I’ve been playing pickleball for over six years but the game is actually over 50 years old. Despite its long history, new people are asking every year “what is pickleball?”
Pickleball is an inclusive paddle sport invented in 1965 that accommodates all skill levels and combines elements from tennis and ping pong while being played on a badminton size court with a specialized wiffle ball and state-of-the-art composite paddles.
Pickleball is the paddle sport you’ve heard of but never knew was so much fun, simple, yet deeply strategic. Pickleball is creatively addictive.
Let's take a look at how pickleball is played, what rules you need to learn and how to choose the proper equipment if you’re a beginner.
By the end of this article you’ll know that at its core Pickleball is:
- An addictive paddle sport over 50 years old
- Borrows concepts from tennis and ping pong
- Is played on a court similar to a badminton court
- Can be played outdoors or indoors
- Is played with a paddle and special wiffle ball
- Loved by older and younger players alike
- Designed to be inclusive and accommodate all skill levels
Pickleball Is Played In A Unique Way
Every month, new players, whether it be former tennis players or just retirees looking to stay active are asking themselves: “how is pickleball played?”
Pickleball is played on a court that is 20 feet wide by 44 feet long with a net that is 3” lower than a tennis net. Pickleball is played to 11 and can be a singles game or a doubles game.
Pickleball is a unique paddle sport that incorporates a scoring system similar to badminton, borrows swing techniques used in tennis but enforces court rules and court lines unlike any other paddle sport ever created.
Perhaps most unique of all, pickleball is played with a specialized plastic wiffle ball that is soft with big holes for indoor play and harder with smaller holes for outdoor play.
Despite subtle different balls for indoor vs outdoor play, the game is played the same with the general strategies staying the same.
The only difference is how fast the ball moves with the outdoor ball playing a little quicker than the indoor ball.
Let’s take a closer look at each aspect of how pickleball is played and walk you through it all more thoroughly.
Pickleball Is Played On A Smaller Court
Although pickleball is commonly played on a tennis court, an actual dedicated pickleball court is much smaller than a tennis court.
Where tennis courts are 78ft by 27ft - a pickleball court is much smaller in scale. Stand alone pickleball courts span 44ft long by 20ft wide and don’t have separate doubles lines like in tennis or badminton.
Instead, the game is played on the same lines regardless of whether you’re playing singles or doubles.
But, many pickleball courts across the United States can actually be found on a tennis court. For instance, the tennis court in my neighborhood has pickleball court lines laid down on it. This is very common.
One of the most unique parts of a pickleball court is the line that comes across the court seven feet from the net. This line is called the no-volley zone line. Avid pickleball players have dubbed it “the kitchen.”
The kitchen is the one area on a pickleball court where you cannot hit a volley - hence the name “no volley zone”. If you’re going to be standing in this area of the court, you must hit ground strokes only. Meaning, you must let the ball bounce before hitting it.
So, during a game of pickleball if you step over the “no volley zone line” into the “kitchen” - you absolutely must let the ball bounce before hitting it or the point is lost.
This area of the court is incredibly unique and pickleball is the only common racket or paddle sport that has it. It was designed to keep overly aggressive, tall players from standing at the net and dominating.
By forcing players to play back at the no-volley zone line and only hitting ground strokes when they play up close at the net, it keeps the game competitively balanced and requires players to use strategy and touch versus pure athletic dominance.
This is why I’ve had 65 year old players beat me even though they’re much older than me.
How Is A Pickleball Court Different Than A Badminton Court?
As I said above, pickleball is played on a court similar in size to a badminton court. Actually, the overall dimensions are exactly the same - 44 feet long by 20 feet wide. In fact, pickleball was born on an old, beat up badminton court in the backyard of Joel Pritchard on Bainbridge Island Washington.
But there are some fundamental differences between a pickleball court and a badminton court. Firstly, despite the same overall dimensions, a pickleball court does not have separate lines for singles and doubles like badminton does. Pickleball is played on the same size court regardless of singles or doubles and does not have any separate lines laid down on the court whatsoever.
