“Ball-Over-Net” Pickleball is when a player is content with the ball just clearing the net and landing inside the lines on the other side of the court. There is, however, so much more to pickleball if you are willing to put in a little work and learn the game.
This article is not intended as a criticism. A player who is happy getting out on the court and playing Ball-Over-Net Pickleball has as much right to enjoy pickleball as the highest achieving pro player.
But, if you are reading this, we guess you want more from pickleball than to play BON. Instead, you are looking for meaningful and long-lasting improvement in your understanding and approach to pickleball.
Start from this premise: There is no reason why you, or any person, should innately understand the framework of a pickleball game. You were not born with this knowledge, did not go to school to learn it, and there is no reason you should “just know” optimal pickleball strategy.
The path to real improvement as a pickleball player is by gaining a clear understanding of the structure of the game. Simply working to win a particular rally or wanting to get to 11 points is not enough. You need to understand the way to get there most effectively.
As with any sport, pickleball’s structure drives the strategies most likely to get you the result you are working to achieve. This article will explore the most consequential rule that defines our game. As well as give you some tips for using this rule to your advantage.
There are two other key concepts that you will want to learn as well – and which we are teaching as part of our 3-Part Pickleball Miniseries. There is no cost to attend the Miniseries, but you need a ticket to access each online workshop. In addition to the two key concepts, we will also show you why you are popping the ball up – and how to minimize the popups in your game.
The ease of entry into pickleball belies a genuinely complex game—a game with a myriad of strategies and approaches to solve the puzzle that each rally presents. The strategies and approaches that solve the puzzle presented in each game you play are grounded in the structure – the rules of the game.
To avoid getting stuck in “ball-over-net pickleball”, as long as your goal is to push yourself; see how far you can take your pickleball journey, you must understand pickleball’s framework. And to do this, we need to turn to the rules.
What sort of game structure is created by the interplay of pickleball’s rules? Given this game structure, what strategies will work best for you to navigate the structure to victory successfully?
An analogy, if I may. Assume you teach a person how to move all the pieces on a chess board. Rook straight, bishop diagonal, etc. But you never explain to the player that the objective is to capture the opposing king. The player may learn to move all the pieces on the board correctly but would not know the aim of those movements or how to put the game together.
Most pickleball play resembles this chess game. Players learn how to hit the ball on their forehand side. And their backhand side. They may learn a third shot drop and a punch volley.
But they do not understand the structure of the game. Not in a way that they can use to navigate it successfully. As a result, while the players know how to move their pieces on the board – even well – they do not know the best way to get to checkmate.
I tell you this not to bring you down or plant despair in your mind; to the contrary. I want you to know that there is more to this game and that it is perfectly normal – expected even – for you not yet see the whole picture. The saying that comes to mind is, “you do not know what you do not know.”
You may have felt frustration as you played pickleball. Maybe, you thought you were doing what you needed but were not getting better. You may not have realized that your frustration was caused by things you did not know. By being on the court not entirely sure what was going on out there.
You can overcome this frustration and feeling of uncertainty. The first step is to understand – really understand – the game that you are playing. As you understand pickleball’s framework, you can continue growing as a player.
Remember that if you are serious about growth as a pickleball player, our 3-Part Miniseries is a MUST.
Let’s dive deeper into one of the most understood/misunderstood rules of pickleball and how it impacts ball over net pickleball. This will lay the foundation for you to play the calmest and most confident pickleball of your life.
What would you say is the No. 1 most important rule in pickleball? Think rule book rule here – not “rules” like hit the last shot. Please take a moment to think about it?
The No. 1 most important rule in pickleball is the Non-Volley Zone (NVZ) Rule. No contest. This rule is what makes pickleball. Without it, we would just be playing mini-tennis on a smaller court.
Think of the definitional shot of our sport: the third shot drop. That shot would not exist, at least not as we know it, were it not for the Non-Volley Zone Rule.
As I mentioned, the NVZ Rule is simultaneously the most understood and yet least understood rule of our game.
