Pickleball was created as a game that anyone can pick up and play, but it does have some nuances that can make it tough for beginners to learn right away. If this is your first time, how do you play pickleball?
For beginners, playing pickleball is all about understanding and executing the basics, which includes serving and returning, proper foot positioning, and avoiding faults. Playing is the best form of practice, as it speeds up your education and naturally teaches new techniques and strategies.
This exploratory guide for brand-new pickleball players will go over everything someone new to pickleball should know. This includes the court lingo that only pickleball players would know, how to play, and ultimately how to win, because what's the point of learning how to play a sport without some tips on how to win? So get ready to grab a paddle and earn some victories.
26 Pickleball Terms for Beginners to Learn
When you get into any new hobby, listening to others talk about it can be like hearing a conversation in an entirely different language.
Pickleball shares many terms with racquet and paddle sports, but it also has quite a few terms that are specific only to the sport. And what else would you expect from a game with the name pickleball?
We won’t go over all of them here, but we’ll cover the ones that beginners need to know to navigate the rules of the game and be able to confidently understand what other players are talking about on the courts.
There’s a high probability that you’ll hear many of the terms in this list your first day playing pickleball.
The backcourt is the rear area of the pickleball court that runs several feet toward the net from the baseline.
A backhand shot occurs when you hit a pickleball with your arm over your body. In other words, as you’re swinging, the back of your hand is facing the net. It’s typically your non-dominant hand and is the opposite of a forehand.
The slice, or backspin, is the backward rotation of the ball in flight that allows it to stay lower and skid after it bounces.
Hitting a ball when playing pickleball is all about swinging, with the backswing being the motion where your paddle moves back farther so you can then swing forward to hit the ball. The shorter the backswing, the better.
The pickleball court features baselines, which are lines parallel to the net on both ends of the court. A baseline is located approximately 22 feet from the pickleball net and serves as the uncrossable boundary when serving the ball.
A centerline is a line that runs down the middle of the court. It’s 15 feet long on each side of the net and runs from the non-volley zone to the baseline, creating an odd service court and even service court, which helps know the boundary of where you can move along the baseline while serving, as well as the area you’ll need to land your serve in diagonally opposite of you.
7. Dink Volley
A dink volley requires a dink shot, which is a gentle shot you take when standing by your kitchen line to send the ball to your opponent’s non-volley zone.
It’s a response to your opponent’s dink shot, in which you volley the ball back to the non-volley zone.
Doubles refers to team-play pickleball. Rather than a one-on-one game, a doubles game has teams of two competing against one another.
The doubles players can be of the same gender or different genders, the latter of which is known as mixed doubles.
9. Drop Shot
When your opponent sends a serve deep into your court and you return the serve into their non-volley zone, that’s a drop shot. The goal is to prevent them from being able to attack, so it’s typically a soft hit.
You can hit a drop shot from nearly anywhere on the court, but the baseline is the most popular spot.
10. Even Court
An even court is the right side of the court when facing the net. When you have an even number of points and you’re serving in singles, or you're the first server of a game in doubles, you’ll always serve from the even court.
A fault in pickleball is any error that ends a rally. It results in the scoring of a point (when the receiving team faults) or causes the serving team to either rotate the serve or pass the serve to their opponent (when the serving team faults).
12. First Server
In doubles pickleball, each player on a team has at least one opportunity to serve when the chance to serve comes to their side (a side out). The first server is the one serving from the even courtside (or right courtside) after a side out.
A forehand shot requires the player to swing their paddle with the front of their hand facing the net. This is the opposite of a backhand, and typically the dominant hand.
The non-volley zone is also known as the kitchen, and the kitchen is the more common term to describe this area where volleys are prohibited.
A lob is a type of deep pickleball shot where you hit the ball over your opponent’s head with the intention of sending them to the baseline.