In fact, in doubles badminton, the service line is moved up. It’s shorter. And out of bounds lines are wider than in singles. All of this is NOT the same for pickleball.
In my opinion, this makes pickleball much easier to just pick up and play.
Another key difference between a pickleball court and a badminton court is pickleball’s “no-volley zone line.” Although badminton has a similar looking line on it’s court called the “short service line” it’s actually six and half feet from the net where pickleball’s “no-volley zone line” is 7 feet from the net.
Both lines serve as a marker on the court that the serve must go beyond but in pickleball, it also serves another purpose. The no-volley zone line indicates an area on the court called the “kitchen” and this is the seven feet of court leading up to the net that can only be stepped into after the ball has bounced.
To step into the kitchen in pickleball, the ball must bounce first. It’s a "ground stroke only" area on the court. Badminton and other racket or paddle sports simply do not have this.
Fun Fact: Because pickleball was born on a badminton court, the no-volley zone line started out at six and half feet but slowly began to inch outward as the game’s rules were finalized over the course of its first year.
If you’re curious about where pickleball originated and how it’s become the fastest growing sport, read the fascinating timeline of pickleball’s growth here.
Pickleball Is Played With A Slightly Different Net
Technically the net heights between pickleball and tennis are different. But only slightly.
A regulation pickleball net should be 36 inches high at the side posts and a slightly lower 34 inches in the middle.
Pro Tip: This is one of the reasons why all pickleball coaches say to hit down the middle..hit it to where the net is lower.
Contrast that to a regulation tennis net that is 42 inches at the side posts and 36 inches down the middle. So, a tennis net is higher both down the middle and at the posts compared to a pickleball net.
However, the difference isn’t that significant because playing pickleball on a tennis court still works just fine. Just know that when you’re playing pickleball on a tennis court, the net will be slightly higher down the middle and at the edges.
I’ve been playing pickleball for over six years, and I play on tennis courts and dedicated pickleball courts all the time and I can honestly tell you I don’t notice a difference in how the game is played.
For a more complete break down on net height between pickleball and tennis, click here.
Pickleball Is Scored Similar To Badminton
Pickleball scoring borrows heavily from badminton’s “traditional” scoring philosophy. Meaning points can only be scored by the serving team.
In doubles, if the server wins the rally, a point is awarded to the serving team and the server switches positions with his or her teammate in order to serve from the other side. The receiving team does not switch.
If the serving team keeps winning points, they keep rotating sides and serving to each cross court position.
If the server loses the rally no point is awarded to either team and the server’s partner then has their turn.
If the second server loses the rally, that team has lost the serve completely and the ball is given to the other team where they now have a chance to earn points as the new serving team.
This pickleball scoring philosophy, that only the serving team can win points, is taken directly from badminton’s “traditional” scoring system born in the 1870s.
Ironically, despite pickleball’s popularity, badminton has gone on to update their scoring system twice and currently awards points regardless of who serves.
In addition, pickleball is usually played to 11 where badminton nowadays is played to 21.
But, perhaps the single most unique aspect to pickleball scoring can be found in doubles play; when the game begins.
Even though each doubles partner has a chance to earn points when they’re serving, this is actually NOT the case at the start of the game.
Whichever team wins the serve, the server on the right side always serves first but their partner does not get a turn. When a point is lost by the original server, the ball then goes to the other team for their turn to serve.
It does not go to the original servers partner.
How do you call the score in pickleball? In pickleball, the server must always state the score before serving, loud enough for everyone to hear.
When giving the score in pickleball, the serving team gives their score followed by their opponents score, then a “1” or a “2”. The “1” or “2” signifies if it’s the first server or second server.
Remember, the person on the right side of the court always serves first. So if you and I are partners and winning 7 to 5, and I’m on the right quadrant, I will serve first but announce the score:
This means 7 serving to 5, 1st server.
If I lose the point. It’s your serve now and you’d announce the score 7-5-2. Meaning 7 serving to 5, 2nd server.
