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How To Play Tetherball: A Complete Step By Step Guide

If you have the space for it, tetherball can be a fun addition to your backyard games. After hitting the ball back and forth for a little while we wanted to know how to play tetherball the right way. This guide will teach you everything you need to know about playing tetherball.

To play tetherball you need two players and a tetherball court. To win the game you will need to hit the tetherball past your opponent enough times that the rope will wrap around the tetherball pole. You must stay within the boundaries of the court and avoid penalties by following the rules of the game.

Tetherball is mostly played in an informal way, with many players making their own house rules. However, it’s best to know how to play the official tetherball game, and add rules as you see fit.

How To Play Tetherball

To play a game of tetherball you will need two players. The two players will compete with one another to wrap the rope around the tetherball pole. One player will hit the ball clockwise around the pole and the other will hit the ball counter-clockwise.

Because the ball is attached to the pole by a rope, the rope will wrap around the pole when you hit the ball past your opponent and back around to your side of the court. You have to stay within the boundaries of the court and avoid penalties to win the game. Some penalties count as an automatic loss, but we will get into that later.

A typical game will involve both players hitting the tetherball back and forth. The goal is to try hitting the ball out of reach of the other player. This is in the hopes that your opponent will miss the ball. The ball will come back around to you, and the rope will wrap around the pole in your favor.

As the tetherball rope wraps around the pole, the rope gets shorter, increasing the difficulty of the game and the speed of the ball. When the rope has wrapped around the pole to the point where it can’t wrap around anymore, the match is over.

Here’s a video explanation to better show how the game is played.

That’s the basics of the game and how to play. But you still need to know how the court is layed out, and the rules that will cause you to incur penalties. Also, later on, I have some strategy tips to give you an edge in every game you play.

Tetherball Court Setup

The tetherball court setup I will go over here is the traditional backyard tetherball court setup. You can always adjust some of the heights and lengths to fit your needs. Especially if you have kids playing, they won’t have much fun on a full size official tetherball court.

Tetherball Court Dimensions

A traditional tetherball court is a 20′ diameter circle split into 4 sections. You may want to go with a 16′ diameter circle if you’re setting the court up for kids. The court will mark the area of play for the tetherball game.

To split the court into 4 section, simply draw a bix ‘X’ in the middle of the court. 2 of the sections will be play areas and 2 of the sections will be out of bounds or foul areas. Some players prefer to just split the court into 2 sections, one for each player with no out of bounds area. Here is a picture to show you the tetherball court zone layout:

Tetherball Pole Height

The pole height for a traditional tetherball court is 10 feet from the ground to the top of the pole. On a youth court the tetherball pole height is typically 8 feet from the ground to the top of the pole. The tetherball pole is to sit perpendicular to a flat tetherball court surface.

Tetherball Rope Length

The length of a tetherball rope for a 10 foot pole is typically around 7 feet long. The rope length can vary depending on the size of the pole. The ball will traditionally sit 3 feet above the ground when hanging freely by the rope attached to the top of the pole.

You can make your own adjustments to the rope length to fit your needs. For example, If you plan on having an 8 foot pole for youths, consider making the rope about 6′ long. This will let the tetherball hang freely just 2′ above the ground. This seems to work a lot better for the kids, who may be struggling to play the game as it is. Here is a helpful diagram showing the tetherball setup lengths:

Assembling A Tetherball Pole

Once you have the court layed out in a nice flat area, all you have left to do is setup the tetherball pole. If you’re making your own tether ball court, buying a portable court, or installing a permanent tetherball court, the setup of the rope and tetherball are basically the same.

Steps To Install Tetherball Rope And Ball:

  • Inflate the tetherball with an air pump
  • Attach the ball to the tetherball rope (if it doesn’t come already attached)
  • Hook the other end of the tetherball rope to the top of the pole (the pole will usually have an eyelet or carabiner to attach)
  • Fill the base with sand or water (if using a portable base)

Here is a Tetherball Cost and Compare Guide to help you find a set that will work for you. You’ll either be looking for a portable tetherball setup or a permanent one, and I found the best options for both. Be careful with the cheaper poles and tetherball kits, they tend to last less than a year in my experience.

If you plan on installing a permanent tetherball pole, the kit will typically come with a 12′ pole. You are supposed have 2 feet of the pole buried in the ground so that you end up with a 10′ tetherball pole from ground height to top of pole.

Steps To Install A Permanent Tetherball Pole:

  • Dig a hole in the center of the court about 2 feet deep and about a foot wide (the hole can be wider if that makes digging easier)
  • Place a cardboard deck support base in the hole and pack dirt around it (optional)
  • Place the pole in the base (or directly into the ground if not using a cardboard base)
  • Fill around the pole with concrete (a bag or 2 of quick mix concrete will work, the just add water kind)
  • Hold or prop the pole up perpendicular to the ground and let the concrete set

How To Start A Game

You know the basics of the game, how to setup the court, and how to setup the pole. It’s time to actually start playing. To start a game, one player will serve the ball to the other player. How you decide who serves first is up to you. Some people like to flip a coin or play rock, paper, scissors.

