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How to play pickleball - 9 simple rules for beginners

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Brandon Mackie

Updated on: Sep 8, 2023

Pickleball player Brandon Mackie about to hit a ball in a game of pickleball doubles

Keen to learn how to play pickleball? You're not alone. Pickleball is now the fastest-growing sport in America, and it's tons of fun.

Whether you're an absolute beginner or a seasoned player looking to refresh your grip on the game, we've got you covered with our quick guide. Follow these 9 simple rules and you'll be out playing in no time.

To get started, all you need is a quality beginner pickleball paddle, pickleball balls to play with and a pickleball court near you. And the best way to learn the basics is with a private lesson or beginner's clinic. Those often provide equipment if you're not ready to invest in gear yet!

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How to play pickleball

Pickleball is played on a badminton-sized court (20' x 44'):

Graphic showing the dimensions of a pickleball court

The pickleball net height is 36" at the sideline and 34" at the center. Pickleball is most often played as doubles with four players, two on each team (though singles is possible as well). Each player stands to the right and left of the centerline. You can hit two types of shots:

  • Groundstrokes: hit off the bounce, often from the baseline
  • Volleys: hit out of the air from a position closer to the net

Each side has a 7 ft area called the non-volley zone, or 'kitchen', where no player can hit volleys from. Not even a toe can touch the kitchen line during a volley (more on that later). Now that we have the court set up, let’s get playing!

Rule #1: Each rally begins with a serve

The pickleball game—and each rally—starts with the serve. The player on the right side of the court, facing their opponents, starts the serve. You serve diagonally to your opponent, into the right or left service area:

Graphic showing where the serve must land in pickleball doubles

The serve must clear the kitchen (including the line) to count.

Rule #2: Your serve must be underhand

A pickleball serve must be hit with an underhand stroke or backhand with contact below the waist. Your arm must move in an upward arc when you strike the ball. You can either hit the ball out of the air or drop the ball on the ground and hit it.

Player preparing to serve in a game of pickleball singles

The goal of the pickleball serve is to put the ball in play. This is quite different from a tennis serve, where the goal is to serve overhand aggressively to win the point.

Here’s a quick primer from Wayne Dollard of Level Up Pickleball Camps on how to serve:


Rule #3: Each point continues until a fault

After the serve, gameplay continues until a “fault” is committed. A fault ends the rally. In pickleball, there are three basic types of faults:

  1. The serve does not clear the kitchen (including the line)
  2. A shot is hit out of bounds—landing behind the baseline or outside the sideline
  3. A shot is hit into the net
Graphic showing the three main fault types in pickleball

Note there is no “let” in pickleball—meaning if a serve hits the net, there’s no redo. The ball is played as it lands (so long as it lands within the service area). We’ll also cover 2 more advanced faults later in our rules.

Rule #4: You can't volley in the kitchen

The 7 ft zone on each side marks the non-volley zone, or 'kitchen'. This means you can never hit a volley—a shot hit out of the air—while having any part of your body in the kitchen. Or even on the kitchen line. And you can’t let your momentum carry you into the kitchen after a volley either.

Graphic showing the kitchen zone in a game of pickleball doubles

Why this rule? Once you play, you’ll see players at the net have a big advantage. They can hit any ball high enough with a downward "smash". This shot puts opponents immediately on the defensive.

Pickleball’s inventors learned that standing right at the net made volleying too easy. It was an unfair advantage and took the fun away (for the defenders at least). And so the 'kitchen' was born.

Learn more about pickleball kitchen rules

Rule #5: You can hit groundstrokes in the kitchen

If your opponent hits a short shot landing in the kitchen, you can enter and hit from the kitchen.

Dinks are a defensive shot and one of the most important parts of pickleball strategy. Often your best move after moving into the kitchen to field a dink is to dink right back to your opponent’s kitchen.

Graphic showing the kitchen zone in a game of pickleball singles

Rule #6: The ball must bounce on both sides before either team can volley

Before any player can hit a shot out of the air (a volley), the ball must bounce once on each side (known as the 'double bounce rule').

This means if your partner is serving and you start up at the kitchen, you’re in a dangerous position. Why? Because the returning team can hit a shot right at you, and if you react with a volley, that’s a fault. You lose the point.

