Paddle royale

Everything You Need to Know About Pickleball Before You Pick Up a Paddle

It may just become your new favorite sport.
Ramil Gibadullin/Adobe Stock

Intrigued by pickleball? Yeah, same. Luckily, with courts springing up across the country, there’s never been a better time to get into the game. By learning basic pickleball rules—as well as a few other fundamentals—anyone can try their hand at America’s fastest-growing sport and experience what the hype is all about.

Part of pickleball’s allure is that it’s pretty beginner-friendly, Landon Uetz, PT, DPT, physical therapist and certified pickleball coach in Chandler, Arizona, tells SELF. And you don’t need experience with other racquet sports (like badminton or ping pong) to give it a go, he says.

In fact, it’s more suited to novices since it’s less intense: Compared to tennis, the pickleball court is smaller, the ball doesn’t travel as fast, and the paddle is easier to control. As a result, you don’t have to move around as much, there’s less of a hand-eye coordination challenge, and you’re usually able to sustain longer rallies, or the periods where you’re hitting the ball back and forth, Jennie Melin, certified personal trainer and certified pickleball coach at LifeTime in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, tells SELF.

Another perk? “It’s really quite an inviting community,” says Melin. Most folks play doubles, meaning there are four people on the court at a time, which can give the sport a social vibe. Plus, pickleball is relatively affordable—it doesn’t require expensive equipment, and tons of community parks have outdoor courts where you can play for free.

To boot, pickleball is a great workout, says Melin, since it gets you moving in all directions, challenges your coordination, and often gets your heart rate up. Perhaps most important, though? “It’s so fun,” she says. And chances are, the more you enjoy a workout, the more likely you are to do it consistently, which means pickleball could just become a staple in your fitness routine.

Ahead, all you need to know to get started, including how to play pickleball, basic rules and etiquette tips to keep in mind, what equipment and gear you need, and how to reduce your injury risk. Consider this your go-to pickleball for beginners guide!

1. Gather your specific essentials.

First up: the paddle. You’ll want to choose a pickleball-specific racquet—it’s smaller and more rectangular than what you use in tennis—to make sure it’s legal for play. (Basically, its length can’t exceed 17 inches, and the length and width combined can’t be greater than 24 inches.) You can find a pickleball paddle online or at a sporting goods store, says Uetz. You can also rent them at some fitness facilities, says Melin.

Then there are the pickleball balls, which, unlike those in tennis, are made of non-textured material and have holes. There are different variations for indoor versus outdoor games, says Melin—indoor balls have larger holes than outdoor ones. You can buy these at the same retailers that sell the paddles.

2. Dress the part.

There’s no specific clothing you need for pickleball. “Any type of workout attire is fine, as long as you can move easily and you’re comfortable,” says Melin. On the footwear front, consider getting a court shoe, which are specifically for pickleball or tennis, says Melin. Compared to running or walking shoes, which are primarily crafted for forward movement, court shoes support action in all directions, especially laterally (side to side). That’s especially important in pickleball, since the sport will have you moving in all sorts of ways.

Court shoes also provide you with a little more grip compared to basic athletic shoes, and they are often more durable too, says Uetz. That said, if you’re just dipping your toe into the sport, Uetz recommends using whatever athletic sneakers you already have. If you really enjoy the game and envision yourself playing more, then you can look into getting a pair of specific pickleball shoes, he says. Many major footwear brands—including K-Swiss, Asics, and Sketchers—offer options.

3. Find a court—then familiarize yourself with it.

You need a place to put this all into play: the pickleball court. Locations are “popping up everywhere, from community centers to pickleball facilities,” says Melin. Try searching online for “pickleball courts near me” or input your address, city, or zip code into this court finder from Pickleball USA.

Once you find one, there are a few things to know about your space: A pickleball court is a rectangular shape, in which the width is divided in half by a net and the length by the centerline. The boundaries of the court are the baseline (the line that runs parallel to the net on each side) and the sideline (along the length of the court on each side). Anything that happens within the boundaries of the court is in play for the game. Then there’s the non-volley zone—also known as the kitchen—which spans seven feet from the net on both sides, for a total of 14 feet (more on that later!).

4. Learn the basic fundamental rules of pickleball. Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of them quickly.

Before you step onto the court, it helps to familiarize yourself with basic pickleball rules for beginners. Having a visual demo helps, which is why Melin often shares this video by Kyle Koszuta, a pickleball enthusiast known on social media as @thatpickleballguy.

For this quick rules rundown, we’ll talk about doubles, since it’s the most common way to play pickleball. (Want more? For a full briefing on the official rules, check out this guide from Pickleball USA.)

How to serve

You’ll start with two people on each side; you can use a coin flip to determine who serves first. The server and their teammate start back behind the baseline. On the opposing team, the person diagonal to the server stands at their baseline; their partner stands at the kitchen line.

