pickleball rules

The Rules Of Pickleball – Everything You Need To Know

Barrett Kincheloe article, Basics, beginner, Rules 79 Comments

The rules of pickleball are important to understand if you want to play the sport well. As you’d expect, pickleball rules are very similar to other racket sports like tennis. Hitting into the net or not letting the ball bounce twice are standard rules that they share. But pickleball has some unique rules that you only see in our sport.

The International Federation of Pickleball (IFP) is the group that governs pickleball rules. It’s prudent to own a copy of the IFP rulebook for your reference. I’ll be showing snippets of it in this article, but it’s always nice to have a physical or digital copy on hand. You can go to this website to download a copy.

I won’t be giving you every single rule in pickleball. I will only be giving you the ones that you need to know and a little extra at the bottom of the article. An understanding of these rules is all you need to get started playing pickleball.

We’ll start with the basics first, move into the beginning of a point then onward to the end. At the end of the article, you’ll know all the important rules so that you can get started playing pickleball. I’ll also include some extra rules that are interesting to know but don’t pop up very often. These rules are more important to know if you’re going to be playing pickleball competitively.

OK, enough chatting, let’s rock!

Let’s start with the basics

Here’s the thing about pickleball. It’s super easy to learn and even easier to play. But it’s also very difficult to master. Pickleball is a beautiful combination of ease of play and extreme complication. But before we get into the actual rules, I want to give you a basic rundown of how these types of sports work just in case you’re completely new.

If you’re already familiar with racket sports, you can safely skip this section.

How racket sports work

Racket sports are a bit different than most types of sports. They typically involve these elements:

  • You play on flat ground that is typically a tennis court type material.
  • You hit a ball with a paddle or racket of some sort
  • There is a net that you have to hit over

That’s pretty much the gist of racket sports. Pickleball is one of the sports and the newest of the bunch.

A few pickleball terms

I first want to explain what a “point” is in pickleball because I will be using it a lot in this article. If you want to learn more terms I wrote a more in-depth article about them.

A game or match of pickleball lasts until one team reaches 11 points. In competitive play, matches will sometimes last for 15 points. A “point” in pickleball is a section of the match that lasts from when the serve is made until either team wins the point.

A point can end either because the ball bounced more than twice or because either team made a fault. A fault is just the racket sports version of a foul, flag, or penalty. It symbolizes that a rule has been broken and the point is over.

The beginning of a point

There’s one rule in particular that governs how a game begins. And that is which players serves first. Whether the match is just beginning or your team is starting its first serve, the player on the right side of the court will always serve first. If you win the point, the serving team is awarded a point, and the partners switch places.

Let’s talk about some more rules that happen at the beginning of a point.

Basic scoring rules

The first thing we’ll go over is scoring. I won’t explain how scoring works in this article, but we’ll go over some rules that govern it.

As I mentioned earlier, most pickleball games go to 11 points. But you don’t just go to 11 points and then win automatically. You also have to win by a margin of 2 points. This means that if the opposing team has 10 points and you’ve just scored your 11th point, then you have to keep playing because you haven’t won by 2 points yet!

The game continues indefinitely until ether team wins by 2 points. That’s how you win in pickleball.

The Double Bounce Rule

Besides the kitchen rules, this is one of the most important rules to understand when you’re a beginner. Trust me though, once you get used to this rule, it will become second nature to you, and you’ll never break it again.

The Double Bounce Rule states that the ball has to bounce once on the serve and again on the return serve. From the IFP rulebook:

“4.H. The serve, and the service return must be allowed to bounce before striking the ball. That is, each side must play a groundstroke on the first shot following the serve. After the initial groundstrokes have been made, play may include volleys.”

Just to clarify, a groundstroke is where you hit the ball after it has bounced on the ground. A volley is where you hit the ball out of the air before it has bounced.

The Double Bounce rule says that you can’t volley on the first two shots after the serve has commenced. When the server hits the ball, it has to be returned as a groundstroke (the ball has to bounce). Then, when the serving team hits the ball back, they also have to hit a groundstroke. The reason why this rule exists is so that you can’t just stand at the net and smash the ball. The game would be impossible to play without this rule.

Keep in mind that the bounce requirement does not include the ball bouncing on the net. It only counts if it bounces on the actual court floor.

Serving rules

Similar to other racket sports, a pickleball point gets started when one player serves to the other side of the court. There are a lot of serving rules in pickleball, and I’ll need to go over almost all of them. They’re very simple though. Most of the rules just govern where you can serve, how you serve and where you have to stand.

