HOW TO PLAY BETTER
Beeeeeeeeeeeat the Bangers!
How to Beat the Bangers and Why You Should Thank Them!
BY DICK OSMAN,
USAPA Ambassador Charlotte NC
There is a lament heard frequently around the pickleball courts! It involves a player who is (or more likely aspires to be) a 3.5 or better complaining about “playing with the bangers.” Of course, this lament occurs only when they lose to the bangers.
We have said before, and will say again, that you are not a 3.5 player unless you can play a soft game. People who only bang top out in the range of 3.0 to 3.5. Let’s add to that: you are not a solid 3.5 if you can’t beat 3.0 bangers. It only makes sense. How can you be a 3.5 if you can’t beat 3.0’s, no matter how they win?
Face it... most pickleball players who self-rate themselves over-rate themselves. This is not Lake Wobegone. All the women may be strong, and all the men good looking, but not all the pickleball players are above average. However that is a metal container of Lumbricus Terrestris* that we will open some other time. Let’s focus for now on beating the bangers. (*a can of worms)
Why Do Bangers Bang?
What is a “banger”? It is a player who hits the ball as hard as they can every time, usually from the baseline or deep on the court. They have little or no soft game.
Have you ever asked: "Why do bangers bang?" First, there is the testosterone factor. Most (but not all!) bangers are men and the manly thing to do is to whack the air out of the ball, which is not hard to do with a whiffle ball. Maybe for those female bangers it’s a “testrogen“ factor? Second, they bang because it’s all they know, and sometimes all they want to know. They have no real interest in learning finesse. Third, they may bang because they are less mobile, and don’t want to move.
But the real reason why they bang is because it works! At least it works against players like you. Why should they stop banging if they win by doing so?
Three Strategies to Beat the Bangers
The first strategy you need to utilize to beat the bangers requires a moment of honesty, which, as the prophet Joel (that’s Billy Joel) would say “ honesty is such a lonely word, and hardly ever heard, but mostly what I need from you”. You see, you should actually thank the bangers who beat you for doing you a very great favor: they are exposing some flaws in your game that you need to recognize and correct if you are going to become a better player. Maybe it is your lack of a consistent third shot drop shot, or poor blocking, or flaws in your strategy, or maybe something as simple as not keeping your paddle up and anticipating the drive. Be honest with yourself. Analyze the reasons the bangers win and work on correcting those things.
Some people who don’t want to do that work complain about the bangers “not playing the game the way it should be played.” Excuse me? That is a bit of pickleball snobbery, and foolish at best. Unless you have developed some new scoring format that rewards style points, there is no “right” way to play the game. Just like any other game, you play pickleball to win using any tactics within the rules that help you win. Bangers bang against you because it works against you. So, stop making it work for them.
A second strategy you can use is to stop feeding the beast! If you keep hitting low drive service returns yourself, you are going to keep getting low drives back. Use a deeper, more lofted return of serve to keep the bangers back, give yourself more time to get set at the NVZ line, and force the bangers to generate all the power instead of feeding off the energy you provide them.
A third strategy is to stop bailing out the bangers. Most drives hit from waist high or lower that come at you shoulder or head high are going to go out. (Note to self: shoulder high, let it fly!) Don’t rescue the bangers by returning those shots. One thing you should do when you are warming up or practicing is to not return out balls. That is hard to do as we want to keep the ball in play and we don’t want to have to chase it down, but you are just reinforcing a very bad habit. Practice your discernment of what is going to be in and what is going to be out.
Once you have your strategies in place, you can start working on some specific skills that help you deal with bangers. And the beautiful thing about these skills is that they are exactly what we need to compete against the higher-level players too! These skills are: effective blocking, the drop volley, and (most importantly) the third shot drop shot.
Effective blocking requires that you are in the ready position, with your paddle up at chest or face level, anticipating the drive. There are two kinds of blocks that can work against bangers, the hard block or the soft block.
If your opponents are hanging back, keep them back. Do that with a volley executed with a firm grip or even a little punch. It will use the energy they have generated to return the ball back to them very quickly, often before they have time to wind up again like Nolan Ryan for another bang. Play the ball at their feet, especially if they are foolish enough to try charging the net after their drive and you can catch them on the move. That will force them to hit up on the ball, resulting many times in a ball that will go long if you have the discipline to let it fly.
Or, you can use a soft block to take the pace off the ball for a drop volley into their NVZ, which will force them to charge forward and hit the ball on the run. If they are able to get the ball before the second bounce it will usually be an up ball that you can turn into a winner. And many times their momentum will carry them into the NVZ where they cannot return your next volley.
The drop volley requires soft hands that absorb the energy of the drive rather than reflecting it back. David Redding has a video on The Pickleball Channel of a simple drill for you to use to develop those soft hands. Throw the ball up into the air and “catch” it on your paddle with little or no bounce. To do so you will need to move the paddle down as the ball falls, and soften your grip. As you are able to do this, keep throwing the ball higher and higher, catching it with little or no bounce. When you have mastered this, try to convert that touch into drop volleys. Have a practice partner hit drives at you from the baseline while you stand at the NVZ line and do drop volleys. Soon you will have added another skill to your arsenal that will help you beat the bangers.
The third shot drop shot works against bangers because it also forces them to hit up on the ball. If they bang at it from below the waist they are likely to hit it into the net or out. Or, you may force them into trying a soft shot, which is not their forte. Either way, you have dictated the pace of the game. But your drop shot must be a good one! Bangers who make it to the NVZ line can take advantage of that drop shop that doesn’t really drop. It is essential that you develop a good, consistent drop shot if you want to defeat the bangers.
A good drop shot usually initiates the soft dinking game. As our favorite Pickleball Guru Prem Carnot told me in discussing this topic, you want to give your opponent an “unattackable ball”. You do this through the well executed third shot drop and the dink.
One more thing... It is much easier to beat the bangers if you have a partner who is using the same strategies to slow down the game. If you are partnered with a banger against two other bangers, it will be much harder to slow the pace of the game. But that will give you all the more opportunity to work on your anti-banger skills, and you will become even better prepared to play with the advanced players against whom banging the ball is just like banging your head against a wall.