Graphic showing the double bounce rule in pickleball

This rule keeps the serving team back on the baseline to start. Without it, the serving team could easily rush the net and gain an unfair edge every time. The return team would struggle to ever regain the serve and get points, as we’ll cover in our next rule.

Rule #7: You only win points on your serve

In pickleball, you only win points on your serve, and you continue serving until you lose a rally. After winning each point on your serve, you switch sides with your partner and serve to the other opponent.

What happens if you lose the point on your serve? We’ll cover that below in Rule #8:

Rule #8: Both partners serve in a turn

In each turn, both players (in doubles) get the opportunity to serve. And in pickleball scoring, you’ll hear players announce three numbers, "Zero, zero… two".

What the heck is that third number? It tracks which of the two players on a team has the serve.

Let’s say the game is tied at 3-3. If you start the serve (from the right side remember), you’ll announce “3-3-1,” so everyone knows you are the first player in rotation serving.

If you lose the rally, the ball doesn’t go to your opponents. It goes to your teammate who will announce “3-3-2".

Then if your partner loses their serve, a 'side out' occurs in which the ball returns to your opponents who again announce, “3-3-1".

Graphic showing an example score in pickleball doubles

Ah and one exception to this rule: the first player to serve in the game calls out "0-0-2". This is so the starting team only gets one serve. If both players served to start, the serving team would gain an unfair advantage over the returning team. Confused? We promise it’s easy once you start playing!

Rule #9: First team to 11 points wins—but you must win by 2

Following all the rules above, the game continues until one team gets 11 points. The catch? You have to win by 2.

So if a game’s tied 10-10, the next score doesn’t win. The game continues past 11-10. This rule can have games on for a long time. You can have ending scores of 12-10, 15-13, or even 21-19. But these are often the most fun games!

What you need to play pickleball

Before you start, you'll need:

  • A beginner pickleball paddle
  • A local pickleball court
  • Pickleball balls to play with

You may also need a portable pickleball net if your local courts don't have permanent nets.

As you get more into the sport, you may upgrade to one of the best pickleball paddles out there.

Before you buy anything though, make sure it's right for you. There are so many bad paddles out there and trust me, I've tested a lot of them. So, try my 30-second paddle quiz. I'll recommend the best paddles for your needs and budget:

Find the best paddle for you

Find the best paddle for you

I’ve personally tested over 80 paddles. Take the quiz to see which ones are right for you.

Lastly, you'll want to wear the right clothing for pickleball. Whether it's getting your hands on a pair of the best pickleball shoes or some brand-new socks, investing in pickleball-specific clothing can help you play better.

Tip: be sure to brush up on any pickleball rule changes for 2024 before you get started.

How to serve in pickleball

Every rally in pickleball begins with the serve. Unlike tennis, the purpose of the serve in pickleball is to place the ball in play. It is not an offensive weapon. According to USA Pickleball Official Rules:

  • The serve must be hit with an underhand stroke so that contact with the ball is made below the waist
  • The arm must be moving in an upward arc and the highest point of the paddle head shall be below the wrist when it strikes the ball.
  • The highest point of the paddle head cannot be above any part of the line formed where the wrist joint bends.

Essentially, the pickleball serve is an underhand or backhand serve that finishes with an upward motion:

Graphic explaining how to carry out a legal serve in pickleball

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The pickleball serve is typically hit out of the air. In January 2021, USA Pickleball updated the rules to allow for a "drop serve". This means you can now drop the ball and hit your serve off the bounce if you prefer.

Where to serve in pickleball

In pickleball, you always serve to the diagonally opposite service court. Your serve must completely clear the kitchen line, and land between the sideline and baseline to count. “On the line” for the baseline and sideline is good (but not on the kitchen line).

Graphic showing where to serve in a game of pickleball

Where to stand when serving

You must stand behind the baseline when serving in pickleball. Your foot cannot touch or pass the line during your serve.

You should remain behind the baseline until after a third shot is hit. If you were to run up to the kitchen after serving, you would risk violating the double bounce rule.