16. Non-Volley Zone
The non-volley zone, or kitchen, is the area of the pickleball court that’s seven feet from each side of the net, and the zone includes the line that marks its boundary parallel to the net, aptly referred to as the non-volley Line. You’re not allowed to volley while standing in the kitchen. Hence the name. If you do, you’ll fault.
17. Odd Court
An odd court is the left side of the court when facing the net. When you have an odd number of points and you’re serving in singles, or your team has an odd number of points and you’re the first server of the game, you’re serving from the odd court.
18. Ready Position
The ready position is your pickleball stance. Your knees should be bent a little, your feet at the width of your shoulders, and the paddle in front of you.
19. Second Server
In doubles pickleball, just as there’s the first server, there’s a second server as well. After a side out, the second server serves after their team faults.
20. Server Number
A server number is used only in doubles pickleball. Players have a server number of 1 or 2, with the person who’s on the right court after a side out being server 1, and the player on the left court being server 2. Players can have a different number based on where they are positioned after a side out.
These numbers make it easier to keep track of side outs (which happens after both servers have faulted).
21. Service Court
The service court includes the area of the court bordered by the centerline, sideline, baseline, and non-volley zone line. Any serve that hits this area is a fair serve. You can also volley from the service court.
22. Service Motion
Forward swings, backswings, and other arm-related motions associated with playing pickleball are known as service motions.
The lines perpendicular to the pickleball net on both sides of the court are the sidelines. The sidelines are 44 feet long and mark the horizontal boundaries of fair play.
24. Third-Shot Drop
When a ball is served, it has to bounce once in the receiver’s court, then once in the server’s court. Players are usually standing farther back in the court to give the ball enough room to bounce. Once it has bounced twice, the next shot is called the third shot. When that shot is soft enough to send the ball just into the non-volley zone, it’s called the third-shot drop. The player(s) receiving the third-shot drop is usually standing closer to the baseline, so they’ll have to run to the non-volley zone to hit a return.
Topspin is a technique applied to a shot that causes the ball to rotate forward, and once it makes contact with the ground it accelerates forward with greater speed, making it difficult for a receiving player to completely know how quickly the ball will be within hitting distance. To do a topspin, your swing starts low and then gets higher, which moves up your point of contact with the pickleball.
26. Two-Bounce Rule
The two-bounce rule is a classic pickleball rule that states that the ball must be allowed to bounce once after the serve and then again on the return. This rule is part of the third-shot drop (see above).
What You Need for Pickleball
Now that you’re privy to the terms you’ll hear when playing pickleball, let’s next get you sorted with the basics you’ll need to physically step foot on the courts - that is, what to bring, and most importantly, what paddle to use.
Dressing for Pickleball
If you watch enough games, you’ll see that pickleball players’ game outfits vary.
That said, there are some commonalities. For instance, the gear is always athletic apparel, and it should be made of lightweight, breathable, flexible, moisture-wicking fabrics. Don’t forget UV protection if you’re playing outdoors!
Women's Pickleball Apparel
Women might wear a skirt, skort, shorts, or a tennis dress in warmer weather. Performance t-shirts, tanks, long sleeves, and polos are common for tops. In cooler weather, fitted sweatpants or yoga pants are common to see.
Men's Pickleball Apparel
Men will typically wear athletic t-shirts, long sleeves for sun protection, or performance polos. Athletic shorts are the most popular bottoms, but you'll see some men wearing fitted sweatpants or jogging pants as well.
Pickleball Gear and Accessories
Accessories are allowed, such as sweatbands, jackets, visors, and hats. Also, backpacks for your gear and paddles are a must. You'll see many players hang their bags from the fence. Footwear is a huge consideration when playing pickleball. Comfortable court shoes are a must.
The apparel and accessories you choose should be sporty and allow for full flexibility on the court. You also have to be comfortable
Pickleball Paddles – What You Need and Need to Know
Next, let’s talk about pickleball paddles, our specialty. Choosing the right type of paddle will augment your play, and there are too many variables to truly go through everything here. In this section, we'll focus on just a few of the basics; core thickness, paddle face (surface) material, and paddle weight.
