Rally Scoring Strategy for Pickleball Players explained
By: Tony Roig | November 5, 2023 |

Rally Scoring Strategy: A Whistle-stop Guide to Clear the Confusion

How Does Rally Scoring Affect Our Play? Specifically our strategy.

Rally scoring is here. Whether it will become the dominant scoring approach is yet to be seen. Rally scoring is already seeing increased use across the sport and is a logical evolution in the growth of pickleball. The question for most players is will rally scoring affect the way I play? Let’s explore the optimal rally scoring strategy.

As we move into it, the two biggest differences of rally scoring that impact play are:

(a) its override of our conventional side-out scoring method.
(b) the elimination of left-to-right movement for players.

In this article, we will examine (a) its override of our conventional side-out scoring method. Item (b) is addressed inside our exclusive Rally Scoring Strategy Guide – coming out soon (Tip: if you are a member of THE Pickleball System you will be the first to know when the Guide comes out.)  

Rally Scoring – Explained

If you are not familiar with rally scoring yet, here is a brief explanation.

In rally scoring, each single rally ends with a point scored. Different than a traditional scoring, the point can be awarded in favor of the serve team OR THE RETURN TEAM. Feels weird right?

Rally scoring differs from our conventional scoring method in pickleball, where only the serve team can score a point. In rally scoring, each rally ends with a point, including the rally won by the non-serving team. 

A traditional game to 11 points would generally become a game to 21 points under rally scoring. Estimating playing times of the games is not impacted significantly and are generally similar in both cases.

There are scoring variations for the end of a game that uses rally scoring. However, most of them have a score at which a team’s score is “frozen.” After being frozen, that team reverts back to serve-side-only scoring. As with the current scoring system, a team must win by two points

Rally scoring was made front and center by Major League Pickleball (MLP).

The MLP format for rally scoring is the most widely known, and we use it in this article.

In MLP play, when a team gets to 20 points, the team is “frozen.” That team must score their next point (game point) on the serve side. A frozen team cannot score the final point on the return side.

Their opponent, however, is not frozen and can continue to score rally style until they reach game point.

Here is a quick example.

Both Team A and Team B have 19 points. Team B is serving at 19-19 (Note: there is no third number designating the server in the score (more on this below)). The rally is won by Team A, who was the return team. Because the return team won the rally, it is a sideout. And because we are in a rally scoring game, Team A also earns a point.

After the sideout and point scored, Team A will serve the next time with the score 20-19. Because Team A is at game point, it is “frozen” and can only score on its serve right now.

Team B wins the next rally. Because Team B was not frozen, it earned a point when it won the rally, even though it was the return team (as well as a sideout). The Score is now 20-20, and Team B will serve next.

At this stage, the teams are no longer frozen. This is because neither team is at game point. They both need to score 2 points to win. As a result, on this next rally, either team can score a point.

Team B serves at 20-20, and Team A wins the rally. Even though Team A was the return team, it is still awarded the point because it was no longer frozen once the score was tied. Team A will serve the next rally at 21-20.

If Team A wins the next rally, the game is over, with Team A winning 22-20. If Team B wins the next rally, then it is a sideout and Team B will serve at 21-21, with the game continuing until one team wins game point on its serve.

As noted above, there is no third number in the score to designate the server (the 1 or 2 you have become so familiar with).

This is because each team only gets one serve opportunity for each sideout. This means that the serving team will continue to serve as long as it keeps winning the rallies (points) as the serve team. The return team only needs to defeat the serve team once (no longer twice) for there to be a sideout and the serve to change ends. As a result, the third number in the score is not necessary when using rally scoring.

Scoring Override

The most obvious change that rally scoring brings to pickleball is that it overrides our traditional scoring in pickleball. No longer is a point scored only by the serve team. Now, a point is awarded for each rally, including to the return team if it prevails. The only exception is when a team is frozen.

