How to Play Pickleball: Easy-to-Follow Guide

Tyson McGuffin on the court
Tyson McGuffin, Newport Beach Pickleball Club at TTC (Image credit: Nick Uzunyan)

You can’t avoid it anymore. It’s pickleball. And it’s here to stay. 

What used to be a fringe activity for people of a certain age has exploded into arguably the fastest growing sport in America. Professional leagues, prime time TV specials, celebrities, and big money have forever changed the pickleball landscape. However, the beating heart of the game is still found on local courts where your neighbors and friends have found a healthy addiction that enables them to compete, connect, and have fun. 

Feeling left out? Maybe curious as to what all the fuss is about? If you’re ready to find out if pickleball might add something special to your life, then read on to give yourself a head start  before you step on the court. You’ll become informed about the basic rules, equipment, strokes, strategy, and etiquette that are a must if you want to accelerate your learning curve and enjoy the game sooner.

Getting Started

When you first step on a court with paddle in hand, it’s natural to feel a little intimidated. However, you’ll find that most players are very welcoming. We all started out just like you and we really do want you to learn the right way to play — not only because we’re wonderful human beings, but because we want you to fit in and become a knowledgeable, happy member of our community. 

I have coached hundreds of beginners and almost all of them are able to play some semblance of a pickleball game after the first hour of instruction. I love to see the smiles on the faces of new players as they realize, “I can do this!”. So let’s tackle each facet of the game so you can show up prepared and ready to have some fun. 

The Equipment

Pickleball equipment is mercifully simple. Wear comfortable, supportive, nonmarking court shoes, breathable outfits, and add sunglasses or other protective eyewear to complete your look. The pickleballs themselves are made of a hard plastic with holes spaced throughout. There are differences between indoor and outdoor balls, so make sure to use the correct type. 

Pickleball paddles have become much more high tech in recent years. What began as plywood many years ago has morphed into all sorts of composite materials with shapes and faces that offer different performance advantages. When starting out, don’t get caught up in buying the newest, most expensive paddle out there. A midrange paddle in the $50-$150 range  should get you started. Feel free to upgrade once you’re more experienced and learn what paddle suits your game. 

The Kitchen & The Pickleball Court

The court is 20’ x 44’, the net is 36” high at the sidelines and 34” high in the middle, and there is a line that crosses the court 7’ from the net on either side. This line is called the “kitchen line” and the space between the line and the net is called the non-volley zone (NVZ) or more informally, the kitchen. When playing, you must keep your feet behind this line when volleying (contacting the ball out of the air before it bounces). You can step into the kitchen to hit the ball after it bounces — just make sure to step back behind the line afterward to prepare for the next shot. This causes some confusion at first, but you’ll get used to it quickly.

court demensions
(Image credit: Pickleball Portal)

The NVZ is a testament to the simple brilliance of the founders of the game. It keeps players from easily dominating the game by standing right up against the net and pounding every shot for winners. Instead, players must learn to attack from further back in the court which gives their opponents a reasonable chance to return hard shots. It also adds the element of finesse as hitting the ball low to the feet of players 7 feet back from the net at the kitchen line makes for longer rallies that are also more fun! 

The pickleball court is much smaller than a tennis court, which means there is less ground to cover and it’s more important to learn to place the ball accurately in a smaller space. Finesse and accuracy can make up for a lack of speed and power, allowing people of all ages and athletic backgrounds to enjoy the game. 

Scoring

Games are played to 11. If the score gets to 10-10, continue playing until one team wins by two. Only the serving team scores points. Always call out the score before serving.

In pickleball, the score consists of three numbers: the score of the serving team, the score of the returning team, and the number of the server. The first two numbers aren’t that complicated. You’ll get used to the server number quickly even though it may seem a bit confusing at first. 

In doubles, both players on a team get to serve. Let’s say the score is 4-2-1. You’re ahead 4-2 and you call out 4-2-1 since  are the first server in this sequence.  If you win the point, you and your partner switch positions, you call out 5-2-1 and you continue to serve and score points until your opponents win a rally. If you lose the point, the ball goes to your teammate, who calls out 5-2-2. If you lose the point, the other team gets the serve and calls out 2-5-1, and so on. 

However, to begin the game, the first serving team in a game only receives one serve and calls out 0-0-2. After that, everything proceeds as described above. Don’t get too caught up in the scoring as it becomes natural in no time. 

Doubles Strategy

Positioning

Success in doubles is dependent on getting forward to the kitchen line with your partner. Playing deep in the court is a terrible strategy because it allows your opponents to move forward, take control of the net, and put away high shots more easily. Being in the right position is key to winning at pickleball. 

