How to Create a Team Pickleball Program

I’ve learned a great deal about team pickleball playing three seasons in the Arizona Pickleball Players League (APPL), winning three State Championships, and from the season I also played pro team pickleball for the Surprise Stingers – here is a link to our first match so you can watch the MLP style of team pickleball:  It remains to be seen how popular professional team pickleball will become, but the popularity of amateur team pickleball is exploding.  In 2024 APPL had more than 400 teams, with about 4,700 men and women playing nearly 300,000 games.  APPL is extremely popular, and their format is expanding to many other states across the country.

Why is team pickleball so popular?  In a word, team pickleball is more fun – particularly when the play involves teams that are fairly balanced by skill/ability levels.  When you dig a bit deeper into why it’s more fun, you will find team pickleball builds better/deeper friendships and is the best format for skill development.  Remember – pickleball is more fun when played well!   Deeper friendships develop because with team pickleball you play frequently with the same group of players – not just random players who you will not likely not play with regularly or perhaps ever again.  Your pickleball skills improve because teammates help each other to play more effectively by supporting experimentation, trial behaviors, and offering encouragement.  Plus, high-quality pickleball training can be most cost-effectively applied in a small group environment.

Which Team Pickleball Format is Best – the Pro or APPL Versions?

I love APPL, but their format of team play requires much larger numbers of players and the three games of an APPL match are played at the same time, making it difficult to impossible for teammates to support and coach each other during matches.  Using the Major League Pickleball (MLP) format, you only need four players, two men and two women, to form a team; plus, two players watch, coach, and cheer for their teammates during all games because the four games of an MLP match are not played simultaneously on multiple courts.  In the MLP format of team pickleball, four games are played involving two or each teams’ players – two at a time.

Note: The remainder of this article assumes the MLP version of team pickleball will be adopted.

How Team Play is Structured

Four-person teams play with two men and two women. The competition begins with a woman’s doubles game, followed by two mixed doubles games, and then a men’s doubles game.  If the games are tied two games each, I recommend a Super Seven doubles game in which the winner is the first team to reach 7 points – win by 2.

Each team has one person designated as the Team Captain.  The two Team Captains meet prior to the beginning of a match to use Rock-Paper-Scissors to determine who serves first and which teams are on which sides of the court.  I recommend all four games be played on a single court, so two team members play while their two teammates offer encouragement and coaching.  The winner of a match is determined by the number of games won.  If the match is tied 2-2 after completing four games, the Team Captains decide which two players from each team will play in a Super Seven Tiebreaker game.  The Team Captains again use Rock-Paper-Scissors to determine who serves first and which teams are on which sides of the court.  When rally scoring is used, each game to 21, win by two, should require about 15 minutes to complete, so with short breaks between games, matches can be played in about 90 minutes.  

What is Rally Scoring?

Games are played to 21, win by 2.  At the start of a service turn, if a team’s score is 0 or an even number, they serve from the right side.  If their score is odd, they serve from the left side.  When a team is serving, the players alternate serving. A team may only get one chance to serve on their turn. If they lose the first point on their serve, the serve goes over to the other team.  Teammates cannot switch sides during a game and “stacking” is not allowed.

Why Rally Scoring is Used

Points are scored when serving and returning, so games are fast-paced and are more uniform in length – about 15 minutes or so per game (90-minutes or so for a match, including breaks between games).  You won’t have to worry about games dragging on and on or difficulties in scheduling because with side-out scoring you cannot know how long a four-game match would take.  Rally scoring is particularly appropriate for seniors playing in hot climates. Rally scoring, which is growing in popularity, conforms to the scoring systems of most other racket/paddle sports, and USA Pickleball is currently approved rally scoring for singles event.  

Sounds Easy – How Do You Get Started?

All you need are four men and four women to make two teams.  Two things you quickly learn are team pickleball is much more fun when the teams are evenly matched, and it can get boring quickly if you always play against the same team.  One thing you can do is rotate players between the two teams.  Another option is to create more teams.  Four, evenly matched teams are a sufficient number to provide some varied and exciting competition.

