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How to organize an open play pickleball session

picture of Brandon Mackie
Brandon Mackie

Published on: Jul 7, 2023

Pickleball paddles on a paddle saddle during an open play session

Have you been wondering how to organize an open play pickleball session? Or how to improve the ones you're already organizing? You've come to the right place!

Pickleball has exploded in popularity recently and gone truly mainstream. With more people playing, courts are packed and new ones can't open up fast enough. To accommodate players, the 'open play' format was created.

So, what exactly is open play pickleball, and how does it work? In this article, we'll explain how to organize an open play session and give advice on managing any issues you may run into as an organizer.

What is pickleball open play?

Open play sessions in pickleball are basically a free-for-all where everyone is invited to play against everyone else. There are no pre-organized matches or tournaments, and players of all levels can compete against each other.

Players rotate courts and partners using a paddle rotation system, so everyone gets fair playing time.

Players stand at the side of a pickleball court during an open play session
Photo by Stephen Rahn on Flickr, marked as Public Domain (CC0 1.0)

Sessions are usually held in a specific time slot on a court or group of courts. It's a social, fun way for players to get quality court time and meet fellow players in their area.

It's also a good way to share limited court space when you have high demand, which is almost everywhere these days in pickleball!

Organizing an open play pickleball session

First, let's take a look at the logistics of setting up your own open play session.

Pick your open play format

For open play pickleball, there are various formats to choose from. Pickleball is all about having fun, and that's especially true of open play sessions. The goal is to make sure that everyone gets a turn and that the rotation system is fair for all.

Here are four formats to choose from when organizing your session:

1. Mixed skill court/open rotation

This format is the easiest and most common way to set up an open play session. It's also the ideal format when you have a large group of players. When a game ends, both teams leave the court and get back in the queue, and four new players come on.

This moves the queue along more quickly, meaning more people get a game. However, it can have the disadvantage that the same two teams end up playing each other over and over, as they are bunched together in the line-up. We'll look at ways to avoid this problem later.

2. Challenge court

The challenge court system is where the winning team stays on and plays again. This isn't ideal if you have lots of players waiting to get some court time, but there are variations of this system that help move things along.

3. Skill-level court(s)

A mismatch in skill levels can be challenging when organizing an open play session. It's no fun for anyone when one player or team is significantly better than the other. This is why some open play organizers assign certain courts to certain skill levels.

For example, if there are six courts available, two of them could be reserved for beginners (rating 3.0 and below). Two courts are then reserved for intermediates (rating 3.5), and two for advanced (rating 4.0+).

This division creates a better experience for everyone since advanced players don't get frustrated playing with newcomers, while beginners get a chance to score some points.

Find out your pickleball skill rating

4. Organized games court

An organized games court system is basically a round-robin style, pseudo tournament. There are a couple of ways this can be organized:

  • 'Switch doubles' round-robin: Players are randomly assigned positions on a draw and rotate partners through a set number of rounds. This ensures each player plays the same number of games. Results are tracked and a winner is crowned at the end, which adds a fun, competitive spirit to the standard open play.
  • 'Teams' round-robin: Players arrive and stay with a set partner, playing every other team in the draw. A winning team is crowned at the end.

Equipment needed for open play sessions

Setting up open play sessions means taking responsibility for all the practical aspects of a game of pickleball, such as the nets, balls, and ball collectors.

Signage can really help to ensure everyone knows what's going on, such as the rules of play, the rotation system, and the skill-level assignments.

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A useful item for organizing player rotation is the 'paddle saddle' (more on that later). Court dividers are also handy if space is limited or you're playing on existing tennis courts.

However, organizers shouldn't need to do everything themselves. Many hands make light work, so remember to designate and crowd-source equipment wherever possible.

You can even use scheduling tools to request equipment from players in your group and track who's bringing what.

Graphic of the Pickleheads scheduling tool's chat service

Setting your open play schedule

As an organizer, you'll have to decide how often to hold sessions. Give power to the people—let the group decide by holding a poll. Ask everyone to choose the days and time slots that suit them. While you can't please everyone all the time, this system is the fairest method.

The Pickleheads scheduling tool makes this a quick and easy process—especially when you're dealing with a large group of people.

Graphic of the Pickleheads scheduling tool's open play schedule

Determine your price

Let's talk about the financials.