Serves are always made cross-court. Like this:

If your serve successfully makes it over to the opponent’s service court (the big rectangle) without hitting the net, then the serve is good. We’ll talk more about some specific rules about this later.

Serving motion rules

There are a few rules that govern how serves have to be made in pickleball.

All serves in pickleball have to be made underhanded. There is no overhead serving as you see in tennis. Here’s what the IFP rulebook says about serving:

“4.A. Serve Motion. The serve must be made with an underhand stroke so that contact with the ball is made below waist level (waist is defined as the navel level).”

To make this kind of stroke work, your arm has to be moving upward, just like how you would pitch in softball or something similar. When you think about serving in pickleball, just think underhanded.

As the rule above also states, you must strike the ball below waist level. This rule is very easy to follow and is almost never broken. Realistically, you have to be trying your hardest to break this rule. Keep in mind that the rule specifically states waist level which is where your navel (belly button) is. This is different than the hip level which is a few inches below your waist.

Server positioning

There are rules affecting where players can stand and plant their feet while serving. Server positioning rules are easy to follow and become second nature once you get used to them.

The easiest way to remember where to stand when you serve is to pretend like you’re surrounded by three imaginary walls. Here’s what they look like.

There are three lines that you cannot cross when you serve. The baseline, the sideline, and the centerline. The baseline is the line that’s right in front of you. The centerline is the one that’s always in the middle no matter what side you’re serving from. And finally, the sideline is the one on the side of the court.

Your feet always have to remain inside these three lines and the imaginary extensions of them. This is why I have those red arrows drawn out in the image above.

The serve itself

OK, let’s talk about the serve shot itself.

Like I mentioned earlier, the ball has to be served cross-court and must clear the net. Also, the serve can never bounce on the ground before you hit it. But there are some more requirements for a serve to be good.

The serve must never land in the non-volley zone (kitchen), even if it hits the net beforehand. If it does, it’s an automatic fault, and you lose the point or serve. But it’s also a fault if it hits one of the kitchen lines. This can be the kitchen line itself or any of the side kitchen lines. Check out this image:

As you can see, the serve can never hit the kitchen or its court lines. However, a serve is considered good if it hits the sideline, centerline, or baseline that is not a kitchen line. Now check out this updated image.

The green lines are the ones you can hit, but the red lines are the ones you can’t. Any serve landing outside the green lines is a fault. If this doesn’t make sense now, it will once you start playing. Just always keep this in mind. Never serve into the kitchen!

Serving lets

OK, here’s where things get interesting and a bit more complicated.

You may have heard of a “let” in tennis or another racket sport. A “let” is a fancy word for a do-over. It’s basically where a soft rule was broken, but they’ll let you retry the serve. Lets are called only on serves.

The most common type of let that you’ll see is where the ball hits the net, then bounces over into the service quadrant. The ball is otherwise good, but since it hit the net, the referee or players call “net” and the server retries. There is no limit the number of lets a server gets.

The referee can also call a let if there has been a distraction near the court or if an object lands in the court during a serve.

The key aspect to remember with serving is that it’s not a let if you serve, hit the net and the ball bounces into the kitchen or hits a kitchen line. That’s a fault instead of a let.

More serving faults

There are a bunch of serving faults to go over so let me just give you a list of them to remember.

  1. If you miss the ball entirely when trying to serve
  2. If the served ball hits you or your partner or anything they’re wearing
  3. If the ball touches any permanent object before landing like a basketball hoop or wall decoration.

That covers it for serving. Some of the most common serving faults involve serving the ball outside of the opponent’s service court and serving into the net. Don’t worry; it happens to everyone. The important rules to avoid breaking are the ones that are simple like stepping over the baseline. But as I mentioned earlier, the more you play, the easier these rules are to deal with.

Rules during a pickleball point

Once the serve has been made, the teams can begin playing out the point. Assuming that the double bounce rule hasn’t been broken, the teams are now allowed to volley the ball. Like I said earlier, a volley is where you hit the ball in mid-air before it had a chance to hit the ground. Vollies are powerful shots that are fun to make.

The problem with volleys though is that there is one section of the court that prohibits the use of volleys: the kitchen.

The kitchen rules

The kitchen is a colloquial term for the non-volley zone. As the name suggests, this is an area of the court where no volleys are allowed. I showed it off above, but here’s another picture of the kitchen.

As you can see, the kitchen extends 7 feet from the net, and from sideline to sideline. The kitchen rules are the most notorious rules in pickleball and are unique to the sport. It’s important to know these rules like the back of your hand.

Here’s the most important concept to understand about the kitchen. You cannot volley a ball and be standing in the kitchen or on a kitchen line whether the momentum of the volley took you into the kitchen or if you hopped out of the kitchen to volley a ball.

