Pickleball: A Contact Sport?

Knocked down pickler

You’re not likely to get knocked down by a pickleball, but it doesn’t feel good to get hit! (Image credit: Chad Ryan)

Pickleball: A Contact Sport?

By: Glen Peterson

David McCallum from Pickleball Inc. and I were having lunch at Ray’s Boathouse in Seattle the other day when he mentioned that, shortly after Pickleball was invented, the kitchen line was moved back six inches to prevent Dick Brown, an outstanding football player who was 6′ 4″ tall, from being able to volley nearly every ball from the kitchen line. With his long arms, Dick could nearly touch the net with his paddle!

court diagramThat seemingly arbitrary decision to depart from badminton court lines and move opposing players another foot apart (from 13 to 14 feet) implies to me that the early framers of this sport understood the subtleties of how pickleball play would evolve.

Some of us prefer sports that don’t favor taller athletes. I am convinced this is one reason baseball has remained so popular. Smaller hitters have smaller strike zones.

My friend Scott Lennan once commented that very tall players who can volley every ball from the kitchen line will someday dominate pickleball. Unfortunately, I agree. But with one caveat: because they are also larger targets, they had better be cat-like quick!

More and more, pickleball is becoming a contact sport. Hitting an opponent is a winning shot … and often brings a psychological advantage. Taller, larger opponents make bigger targets. In 5.0 tournament play, the notion that hitting an opponent with a ball is unprofessional is gone.

While most of us still apologize for hitting an opponent with a hard shot toward at the body, this happens often. I would never aim for a person’s head, but I confess that in highly competitive tournament play I would place a shot directly at a the body. Are you offended or angry? Please understand that I am referring to 5.0 tournament play. Tim Nelson popped me with a hard shot in the neck a few days ago; it stung a bit; it was a great shot.

Ken Crocker and I experimented by playing a half court game one-on-one at the kitchen line and rewarding two points every time one of us hit the other player. We discovered it was too easy to hit the opponent. Of course I don’t dodge so well now as when I was in my teens!

Pickleball may become more and more like fencing or dodge ball where hitting opponents with the ball is far more common and a vital tactic in high level play. In many high level games today, several points are won or lost either because a person was hit or because they had to hit an otherwise out ball that would have hit them. Personally I love it. It favors smaller players. And it adds an element of fun just like hitting around the post.

How to avoid being hit? First, at most levels of play, you can simply ask aggressive players not to target your body. Second, bend your knees at the kitchen line to become a smaller target and be prepared to duck. And third, when you see your opponent wind up, play dodge ball!

Don’t be afraid of getting hit. It may sting for a moment. Congratulate your opponent on a well placed shot. And then get them back!  Incidentally, this is an example of where the softer Onix Pure I Outdoor ball will be preferred because it hurts less.

This is a sensitive topic for some who feel hitting an opponent is unsportsmanlike. If you strongly disagree – or agree – please comment!

24 thoughts on “Pickleball: A Contact Sport?

  1. There’s a guy here who’s about a high 4.0 near 4.5. He comes to play at drop in recreational gatherings and hits extremely hard and repeatedly goes for the face, even when he’s playing lower level players. A friend of mine went blind for an hour. Extremely dangerous. If you have a a reputation for so-called tagging and you hit someone in the trachea or temple, I hope you go to prison. Get your sick jollies somewhere else.

  2. I don’t want to be a spoiler but I feel if you have the skills to target and strike your opppnent accurately you should be able to equally use those skills to place your ball on the court for a willing shot.
    Further, a hard shot to the face with a scuffed ball can cut or bruise skin and has the the potential to severely damage an eye.
    If that’s the style of play at the 5.0 level do be it, but I don’t think encouraging it for players just wanting to have a fun sociable game is the best idea.

  3. As several people have already said, Wear Eye Protection! Your eyes are the only part of you that can really get hurt by a pickleball. I was tagged several times today, and am on this site because I Googled “how not to get tagged”. It never occured to me that my getting tagged was anyone’s fault but my own. In fact, I’d like to be better at tagging others. That said, I would never intentionally tag a clearly weaker player, whether man, woman or child.

  4. When a stronger, male player winds up and overhead smashes a ball at a woman and hits her so hard that it leaves a bruise during recreational drop in play, we have a BIG problem. This kind of mentality is all throughout drop in play in North America and I think it is pathetic. If you cannot control your shot and smash it at someone’s feet then you should not be smashing it until you have mastered control. Many of these men think they are 4.0+ players because they use this strategy on mostly women who don’t do it back. Then after physically harming them they tell them “if they can’t take the heat…” What garbage, it is an excuse to be a bully on the court. What satisfaction does a male player get from physically assaulting his female opponents? I would never allow my children to behave like that on a court so why is I ok for adult males?. Save it for tournament play or men’s doubles. Nobody signs up for recreational drop in play in the hopes that they will come out of it with a pickleball bruise from some knuckle dragger who has no respect for his opponents physical safety.

  5. As younger more athletic people start playing more it will become more acceptable to tag your opponent. I play racquetball, tennis and pickleball. Try getting hit with a racquetball or racquetball racket. You will never complain about getting hit with a plastic pickle ball. I try hit at my opponents feet on a overhead, but will try to put a quick one in their chest when all four are up at the kitchen line. But all the players I play with are of the same mindset.