With four teams, as an example, the teams could meet by themselves once per week to have team-base training, drills, and/or practice games among themselves.  On other days, Team Captains could arrange for” practice matches” against another team on an ad hoc basis.  And then if you can an organized schedule, you can have “real” games that are scored, accumulated, and communicated among players and teams, often using a phone app.

My recommendation is to try team pickleball with just two or three teams, informally, to get some experience with this format.  If and when you feel this format is as exciting as I’ve found it to be, then you can expand and formalize it to create a larger team pickleball program.

Creating a Larger Team Pickleball Program

How can you structure a team pickleball program for say 100 or so players?  You can easily up-scale the size of your team pickleball program, but keep in mind, fair competition is the key.  For larger groups of players on a dozen or more teams, it makes sense to create competitive groups or Flights, based on skill and age. 

You begin by inviting a range of players, who possess at least 2.5-level skills, to participate by completing a questionnaire that identifies their skill level and age.  Next, you assign the players into one of four Flights:

Flight One

Higher-level 2.5 and some 3.0 players. Understands the fundamental elements of pickleball strategy. Demonstrates the ability to hit medium paced forehand shots but are inconsistent with these shots and often avoid hitting backhand shots.  Hit serves with modest power but often lack depth, direction, and consistency.  Not able to consistently execute third shot drops and sustain dink rallies.  Inconsistently hits volleys, typically with medium pace only.  Often has difficultly returning lobs and accurately targeting overheads.  This Flight consists of a combination of higher-level Novice players and some lower-level Intermediate, 3.0 players who are over the age of 72, and/or with some significant physical limitations due to illness and/or injury.

Flight Two

Mid- and higher-level 3.0 players. Comprehensively understands basic pickleball strategy, including target selection, positioning on the court, and the importance of moving quickly to the no-volley line.  Consistently demonstrates the ability to hit medium and occasionally, powerful forehand shots, but it still somewhat inconsistent with backhand shots.  Consistently hits relatively easy block and punch volleys, but does not yet have an effective roll volley, or re-set shot. Can adequately reach and return lobs and overheads, but often without careful targeting.  This Flight is comprised of Intermediate, mostly 3.0 players, many of whom are over the age of 72, with few, significant physical limitations. 

Flight Three

Mostly 3.5 players.  In addition to thoroughly understanding several different pickleball strategies, occasionally utilizes poaching techniques, “Ernie,” and ATP shots.  Understands when to attack and when to execute “set-up” shots.  Consistently executes deep serves and returns of serves.  These players are developing greater consistency with their roll volleys, punch volleys, overheads, reset shots, and are beginning to develop an effective offensive lob.  This Flight is comprised of 3.5 players, along with a few older 4.0 players who have developed significant physical limitations.

Flight Four

Mostly 4.0 and higher players. This Flight is composed primarily of particularly competitive, generally younger players.

If your team pickleball program is larger, you can consider developing five Flights.  At many pickleball clubs/programs I’ve visited in the southwestern U.S., I would expect to find around 20% of potential players to qualify for Flight One, 30% – 35% to qualify for Flights Two and the same for Flight Three, with the remaining 10% -20% in Flight Four.

Forming Competitive Teams

Once players are assigned to Flights, the process of constructing teams can take place.  When initially inviting players to join a team pickleball program, I like to ask them if there is one particular person, at the same skill level, with whom they would like to partner.  This might be best friends, or doubles partners.  Next, you need a small team of evaluators who are somewhat familiar with the players in any given Flight, to form the teams within each Flight.  This team-formation process is very important.  You don’t want some teams “loaded” while others in the same Flight are not competitive.

Four Versus Six-Person Teams

You need four players to form a team, but what happens if one or two of your players is not available?  One option is to construct six-player teams so each team will have two players available as substitutes.  This way each team already has an extra male and an extra female player in the event of illness, injury, or schedule conflict.  This also makes it possible to add players who might not want to play regularly.  One problem with the six-player roster is that it simply requires more players to begin playing in a team-based format. 