As an organizer, it's your job to figure out how much everyone should chip in (if anything). Many open play sessions have a drop-in fee to cover fees for the court, equipment, supplies, and insurance.

Tally up all the costs and make a calculation per player. Consider whether your players are used to paying to play, or would prefer to keep the costs down. Are there free courts available in your area, or do you have to use a private court?

Once you've figured out all the overheads and calculated a fair amount for players to chip in, you'll need a way to track and collect payments. Should you ask for cash, or can you use PayPal or Venmo?

This is yet another job that can be delegated. Ask around your group for a numbers whizz who'd be happy to take on the role. Again, the Pickleheads scheduling tool lets you easily communicate costs and send reminders to your group.

Communicating with players

A successful leader thrives on great communication, and this is just as crucial for you as an open play organizer. This includes everything from where players should park and what equipment they should bring to whether there's drinking water on site.

There are also times when you need to message everyone quickly, such as when canceling a session due to bad weather or when moving to a new location last minute.

While posting on a group Facebook is sufficient for certain cases, people can easily miss time-sensitive updates. Consider using instant messaging group chat services to ping the whole group immediately with important updates.

The Pickleheads scheduling also allows you to hold group chats at the session level. That way, you won't spam people in your group who aren't coming out to play that particular day.

Get the word out

We've talked a lot about managing your group, tips for queueing systems, and mass communication. But before any of those things become a concern, you need to actually get some players signed up!

There are plenty of ways to attract new players to an open play session. The most common is word-of-mouth, but you can also post a flyer at your local court or use technology to get the word out.

Facebook groups, email newsletters, and group chats on services are great technology options. You can also create a public session on the Pickleheads platform. This allows anyone who looks up a court to sign up for your session and become part of your pickleball group.

Graphic of the Pickleheads scheduling tool with a photo of people playing pickleball

With pickleball's current popularity, sometimes you'll already have all the players you can handle! In that case, marking your sessions as 'private' on the scheduling tool means only players in your selected group get the invite.

Find a court

Most of you already have a particular court in mind for your open play session. But if you want to do some research, try our pickleball court finder to find all the courts in your local area.

This tool is also helpful if your local court is ever unavailable. With 12,000+ courts to choose from across the US, you'll be spoiled for choice.

Once you've found a suitable court, send a group message to your pickleball group, and create a new open play session with everything they need to know.

Contact the facility

When planning your open play sessions, contact the owner or manager of the facility whenever necessary. Some court complexes are free to the public on a first-come, first-served basis, so make sure your session doesn't clash with any other group.

If the court is private or managed by an authority, check you have permission to organize a session there and that all players understand the relevant rules.

This includes finding out about parking, hours of operation, amenities, and any associated costs. Find out early to avoid later disappointment.

Organizing open play when courts are full

Pickleball's popularity is on the rise, with over 36 million players in 2022. We've suggested ways to grow numbers for your open play session, but often the problem isn't finding people to play—it's managing the sheer quantity of players eager to get involved.

With that in mind, here are some tips for those occasions when you have too many players and not enough courts.

Open play rotation systems

These formats are ideal for busy days when you want to make sure everyone gets a fair turn.

Four on, four off

This is the same as 'open rotation'. Once a game ends, all four players join the back of the queue and four new players start to play. This way, you get through players quicker and everyone gets an even amount of court time.

Challenge courts

We mentioned the 'winner-stays-on' system above and pointed out that it doesn't make for the fairest distribution of court time. So, on busy days you can limit the amount of games a team can play in a row.

For example, if one team keeps winning, you can set the rule that after the third win in a row, they must let another team take their place on the court.

Winners stay and split

This system is another variation of 'challenge courts' intended for when the queue for court time is very long.

Here, the winning team gets to play one additional game, but instead of playing together again in the second game, they have to split up and take a partner from the queue. This lowers the risk that one team will dominate the court and ensures everyone gets a go.

How to keep track of who's next

In a busy open play session, it can be hard to keep track of who's playing next. It's common for this to get confused, with players feeling like they've been skipped or aren't getting their fair turn.

As an organizer, the last thing you want is any form of dispute. So, pick a tracking system. Then make sure everyone fully understands and follows it.

The 'paddle saddle'

The most common method of keeping track of whose turn it is next is to use a paddle saddle.