  6. In non-tournament play (aka “friendly play”), I think if your style of play includes trying to hit your opponent hard, you should clarify with them before you get into a game with them. In my six years of playing pickle ball at a 3.5/4.0 level I have met one person who continually hits me. She has become that person no one wants to play with; that is the risk you run by being that kind of player. Everyone else (hundreds of players; I travel) avoids hitting the opponent and apologizes when they do. I think that if you have the skill to hit your opponent extremely hard, then you likely have the skill and experience to put away the shot without hitting them at all. It’s about placement. Having said that, in tournament play I think it’s completely different. I still think it’s rude but it’s seems to be a necessary evil at the tournament level. There is a great article called “The Hidden Cost of Winning”. I highly recommend it.
    It’s called “friendly play” for a reason. 😄

    • Kathy, you make great points, all of which I agree with. Even in tournament play and particularly in Mixed Doubles, playes apologize when they hit an opponent, and most players will try to avoid hitting a player in the head. When I play with someone like you describe, losing may be winning.

  7. we all have different opinions, skill levels & limits. hitting your opponent is generally FAIR GAME, but it depends on the skill levels, attitudes & expectations of each person. social P-BALL is not supposed to be very aggressive, but it is at times. it all depends on the mix of players & their expectations at the time. the problem I see is the super aggressive player, with 3 moderate players, who may or may not be mentally ready to defend themselves. I have been on both sides of the issue. I have hit the P-BALL AT the person & I have been hit. so far I have NOT seriously hurt anyone and I have not been damaged. love the game and enjoy the social aspects. I am hooked for the rest of my life.

  8. Come on. Of course aiming for your opponent is a great strategy. Not to injure but to win the point. I do think that moving the line back another 6″ is probably wise as athletes get bigger and stronger all the time. LJ

  9. Sportsmanship should never go out of style, whether games are social or in competitions. An accidental body hit is one thing, targeting is another. Pickleball allows aging tennis players and others the pleasure of playing a ball sport in retirement. Many seniors today are on blood thinners, and a Pickleball bruise can be sore and ugly for weeks. In social Pickleball the good players I know play with finesse and care because in the end, the person is more important than the point. I think many folks will agree that the world today is very much in need of both respect and kindness in all aspects of life.

  10. (NC) We play a very aggressive game when my friends play on Tuesdays. Hitting each other with the ball is all in fun. It’s a plastic Pickleball for goodness sakes. If you can’t take a friendly smack. Stay out of the kitchen and take up knitting.

  11. I’m intrigued by the topic since it seems controversial and in need of more study by the rule makers. Empirically speaking, to me it seems crude to allow hitting someone with the shot. And yet some very aggressive players adopt strategies to do so because there are no rules against that strategy. I personally get very angry when I see certain opponents aiming at me. Many will play by aiming consistently at their opponents even from the base line not to mention the kitchen line. I admit that when I detect that sort of aggression from opponents hitting at me, I immediately plan to settle the score when I get the opportunity. If the opponents try to score by hitting others, then it seems justified to stand up to them by smacking them back wherever you can. These overly aggressive hitters are nothing more than bullies.
    Perhaps there could be some new rules added. Such as:
    1. Overhead slams of balls net high and higher can be aimed at the opponents feet and if the opponent is hit above the waist the point goes over or is lost by the team that hits their opponents.
    2. During dink rallies when ball is below the net, players can hit up at the opponents.

  12. Commenting on hitting opponent with ball as a tactic is fine with me. Maybe the point shouldn’t count if hit in head. Just a thought.

  13. It’s a pickleball ball for goodness sakes. If you are bright enough to wear eye protection, there really is no chance of injury and all guys will automatically shield any shot that might hit their tender parts. When I got drilled between the eyes in a singles match my opponent was very apologetic. I told him I was trying to get out of the way of his obviously high shot but that in the final analysis it was my fault. 1. I gave him a shot that allowed him to come at me 2. my paddle wasn’t up high enough 3. I should have been backing up a step or two after I gave him a kill opportunity to buy a bit more time on a kitchen slam 4. it really didn’t hurt compared to a racquetball or softball hit. No biggie ,actually. I never apologize if hitting an opponent. After all, it is their fault in the final analysis. At least that is my thinking and philosophy. If playing players lower than my level (4.5) I don’t intentionally go at their body. If my level or above, heck yeah.

    • Good for you. Please whatever you do don’t be friendly and apologize. In fact while he/she is riving in pain you should 1. Laugh 2. Point 3. say next time I won’t be so easy on you. As they are trying to kill you so it is kill or be killed. What happened to pickleball being a friend game?????

  14. We a history of physical àbuse for 32 years of my life I really don’t like to be hit with the ball near my face or if it feels like they intentionally aimed for me. It can trigger PTSD. Just be aware that all people may not respond well to being a target.

  15. I believe that wearing yellow is unsportsmanlike. Tagging an opponent with the ball is part of the game at higher levels. The design of the ball falls into the strategy of the game. While the Pure 1 was softer it bounced too high and was easy to drive from the kitchen. Other balls bounce (hopefully the Pure II) lower making dinks to the kitchen harder to drive and keep in the court. I like baiting impatient competition (you know who you are KP) into trying to tag me and then matador “oh ley” (trade marked) out of the way. And, by the way, please always wear eye protection!

  16. Getting hit is absolutely part of the game!!!! As John McEnroe says about tennis doubles, “if you don’t get hit, you aren’t playing it right”!! I agree….if I don’t get at least one bruise a week, I am not playing against the right people!

  17. I don’t have a problem with 5 players hitting each other as long as they are playing 5’s. I am a 3 or 3.5 and am constantly getting hit by 4’s. I have had some very bad bruises. They say the hits were unintentional, but if I can place the ball, so can they..I never complain, but believe me, I don’t like it!..I can place the ball where it is unlikely for it to be hit back without hitting the opponent!!!

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