How to WIN Hand Battles in Pickleball & BEAT Bangers (Improve Your Reaction Time Too)

Written by Adam (HV)

October 14, 2022


One of the fun and dynamic aspects of pickleball is the fast-paced hand battles that happen at the net. This happens in dink rallies when someone speeds up the ball and a flurry of volleys follows.

But if your reaction time is lacking, you may be caught off guard. Or even worse, if you don’t have a plan, this can hold you back from progressing in your game. 

Today we’re going to look at how to win hand battles at the net and how to improve your reaction time. We’ll break it down into easy steps so the next time someone speeds it up at you, you’ll have a plan, you’ll be confident, and you may even come out on top.

Pickleball is constantly evolving and just in the past few years the game has gotten faster at the net. In order to progress your game, you must be able to handle fast-paced shots in the non volley zone. Hand battles may feel fast and chaotic, but they all have a beginning, middle, and end, so we’ll break it into 3 parts and I’ll give you tips for each phase as well as some drills you can do to improve your reaction time.

Watch the full video here.

Part 1: Before the Speed Up

Before a hand battle happens, there are some things you want to keep in mind. 

Know your opponent: First things first, it’s good to know who you’re playing, their style of play, and even their sport background if possible. Did they play a fast paced racquet sport? Do they like to speed up the ball at the net and attack first? All of this can inform how your opponent behaves and how you anticipate shots. This may sound like a minor detail, but these minor details come out in major way when you’re at the net.

Read your opponent: If you can anticipate a speed up by watching your opponent’s body and paddle movements, you’ll be a step ahead.

For example:

  • Do they have a backswing
  • Do they change their footwork
  • Are they stepping back?
  • Lastly, it’s important to note that you’ll be watching a combination of the ball and your opponent. For example, if your opponent gets a high bouncing dink, you’ll be watching the bounce all the way to its apex along with your opponent’s body mechanics.

Prepare for a speed up:

  • Now that you’re reading the ball and reading your opponent, you’ll want to prepare your mechancis:
    • You’ll want to have your paddle up and in front because you want to hit the ball out front
    • You’ll want to minimize your foot movement
    • Ready position – have your paddle up and ready to receive the ball – you can shade it to whatever side is most comfortable for you
    • You’ll want to be balanced 
    • You’ll want to minimize your foot movement. If you’re moving your feet too much, you will likely get off balance.
    • Minimize your head movement – if you move your head too much too quickly at the net, you will have blurred vision. 
    • Instead I want you to find your “quiet eye” – What I mean by this is to have clear vision and a quiet mind so that you are focused and calm. For example, in the NBA before a player shoots a free throw, they focus on the front of the rim for a second just before shooting the ball. In the same way, you will need a clear focus on the ball before it is sped up.

Part 2 – During the Speed Up

Now that the ball has been sped up, you’ll want to continue to apply ideas from part 1, but also consider these tips so you can not only survive but turn a defensive situation into an offensive one. 

  • Keep the ball out front – this will help you make clean, optimal contact with the ball instead of getting jammed close to your body
  • Minimize your body movement and paddle movement. Focus on stable, efficient, compact swings. You don’t have to swing hard. In fact, if you can get your paddle on the ball, it will do a lot of the work for you. If you follow through too much, you risk losing balance and not being able to return the ball 
  • Another way to minimize body movements is to shift over a step instead of turning your arm. For example, if a ball is coming for your right shoulder or right hip, step over and block it with a backhand instead of turning your arm and hitting it out front. You’ll have more time to react and it will be easier to block. 
  • As you make contact with the ball, it’s important to be prepared for the ball to come back at you.
  • Keep an eye on your opponent’s paddle face – this will be one of the truest indicators of where the ball is going

Lastly, if you need more reaction time, you can take a step back just before the speed up happens. For example, if your teammate pops the ball up, you can step back to have more time to react, but be sure to get back to the kitchen.

Part 3 – Ending the Speed Up

If you want a hand battle to end in your favor, there are a few things you can do 

  • 1. Counter volley or the backhand punch: 
  • If you’re looking to win the point with a counter volley or the backhand punch, t’s important to focus on getting the ball on the ground first. The first team to hit the ball on the ground will likely be the team that wins the rally. You can also target your opponent’s body and aim for their dominant shoulder or hip – these are harder to defend.
  • 2. Next You can let the ball go if it’s flying out. If you’d like some real tactics on that, you can check out the video I did about how to recognize out balls.
  • 3. Third, You can block and reset the ball. I also did a step-by-step breakdown on the reset here.

No matter what you’re planning to do, it’s important to note that your paddle will do a lot of the work for you. 

    Were These Pickleball Tips Helpful? 

    Which tip was helpful for you? Let me know in the comments.

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