There are few things more annoying in pickleball than your mind going in for a low drive or dink only to find your body went with a pop-up instead. And what's stranger than this unfortunate twist of fate is that the moment you become aware of it and try to fix it, it feels like the situation just gets worse.
Keeping the ball low is one of those fundamentals that's easier said than done, but essential nonetheless.
If you can consistently keep the ball low, or at least keep it low when you intend to do so, you will control the court. They all but eliminate attack opportunities for the recipient, while increasing opportunities to win the rally for the instigator.
At a more tactical level, hitting the ball low increases the difficulty for an opponent to return it since they'll have to get under the ball, almost lifting it back across the net, which removes their accuracy and power. Not to mention a low shot will have a shorter flight path, which means they have less time to react. Plus, hitting it low requires getting over the ball, which improves your control of the shot.
As you can see, there are several advantages to keeping your shots low in pickleball. And if you want to take your game to the next level, keeping the ball low isn't a luxury - it's a necessity.
So if you're one of many who struggle to keep your shots low in pickleball, let's end the struggle today - once and for all. This guide will put theory into practice, walking you through 5 techniques and tips that are sure to help you keep your shots low.
So grab your paddle, get in your athletic stance, and let’s get to work.
The Mechanics of a Hitting the Ball Low in Pickleball
As you know, so many variables go into each hit that it's nearly impossible to prescribe one solution to keep the ball low. But, there is one common factor in any shot that can help us make sense of the mechanics needed to keep a shot low. And that factor is your strike zone.
The Strike Zone in Pickleball
We've covered the strike zone in several articles, but for the unfamiliar, the strike zone is an optimal area for a player to hit the ball in pickleball.
With a paddle in hand, and your arm outstretched, it would be an invisible radius that runs from around the waist and up to your shoulders, but you could argue that the strike zone even extends above your head, where you may be able to hit a comfortable and powerful volley.
Any shot in this range is a good candidate for maintaining a rally, getting more aggressive, or even going all in and attacking. Anything below your hips falls outside the strike zone, and while many look at this as one zone, we like to think of it as two - the knee zone and the toe zone.
The knee zone extends from your knees up to your hips, and although it's not the worst spot to hit the ball from, it's definitely outside the strike zone. Shots from this area will be more challenging, but there may still be instances to attack from this range.
The toe zone, as you can probably guess, runs from your toes to your knees. These are difficult shots to hit back and never good points to go on the offense. Instead, resetting or just getting it back over the net should be the strategy here.
So when you think of the strike zone, think waist and above - this is prime real estate for getting aggressive with it. And below that, try to separate non-strike zone shots into two categories.
What's the Point? It's the Point of Contact...
Why are we talking about strike zones exactly? Well, strike zone, knee zone, and toe zone are simple terms that represent the point of contact in relation to your body. The zones require different angles to keep the ball low.
And since there isn't a one-size fits all solution to keeping a pickleball low, these zones will help you structure the required technique for any type of shot you need to make.
The 5 Best Techniques for Keeping the Ball Low in Pickleball
Now that we've separated your hitting areas into three categories (strike zone, knee zone, and toe zone), let's go through the 5 best techniques to keep the ball low. While some of these tips can be applied universally, we'll call out moments where your point of contact (zone) requires a different tactic.
1. Loosen Your Grip
Do you ever play with a death grip? You know the kind - it's the grip you have when you feel the adrenaline coursing through your body and your only answer is to wring your paddle's handle like it's a lifeline to win a rally. Every beginner struggles with this, but the truth is, players at all levels have to fight this instinct. Here's why.
Why You Should Use Soft Hands
Soft hands, which are slang for having a looser grip, allow a person to control a paddle with more sensitivity and finesse. This is due to the increased transfer of energy from the paddle to your arm and shoulder, which allows you to feel the ball on the paddle more accurately.
Soft hands also allow you to decelerate faster when making contact with the ball, which is necessary for keeping a shot low. If your grip is too tight, it's difficult to slow down the motion of the paddle and make gentle contact with the ball.
A tight grip will create greater power and punch the ball with greater force. Which at the wrong angle can create a pop-up or send it out of bounds.
That's because when you tighten your grip too much, your hand is less aware of the paddle, and you're solely dependent on your upper arm to guide the shot, which is a large muscle group that shares responsibility in creating power on your shots. And when you rely on your upper arm rather than your hand, you create a big gap in communication from the paddle to the rest of your body.
