Full Guide: How to Score in Pickleball

TL;DR Summary

In pickleball you can only score points on the serve. (The receiving side cannot score a point.) At the start of every serve the person serving will shout out three numbers in doubles (e.g. “5-2-1”) or two numbers in single play. If it’s doubles, the game starts with player on the right side (or even court) will serve to the play who is opposite diagonally. Service then moves to the left side (or odd court).

  1. What does the pickleball score (three numbers) mean?
  2. Who can score points? (only the serving team)
  3. Serving? Score a point by winning the pickleball rally
  4. What score do you need to win the game?
  5. Hints: How to score in pickleball as a beginner
  6. Rally Scoring: A different way to score in pickleball

What does the pickleball score (three numbers) mean?

In doubles pickleball, the player serving will call out three numbers before every serve. As an example, the player might yell, “5-2-1!” 

  • The first number represents the serving team’s current game score.
  • The second number represents the receiving team’s game score. 
  • And finally, the third number indicates which server (serving player #1 or serving player #2) is about to serve the ball. 

In singles pickleball, you omit the third number. There’s no concept of a first or second server on the team. Since the server shouts the score before each serve, spectators and players can easily keep track of the game without a scoreboard.

But how exactly does one go from 0-0-2 to 1-0-2? Let’s talk about how to score in pickleball and how to put some points up!

Who can score points? (only the serving team) 

Unlike other racquet sports like tennis, in pickleball, only the serving team can score points. If you are on the serving team, you can win points. 

If you are on the receiving team you cannot win any points in this rally. Don’t despair. Instead, you can prevent the serving team from scoring a point. Furthermore, when the serving team does not score a point in a rally, it gets one step closer for you to become the serving team. Stay focused!

Serving? Score a point by winning the pickleball rally

Now you’re serving (or on the serving team)! The next step to scoring a point is to win the rally. 

Generally, you want the receiving team to commit a “fault.” A fault is basically as any pickleball rule violation. Here are the most popular faults in pickleball:

1. The ball goes out of bounds

If the receiving team hits the ball out of bounds or is unable to return a ball that bounced on their side before it goes out of bounds, the ball is “out.” Play stops and the serving team wins a point.

2. The ball is volleyed from the non-volley zone

Following the rules in the “kitchen” is one of the things that makes pickleball unique! If the receiving team volleys the ball (hits the ball out of the air) while in the kitchen, the player committed a fault!

3. The ball is hit into the net

You get that perfect dink that skims right over the top of the net and the receiving team has to hit the ball from really low and… THWAP! The receiving team just couldn’t get enough height on the ball to get it over the net. Your opponent hits the ball into the net — you score a point!

Hitting good dinks will help you win more points: Learn How to Master Good Dinks

4. The ball strikes a player

Oof. You volleyed the ball right into the opposing player. Did that player just call you a “banger”? Was that a compliment or an insult? Well, no time to think about that now since getting hit by the ball is a fault so your team just picked up another point.

It’s not always on the receiving team to commit a fault. There are plenty of ways for the serving team to commit a fault. Of course, the serving team can commit the same faults the receiving team commits, but the following two faults are for the serving side only:

5. The ball is served incorrectly. 

If you are serving, make sure to follow the proper rules on how to serve. To put the ball in play, you have to:

  • Serve from the correct side
  • Serve from behind the line 
  • Hit the serve past the opposing side’s kitchen (or non-volley zone) onto the side diagonal from you on the court

6. The ball is volleyed before the two-bounce rule is satisfied

Sometimes beginner teams forget about the two-bounce rule. When the ball is returned to your side after the serve, beginners are so excited they just want to hit the ball out of the air and keep the rally going! But wait! Make sure to let the ball bounce this time! You can whack it out of the air next time.

Fortunately, as the serving team, your side does not lose the serve until two faults are committed. After your first fault, serving moves to the second player on your team, server #2. After your second fault, your opponents become the serving team and you are now the receiving team. The exception occurs when you are the first server of the game. In that case, you’re playing as server #2 (0-0-2!). Service will immediately switch sides upon your first fault.

What score do you need to win the game?

A typical pickleball doubles game will continue until one team scores 11 points. The winning team must also win by 2. For example, if Team A has 11 points and Team B only scored 5, the game is over and Team A has won. However, if Team A has 11 points and Team B has managed to score 10 points, the game will continue until one side has 2 points over the opposing side. In tournament play, the games might go to 15 or 21 points but the “win by 2” requirement remains.

Hints: How to score in pickleball as a beginner

If you’re a beginner pickleball player playing against other beginners, our advice to you is two-fold:

  1. Learn the rules of the game. The easiest way to reduce the number of faults you commit and to recognize the errors of other beginners is to know the rules and follow the rules. At first, the service rules and the non-volley zone rules can seem complicated but understanding them is critical.
  2. Be patient and practice, practice, practice! Don’t immediately jump to the fancy slices, trick backhands, or Ernes. Instead, focus on improving the basic skills of serving and dinking. Try to extend the rallies and wait for your opponents to make an error while you minimize your own errors as much as you can.
Want to learn some advanced pickleball shots like the Erne? Check out What Is An Erne and How Do I Master It?

Rally Scoring: A different way to score in pickleball

There are a number pros to switching to rally scoring:

  1. It would be easier for new players to understand
  2. Courts would be less crowed because the games would be faster
  3. The game would be more marketable

Since each rally would be a worth a point, rally-scoring games tend to go much faster. This is the case even with winning score being bumped to 21 (win by 2). As the game has exploded in popularity, rally-scoring would also allow more rotations especially when there are limited pickleball courts available.

Bonus: A different method of scoring in pickleball! Although it is not part of the official pickleball rules, some people believe “rally scoring” is becoming popular enough that it might become a thing. The main difference in rally-scoring pickleball is that a point is scored on every rally, by any side that wins the rally, regardless of who is serving. There are a few other nuances to the scoring that we won’t cover here but keep your eyes open for this increasingly popular variant in pickleball scoring!

Importantly, many believe that rally scoring would make pickleball better for viewers and more marketable. Maybe this will help pickleball get into the Olympics! (Pickleball is not an Olympic sport… yet. Read more about what it takes to become an Olympic sport and when pickleball may enter the Olympics.)

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