Ultimate Guide to the Best Pickleball Paddles for Beginners
Pickleball has become one of the fastest-growing sports in the world, and for a good reason. It’s a fun, social, and competitive game that’s easy to learn and can be played by people of all ages and skill levels. Like any other sport, there are a few key things you need to know and understand before you start playing your first match of pickleball. In this article, we’ll cover some of the basics of pickleball, including familiarizing yourself with the court setup, how to understand scoring, get a skill rating, and basic strategies of pickleball like serving, dinking and aiming. With this basic pickleball info, you’ll be able to grab a paddle and play your first game of pickleball with confidence!
Understanding how to keep track of the score is an important aspect of playing the game of pickleball. Managing the score is quite a bit different than most sports because, before any serve, you will need to call out 3 numbers: your score (as the serving team), the receiving team’s score, and your server number.
When you first begin a game of pickleball, the first server will say 0-0-2 or 0-0 START. The game starting server will be a 2 so as to make the game a little more fair. This is because, in pickleball, if a server serves and a fault is made, then the partner on the serving side gets to serve next.
Once both servers, 1 and 2, have served and had faults during the game, then the serve will go to the opponent’s side to serve. You can only score points if you are the serving team. If you are on the receiving team, you must act defensively and have good strategies in place to get the ball back to your first server so you can start earning points. The goal would be to get the opposing team to cause a fault or not be able to return the ball.
Most games are played to 11 points, and a team must win by 2 points. There are some instances, (such as tournaments), where a game may be played to 15 or 21.
Strategies Of Pickleball
Now that you understand scoring a bit better, it’s good for you to understand how to implement strategies to help you earn points and win your game! Check out some of the key pickleball strategies for beginners mentioned below.
Get To The Kitchen Line
As a beginner, many people will tell you this was a huge help to them once they figured out they needed to get to the kitchen line.
The first thing you’ll need to understand and may ask yourself is what IS a kitchen in pickleball!?
The kitchen (also known as the “non-volley zone NVZ”) is the area on each side of the net that players are not allowed to step into and hit, if the ball is in mid-air. The kitchen extends 7 feet from the net on each side of the court. It’s advantageous to use this area within your pickleball strategy to dink the ball back and forth within the kitchen or land your third (drop shot) into the kitchen. This forces your opponent to need to wait for the ball to bounce into the kitchen, since you are not allowed to step into the kitchen if the ball is in mid-air.
By strategically hitting the ball into the kitchen periodically throughout your game, it helps slow down the game. This is especially beneficial if your opponent finds a way to get you out of position, away from the kitchen line. By hitting the ball into the kitchen, you’ll have more time to get back to the kitchen line to be able to defend your side of the court.
It’s important to know, as a beginner, when you’re able to step into the kitchen. If a ball bounces into the kitchen, you can step anywhere into the kitchen to return the ball. If a ball is mid-air, you cannot step into the kitchen to hit the ball back. That logically makes sense because, otherwise, people would be slamming the ball when they are right next to the net!
So When Should You Get To The Kitchen Line?
Let’s paint this picture if you are the server or if you are the receiver.
From a server’s perspective: Once you serve the ball, the receiver hits the ball back into your court, then your goal would be to have your third shot drop into the kitchen, which gives you a little more time to run to the kitchen line, allowing you to defend your court with your partner at the kitchen line.
From a receiver’s perspective: Once the server serves the ball to you, you, (the receiving team) needs to hit the ball back to the serving team. Then the serving team needs to let the ball bounce before hitting the ball back to you.
One of the most important things to recognize here is what’s called the Double Bounce Rule (sometimes known as the Two-Bounce Rule). This means that the ball must bounce once in each team’s court before the teams can start a volley or hit the ball out of the air.
Ultimately, getting to the kitchen line and finding ways to get back to the kitchen line when you’re out of position is key to earning points in pickleball. When you and your partner are at the kitchen line, you are in a much better position to defend your court. It also allows you to slow down the game and dink or to speed up your game when your opponents may not be expecting it.
KEY TIP: If you aren’t fast enough or agile enough to make it to the kitchen line in one play, you may also ‘transition’ to get to the kitchen line. This means, if you hit the ball to your opponent then run halfway up the court and stop. Stand your ground. Receive the ball again, then move up to the kitchen line. The most important aspect of the transition is making sure you actually stop and be prepared to receive the ball should it come to you.
How To Strategically Return A Serve & Aim
As a beginner, once you’ve figured out how to make solid contact with the ball, you’ll need to learn how and where to strategically aim when you are hitting the ball to your opponents.
When returning a ball that is served to you, there are really two ideal areas to aim for. First, I want to point out that it is ideal to aim the ball cross court, (diagonally), from you. This is key because if you hit the ball back directly in front of you, your opponent will likely hit it right back to you because they know you’re trying to get up to the kitchen line. It is difficult to try and hit a ball well if you’re in motion.
