Ah, tetherball, that sweet playground game that fills us with a sense of nostalgia for our childhoods and gets children itching for recess. While we may look back on it as a simple game that set the playground pecking order, any child from an urban school will tell you that there’s more to the art of tetherball than just hitting a ball back and forth around a pole. You’d be surprised how much strategy is involved in a single game. But don’t worry, we’re here to teach you how to play tetherball (and your dog how to play)!
What is tetherball?
If tetherball didn’t factor into your school’s playground politics, here’s a little background.
The sport was created in Britain sometime during the 1800s, though the exact history has been lost to time. It caught on because of its simplicity; all you need to play is a firmly grounded 10-foot metal pole, enough rope that your ball hangs at about 2 feet above the ground, and, of course, your ball. Children across the world went wild for it and public schools, because of its affordability, embraced it as a playground staple.
Of course, tetherball isn’t just for children. Nowadays you can even find people playing versions where the ball is on fire, which is definitely not a kid-friendly version (and also don’t try it at home!). But the regular game can be enjoyed by people of all ages and all levels of fitness. You can find tetherball courts in parks, on beaches, you can even install one in your backyard!
Your traditional tetherball court is marked out as a circle around the pole, with a line through the middle. It’s played by two fierce competitors and they each have to stay on their side of the middle line. Cross over to the other side? Penalty. But we’ll talk about those later.
Tetherball is played with your hands, and only your hands. Touching the ball with another part of your body is another penalty, though some players play by house rules allowing you to use your forearms. There’s even a variation, called “beach tetherball” that allows you to use any body part, but your typical game of tetherball is restricted to just your hands.
Starting the Game
Tetherball begins with a serve from one player to the other, similar to volleyball. If you’re playing a series of games, then typically the winner of the previous game gets to serve. Server can also be decided via coin flip, arm wrestle, or battle royale. I recommend the coin flip. The server can choose which side of the pole to hit the ball towards. The serve itself can be done by holding the ball in one hand and hitting it with the other, or by lightly tossing the ball upwards and hitting it from the air. The opposing player tries to volley the ball back around the pole.
You only get one shot at hitting the ball each time it comes onto your half of the quart. If you hit it twice, that’s called “juggling” and it’s a penalty. The only exception to this rule is if you hit the ball and it hits the pole. In this situation, and only this situation, you’re allowed to hit the ball again as it bounces off, as though it’s just arrived on your turf.
Winning the game
The ultimate goal of tetherball is to have the ball wrap around the pole in the direction you’re hitting it so that the rope is completely wound. When you’re hitting the ball against your opponent, you’re trying to unwind any wrapping they’ve done around the pole and redo it in your direction. Some people play a variation where, in order to win, you must keep the ball high enough that the rope is entirely above a certain point on the pole, usually marked with tape. In this version of the game, even if you can’t wrap the ball any further but it ends below the marker, you have to unwrap it and keep trying.
I’ve mentioned above several different actions which incur penalties. These include holding the ball, hitting it more than once, and crossing offsides. You can also get penalties for touching the ball with a part of your body other than the hands, or winding the ball all the way around the pole before your opponent gets to hit it (so only the server can get this penalty).
When a player gets a penalty, gameplay stops and the ball is caught. The rope is unwound the number of wraps that the player got for their foul play. For example, if I catch the ball and throw it and it goes around the pole three times before you can stop it, those three wraps are undone and you get to serve, but with the number of wraps around the pole that weren’t from violations remaining.
There are two violations that are so heinous they result in the instant forfeiture of the game. If you touch the pole, by accident or in anger, you lose the game. Additionally, if you touch the rope at any point, you lose. Game over.
You may not think of tetherball as a game that involves a lot of skill or strategy, but there are actually a lot of tricks you can use to gain control of the ball and overcome your opponents. Here are a few you can try!
Vary your hits
Even though you’re restricted to only using your hands, you can do several different types of hits. A strike can involve one or both of your hands. Striking with a closed fist gives you more power in your attack, but be sure to hit with the side of your fist, rather than trying to punch it with your knuckles. This keeps the small bones in your hand safe and sound as you decimate your opponent. An open-palmed strike allows you more control over the direction of the ball, but you have to be careful not to actually hold it, unless you want a penalty!
You can also vary the amount of power or the angle you put into your strike. Aiming the ball downwards with a lot of force will send the ball speeding upwards and over your opponent’s head, making it an extremely difficult strike to counter. Angling your shots is another great way to gain control of the ball. The most effective serve you can do is an extreme angle serve that sends the ball flying out of your opponent’s reach – just make sure you let them get a shot in before you win!
Alternatively, you can interrupt a ball moving quickly by punching it upwards so that it stops moving on account of the string and centripetal force, and it causes the ball to move in a way that’s more jerky and unpredictable, confusing your poor sweet opponent.
Another way to confuse your opponent is to fake them out. If they expect you to hit it hard at them, give it a gentle tap. They expect you to soft ball it? Give it all you’ve got. You also don’t have to hit it on your turn. Let the ball past and get yourself into a better position for your next move. No one expects you to not hit it, so your opponent will be prepared for, and expecting, you to return the ball. You can even hit the ball once in your opponent’s direction if it’s coming in really wonky. This is called “sacrificing the wrap” and allows you to gain control of the ball! Don’t worry. You’ve got this!
There you have it, a comprehensive guide on the rules of tetherball. If you’re feeling ready to test out your own tetherball skills, you’ll have no trouble locating a tetherball court you can play on, though you may need to bring your own ball. One of the great things about tetherball is that it’s one of the only ball sports that you can practice on your own! All you need is a set and you can figure out all the tricks you need to show up your next opponent. After all, practice makes perfect.