But remember, at the very beginning of every game the person on the right serves first but is considered the second server.
So when starting a new game in pickleball, the score is announced 0-0-2. Zero serving to zero; second server.
Pickleball Is Played With A Specialized Wiffle Ball
You cannot just grab a standard wiffle ball, like the wiffle ball used in plastic baseball, and start playing pickleball.
Pickleball is played with a special wiffle ball, but it didn’t always start out that way.
Pickleball was born on a badminton court and was played with a number of different wiffle ball types before the creators finally settled on the pickleball we know and love today.
In fact, it was this evolution of pickleball balls that led to the sport creating two separate kinds of wiffle balls: one for indoor play and one for outdoor play.
Pickleballs are made of unique lightweight plastic different from a standard wiffle ball.
For a long time, Cosmo plastic balls were the ball of choice for pickleball regardless of whether the game was being played indoor our out.
However the game’s growth, specifically over the last 12 years, has created the need for tighter regulation around equipment. Including pickleballs.
Nowadays, the Cosmo plastic used of old has been replaced with a more durable kind of plastic tailor made for pickleball.
How are indoor pickleballs different than outdoor pickleballs? Indoor balls have 26 drilled holes, are lighter, smoother and play slower. Outdoor balls have 40 holes, are thicker, heavier and play faster.
Pickleball Fun Fact: Outdoor pickleball balls, despite being heavier, actually are slightly smaller than indoor balls. You’d never know until you see them next to each other.
And, despite being smoother and thinner than an outdoor ball, if played with properly, indoor balls will last just as long or longer than a gritty outdoor ball.
See how the outdoor balls have the number 40 and indoor has the number 26? That number signifies the number of holes each has. 40 for outdoor and 26 for indoor.
Pickleball Is Played With Paddles, Not A Strung Racket
Pickleball paddles are made from specialized materials like graphite, composite or carbon fiber/fiberglass used for the paddle face while inside the paddle, polypropylene is woven in a honeycomb shape to provide response and feel.
When the game began, pickleball paddles were primarily made from wood, then slowly transitioned to more high-tech material like carbon fiber that we see today.
Pickleball paddles will play differently based on what paddle face is used (i.e. graphite or composite), along with how thick the paddle core is.
Graphite paddles are generally the lightest but lack a little power. While composite paddles weigh in a little heavier, they also provide more power and sometimes less accuracy. Then there is carbon fiber, which falls in between graphite and composite.
Generally speaking, these different paddle faces don’t play a ton differently. And there is no clear winner either. If you like how a paddle feels, go with it.
Some people just like the feel of graphite paddles and the touch they get at the net. Others, like myself, prefer the pop they get from a composite paddle for deep baseline passing shots.
But in the end, it’s all a matter of personal preference because they all play really well.
Thicker paddle cores tend to provide more touch and feel while thinner ones provide more pop and power. This can vary across brands and models and its not an exact science so I always recommend trying one before you buy one.
Related Info: For my complete guide on how to try pickleball paddles without having to buy them first, click here. Seriously, check it out. Nobody knows programs exist like this.
Sizes of pickleball paddles can vary but there are regulations for how long and how wide the paddle face plus handle or grip can be.
Standard paddles typically have a 5 inch to 5 ½ inch grip with a paddle face measuring 15 to 16 inches long by 7 to 8 inches wide.
My favorite two paddles right now are the Prince Response for newer players and the Engage Poach Infinity more advanced players.
Pickleball Is More About Touch Than It Is About Power
Pickleball is one of the few paddle sports that puts equal if not more emphasis on touch and feel than it does on pure power.
When it comes to pickleball strategy, ball placement is crucial. Pickleball is less about brute force or pure baseline to baseline power and more about “point and shoot” accuracy.
A lot of pickleball purists believe that by just keeping the ball in play and outlasting your opponent, you'll win more games. And they’re not wrong. That strategy will win you a lot of points. Pickleball is a game more about precision and touch than it is about blasting shots down your opponents throat.
