There’s a really strong chance you’ve heard of pickleball.
It’s almost impossible not to. Whether it’s a family member over Thanksgiving, a coworker in the office, or a friend trying to convince you to go, the pickleball bug has infected the nation.
Just in the off chance, you’ve never heard of pickleball - I’m not sure whether to be concerned or congratulate you on a remarkable achievement - let’s discuss first what it is.
The Pickleball Story
While it has only recently gained incredible popularity, pickleball has been around for decades. It was created in 1965 by three fathers living in Washington. It was allegedly called pickleball after one of their dogs, Pickles.
Pickleball is essentially a cross between tennis, ping-pong, and badminton.
It is played on a court that looks almost identical to a tennis court - the only difference is that the pickleball court is roughly a fourth the size of a tennis court. It's more similar in size to a badminton court. There is a net separating the two opponents and an area in front of the net called “the kitchen.” This area is off-limits for most of the game.
The game is played most commonly with two teams of two players. Each player has a paddle that is similar to a large ping-pong paddle, and the ball is essentially a wiffle ball. The serving team begins (always underhand), the other team returns and the pickleballers are pickling! There are a few other rules, but that’s the jist of it.
Seems simple enough, right?!
It definitely is and no doubt, that’s one of the biggest appeals of the game. Pickleball has skyrocketed in popularity, leaving many to wonder, “Why?” - there is even now a USA Pickleball Association. Chances are, if you are questioning it, you probably haven’t picked up a paddle yet. So before, you play your first game, let’s take a quick dive into what is causing pickleball to be the hottest sport in fitness.
Low Physical Barrier to Entry
This may be far and away the biggest thing pickleball has going for it. There are all types of barriers for most sports. To play basketball, you have to be able to run, jump, shoot, and dribble. To play soccer, you have to be able to run, dribble, and kick. To play tennis, you have to run, cut, and be pretty precise with your control of your shots.
All of these sports are great, and if you spend time practicing or grew up playing, they can be incredibly fun. However, the barrier to entry to having an enjoyable time is often pretty high for those with no background in the sport.
This is just simply not true with pickleball.
Pickleball can be picked up by almost anyone regardless of athletic experience.
Now of course, it helps if you have played tennis before or really just have any sort of hand-eye coordination experience and ability to move side-to-side. However, even that is not required. Almost anyone can walk out to a pickleball court and play, no matter their athletic background - something not true of almost any other sport.
Now there are a few reasons why this is the case. The first is the equipment used. The paddle is smaller and easier to control and use when compared to a tennis racquet. Unlike the “springiness” of a tennis racquet, the pickleball paddle almost dulls the shot. This just means the ball won’t travel as far. And, if the ball doesn’t travel as far, your reaction time playing pickleball doesn’t have to be quite so fast. There isn’t nearly as much sprinting and cutting as you would see in tennis. The ball is also not nearly as bouncy as a tennis ball, further adding to the reaction time needed.
But don’t worry, pickleball is in no way slow. While the ball may not travel quite as fast, the action is packed into a much smaller court. This means that while your running reactions and cuts may not be quite as intense, your hand-eye coordination is going to still be put to the test.
Because the court is smaller, you don’t have to cover quite so much ground.
This is great for creating a low barrier to entry. Going from little to no sport or exercise experience to playing tennis or other sports can be quite a jump physically. The demands on your joints and tendons when cutting, planting, and running can be great. These demands can lead to injury if you jump too quickly into a new sport without proper precautions.
Now while pickleball is not injury-free pickleball injuries are less likely. This is largely because the court is much smaller, meaning the need to turn, cut, run, and plant quite as often and quite as intensely is lesser. Common pickleball injuries include groin, hamstring, and shoulder strains. In order to avoid some of these, be sure to get a great warm-up in and include some strength training throughout your week.
Another typical challenge with sports is the skill component - basketball requires shooting and dribbling, tennis requires serving, and baseball requires throwing and hitting. Playing pickleball requires almost no significant skill to begin enjoying playing. The serves, unlike tennis, are all underhand, making it much easier.
For all of these reasons and more, pickleball is incredibly popular among older adults. This totally makes sense because whether good or bad, adults tend to stop playing sports as they age largely due to the physical demands. However, pickleball, relative to other sports, has low physical demands. When we talk about the physical demands of the sport we are thinking of moving small distances laterally, moving forwards and backwards, swinging your paddle side to side, and sometimes overhead. There is certainly some rotation involved as well.
