Interview with Coach Matty - Pickleball Tips, Strategy, & Fundamentals

We're excited to share the below interview with Coach Matty! Coach Matty has graciously shared his time to talk through a number of pickleball topics. Our discussion touches on everything from why you should be playing pickleball, how to take your game from casual to competitive, and how former tennis players can successfully transition into pickleball. 

We hope you find this interview helpful and can implement some of Coach Matty's advice in your next game. This is a lengthy read but there are some GREAT pickleball tips for new players and/or experienced players that want to re-ground in the all important pickleball fundamentals. Enjoy!

Amazin' Aces (AA): Hi Coach Matty. Thanks for chatting with us. Tell us a bit about your background and how you got into the great game of pickleball.

Coach Matty (CM)Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity. I absolutely love teaching the most social sport ever. My background is 42 years of teaching tennis and coaching tennis and playing competitively. I've been teaching pickleball over 5 1/2 years. I've taught 6,000 people in 18 states so far. I also met my wife she came to my clinic and we've been married for a year and four months. She has become a 4.5 player in a little over a year from me coaching her every week.

AA: For anyone that hasn't given pickleball a try yet, give us your best pitch on why pickleball is a wonderful sport and worthwhile hobby to take up.

CM: For anyone that has not given pickleball a try I highly suggest they do, as there is a 95% chance they will play again. It's the most addictive sport out there. They will make friends for life. They will learn self-control because this game is not about playing the two people on the other side, it's about calming down the ego and placing shots.

AA: Agree 100%! What is your general approach when introducing new players to pickleball? Do you place particular emphasis on teaching certain aspects of the game? 

CMWhen my wife and I teach new players we emphasize the dink game. Slowing the game down. Learn how to place the shots without swinging, only by blocking. We tell them to place the ball down the middle of the court because the net is only 34 inches in the middle but on the sides it's 36 inches. Plus, there's 10 feet in each direction to make a mistake. It also causes confusion between the two players.

The goal of pickleball is to hit to the weakest player's weakest shot. I teach "Percentage Pickleball" and I learned from the master himself, Coach Mo. I sell a DVD called "Percentage Pickleball - Number Two" and I highly suggest people check this out if interested. 

Beginners must learn right from the start the proper mechanics, the right strokes, shot selection, how to dink, how to volley, how to place their ground strokes, how to place they're put away shots, and most importantly how to slow the game down. By this I mean going from the back line/the baseline to the no volley zone (NVZ) or "kitchen" line. That's important so that you can play the chess game... moving people around and putting every shot to the toes.

In pickleball, any shot to the toes is better than any shot waist level or higher. People should not be proud of themselves when they win a bang. It would've been easier to put at the toes so that people pop it up. So preferably hit to the middle of the court and left person's left foot. I tell beginners to hit at 80% of their power when they have a ball that's a put away.

AAWhat are the most common mistakes you see new players making? How can they best overcome them?

CMThe most common mistakes 3.0, 3.5, and some 4.0 players make is they over-hit the ball when there was no reason to do so. Placement is more important than power, always. I understand getting excited when a juicy ball is high enough to put away, but placement is much more important. Again, by placement I mean to the middle of the court and left person's left foot. This is far superior than over-swinging and hitting the net or the ball wide or long. The best way to overcome these mistakes is to slow the game down and practice 50% play 50%, this is the key to anything we do in life. 

AAMany pickleballers are ex-tennis players. Do you find that a tennis background helps players get up the learning curve more quickly? Are there certain aspects of the game that ex-tennis players have a harder time learning (e.g. the soft game)?

CMSince I came over from my tennis background I totally understand the challenges that come with experience in a racquet sport. People come over from tennis and all they do is hit the ball hard. This is a wiffleball. Outside you have the wind and the sun. And you only have a court that is 20 feet wide x 44 foot long. It's much simpler to slow the ball down, hit into the kitchen, get to know the NVZ line, and hit every ball to the toes moving people around until they make a mistake and pop it up.

There are only two places on the pickleball court to stand:

1) One and a half feet back from the baseline on the serve and return. You want to do this so the ball doesn't make you hit with your weight backwards (remember you'll want to move up when you can, so you don't want your momentum to be moving backwards).

2) No Volley Zone. The other place you want to be, as soon as you can get there, without moving while hitting a ball, is the NVZ line. Get close to the line - about one inch from it. Split stepping to get there, never moving while hitting.

Once you're at the line one inch from the NVZ line, the net protects you. It protects your feet. If you're three or four feet, or even a foot back from the NVZ line, then you have opened up angles. Your feet are exposed. It really upsets your partner when they're at that line and that big hole opens up. That person has to hit up on the ball, usually too high, and it gets put away.

