The Ultimate Guide to the Best Pickleball Paddles for Intermediate Players
If you’ve been playing pickleball for a while and are ready to move from a beginner skill rating to an intermediate level, you may be wondering how you can improve your skills and reach the 3.5+ level. Moving up from a 3.0 to 3.5 or a 3.5 to a 4.0 is a significant step in your pickleball journey and requires a focused effort to improve your game. In this article, we’ll explore some tips and strategies to help you make the transition, including how to improve your serve, aim, movement, overall consistency and an introduction on how to add spin to your game. Whether you’re a recreational player or a competitive athlete, these tips will help you elevate your game and take your pickleball skills to the next level!
Strategies To Improve Your Serve
To succeed as a 3.5 skill level pickleball player, the skill rating rules from USA Pickleball indicates that you can consistently serve and return the ball but you lack control of the depth of your shots. Even as a 3.0 player, you may have figured out how to be more consistent with your serves to keep it in, but your serve lacks direction, distance, and intent.
To get to the next skill level in pickleball, you must work on improving your serve. Remember, improving your serve doesn’t just mean maintaining more consistency, but it also means improving your ability to maneuver the ball and vary your type of serves to create more of a challenge for your opponents.
Like any sport, consistency is key. In order to get better, practicing your serve is key. You can practice your serve on your own or with a partner. Start by focusing on your form, making sure your grip is correct, your body position is right, and that you are executing a legal serve.
Per the 2023 USA Pickleball Rulebook, to execute a legal serve in pickleball, one must use an underhand stroke and ensure that the point of contact with the ball is below the waistline, specifically defined as the navel. When striking the ball, the arm must move in an upward arc, and the highest point of the paddle head should remain below the wrist. Moreover, it is crucial to note that the highest point of the paddle head must not exceed any section of the line formed by the wrist joint’s bending.
Where To Aim Your Serve
When you are serving the ball, there are ideal areas to aim to in order to make it more difficult for your opponents to return the ball. One technique is to aim your serve deep and towards your opponent’s backhand. More often than not, a player’s backhand is weaker than their forehand. By aiming your serve deep, if a player has a weak backhand, it makes it even more difficult for the receiving team to return your serve. Since this is not an ‘always’ situation, it’s encouraged to study the weaknesses of your opponents as you play with them. If you see one or both of your opponents are inconsistent with returning a ball using their backhand, then you should be aiming for their backhand.
Another strategy is to vary your serve. This can help you avoid being too predictable and it can make it more challenging for your opponent to return since your type of serve may be unexpected. When varying your serve, you can alternate between short, low serves and deep into the back of the court type of serves. Aim for your opponent’s backhand. Aim for the corner of your opponent’s court.
Another great strategy is to simply be aware of where your opponent is on the court. If you’ve been serving the same deep serve to the corner over and over again, you may find that your opponent is deep and ready at that corner for your next serve. That is a great opportunity to fire a low serve deep, to the inside of the centerline dividing your opponent’s court. This can make it pretty difficult for your opponent to return a serve like that since they’re out of position and not expecting you to change your serve!
Once you’ve mastered a consistent serve and have learned where to strategically aim your serve, then you can start to work on your power and accuracy by hitting different types of serves such as a flat, topspin, or slice serve. We’ll talk more about how to incorporate spin into your game later in this article.
It’s important to remember that as of 2023, the official USA Pickleball Rulebook states you can add spin to your serve by having the ball hit your paddle a specific way, but you are not able to manipulate the ball with your hand to add spin to your serve.
Advanced Aiming Techniques
Another way to improve your overall pickleball skills is to learn how to aim the ball with direction and intent. The better you can aim and position the ball where you want it to go, the more difficult it can be for your opponent to return the ball.
When returning a serve, you want to strategically hit the ball deep, back to your opponent. The reason you want to hit the ball deep is because of the two-bounce rule. The two-bounce rule indicates that each side, (the serving team and the receiving team), needs to let the ball bounce once before you can initiate a volley. If you are returning a serve and hit the ball deep, it forces your opponents to stay back in order to let the ball bounce before they can return it to your side. This is a great strategy as you work on improving your game because many beginner players tend to ‘creep’ up mid-court before allowing the ball to bounce and returning the ball. Therefore, when you can return the ball deep after your opponents serve, if you catch your opponent creeping, they’ll struggle to return your deep hit to them. You can also take your serve return to another level by aiming for your opponent’s backhand as well.
The Dink Game
During a rally, when you are defending at the kitchen line (also known as the non-volley zone), you want to be able to identify when a ball is ‘attackable.’ This is another way to increase your skill rating. The purpose of being able to dink the ball back and forth at the kitchen line is to slow down the pace of the game, reset, and open up opportunities for your opponent to get the ball high enough above the net where you can earn a point from attacking that dink with a hard hit. You can do this by strategically aiming your dinks cross court (diagonally). The farther you can get the ball cross-court, the further your opponent will need to lean and move out of position to return the sharply angled dink! When your opponent is out of position, or needs to lean hard to get a ball, this sometimes forces them to accidentally pop up the ball just enough for you to be able to attack it.
When you see an attackable ball, it’s ideal to aim your hard hit to your opponent’s backhand, down the boundary line, or even at the player’s wrist or elbow. By aiming towards your opponent’s wrist or elbow, it makes it difficult for your opponent to get into position to be able to return a hard hit to that area.
The Drop Shot
One final strategy to discuss is to perfect your dropshot! If you are serving the ball, the receiving team will hit the ball back into your court, then your goal would be to have your third shot drop into the kitchen (non-volley zone), which gives creates more time for you and your partner to get to the kitchen line, allowing you to defend your court with your partner at the kitchen line.