For the most part, these activities are just stressful enough for older adults to provide a great time, but not overly stressful to incur injuries or significant pain.
Now, I know there are at least a few of you reading this thinking, “Why would I want to play an easy sport like this? If it takes little skill, doesn’t require a whole lot of moving, and can be played by much older people why would I want to play?” That’s a fair question, and to that, I would say just play. Notice the title of this section was “Low Physical Barrier To Entry” - keyword “Entry.” All of the things I’ve mentioned so far are no doubt true, however, these are the requirements to have a good time and enjoy pickleball. There is a whole other group within the pickleball community taking it way farther than entry level. Believe it or not, there are professional pickleball circuits with considerable prize money - we are talking hundreds of thousands of dollars - and even professional pickleball players. If you think these guys don’t push the sport to the limit, you are crazy.
Not to mention, many “older people” will beat you in pickleball. The more practice you have the better you will get and age doesn’t play nearly as big of a factor in skill level as you may think.
Because some of the physical demands have been removed, it creates a more level playing field for pickleball athletes of all ages.
So be careful and don’t talk too much trash before your first trip to the courts.
This one is also really important. In our current world of high inflation, a sport that is cost-effective is a huge win.
Let’s consider other sports. Some of the more reasonable ones include - basketball, which requires a basketball and ideally shoes, soccer, which includes a ball, two nets, cleats, and shin guards, and tennis which requires a racquet and balls. Of course, these sports don’t require anything too expensive to begin, but if you look at say hockey, lacrosse, or let's not even begin to talk about golf you're looking at much, much pricier hobbies.
Now as with anything, you can make pickleball expensive. However, for about $60 you can get a paddle and some balls and have everything you need. If you are just starting out, you don’t need the $300 paddle - trust me.
Another huge factor in keeping the price down for pickleball is that it is almost always free to play.
Now as it has grown in popularity as a sport, more and more places have opened up. I’ve seen places that offer food and court rentals or you can play at a gym indoors which will likely require a gym membership. However, pickleball primarily is a community-oriented, free game to play. There are likely many pickleball courts in your city. You can check your city’s website and probably find some nearby. They are often at parks (and typically quite packed). The demand is certainly greater than the supply at the moment, but that’s certainly changing. There are courts constantly being built in order to meet the needs of picklers everywhere.
If you are really passionate about trying it, you can even purchase portable nets, use some chalk or tape to mark off lines, and play in your driveway or in a parking lot. I know the gym I go to recently purchased a net and members play on the asphalt pavement. Many tennis courts are even being converted to pickleball courts, although the tennis community, as you can imagine, is not a fan of this.
Pickleball is a Social Sport
One thing pickleball has done really well is create a sort of community around the sport.
Pickleball is inherently a social sport. Many have started playing pickleball for this reason alone. One of the biggest reasons is that you can’t play by yourself. Like most sports, you need others to play with. Typically at least three others, although you can play one versus one. This is great because you can show up to the local courts and jump right in. There’s likely going to be men, women, older people, and younger people, all enjoying playing pickleball.
From my experience as well, pickleball players are very kind. They tend to want to help you and get you to enjoy playing pickleball as fast as they can. Oftentimes, they remember what their first experience was like and want to make it as smooth as they can for you. This leads to conversations and getting to know so many from your community - plus you already have a shared bond in common, a (hopeful) love of pickleball.
Even the way games are played encourages social interaction.
Typically, at a pickleball court, you show up and the courts are full or close to it. If the courts are all full, you take your paddle and slide it into a slot hanging on the fence, signifying you want to play in the next game. Now, if you come with friends they can also put their paddle next to yours and you guys can play together. However, if you come alone, you can wait until the next person or group of people want to play and they will put their paddle next to yours.
The cool thing is they won’t skip over you, so you will get to play even if you are by yourself and get to know at least three new people each game. I have a buddy who loves to play pickleball and used it to help him make new friends when he moved to another city.
We are naturally social creatures, so take advantage of that and use pickleball to meet new friends or spend more time with the friends you already have. If you are going with a group be sure to lookout for any single players, or even consider going with a group of three so there’s always room for one more new player each game. You could even get adventurous and sign up for a pickleball tournament with friends after some practice.
