How to Play Pickleball


Pickleball has gained tremendous popularity since its creation in 1969. Thanks to its simple setup in terms of equipment, rules, and accessibility, it has become a worldwide phenomenon, including professional leagues and an international association.

Pickleball participation has increased 9.7% in the last 3 years and there are 3,301,000 total participants.

sfia.org

People play pickleball on a badminton court with a lowered net. Players use hard paddles that are slightly smaller than a tennis racquet. The gameplay will seem vaguely familiar to anyone who has played tennis, table tennis, or badminton.

Anyone can get into pickleball with minimal financial and time investment. Before you know it, you’ll have picked up a new hobby that keeps you fit, active, and socially engaged with your fellow pickleballers!

In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into the sport, including the history and a little how-to for equipment setups, rules, and strategies.  

Before we begin, if you’re looking for a complete beginner’s guide check out: Pickleball Strategy: Complete Beginners GuideOpens in a new tab.!

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A Brief History of Pickleball

Like many of the world’s great inventions, pickleball came about by accident. Former congressman and lieutenant governor Joel Pritchard invented the game with his friends Bill Bell and Barney McCallum one afternoon at Pritchard’s home on Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA. 

The group had wanted to play badminton, but they could not find the shuttlecock. So they improvised. Finding a perforated plastic ball instead, they lowered the net to ground level and fashioned some impromptu paddles from leftover plywood. 

In other words, they created the game by stitching together elements from several different games: hard paddles like ping-pong, played on a badminton court with a tennis-style net using a Wiffle ball. This Frankenstein approach gave the sport its name. 

 According to Joel Pritchard’s wife (Joan), she started calling the game pickleball because “the combination of different sports reminded me of the pickle boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.”

USApickleball.org

This earliest version of the game had no real rules and simply provided a means to hit a ball back and forth over the net. Little by little, the activity gained structure, eventually establishing rules that cobbled together tennis and ping pong elements with a few minor tweaks. 

From those humble beginnings, the sport has grown into a worldwide phenomenon, gaining the most popularity in the US and Canada. Barney McCallum founded the first official pickleball company Pickle-Ball, Inc. in 1972, fashioning the first wooden paddles using a bandsaw in his basement. 

By 1976, the sport had gained nationwide popularity in the US, with Tennis magazine publishing an article called “America’s newest racquet sport.” The first tournament took place that year in Washington, and it has only grown from there.

In 1984 the first official Pickleball association formed with the express intent to organize and grow the game. Today the sport is not just a hobby but a staple of physical education curricula across North America. Courts have begun to crop up in Europe and Asia as well.

Are you looking for more information on what pickleball is? Check out our guide What Is PickleballOpens in a new tab.?

Why Play Pickleball?

Why Play Pickleball? This infographic highlights the top 4 reasons why people should play pickleball.

Pickleball has become tremendously popular because it demands so little of its participants. People of all ages can play and enjoy pickleball, and unlike tennis racquets, you can get a pickleball paddle without spending a fortune. 

Kids can easily hold and swing the pickleball paddle, and with minimal force required to get the ball over the net, they can enjoy and contribute to the game. The rules are simple enough for anyone to learn quickly, but the game offers enough challenge to keep your interest no matter how much you try to master it. 

On the other end of the age spectrum, older adults love pickleball for many of the same reasons. You don’t need an 80 mile-per-hour serve to succeed in pickleball (nor could you possibly acquire one due to how you have to serve), and the smaller court means fewer joint-stressing jukes and less running. 

Not to say it doesn’t have its physical benefits. A spirited match will get the blood moving and work out your entire body. It’s also great for hand-eye coordination, helping to sharpen or maintain your kinesthetics. 

Last but not least, pickleball provides a mellow backyard-game feel for socializing and relaxing with friends, both old and new. The court size allows everyone to carry on a conversation, and the game can be played at a slow enough speed that nobody gets totally out of breath. Of course, it can also get heated if that’s how you and your friends like to spend time together.

What You’ll Need for Pickleball

You don’t need much to enjoy a game of pickleball.

  • A paddle
  • A court
  • A ball
  • A partner (or two if you want to play doubles)

That’s it! Of course, you’ll probably want shoes, and maybe pants and a shirt depending on the location and the crowd, but pickleball has pretty simple equipment requirements. 

You’ll also want to make sure you can handle the game’s physical element, even though it doesn’t have to be strenuous. The game makes excellent physical therapy to increase range of motion and gain fitness, but an enthusiastic lunge or unintentional tumble could create or exacerbate an injury.

Pickleball Equipment

Pickleball Equipment: This infographic highlights the top 5 pieces of equipment you need for pickleball.

