Pickleball is said to be the fastest growing sport in the USA – and it’s also becoming more and more popular in the UK and Australia. But what the heck is it? We decided it was time to find out.
So, in this post, we explain what pickleball is, give a rough breakdown of the rules; discuss the upsetting lack of any kind of actual pickle involved in the proceedings – and then ask a pickleball expert for a few tips to help improve your game.
Think of it as like a beginners guide to pickleball – you might not be a master by the end of it, but you’ll at least understand what on earth people are talking about…
What is Pickleball?
Described as ‘the newest game you’ve never heard of’, pickleball is a ball game usually played by four people – although two people can also play it and there’s a version for three with slightly different rules.
It’s played in front of a net, with a lightweight ball with holes in and a paddle.
The idea of the game is to, not surprisingly. hit the ball over the net – but to do in a way that means your opponent makes a mistake, like hitting the ball against the net, when they are trying to return it.
A game lasts between 10-20 minutes and the winner is the first one to reach 11 points (with a bit of a caveat that we’ll explain in a minute).
Pickleball vs Tennis: The Differences
There are obvious comparisons to tennis but…
The court is smaller which makes it more suitable for the less fit amongst us.
The paddle is smaller and lighter than a tennis racket which makes it easier to use.
The ball doesn’t move as a fast as in tennis – according to Pickleball England, it travels at about a third of the speed – that makes it easier for the less fit AND the less co-ordinated
The ball when served needs to bounce – but it also needs to bounce when it’s returned.
You serve underarm (and within even that there are precise rules as to when and how you can hit a ball) so, it’s more of a level playing field than tennis – you can’t be beaten just because someone can smash a serve harder than you.
The net is lower than in tennis which also reduces the requirement for power and tips it more into a game of skill.
What Do You Need to Play Pickleball?
A court – which can be an official one, or simply drawn on a driveway or marked out in a garden.
You need a net which should be hung so it’s 36 inches above ground at the sides and 34 inches above the ground in the middle.
You need a lightweight plastic ball with holes in known as a whiffle
And a paddle that looks a bit like a table tennis bat – but a bit larger and squarer.
There’s a good starter set for four people here.
If you’re planning on playing in a more official capacity, then it’s a good idea to have regulation standard equipment to make sure your paddle and ball fit into the regulation sizes for the game.
You’ll find a regulation size pickleball set here.
You don’t need to wear any special kit, but good trainers with ankle support will help reduce risk of injury from sudden changes in position.
Are There Actually Pickles?
No, sadly not!
No onions, gherkins or even Branston are used in the playing of the game.
Exactly why there’s pickle in the name is a matter of debate.
One story suggests that it’s because of the hybrid nature of the game (related to something that happens in rowing where teams and mix and matched from other boats).
The other suggests it was named after of one of the creator’s dogs, Pickles.
Even the people who invented it aren’t sure where it came from. so, just go with whichever story you like most.
Why is Pickleball So Popular?
Pickleball was actually invented by three US senators trying to entertain their children way back in 1965, so it seems strange that it’s suddenly the next big thing.
But it is….
According to Pickleball USA, the amount of people playing between 2019 and 2021 increased by nearly 40 per cent.
In Australia and the UK, right now it’s still pretty specialised, but numbers are growing fast and you’ll find it being tried in community centres and on things like Meetup as people start to play, and enjoy, the game.
To try and find out why it’s suddenly growing I turned to an expert, Nicole from the blog Pickleball At The Line. ‘I think it’s because it is a sport that anyone can play no matter their fitness level or athleticism,’ she told me. ‘As a beginner, you really just have to hit the ball over the net to start playing.
As your skills grow, you will learn how to play more competitively but as a family, you can get four paddles and a ball and start playing today.
Its also incredibly popular with retirees as it is easy on your joints.’
Give Me a Run Down…
Okay, here’s the basics
The aim of the game is to hit the ball back and forth over the net until one of the teams makes a ‘fault’.
A fault is a mistake – this might be hitting the ball out of the court as in tennis, but also includes things like a ball bouncing twice, a ball that hits the net or the ball hitting another player anywhere except below the wrist of the side they hold their paddle.
When the other team makes a fault, what happens depends on who served the shot…
- If you’re the serving team you get a point.
- If you didn’t serve, the serve now swaps to the second player on the current serving team.
- If both players on that team have already served, the serve moves to you – giving you the chance to win points next time your opposition faults.
First team to 11 points wins – BUT only if there’s a two point margin between you.
So, if one team has 8 points and the other reaches 11, that’s a win.
But, if you’re both on 10 points, and the other team scores a point the game continues.
You might choose to go first to 15, or stick with the two point margin meaning the first team to score two points over the opposition wins.
When you’re playing for fun, so long as it’s all discussed before hand, it’s up to you how you end the game.
Other Useful Points
A pickleball court is rectangular and divided into zones – at the back are the volleyzones where you hit the ball back and forth, aiming to stay between the lines.
And, closer to the net is an area known as The Kitchen (the green bit in the picture below).
Basically, you can’t hit a ball that’s in the air if you’re standing in The Kitchen – and you can’t even ‘fall’ into it as you run forward after hitting a ball.
You can hit a ball that has bounced from inside The Kitchen, or reach over into it to hit a ball – but, if you do that, keep your feet well out of it.
There’s a bit more to the exact rules of pickleball than that, and reading through it as someone who doesn’t play, you can tell this was a game that evolved from a set of family and friends as there are a lot of very specific rules that you can just see evolving the result of friendly argument – in the same way you suddenly discover someone else family plays Monopoly different from you to stop tears and tantrums!
