Which sports will give you a natural, competitive edge in pickleball?
Pickleball is the fastest growing sport in the world and if you haven’t heard about it by now, then you should probably first read our article that breaks down how to play. In a nutshell, it’s a hybrid between tennis, ping pong, and badminton. Today, I wanted to break down why there are some sports that will give you an edge as you transition into competitive pickleball play.
Even if you haven’t previously played any of these sports, it doesn’t mean you can’t be good at pickleball. I just wanted to point out the skills, techniques, and footwork that each sport has in common with pickleball. If you’re on the edge about considering whether or not you can see yourself playing a sport that might have a funny name, please read through these comparisons. Each sport does have a crossover that makes pickleball fun in its own, unique way.
How is Pickleball Similar to Tennis?
To anyone familiar with the PPA Tour this might be obvious but it is unanimously accepted that tennis is the sport that is most likely to give someone a competitive edge in pickleball. For this reason, this section is probably going to be much longer than the others. Most, if not all, of the Pickleball Pros playing on the PPA Tour were all collegiate or amateur professional tennis players. All of these players have used the skills that they learned from playing tennis at a high level, to transition over to playing at the highest level in pickleball.
In pickleball, the court could very well be described as a small tennis court. While the balls that you play with are considerably different, the ability to move laterally while executing volleys and groundstrokes is an essential skill in both sports. Tennis players excel at pickleball because they are able to cover even more space on a smaller court. Playing the ball in both sports require forehand and backhand strokes, although tennis requires more of the core and full body to generate enough power to put away points. For that reason, tennis players have a natural edge when playing pickleball.
Like tennis, pickleball (especially singles) is about shot selection. Using your peripheral vision to strike the ball in the opposite direction that the opponent is leaning or moving is key to winning points. Lastly, tennis and pickleball both employ different kinds of shots. Drop shots, lob shots, and spin shots alike are shots that players in both sports use to throw off their opponents and cause them to change the pace of play. These kinds of shots are useful in both sports because it requires opponents to be more calculated with their shot selection. Execution of these shots in pickleball feel more similar to that of ping pong. Which makes a great transition to the next section.
How is Ping Pong similar to Pickleball?
Ping pong and pickleball are both played with paddles and require a great deal of hand eye coordination at the highest level. In pickleball, two of the sequences that require the most hand eye coordination are dinking battles and fire fights/hands battles. Dinking battles occur when players stand up against the kitchen line and exchange controlled balls short, while keeping the apex of the ball as close to the net as possible. To do so successfully requires elite levels of control and is what separates high level players from the pros. Fire fights are quick sequences of volleying the ball back and forth in rapid succession. Fire fights generally do not last long because the ball deflects at such a high rate of speed that players are almost blindly trying to get the ball to make contact with their paddle. As well, adding spin to every shot in table tennis allows for an increased edge of competition. At the pro level of pickleball, a strong topspin shot can be the difference between a tight ball being called in or out.
Ben Johns is currently the best pickleball player on the pro circuit. Although he transitioned over from tennis, he’s also known for being an elite ping pong/table tennis player. He attributes much of his success in his pickleball game to his ability to incorporate his table tennis skills. It’s no surprise that Ben is one of the best players when it comes to fire fights and dinking battles. His ability to speed up the ball during an already intense hands battle is incredible and his ability to control the angles during dinking battles is unmatched. Table tennis is in his pickleball DNA and will always be a big part of his game.
In fact, Ben recently signed a deal with Joola, a table tennis company that is making their way into the pickleball scene. With this recent entry into the pickleball world, Joola designed a signature paddle for Ben Johns that has taken the pickleball community by storm. Ben Johns’ Hyperion paddle and Selkirk’s new Power Air series are two of the hottest paddles right now. They have been slowly appearing at courts in the area, despite the hefty price tag. I guess a pricey pickleball paddle is comparable to a high-end tennis racquet.
How is Badminton similar to Pickleball?
Badminton is another racquet sport that requires serious hand eye coordination and the ability to explosively change directions. One thing that pickleball and badminton have in common is the acceleration and deceleration of the object players hit. In Pickleball, players commonly keep the ball at a more shallow trajectory so that opponents are unable to overhead attack the ball.
