How to Play Pickleball, According to Athletes and Instructors

young black disabled woman in wheelchair learning how to play pickleball
Pickleball is a racquet sport that combines elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong.
Image Credit: adamkaz/E+/GettyImages

Big-time tennis athletes, like Roger Federer and Serena Williams, can draw some massive crowds to the court. But one racquet sport that's quickly becoming popular among people of all ages and abilities? Pickleball.

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In fact, the sport is so popular, it has grown to about 4.8 million players in 2021 (that's a 14.8 percent growth from 2020), according to USA Pickleball. A combo of tennis, badminton and ping-pong, pickleball is a pretty inclusive sport, which is one reason it's so popular.

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"It's very common to find a truly competitive pickleball game with players of varying athletic backgrounds, ages and skills," David Dutrieuille, national pickleball director at Life Time, tells LIVESTRONG.com.

Pickleball also tests your patience. You learn when to hold back and wait for the ball and when to attack, which are all skills that make you a better player, says Riley Newman, professional pickleball player and Takeya ambassador.

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Below, learn basic pickleball rules, pickleball scoring and movements — plus common beginner mistakes and how to correct them.

Why Is It Called Pickleball?

Pickleball was founded in Washington state by Joel Pritchard, Barney McCallum and Bill Bell. But there's some debate about how pickleball got its name.

"One camp will say that Joel called the game pickleball after the pickle boat in crew, where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of the other boats. So, it reminded them of pickleball, which is a sport that takes its components from a bunch of other sports," Newman says.

"The other camp says the game was named after Joel’s dog, Pickles, who would run after the ball. No one knows, except that it’s a funny name for the sport."

How to Play Pickleball for Beginners

As mentioned above, this game combines elements of some more common racquet sports. Pickleball is played with two or four players on a badminton-sized court that's divided by a net at the center. Each player has a wooden paddle to hit a perforated ball back and forth.

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Pickleball Court

Understanding the game starts with pickleball court dimensions. The court is 20 by 44 feet with a net at the center, which is hung 36 inches high at the sidelines and 34 inches in the center, per USA Pickleball.

At the center of the court, there's a non-volley zone (NVZ). Also known as the kitchen, the NVZ is 7 feet deep from the net.

Basic Pickleball Rules

The five basic rules of pickleball, according to Dutrieuille, are:

  1. You need a minimum of two players for a singles game or four players for doubles.
  2. Every pickleball court has a non-volley zone in the middle of the court. You can't volley (hit the ball out of the air) while standing in the kitchen.
  3. Once the ball bounces, you can hit the ball while standing in the kitchen, Newman says. Players continue to volley until someone commits a fault.
  4. A game is played up to 11 points, and you must win by 2 points.
  5. All players must abide by the two-bounce rule, which means that the pickleball must bounce once on each side of the court before players can volley, or hit the ball out of the air.

It's considered a fault if you volley the ball while stepping into the NVZ or if your shot causes you and/or anything you're wearing or carrying, like a paddle, to touch the NVZ. Per USA Pickleball, it's also a fault if:

  • Your serve touches any of the NVZ lines.
  • The ball hits the net.
  • The ball lands outside the in-bound lines of the court, which are the baseline, center line and sidelines.
  • There's a double bounce before you hit the ball.

Pickleball Scoring Rules

When it comes to pickleball scoring, there's another set of a few standard rules, Dutrieuille says.

  1. You can only score points when you're serving.
  2. You score a point when your opponent isn't able to hit the ball over the net in the in-bounds area or prevent the ball from bouncing twice on their side.
  3. Each score has either two or three numbers: The first number is the amount of points you have, the second number is your opponent's points, and the third number (only for doubles) is your server number (either one or two). If you're playing a singles game, there are only two numbers: your score and your opponent's.
  4. If your team's score is even, the player who first serves must be on the right side of the court. If the score is odd, then the server stands on the left side of the court.
  5. If the server commits a fault after the first serve, the receiving team gets to serve the ball.

