Skip to content

Pickleball Strategy: 5 Keys to Adjusting to Your Opponent

Celebrated pickleball coach Steve Dawson

Steve Dawson

View Coach Profile

By Steve Dawson

In pickleball or any competitive setting, it’s tempting to try to identify one aspect of the game that will swing the outcome in your favor. There’s an element of delight, and even superiority, in saying that you cracked the code and defeated an opponent because you were smart enough to make good adjustments.

As an 18-time winner of major pickleball tournaments, I’ve developed strategic approach to making adjustments that has worked well for me. Here are five key points:

  1. Stick to your strengths – Rather than panicking if you drop the first game of a match, stay the course. If I play a poor first game, I’m not going to say ‘Oh, I need to change my game. I just knuckle down harder on what I do to make sure the second game is better than the first.
  2. Know your opponent but play your game – I’m a strong believer in not making adjustments unless they are absolutely necessary. Many pickleball players, or athletes in general, watch their competition before they square off so they know what to expect. This is fine; it never hurts to gather information. But I don’t believe that a pre-game strategy, or one developed mid-game, should be a player’s primary focus.

Lack of confidence is often the impetus for an adjustment. I encourage players to believe in themselves and to not overthink a specific matchup.

I prefer to use my shots … regardless of the opponent. Let my opponents do the adjusting and then try to beat them knowing that they are playing with their second most favorite style.

  • Adjust at the right time – Even though I suggest sticking to your strengths, there is a time and place for adjustments. In a three game pickleball match, I believe the sweet spot for modifications is probably halfway through the second game.

In my view, changing things up in the first game is usually futile because players are still settling into the match. By the second game, players have a decent amount of evidence that what they’re doing is not working, and there’s still time to make a comeback.

I’ve seen this phenomenon play out over many years. Many opponents have tried to throw me off my game by doing the unexpected, but the players I’ve had the most trouble with are the ones who stick to their preferred skill set.

It’s not like someone says, ‘Oh, here’s how you play, Steve.” Shots that throw you off are attack shots. Some people have funny paddle movements and quirky attacks from bizarre places.

  • Avoid pre-determined plans – I don’t recommend a game plan but there’s value to in-game observations of aspects of an opponent’s game that are giving you trouble. For instance, if they’re throwing me off with shots on the forehand side, the only shots they’re going to get are backhands. If they throw me off with certain side spin – backhand down the line attacks – they’re not going to see the backhand.
  • Have faith in yourself – Ultimately, I preach trust in the shots that you have practiced over and over and the skills you bring to the pickleball court. I’ve seen players deviate from that script in major tournaments with less-than-desirable results. One of my former teammates wanted to switch everything up after the score was 3-2 in the first game of an event at Indian Wells. I reminded him not to rush into major changes.

At the end of the day, the main takeaway aligns with an old saying – “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”