It’s kind of a shock the first time you see a team doing that weird switch-a-roo thing. They’ve got one player standing outside the court and yet they seem ready to play. What is going on, you ask yourself…
Only to see the ball get served and play continue as normal–once they scurry back into normal playing positions…
This, my friend, is what we call stacking (a.k.a. “The Australian” or “That weird switch-a-roo thing some teams do.”)
I’ve received a couple questions about it lately, and while I’ve briefly mentioned in my article about how to play with and against a lefty it’s not something I’ve talked much about ‘til date.
So let’s start with some basics…
What Is Stacking?
Stacking is when players on a team move out of the traditional positioning on the court to rearrange themselves in a more advantageous configuration.
Why Do Teams Stack?
Teams stack to try to make the most of the assets they have and/or to compensate for a potential weakness.
- A right-left combination will often stack to keep their forehands in the middle, so they don’t leave a gaping hole with their two backhands in the middle.
- In a right-right or left-left combination, teams may stack when one player has (or is perceived to have) a particularly strong or weak forehand or backhand.
- Often in intermediate-level mixed doubles, teams will stack to cover the woman’s backhand, but in my experience, this is often a faulty strategy because in many cases the woman is not necessarily weaker than her partner (that’s why I emphasize the perception behind why people stack).
- In advanced play, teams will often stack to give one partner a better reach to poach the ball when possible.
Stacking allows the player with the stronger shot to cover the player with the weaker shot.
How Is It Legal?
Obviously teams can’t just play in whatever configuration they want whenever they want, or we’d never have to worry about remembering who is the first or second server. (Wouldn’t that make life easier…?)
The rules for pickleball define:
- Which player on a team must hit the serve
- Which player on a team must hit the return of serve
- Which side of the court the ball must be served from
- Which side of the court the ball must be served to
The rules do NOT define:
- Where the partner who is NOT hitting the ball must stand (they don’t even need to be inside the court)
- Who must hit any particular shot once the serve and return of serve are hit
- Where on the court any particular shot must be hit from or to once the serve and return of serve are hit.
This means that:
As long as YOU are the correct server, serving from the correct position, your partner can stand just about anywhere they want on the court, (so long as they don’t cross the plane of the net).
The same goes if you are the correct receiver: your partner can stand just about anywhere they want as long as they don’t cross the plane of the net. This leaves the door open, so to speak, for stacking.
How Does Stacking Work, Exactly?
In the course of normal play with normal positioning, players on a team will be alternating from the left to right side of the court and back, depending on how many points they have scored. When their team is receiving the serve, they will be “stuck” in the arrangement they were in after they last scored.
For our examples, let’s assume that Player A has a particularly weak backhand, so the team opts to stack in order to keep Player A positioned on the left, so the middle is covered by A’s stronger forehand and B’s decent backhand.
The teams change their positioning at each point if necessary to keep Player A to the left of Player B.
When teams decide to stack, they must continue to have the correct server or receiver serve or receive from the correct position. Stacking does NOT change who is first or second server
ON THE SERVE
Stacking is only necessary when Player A serves from the even side of the court or when Player B serves from the odd side of the court.
Player A Serves From the Even Side of the Court
When a team is stacking on their serve, and it’s A’s turn to serve from the even side of the court, the non-serving partner (B) will stand outside the court to the right. B will stay positioned back by the service line so as to allow room for the return of serve to bounce.
As soon as the serve is hit, the partners will SHIFT TO THE LEFT to be in position so that either one can hit the ball once the return of serve bounces.
Player B Serves From the Odd Side of the Court
ON THE RETURN OF SERVE
When Player A receives from the odd side of the court or Player B receives from the even side of the court, stacking is not necessary because Player A is naturally positioned to the left of Player B.
Stacking is only necessary when Player A receives from the even side of the court or when Player B receives from the odd side of the court. When a team stacks on the return of serve, the non-receiving partner can stand up near the net, because they do not have to wait for the next shot to bounce.
As soon as the return of serve is hit, the player at the net will shift left or right onto the court, while the player who hit the return will shift diagonally toward the front of the court.
Why Do Some Teams Stack for Some Points But Not Others, While Other Teams Stack All The Time?
There are basically two ways to use stacking, what I call Full Stacking and Partial Stacking.
Full stacking is when a team stacks for every point, regardless of whether their team is serving or returning.
The Advantage: Your team will be in (what is presumably) the most advantageous position for every single point.
The Disadvantage: It can be extremely complicated to keep track of which player should be in which position and who should be serving or returning serve.
Partial stacking is when a team stacks only when they are serving, and maintains traditional positions when they are returning.
The Advantage: It’s easier to keep track of who is serving and from where, and your team is in the most advantageous position when you have the opportunity to score.
The Disadvantage: Your team is in a less-than-optimal position when your opponents are serving, so it’s easier for them to rack up points while you’re in a weaker position.
How In the Heck Could Anyone Possibly Keep Track of Who Is Supposed to Serve (and From Where) When a Team Is Stacking?
For the sake of maintaining some semblance of sanity, let’s assume that the first server of the game is wearing a red band or bracelet, as is the norm in many tournaments. As usual, that person should always be serving from the right-hand or even side of the court when the score is even.
In the examples above, most teams would start out with Player B as the first server, so that the team is “naturally” in their ideal position for the first point and whenever the score is even.
Therefore, as usual, the first things to think through are:
- What is the stacking team’s score?
- Who is their even server?
- Is their even server on the correct side of the court?
But the truth is, most people get confused about it–a lot.
Referees in tournaments are not allowed to correct a team’s positioning unless they are asked. In the past, this often meant that teams who stacked would just ask the referee before EVERY SINGLE SERVE “Are we the right servers and are we in the right position?”
This was somewhat tedious for players and audience alike (not to mention a bit stressful for the ref).
Recently, the rules have been amended to limit a team’s “excessive questioning of the referee on the rule” In 2014 at the National tournament, players were limited to 3 asks per game. In my opinion, if such rules continue to be enforced, it will result in fewer teams deciding to use stacking because whatever advantage stacking could offer may be offset by the potential loss of points for playing from the wrong position.
Tips for Playing Against Teams Who Are Stacking
Once you realize a team is stacking, just try to ignore it. For the most part, play exactly the same as you would if they were not stacking. If you do this successfully, then every once in a while you may be able to catch the team by surprise by hitting to one of the players while they are on the move, and going for a spot where one of the players WAS but has just rushed away from (even better if this is to their backhand). Otherwise, the usual tactics apply:
- Keep your balls deep in the court
- Aim between the two players
- Play Smart Pickleball
So, what’s YOUR experience with stacking? Has the advantage been worth the confusion? Do you have any other questions? Share your experience and post your questions or comments below.