Pickleball shot obsession
By: Tony Roig | March 24, 2023 |

Why Your Pickleball Shot Obsession is Holding Your Game Back (And What to Do About It)

If you are a casual pickleball player or think that a single pickleball shot or strategy will sort your game out (no criticism in either case, you are welcome to have the relationship with pickleball that most suits you), this article is probably not going to be for you.

If you want to grow as a player, read on – this may be precisely what you need to hear.  You may suffer from this major pitfall, a Pickleball Shot Chasing obsession

As coaches specializing in online pickleball training with scores of success stories – thousands of players who have seen a radical improvement in their games using the Pickleball System training program – we know what works … and what does not.

We know what leads to player frustration … and what keeps players focused and seeing real improvement in their pickleball game.

Despite our years of experience, we are too often confronted by players who earnestly desire to improve but unknowingly throw up obstacles to their own advancement.

One of the most counterproductive obstacles that players put up in their own path is to focus too much on shots.

What I mean is that they think what they really – really – need is to learn this shot or that.

It’s hard to blame a player for thinking that; spend an hour on YouTube, and you walk away thinking that pickleball improvement is about learning this one new pickleball shot or mastering this perfect technique.

What happens to these players is that they end up “shot chasing.” They are always looking for that one pickleball shot from the latest YouTube video that they think will get them over the hump and to the next level.

This is a persistent obstacle and major pitfall that will hinder or even derail a player’s improvement.

NOTE: Shot Chasing Pitfall Warning Signs at the end of the article.

The severity of the obstacle was highlighted for me this past week during our Pickleball System Miniseries. Workshop #1 is all about what we term “The Most Important Concept in Pickleball.”

That statement is not hyperbole: the concept we share is at the core of well-played pickleball and is a concept that the majority of pickleball players do not know – and most never will.

One way we could approach teaching the concept is to turn on the cameras and say: “The serve side is different than the return side, each having its own objectives and, therefore, each requiring different strategies and corresponding shots.”

That is a correct and complete statement of the “Most Important Concept in Pickleball.”

However, the limitation of this teaching approach is that the player is reduced to an automaton, memorizing some words and then applying them without understanding why they are correct. Not very satisfying, right? And certainly not very helpful if you are keen to improve your game.

CJ and I treat all our students as sentient capable human beings – not robots. Thus, we employ an expansive, as opposed to limiting, approach to our teaching. Our students are our equals in everything except their current knowledge of pickleball – knowledge that we then work to transfer to our students.

Continuing the above discussion about the workshop, the way we teach the serve/return distinction is to explain the reason why the objectives of the serve side are different than the objectives of the return side. The “why” is what helps our students to understand what shot to hit when.

Once players understand WHY they are doing something, they begin to use this newfound information to make better decisions. That leads to a deeper understanding of the game. And as a consequence, better play.

Using this approach, our student’s relationship with pickleball is not dependent on simple rote execution of what CJ or Tony told them to do. Instead, our student gains a deeper understanding of pickleball and what they are doing on the court. As a result, our students know what strategies and shots to use according to their growing understanding of the game.

We refer to this aspect of a player’s growth as learning the “framework” of pickleball.

It may help you to think of the framework of pickleball as how the game is constructed.

A metaphor/analogy may help drive the point home. You want to learn how to play chess. I show you how to move the pieces on the board: bishop on the diagonal, etc. I may even tell you a few strategies: open with the king’s pawn. But I do not share with you, and you never learn, the framework of chess.

Are you able to play chess – the actual game? Sure, you can move the pieces around the board and may know a strategy or two. But I haven’t provided you with what you need to gain a real understanding of the game you are playing.

No criticism here – but many players interact with pickleball in the same manner as the unknowing chess player.

They go to the courts and hit the ball wherever it ends up going (“poke and hope,” as we call it). These players develop a working knowledge of the basics: hitting the ball so it goes over the net (enough times), get to the NVZ after a return of serve, hit a third shot drop (never being sure when it is actually the best shot or not), and smash the occasional shot.

Here is the thing: playing like this is fun for some players. But pickleball has so much more to offer.

The gap between the way a player is playing and their nagging suspicion that there is more to the game (or seeing this other side of pickleball when they watch others play) leads to player frustration. Frustrated players know there is something that they are missing. They just cannot put their finger on what it is.

These frustrations and limitations are avoided when a player clearly understands the framework of pickleball.

