Pickleball: Not Just for Seniors

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I was shocked. The first time I played pickleball every pre-conceived notion I had of the sport was destroyed. Thoughts like, “It’s just for old people. It’s easy. It’s slow-moving,” went out the window. I discovered it’s challenging, it’s fun and it’s great exercise.  I’m hooked.

Pickleball is the perfect game if you are new to racquet sports. The hand/eye coordination is excellent for keeping your brain in top shape. It’s also great for keeping your muscles toned and flexible and it helps to improve your balance and reflexes. It’s also challenging enough for people who have played other racquet sports. Pickleball is easy to learn but hard to master which is what makes the sport so interesting.

I started playing about six weeks ago at an outdoor court in my community. I found it a good way (and one of the few ways) to meet people and exercise in a time when social distancing is in and indoor activities are out. It’s a popular sport in my neighborhood. We’ve had as many as 20 players show up for one of our sessions which usually averages between 10-12 players.

What is Pickleball?

Pickleball is a sport that combines elements of tennis, badminton, and table tennis. Two or four players use solid paddles made of wood or graphite (preferred) to hit a whiffle ball over a net. It shares features of other racquet sports: the dimensions and layout of a badminton court and a net and rules somewhat similar to tennis. Pickleball has an array of shots and unique names for them. “Dink” is called a drop shot in tennis. There are lobs and overhead smashes. The “kitchen” is the small box seven feet from the net in the front of the court that is the “non-volley zone.”

Points are scored only by the serving team. Games are played to 11 points, win by two.

The History of Pickleball

According to legend, the game was created by Washington politician Joel Pritchard to entertain his bored family during the summer of 1965. According to Joel, his wife described the sport as looking like the pickle boat in rowing. This refers to a crew of oarsmen who are leftovers from the other boats. The second theory is that it is named after the Pritchard’s dog, Pickles. The dog would chase the ball and run off with it.

Who can Play Pickleball and Where?

DC has only a few indoor courts on or near Capitol Hill – at the Sherwood Recreation Center and Rosedale Rec Center in northeast and at the King Greenleaf Recreation Center in southwest and Capper Senior Center in southeast. “The DC government doesn’t support pickleball compared to Arlington where there are many courts both indoor and outdoor,” explained Jim Dougherty, who is the District’s pickleball champion. He took gold in the men’s singles and gold in the mixed doubles in 2018. His winnings qualified him to represent DC in the 2019 National Senior Games. “It was fun representing the District. I’ll be competing again at the 2020 games in Fort Lauderdale this November if they are held.”

Pattie Cinelli tries her hand at pickleball, the fastest growing sport in the US.

Jim is not new to competitive sports. He played college tennis and played squash for many years. He was an active player of ultimate frisbee on the mall until a knee injury stopped his playing for a while. “Four years ago I read about pickleball in the Post and gave it a try.”

Jim believes pickleball is among the best of racquet sports. “Because the court is smaller you have lots of hits and it’s fast-paced. There are many different kinds of shots that come into play. It’s a much more diverse racquet sport than others, points are longer. Since the court is smaller than tennis you don’t have to cover as much ground and don’t spend as much time chasing a ball.”

While the majority of players are baby boomers (75% of players are over 50) I have had a 13-year-old as a partner. One of our opponents was a member of his high school tennis team. I’ve also had as a partner a woman who has never played any sport in her life. In our group we regularly have 30 and 40-somethings as well who have all levels of skill sets.

A couple of years ago the US Sports & Fitness Industry Association recognized pickleball as the fastest growing sport in the US. In the past six years the number of participants has grown by 600 percent.

While it’s caught on among people with age, Jim said it’s popular among all ages. The national racquetball champion is 21 years old and from the University of Maryland. In that championship last November the oldest competitor was 90 and the youngest was nine. “The sport is co-ed and diverse,” he said. “My friend plays with her kids and grandkids every Sunday.”

The USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) has a list of all addresses and names of places at which you can play pickleball, organized by state. The sport is also gaining in popularity internationally.

If you can’t find an official pickleball court, do what we do in my community: use a tennis court, outline the court in a different color from the tennis lines and lower the net to a height of three feet.  Or, you can create your own court on a blacktop surface. Because you don’t need much area (compared to a tennis court), it’s easy to find a suitable area on which to draw the service courts and no-volley zone, and then hang a net in the middle.

If you’d like to learn more before you dive in, check out the USA Pickleball Association website: www.usapa.org. You can also find demonstrations and instruction about pickleball on Youtube.

Pattie Cinelli is a health and fitness professional who has been writing her column for more than 20 years. She focuses on non-traditional ways to stay healthy and get well. Please email her with questions or column suggestions at: [email protected].