Although pickleball can be played one-on-one, the sport’s most popular format is doubles. Teaming up with a partner, whether they’re a friend or someone you just met on the court, means cooperation is key.
Also Check Out: Top 10 Doubles Strategies to Win More Games
Typically, being a solid teammate means giving your partner room to operate and being mindful about which shots are yours and which are theirs.
However, sometimes reaching across the midcourt line and returning a shot headed for your teammate can be a serious opportunity to score a point and improve your chances of winning the game.
In this article, we’ll review the concept of poaching and explain when you might benefit from trying it.
What Is Poaching in Pickleball?
Poaching in pickleball, as in tennis, is when one player crosses the midcourt line, either with their arm or body, in order to return a ball that would normally be returned by their partner.
Although sometimes a ball’s trajectory makes it unclear who should return it and a team might disagree about whose shot it is, poaching implies a player intentionally crosses into their teammate’s territory to hit the ball.
More Resources: Guide to Stacking In Pickleball.
What Are the Benefits of Poaching?
Smart poaches often directly translate to successful rallies. Executing a great poach can make it difficult, if not impossible, for the opposing side to return your shot.
Here are several benefits of including poaching in your overall pickleball strategy:
Typically, the poacher attempts to go for a volley, rather than hit the ball after it bounces on their partner’s side. An opponent might return a high, floating shot, and the poaching player will be in position to hit a power shot before their partner. The partner might be back near the baseline, for instance, and unable to wind up for the winner.
In these cases, poaching not only enables a player to hit the ball with more force, but the opposing team has less time to read the shot and get in position for their return. Especially if struck at a tough angle, a poached shot can leave the other team defenseless against your play.
Every person on the court has their strengths and weaknesses. Smart teams take these into account when getting ready to play and maximize their skill sets as individuals to have the most success together.
To cross to the other side of the court and hit a shot while reaching or moving your feet is significantly more challenging than remaining in a fixed position and returning the ball. Therefore, poaching requires a few key attributes, such as speed, mobility, and accuracy.
If you or your partner are for whatever reason less able to cover the court quickly, poaching can help prevent the opponent from exploiting this weaker point in your game. Similarly, if one member of your team is considerably better at hitting volleys for winners, then you might encourage that person to poach high returns from the other team.
Players with even just a little experience subconsciously begin predicting how opponents will return their shots. This mental process directly affects the way someone holds their paddle and positions their body.
Sometimes, you might find an opponent too fixated on your partner’s movements, leaving them vulnerable to a shot coming from you. In such cases, poaching often becomes an invaluable tactic for surprising the other team by catching them off guard and forcing them to get return the ball from another angle.
Poachers who excel at reading the other team’s position often don’t even need to return the ball too hard or fast. A simple, well-placed and high-probability shot can often end the rally on the spot if the other team doesn’t see it coming.
Higher Shot Quality
Shot quality in pickleball often boils down to whether the swing is forehand or backhand, the shot angle, and the player’s skill at a specific type of shot. For instance, you might be on a team where you’re the better player for dinking, but the weaker one at returning lobs. You might have a great serve but need to work on your backhand.
You can use poaching to make sure your team returns the ball optimally. While difficult with fast and short balls, lobs or slower shots down the middle often give your team the chance to decide who returns what. For example, if you know your partner excels at smashing lobs for winners, you might adopt a strategy where they more readily cross onto your side of the court to hit such shots.
How to Poach in Pickleball
Now that you have a sense of what poaching in pickleball is and the reasons you might attempt it, here are the 4 steps for a successful poach:
- Predict The Opponents First Shot
- Evaluate your teammate’s position
- Commit to the shot
- Switch or return to your position
1. Predict the Opponent’s Shot
You can maximize a poach’s effectiveness by understanding where the ball is headed before your opponent strikes it.
For instance, if your team sends a fast and low shot toward a player’s backhand, you can reasonably guess the ball will be returned shallow and with less pace than your shot.
There’s also a good chance they pop the ball up higher than intended, setting up a great volley for you.
If you believe the incoming ball will be an easy volley or that the returning opponent will be left out of position after their shot, adopt a more aggressive mindset and be prepared to take advantage of a poaching opportunity if it presents itself.
2. Evaluate Your Teammate’s Position
Perhaps the most important component of poaching is evaluating where your teammate is in relation to you and the ball.
Most of the time, a poach is justified simply because one partner has a better angle to hit the ball.
They might be closer to the net, set up for a great forehand, or in the middle of the court while their teammate is by the sideline or baseline.
In fact, sometimes poaching is less about hitting a winner or using surprise against the other team and more about covering a teammate who otherwise wouldn’t get to a dink or drop shot in time.
3. Commit to the Shot
If you aren’t used to poaching, you might hesitate to cross the line into your partner’s side of the court.
While it’s important to exercise restraint about when you poach, if you decide to go for the shot, commit to it so that you can focus on hitting the ball well, with proper form and focus.
4. Switch or Return to Position
Poaching often leaves you overextended toward your partner’s side of the court. This is especially true when covering shallow balls they couldn’t get to because they were by the baseline.
As soon as possible, re-establish yourself on your side of the court or call for a switch so that your teammate can take your spot and properly defend any returns.
Tips for Poaching in Pickleball
Aside from the mechanics of poaching, you might want to be mindful of some basic pickleball etiquette to ensure all the players you partner up with have fun being on your team.
Here are several tips for incorporating the poach into your game as well as possible:
Get to Know Your Partner
Most likely, you’ll play with partners who hold significantly different views on what an acceptable poach looks like.
Generally, pickleball players understand the poach can be a valid and useful part of the game, but a brief conversation with your teammate can make sure you two are on the same page.
For instance, it’s often helpful to declare that balls in the middle of the court should be returned by whoever has the forehand shot so that smart plays aren’t perceived as unnecessary poaches.
If you’re skilled at executing an aggressive poach once per game or so, it’s better to ask if your partners are okay with you occasionally attempting to surprise the other team than have them think you are being greedy.
You also might have a partner whose game is weaker than yours because they’re less experienced.
Opponents might target them on returns, or your partner might stay back instead of moving toward the net.
If so, sometimes poaching is a considerate way of keeping a game competitive. It prevents opponents from assuming they have an easy way of winning, and, as the better player, you ease some of the anxiety newer players might have.
Ask such partners if they’re okay with you covering a few more shots than you normally would as a part of your team strategy. They often will respond well and feel more free to make mistakes and learn from them.
Sometimes, you might attempt to poach balls that your partners could reasonably get to and return.
Communication is key to ensuring that you and your teammate don’t swing at the same ball and interfere with one another. Call out “I got it” when moving to poach and then be sure to call for the switch, if necessary.
Be Fair When Others Poach
Just as you might want to poach a ball occasionally, your partners likely will want to as well, and when a poach doesn’t go as planned, it’s easy to feel as though you should’ve been given space to hit the return.
Remember that everyone who poaches occasionally reaches too far or messes up a shot.
Offer encouraging comments when partners succeed at a poach and avoid any negative ones if it doesn’t pan out. Poaching can clearly be a valuable move at the right time, so your goal should be to help teammates get better at finding poaching opportunities while also honing your skills as a poacher.
Playing pickleball often means meeting new people and learning how to not only play well with them but also have fun while doing so. Poaching is a part of the game that can either lead to more victories or more frustrating losses. By emphasizing communication, consideration, and consistency in how and when you poach, you can incorporate this key offensive strategy to both your partners’ and your satisfaction.