A 'paddle saddle' is a great pickleball gadget that makes organizing open play sessions much easier. It's basically a rack or set of racks with tubes that hold your paddle handle, with a sliding 'NEXT' indicator to show which group of four is up next.

Pickleball paddles on a paddle saddle during an open play session

The tubes are divided into groups of four and are sometimes color-coded. As a group fills up, the next player in line adds their paddle to the group after that, and so on.

Branded paddle saddles work well, but they aren't cheap. Many players and organizers even make their own DIY versions. A DIY system can be constructed with a quick trip to a hardware store and a little patience. Plus, it will cost a fraction of the branded system's price.

Stack paddles

A more traditional tracking system is to simply stack paddles in a line beside the court. As you finish your game and the next players enter the court, you place your paddle at the end of the line.

There are various systems for stacking paddles using racks and buckets. A great option for busy days is having two stacks of paddles beside each court: one for losers and one for winners.

This means that players on that court slowly get divided into groups that better suit their skill level. In each game, the groups alternate. Just remind everyone to have their names on their paddles to avoid further confusion and delay!


The simplest technology often works best. For that, a good old-fashioned whiteboard can be the easiest solution for tracking queues in a busy open play session. Simply divide the board into four squares with space for four names in each.

As a list fills up, you can designate that group a court. Once they start playing, erase their names and continue.

Try designating a person to monitor the whiteboard and add names as people show up. This system also helps everyone to learn each other's names, further facilitating the sociable atmosphere of pickleball open play.

Folding chairs

Also described as 'musical chairs', this tracking system works by having a line of chairs or a bench along the side of the court. As a team stands up to play, everyone moves along to fill in the space. As players come off the court, they join the end of the line.

Don't forget that you can use a combination of these tracking systems in an open play session. You may find that advanced players on their designated courts prefer to use a paddle stack and that a whiteboard is more suitable for the beginner's courts.

Why not try different methods or poll your group to get their feedback?

Handling overcrowding

In open play sessions, overcrowding on the pickleball courts can become an issue. There are a few tactics you can use to avoid this problem and add some structure to the frenzy.

The key to this is making sure your format is suited to large crowds. Use a four-off-four-on system rather than challenge courts.

Players stand around a pickleball court at an open play session
Photo by Stephen Rahn on Flickr, marked as Public Domain (CC0 1.0)

Here are a few other tips for those jam-packed sessions.

Tips to speed up play

Shorten games

The most common way to speed up games (and rotation) is to shorten the games. Instead of playing to 11, have the games played to 9, 8, or even 7.

Rally scoring

Rally scoring is a variation of traditional pickleball scoring. It means that points can also be scored by the non-serving team (rather than only the serving team). Just like in tennis, the team that wins the rally gets the point, which makes games much quicker.

Use a timer

A fair way to ensure everyone gets a game on busy days is to use a timer. Start the clock when a game begins, and have players give up the court after a set time (e.g. 10–12 minutes).

Make your games competitive

Since players will get fewer games on crowded days, it's essential to make those games competitive. Here are some tips for achieving this:

Set up skill-specific courts

Divide your courts and designate where certain levels should go. Use player skill ratings to do this. For example, all players ranked 4.0+ play on one court together.

Make a ladder system

When you have several courts at your disposal, a method of making play more competitive is to move players between courts according to their performance.

Winners move up, and losers move down. This means players with similar skill levels end up competing against each other, making the session more fun for everyone.

Set skill-specific times

To make the games more challenging, you can divide your open play sessions into time slots. For example:

  • The first hour is for beginners
  • The second hour is for intermediates
  • The third hour is for advanced players

The key factor here is separating the beginners and giving them an allocated time, as they can really slow down play for everyone else.

A pickleball scheduling tool lets you set up skill-level-specific sessions so only players at the chosen level are permitted to sign up. Doing this ahead of time avoids confusion and skill-level mismatch at the actual session, making life easier for you while enhancing everyone's experience.

Bring extra equipment

A practical tip for those days when overcrowding is an issue: bring extra gear! Running out of balls is a real pain, and having a few extra portable pickleball nets allows overflow courts to be set up where possible.

Get an accurate head count

Last but not least: you need to know who's in or out! Try using a scheduling tool to get accurate head counts and player ratings. You'll then know ahead of time if overcrowding will be a challenge and can plan accordingly.

Accommodating beginners and advanced players

Pickleball is most fun when players play others of a similar skill level. When you have a wide range of skill levels attending an open play session, it's essential to have skill-level-specific courts and ensure they are clearly marked.