Here’s what the IFP rulebook says about the kitchen.

“9.B. A fault will be declared if, in the act of volleying the ball, a player or anything the player is wearing or carrying touches the non-volley zone or touches any non-volley line. For example, a fault will be declared if, in the act of volleying the ball, one of the player’s feet touches a non-volley line.”

In general, you cannot be standing in the kitchen and volley a ball at the same time. But an important part of this is that the kitchen is the physical ground, not the air above it. This means that you can safely volley a ball if your paddle is above the kitchen as long as your foot is not in the kitchen or on the kitchen line.

This is also why when you watch advanced players play, they all seem to be standing just a few inches away from the kitchen line. This allows you to be as close as possible without actually going in the kitchen.

And yes, the rule does include anything you’re wearing. If your hat falls into the kitchen after you volleyed a ball, it’s a fault! This part of the rule is commonly broken when someone volleyed a ball then quickly loses balance. To not fall into the kitchen they will stick their paddle out and prop themselves up. But if their paddle touches the kitchen, guess what? Fault!

Momentum and intention

As I alluded to above, it’s considered a fault if your momentum makes you fall into the kitchen, even if your feet were outside the kitchen during the strike. Let’s see what the IFP rulebook dictates.

“9.C. A fault will be declared if, in the act of volleying the ball, the player’s momentum causes the player or anything the player is wearing or carrying to touch the non-volley zone or touch any non-volley line. It is a fault if the player’s momentum causes the player to touch anything that is touching the non-volley zone, including the player’s partner. It is a fault even if the ball is declared dead before the player touches the nonvolley zone.”

They’re serious about these kitchen rules, aren’t they? Yes, if the momentum that was caused after you volleyed the ball made you step into the kitchen then that is also a fault.

The way you avoid breaking this rule is to just never touch the kitchen even if you won the point with a volley. Just stay away from the kitchen if you’re volleying balls.

There’s one more kitchen rule that we have to go over. It’s all about intention. It’s a fault if you’re in the kitchen and you jump up to volley the ball and land outside the kitchen. This is breaking the intention of what the kitchen rule is designed to protect again which is people standing at the net smashing the ball. Keep in mind that this does not include side-post smashes. It’s OK if you jump from one area to another and volley a ball. But this is only OK if your feet were never in and did not ever touch the kitchen or kitchen line.

I wrote a deeper article about the kitchen rules here if you want to read more about it.

Other rules that you should know

We’re done with all of the main rules of pickleball, but I wanted to include some extra ones. The reason why I’m including these is that you’ll need to know these in case you play serious and competitive pickleball.

10-second rule

This is a neat little rule that involves serving. From the time the referee calls out the score, you will have 10 seconds to serve the ball or be ready to receive the serve. This rule works on both sides of the net. If you don’t serve within that timeframe, then it’s a fault, and you will lose your serve.

This is crucial to know because if you need to mess with your shoe or something similar, then you will need to take a timeout. Don’t risk it.

As I said, this also works on the other side of the court. If you’re receiving the serve, you can’t just lollygag around and expect there not to be consequences. You have 10 seconds to get ready for the serve. If you’re not ready, the referee will award a point to the serving team.

The reason why this rule exists is so that people don’t re-energize themselves after a hard-fought or long rally. This rules makes sure that the game continues at a normal pace and doesn’t take forever.

Touching the net

You can never physically touch the net with your body or anything you’re wearing. To do so will incur a fault. It doesn’t matter if it was just your shirt whipping a side post or something like that. It will be a fault no matter what. Just pretend it’s an electric fence and you’ll never go near it!

Distraction rules

I’m glad that there are rules like this in pickleball. I could never imagine someone intentionally doing this, but you can’t distract your opponent before they hit a shot. Stomping your feet or yelling at your opponent before they hit will be a fault on you.

However, this also includes if you were yelling at your partner. You could be communicating loudly to your partner and doing so while your opponent is swinging. If they mess up the referee could call a distraction fault on you. It’s OK to communicate to your partner, but make sure it’s not too loud.

Double hits

It’s always hilarious when someone accidentally hits the ball twice. Of course, you can’t hit the ball twice regularly, but you can sometimes. The rule states that if you hit the ball twice with your paddle, it’s legal only if it was a single, continuous stroke. If you pump twice at it then it’s a fault. But as long as it was one stroke, then it’s perfectly legal.

Wrapping up

That wraps up my article about pickleball rules. I know that was long, but once you get a grip on these rules, you’ll be an advanced pickleball player in no time. Thanks for reading and let me know what you think in the comment section!

