How to Improve Your Agility for Pickleball

If you've played pickleball you know that quick feet are just as important as killer shots. After all, what good is a finely-honed shot if you can't even reach the ball in time?

Like most things that matter in life and pickleball, you’re not simply born with great agility. It’s earned through practice and rigorous training. We understand that figuring out the right training regimen can be a bit of a puzzle. It's not as straightforward as pumping iron or pounding the pavement.

That's why we've whipped up this article, jam-packed with the best techniques to boost your agility. We're talking about on-court exercises that'll have you zipping around like a pro, always ready to set up that perfect shot. Even if you're just playing pickleball for the fun of it or to stay fit, these drills are easy to incorporate into your routine, either pre- or post-game.

Improving Your Agility Across the Pickleball Court

Agility is more than speed and it’s also different from and arguably more important than endurance. Agility is your ability to react to whatever’s happening on the court. That means coordinating your entire body to move quickly in the direction you need it to go. 

Pickleball is strenuous and you need to be agile the entire time you’re playing. Returning a serve, running down a short ball, and backpedaling to get to the baseline are all examples of situations that require agility. The faster you can change direction and take an explosive step toward the ball, the more time you have to set up and make your shot.

How Is Agility Used in Pickleball?

Agility is used in pickleball for quick directional changes and fast reaction times. A player's ability to move swiftly allows them to cover more court space and return shots effectively. Enhanced agility can lead to improved performance and a competitive edge in games.

Pickleball players use agility every time they react to their opponent’s shot. Just like other paddle and racquet sports, pickleball demands more agility than other forms of athletics. When you return a serve, you have to take a quick step toward the ball. If your opponent hits a drop shot, you need to react quickly to reach it.

In a situation like the return of serve, you don’t have to worry about changing directions - but you also can't just stand there like a deer in headlights. Your main concern is in taking a decisive first step toward the ball, and this first step allows you to position properly for a better return. Of course, not all serves will land perfectly in front of your body. You'll have to work hard to get to others.

Other times, you need to change direction. If your opponent pulls you out wide and then hits a shot behind you, you need to stop and change directions. This is where agility will help you, as the more agile you are, the better you’ll be at reacting, stopping, and running toward the ball.

Agility doesn’t necessarily imply a direction. A step forward to chase down a drop shot or a step backward to react to a lob both use agility. The same is true for side-to-side movement. Since it’s so ubiquitous, agility is one of the most important physical traits for pickleball players.

4 Benefits of Agility in Pickleball

Look at any pro-caliber player and it's easy to see that agility is a must-have quality if you want to climb any sort of pickleball ladder. While agility to some extent is innate, it can be trained and built - that's good news for many of us, especially when you look at how agility benefits your game. This is what's referred to as agility training, which can improve your reaction time, increase set-up time to your shots, put pressure on your opponents, and improve your return game. Let's look at each of these 4 primary components as they relate to pickleball agility.

1. Improve Reaction Time

By training your agility, you can improve your reaction time; a crucial element to winning in a sport like pickleball where quick reflexes are so common they're nearly the price of admission for every rally. By reacting faster, you'll be able to get to shots that you might have missed before, allowing you to keep the ball in play and put pressure on your opponents.

2. Increase Set-Up Time for Shots

But agility training isn't just about getting to balls faster. It also gives you more time to set up your shots. When you're more agile, you can move around the court with ease and get into the right position to hit the ball. This means you can take your time and hit better shots, which can give you an advantage over your opponent.

3. Pressure Your Opponents

Another benefit of agility training is that it forces your opponents to take more risks. When you're more agile, you can get to shots that your opponents might have thought were winners. This means they'll have to hit more difficult shots or take more risks, which can increase their chances of making mistakes.

4. Improve Return Shots

Lastly, agility training improves your return of serve, which takes away your opponent's advantage. By being more agile, you can react faster to your opponent's serve and get into position to hit a good return. This puts the pressure back on your opponent, giving you a better chance of winning the point.

Overall, boosting your agility will give you a strategic advantage on the court. For the fans of Moneyball, think of "getting to the ball" as the pickleball equivalent to the on-base percentage in baseball. By simply handling the basics, you significantly increase the odds of improved performance. Psychologically, it sends a nice signal to your opponent that they’re not going to get any easy winners. That means they need to take more risk and hit closer to the lines to get balls by you, leading to more faults for them.

Another tactical advantage is its impact on technique. No matter how much you improve your groundstrokes or net game, if you have to reach for balls, it’s hard to have proper technique. Getting to the ball faster gives you time to use the form you’ve developed in practice.

