What is Tetherball?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

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.

Nylon rope, which is used to attach the tetherball to the pole.
Nylon rope, which is used to attach the tetherball to the pole.

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.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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