Pickleball Serving Rules

Before the start of the game, you must decide who serves first. There are no official ways to do it, but one option is to flip a coin. Once you determine who serves first, stick to these three rules of a pickleball serve:

  1. The player who serves must stand on the right side of the court, hitting at a diagonal so the ball lands on the opposite side of the court, according to USA Pickleball. "You must serve the ball underhand (hitting the ball below your waist with an upward motion)," Dutrieuille says. "You can bounce the ball during your serve or hit it directly out of the air."
  2. If the server makes a point, they move to the left side of the court and serve from there. Those receiving the ball stand in a staggered position: one player in the NVZ and the other at the baseline.
  3. Throughout the game, the server moves back and forth between the left and right sides of the court each time they score a point until they make a fault. When that happens, the second server (in a doubles game) takes over. If the second server loses the serve, their opponents get to serve, starting with the player on the right.

While playing, it's important to call out the score before serving the pickleball, Dutrieuille says. You call out your score, followed by your opponent's score and your serve number.

"It's vital that teams call balls in and out during gameplay," Dutrieuille says. "Remember that whichever side the ball is landing on, it's that team's call on whether the ball is in or out. If a team is uncertain and does not have 100 percent certainty, then they may ask the opposing team. If a team cannot call a ball with 100 percent certainty, then the ball call will remain in."

Tip

Check out the 2022 USA Pickleball Rulebook for more information on the official rules.

How to Play Pickleball Singles vs. Doubles

Generally, the rules are the same when playing singles versus doubles pickleball. The difference is when playing doubles, each player from the serving team moves from the left to the right side of the court if they score a point. You also alternate who's serving if the first player commits a fault.

The biggest difference? A singles game is a little more demanding. "In singles, the athletic prowess of an individual is significantly highlighted," Dutrieuille says. "A player's shot selection, shot angles and court positioning are rather different."

Doubles games are also a bit more strategic than singles games, as it takes longer to score a point. "Points are much longer due to another player being by your side," he says. "Doubles is more like chess. You are looking to find various combinations that, in return, create a set of circumstances that allow you to win."

Basic Pickleball Movements to Know

According to Dutrieuille, the five fundamental pickleball movements are:

  1. Serve:​ hitting the ball across the court at a diagonal
  2. Serve return:​ returning a serve from the other team
  3. Volley:​ hitting the ball in the air back and forth across the net
  4. Groundstroke:​ shot you make after the pickleball has bounced on the ground (either forehand or backhand)
  5. Shuffle:​ moving side to side on the balls of your feet

Groundstrokes can be further classified as either forehand or backhand. Both are important for beginner play.

Pickleball Forehand

  1. Face forward, holding the paddle with your dominant hand.
  2. As the ball approaches, pivot your shoulders and hips so your non-dominant shoulder faces the ball. Your chest should no longer face your opponent. This is called a closed stance.
  3. Step forward with your non-dominant foot, moving toward the direction of the ball. Shift your weight from your dominant leg to your non-dominant leg to create momentum and power (all in the hips and legs).
  4. Holding your paddle by your hip, handle parallel to the ground, rotate your body as you hit the pickleball​.​ Keep your eyes on the ball.
  5. Follow through with the paddle, finishing with the paddle by your head, just left or right of your nose.

Pickleball Backhand

  1. Face forward, holding the paddle with your dominant hand.
  2. As the ball approaches, pivot your shoulders and hips so your paddle shoulder faces the ball. Your chest is no longer facing your opponent. This is a closed stance.
  3. Your paddle should be in front of you and near your non-dominant hip with your head and shoulders upright.
  4. Step forward with your dominant foot, moving toward the direction of the ball. Shift your weight from your non-dominant leg to your dominant leg to create momentum and power.
  5. Rotate your hips while following through with your dominant arm, bringing your paddle forward to directly hit the pickleball in front of your body with your wrist and forearm aligned.
  6. Your paddle should end up pointing in the direction you want the ball to go.

"There are other important movements, such as dinking (low shot in the NVZ), lobbing (adding some height to your shot in the air), blocking and resetting the ball, however, these other movements are not essential to play pickleball right away," he says.