Pickleballs are made of a lightweight, durable plastic and covered in small holes. Due to the lightweight plastic and wind resistance from the small holes, pickleballs decelerate very quickly like a badminton shuttlecock. When taking on an onslaught of overhead attacks from an opponent, players commonly back up from the net to take advantage of the deceleration and increase the likelihood of being able to return the overhead attacks.
Another aspect that badminton and pickleball have in common is court dimensions. Both courts are 20′ x 44′ and divided by a net. 7′ from the pickleball net is a line to mark the non volley zone, and 6.5′ from a badminton net is a non service zone. In badminton it is prohibited for the shuttlecock to touch the ground. Conversely, pickleball requires the ball to bounce once on each side before balls can be taken out of the air. After that, players no longer have to allow the ball to bounce. Firefights in pickleball are very akin to badminton. Like I explained above, a firefight is where the ball is attacked by players in quick succession and remains airborne for, many times, the duration of the point.
If your badminton skills have blessed you with good reflexes and a strong overhead swing, that should give you a competitive edge when transitioning over to pickleball.
How is Volleyball similar to Pickleball?
By no means does being a good volleyball player mean that you are going to excel at pickleball, but certain volleyball skills can be beneficial to your pickleball game. When learning to play volleyball they teach you to watch the ball all the way to your platform (forearms) when passing, so that you can pass the ball accurately (and not with your hands or face). With practice, passing the ball off of a seemingly uneven surface (two forearms) becomes second nature. Eventually your platform can, without a thought, angle to perfectly pass any ball to the setter.
Similarly, in pickleball, as your learn to hit the ball it’s sometimes difficult to hit balls on the sweet spot of the paddle; especially the ones with lots of pace on them. With practice, hitting balls with the sweet spot of the paddle becomes second nature. It’s almost as if the paddle is an extension of your arm. Eventually, you don’t even have to think about hitting the sweet spot, it just happens.
Another volleyball skill that translates well over to pickleball is overhead attacks. Volleyball players spend hours and hours developing the core strength to attack a ball while suspended in the air. Volleyball players are able to rear back and put some serious pace on a pickleball. When it comes to lobbing against a volleyball player, think twice unless you are elite like the lob doctor, Callan Dawson. If you don’t execute a lob correctly they will elevate and send the ball right back at you.
How is Racquetball similar to Pickleball?
Racquetball players are intimidating people to the other racquet sports out there. Racquetball has one of the most hostile playing environments and is really the only sport where you can be looking one direction and then get hit in the back of the head the next. If you have ever watched racquetball, they have insane hand-eye coordination and are masters of using angles. In fact, the number one racquetball player in the world, Daniel De La Rosa, transitioned over to the pro pickleball circuit. His quick reaction time and footwork have helped him keep up with the best in pickleball.
If you’ve ever played racquetball then you know that hand-eye coordination is key. With a rubber ball that is ricocheting off of multiple walls, it’s no wonder that racquetball players have an advantage in pickleball. Hits in racquetball can range anywhere from 140-160mph. That’s insane when you consider the walls and angles that the ball can come from. Pickleball players have to deal with some weird spin and sometimes an awkward tip off the top of the net, but that’s nothing compared to the complexity of a racquetballs movements.
Another racquetball skill that comes in handy when playing pickleball is footwork. Just like pickleball the game progresses backwards and forwards for a number of reasons. Sometimes players on the defensive have to shift backwards and other times lobs shots require a player to move to the completely opposite side of the court. Footwork in pickleball is very important yet a skill that very few master. Those coming from racquetball certainly will benefit from the footwork that racquetball requires.
Regardless of what sport you play, or even if you don’t play sports, pickleball is a great activity for everyone. Pickleball can be played at a wide range of levels. Whether you want to spend some time in the sun socializing or play for pink slips, pickleball suits anyone’s level of competition. Most importantly, pickleball is more fun when you are able to bring skills developed in other sports to give yourself a competitive edge.