Why Players Don't Come to the Net - and How to Help Them
By Mark Renneson
Have you ever played with a partner — usually at a pick-up or drop-in game — who returns the serve and just stays put at or near the baseline? You know the person, the one that would spend their whole time hanging out at the back of the court if they had their choice.
As it is, they may reluctantly move forward a little bit when their partner pressures them to do so, yelling “Come up! Come up!”, but this soon seems hopeless because even that modest forward movement soon dissipates and they are back to their old ways of playing 20ft from the net.
Why are they staying back?
In my experience there are four reasons a person may chose to hang back. They include:
1) They don’t understand the value of coming forward. While they may have been told a million times that they should return and move to the non-volley zone, this player doesn’t understand why it is important — and no, “because that’s where the game is lost or won” is not a sufficient reason.
This player doesn’t understand that coming to the net off the return is a good way to apply pressure by taking away their opponents’ time to react. By moving forward, the returner is reducing the distance the ball will travel when the opponent hits the third shot. This shorter distance will mean shorter flight time which, in turn, will mean less time for the opponent to prepare. Relatedly, by being at the net the returner increases the likelihood they get a high ball that they can hit hard — again, taking away time from the opposition.
If the player doesn’t understand the rationale for moving forward, they are less likely to do it.
2) They think they have poor volleys. It is possible the player understands the tactics of coming forward but doesn’t have confidence in their ability to hit good volleys. They may see their net skills as a liability and believe that staying back — where they have more time to react — seems like a better alternative.
3) They are worried about lobs. Sometimes players understand the rationale of moving forward, think their volleys are decent, but are scared that having two players at the net (themselves and their parter) will make them vulnerable to lobs. “I’ll cover the back” is the mentality they are applying.
4) They are worried about being hit. This reasons is connected to reason #2 but is slightly different. In this case, fear of injury is the motivating factor for why the player hangs back. Whether it is because of a past incident with a particular player or team, or in anticipation of something happening in the future, this person stays back for reasons of self-preservation.
What to do about it?
You can’t address the behaviour if you don’t understand what’s motivating it. If you want to solve this problem, you must first get to the bottom of why the player is hanging back; you need to know what’s going through their head. And how do you do that? Ask them!
Say something like “Hey. I’ve noticed that you prefer to return serve and stay in the backcourt; can you tell me why?”. Then listen to them. Assuming the person doesn’t feel like you are attacking them for their poor play, they are likely to open up and give you an indication about what’s going on in their head.
If the player responds with: “I just forget” then you know that they don’t fully understand the value of coming in (reason #1). If they say “I know. I know. It’s just that I’m better from back here” you know the issue in confidence in their skills (reason #2). If they come back with “They like to lob” then you learn that reason #3 is at play. And if they say “she’s a big hitter” or they demonstrate fear when they are up at the net, you know that reason #4 is the issue.
Once you’ve established the motivation for the player, you can do something about the behaviour. If reasons #2 or #4 are the culprit, then the solution is to improve the player’s volleying skills and confidence. If reason #3 is a factor, you need to have a discussion about (or better yet, watch players play) whether the lob is actually a major risk or not. Finally, if you determine that the player doesn’t know why coming forward actually matters — probably because nobody ever took the time to explain the relationship between space and time — then having a supportive chat about “how scary we are to the other team when we are at the net as a pair” could do the trick.
So rather than constantly yelling at the player or rolling your eyes when they hang back, see if you can figure out what’s causing them to do so. From there, you can actually do something about it.
Mark Renneson is the Founder and Head Coach at Third Shot Sports and is the CEO of Pickleball Coaching International. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org