When serving, you and your partner need to stay deep in the court after the serve since the return of serve must also bounce before you hit it. Getting to the net (kitchen line) when you and your partner are back in the court often requires the drop shots I discussed briefly earlier. These drop shots are hit more softly with arc that enables the ball to land at your opponents’ feet when they are at the non-volley zone. The benefits of this strategy are twofold — the softer shot gives your team more time to move forward, and the ball landing near your opponents’ feet forces them to hit up on the ball. If they hit up on the ball and it gets too high, you are now in position to attack their shot from up in the court with an aggressive volley. 

The returning team has one player up at the kitchen line at the start of the point. The other player is usually behind the baseline to return the serve. After returning serve, the returner moves quickly forward to join their partner at the kitchen line. This gives your team dominant position while the other team has the difficult task of trying to move forward in the court after serving. 

If both teams make it to the kitchen, the fun really starts as each team trades dinks until the ball is missed into the net, out of bounds, or high enough to attack with a volley. If you watch top teams in person or on TV, you’ll notice that they almost always end up at the kitchen together. They understand the importance of playing up at the kitchen to control the point and press their advantage. 

Shot Selection

Once you know how to hit every shot, you need to know WHEN to hit every shot. The serve, return, and ground strokes are hit when you are deep in the court and want to move forward by hitting a powerful shot at or between your opponents. Alternatively, you can hit a softer drop shot when your opponents are up at the kitchen line so you can move forward more easily. 

Dinks are used when all players are forward and you play the cat and mouse game, pushing the ball low over the net to spots that make your opponents move out of position and make errors. 

Volleys are hit when the ball is high and you can attack it forcefully out of the air. 

Let’s break this down simply: 

When back in the court, drive or drop the ball at your opponents’ feet. When both teams are at the kitchen line, dink balls that are at your knees or below. Volley balls that are above your waist. When the ball is around thigh level, use your judgment to determine which shot to hit depending on your skill level and position of your opponents.

Once you learn the basics of the game and are ready to accelerate your learning curve, you can check out the 10 basic concepts that I’ve listed below. This list is excerpted from my book, The Joy of Pickleball”.

The Pickleball 10 Commandments

  • Keep your paddle and both hands up at the net, ready for a hard shot. Make ball-to-paddle contact in front of you.
  • Move your feet quickly to get in the proper hitting position, get balanced, and contact the ball with a paddle face that is square to your target.
  • Have a clear intention on each shot as the ball approaches you. Practice shot selection. Push or hit the ball as the situation dictates. Don’t settle for mindlessly hitting and hoping.
  • Get to the kitchen line. That is where most points are won. When making your way to the kitchen line: Pause, Hit It Low, Move Forward.
  • When dinking or hitting drop shots: Low, Set, Push.
  • Play low! Keep the ball low and to the backhand foot to avoid being attacked ( especially when playing bangers ). Keep your body low in an athletic position with weight on the balls of your feet.
  • When you’re cookin’ at the kitchen, hit low balls soft. Hit high balls hard.
  • Make the third shot drop a dependable part of your game.
  • Accelerate through the ball with a short backswing and longer follow-through.
  • Be patient. Work the ball around until you are set up to go for a winner.

Difference Between Singles & Doubles Pickleball

Serving and Positioning:

  • Singles: The server serves diagonally across the court and is only required to serve from one side. The serve alternates between left and right service courts only when the server scores a point.
  • Doubles: Each player on the serving team gets a chance to serve, except at the very beginning of the game. The serve alternates between teammates and also between the left and right service courts.

Pickleball is most often played in a doubles format. Doubles is more social and less taxing on the body. It also puts a premium on teamwork, communication and strategy. In short, doubles is easier to learn and more fun for most players, especially beginners. However, singles can be an exciting way to play the game if you are athletic and powerful enough to handle the physical demands. It’s much more akin to tennis with players banging the ball from the baseline and overpowering opponents with ground strokes, angles and well-timed forays to the net for volleys. 

Just remember, unless you’re very athletic and can hit powerfully, doubles pickleball is usually the best way to get into the game.

The Strokes

The Serve

Everything starts with the serve, so let’s start your instruction with the serve as well. In pickleball, you must contact the ball below the waist and your wrist must be above the paddle face. In other words, you must serve with a somewhat underhanded motion. You serve from behind the baseline and to one side, and hit the ball diagonally to the far side of the court to the returner. You can drop the ball directly to your paddle or allow it to bounce before striking the ball. Experiment to see what feels most comfortable to you.

