CJ Johnson Headshot
CJ Johnson
Tony Roig
Tony Roig

Are You Playing Ball-Over-Net Pickleball?

As you know, CJ and I have helped thousands of pickleball players over the past several years. I wanted to share with you one observation I have learned from this time teaching, playing, and studying the game.

Too many players are playing ball-over-net pickleball. This is not a criticism. It is an observation. There is no reason why a person should innately understand pickleball’s framework of the game. I share the above observation to aid you along your path to improvement.

The only way you can really improve as a player is by having a clear understanding of the structure of the game you are playing. Not just that you want to win the point or need to get to 11 points. But that you understand the way to most effectively get there.

The limited understanding of pickleball by many players originates in the ease of entry to the sport. To be sure, ease of entry is one of its great strengths of pickleball. Pretty much anyone can play the game. No matter sports background, age, etc. Pick up a paddle, get out on the pickleball court and you can enjoy a game.

But ease of entry belies a truly complex game: a game with a myriad of strategies and approaches to solve the puzzle that each rally presents.

This lack of clarity leads players to play pickleball with a “ball-over-net” approach. This means that as long as the ball goes over the net from their court to the opposing court, all is good. For a purely social player, this is fine. Get out there, move around, say hello to your friends and get some exercise. All great objectives.

BUT … if you want to get better as a player, you will need more than a “ball-over-net” approach.

I want to be clear on one thing. I am not suggesting here that you abandon the fundamentals and jump straight into the most complex situation imaginable and figure out a solution.

Rather, the reason for explaining this is to avoid you from getting stuck in “ball-over-net” play if your goal is to see how far you can take your pickleball journey. If you want to continue improving you need to know that there is more to this game than the casual bopping of the ball over the net (again, no criticism of this type of play if you are not looking for a deeper relationship with pickleball).

If you want to continue past the B-O-N station along the journey, you can only do this by understanding pickleball’s framework.

What sort of game structure is created by the interplay of pickleball’s rules? And given this game structure, you can then determine the strategies that will work best for you to successfully navigate this structure.

An analogy if I may. Assume you teach a person how to move all the pieces on a chess board. Rook straight, bishop diagonal, etc. But you never explain to the player that the objective is to capture the opposing king. The player may learn to correctly move all the pieces on the board but would not know the aim of those movements or how to put the game together.

Much pickleball play resembles this chess game. Players learn how to hit the ball on their forehand side. And their backhand side. They may learn a third shot drop and a punch volley.

But they do not understand the structure of the game. Not in a way that they can use to navigate it successfully. As a result, while the players know how to move their pieces on the board – even well – they do not know the best way to go about getting to check mate.

I tell you this in the article not to bring you down or plant despair in your mind. To the contrary. I want you to know that there is more to this game and that it is perfectly normal – expected even – for you not yet see the whole picture. The saying that comes to mind is “you do not know what you do not know.”

You may have felt frustration as you played pickleball. You thought you were doing what you needed to do but not getting better. What you may not have realized is that your frustration was being caused by things you simply did not know. By being on the court not entirely sure what was going on out there.

This frustration and feeling of uncertainty can be overcome. The first step is to understand – really understand – the game that you are playing. As you begin to understand pickleball’s framework, you can continue your growth as a player.

Let’s dive deeper into one of the most understood/misunderstood rules of pickleball and how it impacts your play. This will lay the foundation for you to begin to understand the game better.

Before we do so, if you have not yet registered for our Mini-Series, do not pass “Go” and directly register. Here is why: during the Mini-Series we are going to continue the conversation we are starting here. We are going to share with you the most important distinction you are currently unaware of and show you how it impacts the way you play pickleball. We are also going to help you prioritize what you are working on and give you some tips to avoid those pop ups.

Let’s work through the rule that is the most understood yet least understood rule in our game. It will be the key to you playing the most calm and confident pickleball of your life. 

What would you say is the No. 1 most important rule in pickleball? Think rule book rule here. Take a moment to think about it.

Alright – thought about it and ready?