One strategy to return a serve cross court is to return the ball deep. The reason you want to return the ball deep into the court is because, many times, players may try and creep up instead of waiting for you to hit the ball back to them. By hitting the ball nice and deep into their court, they may not be expecting that type of hit and may struggle to get the ball back over the net, giving you the advantage.
Another strategy for returning a serve is to hit the ball to your opponent’s backhand. More often than not, a player’s backhand is weaker than their forehand. If you can aim to their backhand, you have a better chance of your opponent not being successful in returning the ball over the net.
When you’re not returning a serve, basic aiming skills are good to understand. Your goal is always how to earn a point or get the ball back to your side to serve so you can start earning points. Therefore, understanding where you can aim the ball, to make it difficult for your opponent to return the ball, is key.
It is ideal to aim the ball at a player’s feet, especially when you have the opportunity for a hard hit or slam. This is another reason why it’s so important to stay tight at the kitchen line. If you see your opponent backing off the kitchen line or mid-court, that’s a great opportunity to hit the ball right at their toes. That makes it difficult for your opponents to return a ball like that. Even if they are able to return the ball, it’s more likely that they will pop the ball into the air, giving you the opportunity to slam the ball again.
Another area to aim for is your opponent’s wrist, armpit, or mid-body. Now, just to be clear, you never want to try and hit your opponent’s with a ball, but by strategically aiming the ball at a player’s wrist, armpit, or middle of the body, that makes it incredibly difficult for your opponent to move out of the way in time and get into position to be able to return the ball back over the net. This tactic is especially useful for you if you are giving your opponent a hard hit to these areas.
Dink & Repeat
Although pickleball is known to be a fast-paced game, it’s advisable to regularly dink throughout the game. A dink is a soft shot that is hit with finesse and precision, causing the ball to barely clear the net and land in the kitchen (also known as the ‘non-volley zone’). The goal of a dink shot is to keep the ball low and slow, within the kitchen, making it difficult for your opponent to return the ball with power or speed. Dinking is a common strategy used in pickleball to control the pace of the game and create opportunities for winning shots.
Dinking is also a great strategy to help you or your partner get back to the kitchen line if you find yourself out of position. For example, if your opponent hits a lob shot deep into your court, let’s say you run back there to receive the ball. When you hit the ball, if you land it right in the kitchen, it forces your opponent to have to wait for the ball to bounce before they can step into the kitchen to hit it back. By landing your ball in the kitchen, this gives you a small window of opportunity to get back to the kitchen line, into position, to better defend your court.
Be In Ready Position
Pickleball is even more fun when you’re able to return any ball handed to you. One key strategy to being able to return a ball that comes your way is to strive to always be in ‘ready position.’ In simple terms, ready position means you are ready to receive the ball. This means that you are stable, have your paddle in ready position, and your feet placed. Let’s break ‘ready position’ down so you better understand how to be ready to receive a ball in pickleball!
Many beginners make the mistake of trying to receive the ball while they’re in motion, running to the kitchen line. Being in motion doesn’t allow you to have full control over the ball and your aim. It’s also likely that your opponent will try to hit your feet if you’re in motion.
Make sure your feet are planted about shoulder width apart or a little further apart. Stay on the balls of your feet with your knees slightly bent so you’ll be ready to move if you need to.
Have Your Paddle Ready
When receiving the ball, your paddle should be about chest high and in an upright position. If you’re a player who uses two hands for a forehand or backhand shot, it’s also recommended to keep your non-dominant hand level with your paddle so you can have quicker reaction time.
How To Determine Your Pickleball Skill Rating
As a beginner, you may be interested in knowing what your skill rating is! Maybe you have a table tennis, badminton, or tennis background and feel like you’re better than someone just starting out with no sports experience.
In pickleball, a skill rating dictates a player’s ability and proficiency in the sport. Skill ratings are typically used to match players of similar skill levels in tournaments, leagues, and other competitive events.
There are two things you should know about a skill rating:
- Many people self-rate. This means that you can look at the skill rating information below (which can also be found on the approved USA Pickleball website), and determine your skill rating that way.
- To be given a skill rating, you must play in a sanctioned, USA Pickleball approved tournament. If you are playing in a tournament that uses www.pickleballtournaments.com then you will be given a rating automatically because it uses a sanctioned software approved by USA Pickleball.
To help determine a self-rating for yourself, check out the skill ratings below:
This player is a novice at pickleball and lacks any experience in other sports. They possess a limited comprehension of the game’s regulations.
This player’s experience is limited, but they are capable of maintaining a short rally with players who have comparable skills. They also possess a fundamental ability to keep score.
Able to hit a medium paced shot. Unable to maintain consistency or have directional intent.
Avoids backhand. Uses only forehand shots, which provides limited control over the direction and consistency of the ball.
SERVE / RETURN:
Capable of striking a shot with moderate speed, but struggles with accuracy in terms of distance, direction, and reliability.
Inconsistent in maintaining a dink rally, and has yet to master the skill of controlling this particular shot.
Generally hits a shot with moderate speed but struggles to aim.