How to Play Pickleball With Soft Hands
To play pickleball with softer hands, it's best to group your fingers for different purposes. Your pinky, ring finger, and middle finger are meant to stabilize your paddle, whereas your index finger and thumb are there to grip your paddle. Following this concept results in the softest grip.
Since grip pressure is directly related to power, and only using your thumb and index creates the softest pressure, that means this grip pressure is best suited closer to the net - around the kitchen line. To maintain soft hands further from the net, you'll need to shift more fingers into gripping roles rather than stabilizing roles.
This could mean that at your baseline your thumb, index, and middle finger all have healthy grips, while your ring and pinky finger are still just adding stability to your overall grip.
To ensure a loose grip, create space between your fingers. This doesn't mean completely fanning them out, more so allowing you to slightly see the color of the grip between each finger.
Grip pressure is fluid to shots, location, and power, so you'll want to practice soft hands not only at the strike zone, the toe zone, and the knee zone but also where you make contact with the ball related to your location on the court.
2. Paddle Angle to Keep the Ball Low
When attempting to keep your shot low in pickleball, the angle of your paddle is critical. For the greatest loft, you'll want to open up your paddle face so that it's parallel to the court surface - you would typically max this out at 45 degrees from perpendicular.
If you're trying to reduce loft and increase control, a closed paddle face can be used - either parallel or rotated even further toward the net (where the top of your paddle face is closer to the net) to create spin or volley at a point of contact above the plane of the net.
In other words, to keep the ball low in pickleball, you'll need to account for the point of contact with the ball and the angle needed at that specific height. So it's time to wheel out the three zones of contact again.
The Minimal Angle at Each Strike Zone
We hate to bring it back to geometry class but a few triangles can help hammer home the minimum angle needed if force was taken out of the equation. In a pickleball world where the laws of physics cease to exist - including force and gravity - you can get an idea of the minimal angle needed for the ball to reach the peak of the net, at the centerline
Again, this visual breaks important rules in the real world, including physical barriers, but the point is to illustrate in perfect condition what angles are needed to hit the very top point of the center of the net, which is 34" off the ground.
If standing on the kitchen line, and you were to somehow hit the ball from right off the ground, the angle of your paddle would have to be at least 22° open. We know that once you add gravity and bring this back to the real world of force, your angle must be even more open, but you can see that among toes, knees, waist, and shoulder height in this example, hitting from the ground will require the greatest angle.
Angles That Keep the Pickleball Low at 3 Points of Contact
A guiding principle for the angle of your paddle is to make it more open the lower your point of contact is and to make the angle more closed the higher you get. But the critical element here to keep the ball low at any point of contact is to only open your paddle face to a bare minimum that will clear the net.
1. Strike Zone (Above the Waist)
Your strike zone covers the greatest distance in pickleball, but at its lowest point, you'll hit the ball around your waistline. If your waist is 34"-36" above the ground, you'll be right at the height of the net (34" at the center of the net and 36" at the posts).
This means the angle of your paddle at your waist can be slightly open or even closed a bit. It should be open if you're simply sending a direct shot back since natural forces will always be pushing the ball down to the ground. But you can close the paddle face if you're adding topspin to your shot.
And the higher you get from your waistline, the more tolerance you'll have to close the angle of your paddle - although the angle of your paddle may have less to do with how you've rotated the grip and more to do with the angle of your wrist and hand.
2. Knee Zone (From Knees to Waist)
Unless you're in the NBA, Striking the ball at a height between your knees and waist means you're hitting the ball below the height of the net. The appropriate angle here will be a semi-open angle, which will need to open up more the closer you get to your knees.
3. Toe Zone (Below the Knees)
Anything below your knees will require a far more open face on your paddle, hopefully maxing out at less than 45 degrees. Anything greater than 45 degrees will create a pop-up or never cross the net, resulting in a fault either way.
3. Point of Contact
Sometimes we're so focused on just trying to make contact with the ball that we don't even consider the best and worst point of contact. It's a lot like driving a car, where you've done it so many times you don't even think about what you're doing.
However, it's worth focusing on where your paddle meets the ball because it has a significant impact on whether your shot will keep the ball low or pop it up. Two ideas related to point of contact will help you keep the ball low.
Hit the Ball in Front of You
Making contact with the ball in front of your body helps you keep your shots lower because you gain better control of the angle of your shot. Making contact from your hip or side will open your paddle face, which results in a loss of control and typically a more open paddle face.
And you know what that means... pop-up city.
Hitting the ball when it's in front of you ensures you won't get jammed up - adding another layer of control to your shots.