Your opponent must allow the serve to bounce before hitting it back to your side. Unlike tennis, the serving team must also let the return bounce before hitting it again. After that, anyone can hit the ball out of the air when called for. Therefore, when you serve, you and your partner should stay near the baseline so you can play the return on the bounce.

The primary goals of serving, in order of importance are:

  1. Get it in the court. 
  2. Hit it deep.
  3. Hit it to the backhand of the returner (usually their weaker stroke). As you improve, you can experiment with adding spin and changing the pace and location to keep your opponents off balance. 
  4. Finally, as you serve, your paddle should trace a path from low to high and short to long. Extend your hitting arm toward your target rather than wrapping it around your body. You can also step forward to the baseline as you hit, and cock your wrist to add more power to the stroke. Get out and practice your serve with a friend until you feel that you are aggressively extending through the shot and hitting the ball deep in the court. 

Ground Strokes

Any ball that you hit after it bounces is called a ground stroke. These strokes are divided into forehands and backhands.  Turn your body slightly sideways, step into the ball with a cocked wrist and drive it low over the net if your opponents are forward in the court, or deep in the court if your opponents are near the baseline. It helps to swing your paddle from low to high and short to long to provide lift and power. Follow through directly to your target with an extended arm and a paddle face that is square to your target at and through impact. 

Volleys

Volleys are simply any ball that is hit out of the air before it bounces. Volleys must be hit and completed behind the kitchen line. Strike the ball forcefully with your paddle out in front of you and drive it to your target with a wristy motion. As with other shots, move your feet to position yourself properly. These shots are usually hit when you are forward in the court and can result in a lot of winners. 

The Dink

When all players are up at the Non Volley Zone (Kitchen), the dink is a soft, low shot that keeps your opponents from attacking. To execute a dink properly, use these three steps:

  1. Bend your knees, and lower your paddle beneath the height of the ball as it comes to you.
  2. Set your paddle face in front of your body to an open position so that when you push the ball over the net, it travels low and softly with enough loft that it drops at the feet of your opponent. 
  3. Push the ball over the net using your shoulder and keeping your hand and wrist relaxed. Feel like you’re tossing a ball underhand to a small child. 

Once you master these basic techniques, you will learn to push the ball at the feet of your opponents or at angles that cause them to move and hopefully pop the ball up so you can attack it with a volley. 

The Drop Shot

If you are back in the court and your opponents have dominant position up at the kitchen, a drop shot is often the wisest shot to make. A drop shot is just like a dink. You use the same techniques explained above but you simply push the ball a little longer by extending your follow through. The goal is to drop the ball at the feet of your opponent so that they must hit up on the ball. This soft, arcing shot gives your team more time to move forward in the court. Once both teams are at the kitchen, it’s an even game. Until that happens, the team that is back in the court is at a distinct disadvantage. If you are back in the court and hit the ball high, your opponents will crush those shots with volleys or overheads. Learn the drop shot, enjoy longer points, and win more often!

(Side note: The “third shot drop” is extremely important to learn. After the serve and return takes place, it is the third shot of the rally. The smart play for the serving team is to drop the ball at the feet of their opponents and move forward together. Mastering this technique will take you to the next level on your journey to pickleball stardom… or at least it will impress your buddies.)

A Final Word of Advice

You’re welcome to just go out on the court and knock the ball around with your friends. You don’t have to play properly or expertly to have a good time. However, if you really want to enjoy this sport, use this article to get you started, then find some quality instruction so that you don’t develop bad habits that are difficult to change later. You might as well learn the right way from the beginning. It makes the game much more enjoyable when you start out properly and build your skills from a solid base.

The great thing about pickleball is that even if you were always picked last for kickball, you can play this game. It’s relatively easy to learn so you can start having fun in no time. I have seen countless introverts expand their circle of friends and self described non-athletes enjoy a sport for the first time. 

However, it’s a difficult game to master. And that’s a good thing! It enables athletic people to rediscover that buzz of competition and exercise that they might have missed when they could no longer cope with the demands of more physically demanding sports. The strategy keeps you mentally engaged as well — it’s a puzzle that keeps you coming back for more. 

Remember to find people to play with who are at or around your skill level. Appreciate the learning process without getting caught up in having to be as good as experienced players right away. Just as importantly, find people who make you happy to be on the court. Once that happens, you’ll probably end up like the rest of us — waking up excited to experience the  exercise, competition, and social connection that has made this game so popular. 

I hope this article gives you a head start as you start your own pickleball journey. Welcome to our world. May you play well, play healthy, and play happy!

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