Putting a spin on it: When and How to use Topspin and Backspin in Pickleball

Of all the questions I received about pickleball, the one asked most often is how to put spin on the ball. I’ll describe how it’s done below, but it’s also important to know why and when sidespin, topspin or backspin, might be used. So first let’s look at what adding spin can do for your strokes. You may need a good pickleball paddle (read here) to fully utilized these amazing techniques.

Topspin

Topspin makes the ball drop faster as it travels. With topspin, you can hit a ball harder and higher over the net because it will drop sooner (and usually stay in bounds more often).

A ball with topspin keeps its power longer (it decelerates more slowly) and rises higher when it bounces, making it harder for your opponent to hit. Many players add topspin to a forehand shots because it is fairly easy to do and because of its many advantages.

Some players add so much topspin to their forehand that their spin is more troublesome to their opponents than their power. To get the ball spinning that way, you start the ball turning in that direction when it comes off your paddle.

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When you hit a straight shot without spin, your paddle contacts the ball and pushes it away from you in the direction of your swing. Topspin is when the ball spins away from you with the bottom of the ball traveling up and over the top. To add topspin, start your swing lower and contact the ball on your paddle’s upward movement.

As you execute the stroke, slide the paddle up and over the top of the ball, causing the ball to rotate with it. Make sure to follow through. If you don’t give the ball enough power, topspin will cause the ball to drop too soon and fall short.

How much spin the ball has depends on how much you actually move the ball on your stroke AND whether or not your opponent put spin on the ball. If he is using topspin, too, you will have to overcome his spin with spin of your own. This requires greater power – more effort than you’d use on your opponent’s straight shot – to reverse the spin.

Conversely, if he’s used backspin (more about that, below), adding topspin will increase the spin already on the ball, so you want to decrease the power you would otherwise put into the spin.

Backspin

Backspin (sometimes called “slice”) is done the opposite way. To add backspin, start your swing higher and contact the ball on your paddle’s downward movement. As you execute the stroke, slide the paddle down and under the bottom of the ball, causing the ball to rotate with it.

If your opponent sends you a shot with topspin on it, executing a backspin return will require only about half the paddle speed to achieve the same result since you’re maintaining the same spin direction. Now, I’ve only talked about using spin with your forehand strokes, but you can add both topspin and backspin to your backhand shots as well.

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The execution is about the same as far as placement of paddle and ball and the up-and-over topspin or down-and-under backspin motions. However, it’s much easier to hit a backspin backhand if you are returning a high ball coming to your backhand side. Start with the paddle higher than the ball on your backswing.

Come through the ball with a downward motion, brushing the ball with the paddle so it has under spin. Follow through a little lower than usual. The backspin will cause the ball to have a flatter, downward trajectory as it travels over the net. It should skid after the bounce and stay low to the ground, making it harder to return.

Note: Some good diagrams showing what happens when you apply either a topspin or backspin can be found in a Wikipedia article about table tennis:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Table_tennis#Effects_of_spin

While the forces acting on a pickleball are different than those on a ping pong ball, especially due to the surface holes, these diagrams explain the general effect of adding spin in a very clear manner.

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