It is the Non-Volley Zone (NVZ) Rule. No contest. This rule is what makes pickleball pickleball. Without it we would just be playing mini-tennis on a smaller court.

Think of the definitional shot of our sport: the third shot drop. That shot would not exist, at least not as we know it, were it not for the NVZ Rule.

The NVZ Rule is simultaneously the most understood and yet not understood rule of our game. I shall explain.

One of the first things you learned as a player is that you cannot volley the ball inside the kitchen – the NVZ. (If you’re not sure about the Non-Volley Zone rule check out this video) Perhaps there were some areas that were not clear, like the momentum rule, but you generally knew to stay out of that part of the court. That part of the rule is understood by most players; they understand how to use (or in this case not use) the NVZ on their side of the net.

What players do not understand about the NVZ Rule is how to use the NVZ on the other side of the net. They understand the negatives of their own NVZ (do not step into this space) but they are not tuned into the positives of the NVZ across from them.

The NVZ on the other side of the net imposes restrictions on your opponents. But, importantly, that same area creates opportunities for your team. It is a positive for your team and is an area on the court that is specifically designed for your benefit.

Sometimes players have an indirect sort of appreciation for the NVZ on the other side of the net. After all, many players know that they should hit third shot drops into that general area. I would suggest, though, that the third shot drop is being hit more because of the shot itself (players have been told it is a good shot to hit) than because of a clear and thorough appreciation of the advantages provided by the NVZ across the net.

If players really understood the significant advantages offered by the NVZ, they would try to hit many more shots into it, including the 5th, 7th, etc. when they are not yet up to the NVZ line. They would also try to reset (slow down) more attack shots hit their way. They would understand that this part of the court is specifically there to give them a safe zone – the “home” you could touch and be safe when playing tag as a child.

Once you start seeing the opposing NVZ as part of your court, your game will radically change.

You will have so much more confidence and comfort on the court. You will know that, no matter what, there is an area of the court where you can find safety; a respite from the onslaught. If you can get the ball into that area, there is not much your opponents can do about it. You will be safe.

As your skill using the NVZ to your advantage improves, your ability to frustrate your opponents’ attacks will also increase. You will be that calm player who can just reset ball after ball into the NVZ, neutralizing each attack and forcing your opponent to try and beat you at your game.

Because you will have a better understanding of the rules of pickleball – of how pickleball is structured – you will have an improved approach to the game. Your approach will effectively navigate the structure (the rules) that we have agreed upon to play this game.

And, importantly, you will know why you are doing what you are doing. You will no longer hit third shot drops just because a video or instructor told you to hit that shot. You will hit third shot drops because you understand how they work to your advantage within the framework of a game that you now see more clearly. And you will know that the third shot drop is the same as the fifth shot drop, seventh shot drop, and so on.

Rather than further articulating why a seventh shot drop is the same as a third shot drop, trust me when I tell you that once you understand the place that the NVZ across the net has in your game, the reason for the above statement will be self-evident.

Conclusion

Your improved understanding will not only keep you from playing ball over net pickleball it will improve other parts of your game as well. You will never feel overwhelmed on the court. You will know that with a push of your paddle you are able to say “not so fast my friend” and retake control of the tempo of any rally.

As you play, give some thought to how you are using the NVZ across the net. It lays just over the net, patiently waiting as your ally to give you a hand as you battle your opponents. Next time you are under siege, call out to the NVZ and it will always respond.

If you are ready for more – you want to go deeper in the game –join us for our Mini-Series and let’s keep improving.

29 Comments

  1. Chris on March 6, 2022 at 12:00 am

    Well said! Never really thought of it that way. Thank you for the clarity!

    • CJ Johnson on March 6, 2022 at 1:15 am

      Glad it helped Chris!

  2. ruth tomlinson on March 6, 2022 at 12:07 am

    Very informative. Have never heard it explained like this before. Looking forward to mini series.

    • CJ Johnson on March 6, 2022 at 1:16 am

      We’ll be looking forward to seeing you there Ruth!

  3. Mary Fahning on March 6, 2022 at 2:24 am

    I understand the concept but don’t know how to get more control over my shots. I’m looking forward to the mini-series.

