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CJ Johnson
Tony Roig
Tony Roig

Forehand in the Middle – and Other Dangerous “Pickleball Aphorisms”

Aphorism -/ˈafəˌrizəm/ a pithy observation that contains a general truth, such as, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”.

Alright, dangerous may be a bit much. But there are several statements offered by well-meaning players at the local courts that can be limiting (if not damaging) to a player’s game. We are going to dissect one of the most commonly shared misplaced pieces of advice out there in the pickleball world: Forehand in the middle.

Whenever the ball is hit near the center of the court, and there is a partner misunderstanding, or the ball is missed, you will often hear “Forehand in the middle” uttered by one or both players. And while there are times when forehand in the middle may be the conclusion, it often is the incorrect conclusion.

Let’s look at a few scenarios to determine whether forehand in the middle is the optimal approach.

The Perfectly Centered Ball

In the first scenario, we have a ball that can be attacked (a pop-up) that is perfectly centered between the players, both of whom are right-handed. In this scenario, it is likely that the forehand of the player standing on the left (whose forehand is in the middle) will be the best shot for that team.

But what happens when we change the scenario a little bit?

The player on the right has a backhand put-away that is better than the forehand put-away of the player on the left (we have all played with players whose backhand is better than their forehand).

In this case, the stronger shot is the backhand, and they should take it as it is a better put-away shot.

For the next scenario, we still have a right-handed player on the left side but now the player on the right side of the court is left-handed, placing their forehand in the middle as well.

In this case, you would need to know which is the stronger forehand shot before picking a player to hit the ball. Forehand in the middle, by itself as a “rule,” is of no use.

What if the player on the left is four feet behind the Non-volley Zone Line while the other player (whose backhand is in the middle) is at the NVZ line?

The player closest to the Non-Volley Zone Line will almost always be able to execute a better shot than the player farther away from the NVZ, who has a more difficult shot. Generally, we will want the backhand to take this shot (think about time and angle of attack).

The Third-Shot

The forehand in the middle causes lots of mischief on the third shot. Frequently the player on the left will come across to the right to take the third shot from in front of their partner on the right. This is, more often than not, a mistake.

For one, the player on the right has an easier shot to hit – mechanically. The player can set up with the ball coming towards them. The player on the left who is moving over to take that forehand has to reach away from their body. This movement leads to poorer mechanics on the shot.

The movement to the right also unbalances the team’s court coverage. The left side of the court opens up as the player vacates that space to hit the ball.

Lastly, The poaching of the third shot makes the team less effective. The partner (player on the right) gets frozen behind the third shot being hit and is out of action. If the player on the right takes the third shot, their partner is free to move and perhaps get a put-away on the fifth shot.

This is one of those areas where an apparently innocuous “aphorism” can have real negative impacts on how you play the game.

That said, there is a time when coming across to take a forehand on the right side of the court makes sense: when there is a short return of serve on the right side and the forehand of the player on the left is in the correct position for a better offensive shot. It is important to note that this is an exception to the general rule that the player along the end of the “X” should take the shot (if you are not familiar with the “X,” get our downloadable Respect the “X” Strategy Guide here).

Cover the Middle

The points given up by non-returners not covering the middle to protect it against attack have to run in the millions (if not billions).

Let me explain if the return of serve is deficient (short, too low, etc.) and will be attacked by the serve team. The player in the best position to thwart this attack is the non-returner (the player who is already at the Non-volley Zone Line).

In order to defend against the impending middle ball attack, the non-returner needs to prepare to hit any shot that may come through the middle of the court. But what happens when that shot requires a backhand shot from the non-returner? Forehand in the middle would dictate that the ball should go to the other player. This is an error.

It is almost always going to be better for the player at the NVZ to hit the middle shot with their backhand than for their partner to hit a forehand volley from 6 feet behind the NVZ line as they are moving up after the return. Again, blindly applying forehand in the middle may lead you to an erroneous result.

A Better Framework

If the forehand in the middle does not work, then what does?

If you know CJ and me, you know that we are always looking to provide you with a better framework from which to play pickleball. That is what keeps us going day after day (and sometimes night) at WeArePickleball. A lot of what we do is think about better ways for players like you to approach pickleball. Providing you with useful and productive approaches to the game is a big part of your success.

Rather than relying on “forehand in the middle” (and similar “rules” you will hear), ask yourself this question:

What was the best shot for my team in that situation?

The answer to this question should be the shot you want your team to take. Maybe it is a poach by your partner coming across. Or simply a reset shot hit by you into the opposing NVZ.

Sometimes it will be you or your partner’s forehand that happens to be in the middle. Other times it will be a backhand, also in the middle. The key is that each time it will be the shot that gives your team the best chance for success with that shot.

Avoiding Pitfalls

“Forehand in the middle” is not the only aphorism out there that you need to be careful of. Players almost always mean well when they share these at the local courts. These “rules” are often pitfalls that will detract from your game if you do not yet know how to avoid them.

