Many of you have read about or participated in Levels 1 & 2 of The Pickleball Guru Academy, that’s the 2-day clinic I offer across the country.
Recently, I taught my first Level 3 clinic, which focuses on movement, positioning and playing as a team. I wish I had the clinic on video because by the end of it, the students were dancing. They moved in unison with their partner, covered the court like nobody’s business, and always knew exactly whose shot was whose.
I’ve touched on these topics in the past in my book and in an article called When to Cover the Line & When to Cover the Middle but I want to go more in depth here on how you and your partner can make sure to cover every shot, because it’s something that I see teams consistently struggle with.
When Forehand SHOULDN’T Take the Middle
There’s a saying you’ll hear frequently in the pickleball community that “Forehand takes the middle.”
The problem with this logic is that with two right-handed players at the net, if the forehand person takes the middle shot they frequently leave themselves wide open for a shot down the sideline to their backhand side.
(Remember, Rule #5 of Smart Pickleball is “Always anticipate your next shot as you play your current shot.”)
At the back of the court the person with the forehand can and usually should take the shot because
- You have enough time to get in position for the current shot and get back into position for the next shot
- It’s much more difficult to hit a backhand shot from the back of the court because of the power needed to cover the longer distance to the net. (Unless you’re one of those racket ball players who CAN generate enough power, in which case you often end up with too much and you’re just slamming the ball over the net.)
But for the purposes of this article, I’m talking about when your team is at the kitchen line, at mid-court or in between, because this is where you should be spending most of your time, where you’re in the most advantageous position, and where it’s most important that you and your partner position yourselves correctly.
The “Two-Thirds, One-Third” strategy
As you may recall from my book, I am an advocate for what I call the “Two-Thirds, One-Third” strategy, which means you and your partner focus on only covering 2/3 of the court at a time.
(Yes, you math geniuses, you… That means you’re leaving 1/3 of the court uncovered—but that’s okay, we’ll get to that in a minute.)
The important thing for right now is that with this strategy:
- The middle third is ALWAYS being covered.
- You and your partner form an impenetrable WALL on the 2/3 of the court that you ARE covering. (Sounds pretty impressive, doesn’t it?) 😉
- You’re mentally prepared to cover that extra 1/3 if your opponents go for a low-percentage shot to that area.
- You’re in a position to pounce when your opponents get out of position.
Now, I recommend that you and your partner position yourselves just 6’-7’ apart from each other. Taking into account the average “wing span” of a pickleball team, including paddles, that adds on about another 3’-4’ for each person, for a total of about 12’-15’ of court that you are covering. (Since a pickleball court is 20’ wide, that’s right around two-thirds to three-quarters of the court that is being covered.)
(If you’re REALLY paying close attention to what I say, you’ll come back to me and say, “But, Prem, on page 66 of your book, you have us mark the center of each half of the court and you tell us to stay that far apart. That’s 10’ apart, not 6’ or 7’. So which is it?”
Now… Get ready. Hold on to your seats, folks, ‘cause I’ve got an announcement to make…
The book is… well… wrong.
When we were putting together that drill, I failed to double check the math and the numbers. Don’t worry, it will be corrected in the next edition, and as far as I know, that’s the only significant error in the first edition, which I think is actually pretty good.)
Which Two-Thirds Should You Cover?
So how do you know which two-thirds of the court to cover?
Here’s a quick refresher:
When the ball is being hit by the person in front of YOU, you should be covering your line. When the ball is being hit by the person in front of YOUR PARTNER, you should be covering the middle.
Of course, it goes without saying that while you are covering the line or the middle, as appropriate, your partner should be doing what they’re supposed to do, too.
That is: While you are covering your line, they should be covering the middle, and when you’re covering the middle, they should be covering the line. (Sounds obvious and straight forward in writing. On the court, is often another story.)
So instead of it being “Forehand gets the middle,” if you and your partner are positioning yourselves well, then whoever is in the middle gets the middle. (Makes sense, right?)
If you and your partner are fighting over the middle, then it means that together you’re only covering 1/3 of the court (the middle third) and leaving the sides wide open. One of you should always be covering the middle and one should always be covering a sideline.
When the Two-Thirds, One-Third Strategy Doesn’t Work
So the thing about The Two-thirds, One-Third Strategy is that it doesn’t work if you’ve got cement feet. You and your partner need to be shifting your positions with every shot. Otherwise, you’re leaving 1/3 of the court wide open and any team with half a brain and decent accuracy will just hit to where you’re not.
No lead feet. After every shot that you or your opponents hit… you. must. shift. your. position.
Think about it.
If you’ve got a garden hose and I ask you to keep the hose spraying on me, you’ve got to adjust your position as I move. If you hold it in one spot while I’m dodging back and forth, you may get me every now and then out of pure luck, but to consistently cover me 100% of the time, you’ve got to “track” me and adjust your position with every move.
No, I won’t be demonstrating that drill at any of my clinics anytime soon. 😉
::Queue the mission impossible theme:: Your mission… should you choose to accept it… is to cover the ball and keep it from getting past you!
That means every time the ball moves, you move. (And your partner does too, of course.)
The Trick to Covering Every Ball
When your opponent is hitting the ball, you’re both in position. When it’s your team’s turn to hit the ball, you’ve both shifted so that you’re still in your two-thirds block while one of you is hitting the ball.
As soon as your team hits the ball, you shift again depending on which side of the court you hit it to.
They hit. You shift.
You hit. You shift.
They hit. You shift.
You hit. You shift.
You get the picture yet?
Shift, shift, shift!
You’ve got to be constantly on the move.
The biggest mistake most people make when trying to use this strategy is that they don’t MOVE.
If you stay lined up where you were for the last shot, chances are you’re going to be out of position for the next shot. I’m not asking you to run any major distances here, but I AM asking you to shuffle your feet so you move left or right after every shot.
Now I know, it’s more work to move your feet (and your behind) into position. You probably WILL feel it the next day for a while. But that’s what will make the difference between covering every ball at the net or watching your opponent’s shot go whizzing by.
But What About Your Partner?
Now, one question I often get from students who are trying to apply this tactic is: “But Prem, what if the person I’m playing with hasn’t read your article and doesn’t GET it? They think I’m supposed to take it because it’s my forehand, so they don’t go for it and we lose the point…”
Well, let me ask you this:
Do you drive on the left side of the road just in case the person coming the other way is from the UK and has forgotten where they are?
No. You follow the law. If you happen to see a car in the wrong lane, you might adjust accordingly at the last minute but the safest thing to do is stay in your lane, as the law says, and let THEM make the correction.
Luckily the consequences aren’t so dire on the pickleball court but the logic is the same.
Do what you’re supposed to do.
Know that you’re doing the right thing.
Hope that they figure out what they are supposed to do.
If necessary, be prepared to course-correct and make up for it at the last moment.
But above all, remember that improving your skill set and playing right is a much more noble goal than winning any particular game.
Do you agree?
Please take a minute to post your comments or questions down below.