your thoughts and think about your opponent. What is their body language saying? Have you picked up on any patterns? How would you classify their playing style? Is it concealing a weakness?
You'll most likely find that asking these simple questions can be enough to swing the control back in your favor.
3. Avoid No Man's Land
Let's start this one with a simple definition:
What Is No Man's Land in Pickleball?
No Man's Land in pickleball is the mid-court area between the baseline and the kitchen. It's a challenging spot to defend because it's too far to play a good volley and too close to hit an effective groundstroke. It leads to gaps and vulnerable spots. It's best to use this space for transition.
And every player with a few matches under their belts knows this. Yet next time you're at the courts, look around, and you'll most likely find players hanging out in this area. So what's the solve?
Get Off the Fence
It's simple, to avoid No Man's Land, you should commit to either the kitchen line or the baseline. If you're playing closer to the net, stay up at the kitchen line to cut off any shots your opponent might make. This position is especially useful when your opponents are attacking with volleys.
On the other hand, if you're playing farther back, commit to the baseline. This gives you more time to react to your opponent's shots and set up your shots. You'll also have more room to move around and cover the court.
Be Intentional in Transition
Whatever you do, don't linger in No Man's Land. It's okay to make a shot or two as you move between the lines, but anything more than that is a recipe for exposing defensive weakness. A great strategy to make your transitions intentional and improve your readiness is incorporating the split step into your game.
It will help you maintain control while in No Man's Land, which is especially useful as you make your way to the kitchen after a serve, or serve return.
4. Keep Your Paddle Up and in Front
Keeping your paddle up and in front is closely related to being in a ready position, but it's worth distinguishing in a separate section simply because it's one of the quickest ways to prevent yourself from playing in a panic.
Why Up and in Front?
When you hold your paddle up and in front of your strike zone, it allows you to react quickly to any shots that come your way. Breaking this down a bit more:
- Keeping Your Paddle Up: By keeping your paddle high, you're creating a larger zone of coverage for yourself, making it easier to block or return any shots that come your way.
- Keeping Your Paddle in Front: Having your paddle in front of you improves your balance and positioning on the court. Think of it this way, if you hold your paddle to your forehand hip (super common) a shot to your backhand will take longer to reach, increasing the odds that you'll have to hit it while chasing if you can get to it.
How Do You Maintain a Proper Pickleball Paddle Position?
To maintain a proper paddle position, start by holding your paddle with both hands, with your non-dominant hand at the base of the paddle and your dominant hand higher up the handle. Keep your elbows slightly bent, and hold the paddle out in front of you at about 2 feet away from chest height.
From this position, you can easily move the paddle up or down to adjust to the height of the shot coming your way.
Don't Make These Mistakes
One of the most common mistakes players make when it comes to their paddle position is letting it drop too low. When your paddle is too low, you have less time to react to shots, and you'll likely find yourself reaching or lunging for the ball. While it's a good idea to keep your body low, scraping your paddle to the court as your ready position will slow you down and lead to faults.
Another common mistake is holding the paddle too close to your body, which limits your range of motion and makes it harder to react to shots that come at odd angles. Yes, this creates hilariously awkward shots, but also less likely candidates to win a rally.
5. Hang Loose
This is just a funny way of saying relax. Don't you just love when someone tells you to relax? It typically has the opposite effect with a dash of poor timing. But in the pickleball sphere, it's a little easier to broach. Relaxing in this context can split into two categories - your body and your grip.
Executed successfully, they'll improve your reaction time and touch. Here's how:
Relax Your Body
Playing pickleball with a loose and relaxed body gives your body more time to get into the right position to return a shot, plus you can move across the court more smoothly. It's the key ingredient for speed, and part of the magic behind the split step.
Again, easier said than done, but there are a few places we all tend to hold tension, so if you find that you're having trouble getting to the ball in time or hitting it while giving chase, you might want to do a check-in with your tension hot spots. These often include the shoulders, biceps, and quads. Technically, your hands should be looped into this as well, but we'll cover those next.
A few things you can do to relax these muscles and reduce tension:
- Gently massage the muscle for a couple of seconds in between points.
- Take deep breaths - in through the nose and out of the mouth.
- Loosen your muscles before a match with dynamic stretches - to get you started, check out our guide on the 5 best warm-up stretches for pickleball.