Others like to hold the ball over a foul line and let it go. After the ball hits the pole, whichever side the ball bounces to will be the first server. Usually whoever wins the first round will be the server for the next round and so on. The server will wrap the tether around the pole one time in the opposite direction of the serve before they start the game.

Now that you know how to start a game, you need to know what can end a game besides wrapping the rope around the pole all the way.

Standard Tetherball Rules

The rules of tetherball are simple, but added house rules can make the game more interesting and fun. Typically there will be a list of fouls. If a player commits a foul, they automatically lose that match. Here is a list of traditional tetherball fouls.

Tetherball Rules:

  • Ball can only be hit with hand or forearm
  • Ball or rope cannot be held or caught
  • Players must stay within play area
  • Players cannot touch the pole
  • Players cannot hit the ball outside the play area
  • Any foul is an automatic loss

I’ve created a print out of this rule list with an area to add house rules you may think of as you go. We like to put this up somewhere near the tetherball court as a reference in case there is ever a disagreement about which rules of the game we’re following.

tetherball rules

Double Foul

If two players commit a foul at the same time, the match can’t be given to either player. Instead, the match will start over with the originally server serving the ball again. An interesting alternative to this, is a house rule, where both players will stand with one hand on the ball and let the ball drop. After the ball hits the pole, the ball is back in play and the game continues.

House Rules

This is where you can make the game interesting. A lot of backyard tetherball players will make their own house rules. It come with the territory, you’re playing on someones court, you have to follow their house rules. Here are some house rules to consider:

  • Court only has two sides, there is no foul area
  • Double hitting the tetherball on your side is allowed
  • Crossing to your opponents side of the court does not result in a loss. Instead, the opponent now gets to serve the ball.
  • You may hit the ball with any body part
  • Ball may be held for 2 Mississippi (good for kids learning to play)
  • Win by 2 points

Pick and choose from this list, or create your own house rules! This game is all about having fun.

Tetherball Scoring

Typically a tetherball game consists of 7 matches each worth a point. The first person who wins 4 matches wins the game. A player wins a point by wrapping the tetherball rope around the pole as far as it will go. A player can also win a match when their opponent commits a foul.

Any foul from the rules section above is an automatic loss of the match and a point to the winner. Some house rules may require a game be won by the 2 points. That means if the score is 3 points to 3 points, the next match does not decide the winner, instead the winner would need to have 5 points to win the game against an opponent with 3 points. This can cause the game to drag out a bit, but makes for an intense game ending.

Tetherball Strategy

You will no doubt get better at tetherball the more you play, but there are some strategies you could implement to win every time. Ok, maybe not every time, but these tips will give you an edge against your opponent.

Hand Placement

Hitting with an open palm or closed fist will give you vastly different results. Using your open palm to hit the ball will give you more control over where the ball goes. On the other hand (haha), hitting the ball with a closed fist will give you a lot more power.

Try to not hit the ball with your knuckles on a closed fist hit. Doing so could cause the ball to swing wildly off course. Instead, hit the ball with the side of your closed fist for maximum power and accuracy.

Keep Them Guessing

You can try to fake out your opponent by seeming like you are going for power move super slam hit, causing them to back up or change position, then you just tap the ball lightly. Or vice versa. The goal is to get the ball past your opponent and back around the pole to you as many times in a row as possible, so a little trickery could help you.

Keep light on your feet, your opponent may pick up on this tactic and try to use it against you. The only difference is, you can be ready for it. Keep your opponent guessing to maintain the upper hand throughout the game.

Angle Change Up

Switch up the angle you hit the ball with. You will need to work on your hand eye coordination to get good at this tactic, but is one of the most valuable skills in the game. You will need to keep track of where your opponent is on the court, and plan the angle you will hit the ball at.

Striking the ball with force at a downward angle could propel the ball up and over their head. If your opponent can’t reach the ball, they can’t return it to you, giving you a wrap around the pole. Sometimes you can get into a rhythm doing this, keeping the ball on the same trajectory to rack up a couple wraps around the pole in a row.

Tetherball History

Tetherball was originally played with a tennis ball tethered to a pole and a racket sometime in the 1800’s. This was desirable over tennis because there was no need to go chasing a tennis ball all over the court. It was originally called tether tennis and was mostly played by well-off citizens in England.

Somewhere along the way tether tennis was played without the rackets. Players started just using their hands to hit the ball as it became more popular for an average person to play. In the beginning of the 1900’s the tennis ball was replaced with a volley ball sized ball.

For more in-depth info about tetherball history, check out my How Was Tetherball Invented article.

Tetherball grew in popularity across England and the United States throughout the beginning of the 1900’s because of how cheap and easy it was to install in a school playground. Now you can tetherball courts in school playgrounds, public parks, beaches, recreation areas, and many backyards.

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