One of the first things you learned as a player is that you cannot volley the ball inside the kitchen – the NVZ. (If you’re not sure about the Non-Volley Zone rule, check out this video) Perhaps some details about the rule were unclear, like momentum, but you generally knew to stay out of that part of the court. Most players understand that part of the rule; they understand how to use (or, in this case, not use) the NVZ on their side of the net.
What players do not understand about the Non-Volley Zone Rule is how to use the kitchen area on the other side of the net. They understand the negatives of their NVZ (do not step into this space) but are not tuned into the positives of the NVZ across from them.
The kitchen area on the other side of the net is a positive for you as a player because that area imposes restrictions on your opponents. The opposite kitchen area also creates opportunities for your team. It is an area on the court specifically designed for your benefit.
Players may indirectly appreciate the NVZ on the other side of the net. After all, many players know they should hit third shot drops into that general area. I would suggest, though, that the third shot drop is being hit more because players have been told it is a good shot to hit than because of a clear and thorough appreciation of the advantages provided by the kitchen area across the net.
If players really understood the significant advantages offered by the Non-Volley Zone, they would try to hit many more shots into it, including the 5th, 7th, etc., when they are not yet up to their own NVZ line. In other words, the drop would not be limited to the third shot drop. These players would also try to reset (slow down) more attack shots hit their way.
As players develop, they begin to understand that this part of the court – the kitchen area on the opposite side of the net – has its objective of giving them a safe zone. Like – the “home” you can touch and be safe when playing tag as a child.
Once you start seeing the opposing NVZ as part of your court, your game will radically change. You will have so much more confidence and comfort on the pickleball court.
You will know that, no matter what, there is an area of the court where you can find safety, a respite from the onslaught. If you can get the ball into the opposing kitchen area, there is not much your opponents can do about it. You will be safe.
As your skill using the Non-Volley Zone to your advantage improves, your ability to frustrate your opponents’ attacks will also increase. You will be that calm player who can just reset ball after ball into the NVZ, neutralizing each attack and forcing your opponent to try and beat you at your game.
Your greater appreciation of pickleball’s framework – of how pickleball is structured – allows you to pursue a more effective approach to the game. Your approach will effectively navigate the structure (the rules) we agreed upon to play this game.
And importantly, you will know why you are doing what you are doing.
You will no longer hit third-shot drops just because a video or instructor told you to hit that shot. You will hit third-shot drops because you understand how they work to your advantage within the framework of a game that you now see more clearly. And you will know that the third shot drop is the same as the fifth shot drop, thirteenth shot drop, and so on.
Once you understand the NVZ area across the net’s place in your game, the reason for the above statement about the thirteenth shot drop will be self-evident. If a visual depiction of the “good” Non-Volley Zone would help, check out this awesome pickleball video we put together to explain this critical concept.
Conclusion – Using the Non-Volley Zone Rule to Maximize Your Play And Stop Playing Ball Over Net Pickleball.
Your improved understanding of pickleball’s framework will help you avoid playing Ball-Over-Net pickleball. As your understanding of the framework improves, so will other parts of your game.
Importantly, you will no longer feel overwhelmed on the court. You will know that with a push of your paddle, you can say, “not so fast, my friend,” and retake control of the tempo of any rally.
As you play, consider how you use the NVZ across the net. It lays just over the net. Patiently waiting as your ally to give you a hand as you battle your opponents. Next time you are under siege, call out to the NVZ, and it will always respond.
If you are ready for more – you want to go deeper in the game –join us for our Miniseries.
CJ and I have helped thousands of pickleball players over the past several years. Let us help you.
Hola. Hello. Konichiwa. After 40 years playing tennis, I am now a full-time pickleball player and professional. As a 5.0 rated Senior Pro Pickleball Player and an IPTPA-certified Master Teaching Professional, my focus is on helping players like you learn to play their best pickleball. In 2016, shortly after starting to play pickleball, my friend Tom and I jumped into the highest division at the first US Open in Naples, Florida. That morning it became clear just how much there is to learn in this seemingly simple sport – a lifetime of learning if you so choose. Since 2018, I have been on a mission to share my knowledge of pickleball so other players can enjoy the game at a higher level and attain their pickleball objectives. When not studying or playing pickleball, I like to travel with my other half, Jill.