If your opponents hit the ball into your court, causing you to get out of position and away from the kitchen line, then it’s encouraged to use the drop shot strategy to help give you more time to reset, get to the kitchen line, and get into ready position. Remember, with a drop shot, you don’t want the ball to be high enough that your opponent can reach over the kitchen line and slam the ball back at you. The goal is to have your drop shot land just over the net, into the kitchen.
How To Improve Movement On The Pickleball Court
To move from a beginner pickleball level to an intermediate level, you’ll need to know how to effectively move on the court. At this point, you may have already learned what ‘ready position’ means and how to make sure you’re ready to receive any ball that comes your way.
If you are about to receive a ball and can’t make it to the kitchen line yet before receiving the ball, make sure to stop and get into ready position. Even if you’re at the kitchen line, you should be in ready position, ready to receive the ball.
Remember, this means your feet should be planted about shoulder width apart or a little further apart. Stay on the balls of your feet with your knees slightly bent so you’re ready to move if you need to. Your paddle should be about chest high and in an upright position, ready to adjust for a forehand or backhand shot.
Now that you understand ready position, let’s talk about how to shift on the kitchen line. When you’re at the kitchen line, if your opponents are smart, they’ll try to get you out of position by dinking the ball further and further on the outer kitchen line. This causes you to have to move towards the ball, creating a gap on your court. When moving towards the ball, make sure to shuffle your feet in a lateral movement with the kitchen line and shift left or shift right to get the ball. It is not recommended to cross your ankles (like a grapevine) to get to a ball because that can set you off balance, making it more difficult to get back into position. It also creates an opportunity to potentially trip.
How Your Partner Can Help Improve Overall Movement On The Court
As you continue to work on improving your skill rating, if you’re playing doubles, your partner plays a big role in the efficiency of your overall movement on the court.
For example, when you’re at the kitchen line shifting left or shifting right to reach for a ball on the outer edge that was dinked to you, your partner should be shifting with you. If you’re on the outer left edge, your partner, (in the right service court), should have shifted towards the center line, ready to defend your side of the court until you’re able to reset and get back into position.
Another example of this is when a lob shot is hit. Let’s say the lob shot goes over your head. Your partner should ideally be the one getting this lob shot if it’s out of your reach for a slam. Your partner has a better angle to watch where the ball is and, at that time, your partner should be communicating ‘MINE’ or ‘I GOT IT’ or even ‘SWITCH,’ to indicate that they have the ball and want you to switch courts. If your partner successfully returns the lob shot, it’s much easier for them to run a straight line to where you were just standing instead of running diagonally back to their side of the court.
Remember, in pickleball, you and your partner can be anywhere on the court. Therefore, learning when to switch sides of the court can be very beneficial. You’ll just need to remember where you started, especially if you’re the serving team.
Introduction To Spin
One way to help elevate your game and improve your overall skill rating is to start incorporating spin into your pickleball game, as well as, be able to return balls hit to you with spin on them. Before discussing how to do this, let’s talk about the different types of spin.
In pickleball, topspin refers to a type of shot where the player hits the ball in a way that causes it to spin forward and downward as it travels over the net. This spin results in the ball bouncing higher and faster off the opponent’s paddle and the court surface, making it more challenging to return.
To execute a topspin shot in pickleball, a player typically aims to hit the ball with a slightly upward motion and a forward swing, while brushing the paddle upward and forward along the ball’s surface. This action creates topspin, which causes the ball to rotate forward as it travels through the air.
The easiest way to start practicing top spin is to start incorporating it into your serve. Remember, per the 2023 rules, you cannot manipulate the ball with spin with your hand; However, whether you bounce the ball on the ground first or drop the ball onto your paddle, make the motion of adding topspin with your paddle when you serve. For me personally, (Kim), I have a wicked underhand serve, (most likely from all those years of being a softball pitcher), so as I bring the ball upward in a vertical motion, I naturally put topspin on all my serves.
Check out the video below to learn how to put topspin on your serve!
So how do you return a ball with topspin? The first thing to do is to identify when a ball has topspin. To do this, you can watch your opponent’s paddle and motion, and sometimes you can even see the spin on the ball itself. The best way to counteract topspin is to simply hit the ball with topspin. That means, ideally, you’ll need to hit the ball with a low-to-high swing. Start your swing low, and then brush your paddle upward and forward through the ball. This will create topspin and help lift the ball back over the net.
In pickleball, backspin refers to a type of shot where the player strikes the ball in a way that causes it to spin backward and downward as it travels over the net. This spin results in the ball bouncing lower and slower off the opponent’s paddle and the court surface, making it more difficult to return.
To execute a backspin shot in pickleball, a player typically aims to hit the ball with a slightly downward motion, with the paddle face angled open slightly. You do not want your paddle face completely flat and parallel with the court because that would cause the ball to go straight up into the air and not over the net. Your paddle will move in a high to low motion along the ball’s surface. This action creates backspin, which causes the ball to rotate backward as it travels through the air.
Check out the video below to learn how to put backspin on your shots!
So how do you return a ball with backspin? Again, just like any other spin, the first thing to do is identify when a ball has backspin. To do this, you can watch your opponent’s paddle and motion, and sometimes you can even see the spin on the ball itself. Watch where the ball is headed and get into position. Remember, with backspin, the ball will bounce much lower and slower than a typical shot so have your paddle low and ready to return the ball. The best way to return a ball with backspin on it is to get low and under the ball to get it up and over the net. Even if a ball is not at the ground, but you know there is backspin on it, you want to return the ball in a low to high motion, getting under the ball.
Now that you better understand intermediate pickleball strategies like how to move more effectively on the court, how and where to aim, and what types of spin there are and how to use them, you’ll be able to improve your game and overall pickleball skill rating! Remember to have fun out there and practice makes perfect! It’s Pickleball Time!