Another method is to mark a couple of courts as 'challenge courts', which will appeal to more advanced players.

Advanced players won't want to play against beginners, but beginners and intermediates often play up to improve their game and their skill ratings. This can be a challenging dynamic to manage as an organizer, but don't let it stress you out. Players will come to a solution 99% of the time.

Handling beginners

Open play sessions often attract players who have never played before. It's one of the beauties of these sessions—anyone can take part and enjoy a friendly introduction to our sport.

To manage these newcomers and make sure they have a good time without disrupting the other players, keep these tricks up your sleeve:

  • Make sure the open play rules are communicated through clear signage, as these players tend to be overwhelmed when they arrive and see a large group of people.
  • Provide a beginner handout with a QR code linking to information on how to play pickleball. Beginners get a quick crash course on their mobile device before heading out for their first game.
  • If you use a scheduling or communication tool, you can find out in advance who's a newcomer and send them resources like our pickleball virtual clinic.
  • Provide loaner paddles or balls in case beginners don't have the right equipment.
  • Have a dedicated beginner court (2.0–2.5) level for any newcomers.
  • Having dedicated times or courts for beginners is important. Some facilities host a 'beginner's night' once per week.
  • Beginner clinics are a great way to ensure beginners learn the rules and where to stand. We recommend hosting them at your court regularly.

Handling players who show up without signing up

There will always be that person who shows up without warning. You must enforce sign-ups—especially if court space is limited, and there is a player maximum. This keeps it fair for others and is important if there's a drop-in fee.

Here are some tips on managing this common situation:

  • Leave a sign-in sheet at the gate to track who actually signed up.
  • Let the unannounced players play, but remind them next time they won't be allowed to the session if they don't sign up.
  • Clearly explain what system you use and how they can sign up.
  • Help them create an account on Pickleheads.com so they have no issues when signing up for the next session.

Open play pickleball coaching and clinics

Pickleball coaching and clinics are a great way for players to advance their game quickly—especially for beginners. As an organizer, you can advise new players to get a couple of coaching sessions to bring them up to speed.

Check out our pickleball clinic for great tips

However, be careful of offering unsolicited advice or offending anyone. A 'light touch' approach is always best, and don't assume the rule of mentor unless you're asked to.

Promoting sportsmanship and social play

Etiquette is a key aspect of pickleball. Pickleball is famous for its fun-loving, relaxed atmosphere, and pickleheads are a polite and welcoming group. We're all here for a good time, so let's always keep that in mind.

Two players in the middle of a game of doubles pickleball at an open play session
Photo by Stephen Rahn on Flickr, marked as Public Domain (CC0 1.0)

What to do when players exhibit bad sportsmanship

Occasionally, you'll run into bad behavior during your open play sessions. When things get heated, you can experience players cursing, throwing paddles, or arguing with each other.

Advanced players can also be unkind to beginners, and take advantage of their innocence. For example, they might start another game instead of rotating off. All of this brings a bad vibe to the session and makes others not want to come back.

If you see any of this behavior, pull the offender aside and remind them of the rules and good sportsmanship. If they don't comply, consider asking them to leave. It can feel uncomfortable, but the rest of your attendees will thank you for it.

Handling injuries or illness during open play

As the organizer, it's your responsibility to think of people's wellbeing and safety. Try to have a first-aider on hand (if you're not one yourself), as well as a well-stocked first aid kit.

If you do need to take someone to a doctor or the hospital, choose someone responsible to take your place running the session.

Encouraging players to provide feedback about their experiences

To make your open play session as fun and rewarding as possible for everyone, encourage your group to give you feedback. You could send out a poll when making a decision about formats, times, or any number of decisions regarding the session.

You can also ask your group members for their suggestions once a week/month via a group messaging service. Your Pickleheads scheduler and pickleball group tools make collating and actioning this feedback a breeze.

Bottom line

Organizing a pickleball open play session can come with its own challenges, but overall, it's a whole lot of fun. Once everyone is dinking away and having a blast doing what they love, it'll all be worth it. Trust us.

We hope we've given you plenty of tips and advice on how best to organize your open play sessions. If you have any more ideas, we'd love to hear from you. Reach out via our social media.

In the meantime, keep spreading the word about our wonderful sport. We commend your efforts!


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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