Sources: IFP Rulebook – http://ifpickleball.org/

Comments 79

  1. Does one team serve throughout an entire game (11 points) alternating turns between the partners or do you change serve teams from one team to the other -every 5 serves like tennis – or how often?

  2. If you and your partner both volley the ball over the net “in unison” (hit paddles by accident) is it legal? Both partners are outside the kitchen.

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  3. Hi Barrett, I see quite a few people serving the ball straight out of their hands, meaning the ball doesn’t release from their hand prior to contact with the paddle. Is that legal? I know a couple of guys I played with said it is not, and the ball has to be free from the hand when making contact. Love all your videos btw. Great stuff!

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  4. I went through the rules and didn’t find anything addressing this question: can the server spin the ball before it contacts the paddle with the intention of getting more spin on their serve?

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  5. I have a question about loose balls rolling onto your court from an adjacent court during play. I know that you are supposed to stop play when the foreign ball enters your court, and I believe you replay the shot that was in progress when the loose ball entered. What it you completed the play and then then the foreign ball rolls into your court. I assume in this case you don’t replay the shot on your court?

    1. Maybe I am misunderstanding but you seem to be asking if you need to replay the point if a stray ball rolls on the court after the point is over. To me it seems that once the point is over the ball subsequently rolling on the court would not cause a replay of the completed point. It would delay starting the next point.

  6. We have to play in a small gymnasium in the colder months. If the ball bounces correctly after being served, but hits the wall after it bounces, can you return it fairly before it hits the floor? It’s a tight space between the court and the wall.

    1. Two bounce rule would still apply in my opinion. We play in a similar space and for deep serves you have to make your return quickly after the bounce to avoid being driven into the wall.

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      No. You must hit it before it hits any permanent object. The way you do this is by hitting a short hop. Get your paddle down real low to the ground and let it bounce off the paddle near the floor.

  7. I have a comment on a serve. I was standing near the kitchen line while a serve was to be given to my partner. The server intentionally served and hit me with the ball and said that was his point because I was crowding the kitchen line. Is this true?? Said it is same in tennis.

  8. We have a player who likes to hold a ball in her hand whether she’s serving or not. Other players find this distracting, and we’ve asked her not to, as here should only be one ball on the court at a time. She said she wants to see the “rule” about this.

  9. In singles if the ball hasn’t bounced once on each side yet and the person I’m serving to causes the fault do you still trade service? If so I’m thinking the person who isn’t serving could deliberately cause a fault where no points are scored and get the serve back.

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      If your opponent faults then the point is yours and you continue serving. It works differently than tennis. I have a scoring article on the site if you want to check that out.

  10. Barrett I play pickleball twice a week and I have a question about the rules. When someone lobs the ball over my head I like to jump up with both feet off the ground to do a overland smash. Is this legal or do you have to keep one foot on the ground. Thanks joe

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      You can jump as much as you want and with as many feet off the ground as you want! Just don’t step in that kitchen when doing a volley! Thanks for stopping by!

  11. When returning the ball, I know it is considered acceptable to hit the ball hard at the opponents body. But is there some kind of rule preventing a player to hit an over head shot intentionally to hit an opponents face or head. I vaguely remember reading in the rule book that a fault can be called if the referee believes the player was intentionally trying to cause harm to the opponent. I am unable to find anything in the current 2018 rule book about this.

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      There is no rule for hitting aggressive shots at people. However, a referee can call a warning or dock points after the warning if it’s obvious that the player is intentionally trying to physically harm the opponent. That stuff is unacceptable and is up to the referee to make that call.

  12. What is the ruling if a ball in play bounces on my side of the court and then bounces over the net to the opponent’s side. No one on my side has touched the ball. Is the ball still in play or not?

    Thanks

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      1. This actually happened in a game this week. Team A dinked the ball over the net with so much back spin it bounced back over the net and play ended (nobody knew what to do). Team A concluded that they won the point because nobody on Team B touched it. Are you saying that Team A would have lost the point – Team B doesn’t have to touch it to propel it over the net?

  13. We are just stating to play and learn the rules. We understand the two bounce rule but my wife thinks if on serve the receiver misses the ball and it is in bounds, ever tho it only bounces one the server gets the point. I believe it has to bounce twice to be in play and thus win a point. Which one?

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      No, it only has to bounce once. If the ball bounces once, the receiver misses it, and then it bounces out of bounds, the server gets the point.

      The double bounce rule has nothing to do with the ball bouncing twice on each side. It means that the ball has to bounce once on each side of the court.