But as the game gets younger, power players or “bangers” are becoming more an more common. What do I mean by that?
Well, pickleball was a game originally dominated by an older crowd. It was an instant hit with retired people looking to stay active.
But as the game becomes more popular with the younger crowd, working folks like me in their 30s and 40s; the emphasis on power has become more prominent.
What is a banger in pickleball?
A player who likes to play pickleball purely with power and blast shots to win versus touch and ball placement is called a “banger”.
So, all in all pickleball strategy is a mixed bag between the concepts of touch and power. But younger players today are mastering both. Here’s an example of a pickleball strategy using both.
A pickleball point starts with a serve and return of serve. Both shots have to bounce before they can be returned. So, hitting a hard, deep serve to your opponents baseline is a perfect strategy.
And the same can be said for the return of serve. When returning the serve back to the serving team, a deep baseline hugging return keeps the serving team back, and gives you time to get to the net first.
Lots of players nowadays take advantage of this and use their power on serves and return of serves.
But the third shot, arguably the most important shot in the entire game, but also the most difficult, is a shot from the serving team that if done properly takes speed off the ball and drops into the non-volley zone.
This is the game's first shot involving touch and supreme ball placement. From here all the players are at the kitchen line hitting soft “dink shots'' that are ideally, low and to the feet of their opponent.
It is at this point in a game of pickleball that old school players would say, just keep the ball in play and outlast your opponent. And that is a fantastic strategy.
However once someone pops up a soft shot too high, “power” becomes an advantage and can be put away with a powerful passing shot down the sideline for a point winner.
So, you can see power and touch play a role no matter what and are crucial to winning any point.
For a more thorough guide on advanced pickleball strategies that even beginners can implement, click here.
Why Is Pickleball So Popular?
Pickleball is so popular because of its inclusive nature, simple structure and easy to follow rules which allows for both younger and older players to play for fun or competitively regardless of skill level.
Pickleball holds the title of “fastest growing sport in the United States” for ten consecutive years largely because of its ability to bring people together while providing it’s players a healthy dose of physical fitness, addictive strategy and the ability to be played for fun or competitively no matter what your athletic background.
In fact, you don’t have to be overly athletic to play pickleball. And this unique feature is exactly what allowed the game to take off in popularity for the older, retired crowd.
Pickleball is a game that actually started out as a means for three families in Washington to occupy their kids and get them outside. But it quickly morphed into a game all three families could enjoy - kids and adults.
The rules were created so that anyone could play. And this inclusive nature still runs deep in the DNA of pickleball to this day. Pickleball is the only sport built from the ground floor up to allow anyone of any age to compete casually or competitively.
It’s not tailored or geared towards the super athletic or people with tennis backgrounds. In fact some of the best players you’ll find have little to no tennis background at all.
This “even-steven” playing field along with its inclusive nature and surprisingly addictive gameplay is what makes pickleball a popular, global phenomenon.
Is pickleball good exercise? Yes, absolutely! Retired folks from Florida and Arizona (where the Pickleball Championships are often held) began to play pickleball as a means to stay active and fit.
Many older players actually prefer it over golf and it’s easier on some joints compared to tennis.
But contrary to popular belief, pickleball is NOT an older person's game. In fact, the game is getting younger and younger by the year. I’m a perfect example. I was 37 when I began playing.
There are even junior tournaments for school aged kids as well. Yes, 10 year olds can compete in pickleball tournaments just like tennis.
While many Old Persons Commissions and Senior Centers carry pickleball (and don’t allow people under the age of 55 to play) more and more dedicated pickleball courts are popping up every year around parks or recreation centers where anyone is welcome to play.
So while pickleball may seem like an older, retired person's sport, I can assure you it’s not. It’s for anyone who likes to stay fit and socialize with friends.
Is pickleball easier than tennis?
Pickleball is generally considered easier than tennis because it’s played on a shorter court but its mechanics and swing fundamentals also take less time to learn and perfect; even for someone with no racket sport background.