Soft Hands for the Win
When you get stressed in a match, one of the first reactions is to clench your fist. It's a fight-or-flight response. This is great when you're being chased by a dinosaur, but disastrous in pickleball. Whenever you hold a death grip on a pickleball paddle, you're adding serious power and removing control to your next shot.
Playing defensively, where you might be struggling to get to the ball in time, the last thing you need is power - precision is your best friend here, and ironically it's not a friend of power.
A tight grip isn't just adding power, but stripping control from the shot as well. It's just an unwieldy rocket searching for a place to land, and you have no say in it.
Be mindful of your grip pressure if you're noticing a consistent defensive pattern resulting in lost rallies. The most common sign of too much grip pressure is dinking with more gusto than you'd intended, leading to a pop-up.
There are some practical ways to soften your grip, such as assigning roles to your fingers. It sounds silly, but get all the details in our article that walks you through all the steps of loosening your grip.
6. Don't Rush the Kitchen
You might think we're crazy for adding this one in here since we've told you not to play in No Man's Land and we already mentioned the split step as a means of moving from the baseline to the kitchen. So what else could we say on the topic?
Good question. Although this does cover a couple of concepts we've talked about lightly, there's more to say. Plus, rushing the kitchen isn't necessarily a problem related to No Man's Land, it's more of a solution. But it's a poor solution.
Fear of No Man's Land
As we said, many players know they shouldn't set up camp in No Man's Land. In one camp, you have those who ignore this information. In another camp, you have those who know this space isn't to be feared, but simply something to move through with purpose.
And then you have the last camp, the one that's so afraid of this space that they wind sprint from the baseline to the kitchen after every serve. This is a gross overcompensation and will put you in a defensive position by the second or third shot in any rally.
Closing this space too quickly will eliminate any chance you had of setting up a good shot. It's also predictable. Do this a couple of times against a good opponent and they'll burn you by sending it down the line or over your head.
The biggest problem with this is how it completely excludes the flow of the game - it removes any strategic decision you could make relevant to the game, and instead leaves you playing checkers while your opponent is playing chess.
Try Split Steps
So stop doing this, please. If you can't kick the habit, at least add split steps to your approach. If you aren't familiar with the technique, it involves jumping slightly and landing on both feet, creating a stable and balanced position from which to move in any direction. You'll move forward a few feet at a time, so your progress from the baseline to the kitchen will naturally prevent you from crashing the kitchen like it's breakfast time.
Instead, you'll be front-facing in a ready position. This will help you dig out of a defensive position should you like.
You'll be able to react quickly to your opponent all while keeping your balance and control intact. It also gives you space to think and digest what your opponent is doing - determine the speed, spin, and trajectory of the ball to anticipate where it will land and how you can best position yourself to defend it.
Remember, defense is just as crucial as offense in pickleball, and by not rushing the kitchen, you can improve your defense and prevent your opponents from gaining the upper hand after every serve.
If you want to get anywhere on the court as quickly and efficiently as possible, you need great footwork. Footwork is just as important as your grip on the paddle for winning games of pickleball, if not at least to help a player get out of a defensive pinch. If you're in the trenches and on a major defensive struggle, your goal should be to give yourself as much time as possible to get the best position for returning a shot.
This is a convoluted way of saying you need the best reaction time possible so you can cover more ground quickly and hit the ball.
If you want to start working on this, check out these 18, shot-specific pickleball drills. Every single shot includes specifics to footwork, and you'll find a number of drills focus entirely on footwork. You won't find a more comprehensive guide on the subject anywhere else. If you're unsure where to focus or which shot to look at, there are some common footwork mistakes that you may be committing.
Common Pickleball Footwork Mistakes
Beginner players in particular most often stand flat-footed rather than on their toes (balls of your feet). One reason the split step is so effective is that it forces players to their toes while moving forward, essentially making them more prepared for their next shot. When you're on your toes, you're more agile and able to move quickly in any direction.
Another common mistake, committed by all different levels of experience, is taking small steps instead of taking bigger, more efficient steps to move around the court. Small steps can slow you down and make it harder to get to the ball.
Improved Fitness Improves Footwork
The best way to improve your footwork is your overall fitness level. By building endurance and strength, you'll be able to move more quickly and efficiently around the court, leading to better footwork skills.
Mastering pickleball defense requires a combination of physical and mental skills. Footwork is a crucial aspect of defense, but it does require a significant amount of time invested in practice and fitness.
