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Saturday, January 16, 2016

Moving as a Team Part 1 - At the Kitchen Line

When a team is at the kitchen line, it seems natural for each partner to be accountable for the most of the service court in which he is positioned. It also seems reasonable that the best place to defend that court would be to stand at its mid-point as shown in Figure 1 below. The prevailing theory among top pickleball doubles teams is that 2/3 of the court should be covered just by where a team is positioned. This positioning covers t least 2/3 of the court. So, is it the best positioning strategy? 

Figure 1

Before we can answer that question, we need to understand the opponents' options when returning their shot. I like the concept that a returner has 3 lanes in which to hit the ball. Lane 1 is down the middle and is the safest option.  Lane 2 is down the line and is a higher risk return. Lane 3 is crosscourt and is the highest risk return. A team must position itself to defend the easy shots and force the opponent to make the difficult shot. Let's first look at the mid-court positioning of Figure 1 with the 3-lane options of a corner return.

Figure 2

Now that mid-court strategy doesn't look so good. The easiest return down the middle looks even easier due to the gap between Players A and B. Also, Player B might have trouble with a hard shot down the line, especially if that is his backhand side. The biggest problem  with this positioning is that Player A is defending the most difficult shot. That doesn't make sense and there is a better way as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3

The correct positioning is to have both players shift toward the same side of the court as the returner. Player B in this example is directly across from the returner and should move to within 2-3 feet of the sideline. The other partner (Player A) moves to the right in conjunction with Player B to position himself near the center line. This positioning allows the team to form a wall and efficiently defend the 2 easiest shots for the returner. It does allow an empty lane for the returner to try. But the shot into Lane 3 is difficult to keep in-bounds without hitting it softly, and a soft shot allows time for Player A to move for a defensive return. Congratulate any opponent who hits a winner into that area.

The next opponent shot to review is a return from the center of the court. The opponent has more angles to attack from the center but the ranking of difficulty remains the same and. therefore, so does the defensive strategy as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4

Both Players A and B are positioned near the center of each player's half-court. They are not exactly in the center, however, as the first priority is to build that defensive wall against the easiest shot. Therefore, each player is slightly toward the center line. The reality is that each player should adjust their position based on relative strength of the backhand vs forehand. Adjust in the direction of the weaker side. But ensure that both players do not adjust such that Lane 1 (the middle) becomes unprotected.

As with the corner defensive positioning, the opponent does have openings. These exist down the lines in the outside parts of Lanes 2 and 3. But these are the most difficult shots to hit for winners. It is worth repeating that the optimal team strategy is to defend the easiest shots and allow the potential for the most difficult shots. The positioning in Figure 4 accomplishes that goal.

The same concept applies when opponents are at the kitchen line. The only differences are that the angles are much sharper, the ball can arrive much quicker, and the gaps must narrow to compensate for the offensive differences. Figure 5 shows the proper positioning.

Figure 5

The rule of thumb underlying the positioning strategy is that 2/3 of the court is covered by a wall when players are 6-7 feet apart. The key is to identify the right 2/3 to cover.  Part of the covered 2/3 includes the middle of the court, which must always be covered. The strategy is to expose only the most difficult 1/3 as remained uncovered by the wall. That is why understanding the lanes that an opponent can use to make his return is important. This strategy by no means concedes the uncovered lane. Players should always be ready to return a shot in that area. All it means is that the odds of a winner being hit to the uncovered lane are low. Generally, those shots cannot be hit hard and defending players have additional time to cover them.

The art of proper team positioning is not a lazy man's game, though. Players should constantly be shifting left and right depending on where the opponent's shot is hit. The following Pickleball Channel video called Three Tips to a Better Doubles Team shows how the shifting works in the third tip.

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