Pickleball is a Great Workout
While pickleball isn’t going to increase your back squat or help you PR your bench press, it can be a great workout.
Pickleball involves many movements that are great for your overall health.
Especially, as we age it is important to keep moving and stay active in all planes of motion. This is one thing pickleball is especially good for.
Whether you go to the gym or not, chances are most of the exercise you do is done in the frontal plane. By frontal plane, I mean forwards and backward. Movements like squats, lunges, pullups, walking, and running are all done in this way. However, we often neglect important movements in our exercise - things like rotations and moving side-to-side. This is why pickleball can be great to add into your weekly activities. Pickleball uses a ton of side-to-side action. This is great for keeping your adductors and glutes moving well and staying active. Pickleball also uses a decent amount of rotation. Typically in the gym, we would train this with medicine ball rotations or throws, but just moving rotationally by swinging your paddle is good exposure to new movements.
Another huge physical benefit of pickleball is hand-eye coordination.
It’s important to keep this area of your brain and body sharp. Pickleball will constantly challenge your ability to move in space and react. This is great as we often completely neglect hand-eye coordination after our last JV baseball or softball season.
Pickleball is especially great if you don’t enjoy exercise. In America, we have a huge problem with lack of exercise and subsequently obesity. Now there are a ton of factors in obesity, however, one of the biggest is a lack of exercise. Oftentimes people cite reasons such as exercise is boring, it’s hard, and it’s not fun. Pickleball can be a great solution here.
When played by true beginners, the calories burned and heart rates reached can be compared to slightly harder than a walk.
However, the more you play and get comfortable, the more of a workout you can make it - turning it into some serious cardio. Pickleball can also be played for hours, just make sure you take a water break.
That’s another great thing about pickleball is that you can play as hard or as easy as you like - this also depends on who you are playing against.
Since pickleball is a game, there is a strong chance you end up way more distracted by the competition and how much fun you are having than the exercise.
This goes along with the cool idea of “gamifying” workouts. The more we can turn exercise into play, the more results we may be able to see. So, while you may be concerned with winning your third match of the day, your body is feeling the positive effects of an hour of movement, sweat, and socialization.
On the other hand, if you are someone who takes the gym and your fitness pretty seriously, you may decide to use pickleball as a time to see friends and move on a rest day. However, be careful, your competitive spirit might just get the best of you and leave you exhausted after two-plus hours of intense pickling.
You Get To Be Outside
Unfortunately, most exercise is now done indoors. I saw unfortunately because we know just how good it can feel for our minds and bodies to be outside moving on a beautiful day.
Of course, I’ll admit, I have many different feelings on the days when it is eight degrees outside and there’s ice on my car.
However, in the warmer months, a great excuse to get outside and enjoy the outdoors is to simply play pickleball and get out to the pickleball courts. Soak in the sunshine, sweat a little, and feel the endorphins from outside exercise. However, with being outside, make sure you consider the effects of dehydration. It becomes a little more real when you aren’t sitting in Gold’s Gym in the AC sipping on pre-workout and electrolytes.
Pickleball Is Fun
This really is the icing on the cake. There are a lot of great reasons people play pickleball and why pickleball is the hottest sport in fitness, but it being fun is really critical.
Moving and exercising is not always fun and for that reason, a lot of people quit. Now there is something to be said for sticking with hard things because they are good for you, and I fully support that. But, if pickleball happens to be fun and good for you, that’s a win-win!
The growth of pickleball is awesome for many reasons. One of the biggest is that it simply gets people moving. Unless we are proactive, our lives can easily be characterized by lots and lots of sitting. Sitting to eat, sitting to drive, sitting at work, and sitting on the couch before bed. It takes work and effort to add movement into everyday life and if pickleball makes that just a little bit easier, that’s awesome.
Not to mention, pickleball is a sport you can play with family, friends, and really anybody. You know you want to beat that uncle of yours next Thanksgiving. Who knows, you may even start your own pickleball tournaments with family and friends.
So go ahead and order a paddle. Chances are you won’t even need to buy balls yet if you show up to a popular park. Lace up your tennis shoes. Be sure to stretch a little bit, especially the legs and shoulders, and go play. There’s something to be said for never growing too old to play. Whether in the gym, with sports, or with pickleball.
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DeMelo, Juno. “Why Is Pickleball So Popular?” The New York Times, 14 December 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/03/well/move/pickleball-popular-sport.html