Mastering the Backhand Roll in Pickleball: Tips & Techniques

If you play doubles you know how instrumental dinking is to win a game. You also know that a dink exchange is merely a test of which side is more patient, resisting the urge to go for the point every shot and instead choosing to wait for the right opportunity. For the moment that opportunity strikes, a backhand roll might just be the right weapon to have in hand.

A backhand roll in pickleball, also called backhand flick, is typically a dink volley that uses speed, spin, and power to catch an opponent off-guard. Used in dink rallies, the shot borrows techniques used in table tennis to achieve a topspin effect on the ball that's challenging to return.

Since a dink rally is a battle of attrition, a well-timed backhand roll can give a player just enough edge to make a shot unreturnable. There's a lot to like about this shot and much to learn about the fundamentals of getting it right for game-time situations. In this article, we'll discuss when and how you should use the backhand roll, as well as some tips for mastering the technique.

Understanding the Backhand Roll in Pickleball

The backhand roll can be particularly helpful in a neutral position at the kitchen line, meaning no real side has gained a large advantage throughout a rally, but it can also be helpful in a defensive position where the opposing side has the upper hand. While dinks are meant to keep the ball in play and win by wearing the other side down to some degree, the backhand roll adds a powerful element that can help you regain control of the rally.

As the ball bolts off your paddle at fast speeds, this creates a disarming effect on your opponent, where you may catch them jammed up or simply pop it up as consequence. And if your opponent lets it bounce, they'll have to deal with the unpredictable nature of a topspin heavy shot at quick speeds - which is a roundabout way of saying this shot is difficult to defend against as a volley or groundstroke.

Another aspect to love about the backhand roll is how it gives you a solid option if the ball comes to you around the knees. Since there's so much topspin applied to the shot, as your arm moves low to high, you're able to take shots outside your standard strike zone and add power to them, without sending them over to the next court.

Assuming you're on the defense, balls aren't conveniently landing at chest height, so having the option to reset with a backhand roll for challenging low balls is a great way to keep your side in the game.

Mastering the Mechanics of a Backhand Roll Shot

In terms of mastering the backhand roll, it's important to understand the fundamentals that go into making a good one. Since every shot won't be an opportunity to drop this devastating flick, here are the right conditions to execute this shot - be mindful that all these conditions should be met before attempting this in a game.

Gripping the Paddle

We all know how important the right grip is for every shot. And while the pros can easily switch between grips to accommodate their next hit, that's not the easiest task for an everyday rec player. The good news is that an eastern grip is a solid choice for a backhand roll - and that's positive because it's one of the most popular grips in the sport. There's a high chance you already use the eastern grip.

While eastern is the top recommendation, you could also consider a continental grip. Some players may find this easier.

Stance and Body Positioning

You'll want to be in a ready position at the kitchen line, this will keep your base stable and balanced and more agile to react to the next shot. This includes standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, and your weight closer to the middle of your feet, but not beyond the balls of your feet.

If you use an affixed split step, you'll be in great shape. You'll also want to use a slightly deeper bend at the knees since your movement on the shot will go from low to high.

Although this gets into more of the arm mechanics than the body, you'll want to tuck your dominant arm toward your body more than you typically would for this shot.

Is the Backhand Roll More Shoulder or Wrist? The Swing Explained

The backhand roll more on the shoulder than the wrist, however, power is generated primarily from standing from low to high, fully extending your arm, and rotating your lower arm at the elbow. Although the flick looks like its wrist action, the wrist should stay parallel to your lower arm throughout the motion.

It's a bit of an optical illusion when watching in the stands, but no wrist action takes place in a backhand roll. Really, the most power will come from your arm rotating and extending toward the net. This is why it's so important to keep your arm tucked in - it will allow you to travel further at greater speed and generate more power on the shot.

The motion of the swing is smooth, where you begin lower and make contact with the ball when your arm is fully extended - it can be challenging to get the timing right.

