CJ Johnson Headshot
CJ Johnson
Tony Roig
Tony Roig

WHY the Pickleball Soft Game is Always the Right Answer

We titled our previous blog post “The Soft Game is Always the Right Answer.” While the majority of the feedback has been positive, some apparently misunderstood the statement. In this blog, I want to explain why the pickleball soft game is ALWAYS the right answer. Not sometimes, or if this, then the soft game will work. The soft game will be the right answer every single time.

Let’s get the most obvious objection out of the way: what about the hard game – more players are playing hard, and that seems to work?

We did not say that the soft game is the ONLY right answer. Just that it is ALWAYS the right answer.

Say your name is Catherine Parenteau. You were ranked fourth in tennis in all of Canada in your age bracket. After playing in high school-you played tennis at Michigan State University.

As Catherine, you come to pickleball with a specific skill set. You can hit an amazing forehand drive. A killer backhand. Can smash volleys at will.

Would you want to use your skillset when it makes sense to do so in pickleball? Sure.

BUT

Most of us do not come to pickleball with Catherine’s background. We do not have reliable forehand, and backhand drives that we can hit out there. So what is the answer for players who do not come to the game with a reliable hard game?

You probably guessed it – the soft game is the answer.

AND

Note that even a player like Catherine Parenteau – who can bang balls with the best players out there – relies mostly on the soft game when she is in a tough doubles match. Why do you think she uses the soft game when she most clearly has a hard game (watch Catherine playing singles if you are not sure about her soft game)?

It is because she knows the soft game will get her results.

You can replace Catherine Parenteau with any number of top pro players: John Sperling, Cammy McGregor, Matt Wright, Dekel Bar, Simone Jardim, and on and on. They all have the ability to play a hard game – better than any banger at our local courts. But yet they all choose to play the soft game.

We usually urge caution when using pro play as a measuring stick. In this case, though, pro play supports an approach to the game that any player can use. In other words, we are not looking at pro play to isolate some shot or technique that they use that is difficult, if not impossible, for most players to use.

An example of this is the Erne. Players see pro players use the Erne and conclude, “this is something I should add to my game.” The Erne, however, is an extremely difficult technique to do reasonably well, much less master. Most rec play “Ernes” end up just being players jumping out to the side, leaving their partner alone on the court.

Thus, the Erne is not a technique that can be fairly adapted from the pros for use by us mere mortals of the game.

The soft game, however, is an approach to the game that we can adopt from the pros. We can see from watching the pros play that they use the soft game, repeatedly and successfully, to win games. Pros are playing at the highest level of the game, and the soft game is an integral part of their approach to pickleball.

How is this different from some other techniques that the pros use to their advantage – like the Erne?

It is different because the soft game is accessible to all players. The mechanics of the soft game are achievable by any player, regardless of 

    • Skill – a 2.5 and a 5.0 can both learn to dink.
    • Background – it does not matter if you played college tennis or no racket sports at all.
    • Physical characteristics – same whether you are 5’/120 lbs or 6’3”/240 lbs.
    • Age – 30 years versus 70 years does not make a difference

AND

We know that the pickleball soft game approach is an effective strategy. Exhibit No. 1 – the pros all use it when they are playing for the highest stakes. If there was a more effective strategy, you better believe they would be using it, and certainly when they are vying for the title of a major championship.

If you are not yet convinced, here is a link to a game breakdown we did of a top pro match illustrating the soft game being used. It is a hard-fought gold medal match between four of the top women pro players: Simone Jardim and Lucy Kovalova vs. Leigh and Anna Leigh Waters.

Conclusion

So, is the soft game the only right answer to a game? No. But it is always going to be the right answer.

And, as we discussed more fully in the other article, the soft game is available to every player regardless of your background, skill set, age, etc.

When you are in doubt about what strategy or approach will give you positive results on the court, add the soft game 

33 Comments

  1. Loraine Janelle on January 10, 2022 at 8:25 pm

    Great article! In rec play soft play only seems to happen when your partner is willing to be patient with dinking!!

    • CJ Johnson on January 13, 2022 at 10:49 am

      Hey Loraine, keep hitting your shots below the net. That way you give them no choice, they either hit up on the ball (another dink) or they hit it into the net. Before you know it you may start a new trend at your club.

  2. Jess on January 10, 2022 at 8:27 pm

    Thank you for the clarity of this post. Now I have to figure out this rating system. I am still VERY new to the sport, and am not familiar with how one’s ranking is determined.

