An approach shot in pickleball is a shot hit near the non-volley zone line by the player at the back of the court as they move forward to take control of the net.
Pickleball is a fast-growing racket sport that combines elements of tennis, badminton, and ping pong. Played either as singles or doubles, pickleball is played on a badminton-sized court with a slightly modified tennis net. The most unique aspect of pickleball is the non-volley zone, commonly known as “the kitchen”, which is the 7-foot area on each side of the net. Players are not allowed to volley while standing in this zone.
The approach shot is one of the key shots that sets up a player or team to take control of the non-volley zone and apply pressure at the net. Let’s take a deeper look at what exactly the approach shot is and why it’s such an important tactical shot in pickleball strategy.
What Is the Purpose of the Approach Shot?
The main purposes of hitting an approach shot in pickleball are:
- To move closer to the non-volley zone in order to take control of the net
- To hit a shot that lands close to the non-volley zone line, limiting the opponents’ options for return
- To apply pressure on opponents by reducing their reaction time
- To set up the next shot – usually a volley or dink once at the net
Essentially, the approach shot allows a player to go from a defensive position at the baseline to an offensive position at the net. It is an aggressive, proactive play meant to seize control and momentum in the rally.
Gaining Control of the Net
One of the main goals in pickleball is to control the net position. The team that controls the non-volley zone gains a huge advantage, as they can cut off angles, apply pressure with quick volleys and dinks, and force weaker returns.
The approach shot starts the process of moving forward and enables the player to get into position at the net quickly after the shot. Well-placed approach shots will land close to the non-volley zone line, allowing the hitting player to step right up to the line in preparation for the next volley.
Limiting Opponents’ Options
In addition to setting up the hitter at the net, effective approach shots also limit what options are available for the opponents. The ideal placement for an approach shot is just inside the sideline and close to the non-volley zone line.
This placement reduces the amount of court space available for the opponent’s return. They have less time to react and fewer angles to hit into. Even if they manage to return the ball, it likely will be a weaker shot that is easier for the player now at the net to handle.
Landing the ball close to the non-volley zone line also ramps up the pressure on the opponents. The quick closing of space gives them very little time to react and get in position for their next shot.
This reaction time pressure can often result in opponents rushing their shots and making errors. Even if they do make a return, it will likely be a defensive shot like a lob just to get it back, rather than an aggressive shot.
Setting Up the Next Shot
Once in position at the net, the player who hit the approach shot has multiple offensive options for their next shot. Volleys, dinks, and drop shots can all be used to capitalize on controlling the net.
So the approach shot not only gets the player to the net but also sets them up for their ideal next shot to continue applying pressure. It transitions them from defense to offense in one smooth movement.
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When to Use the Approach Shot in Pickleball
The approach shot is not one to overuse or simply hit out of habit. To maximize its effectiveness, it should be hit strategically in the following circumstances:
When Opponents are Out of Position
Attacking an out-of-position opponent is one of the best times to catch them off guard with an approach shot. Maybe they had to run wide to return a shot or are pulled too far back. Taking advantage with an approach shot gives you the upper hand.
On Sitter Returns
If the opponents return a weak shot that sits up, go for the approach shot to punish them. Don’t allow them time to recover.
When You Have Seized Momentum
When you feel the momentum has shifted in your favor, keep up the pressure with an approach shot rather than staying back.
On High Returns
Shots that land deep and bounce high in your hitting zone allow you time to get under the ball and drive your approach shot with power.
To Change Up the Pace
Varying pace is key in pickleball. If you’ve been dinking back and forth, an approach shot adds an element of surprise.
When Leading in the Score
As you build a lead, approach shots can help you maintain pressure and close out games. Don’t get passive or defensive.
The main thing is to use the approach strategically, not just out of habit. Watch your opponents’ positioning and look for your moment to apply pressure.
How to Hit Effective Approach Shots
Hitting approach shots that consistently achieve the desired result requires solid technique and practice. Here are some keys to hitting effective approach shots:
Move Forward Smoothly
The footwork on approach shots is crucial. When moving forward for the shot, the steps should be smooth and controlled. Rushed uneven steps will throw off your timing and balance.
Keep the Eyes Up
Watch the ball all the way but also keep your head up to see the court position. Know where you are hitting the ball as you approach the non-volley zone.
Rotate Through the Shot
The power from an approach shot comes from rotating the body through the stroke. Shift your weight from the back foot to the front foot as you swing forward.
Hit Out Front
Make contact with the ball out in front of you. Don’t let it get too close to your body where you will be cramped on your swing.
Use a Controlled Swing
Swing fast but under control. Keep your eye on the ball and make clean contact to direct the placement. Don’t overswing.
Disguise With a Consistent Toss
Vary pace but keep the same ball toss motion so opponents can’t anticipate if you are dinking or driving the approach shot.
Hit Down the Line
Aim down the sideline to limit angles. But also learn to confidently direct cross-court approach shots when the situation calls for it.
Choose the Right Shot Type
Mix in topspin, backspin, and flat shots. Use speed and trajectory to achieve your placement goals based on positioning.
With quality repetition and purposeful practice, you can groove an approach shot that helps you consistently take command of points. Let’s look at some types of approach shots to add to your game.
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Approach Shot Techniques & Variations
Having shot versatility expands your options for approach shots. Here are some of the most common approach shot techniques along with tips to execute them effectively:
Adding heavy topspin generates a higher and heavier ball that will drive down fast into the non-volley zone. This extra bite on the ball also allows you to clear the net with better margin.