Proper Footwork

Footwork for a backhand roll is a bit constrained due to the kitchen line, but aside from playing from the balls of your feet, one tip can help ensure you're in the right stance and position: adjusting the width of your feet for the point of contact with the ball.

As the ball leaves your opponent's paddle, if you anticipate a backhand roll is your next move, you can make it easier to get lower to meet the ball by simply widening your stance. You'll most likely have to reposition to get a good angle on the shot anyways, so expanding your feet a few inches more than usual for this shot isn't a tall ask.

Understanding Spin

Topspin is the real X factor with this shot - without it, the ball will most likely pop up or drive into the net. Even if you somehow got the ball to cross the net at the right height, it wouldn't dip over like the shot intends.

The angle of your swing should be close to 45 degrees, while your paddle is parallel to the net. Keeping your paddle face completely vertical while propelling your arm forward at 45 degrees will combine to create the perfect topspin for the backhand roll.

How to Execute the Backhand Roll

Putting the mechanics together, here are the step-by-step instructions for hitting a powerful backhand roll:

  1. Get into an athletic stance with your feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, and your weight between the middle to the balls of your feet. Keep the paddle in front of your body and hold it in an eastern grip style (or continental)
  2. As the ball leaves your opponent's paddle widen your stance and lower your body at the knees while tucking your arm in at the elbows.
  3. Starting low, stand up quickly and extend your arm out while rotating your elbow so that your arm forms a straight line the moment the paddle comes in contact with the ball.
  4. Be sure your upward motion is close to 45 degrees and that your paddle face is completely vertical at contact.
  5. Follow through with your swing so that it raises to your shoulder height, but be mindful of your feet so you don't cross into the kitchen

Common Mistakes to Avoid

There are quite a few technical errors that are commonly made with the backhand roll. Since this shot is all about the element of surprise, the errors boil down to power, accuracy, and spin.

Power: Flicking the Wrist

Observing a backhand roll in the wild will lead you to believe this is a wrist heavy shot. After all, this is a table tennis shot - a game that incorporates quite a bit of wrist movement. Plus, the shot's nickname is "flick". So it's easy to see why people would commonly make the mistake of using their wrist to perform this shot.

The problem in doing this though is that you won't generate nearly as much power if relying solely on your wrist. Even if you do manage to get the ball over, it will lack the speed required to keep your opponent off balance and guessing. Instead, you want your legs and the snapping motion of your arm to extend all the way out to create power.

Accuracy: Aiming for the Wrong Target

This shot is best used as a redirection from an incoming cross-court dink that you send directly across to your opponent. But where do you aim exactly? There are a few approaches you could take here.

The first is particularly effective for jamming your opponent, even if they have quick hands. It's aiming at their right hip or right shoulder. This can vary based on the dominant hand of your opponent. Thanks to the speed and element of surprise, your opponent will need to quickly open their stance and in the best-case scenario take the ball from their side, which is less than ideal.

Another approach is the tried and true foot shot. This option is less favorable though because it may give your opponent more time to react on a bounce, but it's still effective. Plus, the topspin applied to the shot would make their return challenging still.

Spin: Angle Issues

Getting the angle wrong comes with an annoying outcome - you've just b-lined a ball out of bounds or in the net. If your paddle face is too open, you'll either pop up or send it beyond the baseline. If it's too closed, your shot will look like you just served into the net.

There's more to angle than just the paddle face though, so don't forget the motion of your arm as you move upward. Just like the paddle face, if it's too open or closed, it will dramatically affect the flight path of the ball.

Drills to Improve Your Backhand Roll

We've been on a practice drills kick lately - pulling from our list of 18 pickleball drills for beginners, we've compiled 3 that can help you master the backhand roll.

Wall Drill - Topspin and Contact

This is a classic wall drill. It's you, your paddle and ball, and a wall. To make this effective, either physically or mentally mark the 3-foot high point on the wall. Next, stand 7 away from the ball. Both of these steps will simulate the net height and your distance to the net at the kitchen line.