As you continue to work on your game, be on the lookout for these pitfalls. Rely on trusted pickleball professionals for your information. Professionals like CJ and I who are both experienced and knowledgeable about the game. And when you are ready to cut through the noise and get down to business, join us inside THE Pickleball System – everything you need to unlock your pickleball potential.

Want to hear more? Click here to listen to the forehand in the middle podcast.

12 Comments

  1. Michael Nealy on April 23, 2022 at 8:39 pm

    I wish every player would read this article. I get so tired of hearing forehand takes the middle. The best shot should take it. I love a backhanded put away. (Especially against the dreaded banger)

    • Annie Maes on April 26, 2022 at 2:02 am

      I agree Michael, 100%! Tony and CJ are awesome!!

      • CJ Johnson on April 26, 2022 at 3:16 am

        Thank you!

  2. Lyle on April 24, 2022 at 1:39 am

    It’s 4 years of playing. I live in Hawaii and played in 3 tournaments. 1st one 4.5 Mens doubles, made it to the finals. Being rated as a 3.5, I’ve learned fast about the game. 2nd tournament. Played in the Senior Open Singles, won 1 lost 3. 3rd tournament won 4.0 mixed doubles 60’s. Went to Arizona. Won Mens 4.0Doubles. Awesome.
    I don’t like the idea forehand takes the middle. It’s different when serving compared to returning serve.
    Played with experience players, sometimes there’s no need to address it. With recreational play I’d say go get if you want it. I try not to teach or coach while playing with new players. Would like to know what would CJ and you recommend on this issue. Aloha 😊🙏🏽

    • CJ Johnson on April 24, 2022 at 2:33 am

      Hi Lyle, we teach respect the X which is linked to in this post.

  3. Don Seibert on April 24, 2022 at 2:51 am

    I play in a daily recreational Pickleball program and if I play 6 or 8 games per day, I am likely to have 5 or 6 different partners, due to the way our rotation works, In such a situation, I never get to communicate with my partner (for the next game) about our “down the middle strategy”. It makes for great fun, but I feel that by not playing with the same partner more frequently is limiting my progress. What do you suggest I do? (and finding another place to play is really out of the question)

    • CJ Johnson on April 24, 2022 at 1:18 pm

      Hi Don, you’re right we have little control over what the other person does in rec play. Focus on controlling what you can control which is you. I’m guessing that if you play with this group frequently you know some of their strengths and weakness. If not that’s where to begin. Then focus on putting yourself in the right position based on that player, letting go of the results. Once your movement and strategy get better you will begin seeing progress.

  4. Elaine St. John-Lagenaur on April 24, 2022 at 1:22 pm

    The LAST thing you want to do is berate your partner if a ball is hit dead clean down the middle, a “50/50” call. Neither of you call it, it lands a nice point for your opponent or loss of service. Partner: (snarling) “That was YOUR forehand”…after reading the above, I’d agree, “it ain’t necessarily so”. (An aphorism about an aphorism). Yes, communication between partners is essential, but why take the fun out of the point, won or lost?

    • CJ Johnson on April 26, 2022 at 3:23 am

      I like your comeback Elaine!

  5. Paul Craig on April 24, 2022 at 4:44 pm

    Hi CJ

    As per Don S. above I also play Rec pickleball (2.5 to 3.5 skill level), I ask my new partner who will take the middle shots and was told “You play your game and I will play mine). So as per one of Tony,s POD casts I worked on my serves and service returns.

    • CJ Johnson on April 26, 2022 at 3:22 am

      Hey Paul that’s all you can do it try. LOL! At least you put the time to good use.

  6. Brian R. Bidwill on April 30, 2022 at 1:40 am

    I think it depends on the shot and circumstances. I am left handed and If I am serving and the ball comes back short, and I can attack the ball way before my (mixed doubles partner) can reach it and the ball is not way on my partner’s side, I will attack the ball. I have played a lot of tournaments with my mixed doubles partner and I would say that given those circumstances and how hard I can attack and drive the ball low, the success rate is over 65% to 70%! I do less so on the men’s doubles matches for obvious reasons, strength and athleticism. I also do LESS so if our opponents are a lot younger. Players in their 30s and 40s move a lot faster than players in their sixties and seventies in general. Taking deep balls and taking balls way on the other side is not a good option. If I choose that option, I better put the ball away or it’s likely the opponent’s point. Learned that the hard way too.
    I have much more success when my partner takes the ball on his backhand side, drops the ball well in the NVZ, and I attack a pop up send back (shake and bake) on my partner’s side but my forehand. If I continued to take every ball and not respect the X, most good players 3.5 and up, will hit shots behind me unless I hit a perfect shot. That’s why I really enjoy the game! It’s athletic but a lot of strategy! Wrong moves and bad strategy normally gets punished! Thank you for the discussion! P.S. I watched Tony do a few “shake and bake” moves in the shared videos!!!

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