Capable of hitting a shot with moderate speed, but struggles with accuracy and consistency in terms of direction.
Possesses a good understanding of the basics, and is in the process of acquiring proper court positioning skills. Familiar with the fundamental rules, capable of keeping score, and has progressed to playing in tournaments.
Has developed better stroke technique and has a moderate level of control over shots.
In the process of acquiring proper stroke form and beginning to achieve consistency, but prefers to avoid using the technique if there are other options available.
SERVE / RETURN:
Able to consistently get the serve/return in play, but struggles to control the depth of the shot.
Has improved consistency in hitting shots but still has limited control over the height and depth of the ball. Able to sustain rallies of medium length and is beginning to grasp the concept of varying the pace of shots.
Working on developing the drop shot as a means to approach the net.
By being able to volley medium paced shots, has been able to improve shot control.
Able to move swiftly towards the non-volley zone (NVZ) when the opportunity presents itself, and is aware of the distinction between hard and soft game. Beginning to incorporate a variety of shots into their gameplay during recreational and tournament play, and is capable of sustaining short rallies. In the process of acquiring proper court positioning skills, has basic knowledge of stacking, and can recognize situations where it can be advantageous.
Able to hit shots with consistent depth and control, but is still working on improving shot selection and timing.
With improved stroke mechanics, has been able to achieve moderate success in hitting a backhand consistently.
SERVE / RETURN:
Able to place a majority of serves/returns with a range of depth and speed variations.
Has developed increased consistency in shots with moderate control over height and depth, but may sometimes end a dink rally prematurely due to impatience. Beginning to discern between balls that can be attacked and those that cannot.
Attempts to gain an advantage by selectively alternating between soft shots and power shots, but with inconsistent outcomes.
Capable of volleying various shots at different speeds, and is in the process of improving consistency and control. Beginning to comprehend the concept of block/re-set volley.
Demonstrates an awareness of their partner’s position on the court and moves in a coordinated manner as a team. Capable of changing direction offensively. Possesses a comprehensive understanding of the rules of the game. Makes a moderate number of unforced errors per game. Has a sound grasp of stacking and understands when and how it can be employed in match play. Starting to identify weaknesses in opponents and formulate a game plan to exploit them. Seeking out more challenging competitive play opportunities.
Exhibits a high level of consistency and effectively utilizes pace and depth to force errors from opponents or set up the next shot.
Capable of directing the ball effectively with varying depth and pace, while maintaining good consistency.
SERVE / RETURN:
Able to serve with power, accuracy, and depth, while also varying the speed and spin of the serve.
Able to consistently and offensively change shot types with a high success rate. Recognizes and attempts to hit attackable dinks.
Capable of consistently executing effective 3rd shot strategies that result in an advantage and are difficult to return. Able to intentionally and accurately place the ball.
Capable of blocking hard volleys directed towards them and consistently dropping them into the NVZ. Comfortable hitting swinging volleys and consistently hitting overhead shots, often resulting in putaways.
Displays excellent footwork and moves proficiently in all directions using weight transfer to optimize efficiency. Able to change direction with ease and comfortable playing at the non-volley zone. Demonstrates effective communication and movement with partner, seamlessly “stacking” court positions. Possesses strong strategic knowledge, adapting playstyle and game plan according to the opponent’s strengths, weaknesses, and court position. Maintains a limited number of unforced errors.
FOREHAND | BACKHAND | SERVE / RETURN:
This player demonstrates a high level of ability to hit all shot types from both the forehand and backhand sides, including touch, spin, and pace, with precise control to create offensive opportunities. They exhibit exceptional touch from all areas of the court and have developed an impressive range of variety, depth, and pace in their serves.
Has mastered the dink and drop shots, and can effectively move opponents with precise shot placements. Exhibits patience during rallies and strategically changes the pace of dinks to create opportunities for attacking.
Has achieved mastery in choosing and executing effective 3rd shot strategies, resulting in numerous opportunities to win points. Demonstrates high consistency in executing both drop shots and drive shots from both the forehand and backhand sides.
Can effectively block hard volleys and consistently execute drop shots into the non-volley zone. Demonstrates ease in hitting overhead shots for winners. Able to consistently direct volleys towards opponents’ feet. Comfortable with swinging volleys for both initiating and attacking/neutralizing returns.
This pickleball player has achieved mastery of the sport’s strategies and can adeptly vary their approach and playing style in competitive or tournament matches. They are skilled at turning defensive shots into offensive opportunities and utilize efficient footwork with effective weight transfer to enhance their quickness on the court. They can easily and rapidly adapt their playing style and game plan based on their opponent’s strengths, weaknesses, and court position. Moreover, they rarely make unforced errors during play.
This player is a highly skilled and accomplished competitor, evidenced by their impressive performance record and numerous tournament victories, demonstrating their ability to consistently perform at a top caliber level.
Now that you know some of the most important aspects of playing pickleball as a beginner, get out there and play your first game! If you’re not sure where to start playing, feel free to check out our Where To Play Pickleball page on our website.