Pickleball Poaching: If you’ve been playing pickleball for any length of time and you play against people who are determined to win, you’ve probably been in the situation where the only time you get to hit the ball is on the serve or return of serve because your opponents hit every other shot to your partner (presumably the weaker player).
At the recreational level, it’s just plain annoying when this happens, because it’s like a game of 2-on-1 and you spend most of your time on the court watching the ball go by. (To get some empathy for other annoying things people do on the court, and to make sure you’re not one of them, check out my article called How to Graciously Get to Play with Better Players (a.k.a. How to Make Sure You’re NOT That Person Everyone Hates Playing With.)
Why It’s a Good Strategy to Hit to One Person
At the tournament level, targeting one person is a common (and usually very effective) strategy for all doubles events, and is ESPECIALLY seen at the higher levels of mixed doubles, where the female is (generally correctly) presumed to be the weaker player (if only due to strength & power differences).
At lower levels of mixed doubles, it can be a mixed bag and, due to the fact that success in this game we love is very much a matter of patience & finesse, it’s not safe to always assume that the woman is necessarily the weaker player.
In men’s or women’s doubles, it’s a good idea to identify and target the weaker player. If you’re not sure who is weaker or they seem to be at about the same level, just pick one person for a few points and if it isn’t effective, try hitting to the other one.
In addition to keeping the ball away from the stronger player, targeting one person increases the likelihood they will make an error because that person may not have time to get ready between shots and it can be intimidating when they feel like all the pressure is on them. Plus, when you and your partner can anticipate which side of the court you’re both hitting to, it makes it easier to make sure that you are covering the line or the middle at the appropriate time.
What to Do When Your Partner’s the One They Are Targeting
My main focus for this article is in response to a reader who asked last month for some tips on pickleball poaching. In case you’re not familiar with the term, poaching is what happens when one person moves out of position to take shots that would otherwise be their partner’s shot to play. It’s what you might consider doing when your partner’s the one they are targeting.
The main reasons to poach are in the hopes of:
- Finishing the Point
- Catching Your Opponents Off-Guard
- Give Some Relief to Your Partner When They’re Being Targeted
5 Tips for Pickleball Poaching
1. Ask Your Partner’s Permission First
2. Poach When Your Opponents Are Being Predictable & Don’t Be Predictable When You Poach
If your opponents haven’t established a set pattern, don’t try poaching because chances are it will only move you out of position & they will easily take advantage of the empty court you leave behind you. (This is there reason you see less poaching in the higher men’s & women’s doubles, because players are looking for that opening and ready to take advantage of it.) It’s even worse if you’re predictably poaching because then your opponents are just waiting for the open court.
Instead, wait until there are several points where they have consistently hit to your partner, look for the pattern, and poach only when you are pretty confident that you know where the ball is going before your opponent even hits it.
3. Only Try to Poach When Your Forehand is In the Middle
4. Have Your Partner Hit Toward the Middle
When your partner gets in a tight cross-court dinking rally or a head-to-head volley you can’t do much more than just stand back and watch. Instead, ask your partner to hit balls toward the middle. This cuts off the angles your opponents can play and makes it easier for you to step in and take a ball, hopefully catching your opponents by surprise or at the very least giving your partner a few extra seconds to regroup and prepare for the next shot. This is a very important time to call the ball. (For more on calling the ball, read my article, When It’s OK to Talk Like a Top Player Even if You Don’t Play Like One.)
5. Get a Better Partner
And I mean this in the nicest way possible. (If it was even possible to say something like that nicely….) Recreationally, if you just want to have a fun, competitive match, find someone at about your same level and the game will be much better.
If you really want to improve your game, find a partner who is better than you so that YOU are considered the weaker player and receive most of the balls. This will go SO much further toward improving your game than learning how to poach better.
I find even rec games reserved for 3.5-4.0 level players we wind up ahead until they realize I’m playing a game they don’t understand (3rd shot drop to their backhand) and dinking then I never see the ball again, because they’d rather give it to my partner who plays a game they know (hit as hard as you can and stay back) I am just wondering… is this the same around the US or just here in my surrounding city’s in Oregon? Here people call themselves 3.5 and 4s yet not once do they do any kind of drop shots, it’s all Bang ball. It drives me crazy, I am the only one that ever gets people around here to the net. Please tell me others have strategy and drop shots in other city’s.
Rest assured, other players do have strategies to get to the net! And they even use drop shots! I can’t explain why your partner doesn’t come up to the net, except perhaps because he or she feels that it works for him or her.
Great topic. I play with a guy who is a former singles tennis player. He’s a good player but still plays like he doing singles. He’s on my side of the court poaching my shots at least half the time. I’m going to have “the talk” with him this week. Any suggestions?
You could try the tact of “It’s amazing how much court you can cover and how good you are at poaching! For this game, I would like to work on my [net play, backhand, defending drops]. Would you mind letting a few balls come my way when that happens?” Does this help?