The Push for Power: Does Pickleball’s Fast Game Mean the END of the Soft Game?
Pickleball sure seems to have gotten faster, BUT has it?
There is no doubt that there’s more power pickleball, and the sport has gotten faster overall. There have always been players who preferred a faster pace strategy, but the number of the so-called “bangers” has definitely increased.
A lot of this has to do with the influx of players from other racket sports, primarily tennis but also including racquetball and even squash. These players are used to hitting through the ball and putting pace on the shots. It is part of the game that they come from.
When players note the increased speed of the pickleball game, there is almost always an unsaid but underlying follow-up that is inherent in the observation:
“I need to become a better fast-game player.”
BUT …, do you?
To answer this question, we need to look at the faster-paced game. Not from the perspective of “Is the game becoming faster?” but rather from the perspective of “Is the fast-paced game now the best approach to pickleball?”
I want to be really clear about this distinction, so allow me a paragraph (or two) to work through it.
Is Pickleball Becoming a Power Game?
I am NOT challenging the agreed observation that the game is, in fact, getting faster as a whole. While the observation itself is true, the observation, standing alone and without more investigation, does not provide us with any actionable information. It is just like noting that players are wearing more purple these days. Interesting, but nothing to be done.
What I am suggesting is that the real question we need to ask is the following: “Is a faster game the game that I need for me?” Inherent in that question is this one: “Am I seeing more fast-paced play because the sport is heading in that direction strategically?” In other words, it is not just that players who happen to want to, or know to, hit faster are coming into pickleball. It is that there has been a shift in the optimal strategy of our sport from the soft game to the hard (fast) game.
If there has, in fact, been a shift from the soft game to the hard game, then we should get on that train, right?
As you will read below (and if I do my job, come away understanding), the reality is that the underlying strategy of our game has, in fact, NOT shifted from soft to hard. Pickleball is a game where the soft game is not only an available strategy – it is a game where the soft game remains the most effective strategy.
I am going to explore three different areas to drive home the point about the soft game still being the top strategy. Before I do that, let’s define both the hard/fast Game and the soft game and make sure we are on the same page.
The hard or fast game is a game dominated by attack shots. Players are hitting lots of hard groundstrokes (drives), flicking their volleys whenever they can, and just all-around speeding the ball up all the time. Bangers play a hard or fast game. The hard game does not seek to use the Non-Volley Zone as part of the strategy. The game essentially becomes a form of mini-tennis.
The soft game is a more tactical approach to pickleball. The third shot drop, block volley, and traditional (or 3-year-old) dink are all soft game shots. The Non-Volley Zone is central to soft game strategy. The soft game is characterized by patience with players seeking to create unattackable stress on their opponents until an error or popup is generated.
The Pros Rely Primarily on the Soft Game
The highest “form” of our game can be found at the pro level. If the hard/fast game has become the optimal strategy at the pro level, we can expect it to ripple out throughout all other levels as each adopts the parts of the pro game that they can. So, let’s see how the pros win their tournaments.
Starting with the men, the top 2 men’s teams are the Johns brothers and JW Johnson/Dylan Frazier. If you get a chance, watch one of their matches. They have been meeting fairly regularly during the PPA finals of late (Here is a link to a 2023 meetup of these two teams: https://youtu.be/ZRqwzR5FB-Y?si=m4QeXl80Hy77HvEa).
You will see a hard, fast game; each team has plenty of power – but is it what these teams are leaning on to win their games? The answer is a resounding “no.” In fact, what characterizes these two teams is their discipline in sticking to a sound, soft game approach to pickleball. They almost always drop their third shots rather than driving them. And they will dink until the cows come home.
Does this mean that these players lack the skills to drive their thirds or to initiate speed-up attacks off the bounce when they are up at the Non-Volley Zone? Of course not. These players can play power pickleball and are extremely good hard/fast game players.
So why do these top pro teams rely almost 100% on the soft game? There is only one answer: because it is the best strategy they can use – the strategy that gives them the best chance to win the game.
A team that has moved up recently is the duo of Federico Staksrud and Pablo Tellez. Both of these players hit aggressive shots and have awesome, hard games. They can drive the ball as well as anyone and have very fast hands. Yet, until recently, their results (in doubles) were not that great. This is because they were missing an effective soft game.
Recently, they have developed a disciplined, soft game and are now a top-tier team not far behind the top two. They did not add the soft game as an abstract sort of whim. They added the soft game because, without it, they were stuck and could not compete with the top-tier men’s teams.
The impact of the soft game in the women’s pro game is a bit trickier to see as the pro women players speed the ball up more than the men do.
However, look at the top, and what you see is that the women’s teams that consistently make it to the final stages of the tournament share two things in common:
1 – they can stay in dink rallies without breaking down
2 – they are the better defenders.
Defending in any game is successfully “resetting” the ball by dropping it into the Non-Volley Zone. Defending is, thus, a quintessentially soft game play.
When you look past the Ernes and the “sexy” shots that the pros hit, what you see is that at its core, the top pro pickleball play relies primarily (and often almost exclusively) on the soft game. It is a patient, grinding, disciplined approach to pickleball that takes full advantage of the most important rule in pickleball – the Non-Volley Zone rule – to frustrate and stress opponents into mistakes.
Soft Game is How Players Go from 4.5 to 5.0
I play with lots of players who are in the 4.0 – 5.0 range of play. The 4.0s are trying to become 4.5, and 4.5s want to play at the 5.0 level. It is the normal growth objective for all pickleball players.
Some of these players take the route of trying to become better at playing the hard game. They work on their roll volleys and forehand groundstrokes to gain an advantage over their opponents.
Other players focus on improving their soft game. They become proficient at resetting balls from anywhere on the court and develop the ability to dink without error relentlessly.
The players who advance – and who are more frequently invited to play up – are the players who focus on their soft game. The soft game skills they have worked on are the skills that will allow them to continue their improvement.
Soft Game for the Win (or not)
I had the opportunity to coach two young players competing at a recent PPA event at the 5.0 level. These two players are good tennis players and can hit the pickleball as hard as anyone. And they also have very good soft games. In other words, these players can choose which to use.
In their last match of the day, they were playing two solid players with a bit more experience. My players were winning about 80% of the soft-played rallies. When they stuck to the plan and played a disciplined soft game, they were almost unbeatable.
The problem? My players wanted to play a “go big or go home” game (did I mention that they are young players?). Straying from the soft game and trying to go hard put them in a more even match with their opponents – who liked the hard game more than the soft game. They were playing one game to 15 (it was in the tournament’s back draw, where games are to 15), and the end result was a 17-15 loss to their opponents.
The moral of this last story is twofold.
First, even if you have the ability to play a good hard game or power pickleball, the soft game approach is often going to be your better option. Even the pros who can do both rely on their soft games to win the tough games.
Second, a good soft game will always beat a good hard game. If you are playing against bangers, consider improving your soft game. You will be able to bring them into a world that they do not want to inhabit and in that world, you are the better player (or will be).
It is easy to see how the hard or fast game appears to be the “in” thing these days. But don’t let appearances deceive you and lead you astray from the game that is still the undisputed champion of the pickleball world: the soft game.
There are many reasons you want to add a good soft game to your repertoire, and those are addressed elsewhere. The point here is to keep your eye on the ball and continue to develop your soft game – it works at all levels of play.
If you want to learn more about the fast vs soft game, you can read more about the Myth of the Banger – which dispels the idea that bangers are playing up to their potential – here.
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.
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