The Pickleball Police

March 19, 2019

By Paddy Finnigan

Special to Today’s News-Herald

Players competing in pickleball games sometimes yell out that they’ve committed a foul. They demonstrate unusually good sportsmanship in making such calls, but pay a price; their foul inflicts a penalty on their team. This unique behavior, call it self policing, is a tribute to their love of the game and the respect for and comradery they have with other players.

In that way, pickleball is unlike many, if not most, sports because players can officiate their own games as they play. In day-to-day recreational play, players make all the calls – they are the referees. Points are awarded and game winners and losers are decided without selfishness.

Fractions of an inch can help or hurt a team. But the players decide fairly.

In more serious competition, in tournaments, a single referee is often called upon to make some decisions. But the players still make many of them.

PJ McGuire is one such referee. A Havasu pickleball player, member of the Havasu pickleball association, and snowbird from Bend OR, McGuire has refereed around 100 tournament-level matches. He described a referee’s duties: “The main thing is calling the score, making sure servers and receivers are in the right place when they serve, and ruling on disputed calls.”

In addition, the USA Pickleball Association lists the following as primary referee responsibilities:

· Maintain control, keep the match moving efficiently

· Enforce the rules

· Issue technical warnings and fouls

What referees are not responsible for is calling a ball out if it is hit long or wide. Players make those calls, even though opposing players can appeal the call if they disagree. The referee can resolve the dispute, but only if he/she clearly saw the ball land. If not, the player’s original call stands.

Thus, the sportsmanship of players still rules.

Imagine if a baseball batter or fielder got to decide if a fly ball landed fair or foul. Doesn’t happen. Can a football receiver or defender rule that a pass was caught in or out of bounds? Not. But players make many of those calls in pickleball tournaments.

Anticipating the need for referees in the annual Lake Havasu Pickleball Tournament March 8-10, McGuire and the association assembled about 17 would-be referees Monday afternoon, Feb. 25, at the Aquatic Center, teaching them how to referee. All were Havasu pickleball players who will help at the tournament and other tournaments in the future.

McGuire showed them what to watch, who to watch, where to stand, how to use the score sheet and call out the score, what to say and not say to players, and many other fine points of the job. He said playing and refereeing are distinctly different.

The students also officiated staged games for practice Monday. Players in the staged game could barely contain their grins as they deliberately committed fouls, daring the students to detect them.

The job is complicated, and becoming an official certified by the USA Pickleball Association requires studying a training manual and passing a written test.

“Refereeing is very difficult,” said Losh Spalla, a snowbird from Brockport NY who is a member of the Havasu pickleball association and attended McGuire’s training session. “You have to watch everything. You must look at the service line during the serve, then at the no-volley zone during play, but watching the ball is also important at times,” he said. “You also have to keep score.”

Spalla believes that to be a good ref, keeping score must become second nature so that the ref can concentrate on looking for faults. He has watched the highest level of competition at US national tournaments and said he has seen some controversial calls that refs handled with aplomb. “They know their stuff,” said Spalla.

Now that he and the other students have completed McGuire’s training, they are ready to try their hand in the upcoming tournament at Dick Samp Park.


Several Lake Havasu pickleball players traveled to Surprise AZ Feb. 19-24 to compete in the Grand Canyon State Games where hundreds of players played on 16 courts.

Debi and John Hill competed in the mixed doubles event in the 3.5 skill level for those 50+ in age. They won a bronze medal (third place) in the event. (see photo) Debi also won a silver medal (second place) in the women’s doubles 3.5 skill level 50+ age group with a partner from Oracle AZ.

Dar Sabey planned to play in women’s doubles and mixed doubles at the 3.5 skill level 70+ age group. However, her women’s doubles partner became injured and could not play. In the mixed doubles she and her partner, Grant Leslie from Sun City, won a game but lost one to each of the eventual gold and bronze medal winners.

Paul Targosz planned to play men’s doubles with partner Brandon Rush from Saint George UT in the 4.5 skill level for players 19 years old and over. However, rain cancelled the men’s doubles event. Great winter, huh?

Of note, professional pickleball player Scott Moore, who taught clinics in Lake Havasu a month ago, won a gold medal in the men’s doubles 50+ open division – without losing a game.