A backspin approach shot creates reverse spin to make the ball skid and slide after landing. This can pull opponents wide or freeze them in place. Disguise it well off your toss.
A flatter approach shot trajectory gets the ball onto the opponents quicker. You must hit through the ball cleanly to control direction. This is effective when already inside the court.
Though riskier, a drop shot approach can catch opponents off guard. Use it sparingly and when you see them deep behind the line. The key is feathering it just over the net.
As you move forward, you can hit a volley-like swing on the approach and transition right into your net position. Times this on higher bouncing returns.
Keeping the approach shot very low jumps off the net quickly and shoots through the non-volley zone. Mix these in when opponents handle high balls well.
If opponents shift one way, hit your approach shot wide to the open court and move to the net before they can recover to that side.
Letting the ball bounce before taking your approach shot can set up sharper crosscourt angles. Quickly reset your feet on the bounce.
There are truly endless shot variations to experiment with. The key is feeling comfortable hitting approach shots in different ways based on the specific in-game situation and opponent positioning.
Next, let’s examine some common mistakes players make on their approach shot technique. Being aware of these will help you self-diagnose and fix any issues cropping up in your own game.
Common Approach Shot Mistakes & Fixes
Developing a well-rounded approach shot requires identifying and correcting any suboptimal technical habits. Here are some frequent mistakes along with steps to overcome them:
Rushing the Shot
Problem: Frantically hurrying through the approach shot swing
Fix: Control emotions. Move urgently but under control. Keep eyes on the ball.
Problem: Approaching too fast and muscling the ball. Overswinging.
Fix: Smooth tempo focused on clean contact. Control body rotation.
Not Watching the Ball
Problem: Taking eyes off the ball during the forward swing motion
Fix: Keep eyes locked onto the ball throughout entire swing
Problem: Uneven choppy steps during approach. Feet not set for the swing.
Fix: Concentrate on smooth forward motion. Plant feet early in position.
Always Down the Line
Problem: Hitting all approach shots down the line without mixing in angles
Fix: Practice angled cross-court approaches. Recognize when this angle opens up.
Problem: Hitting all approaches the same way regardless of situation
Fix: Develop shot versatility. Make tactical choices based on circumstances.
Not Disguising the Shot
Problem: Toss or body language telegraphs your intent
Fix: Use same toss motion on all shot types. Vary pace smoothly from any stance.
With focused repetition and adjustments, you can turn the approach shot into an automatic weapon in your pickleball arsenal. Let’s examine some drill and game situations to help build approach shot skills.
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Drills to Improve Approach Shots
Practicing approach shots in live ball drills and situational games will embed proper technique and consistency. Here are some excellent drills:
Approach Shot Targets
Set up targets like cones close to the non-volley zone line. Alternate hitting approach shots to each side trying to land close to the targets.
Approach & Volley Combos
Move in with the approach then immediately transition to volleys. Mix in swinging volleys on higher balls. Concentrate on smooth footwork.
Play out points but designate that every shot once the ball is in play must be an approach shot. Focus on shot placement and moving forward.
Rapid Fire Approaches
Have a partner rapidly feed balls sit up at mid-court. Move quickly into each approach shot focusing on preparation and swing smoothness.
Approach Shot Only Points
Play games or rallies where the only shot allowed is the approach shot. First to 7 points. Focus on placement accuracy under pressure.
Down the Line Approaches
Trade approach shots back and forth with a partner but work exclusively down the line. Groove accuracy before widening to crosscourt angles.
There are infinite ways to design drills that develop better approach shot techniques. Work cooperatively with your hitting partner and coach to create challenging approach shot scenarios.
Now let’s examine how to integrate the approach shot into actual pickleball games and strategy.
Using Approach Shots Strategically In Pickleball Games
Great approach shot form is only part of the equation. Knowing when, where and why to use approach shots in game situations is equally important.
Here are some tips on integrating the approach strategically:
Pick Your Spots
Don’t just hit approach shots randomly. Assess the game situation and opponent positioning to identify ideal approach opportunities.
Catch Them Off Guard
Disguise approach shots well. Use them at unexpected times like immediately off an opponent’s weak return.
Recognize Court Position
Gauge if you have time and space to properly set up the approach shot. Don’t force it when out of position.
Don’t Telegraph It
Use the same toss motion and setup on all your shots so opponents can’t cheat and anticipate.
Know When To Be Patient
If opponents are controlling the net well, wait for the right opportunity rather than forcing the approach.
Look For Weak Returns
Punish floaters, short balls, weak lobs. Come in behind lower powered shots you can take advantage of.
Finish the Job
After a strong approach, stay confident and aggressive. Finish the point with assertive swings once at the net.
By integrating smart approach shot selections, you apply constant pressure while keeping opponents off balance and limiting their options.
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The approach shot is one of the most important competitive shots in the sport of pickleball. Mastering it unlocks a whole new level of proactive play.
An effective pickleball approach shot allows you to seize control of the net offensively. By moving forward and landing the ball close to the non-volley zone, you apply pressure and reduce opponents’ reaction time. It sets up an ideal next shot like a volley or swinging volley.
Work on nailing down approach shot mechanics through purposeful drills and repetition. But also develop court sense and shot versatility to smartly integrate approaches into matches. Look for opportunities based on positioning and game situations.
With an arsenal of well-executed and strategically timed approach shots, you will frustrate opponents and dictate more points on your pickleball journey.