There are two hits for each part of this drill, and your goal is twofold: apply topspin on your second shot and keep the ball as low as possible to the net height.

Your first shot is your setup - this is to simulate an incoming ball, although this will be headed toward you straight on instead of cross-court. You want to recreate an incoming dink, so it needs to head bounce off the wall at a medium pace. You want it to be within your reach at around hip height, and front-facing. This is most likely done by sending the first shot as a soft volley serving a foot above the net height mark on the wall.

As the ball comes into reach, you'll need to make sure your grip is eastern or continental, and practice the form of the shot outlined above. Pay special attention to the angle of your paddle face and the motion of your arm.

Shadow Drill - Footwork and Swing

Shadow drills are fantastic ways to improve your footwork for any shot, plus they make for great warmup drills too. Although they may seem a bit bland, they're effective and help you focus on form. This is a critical piece for beginners. For the unfamiliar, a shadow drill strips training of gear and equipment, meaning you most often run through the motions without a pickleball, sometimes a paddle.

In this case, use your paddle since the angle of the paddle face is so important for this shot. Get in the athletic stance, widen your stance and lower down from the knees, then shoot up while extending and rotating your arm at the elbow. Practice your footwork and swing motion without a ball, focusing on the correct technique.

Partner Drill /Dinking - Context and Accuracy

This is the next best thing to playing a game. You can do backhand to backhand with your partner, or have 4 total players on the court working on dinks. The purpose of this drill closely simulates the real situation of a game, but more importantly, it's a chance for you to work on your aim.

You want to try and avoid blindly sending a backhand roll over and instead build your confidence at hitting your opponent's dominant hip or shoulder.

There are many ways to practice this in partner drills, but if you have 3 others around, dinking would be incredibly effective.

Strategies for Using the Backhand Roll in Pickleball

Like all shots in pickleball, the backhand roll is situational. And it's not a shot you use every single time you're at the kitchen line. Never use the backhand roll to solve every problem - mix in other shots to keep your opponent on their toes. It should be far more purposeful - you want to use it when you predict your opponent will have difficulty returning the shot. This could be due to them displaying a weak backhand or if they are too close to the line after a lob, dink, or other shot.

You also don't always need to rely on your arm strength alone - using spin and understanding how the ball will move when it bounces off of your paddle is just as important. And, if you practice your footwork before you even send the shot, you can increase your accuracy.

Here's what this might look like in a defensive, offensive, and ideal scenario.

Using the Backhand Roll for Defense

The backhand roll can get out of a jam when dinking - especially if the other side is overly aggressive. Meaning they've overcommitted to the kitchen or feel they've established control in a dink exchange.

If your opponent is dominating the flow and pace of dinks, and they are sending each shot toward your lower third, the backhand roll can be an effective answer.

Understanding When to Use the Backhand Roll

The backhand roll can get out of a jam when dinking - especially if the other side is overly aggressive. Meaning they've overcommitted to the kitchen or feel they've established control in a dink exchange.

If your opponent is dominating the flow and pace of dinks, and they are sending each shot toward your lower third, the backhand roll can be an effective answer.

Even if the rally is relatively neutral, this shot can put you on the offensive. The most ideal scenario is receiving the ball around hip height in front of your body, and the ball is coming from cross-court. For extra emphasis on the sneak attack of the backhand roll, drop it after a particularly lengthy dink exchange.

The Backhand Roll Is All About Control of Play

The backhand roll is a fantastic shot to have in your pickleball arsenal. It requires precision and patience, so it's best-suited for late-rally scenarios where control of play is pivotal. It has the purpose of resetting points or simply earning a point for your side. It's not an easy shot to perform though, and not every ball that enters your reach is ideal for a backhand roll.

Utilizing shadow drills, partner drills, and knowledge of how the ball interacts with your paddle face can be immensely helpful when mastering this shot. With practice, you'll begin to understand when the backhand roll is the perfect way to establish control.