An important, but often overlooked reason you should make contact while in front of your body instead of from your side is the decreased distance to the net. That little thing called gravity is constantly pushing the ball down. So the closer you are to the net, plus the increased control when making contact from in front, will help you eke the ball just over the top of the net.
Whereas meeting the ball from your sides your lack of control will either open the face and send it well above the 34"-36" of the net height, or you'll overcompensate by closing your paddle, and gravity will pull it into the dreaded mesh squares of the net.
Since each hit happens in milliseconds and is always unique, it's easy to think every shot is from the front. But that's not always the case. And if you find the ball is still popping up, there's a good chance you're making contact from your side. Your wrist can help you determine if that's the case.
It's impossible to hit the ball from in front of your body and have a proper angle to arc over the net without bending your wrist. So if you're uncertain whether you're taking the ball from the front, look at your wrists when you hit.
If your wrists are as straight as your grip, you're most likely not hitting from in front of your body.
Hit the Ball at its Highest Point
Similar to hitting the ball in front of you, taking it at its highest point benefits from being the shortest distance to the net. But there are also other reasons to make contact as early as possible (the highest point).
The majority of the time, making contact early and as high as possible requires a volley, which means you're taking the ball out of the air.
Now, you certainly don't want to do this if you're in the kitchen, but just outside the kitchen line, volleying the ball at its highest point gives you a much better chance of keeping the ball thanks to the increased speed you gain by redirecting the ball from the air.
The further a ball travels the more energy it loses. And once it bounces, it loses a substantial amount of energy. So volleying is an efficient way to redirect the ball's energy, which creates speed and a straighter flight path. If you can place this correctly (just above the net) your volley will be an optimal way to make sure you're contacting the ball at the highest point possible.
While volleying is great for taking the ball at its highest point, it's not always feasible. At this point, you may need to simply use a backhand or forehand groundstroke. After a bounce, you'll want to focus on hitting it at its zenith still, yet it won't obviously be the earliest point of contact.
Hitting at its peak after the bounce will put the ball as close to net height as possible, and help you naturally reduce the angle required to make contact with the ball - meaning you'll need a more closed face vs an open face, which will help reduce pop-ups.
When it comes to reducing pop-ups, a lot of attention is directed to the angle of your paddle. And sure, that's incredibly important, but foundational mechanics like your swing also have a tremendous impact on how low you can keep the ball on any shot.
Let's explore a few areas of your swing that will help you keep the ball low.
Low to High is Inevitable - Embrace Soft Game
If you make contact with the ball from your strike zone, you will hopefully not start low and end high. But if you're forced to make contact from the knee zone or tone zone, you're inevitably going to have to start the paddle low and end your swing high.
While many pickleball articles will tell you to not swing low to high, you don't have a choice if you're forced to hit the ball out of your strike zone.
So what do you do? Embrace your soft hands!
The most common mistake with low to high shots is gripping it like you're driving the ball from your baseline, but in reality, you're hitting it from the kitchen line. Your tight grip is going to send the ball back like a bullet, and your angle to clear the net is going to be far to generous, meaning the ball is going to pop up like you're trying to hit the ceiling.
Head back to the first point on this list which is all about loosening your grip, and this is incredibly effective for making sure that when you're forced to swing going low to high, you don't put too much power into the shot, and ultimately allow your opponent to smash it right back.
Swing from Your Shoulder
Players coming from table tennis are masters of wrist action. This can be a great weapon for some moments of finesse, but in others, snapping your wrist to generate power or achieve an angle is going to move your paddle from low to high. This will in turn pop the ball up instead of keeping it low.
To get over this hurdle, focus on swinging from your shoulder instead. Think of your shoulder like a pendulum in this case, and your arm and wrist in a static state, simply moved back and forth by your shoulder.
This doesn't mean your wrist shouldn't be bent to achieve the correct angle, or that you should keep your arm out like a clothesline. After all, you know that when hitting the ball from in front of your body, your wrist should be bent.
Rather, what this means is that your wrist arm isn't bending when you make contact with the ball. Doing so will impact the flight angle and force, which results in a lack of control over the ball.
So what about those instances when you can't possibly volley return, and you're forced to take it from your side instead of the front of your body? Well, this will most often mean you're forehand is about to get some action, and you're about to hit a groundstroke.
The key here is to restrain your backswing. Instead of reaching back like you're trying to find a hidden arrow in your quiver, you'll want to reach back more like you're about to dink the ball.
Keeping your backswing concise is going to limit the power you place on the shot, as well as mute some of the ill effects of having to make contact from your side.
