Whether you've played 2 games or 2 decades of pickleball, you know the frustration that comes with pop-ups. It's unfortunately common that hitting the ball with the best intention of keeping the ball low to the net somehow results in a pop-up that turns into a putaway for your opponent. Although irritating when it happens, it's a problem that can be fixed.
To keep the ball low in pickleball, you should be on the lookout for the 3 mistakes everyone makes but few know or talk about:
- Holding the paddle with an improper grip
- Wrong paddle and path angle
- Having poor footwork
The list of avoidable mistakes far exceeds 3, but these are the most common ones we see on the court that few discuss. While this article is meant to highlight the most glaring issues that prevent players from keeping their shots low, if you're looking for detailed guidance on fixing these mistakes, be sure to check out our guide on how to keep your pickleball shots low.
For those who simply want to know the common problems and use that as a jumping-off point to correct their mistakes, you'll find the information below extremely valuable.
1. Improper Grip
If despite your best efforts to keep your shots just above the net, you find the ball popping up like an unwanted houseguest, the culprit could simply be your grip on the pickleball paddle. That's right, how you hold the paddle is one of the more common causes of sending a pickleball up rather than over. And perhaps it's so common because it's the last thing you would consider.
Actually, several mistakes in this article are just as basic and unsung as using an improper grip. Anyways, let's take a look at the different ways that holding the paddle incorrectly can affect your game.
Holding the Paddle Too Tight
First up, we've got the tight-grip gang. This is a tough one to get over, and one that every player deals with at some point. That's because when you're really into a game, you're fighting adrenaline and cortisol on the court, so your natural reaction is to squeeze your paddle as much as possible - it's almost as if doing so bends the game to your intention. But that's not the case, and a tight grip has the opposite effect.
If you're gripping that paddle so tightly your knuckles are turning white or if you're trying to rationalize this chokehold because you feel like you're powering that ball over the net, here's why you need to stop.
What you're actually doing by gripping the paddle tightly is removing the natural flex and give that a paddle needs to absorb the energy of the impact. This results in a powerful shot back that lacks direction. And when you combine power (speed) and a lack of direction, you can bet your drop shot is going to turn into a stargazer. So, loosen that grip a bit, and if you're unsure how to do this, follow this link to a guide on how to play pickleball with soft hands.
Holding the Paddle Too Loose
Now, the other side of the grip coin consists of the loosey-goosey crew. Those who hold the paddle like it's a delicate feather. While also a bad way to hold the paddle, most players that have too loose of a grip on their pickleball paddles do so because they're trying to play with soft hands. And this is usually because they're trying to correct themselves from gripping too tightly, yet they've gone overboard with soft hands.
What Are Soft Hands in Pickleball?
Perhaps this is a good time to discuss soft hands - for the uninitiated, soft hands are a metaphorical and literal reference to holding the paddle with a lighter grip, creating more control and touch at the point of impact, instead of power.
Metaphorically, this connotes playing more gently, which is incredibly helpful for dinks and finesse shots in particular. But in the literal sense, there are methods for actually holding the paddle more lightly, such as using just the thumb and index fingers for gripping, and the remainder of your fingers to stabilize the paddle.
What Happens If Your Grip Is Too Loose?
If you hold your pickleball paddle too loose, your shot will lack control and power, either preventing your shot from reaching the other side of the court or landing far from your target.
A weak grip comes at the price of control when the ball impacts your paddle. This results in your paddle face rotating or knocking backward and forwards, which throws the ball back in a random trajectory. Even players with a properly balanced grip can struggle with this if they're receiving a laser beam of a shot. This is one of the reasons Paddletek invented Torsion Vibration Control, which is a performance innovation that reduces the rotation of the paddle face at impact.
Aside from a directionless shot, your paddle won't take on any of the shock of the ball and throw it right back at the ball, which is how a pickleball paddle functions and creates power. Like a trampoline, the surface material and core take the energy of the ball and transfer it into your return. Without a stable grip, you remove this functionality from your shots. So, tighten up that grip a bit.
What Style of Grip Do You Use?
Now, let's talk about grips in general. This is less to do with grip pressure and more to do with the style of grip you use. There are three main styles of holding the paddle - the eastern grip, the western grip, and the continental grip.
Here's a quick summary of what each grip does differently (This information is sourced from section 5 of Paddletek's article to help players improve their serves, but applicable to any shot).
