What is a Pickleball Split Step and How to Practice Your Pickleball Footwork

There comes a time in almost everyone’s pickleball playing journey when they start wondering how they can get better. Perhaps you start thinking about shot selection. Maybe you purchase a new paddle or better-fitting shoes. You begin practicing a bit more and talking through strategy with your pickleball friends and partner. But, one area is often overlooked yet crucial to playing great pickleball.

And that area is your footwork.

If you’ve played other sports, you know how crucial footwork and positioning can be. Well, in pickleball, it’s the same. Today’s article discusses how to practice your footwork and will talk about the pickleball split step.

Let’s go!

What is Split Stepping?

Imagine you’re playing tennis or pickleball, and your opponent hits the ball at you. What do you do? Well, if you stand there, you will either get hit by the ball or have it go right by you. Instead, what most people do, is they split step into a ready position to hit the ball back. 

A ready position means you have your feet shoulder-width or a little more than shoulder-width apart and your knees slightly bent. 

Essentially, you go from a neutral position to your feet split apart. That’s a split step. 

Why is Split Stepping So Important?

Getting in a ready position by split stepping helps you be prepared for whatever shot comes your way. In pickleball, better players often aim the ball at your feet because these are usually harder shots to return. If you were just standing straight up, it would be almost impossible to react quickly enough and get down low enough to make contact with the ball. By split stepping, your body is already lower to the ground, and you can get to the ball faster. 

Also, by being in this position, you can pivot to one side or the other more actively than if you were in a neutral position. This allows you to use your forehand and backhand freely, and it helps you chase down a ball if needed. 

When Should You Split Step?

Staying in a ready position throughout the entire match would be exhausting. Instead, the best time to split step is right before the ball is served, then after you’ve transitioned to whatever part of the court you plan on playing from.

For example, let’s say you’re the returning team. Your opponent starts their serve, and you go into a ready position with your split step. You then return the serve. If you just stayed in your split step position, there’s a good chance you’re creating a gap in the court. Instead, you should move (transition) to wherever you plan on playing the next shot. Once your opponent hits the ball (or reveals where they will hit it), you’ll want to get to your spot and split step again so that you’re ready to return it.

This split step to transition, to split step again, repeatedly happens throughout pickleball matches. It’s not something any of us necessarily think about consciously, but it’s something that we just instinctively do–once we understand we should be doing it. 

The mistake that players make is either staying in their split step too long to watch their own shot or getting into their split step too early, causing them to miss an opportunity to chase down a shot on the other side of the court. If a player is at the NVZ line, they will almost always be in a split step, ready position because they need to react quickly. But, if you are still standing at the baseline after the third shot, you probably shouldn’t be in a split step until you know where your opponent is sending their shot.

How to Practice for Better Footwork

Fortunately, practicing your footwork is easy to do. You don’t even have to do it on the pickleball court. 

Practice your split step

No matter where you are (though maybe do it at home, instead of at a grocery store or something), you can practice going from a neutral position to a split step. Simply stand straight up, hop into your split step–lower your body, split your legs about shoulder-width apart, and bend your knees slightly. You can do this with a paddle or without one.

Practice your transitions

For this one, you’ll need a little bit more room to work with. You want to start in a neutral position, hop into a split step, hop back up into a neutral position, and sprint or jog to a new position. Try practicing from the baseline to the NVZ line if you’re on a court. Once you get to the new position, drop down into a split step again. Practice this several times until you feel good about going from a split step to a transition and back again.

If you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready

The final piece of practicing your footwork and the split step is to practice moving laterally along the NVZ line while in a split step. When you’re closer to the net, you’re going to be in the split step position for longer than when you’re farther away from it. With the instant back and forth and dinking shots, it’s essential to be comfortable while in the ready position. You can only get comfortable if you practice being in it. 

For some, you may have some discomfort in your back or legs–so please be conscious of your own body and how long you can physically be in this position. Hopefully, over time, those muscles will improve, and you can sit in the split step position longer.


We hope you enjoyed today’s article. Sometimes, it’s good to take a break and go over the basics instead of focusing so much on shots and advanced strategies. For a full breakdown of the split step and to see it in action, be sure to check out this video from Pickleball Kitchen.

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