Pickleball attracts new players every single day. Some are looking for a fast tempo workout. Some are looking for a way to stay young. Others are looking for serious, fast-paced competition.
And they all come to pickleball.
No matter where you are in your pickleball journey, you can get something out of this guide. From pickleball rules, terms and court set up to pickleball strategies, this guide is a great resource for all skill levels.
So, sit back, relax, and get ready to read everything you need to know about pickleball.
In a hurry or looking for something specific like pickleball rules? Skip ahead to a specific section by using the Table of Contents below:
What is Pickleball?
The word “pickleball” will strike a different chord depending on the person hearing it.
For some of the ardent fans of the game, it strikes fun memories full of dinks, drops, and big rallies.
For others, all you’ll get is a quizzical look as they try to figure out what made-up word you just said.
Pickleball’s rampant popularity is a surprise to a few and a big welcome to many.
For those of you unfamiliar with the game, pickleball is an amalgamation of tennis, badminton, and ping-pong.
It can be played either 1v1, called singles, or 2v2, called doubles.
Players use paddles to hit a wiffle-like-ball back and forth, trying to score points.
It’s easy entry point, addictive playstyle, and welcoming community makes pickleball more and more popular each and every year.
The rise of Pickleball
Pickleball has had a steady and impressive rise in popularity across the United States.
Over the last five years, pickleball has grown by an average of 11.5% per year, going from 3.1 million players in 2017 to 4.8 million in 2021.
(Total Numbers of Pickleball Players in the US by Year Graph)
Read more about pickleball statistics by checking out this amazing and in-depth blog post (https://www.pickleheads.com/blog/pickleball-statistics) by Pickleheads.com (https://www.pickleheads.com/).
This rise is not surprising.
Pickleball offers a unique blend of skills and strategies that most adults have already honed in the variety of games they’ve played in their lives.
Casual players of all sports, not just tennis and badminton, quickly find a home in pickleball. It’s very common to have a group of ten players all from wildly different backgrounds and yet, they find a common ground in pickleball.
This often means when someone does discover pickleball they’re competitive after just a few matches and, with its fast-paced and unique gameplay, they fall in love with the game.
What’s in a name?
The first time you hear it, “pickleball” sounds kinda funny. And maybe makes you think this is a kids’ game. And while kids do love to play, it’s also a competitive game adults play.
Pickleball was created in 1965 in Washington state by congressman Joel Pritchard and a few friends.
After a day of golfing, the group found themselves and their families bored at Pritchard’s summer home.
He looked around for a remedy.
He found a badminton court, but not enough racquets to play. Not easily stopped, he searched around the property and found he had enough ping-pong paddles but the shuttlecock didn’t work with the paddles.
The last piece was an old wiffle ball and the first game of pickleball was played.
As rules fell into place and the game became more and more popular, a name was needed.
The reason they chose “pickleball” as the name is a heated debate.
Some say it’s Joel’s wife, Joan, that thought the way they assembled the game, picking the leftovers from other sports, was similar to how a pickle boat crew would have their oarsmen choose leftovers from other boats… apparently.
Others say they named the game after the Pritchard’s dog, Pickles.
While both could be true, the dog story is obviously the most interesting, so we’ll go with that and I suggest you do, too.
Who Plays Pickleball?
Pickleball attracts all kinds of different players, from different backgrounds and ages.
Young kids at school can be found playing a few games after school or even during gym class.
There are also highly skilled competitive leagues, full of professional players.
Another large population of pickleball players falls into the category of people looking to take care of themselves, perhaps after an injury or due to old age, while still wanting to be active.
Pickleball SHINES here. The game is addictive and fun at any competition level. Find a few people of similar skills and you’re ready to go.
In the upcoming years, pickleball will continue to grow and grow. Every year more people are starting groups from nothing, small groups are getting larger, and large groups are seeing some players take a shot at professional play.
Pickleball, unsurprisingly, has a whole bunch of words and definitions that are important to know. Here are a few of the most popular terms, most of which will appear in this guide.
It’s natural in all sports for some names and terms to mutate in certain circles, so this list isn’t 100% comprehensive but will be a great start.
ATP or Around The Post – A shot that goes outside the net posts, its trajectory allows it to stay below the height of the net
Baseline – The line at the back of the pickleball court, which is 22 feet from the net
Bash – A usually unintentional hard shot that hits the top of the net and then falls into play on the opponents’ side of the court
Carry – When someone hits the ball and instead of it popping away, it stays on the paddle and is ‘carried’. This is a fault (see ahead)
Centerline – The line that cuts the court in half, vertically
Crosscourt – The diagonal opposite side of the opponent’s court
Dink – A soft shot hit so that it just barely clears the net and drops into the kitchen (see ahead)
Drop shot – A soft shot with a high arch that lands in the kitchen, often used in doubles.