Eastern Grip: A Versatile Neutral Grip
Also referred to as the handshake grip, the eastern grip is a neutral grip that teeters closed more than open. This makes it great for beginners because the paddle face angle is more versatile, allowing a nice forehand and decent backhand without needing to change grips.
It's also a great grip for keeping the ball low because it's nearly parallel to the plane of the net, but with a slight lean forward, which can assist in not opening your paddle face.
Western Grip: A Closed Forehand Grip
If holding a paddle with the western grip, you'll find the paddle leans forward quite a bit, especially compared to the eastern grip. It's a really powerful grip for forehands, but unusable for your backhand.
As it relates to keeping the ball low above the net, this could be great for your forehands, but you'll need to either be hitting the ball from low to high (swing trajectory) to clear the net. Or, you'll need heavy topspin, which is naturally a great weapon for bending the ball just above the net.
Continental Grip: A Backhand and Dinking Grip
And last on the list is the continental grip. It's in many ways the twin of the eastern grip but follows a different path. It's still a rather neutral grip, just like the eastern grip, but where the eastern grip is ever so slightly rotated to a closed angle for your forehand, the continental grip is angled open.
This is why the continental grip is ideal for backhands (it would be a closed angle in this direction) and dinks, but not optimal for forehands.
This means if you're at the kitchen line or need to hit a backhand, rotating your grip to the continental position will help you control the ball better, which is going to assist in helping it float right above the net.
As you gain experience in pickleball, you'll graduate from one grip style throughout a game into situational grips. This means you're able to hit a nice forehand drive in the eastern grip from your baseline and quickly rotate your grip into continental as you make your way toward the kitchen to dink.
This is how you'll be able to truly keep the ball low and avoid the grip style mistakes many players face by using the wrong style of grip, or gripping too tightly or too loosely.
2. Wrong Angle
While grip pressure is one of the least expected sources of pop-ups, the angle of your paddle is certainly the most expected. Actually, it's merely an extension of your grip style, since eastern, western, and continental grips are simply short names for the angle of the paddle based on how you hold it.
We'll discuss the angle of your paddle's surface a bit more here, but we'll look at it from a different angle (that's a good pun right?). There are a few additional details you should know about paddle face angles that commonly trip players up when they try to hit a pickleball low, but stumble into a pop-up instead.
Besides, your paddle face isn't the only factor that changes the angle of your shot; the less-discussed factor has everything to do with the path of your swing.
If you're not careful, both your paddle face and the motion of your swing can cause the ball to sail way up in the air, making it easy for your opponents to smash it back at you. So, let's take a closer look at how to avoid this pesky problem.
Paddle Face Angle
Let's quickly revisit the angle of your paddle face. Again, this is directly related to your grip, so make sure you're holding your paddle correctly (check out our previous section on Improper Grip for some tips!).
If your paddle face is open when you make contact with the ball, you're going to pop it up into the air. On the other hand, if your paddle face is closed, you'll be able to send the ball down low where it belongs.
The only reason we're bringing this topic up once more is that it's so common. So don't make us bring it up a third time, grab your phone and record yourself dinking with a friend for a few minutes. If you're unable to keep your shots low your first stop on sifting out the problem should be looking at the angle of your paddle.
The odds are quite high that your grip is a bit off, or the angle of your swing is messing up the whole party. More on that now...
The Angle of Your Swing
The path of your swing also plays a big role in where the ball ends up. Imagine you're looking at yourself playing pickleball from the sideline, and on your backswing, you mark the exact center of your palm when your backswing reaches its maximum pull, and you do the same exercise on the follow-through.
Now, draw a line connecting both points. This is the angle of your swing, and it also plays a major role in determining the angle of the ball once you hit it. Even if you had a completely vertical angle on your paddle face, if your swing goes from low to high, the ball is going to pop up.
This is why many people will advise you to make contact with the ball as high as possible, which will help reduce the angle of your swing or to aim down when you can.
But the truth is that you can't play pickleball without having to hit the ball low too high at some point, and that's where common mistakes happen. The lower you get, the more open the angle of your paddle should be, and your swing angle should be as acute as possible. The higher you get to the horizon (the top of the net) the more you can close the angle of your paddle face and also shift your swing from high to low.
When you think about the impact of angle as it relates to keeping the ball low, think about it as a system, one where the angle of your paddle face and the path of your swing work together to keep the ball down.
Don't Forget Gravity
A quick note on Newton's favorite subject - gravity. Although it would be nice sometimes to break the laws of physics, pickleball is still subject to universal rules, which means the angles of your paddle face and swing need to account for gravity constantly pushing the ball down.
