If you’re new to pickleball, you know that there is no shortage of advice, especially when it comes to the non-volley zone. Someone tells you to run to the net as fast as you can. Then the next person says, no, no, stay back! It’s no wonder you’re confused.
When we’re new, we don’t always understand that there is a difference between the serving team and the returning team. It’s a little bit more complicated for the serving team because of the double bounce rule. For the returning team, it’s easy to learn to master this beginner pickleball strategy.
When you are the RETURNING team, run to the net as fast as you can.
It’s that simple. Think hit and run.
I could stop this post here but it’s one thing to share a strategy; it’s another thing to understand why and how to apply the approach to a game. That’s where most of the free advice falls short.
Why do you want to hit and run when you’re the returning team?
It’s a tactical advantage. When one team is at the non-volley zone, and the other isn’t, that team at the NVZ has shortened the distance between the players and has taken away the opposing team’s most precious resource, time to react. That means that the team at the non-volley zone controls the point.
Next, let’s talk about how to run to the net.
It’s essential to separate the hit from the run. To be consistent, you’ll need to stop your body’s forward momentum while you’re hitting the shot. After it’s complete, run to the net and get as close to the NVZ as you can.
There are a couple of strategies that you can use to accomplish that and some of those depend on your speed.
One of my personal favorites to teach is the soft, deep return. I covered this in detail in another post a few weeks ago. It allows most people enough time to get all the way to the kitchen.
The other strategy to use if you can’t make it to the kitchen in one motion is the split step.
The split step is simply a move where you split your feet and bounce on the balls of your feet. The split step stops your forward momentum and allows you to move side to side. The minute you see your opponent ready to hit the shot, split step to prepare for the next shot. After that shot is hit, continue to the non-volley zone.
What about defending the lob?
I’ve often heard, “CJ, I understand the importance of getting to the non-volley zone, but I play with these people who are good at hitting lobs. I feel that instead of running to the net if I stay back at the baseline, I have a better chance of returning that lob.”
While that sounds logical, that’s not what I usually see on the court.
Players become accustomed to staying at the baseline no matter what type of shot comes back. That creates a split between the partners, and that’s the weakest position for a team. It also gives your opponents, the serving team a chance to get up to the non-volley zone and take control of the point. Now you’ve given up the advantage you have as the returning team.
Here’s the other reality. The lob from the baseline is not a high percentage shot, and most players won’t use it.
However, if you’re playing against someone who hits an excellent baseline lob, here are a few strategies.
1. The easiest way to avoid it is to return the ball to their partner. Chances are that both partners do not hit the lob equally as well.
2. While you’re running to the net, watch your opponents paddle face.
The paddle face needs to be open to hit a lob. While it can look like a third shot, most people don’t disguise it that well. If you think you see an open paddle face and that the shot might be a lob, utilize that split-step right away. By stopping your forward momentum, you make it easier to turn around and defend if it’s a lob.
3. And the last thought is to rely on your partner. Depending upon the direction and the trajectory of the lob, you might not be the one who should turn around to get it. That may just be your partner’s shot.
The returning team’s strategy is clear cut and easy to execute, run to the net. Be the first team to get to the non-volley zone, and you are in control of the point. In other words, ALWAYS hit and run!
Hey there — I’m a professional three-sport athlete and coach who has spent my entire adult life earning a living from playing and coaching sports. Since I started coaching more than three decades ago, one thing has remained the same: My commitment to see students not as they are but as what they can become and to move heaven and earth to help them realize their untapped potential. You should know that when it comes to helping pickleball players over 50 live their best lives on and off the courts, I'm an expert. Good pickleball is not just technique; it's the mind and body working holistically. That's why I'm also a personal trainer and weight management specialist. When I’m chillin', you'll find me watching Star Trek with my husband John and our two fur babies, Shirley and Ralph. (Yes, Happy Days)