Want Fast Hands in Pickleball? Try Thinking Like A Boxer
Want to Win a Knockout Hands Battle? Try Thinking Like a Boxer.
By Philip Landa
My dad was a huge boxing fan. Heavyweights especially, but he loved everything about the ‘sweet science.’ And one of his favorite boxers was Larry Holmes, who wore the heavyweight championship belt from 1978 to 1983. Holmes was a knockout artist who set up his power punches with devastating jabs. The jab is a straight, fast shot, and even though he was a big man, Holmes had the fastest hands, which made his jabs deadly.
Watching a recent men’s doubles match got me thinking about Larry Holmes. There they were, four players at the kitchen line drilling shots at each other like counterpunches until the ball finally slammed into the net. Their paddles delivered powerful shots just like a Larry Holmes jab that snapped back an opponent’s head: compact, explosive, repeatable, and devastating.
If you’re looking to dominate the non-volley zone like that, these boxing-inspired skills and drills might give you the edge you need in your next hands battle.
- Anticipation for Domination – Boxers circle each other, watching and waiting for just the right opening to strike. They anticipate their opponent’s attack and the best way to counter it. The same approach goes for Pickleball. Watch your opponent’s paddle to see where they’re aiming. Think where they’re most likely to return your shot. By watching your opponent, you can anticipate what they’re going to do next and be better ready to defend it.
- Hands At The Ready – Just like in boxing, hand position is crucial in Pickleball. At the kitchen, you don’t have time to readjust and re-grip unless you enjoy getting tattooed in the face. Fix your paddle at 11 o’clock if you’re right-handed or 1 o’clock if you’re a lefty and you’re in the best position to return balls drilled at your forehand or backhand. And if your opponent keeps aiming for your right shoulder or right hip (or left shoulder and hip if you’re left-handed), cheat more to your backhand and make it harder for them to hit you where they want.
- Hit, Reload, Hit – Pickleball, like boxing, requires less arm movement than you think. The ready position for a jab is with the glove at the fighter’s chin. It’s thrown fast and straight and then the glove quickly returns to the ready position to launch another quick strike. To play fast at the kitchen, a backswing means trouble. Striking the ball requires minimal paddle movement – we’re talking inches. To be at your best, strike quickly and snap your paddle back to ready position to return the next volley.
- Footwork Makes the Shot Work – Muhammad Ali was famous for saying that he could ‘float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,’ and it was his dazzling footwork that made this possible. You don't have to dance at the kitchen line - in fact, it’s better if you don’t – but being ‘feet-aware' is another key to dominating the NVZ. Good footwork lets you react quickly to shots and pounce on your opponent’s mistakes. Stay on the balls of your feet, your weight forward and take balls out of the air to surprise and sting your opponents.
Drills To Improve Hand Speed In Pickleball
Whether you call it a firefight or a hands battle, there’s nothing more exciting than going toe-to-toe in a rapid exchange. Just like boxers, you can improve your hand speed and your success by practicing a few simple drills.
- Drill the Wall – Practice doesn’t get more stripped down than a paddle, a ball, and a wall. Most playgrounds and tennis courts have one, but you can just as easily use your garage. Measure off seven feet (the distance from the net to the kitchen line) and pick a spot on the wall 34 inches from the ground, which is the height at the center of the net. And start hitting. Don’t let the ball hit the ground and practice aiming at your spot on the wall. As you get comfortable, increase your speed and notice how your hands react faster to the balls ricocheting back at you. Make sure to drill both forehand and backhand so you’re equally deadly from either side.
- In and Out of the Kitchen – Next, grab a partner and hit the court. Both of you start by standing inside the kitchen, with your heels on the kitchen line. Start volleying and as you speed up try to beat your record for consecutive shots without a miss. Then step back behind the kitchen line and resume volleying. The balls are travelling at the same speed, but you’ll feel like you have more time because of the increased distance. Your hands will seem faster and you’ll be able to be more strategic with your shots.
- Muscle Up – Another way to increase your hand speed is to strengthen your arms and shoulders, such as by doing push-ups and planks. As your muscles get stronger, you’ll be able to activate them faster and increase hand and paddle speed.
You can use this drill from Tyson McGuffin to work on that quick counterattack (and resets) with a partner:
Pickleball isn’t as physically damaging as boxing, but there are a few things we can learn from our pugilist friends. With the three-punch combination of fitness, technique, and practice you’ll have the tools to dominate your next hands battle and knock out your opponents.