But, that’s your rough pickleball primer.
A Few Terms to Understand
If pickleball is going to make any sense, you need to know what the following terms mean..
A Fault – one of the mistakes mentioned above. Remember, the idea of pickleball is to use your shots to get the other team to fault – ideally when you’re serving.
A Volley – is a ball hit when it’s in the air
A Groundstroke – is a ball hit after it’s bounced
A Dink – is a soft precise shot. It might not go far, but the idea of a dink is that it forces your opponent to return a shot in a strange way ideally causing them to fault in some way.
Pop Ups – hitting the ball higher in the air. The higher it goes the easier it is to accurately return making it more likely that you’ll fault, not them.
The Kitchen – the area 7ft either side of the net where you can’t hit a ‘volley’.
The Score – it has three parts – so, it would be read 6 – 3 – 1.
The first number is the points held by the team that served first, the second is the other teams score – the third, is which member of the team is currently scoring – remembering that this swaps if a fault is conceeded.
What Makes a Good Pickleball Player?
While,the idea of pickleball is to win – it’s a game after all. But… ‘it’s more important that you have fun doing it,’ says Nicole. ‘Everyone starts at the beginning and pickleball players are very welcoming around playing with all players no matter their skill level. Pickleball is an all inclusive sport and good sportsmanship is more valued over playing to win at all costs. Its supposed to be fun!’
For this reason, she also says good pickleball etiquette also goes a long way in making you a good pickleball player- and it has a bit of a different mindset to some other games.
So, what is good pickleball etiquette?
Nicole explains it more fully in this post on Pickleball etiquette but some of the main points to know if you’re a newbie are that you should always call out the score before a new serve to make sure everyone is on the same page, and, don’t get into arguments about whether a point was scored or not.
Remember, this is a fun game, not life or death, and if you can’t decide between you whether a point counts or not, the done thing is just to play it again – if you want to get all competitive and Type A about things, maybe try squash!!!
Saying that though, you might still want a few tips on technique to get you started. So…
Pickleball Tactic Tips
Always get to the kitchen line quickly.
You can’t tred into the kitchen, but, the ball spends much of it’s time there, so, once you’ve done serving, get up toward the line. ‘When your team is at the kitchen line you are ready and waiting for the ball. This is where you want to practice your dinking and getting the ball over the net,’ says Nicole
Let the other team make mistakes
‘The one thing you will hear over and over is to get the ball over the net.
You want to consistently hit the ball over the net and let the other team make the mistakes. So instead of trying to serve a difficult serve, you hit it over the net and inside the court every time otherwise you cannot score,’ says Nicole.
Don’t pop up the ball
‘The mistake I made a lot as a beginner was to pop up the ball. When you pop up the ball it gives the other team the opportunity to slam it back down hard and fast. You obviously are going to have a harder time returning it then,’ says Nicole.
Hold your paddle gently
The harder you hold it, the more likely you’ll return the ball fast and high – and, that does not win you a pickleball game.
Now, while this might all explain what pickleball is and the basics of how to play it, the best way to find out how to play pickleball is just to get out there and get started. ‘To just get out and try pickleball. Its extremely addictive and a great way to get outside and get some exercise. As I said before anyone can play. Since most people have been playing for 5 years or less they all remember what it was like to be a beginner. You will also find that other players will give you helpful tips and tricks along the way,’ says Nicole.
How Many Calories Do You Burn Playing Pickeball?
Tennis burns about 550 calories an hour, pickleball is going to use less than this because you’re not running around the court in the same way.
Estimates therefore suggest that you’ll burn 250-300 calories an hour playing pickleball -which is roughly the same as you use walking.
On average players cover around 2 miles/3 km in a two hour pickleball session – you might do a bit more or less depending whether you’re playing singles or doubles.
Other Health Benefits of Pickleball
It is a cardiovascular sport and will contribute to the 150 minutes of moderate exercise you should do a week.
Because your aiming to hit a ball, it’s good for your reflexes and gives your brain a bit of a workout.
Shifting direction quickly helps improve balance and strength.
It’s a social sport which adds a number of other health benefits.
Where to Play Pickleball – UK, Aus and US Ideas
The main associations are your best bet for this
If you’re in looking to find somewhere to play pickleball in the UK try Pickleball England. At the time I write this they say there are around 120 courts in the UK.
Australian readers, you also have a pickleball association – and, there seems to be a few places where you can not only play, but also join a pickleball session to learn how the sports works as well.
Check here and look in the page for your State to find your nearest.
The sport is most popular in the US and so you’re more likely to readily find somewhere to play than those in the UK or the US. If you’re not sure about your local court, then have a look at the US Pickleball Association page on places to play.
So, there you have it a beginners guide to pickleball.
It definitely doesn’t describe all the intricacies of play – there’s a reason people like Nicole have whole blogs on the sport, rather than just one post, but it’s hopefully given you a taste of a fun sport you might have heard about, but not yet seen – and, maybe it’s given you enough of an interest to go and search out one of the increasing number of pickleball games, classes and clubs springing up around the world.
So, have you played pickleball? If so, let us know any tips, tricks or facts that you think we should know -or, just tell us why you liked it (or didn’t) in the comment section below.
Who is The Wellness Nerd?
My name is Helen Foster and I’m a health journalist and wellness author. Publications I’ve written for include Women’s Health, Reader’s Digest, Body and Soul, Good Health at the Daily Mail and more. I have also written 16 books on health and nutrition.