As a high-level pickleball player and pro pickleball instructor, I always strive to get better in both disciplines. Having the ability to practice drills that will actually improve your game is essential to getting better. Just drilling to drill or practicing to practice may help you but I want to share with you a drill that I believe will improve your game significantly. It is my favorite one to do in my personal practice sessions and I also teach this drill in my classes and my "Drop (shot) Til you WIN" specialized clinic. This drill can be effective no matter what level of player you are- the difference is- the better you get at this drill, the better player you likely will become.
I have yet to find an actual "common name" for this drill, so I decided to name it, "Green Light - Red Light." This drill addresses moving up to the non-volley zone (NVZ) line. Many of you have heard things like "get up to the kitchen" or other similar phrases. Well, I found this stuff very confusing and unhelpful when I was learning pickleball, so I suspect it is the same for most players. The better advice is to use go (green light) and stop (red light) at the appropriate times while approaching the NVZ Line. The typical place in the game to implement this strategy is after one hits the third shot drop (but it can also be used after chasing a deep lob where you want to work your way back up to the NVZ line).
Ideally, one would hit a great third-shot drop and give themselves (and their partner) time to get up to the NVZ and have time to properly prepare for the fourth shot. But, reality kicks in and it is very difficult to hit a great third-shot drop all the time. So, "Green Light - Red Light" is a great way to learn how to actually move up to the kitchen line for all players. It may take a 5th or 7th shot or more to actually get the NVZ line.
Here is the drill:Two players participate in the drill. Player 1 has the ball and is at the NVZ line on one side of the court and Player 2 is situated 2 to 4 feet behind the baseline on the other side of the court. Player 1 starts the drill by "feeding" or hitting the ball deep in the court to Player 2 (simulating a deep return of serve). Player 2 has the "Green Light" to hit a drop shot (simulating a third shot drop in a real game). After Player 2 hits a drop shot, this person should immediately move quickly but UNDER CONTROL up towards the NVZ line. Player 2 should always have their paddle up and should always be ready for the ball to be hit back near them. The "Red Light" comes in when Player 2 notices Player 1 is just about to hit the ball before Player 2 actually gets to the NVZ line. Player 2 should STOP and get balanced quickly (a split step is good) and be ready for the ball to be hit back over the net for Player 2 to hit another drop shot.
NOTE: In this drill and in a real game, it is likely that most players who hit a drop shot when they are 2-4 feet behind their baseline can move up to about 5-7 feet behind the NVZ line before the opponent can hit the next shot. If one hits a drop shot and stays back, their chance of winning that particular rally decreases significantly. There are many reasons why and that is for another article.Player 1 now hits the ball back over the net somewhere near Player 2 so Player 2 can hit another drop shot and use "Green Light" to proceed forward towards the NVZ line. If Player 2 sees Player 1 is going to hit the ball before Player 2 is at the NVZ line, then Player 2 should use "Red Light" and stop again. This is repeated until Player 2 actually gets up to the NVZ line and is ready to continue playing pickleball at the NVZ line. This drill is completed when Player 2 makes it up to the NVZ line.
Again, depending on how good the drop shots are struck; it may take three or four hits by Player 2 before reaching the NVZ line. Players should prepare for this activity in real games! Repeat this drill until Player 2 makes it to the NVZ line 20 times then switch players and roles.There are many different shots Player 1 can hit in the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th shots during this drill to help improve the skills of Player 2 that are needed to get really good. I would suggest when first doing this drill Player 1 be cooperative when hitting the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th shot back to Player 2 so Player 2 can develop at their own pace. Both players are learning skills that will improve their game during this drill. As both players get better at "feeding" and hitting better drop shots then I suggest Player 1 put more pressure on Player 2. This will enable continued improvement in both players' skills that will translate directly into competitive and non-competitive play. After getting good at this drill, players will notice their game improving quickly! I believe this drill will help develop pickleball skills that significantly improve everyone's level of play.
By Marc Austin, GAMMA Ambassador, and PPR Pro Pickleball Instructor