A common question, is how does this new rally scoring format impact our strategy when we play? We will approach the question from each team’s perspective: Return Team and then Serve Team.

Rally Scoring Strategy – Return Team

The return side of play has always been the most important. This was because by playing a solid return side, you could deny your opponents the opportunity to score. Or at least make it more difficult.

At first blush, rally scoring seems to undermine the importance of the return side. It appears to make each side the same. After all, you can score regardless of what side you are playing: serve or return.

Go a bit deeper, however, and you will see that the return side remains the most important of the two sides of pickleball for you to play optimally. You will not prevail in a game, whether it be traditional or rally scoring if your return side play is flawed.

The reason for this is that the positional advantage/disadvantage structure of a pickleball rally is not altered by rally scoring.

Each pickleball rally begins with a positional disparity: the return team is given the high ground. The serve team is made to stay back and then fight against an entrenched opponent from the low ground. A pickleball rally is not a fair fight. Rather, one team has a clear advantage – positional – while the other team has a clear disadvantage – also positional. None of this framework of the game changes when you move to rally scoring.

No matter the scoring format, when you are on the return team, you must take full advantage of your positional advantage. The only difference now is that when you win on the return team, you will be rewarded with a point, whereas before, you simply won the chance to serve.

Just as with traditional scoring, you cannot hope to win a rally scoring game if you are not playing a solid return side.

This is because you will dig a hole for yourself. You will need to make up the points you are giving up on the return side on your own serve side play. This is a very difficult path to game success.

Let’s run through the scoring of a rally scoring game between two evenly matched teams who both play solid return sides. Because of its positional advantage, we expect each return side to win. So the teams will exchange point after point. 1-1, 2-2, and so on.

The winner of the game will be determined by the team that can pull away from the other by winning a few serve side points.

Just as now, under traditional scoring, you cannot afford to give away free points to your opponents when you are on the return side. You need to continue to make it as hard as possible for them to score points against you. This does not change because the type of scoring scheme you are using has changed.

Thus, the return side play continues to be the most important. It is at the core of sound play, even in a rally scoring game.

Rally Scoring Strategy- Serve Team

Serve team strategy changes a bit, but not much.

Firstly, the serve team still wants to overcome its positional disadvantage before making moves intended to win the rally. This is just plain strategic sense derived from the positional imbalance of a rall. It is not influenced by the scoring being used. It is easier to win a fight from the same level as your opponent than to try to win from the positional disadvantage.

The only small difference in strategy that we suggest is a bit more conservatism when on the serve side, particularly towards the end of the game. If you are down 19-18, say, it may not be a good time to try a risky serve side shot because your opponent will go to 20 and be able to serve it out. In a traditional scoring game, if you were down 9-8, you might be able to justify the risky shot knowing that you still have a chance to side them out with no score. Rally scoring removes the “I will try this shot and then side them out anyways if I miss” thinking when you are on the serve team. Thus, a bit more conservatism is warranted.

Side note: one of the advantages of rally scoring is the immediate “pain” you will feel when you miss a serve or a third shot. Those misses are still likely costing you games in traditional scoring games. But in traditional scoring, you do not feel their effect right away. Rally scoring is like having a shock collar that goes off each time you miss one of those shots. A more effective feedback mechanism, for sure.

The Big Picture

In the end, rally scoring does not change the fundamental nature and strategies that determine the winner and loser of a game. Strong return team play is a must and is the first bar you must meet if you want to play successful pickleball. Whether you are a beginner player or an experienced pickleball player, the game is actually decided by the return side play.

Once the return side play has leveled out, then the game will be decided by serve side play: the team that can reduce service errors while maintaining their service aggressiveness will break through more on the serve side than the other. This is true for most 4.0+ play.

These pickleball game strategies hold under traditional scoring as well as rally scoring.

The similarity in strategy between traditional side-out scoring and rally scoring is borne out by the players who use rally scoring the most: pro players competing at MLP events. Their approach to the game is simlar to tournaments with traditional scoring formats. They hit their drop shot, try to get to the NVZ, and otherwise play the game just as traditonally scored game. 