Tennis players definitely have a hard time moving to the slower game because the hard game works up until you hit 4.0 then it does not work anymore. It's always best to have two types of games... the soft game and the bang (hard) game. If two people are behind the baseline banging the ball and two people are up at the NVZ line, there is an 80% chance that the two people up at the NVZ line will win the point.

Please sit and watch people's games... the first two people that make it to that line one inch from the NVZ line usually win 80% of the points. That should be motivation enough to learn how to get to that line ready, motionless, and facing the trajectory of the ball that's coming towards you.

AAExplain the fundamental shots a pickleball player must grasp (e.g. serve, dink, lob, drop, etc)? Are there certain shots that players find especially tricky? 

CMThe fundamental shots are dinking, volleying, third shot, return of serve, ground strokes, and the serve. I can't stress enough the importance of being one inch from the NVZ line. Again if you play in no man's land or no woman's land your feet will be exposed and you have now opened up angles and you're hitting up on the ball. Not much of a chance to win those points so get to the line.

The third shot is the most important shot and pickleball because the serving team does not have the advantage. The serving team is back and they have to stay back and wait for the ball to bounce. Now the serving team has three choices for the third shot:

1) They can lob from the back which usually doesn't work very well.

2) They can bang the ball at the two people that are now at the line ready, motionless, and facing the trajectory of the ball. But that's not a great idea since 80% of the points are one with the first two people at that line.

3) That leaves the most important shot and pickleball. It's a slow dink from the back baseline that lands halfway between the net and the NVZ line. Now that is the 3rd shot you want!

Please get on YouTube and watch some tournaments of high-level players. The return of serve is extremely important. Again, you should not bang the return of serve because you will get stuck in no man's land or no woman's land with your feet exposed and your angles open. You'll have no choice but to hit up on the ball.

Your return of serve should be high slow and deep landing approximately 6 feet in front of the baseline 12 inches over from the middle so that it is to the backhand of the person on the forehand side. Why? A few reasons that are similar to the response I gave you earlier... 1) hitting down the lowest part of the net 34 inches instead of 36 on each side, 2) causing confusion between the two players, 3) low to the backhand causing them to hit up on the ball. The reason you hit down the middle against married couples is because they never communicate! Only joking but sometimes it does work.

AA: Talk more about the serve. For many people just starting out it can be difficult to consistently hit the ball "in" on the serve. And there are many players that go for a serve with something "extra" like spin, low and with pace, etc. What are your thoughts on the serve?

CM: For the serve just keep your head down watch the ball hit the middle of the paddle. Drop it right in front of the paddle so you don't have to meet the ball from a far distance. Do not run into the ball or step in the court and only to then have to step back for the hardest shot in pickleball (the third shot). Makes no sense when you could just stand 1 1/2 feet back and hit the ball to the middle of the court. That is your target on the other side.

Don't go for the baseline unless you practice three hours a day. As you get better you'll be able to move that ball back deeper towards the baseline and have better serve. That's why on the return I tell people to go for six feet up from the baseline. I believe in the word leeway!

Don't go for angles on the sidelines. Instead leave yourself three feet on each side line. And don't go for baselines... like I said, leave yourself six feet so that you can make a mistake. It's a great shot when you do it instead of an out shot.

AA: Once players have mastered the rules, understand general strategy, and can consistently execute most shots, how can they take their game to the next level?

First, focus on the fundamentals.

For example, on the dink shot you should keep your head down through the whole motion. Do not look up... count to one almost to when you lift your head up... the ball should be dropping towards their toes.

The problem is we all look where we're going to hit the ball. If you do not hit the middle of the paddle good luck because as you looked up, the ball drops to the bottom of the paddle and hello net. If you keep your head down on every shot you have a high 90% chance of getting the ball over the net and that's what this is all about... keeping it in play, not rushing the point, and letting the odds work for you. Three out of every four shots are a mistake by one of the teams, an unforced error. Why not just keep the ball in play six or more times over the net and you will win most of your points.

On the ground strokes you must keep your head down as well and let the ball hit the middle of the paddle. Count to one or two... remember you have 44 feet before the ball drops anyway so take your time.  Don't change the ball trajectory by moving your shoulders in an upward motion stay down.

The volley... watch the ball come off the other person's paddle. Watch it hit the middle of your paddle and keep your head down.

And again, on the serve keep your head down, You do not need to look where your serve going. Your serve will be more effective by not moving your shoulders and your body in an upward motion. If you come from a sport where you spin, get rid of your spin now.

If you cannot do a shot 9 out of 10 times get rid of it or practice it until you can! Spin is useless. The exception is on the return of serve because the ball has to bounce on the other side. Again if you can do 9 out of 10 shots I say keep your spin. I haven't met too many people that can do 9 out of 10 on any tricky shot. If you can go ahead and keep it but if you can't your partners gonna be very upset at you for making unforced  errors all the time. 