The pickleball serve is underhand—meaning your palm is facing upward—and there are two ways to do it: by dropping the ball on the ground, letting it bounce once, and then hitting it (known as a drop serve); or by tossing the ball in the air and smacking it before it bounces. The purpose of the serve in pickleball is to simply get the ball in play, not to crush your opponent with an ace.

When serving, you’ll send the ball diagonally into the box on the other side of the court between the kitchen and the baseline. If the ball falls into the kitchen, that's a short serve and thus a “fault.” In that case, the server loses their turn and it either moves to their partner or the other team. Unlike in tennis, you only get one serve.

How to return the ball

After the serve, the opposing team must let the ball bounce once before hitting it across the court. Then it has to do so once again on that side too before the opponents can return it across the net. This is called the double bounce rule. After that point, it’s fair game to hit the ball straight out of the air, and the game typically becomes a little faster paced.

One exception: If you’re standing in the kitchen, you always have to let the ball bounce before hitting it. This rule prevents either team from smashing the ball while standing close to the net, which would make earning points in the game a lot easier, explains Melin. Breaking this rule constitutes a fault.

How to score points

You only can score when your team is serving, and you do so by winning a rally. This happens when your opponent commits a fault by doing one of the following:

  • Hits the ball out of bounds.
  • Hits the ball into the net.
  • Allows the ball to bounce twice on their side.
  • Hits the ball out of the air while standing in the kitchen or on the kitchen line.
  • Gets hit by the ball.

If you’re serving and your team loses the rally, the serve switches to your partner. Once they lose the next rally, that’s a “side out,” and the serve switches to the opposing team.

How to win pickleball

Pickleball games go until 11 points, and you have to win by 2. So, if you score 11 points, but your opponent has 10, you would keep playing until someone is ahead by 2. Sometimes people play for the best two out of three games, says Melin. Other times, you may just play a single game, she adds. If you’re playing recreationally, it’s really up to you and the people you’re playing with to determine how many you want to keep going for.

5. Take a few minutes to warm up before jumping into a game.

As with any type of exercise, it’s important to warm up before jumping in. That way you reduce your risk of injury and prime yourself for the workout ahead.

Uetz recommends getting your heart rate up with moves like jogging in place, jumping jacks, or side shuffles. Then do a few movements that put you in positions you may find yourself in during a game setting, like lateral lunges, forward lunges, and exercises that involve raising your arms overhead. Lastly, practice hitting the ball around a bit, starting close to the net and then backing up and tapping it from further away. In total, spend about 10 to 15 minutes warming up before diving into actual play, Uetz suggests.

6. Follow basic etiquette.

To be respectful and courteous to fellow pickleball players, heed the following etiquette tips, Melin says.

  • To determine who gets the court next, most community settings have a “paddles-up/open-play” system, where you put your paddle in a rack as you wait to play.
  • If you’re playing doubles, don’t hog the ball!
  • It’s okay to be competitive, but don’t be a jerk. Be encouraging and kind to your partner and opponents. Tell people “nice shot!” when they make a good play, and don’t snap at your partner for missing the ball.
  • Keep your coaching to yourself. Only give people pointers if they specifically ask for your opinion.
  • Be courteous calling whether a ball is in or out of bounds. Only call a ball out if you’re 100% certain it was. If you’re unsure, err on the side of calling it in.

7. Incorporate resistance training to reduce your chances of injury.

Pickleball isn’t a dangerous sport. But whenever you exercise, there is some chance of injury, Uetz says. With pickleball, that usually looks like an overuse injury, which happens when someone ramps up how often they play and their body isn’t prepared to handle that intensity, explains Uetz. The most common areas of the body that sustain pickleball overuse injuries are the knees, calves, and shoulders, he says.

To reduce your odds of getting hurt, consider adding full-body strength training into your routine, says Uetz. This will help prepare your body for the demands of the sport. Aim for two sessions a week, and focus on exercises that hit these main movement patterns: squatting, hinging, pushing, pulling, and pressing, says Uetz.

8. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

There’s no better way to learn pickleball than simply trying it, says Uetz. That said, if you’re especially nervous to jump into the game, it doesn’t hurt to work with a coach first, says Uetz. Find a coach near you using the Professional Pickleball Registry’s online tool. Many local courts or facilities also have intro to pickleball courses, which can help you acclimate to the game and quickly learn the rules, says Melin.

Once you’re into the swing? Block off some time for a regular game—maybe a little more than you think you need. Many people who try pickleball fall in love with it, Melin says, so much so that when people say they’re going to play for a certain amount of time, they keep going for “just one more game.”

“The next thing you know, you’ve been playing for three hours,” she says. “You can’t stop because it’s so much fun.”