Pickleball also has strict serving rules that require all serves to be done underhand. For someone who’s not played either pickleball or tennis, this is actually a good thing.
Serving underhand is easier to perform than an overhead tennis smash serve.
Pickleball also doesn’t require as much arm, shoulder and back strength as tennis. It also doesn’t demand as much calculated shot technique like tennis does with top spin and backspin cutting shots.
Don’t get me wrong, those shots can work in pickleball but aren’t necessarily as lethal in pickleball. Sometimes the best shot in pickleball is one that just dribbles over the net with no fancy spin.
Pickleball is also easier than ping pong in some respects because the ball is bigger and the paddles are larger and more forgiving. Not to mention, the emphasis on extreme spin that ping pong requires just isn’t as prevalent in pickleball.
Sure, top spin and backhand cuts work in pickleball but the need to perfect those types of shots just isn’t as demanding in pickleball compared to tennis and ping pong. Especially if you’re playing more casually or recreationally.
But all this activity doesn’t mean pickleball is any easier on the body.
Is pickleball easier on your knees or joints than tennis?
Just because pickleball is played on a smaller court doesn’t necessarily mean it's any easier on your knees or joints. In fact, pickleball related injuries are on the rise and have been for quite some time.
Some doctors and coaches will tell you that now that pickleball is becoming a sport more and more younger players are enjoying, it’s starting to take a toll on their bodies too.
Here’s what one full-time coach told me.
He told me that, even though he’s a 5.0 level pro and full-time coach, he doesn’t compete in national tournaments anymore because at that level, with all the stop and go, “quick-twitch” movement placed on ankles,achilles heels and knees; it can wear out even a young body after 2-3 years.
This coach was 30 years old and in great shape.
But you’ve got to take into account the context of the level of play here. We’re talking national tournaments played by 5.0 level players. The ball is going to be moving a lot faster at that level and the lateral demand placed on your knees is incredible. Compete at that level 12 times a year, for 5 years and you’re going to do some damage to any body type regardless of age.
But you and I are not competing at that level, so do we really have anything to worry about?
To be honest with you, yes. We all do. The lateral, side to side movement required in even a slightly competitive game of pickleball can lead to injuries.
It is essential to warm up properly, stretch and always wear a good pair of court shoes for pickleball in order to prevent injury.
Going in cold to a competitive game of pickleball has led to torn ACLs, MCLs and torn achilles. Especially in older players that may not know their physical limitations.
So, always warm up and stretch before even the most modest or friendly of games.
How would you explain pickleball to someone who’s so never played it?
Here’s how to explain pickleball. It’s the fastest growing sport in America that incorporates the best elements from tennis and ping pong while being played on a badminton court for either two to four players and it is played to a score of 11.
The fundamental rules to explain about pickleball to someone who’s never played before are:
1. The serve must be underhand
2. The serve and return of serve must bounce
3. There is no let or second serve in pickleball
4. The non-volley zone or “kitchen” area enforces groundstrokes only
5. Only the serving team or player can score
6. Hitting the ball out of bounds or into the net results in the end of the point
7. Player cannot touch the net
8. If you hit a volley on the fly, you’re momentum cannot take you into the no-volley zone
What Is Pickleball - Conclusion
I hope after reading this in-depth guide, you have a better idea on what pickleball is.
At its core, pickleball is a socially friendly inclusive sport that resembles tennis, borrows bits from ping pong and is played on a court the same size as badminton.
Pickleball, although its growth and popularity is still on the rise, is actually over 50 years old and played by young players and older players. Its design and rule implementation are set up so that pure athleticism and age do not result in an extreme advantage.
Pickleball is a game of touch and is about ball placement just as much as it is about topspin forehands and passing shots.
In the end, pickleball is an inclusive sport that bring people together regardless of age, gender, racket sport background and skill level.
Check your local tennis court, I’ll bet you that it has pickleball court lines on it. Get yourself a paddle and a ball, a few friends and give it a try. Before long, you’ll be hooked. Trust me.