Pickleball is, according to Sports & Fitness Industry Association research, America’s fastest growing sport. The ease of access, simple gameplay, nonstop action, and social connection all make pickleball an instant attraction. Like any love affair, though, there are inherent points of contention — injuries, controversies, and the finer points of how to play pickleball being common sticking points. While The Manual has done its best to address the first two points, it’s critical to understand the finer elements of gameplay.
Pickleball rules might be easy to understand, but, like anything, it’s in the specific details that things can get muddy. We’re here to clean that up today, reviewing some of the most unusual and lesser-known pickleball rules and regulations to make sure that matches remain friendly.
Let’s just get an easy one out of the way first. USA Pickleball deems that, except for prescribed or necessary devices like hearing aids, “players shall not wear or use any form of headphones or earbuds during competition play.”
This is, of course, up to the people on the court, but in general and during serious play, personal audio equipment is a no-no even if Rage Against the Machine brings your game to another level.
Generally, pickleball is played outside. This means hats, sunglasses, goggles, sweatbands, and other gear are included in what players wear. In the course of vicious rallies, these accessories can fly off causing at least an interruption in concentration. When then, does this equipment loss also result in point loss?
According to The Pickler blog, a fault occurs if an item lands in the non-volley zone in connection with a volley — a volley defined as hitting the pickleball before it bounces. In other words, if a player strikes the pickleball in the air and a towel flies off into the non-volley zone, it’s a point for the other side. If the discarded item lands in the non-volley zone off the bounce, then no fault.
If equipment lands anywhere outside of the non-volley zone, on the court or not, play keeps going. This applies even if the pickleball hits the lost item. Obviously, it’s going to be tough to gauge the bounce off of a dropped hat or shirt, so make sure to keep things tight lest you lose a point.
Pickleball might be a loose game to play, but players are expected to control their apparel and keep their equipment in playable condition. Quick adjustments to apparel and equipment — tying shoes, cleaning shades, adjusting hat, etc. — are allowed between rallies. Time-outs and the two minutes between games are to be utilized for more complicated adjustments and replacing gear. Per USA Pickleball’s Official Rulebook, if a player or team is out of time-outs, the referee holds the key to determining the need for an equipment change or necessary adjustment, allotting a potential two-minute timeout.
Speaking of time, pickleball smartly instituted a 10-second rule to discourage those players who take forever to serve. (You know who you are…)
The USA Rulebook applies to both servers to receivers, “each of whom is allowed up to 10 seconds after the score is called to serve or be ready to receive.” It’s the server’s responsibility to make sure the other side is ready, but that 10 seconds is technically ticking as soon as the referee calls out the score.
If 10 seconds elapse without a serve, the ref can issue a technical warning. If this delay continues, referees can choose to award the opposing team a point. Again, this also applies to the receiving side, which has to be ready to receive the serve once the score has been called. Other than a distracting strategy, allowing more than 10 seconds between points drags the game out and lessens the competition if players are allowed to recuperate after every tough rally.
Competitors who need a break can call time before the serve. The rules allow players and teams two one-minute timeouts per each 11-point game. For 21-point games, this rises to three timeouts allowed.
As for serving, it’s pretty simple and there tends to be a lot of leeway in recreational pickleball, but there are some rules about the serving motion pickleballers should be aware of, especially in more solemn competition. For more serious players, let’s turn to the International Federation of Pickleball Official Tournament Rulebook.
Per the IFP’s official tourney rules, “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).”
Why is this important? Well, overhead shots produce more power. Skirting the gray area of this rule could give players a slight edge. So, if the paddle head strikes the ball above the belly button, this results in a fault. This is so important that the IFP even defines what “underhand” means.
“The arm must be moving in an upward arc and the paddle head shall be below the wrist when it strikes the ball (paddle head is that part of the paddle excluding handle. The highest point of the paddle head cannot be above any part of line formed where the wrist joint bends).”
Again, pretty simple with plenty of gray areas in action. This cuts out slicing, smashing, and top spin, unless players can achieve that via underhand serve. For a more in-depth exploration of the underhand serve, check out the Pickleball Channel’s extended guide:
Pickleball regulars likely know that when serving, the ball must clear the kitchen line. The kitchen is the seven-foot-long no-go zone for volleys. The line is two inches thick and a player’s serve cannot touch any part of this line, needing instead to completely clear it for a valid serve. If the ball hits the kitchen or the kitchen line, it’s a fault.
It’s also a fault if the pickleball grazes the net before landing in play space. The rule used to be that clipping the net then landing in the serving box was a let (like tennis), but that has evolved with the game.
Once a successful serve has landed, the ball is in play and can now land on any court line to stay in play. The only time lines are out is the back of the kitchen on a serve.
Speaking of line calls, this category lays out a few guidelines for line-calling. In general, pickleball is for fun, so it’s helpful to take a “do unto others” attitude unless money or professional rankings are on the line.
Again applying IFP tourney rules, players on line-calling duty must give opponents the benefit of the doubt to keep up fair play. To define who should make line calls, players can only make calls on their section of the court. Players should not question an opponent’s call unless the other player asks or if there’s an appeal to the referee. Judgment calls should be up to those with a perspective straight down the line. Calls need to be quick and made while the ball is still in play. Pickleball is a fast and furious game and calls can be tough. In general, just give your opponent the benefit of the doubt.
Ethics are important. People who find themselves in constant arguments need to examine either who they’re playing with or how good their eyesight is. Speaking of ethics, spectators may never participate in line calls. High-level pickleball competitions have already had past issues with this. If you’re watching a match, you are a spectator and therefore not allowed to have your say. So just zip it and enjoy the match.
Pickleball, like all sports, will continue to evolve with time, play, and technology. What will always remain is the game’s core philosophy: pickleball is meant to be a fun competition, so the Golden Rule is always a good default. Official rules are there to provide a level playing field and an accurate sport.
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