If you’re like me, it may very well be one of the most aggravating things you encounter as a pickleball player. It’s your day off and you are super-stoked to practice your drives, drops and new serve. You arrive at the courts for open play only to find every single court filled and 20 people sitting on benches waiting their turn to play. Ugh!!!
To best organize pickleball play and manage the sheer number of players who have arrived for open play – and the limited number of courts – it’s critical that your club/venue has a player rotation system that is effective, efficient and fair.
What is Pickleball Open Play?
Pickleball open play is the backbone of most clubs and venues. It’s open play – and the social aspect of it – that most notably differentiates pickleball from all other sports.
How to Organize Pickleball Play and Rotate Players When the Courts are Completely Full
So how do pickleball clubs or venues with a limited number of courts organize pickleball play and grant equitable playing time for everyone when all courts are full and players are waiting for their turn to play?
Here are some first-hand thoughts based in large-part on my time as pickleball facilitator at a local community center where there were 6 courts and upwards of 40 people participating in open play. I bet you can relate to some of these open play, player rotation ideas!
Play “Musical Chairs” in FIFO Fashion
FIFO. First-In, First-Out. It’s accounting, you know! And it’s very simple. Line up folding chairs in a manner such that those coming off the courts sit on one end of the row and those going on court next are on the other end of the row. Then it’s musical chairs as each person moves to the next chair(s) as new players go on court.
Implement Rally Scoring
Rally scoring awards a point for every rally – regardless of who has served. Obviously, when implementing rally scoring, games go more quickly. They also have a more predictable and consistent time duration. The drawback is that players may think rally scoring “messes with the integrity of the game” and may oppose such a “drastic” change. Who knows? Rally scoring may become a thing!
Here’s a video of pickleball professional, Zane Navratil, talking about the merits of rally scoring:
Use a Timer!
Set a timer for 10-12 minutes. This ensures everyone has equal playing time. Once the timer goes off, all four players exit to the waiting queue and four new players come onto each court. With a timer, all courts will finish at the same time.
Play Games to 9 – or 8 – or 7!
Another way to make games shorter is to play to a smaller final score. We often played to 9 points if the venue was very crowded and an exceedingly large number of players were waiting to get on the court. It was then, four-on, four-off. This wasn’t a fan-favorite, but people liked it better than rally scoring.
Four On, Four Off!
When courts are packed it is highly advisable to rotate four players on – and four players off – after every game. Although that quickly reduces the “waiting queue,” it also has a drawback of the four players once again playing each other in the next game as all four players that came off generally go back into the queue in the same order.
Winners Stay and Split
If the “waiting queue” isn’t absurdly long, “Winners-Stay-and-Split” is frequently utilized. Instead of having all four players come off at the end of each game, the two players from the “losing team,” come off and go back in the waiting queue while the winning team plays an additional game. In that next game, these players who were previously partners now “split” and become opponents of each other.
So that one player doesn’t dominate and monopolize open play time, there is frequently a limit of one player playing a maximum of 2 or 3 games before being forced to go to the end of the waiting queue – regardless if they win or lose.
Stack Paddles or Use a Paddle Rack – Or Better Yet – Use Two!
A paddle rack system – or perhaps makeshift buckets or boxes – organizes paddles (players) in the waiting queue. When you come off the court, you put your paddle at the end of the paddle rack or in the next bucket or box. When it’s your turn to play, you remove your paddle from the paddle rack (or bucket or box) and head to the court. Make sure to have your name on your paddle, because if you don’t, bottlenecks will surely ensue as you won’t know whose paddle is next in line!
A good variation is a two-paddle rack system – one for the “winners” who come off the court – and one for the “losers” who come off the court. Having separate racks will ensure more competitive games as similarly skilled players will be grouped together. Be sure to rotate the group of four from the winner’s rack with the group of four from the “loser’s rack.”
A Whiteboard and Dry-Erase Marker Works Great!
From my experience, a whiteboard and dry-erase marker works best. Importantly, people will learn each other’s names with a whiteboard system.
Once you are called onto the court, erase your name. It’s exceedingly helpful to have a designated person to oversee the process and call squares as courts become available.
These were just some ideas for rotating players in and out when participating in open play at crowded pickleball venues. Some of these ideas may very well work where you play. Unfortunately, many likely won’t.
Let us know in the comments what has worked best where you play.
See you on the [crowded] courts!