For a full guide on choosing the perfect pickleball paddle, you'll want to check out the paddle buyer's guide for beginners.
1. Pickleball Paddle Core Thickness
You can find paddles made of a few different core materials, but a polymer base is the defacto material in use today. At Paddletek, we use several different high-quality polymer cores - some even uniquely include carbon fiber, like the Tempest series paddles.
The core is essentially the guts of every pickleball paddle, and it's frequently formed into a series of honeycomb shapes and is located in between both faces of a pickleball paddle. The depth of each honeycomb is what's referred to as core thickness.
A thick core will give you greater control with each hit, as it softens the impact of the ball as it makes contact with the paddle surface. On the other end of the spectrum, a thinner core will generate more power with each hit.
What you gain in control with a thick core, you lose in power, and the opposite is true for a thinner core. Like nearly all components of a pickleball paddle, what you decide on with core thickness becomes a balancing act of power and control.
2. Pickleball Paddle Surface Material
You might be surprised by how many material options there are for paddle faces - from wood to hybrid materials, if it can be attached to a paddle, it probably exists.
But you'll most often find that higher-quality paddles are made of fiberglass, graphite, carbon fiber, or some mix of the aforementioned.
Fiberglass and graphite are quite different from each other. Using the scale of power and control, fiberglass leans more toward generating power whereas graphite is better suited for control.
Graphite is not only lightweight but also incredibly strong. Whenever the ball hits a graphite surface paddle, the strength of the material helps to dissipate the impact of the hit more evenly across the entire face of the paddle.
This is part of the reason it's considered more of a control surface.
As you might expect, fiberglass is the opposite. It's heavier and has more flexibility. Much like a trampoline, when the ball hits a fiberglass face, it sinks in a little and then fires off the face of the paddle. Between the extra weight and elastic effect, it's able to generate greater power.
Carbon fiber, which you'll find is used in some of Paddletek's series, is even lighter and stronger than graphite. Which boosts the finesse and control factor as far as the surface is concerned.
3. Pickleball Paddle Weight
Paddle weight is a monumental factor in pickleball as it directly impacts every aspect of the game. By influencing power and ball speed, as well as control, the weight of the paddle matters. Every component on a paddle contributes to this weight, from the core material and thickness to the surface material and texture.
Paddles are measured in ounces, and on paper, they look minimal, but in play, you can absolutely feel the difference between a lightweight paddle and a heavy paddle.
Pickleball paddles tend to fall into the following 3 weight classifications:
- Lightweight: Below 7.3oz
- Midweight: Between 7.3oz and 8.3oz
- Heavy: Above 8.3oz
The most important factor to consider with weight is that a heavier paddle will create more power, whereas a lighter paddle will give you more control.
As you might imagine by now, every material and process decision of a paddle influences whether it leans more toward control or power. Ultimately, the decisions you'll make should come down to finding the best combination to pair with your skillset and strengths.
Alright, with the apparel, paddles, and gear in hand - you're ready to play. Here's what you'll need to know.
3 Basics of How to Play Pickleball for Beginners
This is just a simple overview of how to play pickleball, as each element could have an entire website dedicated to it. We hope that after reading this, you’ll have enough information to know your way around the sport a little better, head out for your first games, then come back and dive into different categories more deeply.
We'll cover three areas of the sport - serving, keeping score, and how to fault.
1. How to Serve in Pickleball
Now that you’ve got your equipment, it’s time to play. To do that, you may want to know how to serve. We wish we could tell you that whatever you do in tennis or Ping-Pong will work in pickleball, but that's not the case.
Pickleball has its own style of serving, and of course, a unique twist that you'll find out about in just a second.
But first, what's similar to most other paddle or racquet sports, is that serving in pickleball kickstarts each live ball, and you'll serve diagonally to your opponent.
And quickly after, that's where things become different.