Erne – A volley hit near the net by a player that’s either outside the court or in the process of leaping outside the court. A legal erne allows a player to hit the ball closer to the net without stepping in the kitchen
Fault – a rule break that causes the rally to end
Foot Fault – Stepping on or into the kitchen when you’re not supposed to (more of that in the rules)
Half Volley – When a player hits the ball immediately after it has bounced – often in a scooping like motion
Kitchen – the non-volley zone which is seven feet from the net on both sides. Players cannot enter the kitchen to return a ball unless the ball bounces first
Lob – hitting the ball in a high arc back to the opponent – usually used because the opponent has taken a forward position and this causes them to move back
Non-Volley zone – usually known as the kitchen, the NVZ is the 7 feet from the net on both sides of the net
Passing Shot – a shot used to punish an opponent that’s in a forward position, ideally it lands past your opponent
Poach – when one player crosses over into their partner’s area to make a play on the ball. Obviously, poaching only happens in doubles play, and not singles
Rally – Hitting the ball back and forth between opposite teams
Serve – An underarm lob or drive stroke used to begin a volley (we’ll have much more on this later)
Server Number – in doubles, when a side begins to serve, one player on that team will be the first to go (1) and the next will be (2). 1 serves until they lose the point. Then 2 will serve until they lose a point. Then the next team goes, with the same 1, 2 set-up.
Sideline – The line at the side of the court, anything past it is out of bounds
Side out – when the serve moves to the opponent’s side
Volley – when the ball is hit before it touches the ground and bounces
While Pickles the dog and company were able to scavenge what they needed for their first game, you’ll need to spend a little bit of time picking out your gear.
But don’t worry; Pickleball is a very inexpensive and easy sport to get into, while also offering enough depth and additional accessories that’s worth committing to it should you enjoy it.
The Core Stuff
Paddles – a pickleball paddle is a necessary piece of equipment. For the most part, they basically all look the same.
To a super novice (no shame, we’ve all been there) all paddles are pretty much the same. You can’t really tell how they’re different.
But as you grow in familiarity with the game, the more variety you’ll start to see in paddles. Small details really matter.
What to look for: Obviously, you want to look for something that’s specific to your needs. For the beginners out there, it’s a worthy investment
to get a beginner-friendly paddle.
These are usually a little cheaper, so the entry point is better. But also have features that allow the beginner to get more enjoyment out of their first few times playing.
These can come in either a durable multi-ply wood, fiberglass, polycarbonate, or usually a combination of materials.
Add in a super comfortable grip and a small wrist-rope and beginners will be able to play and practice with confidence that leads to more enjoyment and faster learning.
Pickleball Balls – As you may imagine, pickleball balls are a little bit different than the wiffle ball that was used during the first game.
Both types feature a bevy of holes across the surface, but on a pickleball ball, all those circles are circular creating more consistency.
The first choice you have when choosing a pickleball ball is whether you’re going to be playing indoors or outdoors.
The outdoor variety has smaller holes and is made of harder plastic (to combat against wind and the ground respectively).
Ball color is an important note. In serious games, usually, only single-colored balls are allowed, like neon orange, white, or yellow.
For serious practice, a player might use several different mono-colored balls in a ball machine, and do a certain shot depending on the balling being served at them, so it’s more than just what color you like.
For strictly fun and casual play, you can have fun as far as color goes.
Pickleball Nets – As you can imagine, pickleball nets come in a very specific size, to ensure everyone is playing the same game.
That official size of a pickleball net is 22 feet across, 36 inches at the sides, and 34 inches at the exact center.
If you’re going to a court that has organized pickleball, you can obviously expect a net to be there.
If you’re buying for home, you should find one that fits your needs.
You can easily get a net made out of steel and other strong materials so it can last the constant bombardment of the outdoors.
If you need one for indoors, you can probably spend a bit less and get something just as useful.
Courts – Pickleball was made to be played on basically any court you can find, like tennis and badminton courts.
But you should look around to see if there are specific pickleball courts near you, you’d be surprised.
But with a few modifications, any flat ground can be made into a court pretty easily.
So, how big is a pickleball court?
The standard court measurement is 44 feet in length and 20 feet in width. The kitchen, the non-volley zone, is 7 feet from the net on each side. From the kitchen to the baseline is 15 feet on each side. Those sections are bisected with a centerline.
We have a handy graphic for you, too.
Boundary Lines – Boundary lines are used to turn any flat surface into a pickleball court.
You have a few options to choose from and a few features you should look for. You can get reusable, pre-cut pickleball boundary lines to reduce waste. This is especially useful if you’re making courts often. Or, you can just use tape that will be thrown away after it’s used. You can find both for sale.
No matter which option you pick, just make sure the lines are not slippery. Stepping on a line while chasing a ball attempting an erne or something can result in an easily avoided injury.
The Advanced Stuff
Don’t get too scared by this ‘advanced’ stuff. It’s just a step beyond the bare minimum. People that are just starting out will often opt-in for a few of these as their interest in the game goes up.
You’re likely to find this stuff around any court or camp that has a pickleball focus.
Ball Machines – there is probably not another piece of equipment that could so rapidly accelerate the rate of learning than a ball machine. There could be a whole book written just about all the different features, uses, and benefits of ball machines.
Ball machines have really advanced with baseball and, of course, tennis. All those innovations also vastly benefit pickleball players!
Just to paint an example of what a ball machine can do: you could, by yourself, set up a ball machine to create a specific sequence of shots that you can practice again and again. The only way to get a more game-like experience is to literally be in-game.
Training Aids – there are all kinds of training aids out there for pickleball players. Any aspect of your game that you believe is a weakness probably has a training aid out there that will allow you to turn that weakness into a strength.
Pickleball training aids can help you with everything from accuracy to strength, cardio to strategies.
Now it’s time for the rules of pickleball. A lot of these rules make sense if you have any experience with other games using paddles or racquets.
First, a player serves. The serve has to be with an underarm stroke. Contact with the ball has to occur below the player’s waist.
The server has to serve from behind the baseline on one side of the center line and has to aim to the opponent’s diagonal side. So, crosscourt.
Only the serving side may score a point. Play ends for a point when one side commits a fault.
Here’s a list of faults (this can get pretty technical, but hopefully the clarity can help):
- Not hitting the serve into the opponent’s diagonal service court
- Not hitting the ball beyond the net
- Not hitting the ball before the 2nd bounce on one side of the net
- Hitting the ball out of bounds
- Volleying the ball on the service return
- Volleying the ball on the first return by the serving side
- Stepping into the non-volley zone in the act of volleying the ball
- Touching the net with any body part, paddle, or assistance device
A player may enter the non-volley zone (kitchen, NVZ) to play a ball that has bounced. The player has to exit the kitchen before playing a volley (this pickleball rule makes the most sense when you imagine a player just standing right next to the net and spiking every shot that comes. This would be very unfun, so this rule makes sure that can’t happen.)
The first side to score 11 points, while also leading by at least two points, wins the game. If the teams are tied at 10, or any value above that, the next team that is ahead by two points wins the game.
*As a note for scoring, some tournament games go up to 11, 15, or 21 points, with players rotating sides at 6, 8, or 11 points respectively. A team still needs to be at or beyond this number and up by 2 to claim victory. *
In singles play, each side only has one fault before their side is out and the opponent is then serving. The server’s score will always relate to the side they’re serving from (evens when on the right and odds when on the left).
For doubles, the fault rule is slightly different. The side that serves first in a doubles match gets only one fault before their whole is out. But, after that, every side has two faults, one for each person serving) before their side is out.
Okay, take a breath. That was a lot.
Finding Your First Game
Okay, so you have the equipment and the knowledge and are ready to play your first game. What do you do?
Well, depending on where you live, you either have many options or just a few.
There are over 4,000 locations in the USA that offer pickleball. Every year more courts pick it up. So you might just be one Google search away from finding your new home court.
For others, either by choice or necessity, starting with just a friend or two is the way to go.
If you’re on your own, you and your partner will both need paddles and at least one ball. But you should probably get a few.
Next, you have to find a place to play.
If you’re making your own court, you’ll need lines and a net. If you find a court, though, you can save the money and just use the court.
No matter what option you pick for your first game, relax. You’re just starting out. Either everyone there is also just starting or has been there in the past, you’re not alone.
If you want to become more familiar with pickleball before your first game, take a look online, there are a lot of matches, tutorials, and drills online.
Here are a few places we recommend you check out for pickleball content!
