Pickleball, originally a yard game for children invented in the 1960s, has become popular among senior communities (maybe that’s why it’s sometimes called “boomer tennis”) in the United States, but also around Europe and Asia. If it’s a game that you have interest in learning, but you have really no knowledge of pickleball — other than the somewhat humorous name, of course — you’re in luck.
This is the total beginner’s guide to pickleball, complete with tips and tricks for increasing your skills on the court as one of the sport’s new players.
The History of Pickleball
Pickleball was purportedly invented by politician Joel Pritchard in 1965, when he and some friends returned from a game of golf to see their families, all on vacation, bored. Pritchard attempted to set up a badminton net for the kids, but the necessary shuttlecock was missing.
So, as a result, Pritchard decided to use a plastic ball in place of the shuttlecock, lower the net and hand out paddles made from scrap plywood.
The game was such a hit that one of Pritchard’s friends decided to create more professional paddles for the game, after which he began spreading the game and started Pickle-Ball, Inc., which is still in existence today.
But where did the humorous name come from?
While some think that it was named after the Pritchards’ dog, Pickle, that’s not the case. In fact, Pickle the Dog was named after the game. The game, rather, was named after the Pickle Boat in crew rowing.
What You’ll Need to Play Pickleball
There are a few pieces of equipment you’ll need to play the game of pickleball as a first-time player.
The pickleball ball looks like a Wiffle ball, but it’s a little more sturdy, though still covered in holes. The pickleball ball will differ according to whether you’re playing indoor or outdoor pickleball.
Outdoor pickleball balls have smaller holes and more holes, while indoor pickleball balls have larger, fewer holes. This helps when playing outdoors, where air movement may cause some interference.
The pickleball paddle is similar to a ping pong paddle and is usually made from wood or fiberglass. The prices for a pickleball paddle range greatly, from $20 for a cheap version to upwards of $150 for a high-end paddle. Wooden paddles are very affordable but heavy; composite paddles are the most popular, even if they’re a little more expensive.
A pickleball paddle can make or break your game, so you’ll want to pick your paddle carefully. It’s recommended that new players buy a composite paddle that has a weight somewhere between 6.5 and 9 ounces.
Pickleball nets are 36-inches tall and similar to what you’d see on a tennis court. However, if you have a place to play that already caters to pickleball players, you won’t need to buy a net — just your paddle and balls.
You may want to invest in some athletic wear for playing pickleball, though. Tennis shoes are acceptable, so long as they’re sturdy, with a good base, but many long-term pickleball players specifically seek out court shoes, which are popular in basketball, volleyball and other similar sports.
You’ll want light clothing, made of breathable fabric; look to what you might see an average tennis player wearing.
If you don’t have an official pickleball court to play on, you can, in fact, draw your own court with chalk, which some players do if they have an expansive paved space. The court is a third of the size of a tennis court, or 20 feet by 44 feet, closer to a badminton court. The net is situated in the middle of the court, splitting the 44 feet of length in half. On both sides of the net, there’s a seven-foot area, called the kitchen. The playing area is divided into two rectangles, side by side, on each side of the net, 10 feet by 15 feet.
If you don’t want to draw out your own court, you can find pickleball courts via the USA Pickleball Association, or the USAPA, which keeps an online directory. Even if you don’t live in the United States, where you’ll have access to the USAPA, you can still find courts throughout much of the world. Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the United Kingdom and select countries in Asia, like Japan, South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia, all play pickleball.
So What Exactly is Pickleball?
As you may have guessed, pickleball is like a mixture of several different sports, including badminton, tennis and ping pong. The court size is the same as what you would use for badminton, and the net is the same as what you’d use for tennis.
Here’s how it works:
Like in tennis, pickleball can be played as singles or doubles. Points are scored by the serving team. To win, you (or your team) must be the first to score 11 points, with a 2-point lead.
Also, like in tennis, the score is announced before one team serves. First, you say the serving team’s score, then the opposite team’s score and then the server number (one or two).
Typically, if playing doubles, each of the two players on a team will get to serve before the other team gets the chance to serve. On the very first serve of the game, though, only one player serves from each team.
So, for example, if you were to announce the score at the beginning of a game, you would say “Zero, zero, two,” because both teams have zero points, and the second of the two doubles players is serving.
After one team scores, the serving team changes and serves from the left-hand side of the court.
The server is responsible for calling out the current score for each team, as well as the server’s number.
Serving begins on the right hand side of the court, from behind the baseline. (With each serve, you switch between left and right sides.) A serve must be underhand (not overhanded or backhand), and you cannot allow the ball to bounce on the ground before hitting it. You must hit the ball once it drops below your waist, to prevent overhanded swings.