8. Communication Breakdown
If you're playing doubles, communication is a must. Although you just learned that 55% of communication is non-verbal, this is a poor time to go silent. In fact, the statistic should be a wake-up call to verbalize your communication whenever possible, since only 7% of how we all communicate is vocalized in words.
Every great doubles team is in sync, and communication is the lynchpin. It prevents any gaps from opening up and minimizes unnecessary faults. So if the flow of the game has you both on the defensive, this is your cue to work together to overcome the challenge, not to button your lips.
Tips for Better Doubles Communication
- Clear. Concise: Avoid complicated jargon or long explanations. You can use slang so long as your partner is familiar, but don't pull some wildcard reference from your college days out in the middle of a game. And if you want the ball, don't whisper I would like this one - say clearly and loudly me. That will remove any confusion on who's taking the shot. So keep it simple and short to get your thoughts across.
- Strategize: Plans can change. And just because you both started a match with a clear strategy doesn't mean you have to stick with it if you're losing. Take a minute and talk through the situation together. Agree on a plan, and get to it. Doubles communication isn't reserved for mid-shot shouts, the best communication is clear planning in a huddle. Before you leave the huddle, recap the plan to double-check check you're on the same page. This also goes before and after games. This in itself is a form of practicing your communication skills regularly. So make sure to discuss your communication strategies with your partner before each game and review your performance afterward. This will help you identify any areas for improvement and fine-tune your communication approach.
- Non-Verbal Signs: With the vocal components of this section out of the way, let's speak about the unspeakable - non-verbal signs. Just like a baseball pitcher and their coach, you and your partner can develop a few non-verbal signals to tackle common issues. For example, you could use hand signals to indicate where you're going to move on the court or when you want your partner to take over. These non-verbal signals can be especially useful when playing in a noisy or crowded environment, where verbal communication may be difficult. Or where vocalizing would give away your next move, and remove any chance you had of resetting a point.
- Know Your Partner: If you don't know what your partner is great and not-so-great at, or if your partner doesn't know their own strengths and weaknesses, you should both sit down and talk through this. It's the foundation of any doubles strategy, that is, knowing a playing style will help you plan the team's playing style ultimately. If you roll with a format that requires your partner to have a solid backhand, then you better hope that's a strength. Ignoring this will keep you playing defensively in perpetuity.
9. Protect the Middle
This goes hand-in-hand with doubles communication since not protecting the middle of the court is the most common struggle in doubles pickleball. We've spent a great amount of time discussing the topic, and aren't going to shy away now - it's too glaring an issue to not continue talking about.
Perhaps the most overlooked reason this matters lies in geometry. The middle of the court is the area where your opponent has the greatest margin of error, and coincidentally, it's the exact same space where doubles most often struggle. Combined, this means your greatest offensive and defensive weapon in doubles is guarding this area. Doing so mitigates faults on your end and forces your opponent to hit more difficult shots, far from the safety of the centerline.
Forehand Takes the Middle (Or Backhand, If Strong)
One common strategy in doubles play is for the player with the stronger forehand to take the middle of the court. This allows them to cover a larger area and puts them in a position to easily switch between defending the left and right sides of the court. This is a standard approach, but there is one exception.
If one player has a particularly strong backhand, they may want to consider taking the middle instead - make this a point of discussion with your partner. This brings us right back to the biggest reason doubles teams mess up with the middle of the court - poor communication.
Communication in the Middle
Once you've established your strategy, it's important to communicate and position yourselves accordingly on the court. It can be tough when you aren't controlling the tempo of a rally, but try to position yourself so that you're always in a position to hit the ball, whether it's a volley or groundstroke.
If your opponent hits a ball that's between you and your partner, communicate clearly to determine who will take the shot. This can be done with verbal cues, such as calling out mine or yours, or with non-verbal signals, such as a hand gesture. Verbal is most likely the better option since this is such a high error zone on the court.
Defense Wins Championships
It's exhausting to constantly play with the net at your back, and it's not a winning strategy in most cases. The good news is you can change the tides of a match in several ways - nine to be specific. The biggest shift that needs to take place for anyone looking to play less defensively has less to do with your physical approach and more to do with your way of thinking.
Part of it is understanding the power of disrupting your opponent's rhythm. Another is rallying around the concept that your goal isn't to just keep the ball in play but to make it more difficult for your opponent to control the game.
The moment you can get your mind thinking this way is the moment you can patiently and strategically approach a defensive position. It's also the advent of resetting points, and ultimately controlling any match.