Rally Scoring Strategy- The Most Important Shots

The advent of rally scoring also merits a look at how it might affect the priority of the shots we hit in a game. This is relevant because it informs where we focus our time if we are keen on improvement. It makes sense to focus on the shots in their order of relative priority if we want to get the most “bang for our buck.”

The most important shots in pickleball continue to be the first four shots: serve, return of serve, third shot, and fourth shot. If you are a Pickleball System student or have been with us for any amount of time, you already know that we rank these shots in the following order of importance (priority):

    1. Return of serve;
    2. Fourth shot;
    3. Serve;
    4. Third shot.

The question, then, is “Does rally scoring affect this relative ranking of importance?”

Surprisingly, rally scoring does not move the needle as much as you might think.

We have already established that the return side remains the most important for you to play correctly. Rally scoring does not change that. You cannot miss or misplay a bunch of returns of serve or fourth shots (the return side shots) and hope to win the game.

Because the positional advantage remains entrenched as a defining characteristic of our game, the return of serve remains the most important shot. Not only can you not miss it, you can do a lot to control the structure of a rally by improving this one shot.

The next most important shot can be argued two ways:(a) the fourth shot remains a key to capitalizing your positional advantage, but (b) a missed serve now costs you a point and is a shot over which you have complete control.

From an academic perspective, you might place the serve in the second spot because missing a serve is more costly than it was. That said, you cannot miss many fourth shots and hope to succeed. Additionally, the fourth shot is key to capitalizing on your positional advantage. For this reason, I would lean to keep the fourth shot in second place.

I would suggest that exactly where you rank the serve is not as important as it may appear. This is because your serve and your return of serve are (or should be) virtually the same shot. As a result, when you work on your return of serve (priority No. 1), you are, by extension, effectively working on your serve.

The third shot remains in fourth place on this list. It’s still an important shot but the least important of these four.

All this said, from a practical standpoint, whether you are playing traditional or rally scoring, you will need all four of these shots if you want to continue your growth as a player. The difference in priority between them is a short-term concern as you work on your game. In the bigger picture, all four are necessary.

Rally Scoring Strategy- The Future of Pickleball?

Rally scoring is a big change in how we score but not a big change in how we play. As long as the 2-bounce rule creates a positional imbalance between the teams, the objectives and strategies we use when playing remain the same regardless of how we keep score. An advantage of rally scoring is that it makes the game more transparent – exposing errors that are costing us now, even if we do not see them.

Whether the score is called out 0-0 or 0-0-2, keep playing pickleball the right way. That’s your highest chance for success.

A shoutout to our TPS Community. TPS members are always pushing us to go deeper into the game of pickleball and its strategies and principles. As students of the game, they pose to us the challenges that players – like you – face in their games. This process allows us to bring you content such as this article, which was the result of several questions from our TPS Community.

TPS Note: Rally scoring does not affect the content inside the TPS course. Keep working at it, and you will be ready no matter what scoring format is played. 

If you want to learn more about The Pickleball System (TPS) and its awesome community of players intent on growing their pickleball games, check us out at ThePickleballSystem.com

Tony Roig

Hola. Hello. Konichiwa. After 40 years playing tennis, I am now a full-time pickleball player and professional. As a 5.0 rated Senior Pro Pickleball Player and an IPTPA-certified Master Teaching Professional, my focus is on helping players like you learn to play their best pickleball. In 2016, shortly after starting to play pickleball, my friend Tom and I jumped into the highest division at the first US Open in Naples, Florida. That morning it became clear just how much there is to learn in this seemingly simple sport – a lifetime of learning if you so choose. Since 2018, I have been on a mission to share my knowledge of pickleball so other players can enjoy the game at a higher level and attain their pickleball objectives. When not studying or playing pickleball, I like to travel with my other half, Jill.