    2. Does your hand have to be in contact with the handle of the paddle when striking the ball? Can you be holding the paddle face?

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  14. Pingback: Pro-tips to win big at your local Pickleball tournament – Western Pennsylvania Healthcare News

  15. Server at serve stands and bounces ball on paddle many times then serves and or server bounces ball down and up to paddle at serve line many times. Legal ? Server stands ready to serve then suddenly sidles along serve line and serves from new spot before receiver can compensate. Legal?

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  16. My partner hit the ball at the same time I hit his paddle with my paddle. I was standing in the kitchen. Is the ball still in play? I didnt hit the ball I hit his paddle.

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      That would be a fault because you were physically connected with your partner when you hit the volley.

  17. Hi, if the ball breaks during a play what is the rule? For example-on my serve the ball landed legally and cracked upon impact so it failed to bounce. We replayed the point with a new ball…what’s the rule?

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      It depends. If the ball hasn’t bounce and you hit it, then the ball is in play. However, if the ball bounces out of bounds, you call it out then hit it, then it’s OK. A dead ball is called at the exact moment the ball hits out of bounds, so whatever happens after doesn’t matter. Thanks for stopping by!

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          It can only be hit by the wrist all the way to the end of the paddle. If it hits above your wrist (the arm), then it’s a fault.

  18. When hitting a volley shot your feet can not enter the kitchen. Must the player wait until the ball has passed the kitchen in the air to volley it? Can he reach into the kitchen and take it out of the air as long as his feet do not touch the line or cross over the kitchen line?

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      No, you can volley over the kitchen all you want. The kitchen is the physical ground on the floor, not the space above it. Check out my video about dink volleys for more on that topic.

  19. Hello Barrett,

    Does the receiver of the serve have to be behind the base line until the server hits the ball? We have always played this way but the other day come told us this is not a rule.

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      That is not a rule. You can stand wherever you want. The only thing that matters is that the right person is receiving.

  20. The posts are positioned deadcenter on the two sidelines (20 feet ) apart and the players receiving the ball during a rally hits the ball back, it hits one of the post and the ball falls into the opponent’s side of the court! Is it a point for the opppnent and why??????!????

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      The net posts are not supposed to be directly on the sideline. They stand one foot outside the sideline.

      The rules state that you cannot hit the net posts. I know it’s frustrating, but those are the rules. If you hit the net post, it’s a fault.

  21. If you hit a Ball off yourself but it goes over the net in play, is it a legal shot or was the point over when you hit it off yourself?

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      The ball can strike from your wrist downward. So if it struck in that area then it’s fine. But if it struck anywhere above that, then it’s a fault.

  22. I’m just learning pickleball myself and have been out in charge of the YMCA’s pickleball. Basically I am learning it because I was given the job of setting up and overseeing. I did get the international pickleball rule book but it’s not easy trying to look things up when I’m asked in the fly. Latest I was asked was if the serve was supposed to come to you, it lands in your quadrant but your partner hits it instead is it a fault. It makes sense that it was so I called it. But I wanted to check on it anyways. I’m mainly working with newbies and people who have never played before and leave my other net to seasoned players, who still call me over for a rule call. Thanks

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      Yes, the serve is always cross-court and it has to be hit by the player in that quadrant. Your partner can’t hit your serve for you.

  23. If a serve hits the person being served to in the foot outside the court line, is it considered out or a point for the team serving?

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  24. Is there any rule in pickleball about holding 2 paddles at the same time? Being able to play both forehands with 2 individual paddles.

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      1. When I am receiving a serve, my partner stands at the kitchen line with his two feet standing over the center line, is this legal or must he stay only on one side of the court.

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  25. I returned a shot that hit the net post and then bounced into the opponents court. Is the ball still in play or out? Thanks.

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  26. if a ball breaks during the serve and the return of serve is a winning return whats the ruling. Is the serve replayed ?

  27. we are being told that the return after the serve (2nd bounce rule) that after crossing the net it must bounce in the service court, that if it bounces in the kitchen on the 2nd bounce it is a fault – I see no mention of this in the rules.

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  28. Good morning Barrett,
    You are volling the ball and it hits your opponent’s hand and goes over the net in the playing area. Is it considered a playable ball, or is it dead.

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      If the ball hits at the wrist and above all the way to the tip of your paddle, then it’s a good ball. If the ball didn’t bounce, then it’s considered a volley. So if he was in the kitchen at the same time, then that would be a kitchen foot fault.

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  29. I was told that during a game when I hit a short angled shot that landed in but was at sharp angle that the returning team could hit it into my court but not crossing over the net. I thought the ball alwasy had to cross over the net to be in play?

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