    • Tony Roig on January 14, 2022 at 4:41 pm

      Our recommendation is not to worry about levels unless you want to play in a tournament or the facility requires it. Otherwise, just enjoy the journey and keep striving to get better one step at a time.

  3. Dick Halvorson on January 10, 2022 at 8:59 pm

    I agree the soft game is a good way to beat the bangers. It is also more fun than just banging.

    Also very useful when coaching. The players are actually drilling while warming up, with dinks forcing each partner (one on one) to move their feet and reach, thus warming up while practicing dink and short game skills. I do this to start every drill session.

    • Tony Roig on January 14, 2022 at 4:40 pm

      Thanks for the comment Dick. It is amazing to be able to play the game slowly.

  4. Mark Silverman on January 10, 2022 at 9:12 pm

    Thanks for the guidance. My question may not be directly on point, but I thought I would ask for your thoughts. I started playing pickleball about 7 months ago. At that time I purchased a Rally Tyro 2 Pro racket. I think it cost about $50. I consider myself an advanced beginner player–most of my serves go in the right box. I’m considering buying a new/better racket–maybe a Selkirk, AMPED S2 X5, or EPIC X5. My questions are as follows:
    1. How do I decide if I need a better racket?
    2. How do I decide which racket is best for me?
    3. Is there a way to try and compare different rackets to choose the one that is best for me?

    Thanks for your assistance. Mark

    PS: I am enjoying your videos and lessons.

    • Tony Roig on January 14, 2022 at 4:40 pm

      Hello Mark
      Glad the videos are helping.
      As to paddle, really recommend trying as many paddles as you can. You can ask friends at the courts if you can play with their paddle for a bit to see what it feels like. Some stores have demo programs where you can play with different paddles.
      In terms of deciding if you need a better paddle, a paddle is usually not going to significantly improve a player’s play significantly. Think about the paddle as you would a hammer for a carpenter. You want a decent hammer but as long as you are within a reasonable range of paddles (hammers) you will be fine.
      We have a paddle video coming out in the next few weeks – if you can wait for it. You can also check out our review of the Icon paddle – we really like that paddle – on this website.
      Hope this helps.

  5. MacArthur Chavis on January 10, 2022 at 9:22 pm

    Having really hard time dinking

    • Tony Roig on January 14, 2022 at 1:44 am

      Hello MacArthur. Dinking is all about control. It takes some time. Our Success Path may be able to help. Keep an eye out for it :).

    • Randy on January 19, 2022 at 2:33 am

      From my experience with beginning players, it is very likely there are two factors. Almost certainly, you are flicking your wrist to some degree to make contact with the ball. Try this: bend knees while maintaining balance to get your upper body closer to the ground. Think about moving the paddle with only your shoulder – slightly bent elbow that is firm, appropriate wrist bend that is firm. Use a moderate grip pressure. Think about “lifting” the ball over the net, not hitting it.

      Second, you need to watch the holes in the ball as it comes to you, all the way to the paddle contact point. This will allow you to very smoothly lift the ball over the net with maximum control of direction, height over the net, and with more experience, spin.

      Hope that helps.

  6. William Sacco on January 10, 2022 at 9:43 pm

    What do you recommend when the person you are playing with is a banger? It seems harder to play a soft game if your partner does not. Things quickly evolve into a banging match. Any suggestions?

    On a completely separate topic, what do you recommend doing when your opponent serves illegally? Should I say something or just ignore it? It seems more and more players are achieving a short serve with top spin and a curve by lifting their paddle in such a way that the paddle is above their wrist when hitting it.

    • Tony Roig on January 14, 2022 at 1:42 am

      Hello William. You can still play a soft game yourself. Understand that the balls hit by your partner will be coming back fast and may not allow you to move up. Not much else you can do about that.

      As to the illegal serve, it is only something to deal with if it is providing a competitive advantage to your opponent. And even then it is difficult to call illegal serves. You have a capture a video of the serve and then slow it down to a frame by frame. It can become quite a production :).

  7. doug on January 10, 2022 at 10:09 pm

    👍👍👍

  8. Stephanie on January 10, 2022 at 10:48 pm

    I don’t see the link for the breakdown of the ladies pro match.

    • Tony Roig on January 16, 2022 at 5:04 pm

      Hello Stephanie
      Link has been fixed. Thanks for pointing it out. Here is the link in case you want to just jump into it:
      https://youtu.be/q1orizdjHXs. Let us know what you think in the comments to the video. Thanks. Tony

  9. E Porter on January 11, 2022 at 4:13 am

    I could not find the link to the top pro match illustrating the soft game being used.

