If you haven’t heard of pickleball yet, it’s only a matter of time: It’s been the fastest-growing sport in America for two years running.
And that’s with good reason! Pickleball is a fast-paced, exciting racquet game that’s simple to understand, easy for beginners to try, and available in more and more locations—and it even can be played on a tennis court if there aren’t pickleball courts near you.
Let’s cover the basics of this trendy game, and some reasons you should grab some friends or family and try it yourself.
First of all, there are no pickles involved. Pickleball is a racquet sport that uses wooden paddles and a plastic ball covered in holes. It’s around the size of a baseball.
The game can be played with two or four people (singles or doubles), and is kind of like a giant game of table tennis or ping pong. It’s played on a court that’s about half the size of a tennis court, with a slightly lower net.
The game’s rules are easy to learn, and new players can usually confidently play within 20-30 minutes. You can view a full summary of the game’s rules on the USA Pickleball website, but these six basic rules will help you get started:
Like other racquet sports, pickleball’s main rule is that the ball has to stay in bounds—inside the lines. There’s more to the game than that, but if the ball lands out, the other team wins the point.
The players that serve the ball stand at the baseline (the end line of the court parallel to the net). The serve must land past the “no volley zone” on the opposite side of the net, a seven-foot area on each side of the net.
Not only are serves not allowed to bounce in this area, but players aren’t allowed to have their feet in it when they hit any ball. This reduces the chance for stronger players to perform “slam” shots at the net, and reduces the amount of the court players need to run around in.
When the ball is served, the opposing team has to let it bounce before hitting a return shot. The serving team has to let that return shot bounce once before hitting it back. Once this has happened during a point, teams can hit the ball back without letting the ball bounce first, a type of shot called a “volley.”
If a team hits the ball over the net and it bounces twice before the opposing team hits it back, the team that hit the ball wins the point.
Only the team that is serving can score. If the non-serving team wins a point, they become the serving team.
Not only are the rules of pickleball easy to learn and understand, but the wooden paddle makes it easy to excel at the game right away.
With a tennis racquet, the ball can bounce off the edges of the frame instead of on the strings. But a pickleball paddle is wooden, like an oversized table tennis paddle. It’s got a huge sweet spot, so even if you don’t hit the ball right in the middle of the paddle, there’s a good chance you’ll get the ball over the net.
It’s also easier to serve in pickleball: Unlike in tennis, pickleball serves have to be performed underhand, so you don’t have to learn all the fancy ball toss and overhand arm swing that’s needed for successful tennis serves.
For the first few times over the net, the ball has to bounce, giving you more time to react to shots and successfully hit your own. Returning those first few shots and hitting successful serves help build beginners’ confidence, and makes the game more fun right from the start.
At pickleball events and clubs, you’ll also be paired with people of similar abilities. USA Pickleball has skill ratings for players that range from 1.0 (for a complete beginner) to 5.5 (for tournament-winning pros). At pickleball events, you’ll play with people of a similar skill and knowledge level so the game can be competitive and fun.
Even though pickleball players keep coming back for the camaraderie, it’s great exercise that does burn calories. The American Council on Exercise conducted a study and found that pickleball players burn 350 calories per hour.
But unlike in tennis or badminton, those calories aren’t burned with a lot of running and jumping. Pickleball is played on a court that’s about half the size of a tennis court, and players aren’t allowed to hit the ball while standing in the seven feet closest to the net. As a result, there’s not much ground to cover, and not much running. This is great if you’re not used to strenuous exercise or if you’re older.
This smaller court area with minimal running is why pickleball games sometimes pit young people against older players—and the older players are still able to be competitive. Instead of burning calories by running, you’ll burn most of those 350 calories by bending, stretching, reaching and smacking the ball.
Pickleball is especially popular among older adults. According to USA Pickleball, more than half of “Core” players, who play the game more than eight times per year, are over the age of 54. That’s partially because the small court doesn’t require much running, but it’s also because pickleball is such a fun, social sport. The game has become popular at senior centers and community centers, and players say they keep coming back due to the game’s social aspect—players make friends that they play against weekly.
And at some clubs and pickleball events, there’s an added way to make new friends: After each game, partners are asked to switch, putting them on the court with a new player. It’s a fun way to meet new people and keep the game fresh.
As we age, our exercise movements tend to be in a forward-and-backward direction—like walking forward, biking forward, or performing strength exercises like pushups and squats. And those movements tend to be slower, not quick and explosive like the sprints and sports movements we may have done as young people.
You know the saying: Use it or lose it. And when we lose the ability to move our limbs quickly and to the sides, we don’t just lose athleticism. We also set ourselves up to fall and that’s a big risk.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of four adults aged 65 and over fall each year, resulting in 3 million trips to the emergency room. When you fall, your body moves in unexpected directions—like sideways, instead of forward and backward. And to avoid hitting the pavement by catching yourself as you fall, your limbs need to move quickly.
Pickleball practices both of these things: You’ll be moving in all directions, including side to side and diagonally, to hit balls. And you’ll have to react quickly, training your mind and reflexes in a way that could help you avoid a stumble.
There are more than 10,000 places to play pickleball across the U.S., and that number’s growing all the time. You can find a court or club on USA Pickleball’s “Places 2 Play” website by searching your area. The game can be played indoors or outdoors using the same equipment, so it’s a great option to stay fit all year.
Once you know the rules, you can set up your own pickleball court anywhere—you can use some chalk on your driveway, string some rope between chairs or poles to serve as your “net,” and buy your own paddles and balls to get started!