Now that you've learned how to do a pickleball forehand and backhand, Dutrieuille breaks down how to serve a pickleball, return a serve and do a third shot drop.

Serving a Pickleball

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Skill Level Beginner
  1. Stand behind the baseline with your dominant hand in the back and your non-dominant hand in front. Your paddle should be by your waist. Before you make a serve, make sure to look where you're aiming to land the ball, which is across the net in the box diagonal from you.
  2. Bring the ball right below your waist and serve the ball underhand, hitting the ball with an upward motion with your paddle. Keep your eyes on the ball as you hit it, and maintain an athletic stance with your knees slightly bent.
    • If you're doing a drop serve, drop the ball out in front of you instead of at the center of your body and then hit the ball underhand.
  3. Follow through with the paddle, finishing with the paddle by your head, just left or right of your nose. The ball should land at the center of the diagonally opposite service court.

Tip

Don't forget that when you serve the ball, it comes back to you. In other words, don't stop to admire your shot — the team will hit it back before you know it, Dutrieuille says.

Returning a Serve

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Skill Level Beginner
  1. Start in an athletic stance with your knees slightly bent and lean your torso forward. This enables you to move in the direction of the ball easily.
  2. Watch the ball the entire time, moving in the direction of the ball.
  3. Wait for the ball to bounce once, then return the serve by hitting the ball with your paddle.
    • Depending on the direction of the ball, you will use a forehand or backhand stroke. Again, make sure to watch the ball as your paddle makes contact with it.

Third Shot Drop

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Skill Level Beginner
  1. Stand a step behind the baseline and face the net in an athletic stance. Allow the ball to come to you. Hold your paddle in front of you, just below your waist.
  2. As the ball lands on your side of the court, inch closer to meet it.
  3. Hit the ball underhand after it bounces, making sure to keep your eye on the ball. Use a loose grip with your paddle to make a soft shot, aiming to land the ball in your opponent's kitchen. The ball will create an arc over the net, landing by your opponent's feet in the NVZ.
  4. Move toward your NVZ after hitting the ball to get ready for the next shot.

4 Common Beginner Pickleball Mistakes

1. Playing the Game Like Tennis

Although pickleball and tennis share similarities, they are different sports. Many beginners try to play pickleball like tennis, allowing the ball to come to them at the baseline. But a pickleball doesn't bounce as high or as fast as a tennis ball, Dutrieuille says.

To help you become comfortable with volleying the ball, Dutrieuille suggests standing in the NVZ with a friend on the other side of the net. Take the pickleball and hit it softly back and forth. This can help you build your coordination and reflexes, he says. This drill can also help you gradually move closer to the net, which is where most shots are won.

2. Planting Your Feet

In pickleball, you want to play on the balls of your feet instead of planting your entire foot on the ground. This allows you to shuffle from side to side, moving more quickly.

Planting your feet is more helpful if you're in a defensive scenario, Dutrieuille says. For example, if you hit a ball too high, you need to step back quickly to give yourself more time.

To avoid planting your feet, practice shuffling from one side of the court to the other on the balls of your feet, he says. Or stand in the middle of the court with a friend and have them point left or right and shuffle in the direction that they move.

3. Standing Too Straight

Rather than standing stick straight, you want to maintain an athletic stance with your knees slightly bent while playing pickleball.

"Assuming you don't have knee [pain] — or some other limiting factor — close your eyes and bend your knees [to get a feel for an athletic stance]," Dutrieuille says.

"Focus on what it feels like when feeling your hamstrings, glutes and quads be engaged in an athletic position. When you get acquainted with this feeling, open your eyes, and then remain in that position the whole time when playing pickleball."

4. Having a Big Follow-Through

Another common mistake Newman sees is starting with a big follow-through or extended finish on your shots.

"In pickleball, you want to focus on short backswings with making contact with the ball out in front and no extended finish with your stroke," he says. "By doing this, it will help keep your shots unattackable for your opponents and minimize fewer pop-ups for your opponents. The shorter your stoke mechanic is, the better you will do on the pickleball court."

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