Meaning, the decreased control of the ball when you take it from your side won't have as much power behind it. So even if the ball is at a wonky angle, limiting the power behind it will hopefully counteract the maximum height it will reach. Which ideally would arc just over the net.
Another benefit of a shorter backswing is it controls the angle of your shot a bit more. When reaching back for a fuller swing, most people naturally get lower with the paddle the further back they reach. And instead of correcting this lower-than-needed point when swinging forward, they'll continue that angle on the follow-through. And you guessed it - they've unfortunately taken the paddle from low to high, which will increase the gap between the ball and the net.
By shortening your backswing, you're less likely to dip the angle of your backswing, which will hopefully reduce any sort of low-to-high angle of your swing and keep the ball as low to the net as possible.
When it comes to specific shots and keeping the ball low, there are far too many to drop in here. And if you're looking to take your level of play up a notch, you should check out our article on 7 shots that are going to get you from 3.5 to 4.0.
So instead, let's focus on one of the most important shots in your game, and how you can modify just about any shot to keep the ball low. More specifically, cross-court dinks and adding topspin to shots.
A crosscourt dink is a shot where you hit the ball diagonally, across the court, and low. Usually done with a forehand, crosscourt dinks are incredibly effective when your opponent is out of position or has come in too far to volley.
Now, a crosscourt dink can be applied to many shots - from push dinks to backhand spin dinks, it's simply a dink that travels diagonally. But there are a several reasons a crosscourt dink will help you keep the ball lower.
To illustrate why let's imagine you're playing doubles and are in a dink rally. You send a crosscourt dink on your next shot, and it stays just above the net for the following reasons:
- Lowest Point of Net: In a perfect world, a crosscourt dink will travel just across the net at the centerline. This is the shortest point of the net (34"), whereas the posts are the highest (36" each). This means you have more margin to keep your dink low without hitting the net.
- Soft Touch of Dink: Dinking requires soft hands, finesse, and short backswings to successfully pull off. This is beneficial for riding as close to the net as possible and preventing any unwanted pop-ups.
- Distance: Remember the hypotenuse from geometry? It's the longest side of a triangle, and when you hit a crosscourt dink, you're essentially maximizing the distance of your shot while still staying in bounds. Should your shot have too much pop or angle on it, you'll have more distance for it to recover and still stay in bounds. And hopefully, result in a point for your side.
- Angle of Paddle Face: Rarely will you dink with an open face. Instead, a dink will most likely be closed, either close to perpendicular to the court surface, or even tilted forward for a more closed angle. With a light touch and this angle, the ball can barely clear the net and prevent a pop-up.
While each point above is a standalone reason to incorporate crosscourt dinks as a way to keep your shots lower, combined, they make crosscourt dinks one of the best shots available for keeping the ball low in pickleball.
Topspin is another great way to keep your shots low during a game. It's the technique of quickly pushing down on the ball while swinging forward, which adds backspin and helps keep the ball low.
For clearing the net, topspin will help you create a more dramatic arc in shorter distances, which in some cases will help you wrap around the net without hitting it.
Innate to hitting with topspin, your paddle face will need to be closed, which means you won't have an angle that naturally pops the ball up. Also, to hit the ball with topspin, you'll need to take it at a higher point of contact, which helps you lower the shot.
Although unrelated to the height at which the ball clears the net, topspin also makes it difficult for your opponent to track, as its flight path is unpredictable, and its bounce will skip.
Now, imagine you've combined topspin with a crosscourt dink... That's one of the reasons a backhand spin dink is so deadly on the court. Although a difficult shot to perform, it's devastating due to all the reasons above.
Commit to the Fundamentals
There's no magical secret for keeping the ball low in pickleball. What you've probably gathered throughout this article is that low shots are the byproduct of excelling at the fundamentals in pickleball.
That is, knowing when and how to play with softer hands, adjusting the angle of your paddle based on where you can make contact with it, and also knowing the optimal locations to make contact with the ball. Perhaps even more foundational is understanding the impact of your swing on the angle and power of your shots.
And although you won't be able to play an entire game only hitting crosscourt dinks (nor should you want to), dinks are perhaps the most important shots in pickleball. So there's nothing entirely novel about hitting them diagonally. And adding topspin to your shots is simply a contextual style that can help you stay closer to the net, but it's also part of the game.
The point here is that you most likely already know bits and pieces of all the points discussed in this guide, but now with a little more context on how they impact your ability to keep a pickleball low. So rather than start a complete makeover of how you play pickleball, use this guide more as a refresher on getting back to what you already know - having a solid grasp of pickleball fundamentals is the best way to prevent pop-up shots and keep the ball low.