Poaching can be planned—something arranged ahead of time with your partner—or unplanned when the moment presents itself.
But why poach the ball?
A well-executed poach can alleviate a situation when your partner is targeted by the opponents as the weaker player and receives all the shots. Stepping across to return the ball is an unexpected move that can throw the opponents off and relieve your partner, at least momentarily.
Poaching is also done to allow the person with the (usually stronger) forehand to take the shot. With two right-handed players, the person on the right (even) side has his backhand to center. The partner on the left (odd) side can poach effectively with her stronger forehand. The situation is reversed with two lefties. If you and your partner are opposite handed, or if you switch hands during play, decide who will retrieve shots down the middle. Poaching opportunities are fewer when both players’ backhands are to center and should probably be avoided, unless an unusual opportunity presents itself.
Three types of poaches are common:
- The partner on the left (odd) side reaches farther than usual with her center forehand, snatching what is hoped to be a winning shot, and moves back when done. A good time to execute this poach is when your partner is still in the back court. This type of poach works best with shots that fly a little higher and/or slower than a typical drive would.
- The partner on the left (odd) side moves across into his partner’s even court. Pre-planning this type of poach is essential so your partner will know that he should move into the area you’ve vacated. An unplanned poach of this type can take your partner by surprise as much as your opponents, so your partner must be able to react quickly and step across to the other court as soon as possible. Yelling “switch” at the moment you move or using a pre-planned hand signal behind your back can be extremely helpful to ensure the success of this type of poach.
- Sometimes players fake a poach by starting to move across and returning quickly to their own side of the court. Again, a verbal or hand signal indicating the fake ahead of time will allow your partner to take the shot as usual, despite your fake.
When is the “right” time to poach? One of the best opportunities is when you are on the receiving team just after the finish of the two-bounce rule.
Poaching is not without risk, and timing is crucial. Practice the maneuver and any associated signals with your partner. If you give yourself away too soon, your opponents will drive the ball to your now open court as you move across. Also, don’t poach so often that your opponents expect it of you, and your partner begins to dislike you for stealing all his shots.
Which leads us back to etiquette . . .
If you are playing recreational pickleball with a new partner who consistently poaches your shots, you might suggest that you won’t become a better player unless you’re allowed to hit the ball. If that doesn’t work, find a different partner.
In a competitive situation, where points matter, follow the tips above to talk with your partner before the game. Poaching works best after you have a chance to learn your opponents’ patterns. If you see they consistently hit to your partner, poaching becomes a viable strategy, but only when it’s unexpected. As soon as your opponents think you’ll poach, the shot becomes a liability rather than an asset.
Take time to practice poaching with a partner and you'll add a valuable skill to your arsenal of tricks that can lead you to winning more often.