As an example, let’s say you want to get started playing team pickleball and you only have 12 players who are at the same approximate skill level.  You could begin with three, four-person teams or two teams with six players.  In this case, the six-person teams would require all matches to be played against the same two teams.  That could get a bit boring quickly.  With the four-player option, you could construct three teams, thus avoiding the problem of always having the same opponents.

Ideally, you should have four teams, comprised of players with the same approximate skill levels, to provide the variety of competition you would prefer.  This would require a total of 16 versus 24 players with the same approximate skills, depending on whether you have four versus six person teams.  

Having four-person teams makes sense if all four team members are going to be available nearly 100% of the time for matches, practice matches, training/drilling sessions.  However, if a significant number of players are not likely to be available to this extent, it might be better to create six person teams.

Using Substitute Players

Once the teams are formed, schedules are made, and play begins some players might have schedule conflict and/or might not be able to play due to illness or injury.  You don’t want to have to forfeit games for this reason.  There are at least two ways to deal with this problem.  One way is to ask for players who may not want to be regularly assigned to a team or to a replacement “pool,” from which Team Captains could find substitute players.  If a replacement pool is used, a separate pool should be created for each competitive Flight. The other way is for each Team Captain to designate one or two players on their team how can also play as a substitute for another team, when necessary and requested.

The Role of the Team Captains

Each four-member team has one player who is also the Team Captain.  The Team Captain plays an important role, not the least of which is finding replacement players when a team member is unable to play. 

Initially and each season, new players will join the team pickleball program.  With the information obtained through the application process, players will become “certified” to play within one specific skill/age Flights.  Some of these Certified players will immediately join teams while others could be initially assigned to a Replacement Pool for a specific Flight.  Team Captain may draw from their Flight’s Replacement Pool to replace or substitute for team members who cannot play in specific matches.

Team Captains are also responsible for reporting any problems with unsportsmanlike conduct or any inequities or unfairness in play to the team pickleball organizers.  Team pickleball does involve competition, but fairness and equity must be maintained within an environment that is welcoming and fun.  We should be seeking “friendly’ not “cut-throat” competition.

Team Captains are also responsible for communicating match results either electronically through an app or by text, email, to the person responsible for summarizing and sharing match results.  Exactly how this process works can vary significantly from organization to organization. 

The Length of a Team Pickleball Season

When you have relatively short seasons that continue for eight to ten weeks, you have more time to stop and change the composition of teams to make the competition fairer and more balanced.  It’s not fun when one team is consistently losing matches because they don’t have the skills needed to be competitive, or because they have several players who are missing many games due to illness, injury, or personal matters.  Short seasons provide more opportunities to “make things right,” and move on to another season.

The numerous adjustments made possible by shorter seasons tend to enhance the opportunities for skill development by allowing players to learn from a wider range of partners.  After eight to ten weeks playing with the same partners, you’ve already learned a great deal from one another.  Because we have a great number of “snowbirds” in Arizona, it might make sense to have three different seasons each year – Fall, Winter, and Spring.

The Keys to a Successful Team Pickleball Program

The most important factor is to keep the competition fair and balanced.  One or two teams should not dominate a Flight, while a few others always lose.  Keep making adjustments.  Rely on Team Captains to report problems with competitiveness.  APPL recently surveyed their players and found some isolated problems with fairness and balance were the biggest areas of concern.

Taking advantage of team-based training and evaluation services is one of the keys to a successful team pickleball program.  Sharing the cost of a highly qualified training professional among four to six players is a cost-effective way to obtain personalized training that can dramatically improve pickleball skills.

Do not rely only on the matches that “count” to improve.  Be sure to schedule team practice sessions to experiment with different strategies and tactics.  Try to incorporate some drills into your team’s practice sessions.  Invite other teams to participate in “practice” matches so you can experiment with new strategies and tactics in a more realistic competitive environment and be able to evaluate their effectiveness more effectively.

Start small, then gradually expand your team pickleball program. Taking this approach will allow you to build on what players enjoy the most – based on their experience playing in a team format.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *