There are many different theories and methods for teaching beginners the game of pickleball. Many clubs offer beginner lessons and skills clinics. More and more players and professionals are offering their knowledge for a fee, every one sharing a different philosophy.
I too, have my own philosophy on how best to teach beginners and I’ve created a simple curriculum to start with the basics. We are using this plan at Toledo Pickleball Club (Ohio) on Monday nights in our Beginner/Novice Training sessions, and I’d like to share that plan with you.
First, lets define WHO should be attending these sessions.
- Beginners – a beginner is someone who has NEVER played pickleball before. They are a clean slate, waiting to be taught the very basics of the game.
- Novices – a novice is someone who might have come to open play once or twice, but is not comfortable playing with others yet. Perhaps they can hit the ball, but they don’t know anything about court position, and they don’t understand scoring yet.
That’s who we want to see on our beginner/novice training nights. If you have played pickleball in an organized game and have an understanding of court position and scoring, this would not be for you.
My philosophy of teaching is that you have to start beginners at the beginning, and teach the very basics first. The progression of adding skills in the order they are needed in a game situation will best prepare them to learn how to play the game.
We begin our sessions with a few words about safety (proper footwear, balls entering the court, running backwards, etc), and point out the court lines (sideline, baseline, center line, NVZ line). We mention the importance of warming up, however we don’t teach warm up drills at this session. Anyone interested in learning a few of those are welcome to come to us afterwards for that.
Step 1 – THE SERVE
A game can’t start without a good serve, so we start by teaching how to serve.
- My philosophy – I’ve seen many lessons start with two beginners trying to tap the ball over the net to each other, as if they were dinking. The balls are going into the net, or being popped up. In my opinion, this is an intermediate skill that is difficult to perform at this level, and doesn’t need to be taught until much later. In addition, if you are going to put people at the kitchen line, you have to teach them the NVZ rules which only fills their heads with information they don’t need yet.
- Getting the feel for the ball on the paddle is important at this stage. Starting with the serve allows the beginner to hit the ball with a full swing, yet gives them a target to aim toward. This will help them to adjust their swing harder or softer, in order to hit the service court.
Start by explaining the rules of a proper serve.
- Upward motion (avoid saying “underhand” as some people legally use a backhand stroke)
- Paddle must be below the waist when it strikes the ball
- Paddle must be below the wrist when it strikes the ball
- Body must be inside an extension of the sideline when ball is struck
- Server must be behind the baseline when serving the ball
- Serves are always made to the service court which is diagonal from they are serving from (point out the service court)
- Explain that the ball MUST cross the NVZ line completely, but all other lines in the service court are considered GOOD.
- DEMONSTRATE – a few serves from the right and then the left sides
EDITED 5/2/2022 –
Last year, USA Pickleball added rules to include a “drop serve,” which allows the server to drop the ball and hit it after the bounce. The ball can be dropped from any height but cannot be thrown, tossed, or otherwise released with any added force to bounce it. This is a great addition to help players who struggle with serving.
NOTE: With the drop serve, there are no specific rules governing where you drop the ball or how you strike the ball. The only thing that matters is that your feet are behind the baseline when you strike the ball. By this, I mean you are not required to have an upwards motion or to have your paddle below your wrist at impact. Obviously, the ball will not bounce above your waist, so there’s no need to say you have to strike the ball below your waist!
Demonstrate the drop serve to your students. Remember, if using the drop serve, the student must DROP the ball. No propulsion downward or toss upwards is allowed.
DRILL – Serve – Catch
- put four players on the court at the baselines, one at each service court.
- give a ball to two players on the same side
- players will practice serving to the opposite service court
- Let the players decide which serve they would like to use, or try them both
- receivers will catch the ball (Stress that they need to CATCH the ball! At this point in beginner play, you will have chaos if they hit the ball back! The drill is to learn to SERVE. Returning the ball will come next!)
- After they catch the ball, the same player will serve it back
- again, receivers will catch the ball
- repeat 5-10 times (depending on time) then have players change to the opposite service court and repeat.
- NOTE: if you are outside and there is wind, also change ends and repeat so players are able to hit both with and into the wind
You have now allowed players to not only learn how to properly serve the ball, but also to get the feel for hitting the ball with a full swing, and also see how the ball will bounce when it is hit to them.
Step 2 – RETURN OF SERVE
A game of pickleball progresses with the return of serve, so it makes sense that this would be the next step in the learning process.
Explain to your students:
- The ball must bounce before you can hit the return (this is the beginning of explaining the two bounce rule)
- The best returns are hit deep to your opponents baseline
- no need to explain why at this point, just tell them so they will attempt to hit their returns deep
DRILL – Serve – Return – Catch
- place four players on the court, same as in previous drill – all at the baselines
- give a ball to two players – one in the right service court, and one in the left service court on the opposite end
- players will serve to the correct service court
- receiver will let the ball bounce once, then hit it back over the net.
- NOTE: explain to the receivers that their return can be to any spot on the opposite court. Remind them to try to hit returns deep.
- players on serving side will catch the ball
- Again, in order to preserve the integrity of the drill, you must stress that they catch the ball after it is returned!!
- Repeat with the same servers 5 times, then change servers
- Repeat until all four players have served and returned
Step 3 – TWO BOUNCE RULE
Next, we want to continue the progression of a rally by allowing the players to hit a third shot. Therefore, it is time to explain the two bounce rule. Players have already learned that they must let the ball bounce before returning a serve. Simply add that they also have to let the ball bounce before they hit the third shot.
- NOTE: Don’t tell them how or where to hit the third shot. Simply let them hit it.
DRILL – Serve (bounce one)- return (bounce two) – third shot – allow to continue until they fault
- This drill is very simple. Serve the ball, one bounce, return the ball (deep), two bounce, third shot.
- Allow the players to continue hitting shots as if in a rally, as many times as they can before faulting.
- As you are coaching, you might verbally call out “One Bounce” before they hit the return, then “Two Bounce” before they hit the third shot. This will create a pattern in their minds.
- As they continue their rallies, if they go into the kitchen, stop play. Simply explain that it is not allowed, but that they will learn that rule in a future lesson.
By now, your beginners have learned how to start a game (serve) and proceed with a rally. There’s still lots to learn, but that’s enough time for a first lesson.
Although we discussed court position, as they are having fun rallying after the third shot, I begin to casually share some court position advice. For example, I will tell the non-receiving player to come to the kitchen line when their partner is the service receiver. After a rally or two, I will stop them and ask if they realize why I have put them in that position? Sometimes they have already figured out that they don’t have to let the ball bounce by the time it comes to them because the two bounce rule will already have been fulfilled. Often you can see the light bulb go on in their heads, as it starts to make sense! That’s when we know our beginning lessons have been successful.
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If you are in the Toledo area and would like to join our Beginner/Novice Training sessions, look for our Facebook page (Toledo Pickleball Club) or send me a message through this site! I’ll hook you up! (Summers only)