CJ Johnson Headshot
CJ Johnson
Tony Roig
Tony Roig

Pickleball-When Can You Be In the Kitchen?

[In this series of Getting Started articles, we share several beginner pickleball tips to help you get started on the right foot. These tips will help you whether you have played a racket/paddle sport in the past or not. When CJ and I started playing pickleball, we were given lots of advice. Some of it was good. But plenty of it was not. Throughout these articles, we will warn you about contrary advice that you may hear. We will mark it with a ** Wrong Advice Warning **. This incorrect advice can damage your game – avoid it at all costs. Make sure you check out our other articles for new players. They will each give you specific information to help you confidently take the court.]

Welcome to pickleball! Make sure you thank whoever made the introduction. You are in for a fun ride. Beginning pickleball is a fun and challenging journey that will give you as much as you want to get out of it. One thing most players learn during their first pickleball game is to “stay out of the kitchen.”

Which begs the question, when can you be in the kitchen?

The Non-Volley Zone Rule

This article focuses on THE most important pickleball rule: the Non-Volley Zone. The NVZ (Non-Volley Zone) rule is the defining rule of pickleball. It gives us the court we play on and also dictates the majority of our strategies in a game.

The Non-Volley Zone (aka the Pickleball Kitchen) is the area between the net and the line nearest the net (7 feet away, to be exact). The line is referred to as the Non-Volley Zone Line and is considered part of the NVZ.

For those of you who have never played a racquet sport previously, let’s define the term volley. A volley is striking the ball from the air before the ball has bounced.

The pickleball kitchen rule is, in actuality, relatively simple: you cannot be in the Non-Volley Zone during a volley. This includes before, during, and after the volley. As long as it is part of the volley motion, before or after (e.g., pushing off the Non-Volley Zone line to jump backward or stepping into the Non-Volley Zone after the volley is hit), it is part of the volley.

If you volley from inside the Non-Volley Zone (including the before and after parts), you commit a fault.

Simple as that. That’s the rule. The entire rule.

** Wrong Advice Warning **

Here are some examples of what players “interpret” that kitchen rule to mean:

    • You must wait for the ball to bounce before you can step into the Non-Volley Zone.
    • If you step into the Non-Volley Zone after you hit the ball (no matter what sort of shot you hit), you have committed a fault.
    • If the ball bounces outside of the Non-Volley Zone, then you can’t ever step into the Non-Volley Zone as part of the shot (I know this one sounds out there, but there have been arguments over this “interpretation”).

None of these are correct.

If you have not already done so, you will also want to get a copy of our Complete Pickleball Beginner’s Guide, as well as access to our 21-Video Getting, Started Course, specifically designed for beginner pickleball players.
There is no cost for either of these resources. With them – and this series of articles – you can get started playing on the right foot.
Click here

The easiest way to understand when you can be in the kitchen is to ask yourself these questions.

  1. Did I (or the player) volley the ball?

If the answer is “no,” there is nothing else to ask. There is no rule violation, and you move on with life. There has to be a volley for there to be a fault. No volley = no fault.

If the answer is “yes,” then the inquiry continues:

2. Were you (or the player) in the Non-Volley Zone during the volley (including the before and after parts, as explained above)?

“No?” then you are done and can move on. If “yes,” then it is a fault. Simple as that.

Focusing on the timing of the ball bouncing or other side inquiries is a recipe for disaster.

So instead, just ask “volley?” and if yes, “in the Non-Volley Zone?” This approach keeps it clean and easy.

The Non-Volley Zone Strategy

Now that you are clear on the Non-Volley Zone rule, we can shift gears and talk about proper Non-Volley Zone strategy.

To start, pickleball is a game that is most often won from the Non-Volley Zone Line. One of the aspects of pickleball to keep in mind is the optimal court position when you play pickleball is to be up at the Non-Volley Zone Line during the rally. As stated in the negative, you are less likely to win if you play from anywhere other than up at the Non-Volley Line (including playing from the baseline – the line farthest from the net).

Once you understand the above statement, then pickleball will make more sense.

You will understand why one player (the non-returner on the return team) stands up at the Non-Volley Line at the beginning of each point. There is no rule requiring this placement. The reason the player stands here is that it is the optimal strategy.

If the Non-Volley Zone Line is the best place to be, then you want to be there when you are playing … right?

Right.

BUT … you cannot always just be there.

Getting to the Non-Volley Zone Line when on the Return Side

Let’s start on the easier side for you to get there: the return side. When you are the non-returner, you will simply stand up there. Mission accomplished with no effort.

When you are the returner, you will want to get up to the Non-Volley Line after you hit the return of serve. Thanks to the Two Bounce Rule, you can move forward without much trouble. Return high and deep, and you will have the time you need to move up. When you are the returner, you immediately move up to the Non-Volley Line after you have hit the return.

This strategy is one of the few non-negotiables in pickleball. Trying to play pickleball from anywhere but the Non-Volley Line when you are on the return side will lead to suboptimal play and can be a bad habit that you will later need to break. Get started on the right foot by being used to moving up to the Non-Volley Line immediately after each return of serve you hit.

Getting to the Non-Volley Line when on the Serve Side

Let’s switch over to the serve side now. Before diving into the movement here, you need to remember that the serve side and return side of pickleball are different games, each requiring its own strategy. Pickleball is designed to create different challenges for the serve side team than for the return side team. Every rally is framed so that the serve side team is at a significant disadvantage at the start of the rally.

When you are on the serve side, you still want to be at the Non-Volley Line. Playing from up at the Non-Volley Line, being the optimal strategy, remains the same no matter what side you are on. What is different is how you get to the Non-Volley Line.

The same double bounce rule that helps you when you are the returner now holds you back when you are on the serve side. Specifically, the serve side must let the returned ball bounce before hitting it. This means you and your partner will be back near the baseline, but your opponents will, if they know what they are doing, be up at their Non-Volley Line at the time you are hitting the third shot (we are not focused on the type of shot here, just the number of the shot).

** Wrong Advice Warning **
Many (actually most) players will tell you to just run up to the Non-Volley Line, even on the serve side. They expect that as they hit their third shot, you will simply run forward up to your Non-Volley Line.
Often, this is a recipe for disaster – for your team but mainly for you.

Most players do not consistently hit good third shots (assuming they are being intentional with their shot in the first place). As a result, the ball that the players send over on their third shot is usually subject to being attacked by the other team: the ball can be slammed back.

This means that you, the player blindly charging toward the NVZ when they hit the third shot, will often get pegged with that smashed ball.

So, unless you enjoy getting hit with the pickleball, we recommend that you adopt a wait-and-see approach instead of just rushing forward at the moment the third shot is being hit.

If the shot hit by your partner is good, you can then move forward. If it is not, then you stay in a safer zone (farther back) and wait for a better shot to move forward on.

By adopting this wait-and-see approach at the time of the third shot, a few things will happen:

    1. You will be less likely to get pegged with a smashed fourth shot
    2. You will make it harder for your opponents to end the rally with their fourth shot
    3. You will be able to learn better serve-side movement patterns
    4. You will get some push back by players you are partnered with (more on this below)

The wait-and-see approach is contrary to what you will be told to do. And, if you use it (which we strongly recommend), you will get some pushback. Below are some tools to deal with that. Remember that you need to do what is suitable for you and your game. The wait-and-see approach will get you off on the right foot when you are playing on the serve side of the game and will make it easier for you to improve in the future.

Dealing with the Push Back

As I mentioned above, if you utilize the strategies you learn from us, there will be times when a player will try to explain a different approach to you, or you will otherwise meet resistance. Our advice is to stick with our instructions. We are professionals who know what we are doing.

If it will help you defuse someone who insists that you are doing it wrong (or that their way is better), you are free to name-drop us. Tell the insistent “instructor” that you are working with CJ and Tony (by implementing the teachings in this article, you are) and that our guidance is [fill in the blank].

If they continue to insist, then send them our way. Tell them that CJ and I are always open to being exposed to different approaches to pickleball and to please email me ([email protected]) with their ideas. Happy to read their thoughts on the game.

Next Steps

As you play the game, try to pay particular attention to the Non-Volley Zone. It is a key to our sport and to optimal play as you continue to get better.

You want to understand the Non-Volley Zone Rule fully. And you also want to go beyond that to understanding how the Non-Volley Zone impacts your play and the strategies you adopt to play pickleball.

When you are ready for more tips and strategies, come back.

We’ll be here.

8 Comments

  1. Forrest Simmons on September 3, 2022 at 10:42 pm

    good advice—to bad many beginers do not try to understand what you have just outlined. To many think it is a social day and I wish would stay home or get lessons…..
    Thanks, Forrest

  2. RICK(I am feeling fine) on September 4, 2022 at 12:02 am

    On the ROS, I play with a guy who lobs his 3rd shot as I go to NVZ. Now what?

    • CJ Johnson on September 4, 2022 at 2:44 pm

      Hi Ricki, picklebsll is a game of tendencies. If you know you are playing against a person who like to lob you might try to hit the return shorter. Now typically we don’t recommend that as a strategy because it invites the serving team to the NVZ. But in this instance someone who lobs successfully from the baseline will probably have a more challenging time lobbing from mid court. So instead of giving them a return that they like to hit (from the baseline) put it in another place.

  3. Tim Schutte on September 4, 2022 at 2:41 am

    As I have only been playing for a year, but on your site a lot I found this to be helpful.
    However, if I had not read some of your advice or watched your videos, but simply reading this I would be left with the impression you can NEVER go in the kitchen.
    I believe a short statement of something like, “if the opponents volley or shot bounces in the NVZ, you may step in the kitchen to return that shot, that is the ONLY time you can go in the kitchen.”

    • Pete Garrett on September 4, 2022 at 11:01 am

      So, if I’ve just hit a ball legally from the NVZ and I’m stepping back out of it, then the ball comes right back at me as a volley, can I return it, since it has been hit from an opponent and is now a volley? I can argue it both ways.

      • CJ Johnson on September 4, 2022 at 2:37 pm

        Hey Pete, there are only a couple of questions to ask and it’s about your shot not your opponent’s shot. Did you hit a volley? If the answer is yes, then you ask the next question were you touching the NVZ when you hit the volley? If the answer is yes, it’s a fault.

    • Suzanne Del Rossi on September 4, 2022 at 11:53 am

      You can be in the NVZ ANY time you want to be … you can be there the whole game! But of course you don’t WANT to be there all the time because of strategy. The only time you CANT be in the MVZ is if you’re hitting a volley.

    • CJ Johnson on September 4, 2022 at 2:40 pm

      Hi Tim, we’re glad you’ve found our content helpful. Suzanne’s answer was correct. You can stand in the NVZ anytime you want. The only think you can’t do from the NVZ is hit a volley.

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