Paddles will likely require the most significant investment if you want to get into pickleball. Prices range from $20 or less to well over $100 for state-of-the-art paddles. You can find paddles made of wood, plastic, carbon fiber, graphite, etc.

Unlike other paddle/racquet sports, you can find pickleball paddles in many different shapes and styles so long as they meet the size regulations. Everyone has different tastes, and every style has its own merits and disadvantages, so you may want to test a few different paddles. 

When first starting, you don’t need a super-advanced paddle. Remember, the inventors just used old plywood, and they loved it! The first paddles marketed for pickleball were made with wood and a bandsaw. If you fancy yourself a DIYer, you could even try making your own with this handy tutorial.  

The ball itself is made of plastic, a little harder, thicker, and heavier than a Wiffle ball. Unlike a Wiffle ball’s vertical openings on one side, a pickleball has small holes distributed evenly, all over. This gives it many of the same sharp turns and action, but with a little more heft so it doesn’t slow down so quickly. 

The evenly-distributed holes also give a little more bite for your paddle. That bite gives you the ability to put spin on the ball. Wacky spins and counters play a critical role in making pickleball so exciting. Skilled players can do incredible things with their spin. 

Gear for Pickleball

Just about anything comfortable will do on the pickleball court. Depending on how aggressively you plan to play, you’ll probably at least want some comfortable athletic shorts or pants and a moisture-wicking shirt. Most players dress similarly to how they would for tennis. 

The shoes do make a big difference. Running shoes or sneakers won’t likely give you the support you need for side-to-side moves, making it easy to turn an ankle or buckle a knee going for a shot. 

Something sturdy like tennis shoes or basketball shoes do great on the pickleball court. Just like the paddles, you can spend a lot of money on specialized shoes – and some do look stylish enough to hold up off the court – but anything that provides enough support and comfort will get the job done. 

We understand it can be difficult to find the best equipment for you. To help we have put together some guides to help you, Best Pickleball PaddleOpens in a new tab. and Best Pickleball ShoesOpens in a new tab.!

Warming Up

Let’s face it. Many of us spend more time sitting down doing things like reading articles about pickleball than we do getting out and playing it. That means our muscles spend most of the day cold, short, and susceptible to damage if we suddenly place a significant demand on them. 

A good warmup can dramatically decrease the chances of an injury even if you want to go hard on the pickleball court. Before you start playing, take a little time to get your muscles warm and loose. 

Think about the general moves you’ll do during a pickleball game. 

  • Swinging your arms
  • Lunging after shots
  • Short sprints
  • Crouching
  • Twisting
  • Stretching

That pretty well informs the type of warm-up you’ll need before a pickleball match.

Start with a few arm swings, graduating to a full circle engaging your shoulder’s whole range of motion. Do it with both arms, even if you’ll only hit with your dominant hand. 

After that, make a couple of lunges to open up your hips and activate your glutes. Getting your leg and lower core muscles loosened up will help you stay in your stance and increase your range of motion going after tough shots. 

A few gentle trunk twists will get things moving further up the core and back. Pickleball can put you in some weird positions, so getting your body ready to twist can help your game and health. 

A little light jog can get the heart rate up and synchronize your whole body. Getting all your muscles gently primed makes them a lot better suited to the strenuous activity later, and a little jogging will do just that. 

One thing to note: all of these warm-ups include dynamic movement. Static stretches like touching your toes won’t do much to get you ready and may do more harm than good. Stretching cold muscles makes them prone to tears because they lack the flexibility of a warmer muscle. 

Basic Gameplay

Basic Gameplay. This image shows the dimensions and other important information of the pickleball court.

Once you’ve warmed up, it’s time to get the game going. You can play either one-on-one or doubles, but the gameplay remains pretty similar. 

The court is roughly 20′ wide by 40′ long (official courts run 20′ wide by 44′ long, including the lines), with a 36″ net strung across the middle. Each side of the net has two squares called the “service area,” towards the back, with a thinner rectangle running along the net called the “kitchen” or “non-volley zone.” For more information on pickleball courts, check out our guide Pickleball Court DimensionsOpens in a new tab..

The first person to serve does so from behind the right service area. Both feet have to be behind the baseline. With an underhanded swing (not extending past the navel), they serve the ball over the net and both kitchens into their opponent’s right service area. The person returning the serve hits it back over the net. 

Pickleball’s “double bounce” rule provides one of the cornerstones of gameplay. The ball must bounce at least once on both sides of the court before either team can volley. In other words, both the serve and the return must bounce before players can start returning the ball in the air. 

Once the ball has bounced on both sides, it’s game on. Players can hit from anywhere on the court but must let a ball bounce in the non-volley zone before returning a shot. 