Serving strategies

While the goal of the pickleball serve is to place the ball in play, you can use it to your advantage. Here are three strategies for improving your pickleball serve:

  • Serve deep. Short serves will cause your opponent to run forward toward the kitchen line. You want to keep them back as long as possible so a deep serve is more advantageous.
  • Keep it low. Low shots make it harder for your opponent to hit an aggressive shot back.
  • Add spin (advanced). By changing the angle of your wrist on your serve follow-through, you can put all kinds of spins on your serve. An unexpected spin can throw your opponents off guard, and cause unforced errors on the return.

Learn more about pickleball serving rules

How to start a pickleball game

The pickleball game always begins with a serve. So, who serves first? According to the USA Pickleball rulebook, "any fair method shall be used to determine which player or team has the first choice of serve".

You can flip a coin. We’ve seen some local courts dictate the north side always serves first. So you can ask a local or come up with your own way.

Players stand at the baseline during a game of pickleball doubles

Once the serving side is determined, the player on the right side of the court goes first. They announce the starting score, which is always "0-0-2". Each team starts with 0 points. The “two” indicates the starting team serves at position 2.

This means that when a fault occurs, there will be a side out and the serve will go to their opponents to prevent unfair advantage. If the serve is 'in,' gameplay continues.

Learn more about how pickleball scoring works

Let's recap:

  • Determine which team will be the starting servers by local rules or a coin toss
  • Player on the right side of the court serves first
  • They announce “0-0-2” as the starting score
  • Player serves (out of the air or off the bounce) to the diagonal side
  • If the service is 'good', play continues

How to play pickleball singles

Doubles is the most popular way to play pickleball, but you can also play singles. This version of pickleball works just like doubles, except you only have one player on each side instead of two.

Brandon Mackie preparing to serve in a game of pickleball singles

One major difference is in which side the player serves from after a side out (based on their score).

Another difference is in the scoring—there’s no need to call out the third number. The server calls out only two numbers: their score (first), and the opponent’s score (second). Here are the five main scoring rules in pickleball singles:

  • The first serve for each side starts on the right side
  • If the server wins the rally, the server switches sides of the court
  • If the receiver wins the rally, neither player switches sides
  • The server continues serving until they lose a rally
  • Only one serve per rotation: if the server loses a rally, the serve goes to the receiver

There’s no second server—so if you lose the rally on your serve, a side out occurs and the serve goes to your opponent. How do you know which side of the court to serve from in pickleball singles?

Graphic showing the serving positions in pickleball singles

In singles, the serve is always taken from the right side of the court when the server has an even number (0, 2, 4, 6, 8, or 10 points). When the server has an odd number of points (1, 3, 5, 7, 9), the serve is taken from the left side.

All other pickleball rules on serving, faults, line call, and the non-volley zone (or 'kitchen') are exactly the same in singles as in doubles.

Learn more about how to play pickleball singles

How to play pickleball doubles

Doubles is by far the most popular way to play pickleball. In doubles, two players are on each team and share a side together. Each player has the chance to serve. The scoring is called out as:

Graphic showing an example score in pickleball doubles

The current server number indicates which server on the team is serving. Let’s say you have 3 points, your opponent has 2, and you’re starting the serve. You call out “3-2-1” and then serve. If you lose the rally, the serve moves to your partner, who announces “3-2-2”.

Now all players know that if your team loses another rally, you give up the serve to your opponents.

Where to stand during pickleball doubles

In pickleball, the ball must bounce once on each side before any player can volley (hit out of the air).

To fulfill the double bounce rule, the receiver must let the ball bounce (1st bounce) before returning it. Both players on the serving team should stay at the baseline since they must also let the ball bounce (2nd bounce) before they return it.

Graphic showing the starting player positioning in pickleball doubles

If you are on the receiving team, but not receiving the serve (non-receiver), your best position is up at the kitchen line. This is because the two-bounce rule will have been fulfilled before you can hit the ball, and you'll be able to volley the ball if possible.

In pickleball, your best offensive position is at the kitchen line. Your partner should hit their return and immediately join you at the kitchen. Do this and you’ll have the serving team on the defensive every time.

