It can be challenging to always be in the right position during a rally, but if you find yourself constantly missing opportunities to close down a rally in pickleball because of your position, it might be more than a coincidence. Poor footwork is often the culprit behind consistently just being out of position.
That's the bad news. The good news is there's a simple solution - the split step. It won't take much to master this technique, and in doing so you'll see a rapid improvement in your footwork, reaction time, and most likely your overall play. So if you're ready to bid good riddance to missed shots and take your game to the next level at the same time, you're reading the right article.
In this guide, we'll cover everything you need to know about the split step in pickleball - from the basics to how to effectively use it in your game. By the end of this guide, you'll be a split-step pro.
What Is the Split Step in Pickleball?
The split step in pickleball is a fundamental movement to quickly and efficiently change direction on the court. It involves landing on the balls of your feet and slightly bending your knees as your opponent makes contact with the ball, improving your reaction time to return any ball.
In other words, the split-step technique helps you cover more ground and be in a better position to hit the ball. Removing any formal jargon, think of the split step as a little hop you do right before your opponent hits the ball. You want to be light on your feet so you can pivot in any direction and move quickly to the ball.
This is why you land on the balls of your feet because you can transfer that momentum to change direction and move to where your opponent appears to be sending the ball. The key is to be ready to move as soon as you see where the ball is going. Now that you know what the split step is, let's talk about why it actually matters.
Why Is the Split Step Important in Pickleball?
The split step is an important technique in pickleball because it allows players to be more agile and cover more of the court. This results in better positioning to hit the ball which improves shot accuracy and ultimately better control of a rally. This is largely due to how the split step prevents you from being flat-footed.
It's a bit like running in place, that is, you're still moving but you're also waiting. Rolling from the ball of your feet to your toes buys you time to monitor your opponent's shot without having you pause, or even worse, rush to the kitchen line only to be caught off guard, off-balance, and out of position. A shot sent down the line, a lob, or just one that jams you up is often what happens when you rush into a weird position at the kitchen.
The split step is a great way to counteract that. You'll still be able to hit the ball, but you'll be able to do so from a better position. And you'll move to the ball with ease rather than panicking to react. At its core, the split step increases your ability to cover the court, enhances your reaction time, and better prepares you for your next shot; here's why:
- Improved Court Coverage: You're able to cover more of the court because you're already in a ready stance.
- Enhanced Reaction Time: Since your momentum never truly halts, and you're in a stance that's optimal for agility, you're able to move more quickly to reach the ball in any direction.
- Better Shot Preparation: Since you're in a ready position and you've created some space to move into, you'll be able to take the ball from in front of your body, which is ideal. In instance where you won't be able to take it head-on, you'll at least be in a balanced stance with good footing underneath you, which supports a better shot.
These are all powerful reasons to make the split step part of your game - and if you aren't convinced, just watch the pros. The split step is baked into their game to the point they don't even think about it. It supports their ability to move more fluidly and always be in an advantageous position for their next shot.
How to Perform the Split Step
Now that you know why you should be doing the split step, this is probably a good time to know how to do it correctly. So let's break the split step down into its individual components - step by step.
Step 1: Feet Shoulder-Width Apart
Begin by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and knees slightly bent. Even before you've actually started your split step, you'll want to keep your body weight shifted toward the front of your feet, right underneath the balls of your feet - which is the area in between the base of your toes and the arch of your foot. Having your weight here prevents flat feet and creates more explosive movement.
Step 2: Jump and Move Your Feet
As your opponent hits the ball, jump up slightly and move your feet apart. Don't try to jump a foot in the air here, you more or less want to go an inch or two off the ground. The purpose of this is to just create some momentum and jolt you out of any flat feet you would experience otherwise.
Step 3: Land on the Balls of Your Feet
You're going to land on the balls of your feet here and keep your weight forward as well.
Step 4: Get Low
Bend your knees slightly, bringing your center of gravity closer to the court - this will help you get ready to move laterally or forward.