You'll serve to the diagonally opposite opponent from where you'll stand behind the baseline. And the ball will need to land beyond the kitchen and its line, within your opponent's service area. Your style of serving will also be far different from other sports since you'll most likely use the volley serve. The volley serve is the most common form of serving the ball in pickleball, and it must be performed underhand. That means when your paddle connects with the ball, it has to be below your belly button.
Also, your arm has to move upward as you swing so that when you hit the ball, the highest point of the paddle is below your wrist. The paddle can’t go above the bend in your wrist joint.
Serving can be a struggle for beginners, but two things you can do to make it less challenging include:
Watch Your Stance and Foot Positioning
When learning to serve in pickleball, it's easy to get preoccupied with the movement of your upper body and ignore where your feet are. But resist this urge and you'll be far better off in the early days. This comes down to two factors - the first is about crossing over the baseline.
Your feet have to stay behind the baseline when serving, or it's a fault. One way to prevent this is to focus on a semi-closed athletic stance. This will still give you power as you rotate your trunk for each hit, but it will also give you enough foot control to maintain your balance and not create an unnecessary fault.
Visualize Your Targets
Determining where to serve the ball and getting the ball to cooperate with you are difficult elements to master. That's probably true of just about any sport with a ball.
But, with your serve, the best idea is to visualize your target deep into your opponent's service area. Pick a spot a few feet from their baseline, and you'll find this opens up the third shot for your team as well as prevents you from accidentally serving the ball into the kitchen.
2. Scoring in Pickleball
Next, let’s talk about what we’re sure all new players want to learn about, and that’s scoring.
In pickleball, only the serving side can score points. This means when it's your time to serve, you’re hoping to make your opponent fault so you can earn points. Then, when it’s your opponent’s turn to serve, they’ll hope to do the same to you.
You're competing to 11 points with at least a 2-point victory, so the score can go above 11 if the margin isn't there.
While both of those seem unique, it's the actual keeping of score that seems to trip beginners up.
In singles, the score is represented by two numbers - the server’s score, and the receiver’s score. The server’s score is read first, followed by the receiver’s score.
In doubles, there's a third number tacked to the end of the numbers, and it dictates who serves first and second on a side. So in doubles, the score is called as server's score, the receiver's score, and then the server number, which will either be a 1 or a 2, depending on who is serving first on the side.
The game begins with a serve on the right side. So when you get your first score of the game, you’ll move to the left side to serve again. When you serve for the first time on the left side, you have 1 point. If you score again, you move back to the right, and you have 2 points.
That’s why the right side is called even and the left side is called odd. You’ll continue to switch back and forth between the odd and even sides until you fault in singles. In doubles, once server 1 faults, the server then goes to their partner, server 2.
3. Pickleball Faults
As you’re just learning the pickleball rules, expect to fault a lot. That’s okay, as you’re still getting the basics down, and there are quite a number of rules. Sometimes it takes making mistakes to learn from them.
Other than what you might expect from faulting, such as letting the ball bounce twice on your side, or serving the ball into the net, there are a few unique ways to fault in pickleball. So we've gathered the most common ones you'll face as a beginner and listed them below.
- Underhand: Volley serves have to be underhand.
- Two-Bounce: Not letting the ball bounce after a serve (when you’re on the receiving side) or not letting it bounce when it’s returned to you for the first time (when you’re on the serving side). This is breaking the two-bounce rule.
- The Kitchen: Volleying in the non-volley zone, known as the kitchen.
- Serving into the Kitchen: A serve that in any way contacts the non-volley line or zone.
You're About to Catch the Pickleball Bug
Improving at pickleball is a journey. You’re at the beginning of your journey now and will improve your skills the more you keep at it. And trust everyone who has every picked up a paddle - you will keep at it.
Pickleball is strange in that the rules can be simple enough to quickly understand your first time playing, but the more you play, you start to uncover nuances to the game that include unique rules and new techniques.
Perhaps that's the appeal. Good luck!