The ball should follow a diagonal pattern. You can only serve once. If you mess up, the other team gets to serve, unless you’re playing doubles, in which case your teammate serves (unless it’s the first serve of the game).
Volleying Particulars (and the Double Bounce Rule)
After serving, the receiving team must let the ball bounce before hitting it back. This rule remains for the serving team, as they must let the ball bounce once before hitting it to the receiving team a second time. After this, teams may choose to hit the ball immediately (without a bounce) or allow it to bounce before returning.
While volleying, players must stay out of the seven-foot zone on both sides of the net. However, this is not the case if the ball happens to bounce in this zone (sometimes referred to as “the kitchen”); at that point, you can step into the zone very briefly, just to hit that ball out of the area.
So what exactly is a fault in pickleball?
Some common faults in pickleball include not hitting the ball over the net, hitting the ball out of bounds, hitting the ball from within the kitchen, and not allowing the ball to bounce once during a first serve or first return.
Wondering at some of the lingo you might hear around the pickleball court? Here are a few handy words to know.
- Ace: An unreturned serve
- Let: A serve that strikes the net cord and lands in the service court
- The Kitchen: Again, that seven-inch zone on both sides of the net
- Fault: When a player breaks a rule, giving the opposing team a point (if they’re serving)
- Approach Shot: Hitting your ball as you approach the net
- Baseline: The line at the back of the court
- Backcourt: The court area a few feet from the baseline
- Bounce It: What you tell your partner if you think the ball is going to land out of bounds (so that they don’t hit it)
If you want to master pickleball, there are a few things that might make your experience a little easier.
Find a friend.
First, find someone that you know that plays pickleball and some experienced players. It’s always easier to learn a new sport, like pickleball, if you’re being taught in-person by someone who knows the game well. A current player can answer any beginner questions you have, as well as make all of the above particulars a little clearer.
It’s true for most sports that it’s difficult to learn as a beginner just by reading (can you imagine learning to swim just by reading a book on swimming?), so some in-person practice can be helpful.
Likewise, having a friend who plays pickleball already will help you get an “in” into your local pickleball community, so you have a place to play regularly with others. They can also tell you where to buy your pickleball gear.
Remember the two most important rules.
Though mentioned briefly above, it’s worth stating again. If you only remember two rules when you step out onto the pickleball court, it should be these.
Firstly, stay out of the kitchen if you’re volleying. The kitchen is a non-volley zone. If your feet are inside the kitchen, don’t hit that ball! If you do, you’ll be hit with a foul.
A good rule of thumb is to just stay a few inches away from the kitchen anyway, so you don’t accidentally end up there while playing.
And secondly, make sure to allow the ball to bounce once after the initial serve and return, before you and the opposing team begin volleying. This is sometimes called the two bounce rule. After that, you can choose to allow the ball to bounce once or not, but you should never allow it to bounce twice.
Take advantage of a common pickleball strategy.
Want to have your best chance at winning a pickleball match? Take advantage of some of these common strategies.
- If you see that your opponent has a weak side, try to serve to that side without hitting the ball out of bounds.
- Don’t be afraid to move around the court a lot (while sticking clear of the kitchen unless absolutely necessary), so that you’re always in a good position, no matter where the ball is returned.
- If playing doubles, hit the ball toward the middle of the court, which sometimes causes confusion as both players pause to see who will call it.
- Instead of trying to hit the ball to your opponent, hit it away from them. Tire them out and make them move around the court as much as possible.
Play with honor.
There are no referees in pickleball, and so everyone is playing on the honor system. Act accordingly and own up to your mistakes. Call your own fouls and don’t try to start an argument with your fellow players. This is not a game where being overly competitive will help you find a spot in the community.
Why New Players Love Pickleball
There are many reasons why people who play pickleball love the sport.
First, it’s very low impact and is easy to learn, so it’s a sport that many people can pick up, including senior citizens and children. Everyone can play.
Secondly, it’s a very social activity, and people who play together often socialize together outside of matches. Pickleball courts are often found at community centers and YMCAs, senior citizens and other places where socialization is possible. Additionally, because pickleball is so widespread, it’s not difficult to also play the game while you’re traveling. All you have to do is find a court near your favorite vacation spot!
Ready to Start Playing the Game of Pickleball?
Ready to start playing pickleball? While it might seem like a lot to learn, it’s really an easy sport to pick up and one that comes with a rewarding community if you do. Find a community of players and begin practicing your pickleball skills — you might just find it’s a lifelong hobby.
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