To Poach or Not to Poach: The Etiquette of Crossing the Line
“Poacher!” That’s what someone – a spectator – yelled during a recent intermediate pickleball game I watched. It was meant not as an observation, but a reprimand of the man who crossed the centre of the court to put away an attempted dink that floated a little too high. With the tone she used, she might as well have yelled, “Ball hog!” It was clear that this spectator viewed poaching as a kind of etiquette infraction, a pickleball sin that was both rude and obnoxious. But is it?
To be clear, poaching refers to crossing over the centre of the court to hit a ball that is otherwise destined for your partner. It means that you must abandon ‘your side’ of the court in order to intercept/steal ‘your partner’s ball’. There are a few reasons one might poach:
your partner is farther back in the court than you and allowing the ball to go to her will result in the ball getting low and being in a less than desirable position. You poaching, on the other hand, gives you the opportunity to hit the ball while it is still high and thus in a more enviable position to hit hard. Here is an example.
You think you are a better player than your partner and are more likely to make a good shot. By coming across and taking balls aimed towards your partner, you are ostensibly giving your team a better chance to win by having the better player hit the ball most often. Here is an example.
You like hitting the ball and are willing to leave your side of the court to satisfy your desire.*
So, is it a faux-pas to poach? The answer is, it depends. Like most things, context matters.
If you are playing a competitive match where the primary goal is to win, I think you can justify poaching for reasons 1 and 2. In this situation, both teammates should have similar goals and personal ego should be set aside for the good of the team.
If a poach is more likely to result in a winning shot then it is a reasonable play. If, however, it is a friendly, recreational match, things get a little murky. For most people, the fun comes from hitting the ball. And since poaching takes away your partner’s opportunity to hit the ball, it takes away some of their fun. You become not just a shot stealer but a fun stealer!
If we think back to the story that started this article we see how important the context is. The woman who yelled “Poacher!” as a reprimand, clearly saw the poach as stealing the fun of one of the players. If that exact same shot had been hit not during a fun pick-up game at the YMCA but in the gold medal round of a tournament, perhaps she would have yelled something more congratulatory.
So where do we go from here? First, err on the side of caution. Until you learn otherwise, assume that your partner cares more about being part of the game then about winning. Even if you can poach some of their balls, maybe hold off, at least for the start. Second, talk to your partner. Ask them how they want to handle balls over the net that either person can get. See what they say. Finally, encourage your partner to go for balls if they are in a position to put them away – even if they are on ‘your’ side of the court. This can show that you care more about the team doing well than you hitting a certain number of shots.
Mark Renneson is a pickleball coach, founder of Third Shot Sports and 5.0 competitor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org