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What Is Tetherball?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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In the movie Napoleon Dynamite, the title character is often seen playing tetherball, either by himself or with other characters. Tetherball is a competitive game most often seen on school playgrounds or in city parks, primarily because it is relatively inexpensive to install and the rules are fairly straightforward. The standard equipment list for a regulation tetherball court includes a pole approximately ten feet (three meters) in height, a length of nylon rope eight feet(approximately 2.3 meters)long equipped with clips, and a soft rubber tetherball. A modern tetherball has a recessed area for the clip, while older tetherballs may have an external rubber or metal loop.

The rope is attached to the top of the pole by one clip, while the tetherball is attached to the other end of the rope. A painted or taped line approximately at the halfway point of the pole designates the legal playing area. The object of tetherball is to wrap the entire length of rope around the pole in either a clockwise or counterclockwise direction. The final wrap must occur above the center line in order to be considered legal. The first player to reach this point wins the game.

The general rules of tetherball are fairly simple, which makes it an ideal game for school playgrounds. Two players stand on opposite sides of the center pole and cannot cross the imagined median line. One player is the designated server, who has a definite advantage over the opponent at first. The server is allowed to use an open hand or fist to send the ball past his opponent and wrap around the pole in one direction. Some versions of tetherball require the opponent to allow the ball to wrap several times before touching it. This actually levels the playing field somewhat, since the server no longer has the advantage of a longer rope.

Once the tetherball has been put into play by the server, the opponent attempts to block the ball and send it back in the opposite direction. Tetherball rules prohibit catching the ball, touching the string or throwing the ball back with an open hand, a foul called carrying. Each player must strike at the tetherball itself with a fist or an open hand slap. Some versions of tetherball allow the player to bounce the ball up and down in his or her hands until ready to shoot, a practice similar to dribbling in basketball. If the ball fails to stay in motion, the opponent can receive the tetherball and serve it.

The ultimate point of tetherball is to wrap the rope completely in one direction until the ball makes contact with the pole above the center line. Since the rope becomes shorter as play progresses, the end game of tetherball is often the most exciting part. Players can use extreme angles to draw an opponent out of position or spike the ball hard for a physical advantage. Some players also vary the timing of their attacks to lull their opponents into a false sense of security. Players usually play a number of games to determine an ultimate winner.

Unfortunately for serious players like Napoleon Dynamite, there are few if any professional outlets for tetherball. Much like other playground games, such as hopscotch and four square, tetherball has not exactly improved its chances of becoming an Olympic sport. It doesn't play well on television, officiating may prove difficult, and tetherball hasn't enjoyed the same media attention as its rival on the playground, dodgeball.

How To Play Tetherball

Although there are variations with three or four people, tetherball is typically played with two people. The tetherball court is marked off with chalk or tape to form a circle around the pole. The playing space of the court for each player is marked by two lines that define the borders and show you the out-of-bounds zones on the right and left.

Players have different ways of determining who serves first, but in traditional play, the first person that steps onto the court gets to play first. To serve, you hold the ball with your non-dominant hand and hit it with your other hand in a clockwise or counterclockwise direction. The ball must make one complete rotation around the pole before the opponent can hit it.

The object of the game is to knock the ball past the other player’s hands and wrap it around the pole above the halfway point. The first person to wrap the ball around scores a point and wins one match, and the first player to win four matches out of seven wins the game. However, some players prefer to play with the “win by 2 points” rule to make the game a little longer and more competitive. You can win the game by scoring points or gaining points from the opponent’s fouls. A foul of any kind ends the match and gives the opponent an additional point.

Examples of fouls include:

  • Catching the ball
  • Touching the rope
  • Touching the pole
  • Using anything other than a closed fist, open hand, or forearm to hit the ball
  • Stepping out of bounds
  • Hitting an opponent intentionally

You can modify the dimensions for younger children to make the game more accessible and fun. For instance, you can change a 20’ diameter space to an 18’ or 16’ diameter to get smaller kids closer to the action. The standard adult (or teenage) court has two out-of-bounds lines for each player, but you can eliminate the borders to give younger players more freedom. A full-sized tetherball court is not as entertaining for little ones, and some become frustrated by the foul system. Eliminating some of the fouls can also help kids (and some adults) enjoy the game more.

Since you’re not playing a game with official referees, you can make up some house rules to make the game interesting. Some players allow bouncing, similar to dribbling, before a shot to build suspense before a kill shot. However, it becomes more challenging to bounce the ball when it’s traveling on a shorter rope. Another popular variation is allowing the ball to be struck with any part of the body. Soccer players who play tetherball in their downtime sometimes return the ball with their heads or knees. Whichever house rules you implement, try to play with respect for your opponent and the equipment.

How Tall Is a Tetherball Pole?

The tetherball pole should be 10 feet tall with an attached rope that’s 7 feet long. If you’re installing a permanent tetherball pole, the length of the pole must be 12 feet long to sink 2 feet of it into the ground. For courts with younger players, you can install an 8-foot pole with a rope that’s 6 feet long. The ball should hang 3 feet above the ground on a full-size court, but a child’s court is better with a ball that hangs only 2 feet above the ground.

You can find several portable tetherball sets online, but research the brands carefully. Portable poles are not as durable or weatherproof as permanent ones. The cheapest units often do not last long, and some may not be safe for small children. Before installing a tetherball court on your property, you should inspect your neighborhood’s covenant and city regulations for residential construction. Permanent courts require pouring concrete to support the pole, and many homeowners are unwilling to build a court that may be ignored when their children grow up.

Is Tetherball a Sport?

Although it’s a game that provides plenty of cardio exercise and fun, tetherball is not officially recognized as a sport. Variations of the game were played by wealthy British citizens in the 19th century with a tennis ball attached to the pole. Players would hit the ball with tennis rackets instead of their hands, but eventually it evolved into using a larger ball without rackets. The game gained popularity in the 20th century in schoolyards, public parks, and private athletic clubs. Whether you’re interested in a competitive game with a friend or a casual game with a child, tetherball is an excellent outdoor activity for all ages.

Sports n' Hobbies is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Sports n' Hobbies, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
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Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Sports n' Hobbies, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a...
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