- Pickleball Mini Lessons with Simone Jardim
- Free Pickleball Training by the Pros
- Science of Pickleball Free Video Training Series
- OnCourt OffCourt Pickleball Tips & Drills on YouTube
Pickleball strategies can be broken down into two main categories. Pickleball singles strategies and pickleball doubles strategies.
Singles and doubles, while following (mostly) the same rules, are incredibly different to play.
A base of the same fundamental skills is needed for both games, so don’t worry about this when you’re starting out, just play either, both, whatever you can get.
But as you become familiar with the game, you’ll start to see them as vastly different games (both of which you get to enjoy).
In singles, you have one player per side covering the entire court. This makes speed, endurance, and general fitness all important factors.
In doubles, simply by being in a good position, you have most of the court covered. Accuracy, control, and experience start to shine here.
These are general differences, just so you can get a feel for it. But let’s take a look at some of the specific differences.
Pickleball Singles Strategies
1. Speed, Power, Hustle
As we said, pickleball singles is vastly more physically demanding than doubles. Hustle can be more impactful here, too. Though hustle is always going to be an important tool in your pickleball repertoire.
When you’re picking out equipment, shoes, and clothes for the court, keep speed in mind. You might make a few different choices than a doubles player would.
Serving in singles is the first big moment for any point. So much of the play depends on this server.
Singles is about maintaining advantages (we’ll dig more into that in a few), and as the server, you have the first chance to set the tone. Put the pressure on. You can’t waste it.
Your main objective on your serve is to not fault.
After that, it’s to put it someplace deep on your opponent as hard as you can. Keeping your opponent as far back as possible will help your next shot much, much more.
3. Return of Serve
Now, when you’re on the other side of things, you’re going to be returning their serve. A serve that they’re trying to put hard and deep, just like you are
Ideally, to prevent your opponent from being able to step up, you want to match their power with your own.
If your opponent is not at court center, you should feel encouraged to hit it towards the corner that’s the farthest away from them, punishing them for taking too much ground too quickly.
If your opponent is playing carefully, giving you no weakness to attack, try to force them either into a forehand shot or a backhand.
Which should you pick?
Well, whichever one will give you the best advantage. If your opponent has a killer forehand, make them hit backhands as much as possible!
4. The Passing Shot
Sooner or later, you’re going to want to take some sort of offensive shot, like the passing shot.
Even though this is singles, you don’t have to rush this shot. Set it up in your own way.
As its name suggests, the idea of the passing shot is to hit it so it lands when it has already passed your opponent, making return impossible.
But your opponent needs to be somewhat forward to make it work, so you can’t just blindly go for it.
Pickleball Doubles Strategies
A fact about pickleball doubles is that it’s vastly easier to score points (and thus win) when you’re seven feet from the net (right at the kitchen) than when you’re 20 feet back.
Makes sense, right?
For less experienced players, there is a push/pull feel to the game. Trying to get to the kitchen safely, so your opponent can’t punish you, while also trying to stop them from doing so.
As you improve, or if you watch pro matches, you’ll see that the game doesn’t really begin until both sides are at the kitchen.
2. Smarts, experience, accuracy
A fairly common experience some players have when going from singles to doubles is that they find that even though their opponents aren’t really moving, it’s just impossible to hit the ball by them.
And it seems like it’s not fair. That there is some kind of secret or cheat that any player can do to win.
What’s really happening is that experience and knowledge and accuracy can disarm an opponent that is only physically skilled, and not experienced.
In singles, you can out-hustle your opponent for a win. Which is a great achievement. But doubles is different.
Serves are less important in doubles than singles, but that doesn’t mean they don’t matter. The serve is the first chance for you to start achieving your first goal, getting to the kitchen.
Just like in singles, you want to hit the serve deep. But now a harder shot is usually less important.
The problem with a hard serve is that it gets returned faster. Which means you have less time to advance into the kitchen.
The return of serve has the same goal as the serve, to give you space so you and your partner can approach the kitchen.
You can’t simply try for the same shot on every single return. You need to respond to the kind of serve you’re facing.
If you’re facing a hard serve, you’ll be able to cut the time they have to approach short, so your side can gain that advantage.
Placement really matters. A lob that makes them back up to the baseline is a great way to punish them.
If they served a bit of a lob, the idea is the same. Set them back so you can match their advancement.
5. Drop Shots
A drop shot can be a tough shot to master, but it’s a vital tool to have in your pickleball doubles toolkit.
This shot helps you get to the kitchen while backing up your opponents off of it. Considering this shot is usually the third shot, hit from the serving team after the return, it’s famously called the third shot drop.
