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Understanding Tournament Rules: a guide for newbies

When it comes to tournament play for newbies, the thought of entering a tournament may cause some feelings of anxiety. I know – as I felt the same when I first started playing tournaments. My head was spinning with so many questions:
• What is skill level vs. age level vs. skill/age level?
• What does double-elimination mean vs. pool play or round robin?
• What does having a tournament “sanctioned” mean?
• What does a referee do in tournament play?
• Are there lines people?
• Do tournaments encourage beginner play?
• How do I know what rating I should use when entering?

Once I understood the process and had that first tournament under my belt, I was hooked. You’ll never forget the natural high of competing and receiving that first medal. I won mine with my mom. It was a silver. I was filling in for her normal partner who was on vacation. As the tournament director presented our medals, he said to me, “You know, your mom usually gets gold!”


Skill Level vs. Age vs. Skill/Age. Most tournaments award three medals – gold, silver and bronze. My mom and I won the silver in a “Skill Level” USAPA-sanctioned tournament, which means that everyone in our event was competing at the same skill level (regardless of age). Skill Level tournaments usually run at 3.0, 3.5, 4.0, 4.5, and 5.0, although some events may have lower levels as well. Again, 3.0 players will play against 3.0 players, 3.5 players will play against 3.5, etc.

As you might imagine, Age brackets are where all players are of the same age range, which could be in 5-, 10- or 15-year ranges (regardless of the skill). For example, you could have a 3.0 50-year-old playing against a 5.0 54-year-old. The ranges are typically determined based on participation. Finally, the Skill/Age brackets are considered the most equal in that players with the same skill set compete against others of similar age.

Format. My mom and I played in a double-elimination event, meaning we were guaranteed at least two matches. In the main draw, matches are best of three games to 11 (win by two points). Every team that loses a match in the main draw funnels to the back draw. Back draw matches are one game to 15 points (switching sides when one team has 8), win by two. The winner of the back draw gets to compete in the finals against the winner of the main draw for the gold medal.

We’ve also been in tournaments where the format was round robin, as there were few participants; you play everyone in your bracket once in a single round robin and twice in a double round robin. Winners in round robin formats of USAPA-sanctioned tournaments are typically determined by matches won, but
if tied, then you look at points won. If there is still a tie, the tournament director looks at head-to-head results.

Sanctioned Tournaments. Tournaments are either sanctioned by the USAPA or non-sanctioned. Non-sanctioned events often have their own formats, so consult with the tournament director on how winners of round robins are determined. A major benefit to sanctioned events is the use of referees for each match.

Referees. So who helps me keep up with what format I’m in or how many points I am to play? In addition to the brackets posted at the tournament site, the referee will know what format you are playing in, but the referee’s number-one responsibility is to watch that non-volley zone line and call foot faults when they occur. Calling the non-volley zone is essential to ensuring that one team doesn’t gain an unfair advantage over another team by being illegally closer to the net to put balls away. The referee also calls the score each point, keeps up with who the first and second servers are, and can be solicited to validate a call if asked by a player. Otherwise all other lines, except the non-volley zone line, is the responsibility of the players to call.

Line Judges. In my first tournament, I thought we had line judges, so why would I have to call the lines? Well, line judges are typically used in your gold medal matches only; however, some tournaments will include line judges in bronze medal matches as well. The line judge’s responsibility is to call the ball in or out for the line he/she is judging.

Please remember that referees and line judges are volunteers doing the best job they can, so always be courteous to them and thank them when your match is completed.

If after reading about the referees you are thinking you might prefer to be a tournament referee rather than a tournament player, then check out the USAPA’s Rules and Referees at

Refereeing sounds awesome, but I still want to play...can I do both? Yes, you can.

OK, so how do I know what skill level to enter if I’m playing in a skill level tournament? There are multiple ways and it’s not a one-size-fits-all. The best you can do is determine your skill level based on how well you fare against other players who have been given a rating by a club, the USAPA, or perhaps a tournament. If you don’t have access to those options to help assess your skill level, you can always visit the following website that will give you some guidelines as to how best to determine your skill: Once you have a few tournaments under your belt you’ll get a better idea of what your “true” skill level is.

What do tournament directors do to help newbies learn the ropes? This varies from nothing, to providing clinics before the tournament, to offering newbie brackets, to having folks around the tournament site who can answer questions. The best advice we can give you here is to reach out to the tournament director and ask what you need to know for participating in that tournament. This is good advice for the veteran player as well!

We hope you’ve found this article informative, helpful and, most of all, motivating to sign up for that first pickleball tournament. Grab your lucky paddle and go have some competitive fun.

If you have any additional questions please feel free to contact anytime via email
at or via phone at 602.284.2678.

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