After the serve, players can hit sidearm or even overhead if the play calls for it. Shots can come with the feet planted out of bounds, but the ball has to clear the net and land inbounds to continue play. 

Serving has probably the most complex dynamics of the game. The serving team first must call out the score and their position in the structure “serving score – opponent score – position.” For example, calling out “5-3-1” would signal that the serving team has five points, their opponent has three, and they are the first person on their team to serve for that turn. 

Somewhat confusingly, the very first team to serve starts in position two. That way, when the first team’s first turn ends, the serve gets turned over to the other team to minimize the advantage of serving first. 

For the rest of the turns, the first player to serve switches service areas after each point scored. Turns always start behind the right service area, and if that team scores a point the server goes to the left. 

If they don’t score, they turn the serve over to their teammate, who does their first serve from the right. The serving team switches sides after every point, while the opponents stay in their same position. 

Serves always result in either a point or a loss of a serve, unless the ball hits the net and goes over. Called a “let,” this is the only circumstance where the server keeps his or her turn without scoring a point or turning it over. 

Scoring

Scoring. This image shows where teams should be positioned when scoring.

The serving side scores a point whenever their opponent either fails to return a shot or commits a fault. Pickleball has five basic faults, though one of them costs a serve instead of a point.

  • Volleying from the non-volley zone, i.e., hitting a ball before it bounces with your feet in the “kitchen.”
  • Volleying before the serve bounces, i.e., returning a serve in the air. 
  • Hitting the ball into an object, i.e., bouncing off a light fixture before landing on the court
  • Having the wrong team member return the serve
  • Volleying before the return bounces (costs a team their serve)

If the team returning a serve commits any of those first four faults, the other side gets the point, and the same player keeps serving. 

Beyond the faults, teams can score points by forcing their opponents to do anything that causes the ball to land either outside the court or on their side of the net. Thanks to the wicked curve balls made possible by the design of a pickleball, players can technically hit the ball around the net so long as the shot still lands on their opponent’s side. 

Games play to 11 points, with teams needing to win by two points. If the serving team fails to land a shot on their opponent’s side, they lose that serve. Either the second player gets to serve, or after “position two,” the opposing team takes their turn.  

The lines along the edge of the court count as fair play and the line for the non-volley zone counts as part of that zone. 

And there you have it! Pickleball has a relatively simple style, but the opportunities for strategizing run deep. The easy-to-understand rulesOpens in a new tab. make it a great sport to learn quickly, but the dynamic nature of how to serve and return shots, how and when to play volleys, and how to use English make it a game of endless possibilities. 

If you need a little more help with understanding scoring, check out our guide Pickleball ScoringOpens in a new tab.!

Where to Play Pickleball

This graph shows how much the amount of places to play pickleball has increased over the years.

Pickleball courts have sprung up all over the world. The USA pickleball association even has an excellent website for finding a dedicated court near you. Some of them exist as permanent installations solely for pickleball, while others have added lines to existing structures like tennis courts or indoor basketball courts. 

If you have a suitable surface and a net, you can even set up your own court using tape or chalk for a temporary court. 

The opportunity to meet new people has become one of the defining characteristics of pickleball. Clubs exist in every state, allowing you to find people with whom to play and learn more about the game. 

From a backyard game designed out of boredom and necessity, the game has blossomed to become a recognized and respected athletic endeavor. Major tournaments take place all over the world, and even amateurs can get a little competitive fix with smaller competitions and leagues. 

Conclusion

Pickleball provides a fun, addictive way to get a little exercise and interact with people. Whether you just want a little entertainment during an afternoon barbecue or an intense competition with dedicated athletes, pickleball can scratch your athletic itch. 

It has a lot in common with other pickup activities, but a lot of advantages over them too. A basketball game may require similarly minimal investment in terms of gear, but fielding a whole team or even enough for a three-on-three match can prove tricky. 

Tennis courts exist on athletic fields and rec centers all over the place, but getting the skill and athleticism down to truly enjoy a tennis match requires a lot more work than pickleball. 

In other words, the accessibility of pickleball really sets it apart. Young kids can play, older adults can play, and even people in the prime of their physical lives can use pickleball to get some serious burn and challenge themselves. 

Necessity is the mother of invention. When a former congressman and his friends needed something to do one afternoon, and they didn’t have the equipment they needed, they improvised. Half a century later, pickleball has become one of the most popular activities in the world. Give it a shot, and you’ll see why. 

Looking for more? We have an awesome guide that shares the history of pickleball. Check out Why Is It Called PickleballOpens in a new tab.?

Brianna Goulet

Brianna loves to get outdoors for everything creative and fun. She has a passion for all things Pickleball and is an avid player. It is her goal to share everything you need to know about Pickleball so you can get out there and play with confidence!

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