The Soft Game Is Always the Right Answer
Pickleball is an odd sport. In many other sports, the game gets faster the more you advance. Tennis serves get harder. Baseball pitches faster. And so on.
That’s not the nature of Pickleball. It’s actually is backward. As you advance in the game, the game does not speed up. To the contrary, it slows down. There are exceptions, but, as a rule, the more advanced pickleball players play slower than regular rec play. Even from 4.5 to 5.0, there is a marked difference in the speed of play.
A fancy hard shot that zips past your opponent and lands right on the corner of the court looks cool and gathers “nice shots” from the other players. But it is good soft shots, though lacking the pizzazz of the banger, that will likely win you that game. And the next one too.
Recognizing this can be hugely beneficial to you regardless of your current level of play. If you know that the optimal play – the play that most pros and advanced players gravitate towards as they increase their level of mastery – is the soft game, then you can add it to your game now. You can forget about spins, hard shots, crazy angles, single-purpose trick shots.
Instead, you can work towards mastering the soft game: reset shots, block volleys, dinking with a purpose, and calm/cool play. Let your opponents be the ones to beat their heads against the wall. You will be the frustrater-in-chief. Hitting ball after ball and defusing all attacks.
Once you have mastered the soft game, you can then decide whether you want to add some spice from the power game. But the soft game will remain the foundation on which every other part of your pickleball game is built.
Here are some of the benefits of the soft game.
Available to all players
The soft game is available to all players. You do not need to have played high school tennis or have been a nationally ranked racquetball player to master the skills necessary to play a soft game. What you need to master the soft game are:
- An understanding of what you are trying to do – your intentionality – which is to slow the game down
- A willingness to reset ball after ball as necessary when under attack (while still allowing “out” balls to pass)
- Patience as you play – not trying to create when the opportunity does not present itself
- A compact swing – allowing you to get your paddle on every ball and to control the energy you are imparting to your shots
- An awareness of “out” balls and the importance of letting them pass
These skills require work but do not require learning complex paddle motions, and lots of power is not required. Just an understanding of what you are trying to do and an appreciation that this approach gives you the ability to battle any opponent.
2. Even the odds
There are times when your opponent will be bigger or stronger than you. Does it make sense to try and out-bang this player? Probably not.
The better solution and smart pickleball is to even the odds by slowing down the game. Defuse the power of the physically stronger player by slowing everything down – make the game a soft one.
Think of this approach as you defining the terms of engagement. The banger wants to play a hard/fast game. You are not required to agree to these terms, though. You make it so that the banger has a choice: play your soft game or bang their balls out over and over.
3. Become the Frustrater-in-Chief
Pickleball’s defining rule is the Non-Volley Zone Rule. This rule sets the framework for our game and what drives most of our strategic decisions. Therefore, understanding how to use the NVZ to your advantage is critical: the Non-volley Zone provides you with a safe space where you can land the ball any time to get yourself out of a tough spot.
Think of a time when you played someone who could repeatedly reset the ball. How did that make you feel? Frustrated is my bet. Why not be that player and be the one doing the frustrating? Pickleball is generally not won by one side; the game is generally lost by one of the two sides. The winner is simply the team that did not lose.
4. Increase your Confidence
Mastering the soft game will give you increased confidence on the court. Understanding that the NVZ is there and that it is always available to you can give you a sense of calm on the court. You know that whatever happens, you can always slow things down. The soft game is your “get out of jail free” card as needed throughout the game. You will know how to get out of any jam.
Whenever you step out onto the court, you will know that you can play against any player, no matter who is standing across the net from you. You will have foundational confidence and calm that will allow you more enjoyment out there. You will also have a base from which to continue to grow your game.
If you have already started playing a soft game, keep working on it until you have reached a level of proficiency that allows you to slow the game down against all comers. If you have not played the soft game, it is never too late to start. As you play and practice, get to know the safe space provided by the No Volley Zone. Drop balls into the NVZ, again and again, and see how this approach changes your game for the good.
Want to add the pickleball soft game to your arsenal? Click this link and download a copy of the Three Pillars of Pickleball. This resource is designed to help you understand exactly what to work on next to improve your pickleball game.
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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