4 pickleball players tapping paddles

Pickleball Lingo

Do you speak pickleball?  To truly understand the game of pickleball and to maximize your skills, you must learn to talk the talk.

First, the basics.

The court is divided into three sections by a baseline at the back and two sidelines, a center line through the middle, and perhaps most importantly, the non-volley line or kitchen line that runs parallel to the base line. This line, placed seven feet off the net, creates the all-important kitchen.

The kitchen, or non-volley zone (NVZ), is the definitive feature of a pickleball court and basically dictates how the game is played. Players can approach the net and hit volleys (balls out of the air) only from behind the kitchen line. Players can enter the kitchen and hit the ball, but the ball must bounce first. If a player’s foot touches the kitchen line while hitting a ball out of the air (volley or smash), that is a fault. Committing a fault means losing that point, but more on that later.

The inventors of pickleball must have quickly realized that allowing players to stand quite close to the net to hit volleys would make the game too easy for the offensive players and downright dangerous for the team trying to defend volleys and smashes. The ‘kitchen rules’ add a challenging complexity to the game, which brings us to the next level of pickleball parlance.

To prevent opponents from being able to easily ‘put away’ a volley or to smash down on a high ball, players attempt to dink the ball. (To put away a shot means to hit it sharply out of an opponent’s reach. Point won!) Ideally, a dink is a soft, controlled shot that bounces well inside the kitchen. A good dink bounces low, so players can’t hit down on it. An exchange of dinks or dink battle between skilled players standing near the kitchen line can be quite prolonged, with each side trying their best not to hit a high, ‘attackable’ ball that their opponents can put away. Players who managed to dink back an offensive shot are said to have reset the point, starting a new dink battle will continue until someone makes an error or hits a true winner.

Pickleball Paddle and Ball

Similarly, another key pickleball shot is known as the third-shot drop.  This is basically a dink that’s hit from the baseline on the third shot of a point. Here’s the term’s origin story: A player serves the ball, which counts as the first shot, but must wait for the return, or second shot, to bounce before hitting it. (There is no ‘serve and volley’ in pickleball.) Since most skilled pickleball players move forward to the kitchen line after returning a serve, the serving team must be careful not to hit a ball (on the third shot of a point) that can be easily put away by their opponents. A good third-shot drop should travel from the baseline and land in the kitchen just over the net. This takes practice, concentration, and a deft touch, but it’s worth the effort to get it right. It’s a key element of well-played pickleball, after all.

The alternative to a third shot drop is a low, hard and/or dipping topspin drive that the net player finds difficult to volley. Players drive the ball from the base lane with strokes that resemble the forehands and backhands of tennis. The faster one hits the third shot, the more likely to catch an opponent in the transition zone on the way to the net. This is akin to ‘no man’s land’ in tennis—players don’t want to stay there long as it’s difficult to volley balls that are landing at one’s feet.  A lob or high ball that travels over the heads of opponents that are rushing forward is another option. Just make sure it’s high and deep enough, or you’ll pay the pickleball price. Smash!

Related Terms

A dinner is a dink winner—a short ball hit so well it’s impossible for players to get it back in play. Hint—hit wide to an opponent’s backhand to increase your dinner chances.

Bangers are players who have largely decided not to ‘fuss’ with dinks or third-shot drops. They want to hit the ball as hard as possible, directly at their opponents at the net, if necessary. A good net player will enjoy that fast-paced action and simply block the ball back with their paddle with soft hands, hopefully directing the ball into the kitchen. (‘Soft hands’ means using a light touch, letting the pace of the ball do the work, rather than gripping the paddle too tightly and swinging, which often leads to unforced errors.) This short, deflected ball will be out of the bangers’ reach, as these players tend to hug the baseline. Oh, how that will frustrate the bangers who will start hitting even harder. Of course, savvy net players know when to step aside and let bangers’ balls fly long.

Foot faults are quite common in social pickleball. Once rallies get going, players are scrambling to retrieve every shot, eager to put away the first high ball. Sometimes that eagerness leads to stepping on the kitchen line while hitting a ball out of the air. That’s a foot fault. What many new players don’t realize is that you can’t step onto the kitchen line or into the kitchen after hitting a volley or an overhead—that’s a foot fault, too. If post-shot momentum carries a player into the kitchen, it’s a fault, even if the violation occurs after the ball has bounced on the opponents’ side.  Most important note about foot faults: Call them on yourself if you know you’ve stepped on the line at the wrong time. It’s all about preserving the integrity of the game.

Getting pickled means losing a game without scoring a single point. Ouch. A Golden Pickle is achieved when the first server wins the game, scoring all 11 points. Side note: It’s probably best to let the losing team point out such instances. No sense rubbing pickle juice in the wounds… (not a pickleball term… yet.)


Advanced Vocab

To hit down on the ball closer to the net but before it bounces, some players jump over the corner of the kitchen, contacting the ball in mid-air or after they’ve landed outside of the kitchen. This is called an Erne, named after pickleball pro Erne Perry who popularized the show-off shot.  A Bert is the same thing completed on a partner’s side of the court, which usually requires jumping in front of said partner in a mad dash to get to the ball. If you play mixed doubles, you’ve probably witnessed a Bert… ‘nuff said. 

An ATP or Around the Pole shot is completed when a player is pulled out of bounds to hit a sharply angled crosscourt return and somehow manages to hit the ball down the line into the opponents’ court. The ball doesn’t go over the net, but passes on the outside of the net post or pole and lands in. Often a desperation shot, an ATP is tough to execute but looks extremely cool when done right, so it’s worth a try when you’re otherwise out of options.

If a player purposely attempts to hit the opposing net player with a serve, he has served a Nasty Nelson, a maneuver made famous by top player Tim Nelson. The ‘nasty’ server wins the point if the ball makes contact with the opponent—paddle and/or all body parts count. Of course, if the net player ducks or steps out of the way in time, the serve is just plain ‘out’ and the server looks like a bit of a jerk. So, weigh risks and rewards before attempting the dreaded NN.

Similar to the Nasty Nelson is a tactic known as tagging. This means intentionally hitting an opponent with a ball during a rally to win a point. Of course, a player can tag opponents accidently, and it often happens as a result of a great shot—it’s part of the game. Not so sure it should be one’s go-to shot, especially when playing, say, the in-laws or grandparents.

Rally Scoring is another term picklers should know if they plan to play in tournaments, where it is becoming increasingly popular. In this system, the score changes after every point played. A team does not have to be serving to earn a point.

If for some odd reason you can only find two people who want to play pickleball on a given day, it’s worth knowing about Skinny Singles. This means playing one on one but using only half the court. Skinny Singles can involve hitting all balls crosscourt or down the line.  It’s a great way to practice specific shots and to get a good cardio workout without the need to cover the entire court.

Think you play better on the forehand side of the pickleball court? You might want to consider stacking. This is an advanced doubles strategy that allows partners to line up on the same side of the court while serving and then position themselves on their preferred side once the ball is in play. It’s often used in professional doubles, but not so much in rec play. The key is making sure you keep track of who is supposed to serve next and what side you’re meant to be on when returning. Many of us can’t keep such matters straight without stacking!

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