Learn more about pickleball doubles rules

How pickleball scoring works

Scoring can be confusing, especially for pickleball beginners. The pickleball score consists of 3 numbers:

Graphic showing an example score in pickleball doubles

The first number is your team’s score. The second number is your opponent's score. And the third number—the often confusing one—indicates whose serve it is. It will always be a 1 or 2. In pickleball doubles, each player on a team gets the opportunity to serve.

So you need to know which player is serving. And because you switch sides after each point you win, you can’t rely on your court position to remember whose serve it is.

Let’s say you’re serving. Your team has 2 points, and your opponent has 1. If you're the first one serving, you’ll announce: “2-1-1”

If your team loses the rally, the serve will go to your partner, who will announce "2-1-2". Now all players know that if your team loses the next point, the serve will go to your opponents.

This is called a side-out. And since you only win points on your serve, your opponent will announce the same score, only with their point total first: "1-2-1".

The one exception to this rule? On the very first serve of the game, the score starts: "0-0-2". This means the starting serve team only gets one serve. This rule ensures the serving team doesn’t get an unfair advantage. Just remember to call out:

  • Your score
  • Your opponent’s score
  • Your serve position—either 1 or 2

After a few games, you’ll get the hang of it!

What is the double bounce rule in pickleball?

The double bounce rule states the ball must bounce once on each side before any player can volley the ball out of the air.

Let’s say you’re serving in a doubles game. You serve your opponent. That’s one bounce. If your partner was standing up at the kitchen and your opponent hit a shot towards them, they could not hit it out of the air.

Your team must allow the return shot to hit on your side to satisfy the double-bounce rule.

Graphic showing the double bounce rule in pickleball

So, while you can stand anywhere in pickleball, it makes no sense to start at the kitchen if you are on the serving team until the double bounce rule has been fulfilled.

The only player that typically starts at the kitchen is the player not receiving the serve on the receiving team. This is because the ball will always have bounced twice before ever being hit by this player.

After the ball has bounced on each side, all players are free to move to the kitchen area and begin volleying—which is the most strategic place to be in pickleball.

Why the double bounce rule? It was created to prevdent the serving team from gaining an unfair advantage. To summarize:

  • The ball is served
  • The return team must let the serve bounce
  • The serving team must let the return bounce
  • Once the ball has bounced twice, any player may hit a volley until a point is won

Find pickleball courts near you

The best way to learn pickleball? Go out and play! Pickleball has become America’s fastest-growing sport for a reason: it’s really easy to pick up! Plus, there are plenty of places to play pickleball.

Here are three great ways to find courts near you so you can practice everything you’ve learned in this article.

Use our pickleball court finder

Our court finder tool is the easiest way to find a court near you. By setting your location, you can search on a map for over 6,000 pickleball courts. See which courts have lines, if you need to bring your own net, hours of operation, amenities, and more.

Just remember: our court finder is not a reservation system, so always check with your local court's rules. You may need to pay a small fee or wait to play if the courts are busy.

Find pickleball courts near you

Check your local parks

Parks and recreation centers manage pickleball courts all over the country. And new ones are being added all the time. Often these courts are free to play, but always check to see if you need to make a reservation or pay a fee.

Visit tennis centers

Many tennis centers are adding pickleball, either by building new courts or outfitting existing tennis courts with lines for pickleball. Check to see if they have open play sessions dedicated to pickleball.

Always ask if you need to bring your own net! People are even building pickleball courts in the backyard if you’re so lucky to meet such a friend.

Photo of a tennis net and court on a sunny day

Bottom line

Pickleball is an easy and fun game to learn how to play. Just remember:

  1. Every rally starts with the serve
  2. You serve underhand or backhand
  3. A rally ends when one team faults
  4. Stay out of the kitchen (unless you let the ball bounce first)
  5. The ball must bounce once on each side before you volley
  6. You only win points on your serve
  7. Both players serve (unless your team is the starting server)
  8. You win at 11 points (and by 2)

And that’s it—now get out there and play!

Article updated September 2023 by Betsy Kenniston


About the author
Brandon Mackie
Brandon is an avid writer and co-founder of Pickleheads™. Once a competitive tennis player, Brandon can now be found these days honing his dinks on pickleball courts near Phoenix, Arizona.
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