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What To Do When Your Partner Stays Back

As you become a better pickleball player, you may be teamed up with a partner who has not yet learned to come to the non-volley line as soon as possible. This can be amusing as you watch your partner fail to return any short or diagonal shots, and sets up the opposition to slam you repeatedly. In fact, if you have good players on the opposite side of the net, they’ll take your partner’s high returns, and smash them to you, the better player. Now that’s a lesson, but for the wrong player!

With such partners, the first strategy is to politely ask them to come forward, explaining why being at the kitchen line is more successful than in the back court. But they often hang back anyway. One reason is that they don’t feel competent at the kitchen line. Some will think it is dangerous there, feeling they may get hit in the face with a ball. That concern is valid for beginners. They often don’t have the reaction time to protect themselves, and you are probably playing against a less skilled team that will often hit hard and not to the feet. These partners haven’t yet learned that being hit with a pickleball isn’t all that dangerous. It’s more embarrassing than anything else.

When fear or concern about competence isn’t the issue, and when asked why they hang back, they’ll say “I couldn’t get up there,” or “They kept me back.”

My response is to tell them exactly when to come forward. That’s one thing they don’t know, and they’re typically having a heck of a time figuring it out. So I give them a very simple strategy:

If their side is serving, they have to wait for the ball to bounce before they can hit it, and they’ve probably recently learned that they have to stay far back, no stepping forward. But, and I say “but” loudly and distinctly, as soon as they hit that return, they should follow it forward. They should literally run to the kitchen line. Later on, as they become more skilled, there are times when coming to the net more slowly, split-stepping where they are, or even hanging back is appropriate, but for now, just tell them to rush the net after they have waited for the return of serve.

If your side is returning the serve, they should follow that return, whether your partner hit it, or you did, to the net.

Sometimes, they understand this instruction and execute it well. Sometimes, they forget after several minutes and have to be reminded. I find most don’t mind if you say “Come forward, come forward!” during the rally. Sometimes, they just won’t do it. They know what is best, and that means hang back – no matter what you say. This is very common among tennis players.

Sometimes, if you insist, you get one of these ‘hang-back’ guys to just try coming forward. They usually have a particularly nice success within the next few rallies, perhaps winning a popcorn war at the kitchen line, and are delighted by their new discovery. Yet the next time they play, they hang back again. Go figure!

Then there’s the guy who will never come forward. What then? Poach! Play everything at the net, even if it is well into your partner’s side of the court. Oh yes, in short order your partner will object. “Hey, that was my ball.” Your answer, “Yes, it was, where were you?”

Because they may inappropriately feel you are hogging the game, you can also invite them to poach you whenever they are on the left side of the court (assuming they are right-handed).

You may find that hanging back with your partner at times is more successful than you trying to defend the whole kitchen by yourself. You can also do your best to keep the opponents back. Rather than initiating a dink rally as you normally would, keep driving deep lobs or passing shots at them. Your hang-back partner may be fairly good at returning back-court shots, and will be quite proud of himself!

A final tactic to try if it is important to win, is to be more offensive than you normally would. Whereas you’d normally dink back and forth at the kitchen until a mistake is made, or would have long-lasting back court rallies, work more on diagonals, spins, and shots that the opposition will have trouble returning to your partner.

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