This is not to say that just knowing the framework will result in amazing play – a player still needs to be able to execute the shots. But it is to say that knowing the framework removes the nagging “I just don’t know what I am doing wrong” or “what do I do when this happens” feeling.

Understanding the framework allows the player to understand what is happening out on the court and enjoy a much richer relationship with the game

Back to Workshop #1.

It was a one-hour session going over the important stuff. The framework stuff. The positional rules and the objectives that, when understood and applied, change our games more significantly than one shot or strategy ever could.

It went like this:

1 – The framework is important, and players who don’t understand the framework are destined to play “poke and hope.” Players who understand the framework are learning to play “chess.”
2 – The framework, derived from the rules of pickleball, sets the stage for a critical distinction between the serve and return sides. The two sides are as different as playing football and swimming.
3 – The objectives for each side flow naturally from the framework.
4 – When a player understands the objectives for each side, they can craft strategies (a hot button for most players) from understanding how to accomplish these objectives.

This is all information a player needs to leave the land of “poke and hope.” It’s the key to understanding all the game has to offer and enjoying a full relationship with pickleball.

A day or so after the workshop, we received an email from a friend of ours about the experience of several local players (3.0-3.5 level) who had attended Workshop #1.

It said that even though players had enjoyed the workshop, they just did not think the framework was for them. I have not asked, but it seems that the email was sent to alert us to the fact that so many players were stuck looking for the perfect shot I described above.

Here is what the players were telling him:

“The workshop was interesting and made them think about things they did not previously focus on, but practically, they felt that learning how to hit an overhead smash, how to dink, how to block slammers, how to hit a topspin baseline shot” were most important. Because without learning how to master those fundamental strokes, having a framework and objectives, etc., were pointless. They are more concerned with the “How to hit a ball” and not with the “What is the best shot.”

I feel like this is the “No Criticism” blog, but, in all seriousness, no criticism is intended here. As I mentioned above, it is amply reasonable for players to feel exactly like this. That is what YouTube and every player on the court it telling them. The problem is that it is not only wrong but also holding them back.

If we are going to do our job as coaches, we sometimes need to correct misconceptions. Occasionally that is misinterpreted as criticism – none intended here.

Though understandable, the sentiment expressed by these players, who clearly want to improve, creates a huge obstacle to their improvement.

Here is why:

To improve, you need both the Mechanical (How to Hit the Shot) AND Strategic (What Shot to Hit When) Pillars. You also need the Athletic Pillar (Body – Mind Connection), but let’s set that aside for the moment to at least get a consensus on the other two pillars. (Want to learn more about the Three Pillars)

While it is correct to conclude that knowing framework alone with zero ability to hit shots would not lead to a good game, the opposite is also true: the ability to hit all the shots in the world to perfection, but without understanding the game, also leads to a less than good game.

A balance must be struck between improvement along the Mechanical and Strategic Pillars, but both are necessary.

An imbalance in favor of the Mechanical Pillar will leave a player lost on the court – not knowing when to hit those amazing shots they have worked so hard to develop.

This Mechanical imbalance also often results in players chasing after shots that are unnecessary to play their best pickleball. Three of the four shots given as examples by players in the email, including the “topspin baseline shot,” are unnecessary to playing amazing 4.0+ pickleball.

By contrast, knowing the framework of the game is absolutely essential to a player’s substantive improvement. Not working on the Strategic Pillar would be like learning to move the bishop on a chessboard and equating that with playing chess. You need both.

Shot Chasing Pitfall Warning Signs

Here are some warning signs that you are approaching, or are inside, the Shot Chasing Pitfall:

    1. Whenever you hear “you need this shot,” you drop what you are working on and immediately go to that shot.
    2. You are chasing spin shots even though you have not yet mastered non-spin shots.
    3. You miss returns of serve or fourth shots more than very infrequently but are working on other shots.
    4. Hearing the terms “framework” or “pickleball concept” is like, “ugh, not that.”
    5. When you play pickleball, you are not really sure:
      1. What happened in the rally?
      2. Why did that shot work– or not work?
      3. What is the best fourth shot to hit?
      4. What is the best third shot to hit?

These are warning signs that you know how the chess pieces move but don’t understand what to do with them.

To avoid the Shot Chasing Pitfall, make sure you spend time and energy and focus on learning about pickleball, its framework, and how the game is put together. The more you understand pickleball, the better you can put together a game plan that suits your style of play. You will also enjoy a deeper and more dynamic relationship with the sport you love.

Let’s do this. When you’re ready, we are here to guide you.

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.