Some shots will need to have a more open angle or greater power to keep low but still make it across the net.
3. Poor Footwork
Footwork is crucial to any shot on the court and the height at which the ball crosses the plane of the net is no exception. While moving our feet is just an automatic function we rarely think about during a game, the position of your feet can alter the power, control, and point of contact of every shot.
This section will explore the fundamentals that are commonly sending the ball up instead of over. We'll look at the two components of footwork - your stance and movement, and then we'll shift into how poor footwork specifically damages your ability to keep the ball low. You may just find that this common mistake is what's holding your shots captive.
Elements of Footwork - Stance and Movement
Let's start with the basics: your stance and movement across the court. When you're getting ready to hit a shot, you want to have a stable, balanced stance. The athletic stance is always a good position to be in.
Your feet should be shoulder-width apart, with your weight evenly distributed between them. This will give you a solid base to work from and give you the most control over your body and paddle, including the angle of the paddle.
As for your movement, the most common mistake players make is not moving their feet enough. Instead of moving to the ball to get in the best position for hitting it, far too many players sit like an oak tree on the court and reach their limbs out to create a point of contact with the ball. When you do this you forfeit control of the ball, and if it just so happens to be a full extension of your arms, this is the quickest way to send your shot sky high.
Stretching to get into position rather than moving your feet removes your control of the paddle angle - rather, you take away any strategic angle from the shot and instead turn it into a prayer of just trying to make contact with the ball. If you do this, be prepared for a smash coming right back at you.
How Footwork Impacts High or Low Shots
Better footwork is the answer to the test. You need to be moving your feet because it guarantees you'll be in the best position. Two of the most lauded ways to make sure you keep the ball low in pickleball are the result of good footwork.
The first is about making sure you make point of contact with the ball in front of you whenever possible. Although it would be great for the ball to always run right into your strike zone, you'll have to work for it. So that requires good footwork to make sure it's as centered to your vision as possible. This all stems from creating the best angle for your shot and removes any notion of getting jammed up to do so. Plus, hitting from the front of your body gives you greater control over the paddle.
The second concept related to footwork that's always recommended for keeping your shots low hinges on the concept of always trying to hit the ball as early as possible, since this is most often going to be taking the ball from higher up.
Doing so can direct your swing from high to low, which keeps the ball down. Plus, if it's a volley, you'll benefit from the arrow-like path of the ball's flight pattern and its high acceleration. But neither is possible without proper footwork; getting your feet into a stable position gives you the greatest amount of control on the shot and the ability to move swiftly to do so.
And it seems a bit counterintuitive, but your footwork can also help you generate more power and control on your shots. That's because your feet can help you transfer weight into your shot, which is the lever for power that in some instances can be used to pull the ball tightly across the top of the net. And, by adjusting your footwork to match the speed and angle of a ball headed your way, you'll be able to have maximum control over its direction and height once you make contact with it. This is the real key to accuracy.
Know and Correct These 3 Mistakes
One of the biggest contributors to pop-ups is holding the paddle with an improper grip. Remember that it’s all about balance and fluidity. Holding the paddle too tightly creates way too much power, but soft hands don't mean feather hands - you still need a grip on the paddle or else you'll remove any control you have over your shot. But grip pressure is just part of the equation, the angle of the paddle is largely determined by your grip style, where the eastern grip goes a long way at preventing needless popups because of its versatility and neutral to semi-closed angle.
To hit the ball low, you need to create an angle that also just gets the ball above the net, and this isn't accomplished solely by your grip style and how the paddle face is rotated. The path of your swing plays a major role in the angle of how you hit the ball. But both factors should be accounted for as it relates to the angle of impact with the ball - you can have a closed paddle face, but if your swing starts low and ends high, you’re still going to pop that ball up.
And don't sleep on your footwork. Even though your toes will never send the ball over the net, they indirectly change whether you can keep the ball low or not. Proper footwork allows you to get in position to hit the ball at its highest point, with the right angle and swing, and in front of your body. Which is the recipe for low shots in pickleball.
If you're curious about why it's important to keep the ball low in the first place, you should check out Paddletek's article that investigates the advantages of low shots - it's enlightening, to say the least. And if this article has opened your eyes to areas you can improve upon, and you're ready to take the next step, we've built the most comprehensive resource on preventing pickleball pop-ups. It goes through a separate list of common mistakes and how to address them once and for all.
Regardless of where you head to next, keep practicing and watch out for any of the mistakes above, and you’ll be on your way to becoming a pop-up-free player in no time.