My number one rule of pickleball is pick a great partner not just a good partner.

The other rule is place every ball you hit. Think before the ball comes over the net where you're going to put that it.

Lastly, be nice to other players. We all start somewhere and remember you may see them on the way up but you're going to see them on the way down so help others. Take some time to help other people it will come back seven fold.

AA: What separates a casual 3.0/3.5 player from a more skilled tournament 4.0+ tournament player?

CM: What separates 3.0 players 3.5 players and 4.0 players is take away the ego, turn off the switch, stop over hitting, start placing the ball and hitting it over the net more than six times per point. The over-hitting is the biggest problem.

It's also very important to learn how to judge if a ball is going out. Don't give away points and make the person on the other side look better than they are. Things to look for on this...  1) is the point of contact below the net, 2) if the person has never hit a soft shot in their life they are considered a banger, 3) if they're moving forward when they're hitting, 4) if the wind is to their back, and 5) after that first hard shot they're like a train going faster and faster. In this case I usually step aside on the second or third hit from a hard-hitting banger and let it sail out. You must have it in your mind before the point starts... "is this ball going out?".

Partner communication is extremely important. At the start of every game you must decide who's taking the balls over the middle. It should be the strong forehand player. If that's the case, the forehand player should take balls that are 12 to 18 inches over the middle line on their partners side. This generally assumes you have two right handed players. 

Play as many tournaments as you can as you understand the rules and get into the game. It's a big difference to play a tournament compared to social play. It'll make you much better. Relax, you will get into your own mind when you play and it's a lot of fun.

Now the big difference between a 4.0 player and a 4.5 player is shot selection. They no longer bang every ball and try hit a winner or over-hit. It's all about slowing it down, placement, and making the person hit up on the ball. Again, this is done by putting every shot to the left persons left foot preferably or at least to the toes.

About 80% of players are 3.5 and usually will not move up because they have bad habits already and won't take lessons or clinics. Now some are happy with their play and where they are and that's great as well.

AA: What drills do you find provide the most bang for the buck? Do you think players get more benefit spending time practicing and working drills or just playing?

CM: I'm a firm believer in doing drills and practicing 50% of the time. I know from personal experience my game improved from practicing much more than playing. When you play, you're competitive and you don't change your habits. For example, some people run around the backhand. But if you're practicing you might get a better backhand and then in a game it will be more effective.

The best rules for a great game definitely are to hit to the toes as opposed to back-and-forth volleying and trying to kill the ball. The first person to put it to the toes on the volley... now that takes practice.

The third shot takes about 5,000 to 10,000 hits before you become effective. The 3rd shot is absolutely one of the best strokes you can practice. If you're stuck in no man's land or no woman's land you must learn how to perform the fifth shot or seventh shot. These shots are basically the same as the third shot but closer to the net.

Remember slow the game down from the baseline so that you can get in position to win the point at the NVZ. Practice your serve a half hour three times a week. You will be very happy with the result as you can place it wherever you want it and keep it in. Of course practice is the answer to this game.

One of the best practices you can do after you have your third shot, your dink game, and your slow, high deep return in order is called "skinny singles". Please look it up. It's only played on 10 feet of your side and the other persons as this is not really singles. It will make you a great player in 30 days.

AA: Talk a bit about balancing fun with competitiveness. How can players find their niche within the pickleball community?

CM: Balancing fun with competitiveness in a community takes some great leaders to set up schedules in which people are able to stay with their own level and compete. There should be certain days for that and absolutely certain days or hours for drill practice. As a group, people will get better together if they drill and practice. You only need one person to practice with to get better in this game.

AA: Last question... if you could give a beginner player just one piece of advice, what would it be? 

CM: The best advice I could give a beginner is pickleball is like life... Nothing comes easy, everything takes practice, some people have different shots and are better than others. Please help each other enjoy this game. It is absolutely the most fun game, especially as you start to move up to different levels.

I've been blessed to teach it, to play competitively, and I love meeting people all over the world. This game will take you places if you want to go. Visit another state... there's 4,800 places to play now and  by next December there will be 8 million people playing.

And enjoy, it's only a game.

AA:  Thank you Coach Matty for taking the time to talk with us. You've shared lots of wisdom and knowledge to be sure! If people want to take pickleball lessons or learn more how can then contact you?

CMAgain thank you so much for giving me an opportunity to help. My phone number is 443-373-1988. I teach all over the world and in any state. Please call me and my wife Coach Meishen and I will come to teach you clinics and lessons. If you are visiting Florida please call me as I live in the Villages. We have 200 courts and I rent out a room and bathroom in our beautiful house to pickleball players. I take them on a pickleball tour, give them lessons and clinics, etc. I've been doing it for three years now and people love it. Take care and thank you again!


Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published