One of my favorite moments as a pickleball coach is when I help my students take what seems (to them) like a very complicated scenario with myriad possible outcomes and simplify it down to a few, highly predictable, results.
In fact, one of the most popular segments of my Bootcamp Breakthrough events is always “Dancing with Your Partner.” This is where I break down partner positioning so that my students know EXACTLY where to position themselves in any given moment, and they practice STAYING in the right position for every. single. shot.
Now, I’ll admit, you can’t actually MAKE your opponents hit a particular shot.
BUT, you CAN make it very likely that MOST opponents will hit the ball where you want it to go MOST of the time.
And you can do this by understanding the body mechanics that make certain shots more likely than others and being intentional about where you place the ball.
Now, you may have read about the “two-thirds, one-third” strategy in my article on The Surprising Strategy to Make Sure You Cover Every Shot at the Net. That article tells you how to know exactly where to position yourself, based on which opponent is about to hit the ball.
In this article, I’m going to take it one shot EARLIER and explain to you how YOU actually hold the key to controlling where your opponents are going to hit the ball.
See, the moment you hit a shot, you’ve already drastically narrowed down your opponents’ options for returning your shot. By consciously CHOOSING where you’re going to place your shot, you can begin to predict 80-90% of the possible return shots your opponent will hit.
You can predict this based off a couple factors:
#1: Wrist Mechanics
It’s extremely difficult for a right-handed player to hit a backhand shot to their left.
Occasionally, very “wristy” players will be able to execute such a shot, but the vast majority of right-handed pickleball players, can only hit a backhand shot forward or to their right . (And of course, the reverse for lefties. A lefty’s backhand is mostly likely going in front of them or to their left, but rarely to their right.)
Similarly, a righty’s forehand shot is generally going to go to the middle or the the left, but rarely to their right.
The closer your opponent is to the net, the more limited their range of shots, and the more likely they are to follow this pattern.
Now that you know this, you can use these strategies to “decide” where you want your opponent to hit the ball.
Want the ball to come back to you?
Hit cross court to your opponent, and there’s a very good chance, it’ll come back to you. At the very least to the middle, where you can be ready and waiting for it.
Want the ball to go to your partner?
If you’re playing against righties, hit to the person in front of your partner and I’ll place bets they hit to the middle or to your partner.
Now, if you’re amongst the players who already use dinking in your game, congratulations. (If not, check out this article on why you need the dink.) Wendy and I used to practice sharp cross-court dinks for hours. And it’s essential, especially as you get into the higher levels, to be able to make them flawlessly.
But you might be surprised to hear that I tell my students that the sharp cross-court dink is actually one of the EASIEST dinks to hit, and the backhand cross-court dink is considerably easier to hit than the forehand cross-court dink.
Now, let’s bring it back to our topic of the day, which is how you can “make” your opponent put the ball where you want it.
When you hit a sharp cross-court dink, it’s very difficult for your opponent NOT to hit a sharp cross-court dink back, so anticipate it! If you don’t want them to hit a sharp cross-court, don’t hit THEM a sharp cross-court. If they are highly skilled they might have a few options to do something else with the ball, but in most cases it’s pure body mechanics that will force them to hit a sharp return shot.
If you want to push them into hitting another shot, and you are able to switch it up a little, try to return your dink to the middle of their court rather than going for the sharp cross court angle.
#2: The Leading Shoulder
The second factor you can look for is to watch their leading shoulder. This will either confirm your expectations based on the wrist mechanics or clue you in to when your opponent is going to do something different.
If you aren’t sure what I mean by leading shoulder, make sure to check out my article on how to predict the future (so to speak), where I give an in-depth explanation of what I mean by leading shoulder and how to tell where your opponent is going to hit the ball by which direction their shoulder is pointing.
But Wait a Minute…
Now, if you’re a particularly astute student, you might say, “Hey, but wait a minute, Prem. Isn’t the shot that I am about to hit already somewhat pre-determined by where my opponent hit the ball to ME? How do I get out of the pattern and take control of the point?”
Yes, you’re right.
Of course you can only play the shot you’re given. I always tell my students, don’t focus on your opponent’s choices, you can only look at what YOU have control of.
Even at the highest levels, I coach people not to focus on playing to your opponents’ weaknesses as much as playing your strengths.
You are only responsible for the strokes YOU hit.
Don’t waste time wishing you were “dealt a different hand” just get busy playing the hand you’ve been dealt to your greatest advantage.
And in the case of pickleball, that means consciously choosing where you are going to hit the ball so that it sets you up to be in the best position for the next shot.