    • Tony Roig on January 16, 2022 at 5:03 pm

      Hello E
      Link has been fixed. Thanks for pointing it out. Here is the link in case you want to just jump into it:
      https://youtu.be/q1orizdjHXs. Let us know what you think in the comments to the video. Thanks. Tony

  10. Jeanette on January 11, 2022 at 4:30 am

    Dear pickleball teachers CJ and Tony…thank you, thank you, thank you! I think you are so right and so appreciate your saying this–it gives me hope, and I can continue to work on my ‘soft game’ in this manner.

    • Tony Roig on January 14, 2022 at 1:33 am

      Keep working at the game. We will be here for you along the path :).

  11. Cathy Chang on January 11, 2022 at 4:56 am

    I don’t see the link to the game breakdown of a pro match, mentioned in the second paragraph of AND section.

    • Tony Roig on January 16, 2022 at 5:03 pm

      Hello Cathy
      Link has been fixed. Thanks for pointing it out. Here is the link in case you want to just jump into it:
      https://youtu.be/q1orizdjHXs. Let us know what you think in the comments to the video. Thanks. Tony

  12. Cynthia Davis on January 11, 2022 at 10:21 am

    Excellent article. The soft game works very well for me. One of the first skills I worked on was changing the pace of a game and dinking.

    • CJ Johnson on January 13, 2022 at 10:47 am

      Cynthia, you’re lucky to have learned it early. Most people struggle because they become so accustomed to hitting the ball hard.

  13. Annie Maes on January 11, 2022 at 12:45 pm

    Coming from a tennis background, I totally relate to this article. It’s easy to hit hard drives but over this past year, I’ve learned if I want to advance in skill level and win games, I must incorporate the soft game. The soft game requires real skill and mental ability to be successful and I am finding that I love the challenge! Watching the pros hit 24 dinks and drop resets bfore creating the winning put away is the master class I hope to achieve.
    Thanks for ‘driving’ it home for my e! 😆 (the article seems to be missing the 2 links you mention)

    • Tony Roig on January 14, 2022 at 1:28 am

      The soft game is s key. I will check on the links. Thanks.

  14. Graham Hall on January 11, 2022 at 2:57 pm

    CJ and Tony
    Great article. I am a Level II CPTP and I always coach the soft game. People observe me play and comment that I do not hit the ball hard but I am always in control, balanced and consistent. Last month my partner and I were in a tournament and one of the opponents was 7ft tall. Reach like the wing span of a 747 jet. We were so intimidated that we diverted from our game plan ( soft game dinking etc) and we started to drive the ball and tried to our power him and his partner. Bad mistake. Got behind 8-1 and took a time out. Decided to play our game ( drop shot , dinking , soft in control ) Started to get back into the game but too late . Lost 15 -11. Lesson learned do not get intimidated and do not venture from your game plan.

    • CJ Johnson on January 13, 2022 at 10:46 am

      Hey Graham that’s a great example of how the soft game works. It’s also a perfect illustration of what happens when we deviate from a game plan. Congratulations to you and your partner for recognizing what was happening and getting back on track. Even though you technically didn’t win the game, I think you probably learned some lessons that will win many more games in the future!

  15. Deb Harrison on January 15, 2022 at 9:33 pm

    I love your articles CJ and Tony!!! You have a ‘way’ of explaining that makes total sense. You need both the hard and soft….but of the 2 the low soft is BEST!!!

    • Tony Roig on January 16, 2022 at 5:09 pm

      Thank you Coach. Appreciate everything you have done to teach us all the game. We are only here because we are standing on your shoulders :).

      • Seth on January 18, 2022 at 5:17 am

        Thanks Tony and CJ.
        So then I guess it’s a good thing when one of the doubles players across the net from you says after playing with a dozen other players near the end of a 3-hour session, “This is the first game I really had to dink more than once or twice in a point.”

        • Tony Roig on January 18, 2022 at 12:28 pm

          Hello Seth. I think that is probably one of the highest compliments you can be paid on a pickleball court :).

    • CJ Johnson on January 19, 2022 at 2:27 am

      Hey Deb, we love you right back. You’re such an inspiration. The wall drills that you filmed for the Summit inspired me to spend more time hitting wall vollies. (I need to get as fast as you!)

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