Step 5: Prepare Your Paddle
Although we've listed it as step 5, if you're able to have your paddle ready the moment you land on the balls of your feet, that's ideal. This ready position consists of having both hands on the paddle with the paddle in front of your body - about 1 to 2 feet away from your center.
Creating a little distance between your body and the paddle goes a long way in preventing you from getting jammed up, but also helps you prepare to take the ball earlier and higher - which is always preferred.
And that's how you perform the split step! Not too crazy, right? If you're tracking so far, let's talk about how you can practice it.
Now that you know how to perform the split step, let's talk about when you should use it.
When Should You Use the Split Step?
You should use the split step every time your opponent is about to hit the ball. As they reach for a backswing you'll begin your light hop, trying to time the maximum height of your jump to the moment the ball meets their paddle, and landing on the balls of your feet immediately after they hit the ball.
This might sound like overkill for anyone who doesn't use the split step, but once you get the hang of it, it's difficult to not incorporate it into any time your opponent hits the ball.
If you can't see yourself using the split step before every hit, you should at the very least consider using it at the top of a point. That is, in the first four shots of a game as you, or you and your partner if playing doubles, try to work your way toward the kitchen. Where many players go directly from the baseline to the kitchen line, you'll want to break up this approach in at least a few split steps.
There's no reward in rushing to the line prematurely, and if you approach it methodically with a series of split steps, you'll be in an excellent position to take control of the rally before you even arrive at the kitchen line.
Whether you use it for every shot or just to approach the kitchen, repetition is the key. So to turn the split step into a more natural part of your game, we'd recommend the following drills to help you get there quicker.
How to Practice the Split Step
The best way to practice the split step is with a simple shadow practice. This means you'll perform all 5 steps of the movement without a ball or partner. This technique is great for learning fundamental movements and tapping into the cognitive stage of learning. As you're working through it, try to count out each step aloud.
This will help you commit each component of the split step to memory and also be a little voice inside your head to remind you of proper form in the future. You might also try grabbing your phone and recording yourself doing these shadow drills.
Doing so will give you a third eye to see little things you wouldn't otherwise, for instance, are you jumping too high? Are you taking too long to get your paddle in the ready position? Are your knees bent enough? Are you actually landing on the balls of your feet?
It's tough to know if you're following the correct form when you're trying to watch your body from your line of sight. Simply hitting the record button will help you gain perspective on ways to nail the proper form of the split step.
Once you've got shadow training down to a science, grab a partner and borrow a drill from badminton and tennis - the multi-feed drill. Your partner will simply stand a certain distance away with quite a few pickleballs at the ready.
Once you see them start their backswing, you'll begin your split step movements, reaching the peak of your jump as they make contact with the ball, and they'll send the ball in any direction they like. This is a drill of repetition that will get you better prepared for what the split step will be like in a real game. Your partner should do this quickly as it will help force you to react quickly.
Split Step Success Requires Practice and Persistence
Just like the split step, we've covered a lot of ground on this topic. From defining the split step and why it's important to how to perform it correctly and practice it to perfection. The split step is a fundamental movement for any player that wants to play at 4.0 or higher since it's so crucial to improving your reaction time, court coverage, and shot prep.
If you make the split step a part of your pickleball game, your focus should be on your footwork, timing of the movement, and how you distribute your weight (balls of your feet...) And to make sure you do this correctly, grab your phone and record your practice. Running split step drills regularly will make this motion feel more natural, and before you know it, the split step will be a part of your game you don't even think about but see the results in improved performance and a greater competitive edge.
So if you're serious about improving your game, it's time to get your tiny hop mechanics sorted as soon as possible. And remember, even though the split step is pretty simple on paper, it can take a little time and effort to master, but the payoff is worth it. So rather than doing it before every shot the next time you take the court, practice in your driveway or yard ahead of time.
You'll get the motion down before it matters, and you'll see the real reward when you finally take it to the court, which we're certain will be a turning point in keeping the split step part of your game in the future.