Pickleball: Who couldn’t use a little more fun in their lives?

I first heard the word “pickleball” years ago via my son Tristan, who came home from CVU one day raving about this game he had played in gym class. He gave a blow-by-blow description of a series of heated battles in which he had efficiently thrashed all opponents unfortunate enough to have ended up on the other side of the net from him. He demonstrated his killer overhead smash in our kitchen. The dogs cowered and ran for cover. I had never seen him so enthusiastic about school.

Pickelball players
Photo courtesy wikipedia.org

But then, like many things in a high-schooler’s life (maybe in all of our lives), pickleball vanished from his lexicon as quickly as it had emerged. I didn’t give it another thought until fairly recently, when suddenly it has become a hard thing to ignore. Initially, my sense was that pickleball was a game for people who for some reason (often bad knees) had had to give up or cut back on tennis. I wasn’t super eager to try it. I play a lot of tennis and paddle tennis and my dance card felt too full for yet another racquet sport. But I kept hearing about how fun it was. Eventually, a friend invited me to try it, and feeling a bit like Sam I Am in Green Eggs and Ham, I showed up and gave it a whirl.

The first thing I noticed was that the scoring seemed unnecessarily mind boggling. But my friend was a patient and capable teacher, and it wasn’t long before I was tentatively calling out the score on my own and generally getting the knack of the game. Before I knew it, I was having a blast. And I was hooked.

Pickleball is a little bit like tennis, a little bit like paddle tennis, a little bit like table tennis, with scorekeeping that is a little bit like volleyball. (Does that clarify things?) It is typically played by four players (though you can play singles with two) who hit a ball (closely resembling a wiffleball) back and forth over a net. It can be played indoors or outdoors by people of all ages and a wide range of skill levels.

There are many different kinds of sports in this world, and every one of them had to start somewhere. Soccer began way, way back when someone somewhere got the smart idea to fill up a pig bladder and kick it around a field. Pickleball had its origins a little more recently and a little less disgustingly than that, in 1966, when two Washington dads (Joel Pritchard and Bill Bell) tried to think up a fun game for their families. There was an old badminton court on Pritchard’s property, but no badminton racquets, so the guys rounded up some table tennis paddles and a wiffleball, and things kind of went from there. There are two theories for how pickleball got its name: (1) Joel’s wife, Joan, thought that the game combines a bunch of sports the way a pickle boat uses oars-people chosen from the leftovers of other boats; (2) it was named after the Pritchards’ dog, Pickles, who frequently ran off with the pickleball.

Like many sports, the game evolved over time. But it wasn’t long before the funky, family-friendly game was spreading through the Pacific Northwest like wildfire. It continued to gain traction, and currently it is the fastest growing sport in the United States and is growing internationally as well.

If you would like to try pickleball, (good news) there are lots of places locally where you can play for free (a friend of mine set up her own court in her driveway). And (more good news) the equipment is not expensive. You can start with cheaper paddles and upgrade later if the spirit moves you. I love how easy it is to pick up this game. A number of my friends who have zero experience with racquet sports learned how to play in minutes, and I now play regularly with three of them (ages range from 25 to 62). If you want to play, Google “pickleball courts near me” and you will get a list of options. (Most courts are on tennis courts, which have lines drawn for pickleball play.) The Edge Sports and Fitness in South Burlington has a bunch of indoor pickleball courts and programs for players of all ages.

And really, don’t let the complexity of the scoring put you off. You will pick it up more quickly than you think. Nate Silver (the Nate Silver who predicts winners of presidential races and who also developed a system for forecasting the performance of Major League Baseball players) once said, “By playing games you can artificially speed up your learning curve to develop the right kind of thought processes.” Scorekeeping in pickleball will definitely tweak your learning curve. Just think what good you will be doing for your brain while your body is moving around chasing after a yellow ball.

And so…to make a long story short, once a skeptic, I have become an enthusiast. I find that pickleball is a really joyful game. Not super-competitive, just fun. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but there’s something about a wiffleball that’s hard to take seriously. Which is a good thing, right? I mean, who couldn’t use a little more fun in their lives…

Fast forward to today, and you’ll find that pickleball is the fastest growing sport in the United States with international growth gaining steam. Currently, the U.S.A. Pickleball Association lists nearly 4,000 locations where you can play nationwide. To understand how pickleball’s popularity has exploded to this point over the last 50 years, let’s take a look at the nature of this fast-paced, friendly, and enjoyable sport.