The Pickleball Hard Game
By: Tony Roig | August 11, 2023 |

The Dirty Little Secret that the Hard Game is Hiding

There may be nothing more effective at keeping players from fully realizing their pickleball selves than a mis-leveled hard game.

In this article we shine a light on this dirty little secret in the hope of liberating more pickleball players from the current hard game delusion and help to put them on a path to discovering all that pickleball has to offer.

Travel to any pickleball facility and you will find a group of players who are fairly termed the “bangers.” They strike almost every ball hard.

And they win. A lot.

Bangers fairly conclude that all is well.

They bang.

They win.

End of story.

Conclusion? Keep banging away.

But what if you are not a successful banger and don’t have a hard game, what do you do?

Try to learn how to bang like the good players do.

It all makes sense.

Until you realize the flaw in this picture.

Once you see the dirty little secret that supports the misconception at your courts, you’ll realize that adopting an alternative and far more fruitful approach is the ideal path for your progress.

And, eventually, the bangers will too.

The illusion that bangers or overly aggressive players achieve success is born out of an imbalance in the style of play. This will take a minute to work through, but in the end, you will see how it is not effective shots and strategy that are winning the day but a marked difference in level of play that creates the illusion of superior play for the bangers.

If you take a moment to analyze this; you will eventually realize that it isn’t effective shots or clever strategies that are winning the games. Rather, it is a marked difference in level of play that creates the illusion of superior play by the aggressive players, or bangers.

Before I sha re two personal stories to drive home the point, let’s lay out the flaw.

The Flaw of the Hard Game– Explained

The four players we will use consist of two former tennis players (Team Tennis) against two players with no racket sport experience (Team B). They are about the same age and have been playing pickleball about the same amount of time. You can even make it so that the Team B players have been playing 1-2 years longer. The outcome will be pretty much the same all of the time, because the Team B players have generally not prepared themselves to deal with the hard shots coming their way (i.e. have not worked on their soft game skills).

WHY?

Team Tennis is planning on playing tennis on the pickleball court: banging every ball at Team B. Team B is not equipped to handle what Team Tennis is bringing their way. It is a slaughter. Team Tennis wins handily and walks off the court thinking “that was pretty easy. We got this pickleball thing down.” Team B walks off the court frustrated saying “we gotta learn to play like that.”

But what if we change the scenario a bit.

Let’s pit Team Tennis against Team Tennis COPY. Team Tennis COPY consists of 2 players who are identical to the players on Team Tennis. They have the same exact tennis backgrounds as Team Tennis. The only difference is that Team Tennis COPY has an effective soft game as well (block volleys and dinks). Think about this match up for a minute.

Who wins?

It should be clear that Team Tennis COPY would obliterate Team Tennis.

It would not even be close.

They are identical in everything but one area: the soft game. It is this soft game that would allow Team Tennis COPY to handily win.

So if it’s not the hard game what is the difference in the two scenarios above?

The answer is the level of play.

Let’s look back at the first scenario, Team Tennis is so far superior to Team B in the world of racket sports that Team B cannot deal with Team Tennis. So it looks like Team Tennis is playing amazing pickleball but that is simply not the case.

If you were to put Team Tennis against Team B on a racquetball court, ping pong table, even badminton, Team Tennis will likely prevail even if they are not very good at those other sports. The difference is simply the underlying racket/paddle skills.

In the second scenario, Team Tennis is in trouble. They are playing their doppelgangers (Team Tennis Copy) and these players can handle what is coming their way hard. But, as you recall, Team Tennis COPY can do things (block volleys and dinks) that has Team Tennis tied up in pretzels. It is, seriously not a fair fight at all.

Let’s look at a few real-world scenarios to continue making the case.

11-0 in 3 minutes

First real story is one involving my wife Jill and me. We came from tennis and were good competitive USTA tennis players (actually met on a mixed doubles team ☺). Our racket skills translated well to rec play pickleball where Jill and I were “good” in our area.

One evening during the holidays, two gentlemen walked into the rec facility we were playing at. This father-son duo looked like they were all about pickleball. The crew looked at Jill and me and sent us out on the court as the local emissary to show these visitors what was what in our town.

Well, wouldn’t you know it?

The game was short and sweet.

11-0 in about 3 minutes.

Only problem was that we had just gotten whooped on by these players (in the most sportsman was possible by the way).

How did this happen? They were the same as us in the hard game but possessed a set of skills that we were unfamiliar with and that we later learned was called “the soft game.”

The True Believer Banger

This next story involves a local player, who will remain anonymous. We will refer to the player simply as “banger” here.

Banger is a good player. Wins a lot at the local rec facilities.

I had not seen Banger for a bit but had the opportunity to play with Banger at a group play couple of years back. The game was pretty evenly matched, except that Banger has zero soft game. Does not even really try any of the shots.

My partner and I beat Banger’s team 11-2. Afterwards, I was chatting with Banger and said “Banger, you are a good player. Imagine if you added some soft game to your repertoire (or similar word).” Banger replied “But I do not need the soft game. I do just fine with my game [the banger all the time game].”

Banger was under the delusion created by the dirty little secret of the hard game. Banger was winning plenty just banging the ball – at players who lacked the tools to handle the pace. Stated plainly, Banger was playing down a level and, as a result, winning.

And there is the rub of the dirty little secret: in order to win, a banger has to effectively play down.

The banger’s growth is limited by illusion. If the banger were to face their exact clone across the net (but with a soft game), they would be unable to compete. So the banger is relegated to playing down.

The illusion of winning at the wrong level keeps the banger from continuing to grow and explore this beautiful game. The truth is that the best fuel for growth comes from failure – from losing. If you are winning all the time, then why would you need to learn something new?

Closing Argument – the Pros and the hard game

If you are still on the fence about the power of the soft game, let me put the matter to rest.

The pros are the best pickleball players on the planet. They can pretty much hit every shot there is: hard and soft. And they can do it better than anyone else can.

Yet the pros do not just go out there and bang the ball away against each other.

Once you exclude the serve and return of serve (which are hit pursuant to the 2-bounce rule – more below), the majority of the shots the pros hit are soft shots: third shot drops, transition drops, block volleys, and dinks. All soft game shots.

They do not hit these shots because they happen to like the shots. They hit these shots because they are the most effective way for them to win the rally. The soft game shots give the players the best chance for success when they play.

Now – if these pros were playing a group of 4.0 players, then they could probably just blast the ball past them and win. In other words, because the game is mismatched, the pros could just bang and win. But, when they play at level (against other pros), they must rely on the soft game to get the job done.

The Bigger Picture

Pickleball growth comes from increased understanding about the game we play. We call this the “framework of pickleball.” The advantages of the soft game stem from this very framework: from the interplay of the rules of the game and the layout of the court we play on.

You may already suspect this, but there is a bigger picture to pickleball. There are levels of understanding the game that you currently may not see or even know exist. To unlock this knowledge – and this vision – of pickleball, framework is a must. You have taken a small step in that direction today.

Tony Roig

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.