This shot can be used anywhere on the court, but it’s more common when you are farther away from the net (again, why it’s usually used on the third shot for the serving team).
This long dink shot (basically) is best when it hits the kitchen. This gives you the time and space to approach the net while your opponent will struggle to punish you for it.
6. Aim For The Top Of Their Shoes
It’s weird to make such a simple declaration as this but…
By always aiming at your opponents’ feet, you’ll be a better doubles pickleball player
The reason this is so true is that it’s just really, really hard for your opponents to get a good shot when they’re hitting right about the top of their shoes. In fact, unless the player is well-practiced, they may not be able to return it without popping it up… every time.
The times when this shot location is not ideal is so very rare, that your default should be this.
Pickleball Strategies for Both Singles and Doubles
1. Shot Variety is Huge
Having a variety in your shots can make you such a scarier opponent and a better thinker of the game.
By doing the unexpected, you gain a huge advantage, even if that unexpectedness isn’t very good. Even at a professional level.
If you find that hard to believe, there’s a story that sums it up.
Every baseball fan knows what a treat it is to watch a knuckleball pitcher. For those of you that aren’t familiar with the knuckleball, it’s basically a pitch that’s evened out with the fingers as the pitcher throws it so it has almost no spin and is thrown very slowly, what happens is a ball that dances randomly on the way to the hitter.
But, the knuckleball isn’t the unexpectedness I mean. It’s when this pitcher, maybe once or twice a game, will just throw a fastball right down the middle of the plate, at 70-ish mph.
But this absolute meatball of a pitch isn’t sent 600 feet towards the next county. Unless the hitter is specifically looking for it, it’s unhittable.
This would be a horrible pitch for every other pitcher in the league. But, because with the knuckleball pitcher, it’s unexpected. And that unexpectedness makes it unhittable. And now the hitter has it in the back of their mind and that makes the knuckleball even more effective.
In pickleball, it’s no different. And shot variety is how we get that sneaky element in our game.
Movement is a vital part of both singles and doubles.
In singles, movement is more about speed and explosiveness.
In doubles, movement is all about unity. Partners should move in unison as plays develop. When one player moves up and the other stays back, big holes open up that better players will hit every time.
But even in singles, movement needs to be smart.
You’ll hear people say follow the ball and that’s a good start.
But some chase it a bit too much, overshooting, and then they have to hustle even more to get back.
Lots of movement. But most of it’s wasted.
The best way to ‘follow the ball’ is by facing it, and getting square to the shot that will come.
Now, you have a better view and angle on the shot, requiring less movement to cover the same amount of ground.
But movement isn’t always fast, even in singles.
There will always be opportunities for you to dictate the tempo of play. Do so with intention. Slow things down when it’s good for you and speed things up when they’re not ready for it.
It’s a bit like shot variety. In fact, these will often be used in tandem to be an unexpected force on the court.
3. Form and Practice
I think to best understand how important form is in pickleball, I want to let you know that this section had things like topspin, forehands, backhands, etc. in it originally.
But it all broke down into one thing, and so that’s what this section is about.
Pickleball is played in a really tight area, even in singles. The ball is on you so fast, it can feel like you have no room.
To be able to make consistent contact in a situation like this, you need the perfect form.
And you get that from practice. Intentional practice.
Sometimes, when you’re practicing, you can kind of hurry through to finish. But rushing makes form sloppy.
Go through drills, use training aids, and practice technique while keeping your form and posture in mind at all times.
You don’t need to hustle through drill after drill and sweat buckets to have a great pickleball practice.
I hope you enjoyed this how to play pickleball guide. Remember, pickleball is for everyone.
It means very different things to everyone.
For some, it’s a way to stay young. For others, it’s the best competition they can find.
What will it be for you?
Still have pickleball questions? Comment below or check out these Pickleball FAQs.
Kalindi Dinoffer is trained in multiple aspects of mindfulness in life and in sports, sharing on her blog MindfulKalindi.com. She is also certified to teach yoga, fitness, reiki, and MFR. Kalindi also serves as VP marketing at OnCourtOffCourt.com, a leading supplier of tennis, pickleball, fitness and yoga training aids and equipment and has been published in Tennis industry Magazine and Pickleball Magazine, and has conducted workshops at conferences around the world. In her spare time, Kalindi plays tennis, pickleball and table tennis and enjoys outdoor activities such as hiking and biking and cross country skiing in the winter.
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