When considering how to teach pickleball to beginners, don't overwhelm them with rules and strategies. Focus on getting them to return balls over the net and understand the double bounce rule before moving on to rallies and small casual games.
Start By Hitting the Ball Over the Net
When teaching anybody a new skill, the crucial skill is not to overwhelm them and allow them to learn sequentially. For this reason, there’s no use beginning with the history of pickleball, a full breakdown of the USA Pickleball rules and regulations, or a detailed deep dive into the pros and cons of different court positions.
Instead, for first-time players, your lesson plan should revolve around the crucial pickleball skills and rules that form the backbone of playing a game of pickleball.
Newcomers to the pickleball court need to understand two rules:
- The ball can only bounce once before being returned
- The ball has to go over the net
Most beginner pickleball players will quickly understand these ideas, so you can quickly move onto the next step: getting a pickleball paddle in their hand.
Nobody wants to be overwhelmed with theory when they’re learning a new sport. You want to get them hooked by getting them playing (albeit in a simple way) as quickly as possible.
For new players and complete pickleball beginners, one of the best drills for a first pickleball lesson is the return drill.
- Stand on the center line on one side of the court, with your students lined up on the baseline in the ready position.
- One by one, get them to run forward to the non-volley zone and feed them a groundstroke to return.
- Don’t focus on where it goes (yet) – just work on getting to the ball before the ball bounces twice and making sure their return clears the net.
- Once a player has struck the ball, they return to the baseline to join the back of the line, and the next player takes their place.
- When everybody has hit a forehand over, try feeding them some backhands. Don’t worry about technique yet, but start getting your students used to hitting the ball on both sides of their body.
This drill is a great warm-up, and gets new players combining shot-making and movement straight away. Once everybody is clearing the net more often than not, move on to the next step.
Move On to Rallies
Rallies are where playing pickleball really starts to feel like playing pickleball, and where the fun really starts.
Split your students into pairs or fours, depending on the size of your group and how big a space you have. Set up each group on a court, and get them to start rallying.
It’s crucial here that they don’t start playing matches, as trying to hit winners past each other leads to fewer chances to practice the basics and improve skill levels.
However, we want to start introducing gameplay and the sociable fun of competition. So, run a tournament between the groups: who can keep up the longest rally (most amount of shots) before a fault is made?
This keeps the exercise fun and engaging, allowing the students to feel the gentle pressure of competitive gameplay while still working as a team and improving their pickleball skills.
Take A Break and Explain
Once everybody has worked up a bit of a sweat and has gotten a handle on rallies, bring them in for a drink and a breather.
Now it’s time to explain the next rule needed to play a game: the understanding of the non-volley zone (NVZ).
Don’t worry about explaining the dynamics and strategies surrounding the kitchen for advanced players – they can get to that later. Just ensure they understand the crucial fact that under USAPA rules, they cannot volley inside the kitchen.
Play a Game
Once everybody is refreshed, it’s time to get down to business and play a proper game!
You don’t want people standing at the sidelines not doing anything, so I would encourage running multiple games at once and keeping everybody playing at all times.
Depending on how advanced your players are, you can decide how strict to be. I would encourage not using full serving rules at this point – the service boxes are relatively small, and constant faults break the flow of the game.
Instead, teach your students the basics of the underhand serve, but allow them to hit it anywhere (as long as it’s in the court!). This gets the rallies started and allows them to experience proper gameplay rather than having a constant struggle to get the point started.
While your students are playing, you can use the mistakes they make to give them pickleball tips on the fly, improving their technique.
For beginners, crucial things you want to look out for include:
- Are the players returning to the ready position after each shot?
- Are they hitting volleys beyond the NVZ line?
- Are they letting the ball bounce the correct amount of times?
- Do they follow through correctly, or simply bunt the ball back?
- Are they hitting backhands or running around the ball to stay on their forehand?
Again, try not to overwhelm them here. The key thing is getting a feel for the game. For each student, try to give them one actionable element of their game to work on (and give them lots of praise if they improve!). Only move onto something new once they feel confident and comfortable in the new skill they have learned.
If your players want to continue their technical development in their own time, try directing them to the USAPA website, which is full of useful hints and tips.
Alternatively, if you want to develop as a pickleball tutor, try checking out the training programs offered by the International Pickleball Teaching Professional Association (IPTPA).
Pickleball is a game of strategy and skill, and developing your tactical abilities is one of the most enjoyable parts of becoming a better pickleball player.
However, too much focus on pickleball strategy early on can feel like homework. Try not to dump too much on your students in their first lessons. Instead, sprinkle in the strategy tips as they come up naturally in the game. Basic strategies to develop include:
- Serving deep and to your opponent’s backhand
- Third shot drops to dominate the NVZ line
- Keeping your opponent moving across the court
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