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Keys To Go From a 4.0 to a 4.5 With Your Pickleball Game

by Eric Roddy on

The middle of your pickleball journey can be challenging, and you might find yourself asking “where do I go from here?”

You probably have begun mastering the basics, diving into basic strategy, and might even have a few tournaments under your belt. At the 4.0 level, you are an intermediate with a strong foundation. However, it’s time to start honing your craft in order to get to the next level.

If you are looking for more specific things to work on, here are my three keys to help you progress from a 4.0 to a 4.5 player.

Am I a 4.0 Pickleball player?

First, it may be helpful to identify (or approximate) your current rating. To see a detailed breakdown of each skill rating, check out the USA Pickleball player skill rating definitions.

A 4.0 player consistently hits their forehand with depth and control, and is still perfecting shot selection and timing. They have decent ability to consistently hit a backhand. They place most serves and returns deep with varying speed. At the kitchen, they are able to dink with increased consistency and moderate ability to control height and depth.

However, they still tend to bail in a dink rally due to lack of patience. They are starting to vary third shot and volley height, with pace and spin in order to get to the kitchen and prevent their opponents from reaching the kitchen.

Three Keys to Go from a 3.5 to 4.0 in Pickleball
At the 3.5 level, you’re no longer a beginner, but you start to realize just how much there is left to learn. Here’s how you can advance to 4.0.

From a strategy standpoint, they are aware of partner’s position on the court and are able to move as a team. They have a broad knowledge of the rules of the game and a solid understanding of stacking and when and how it could be used in match play. They can identify opponents’ weaknesses on a basic level and attempt to create a game plan to exploit the weaknesses. 

Things to Focus On

Decisions, decisions, decisions

The tricky part of reaching the intermediate levels is you begin to learn and add all the shots to your repertoire. However, that can be a double-edged sword, as it can cause confusion on when to hit which shot.

  • Use the drive as a situational third shot, not necessarily your “go-to”

Listen, I love to drive as much as the next guy. A player with a killer drive can be almost impossible to stop when they are hot, and the drive plays a much more prominent role in mixed than in gender doubles.

With that being said, driving is much riskier than a solid third shot drop, and should be used more as a change of pace than as a “go-to,” especially since your opponents’ fourth shot volleys will only get better as you move up in skill. Drop the ball the majority of the time, and use the drive as a good change up.

  • Don’t be a hero on the serve and return 

Pickleball is fun because almost every single point (at least in doubles) is a minimum of 3-5 shots, if not more.

As you develop a stronger serve and return, it can be tempting to risk more on these two shots to get free points or easier third or fourth shots. While this might be necessary if you and your partner need a spark in a lopsided game, I strongly advise against it.

Find a serve and return that is relatively high and deep that you can make 95-100% percent of the time, and hit it. Missing a serve or return, especially in a close game late, can be a killer. Consistency > power.

  • Find the weaker player, and pick on them as long as you can

This seems like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many teams 1. Struggle to identify the weaker partner and 2. Can’t figure out how to isolate them and make them hit the majority of the shots.

For me, the weaker player is nine times out of 10 the less consistent one, even if that means they might have a very powerful shot or two. Use the first few rallies in a rec or tournament game to figure out which player is weaker, and then take a second with your partner to find a way to target them.

Maybe that’s starting the point by returning to them every time (especially if their third shots are weaker), or maybe its speeding up or dinking exclusively to them at the kitchen. Pickleball is all about strategy, and making the weaker opponent try to beat you is a fundamental one to master. 

Things to Avoid

Forgetting one of the golden rules

One of the golden rules to keep top of mind when playing pickleball is that your opponent will likely make an error, especially under even moderate pressure. At the 4.0 level, you start to grow and build confidence in your game and ability. That is fantastic and crucial to winning.

With that being said, remember that solid, consistent pickleball will likely result in your opponent messing up. In a lot ways, your opponent missing is even better than you hitting a good shot. Why? It weakens their confidence and is a win for you in the mental battle. Stay solid, work for your opponents’ errors, and collect wins!

  • Playing to win, always, in every single situation

You might be wondering what this is doing under the “Things to Avoid” header. If this article was about becoming a pro or becoming like Michael Jordan, then I would agree this is crazy.

But in order to go from a 4.0 to 4.5 or even better, you are going to have to be able to lose in order to grow. Instead of entering every rec session with the sole intention of winning, use it as a chance to practice a new strategy, your new decision-making, or a new shot.

7 Things You Should do to go from a 3.0 to 3.5 Pickleball Player
At the 3.0 level, there is so much to learn that it can feel like drinking from a fire hose at times. At this early stage, the easiest way to develop as a player is to play as much as possible.

If you are playing a tournament, obviously go win at all costs. Otherwise, analyze the best use of games/practice to develop long-term as a player.

Recommended Drill: Drive and Drop Alternate Shots

Get with your partner and have them line up at the kitchen down the line from you. You will be on the baseline. Have them feed the ball in, and make your first shot a drive, then your second shot a drop, and then alternate between the two for the remainder of the rally. Your goal is to make 10-20 balls in a row. Remember to use spin on both shots, and to clear the net without hitting the ball too high.

After you’ve had a few chances to make 10-20 in a row, switch with your partner. Play this game down the line and cross court on all parts of the court.

Bonus Tip

Jumping rope is one of the best pickleball training aids

Cardio is never fun, unless you’re playing pickleball. One good cardio exercise is jumping rope, as it simulates the high-interval training of playing a point. Grab a jump rope and a good spot to do it and try to jump as fast as you can for 30 seconds. Take a 30 second break, then do it again.

You can ramp up to one minute to build stamina. Try to do sets of 10, or start smaller if needed. Over time, your cardio will improve and you will outlast your opponents on court.

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