Pickleball Strategy and Playing Styles: A Guide for Absolute Beginners
When you first start playing pickleball, the game can feel pretty casual. Modeled partially after the classic casual indoor sport ping pong, and designed to strip back the high-impact difficulties of its sister sport tennis, the inviting pastime can seem like a game that’s more about relaxation than actually winning.
It may be pretty surprising to learn, then, that many recreational and tournament players invest time and effort into developing their individual playing styles, replete with well-thought-out strategies meant to counter their opponents.
Even though everyone's style is unique, most intermediate players have yet to fully settle into a personal playing style and instead find themselves settling into two general camps: “banger” or “dinger.” This binary describes a player’s tendency towards offensive versus defensive tactics on the court, and learning more about them may help you identify your style on the court.
Bangers in Pickleball
Bangers are aggressive players. They hope to gain an advantage from driving the ball hard and fast into the ground, limiting their opponent’s ability to react appropriately. The goal is to encourage your opponent to make an error as they try to manage the speed and power of the game.
While banging the ball is often the go-to for pickleball players with extensive tennis backgrounds, it is also one of the first play styles new players will adopt. It feels incredibly satisfying to smash that ball into the ground and control of the momentum of the match. And in some ways, that is true – for some matches, an opponent who can hit with a lot more power than you will have an advantage unless you can strategize against them.
Fortunately for players with a softer approach, the rudimentary nature of this play style makes it easy to defend against. When playing against a banger, stay on guard and be prepared to react quickly – the speed with which they tend to play means that you will have to quickly get to their ball to return it. Try to return the serve deep into their side to keep them at the baseline, giving you more time and distance to react to their drives. If you are strong with dinking, consider returning drop shots into their No Volley Zone to force them to give up on your drives -- however, only do this if dinking won't make it more difficult for you to hit back.
Dinkers in Pickleball
In extreme contrast with the bangers on the court are the dinkers. These players employ a softer, closer, and slower playing style by hitting a "dink" – or drop shots into the no volley zone – to make the game much more close and controlled. Dinkers are not aggressive, but you shouldn't mistake their measured playing style for timidity or a lack of skill.
The dinking strategy aims to ramp up the difficulty for aggressive players while simultaneously lowering the intensity for players who excel at controlling the ball. Though dink shots may be soft, they are difficult shots to return due to their lack of height, and when done well they can pull your opponent into the no volley zone. Players who are unskilled with playing dink shots may be unable to exert enough control over the ball to keep it from flying out, or worse, from bouncing up high enough for the dinker to easily drive it back and win the serve. Similarly, returning the drop shot without a lot of height will keep your opponent from smashing the ball at you.
When used correctly, dink shots can really shift the energy of the game. Because this move forces your opponent to hit more gently, it can be a great way to get players playing a “hard game” to cool down. It can also be very frustrating to an opponent who relies on an aggressive play style which increases the likelihood that they will make an unforced error. When playing against aggressive players, or players you can't match in terms of power, dinking is probably going to be your winning strategy.
However, dink shots alone cannot win you the match. It’s a strategy that primarily serves to prolong the game until your opponent messes up and you get the opportunity to score against them with a drive.
Dinkers and bangers – you don’t have to choose!
It’s a common sentiment, but it’s incredibly important to remember that you don’t have to pick one style – aggressively “banging” the ball all the time or cautiously “dinking” every serve can both easily cost you a match against a more sophisticated player. In fact, it’s highly encouraged that you develop both of these playing styles so you can play against anyone and stand a chance at winning.
The very best pickleball players (5.0+) play more dynamically than those who subscribe to a dinkers versus bangers binary, and they make sure to incorporate several other strategies that are unique to them. Pickleball, like any racquet sport, is incredibly dynamic, and being able to adjust your style to match or counter your opponent is often the key to being able to win consistently. By contrast, being predictable and inflexible makes you much more prone to error.
With all of that being said, you will likely develop a strong preference for one style or the other if you haven't already, and that’s okay, too. A desire to become a banger or a dinker may just come down to what you find fun about the game. Do you love the fun, low-pressure, more accurate matches that feel somewhat like table tennis? You may want to play the soft game and spend more time dinking from the court’s No Volley Zone. Love zipping back and forth on your side of the court and feeling the satisfaction of driving the ball so fast that no one can keep you from scoring? Err towards the hard game! No matter what you choose, you'll still get to experience the thrill of pickleball just fine.