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CJ Johnson
Tony Roig
Tony Roig

The Soft Game Is Always the Right Answer

Pickleball is an odd sport. In many other sports, the game gets faster the more you advance. Tennis serves get harder. Baseball pitches faster. And so on.

That’s not the nature of Pickleball. It’s actually is backward. As you advance in the game, the game does not speed up. To the contrary, it slows down. There are exceptions, but, as a rule, the more advanced pickleball players play slower than regular rec play. Even from 4.5 to 5.0, there is a marked difference in the speed of play.

A fancy hard shot that zips past your opponent and lands right on the corner of the court looks cool and gathers “nice shots” from the other players. But it is good soft shots, though lacking the pizzazz of the banger, that will likely win you that game. And the next one too.

Recognizing this can be hugely beneficial to you regardless of your current level of play. If you know that the optimal play – the play that most pros and advanced players gravitate towards as they increase their level of mastery – is the soft game, then you can add it to your game now. You can forget about spins, hard shots, crazy angles, single-purpose trick shots.

Instead, you can work towards mastering the soft game: reset shots, block volleys, dinking with a purpose, and calm/cool play. Let your opponents be the ones to beat their heads against the wall. You will be the frustrater-in-chief. Hitting ball after ball and defusing all attacks.

Once you have mastered the soft game, you can then decide whether you want to add some spice from the power game. But the soft game will remain the foundation on which every other part of your pickleball game is built.

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Here are some of the benefits of the soft game.

    1. Available to all players

The soft game is available to all players. You do not need to have played high school tennis or have been a nationally ranked racquetball player to master the skills necessary to play a soft game. What you need to master the soft game are:

        • An understanding of what you are trying to do – your intentionality – which is to slow the game down
        • A willingness to reset ball after ball as necessary when under attack (while still allowing “out” balls to pass)
        • Patience as you play – not trying to create when the opportunity does not present itself
        • A compact swing – allowing you to get your paddle on every ball and to control the energy you are imparting to your shots
        • An awareness of “out” balls and the importance of letting them pass

These skills require work but do not require learning complex paddle motions, and lots of power is not required. Just an understanding of what you are trying to do and an appreciation that this approach gives you the ability to battle any opponent.

2. Even the odds

There are times when your opponent will be bigger or stronger than you. Does it make sense to try and out-bang this player? Probably not.

The better solution and smart pickleball is to even the odds by slowing down the game. Defuse the power of the physically stronger player by slowing everything down – make the game a soft one.

Think of this approach as you defining the terms of engagement. The banger wants to play a hard/fast game. You are not required to agree to these terms, though. You make it so that the banger has a choice: play your soft game or bang their balls out over and over.

3. Become the Frustrater-in-Chief

Pickleball’s defining rule is the Non-Volley Zone Rule. This rule sets the framework for our game and what drives most of our strategic decisions. Therefore, understanding how to use the NVZ to your advantage is critical: the Non-volley Zone provides you with a safe space where you can land the ball any time to get yourself out of a tough spot.

Think of a time when you played someone who could repeatedly reset the ball. How did that make you feel? Frustrated is my bet. Why not be that player and be the one doing the frustrating? Pickleball is generally not won by one side; the game is generally lost by one of the two sides. The winner is simply the team that did not lose.

4. Increase your Confidence

Mastering the soft game will give you increased confidence on the court. Understanding that the NVZ is there and that it is always available to you can give you a sense of calm on the court. You know that whatever happens, you can always slow things down. The soft game is your “get out of jail free” card as needed throughout the game. You will know how to get out of any jam.

Whenever you step out onto the court, you will know that you can play against any player, no matter who is standing across the net from you. You will have foundational confidence and calm that will allow you more enjoyment out there. You will also have a base from which to continue to grow your game.

Conclusion

If you have already started playing a soft game, keep working on it until you have reached a level of proficiency that allows you to slow the game down against all comers. If you have not played the soft game, it is never too late to start. As you play and practice, get to know the safe space provided by the No Volley Zone. Drop balls into the NVZ, again and again, and see how this approach changes your game for the good.

Want to add the pickleball soft game to your arsenal? Click this link and download a copy of the Three Pillars of Pickleball. This resource is designed to help you understand exactly what to work on next to improve your pickleball game.

9 Comments

  1. Ann Maes on December 19, 2021 at 6:10 am

    The challenge for beginner and intermediate players is WILLING TO LEARN the soft game. So few will dink because they don’t have the skill yet to reset a ball. I see the pros reset drop shots from the transition area so easily, but it’s really a learned skill! Few rec players are willing to do drills more than 5 mins and using a wall doesn’t recreate live play. Playing with more advance players usually ends with me flubbing because it’s a faster game. BUT! I am persevering and determined to block drop those drives when I’m at the NVZ and hit lovely arcing reset drops from anywhere on the court!! Game On!! 😁

  2. Herman l. Junkerman on December 19, 2021 at 5:02 pm

    At 74 and now having to wear special glasses to help my double vision I try to improve my drop shots, resets and most importantly blockshots by playing with less experienced players. I find that I can still be competitive, get plenty of practice and have fun as they usually only bang. It’s a win win as I adjust to my double vision I can also give some tips to the beginners on the soft game.

    • Tony Roig on December 19, 2021 at 9:18 pm

      Awesome stuff Herman. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Michele on December 20, 2021 at 5:12 am

    Looking at videos, I’d say the game is moving further away from the soft game. The success of Team Waters is a good example.

    Though the soft game is certainly a part of success, it seems more reliant on the opponent’s mistakes than a controlled winning hit.

    Just as a matter of fun, I find dinking to be boring. It is the lull before the firefight of frenzied volleys that I enjoy.

    • Tony Roig on December 20, 2021 at 1:00 pm

      Hi Michele. You are correct about the Waters. They are able to use a more aggressive approach successfully. But, on balance, pro matches still rely on the soft game more than the aggressive game – except for the putaway of course. Hard works as long as you can hit it harder than your opponent. What about when that is not possible? Then the soft game provides the answer :). Appreciate the comment.

  4. Tom on December 26, 2021 at 6:44 pm

    This is a great article. Thank you. This is also the reason why i love to play singles too… so that there is less of a soft game.

  5. Barry on December 27, 2021 at 12:44 pm

    So true what you are preaching. I have been drilling with my local pro for several months on the soft game and I have to say it’s a rush to drop ball in the NVZ that set up a winner.

  6. richard Jones on December 28, 2021 at 10:38 pm

    I agree w. you as I have had numerous surgeries in my 79 yrs. & some have prevented me from being the faster, more powerful player. Yes, I can still frustrate my opponent w. thoughtful dinks, drops & blocks. If I’m to be playing this game into my 80s & 90s, I need to be smarter, not stronger.

    Jonesy

    • Tony Roig on January 2, 2022 at 2:08 pm

      Great stuff Jonesy. Keep the soft game going and stay injury free :).

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