    • Tony Roig on March 6, 2022 at 7:45 pm

      Hello Mary. Remember that it is a process. One thing at a time. Give yourself time and space and keep working at it.

      • Shelley on March 7, 2022 at 2:36 pm

        I am in the same court.
        Shelley

  4. Alex Foxx on March 6, 2022 at 2:42 am

    Thanks for a very thought-provoking, insightful blog post. It took me months before I even understood what the purpose of a third-shot drop is, but little by little I am grasping more of an understanding. This article gave me even more clarity. The long dink is one shot I am going to start incorporating into my practice routine. Thanks, CJ and Tony! Wish I could make it to the mini-series. You guys need to write a book together!

    • Rene on March 6, 2022 at 3:39 am

      This was fantastic! A whole new insight! Thank you!!

      • Tony Roig on March 6, 2022 at 7:44 pm

        Appreciate you sharing how the article impacted your thinking about the game.

  5. Russ Wulfson on March 6, 2022 at 1:28 pm

    Great conceptualization, Tony. As usual. Thanks.

    • Tony Roig on March 6, 2022 at 7:43 pm

      Thank you Russ. Regards to your better half.

  6. Cathy Clemens on March 6, 2022 at 2:08 pm

    Looking forward to the Mini Series starting. Strategies are on my list to learn more about. Thank you for the work you put into these blogs, podcasts and videos.

    • Tony Roig on March 6, 2022 at 7:42 pm

      Thank you Cathy. We are looking forward to it.

  7. CARLOS CRUZ on March 6, 2022 at 2:25 pm

    It’s an improvement of thought. Thanks. What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is also mine. More territory or court to work with, not be against.

    • Tony Roig on March 6, 2022 at 7:42 pm

      Not sure I follow the extension of the logic to yours is mine. But appreciate the comment.

  8. Cec on March 6, 2022 at 4:19 pm

    Very methodical! Makes total sense!!!

    • Tony Roig on March 6, 2022 at 7:41 pm

      Glad you found it useful.

  9. Kasey on March 7, 2022 at 5:50 am

    Thanks for this great explanation. I would much rather play this kind of calm game and/or slow it down when someone’s banging. Wanting to do it and being able consistently to do it are still two different things for me in the heat of the game. Looking forward to the mini series. Thanks CJ & Tony.

    • CJ Johnson on March 7, 2022 at 12:39 pm

      Hi Kasey, how are you? We’re glad this was helpful and we’re looking forward to seeing you soon!

  10. Leslie White on March 7, 2022 at 7:28 am

    Great article as always. I love the idea of my opponents NVZ being an extension of my court!

    • CJ Johnson on March 7, 2022 at 12:38 pm

      Hi Leslie, glad you found it helpful.

  11. Shelley on March 7, 2022 at 2:37 pm

    I am excited about participating in the mini series!

    • CJ Johnson on March 7, 2022 at 3:20 pm

      Looking forward to seeing you there, Shelley.

  12. steve on March 8, 2022 at 4:41 pm

    Great advice. Gives me a better understanding of the 3rd, 5th and 7th shots.
    Thanks
    Steve

    • CJ Johnson on March 9, 2022 at 2:34 am

      Hi Steve, we’re glad you found it useful!

      CJ

  13. Ronald Plaine on March 8, 2022 at 7:54 pm

    Great article. Working on that part of my game. Still got a lot of work to do.

    • CJ Johnson on March 9, 2022 at 2:33 am

      It’s a journey for all of us Ronald. Keep working at it!

  14. Terri on March 10, 2022 at 5:31 pm

    Fantastic! I get so frustrated that high intermediate players still want to default to hitting the ball hard and through their opponents. My goal is to get “the party started” by making the NVZ my target as I progress forward so we can play PICKLEBALL and begin to party using all those amazing NVZ shots we drill and practice. That’s not to say attackable balls shouldn’t be attacked and some hard hit volleys aren’t fun! This was so well written. Again, thanks for your wisdom and passion for this game we all so love!

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