Johns brothers doubles strategy EXPLAINED (w/ video examples)
You ever wonder why the #1 ranked mens pickleball doubles team almost never loses?
Up to this point, I just figured, they’re better than everyone else. And while the Johns brothers are two of the most skilled players in the world, that’s only part of the story.
After listening to Collin Johns on the Dink Picklepod Podcast last week, I have an updated belief.
He opened my eyes to a whole new world. A different way of thinking about pickleball. And it just might change the way you think about it too.
***One disclaimer before we start. I’m about to go pickleball scientist mode with you all and build on the higher level concepts Collin shared in the podcast. So if you’re a pickleball addict interested in high level strategy, keep reading.
When you’re done with this article, you’ll have two main takeaways.
You’ll better understand the system the best doubles team in the world uses.
You’ll have a framework for how to think through your next doubles partnership.
1. Define Roles
In many partnerships, both players often want to be the star. The big hitter. The risk taker.
But often, that leads to miscommunication and unforced errors.
Let’s take a look at Collin and Ben Johns, who approach the game different than most.
When Collin picked up Pickleball, Ben was already one of the top players in the world. So the plan has always been, as Collin describes…
…train to become the perfect compliment to Ben.
So from the beginning, he was building his game to play a very specific role.
Collin later says, I’m at my best when I can tell Ben, just let loose, go for your shots. I got you. If you miss, it’s fine. I’ll be a backboard. Go attack. Go light them up. I got my side.
Here’s an example of Ben in all out attack mode. Notice how Collin steps to the side at :05 seconds – it’s subtle, but a great example of understanding who takes what balls in their system.
Collin goes on to say,
(In pickleball), you need someone who’s a little more aggressive and creative and just someone who’s never going to miss.
Here’s an example of Collin (in green) being the perfect backboard (as he calls it), allowing Ben to get aggressive at the right moment.
So what’s the takeaway for you?
With any partnership, define roles based on current skill so you put each other in the best positions to succeed.
Here’s some language that might help. Collin used the word “backboard,” so let’s use that, and I came up with a second word, “striker” as two (possible) roles partners could embrace.
Backboard- the person who is just solid. The person who resets more than attacks. The one who just. doesn’t. miss. Especially dinks and resets. They still put away high balls when the opportunity is there, but are willing to shift out of the way for their partner to crush it.
Which leads me to the second possible role.
Striker - This is the player who’s probably a little better overall. They have more creativity and deception in their game. They have more put-away potential on high balls. You want this person being the one making a few more mistakes because they are taking a few more chances.
So one thing you might experiment with is who plays what role in the partnership.
Let’s keep going.
2. Identify Positions
Who takes which ball at what time? That, my friends, is the question. And if you’ve played pickleball even one time, you know the most common error occurs with that deadly middle ball.
And sure, middle dink miscommunications can be recovered from in the moment because the ball is moving so slow.
See an example here from Pesa Teoni and Daniel de la Rosa. Notice how de la Rosa (purple shorts) hesitates for a moment, but is able to recover the dink.
But what about when someone hits one hard down the middle (AKA, a “speed-up” like you see below from Riley Newman (top right))?
Now there’s less time, and if you second guess who’s taking that ball — chances are — you’ll lose the point.
The Johns Brothers solution to this can be explained through what they call, their Sliding System.
It’s their pickleball operating system. It’s like Collin says, we play well together because we know who’s ball is who’s at all times.
Now, to fully understand the system, you have to unlearn a common pickleball myth — that each partner is responsible for 50% of the court.
…unless you're playing with a righty-lefty combo — that isn’t how you should play.
Instead, one player should be responsible for more than 50% of the court.
Notice how Ben (bottom in black) plays in the middle, but still moves back to the left side to cover when the ball is dinked over there.
You might be thinking, “wait so why does Ben take on more than 50% of the court at times?
A few reasons, and on the podcast, Collin went into the geometry of the court and common angles played.
But I’ll make it even more simple here.
Most speed-ups go down the line or down the middle (like you saw two videos above). And because of that, Collin and Ben have decided in advance who takes the line ball and who takes the middle ball.
Let’s take a look. Collin (in red) and Ben (in black) are at the top of the screen. Can you identify who is taking line and who’s taking middle?
If you said Collin took line and Ben took middle, you’re right.
A second reason is…
…Ben standing middle gives him operating space, specifically with his foreahand so he can play that striker role well.
More on that in a moment.
Are you starting to see how their system works? And why positioning matters so much?
So what’s the takeaway for you?
Simplify the game by deciding in advance which position each player will play and who takes what ball.
Let’s keep going.
As points play out, both brothers anticipate a speed up, because it’s easier to expect a speed up, but then recover to a dink rather than expect a dink, and try to recover to a speed up.
**Remember, a speed up is when a player chooses, not to dink, but rather to hit the ball hard with pace.
And because of that, Collin takes a big step (or slide) to his right (almost off the court) to set himself up for his next shot.
Here’s how he explains it…
“It’s about me shifting my body out of the way so it’s not a target, and the target zone is on a side you know it’s going to be on. Namely the backhand side because the backhand covers so much area. It presents no open court to the opponent. Especially if Ben keeps the dink low enough and the opponent tries to force a speed up, it’s over.”
Let’s see it in action.
In the video below, notice how Collin (top left) slides WAY over to the line expecting speed up and replying to said speed up with a forceful backhand counterpunch.
Now this is important to understand.
By sliding over to the line, he simplifies life for him and Ben by removing one decision for himself.
And that decision is, does he reply with a forehand or a backhand?
Because of his slide into this new position, the answer is…
…he goes backhand technique every time. If he ever does hit a forehand, he shouldn’t have, because that ball would have been out.
On the flip side, Ben is sitting in the middle with his forehand ready.
Like Collin says, in an ideal world, I hit a clean winner on the first ball (seen in the video above) —but a lot of times a guy with good hands will get the next one back.
But then the reply will go directly into the jaws of Ben’s forehand. Which is where we want the ball to go. And then it’s good night.
Let’s take a look at that.
Collin then goes on to say, if you want to roll the dice and go directly to Ben’s forehand, good luck with that as well. So I feel like our slide system is one of the hardest to beat.
Now, undoubtedly, they’ve drilled the specific technique for the shots they’ll expect to see most in games.
And for all these reasons you just read, it’s not by accident that Collin and Ben johns win damn near every tournament they play.
There’s a method to the madness, and in Collins words, we never deviate from the system.
Listening to Collin break down this system on that podcast was a masterclass in how the best think about the game.
And sure it’s a lot to take in, but let me help with a quick summary of what you just learned.
This Sliding System is the strategy of the best team in the world. They’ve done three things that you too can do with your future partnerships. They’ve:
Clearly defined roles,
Identified positioning, and
Relentlessly drilled technique
…to become the team they are today.
In closing, this definitely isn’t for everybody. As was so eloquently stated in The Dink Newsletter,
“Sure, in rec play, it's probably more cordial and fun for both players if they cover equal portions of the court. But as you advance to 4.0+ games, there's significant advantage to adopting a system like Ben and Collin's.”
And if you are one of those players trying to go to another level with your game, its definitely something to start experimenting with.
Until next time,
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