Now that you know why agility is so important for pickleball, it’s time to talk about training required to build it. In the following, we've separated agility by the type needed in different court situations, such as how to improve your fast hands at the kitchen line. Keep reading for useful drills you can use based on court situations:

Practical Tips for Kitchen Line Agility

Things move quickly at the kitchen line and you need to be ready. Your legs aren’t the only things that need to be agile. Fast hands can make the difference between winning and losing a point. To develop faster hands and feet, try these drills

Kitchen Agility Drill: Side Ball Drop

For this drill, you’ll stand between two cones. Place the cones at least 5 yards apart. Have a partner stand in front of you with a ball, facing you. They’ll throw the ball toward either cone, and you have to quickly react and catch the ball before throwing it back. This drill builds quickness in your hands and feet, perfect for playing near the kitchen line.

Kitchen Agility Drill: Ball Drop Reaction

This is similar to the drill above, but you’ll be sprinting forwards. Have your partner stand 5 yards in front of you with a ball. They should be holding it at shoulder height. They’ll drop the ball whenever they want to and you have to grab it before it bounces twice. You can start standing or, if you need more of a challenge, start with one knee down or lying on your stomach.

Kitchen Agility Drill: Hexagon

To build better footwork on the kitchen line, try the hexagon drill. With tape, form the shape of a hexagon on the court. Stand in the middle with both feet. Facing forward the entire time, jump with both feet over each line of the hexagon and back to the center as fast as you can. The bigger the hexagon, the harder this drill is.

Practical Tips for Baseline Agility

If your opponent has an excellent serve, agility can help you level the playing field. A quick first step puts you in a position to hit a powerful return. From the baseline, you also need agility to get to the kitchen line or chase down balls that your opponent hits out wide. This drill is excellent for improving baseline agility:

Baseline Agility Drill: M Cone Drill

To practice changing directions forwards backward, and side-to-side, try out this drill. You’ll need 5 cones, each 10 yards apart, in the shape of an “M.” It’s basically 4 cones in the shape of a rectangle with one cone in the middle. Facing forwards the entire time, sprint from the back cone to the front, backpedal to the middle, run forward to the front, then backpedal to the back cone. Do this as fast as possible.

Baseline Agility Drill: Line Drill for Footwork

To build better footwork from the baseline, try the line drill. Start at the baseline with your toes behind the line. Hop over it and back with both feet as fast as you can, staying on the balls of your feet. You can also do this with one foot at a time.

Practical Tips for No Man's Land Agility

Being stuck in no-man’s-land is tricky. You need to quickly decide whether you should backpedal to the baseline or sprint forwards to the kitchen line. To get out of this sticky situation, start with a split step:

  • Step 1: Start with your feet shoulder-width apart
  • Step 2: Jump so that your feet leave the ground
  • Step 3: Land on the balls of your feet
  • Step 4: Bend your knees to drop lower to the ground
  • Step 5: Prepare your paddle for the shot you anticipate

Once you’ve completed the split step you’re ready to react to your opponent’s shot. With your weight on the balls of your feet and legs ready to explode in either direction, you’re in a much better position than if you were flat-footed.

Practical Tips for Overall Agility

You use agility in all parts of the court. There are always specific cases, such as a return of serve or chasing down a drop shot, that require different footwork techniques. Training for overall agility will pay off as well because you can translate your quick steps into any number of situations. Try this drill to improve your overall agility:

Overall Agility Drill: Wall Ball

All you need for this drill is a bouncy ball and a wall. Stand in front of the wall and throw the ball at the ground so that it bounces, hits the wall, and comes back at you. You can also have a partner stand behind you and throw the ball. This drill will develop quick reactions to shots and fast foot movements. Improving your footwork for pickleball requires constant practice. If you want faster feet, invest in a speed ladder. There are several drills you can do with them, and when used properly they improve foot speed and coordination.

Get to Every Shot

Agility is your ability to react to whatever’s happening on the court and adjust your body accordingly. Whether that means hitting quick balls from the kitchen line, returning serve, or changing directions, you need agility to play well.

Developing agility requires extra time spent doing drills. The good news is that most of the workouts that build agility can be done on the court, so you don’t need to find a gym. You can even do them as part of your warm-up. Practice the drills above to get faster feet and chase down every ball your opponent hits.

Beyond learning the proper technique for each shot, agility might be the most important thing to practice. You need it regardless of where you are on the court and what type of shot you’re hitting. The good news is that anyone can work on and improve their agility.