Editors note: This is a repost of an article appearing in Thirdshotsports.com August 16, 2016
“Uh! I’m so glad I don’t have to play with those people again!”
“They don’t play proper pickleball. All they do is smash it as hard as they can!” “I see. So how badly did you beat them?”
“We lost 15-5.”
This was an actual conversation I had with a 3.5 level player in 2014. I have since heard many more complaints about “bangers” and how their style of pickleball (i.e. hit hard in an attempt to overpower the opponents) is somehow improper, less pure and less “correct” than those who look to win by dinking and using the soft game. I think it is about time to address this negative attitude toward bangers and to unpack the mistaken assumptions that underpin it.
Why Bangers Bang
Why is it that some players look to hit hard whenever possible? The answer is twofold: First, it’s relatively easy to hit hard. It takes little precision – much less than an excellent soft shot – and it is a skill that is accessible to most players. Sure, you might hit a few balls long, but overall it’s far simpler than dropping the ball gently in the first half of the kitchen.
Second, players often hit hard because it works! More precisely, because it works against players of a certain level. Rarely is it the case that beginning, novice and even intermediate players have sufficient volleying skills to handle balls that are hit hard at them. Indeed, in the case of the player I referenced above, while she was reasonably proficient with her soft game, her volleying was weak. She could get medium-speed balls back but anything faster and she was in trouble. Her opponents recognized that they won points when they blasted it at her and so they kept doing it. It was smart strategy on their part and they were rewarded. Bangers bang because it gets them points. Until it doesn’t...
Why Experts Don’t Bang
When you watch the best players play, it is rare that you see them hit the third shot hard at their opponent (update: this is less correct than it used to be. The paddle technology has changed significantly enough that advanced players are using the drive more often than they used to). Why? If banging works and is easy to do, why don’t the best players use it all the time? Surely they can bang as well or better than anyone else. Instead, unlike their less-skilled counterparts, experts usually play a soft shot into the kitchen and then get into a dinking rally. Are they playing “properly”? No. Are they playing the “right” way? No. They are using soft shots as a deliberate strategy to help them win.
Experts use soft shots because they are usually playing with other experts. And as an expert, their opponents have great volleying skills. At a high level, a ball smashed hard from the back of the court will be volleyed back with ease – often for a winner. Excellent players’ volleys are too good for banging; it’s a losing strategy to try to overpower an expert from the back of the court so they don’t do it. It has nothing to do with playing a purer version of the game and has everything to do with effectiveness. If an expert believed his opponent couldn’t handle a fast ball when at the net, he would most certainly hit it hard right at him. But experts have great volleys which makes banging basically useless.
To Bang or Not To Bang?
So what should you do: Hit your third shot hard at your opponents? Avoid hitting hard in favour of third shot drops? Where do you go from here? First, I advocate for doing what works. Pickleball is a game and games have winners and losers. I encourage you play the kind of game that works for you. If hitting hard is an effective strategy at your level, go for it! Overpower your opponents and show them that their volleys aren’t good enough to handle your powerful shots. That said, if you want to be able to compete at a higher level – against better volleyers – you must also develop a competent soft game. Your current strategy won’t work forever and you should prepare for the future.
Second, I urge you to become a player who doesn’t fall victim to the banger. The woman in the story that began this piece lost to her hard-hitting opponents. It’s too bad her anger was directed at them for “not playing properly” rather than at herself for not being skilled enough to receive fast-paced shots. Had she had better volleys she would have either received their hard shots well enough to win the game, or forced them to change strategies and play the softer shots she thought more appropriate.
Why We Should Praise Bangers
Hard-hitting players do us a great service: they help us to evaluate our skills. They point out the limits of our net game and can provide motivation to get better.
Rather than deriding her opponents, the woman from my story should have thanked them for highlighting the work she needed to do to get to the next level. The bangers she lost to acted as a measuring stick for her and they can do the same for all of us. If our net game cannot stand up to the fast pace of the bangers, that’s a sign that we need to get better.
We should practice, take lessons from a good coach and work deliberately until our volleys are so good that our opponents can no longer overpower us. We should learn to volley so well that even the best bangers are no match for us. Until then, the next time you lose to a banger consider thanking them for the lesson.