The sound of excited cheers and shuffling feet filled the gymnasium at Ida B. Wells Middle School Wednesday afternoon as students aged between 11 and 14 hit balls back and forth across the Pickleball court.
It’s a far younger crowd than has come to be associated with the sport. The clinic, led by DC Pickleball Team, included professional pickleball players who joined teams and shared tips and tricks with the students.
While the court set up looks similar to tennis, the unique paddles and court set it apart. Pickleball has been named America’s fastest growing sport by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA). It’s increasing popularity with youth might be a surprise, but is no exception.
Chief operating officer of the DC pickleball team Adam Behnke said while the sport was traditionally played by the older population, the pandemic, and people’s desire to find something active to do outdoors pushed the sport to a more diverse age range including kids. He said it was important to get youth involved in the sport.
“It all starts now at local schools like this at the elementary and middle school level and we have to build that foundation; it’s critical for the growth of the sport and the longevity of it,” Behnke said. “But, most importantly, it’s about health and wellness and inspiring the youth to live a healthy lifestyle.”
The typical crowd was at a much different event held on March 39 when Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) together with the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) and the Department of Aging and Community Living (DACL) held a pickleball clinic with seniors at the Turkey Thicket Recreation Center. Bowser highlighted a $750,000 investment in her FY2024 budget proposal to repurpose four existing, underutilized courts for use as pickleball courts.
But the courts might see a wider variety of players than the clinic. That’s because the sport is spreading to the younger crowd. Ida B. Well’s head of physical education Brian Cross started incorporating pickleball into the rotation of sports at the school a few years ago and noted that it provided opportunities for students of all ability levels to have fun.
“There are some students who may not be as athletic, but they’re very good at being strategic with the paddle,” Cross said. “Some of them can’t run very fast or jump very high, but this sport brings out the ability for them to do other things here. It’s why I like introducing it to the students.”
The event provided students with their own professional level paddles from JOOLA, a Rockville based company, who creates professional equipment for the sport.
Originally a table tennis equipment company, the group affiliated with “the Michael Jordan of Pickleball”, Ben Johns, who grew up in Maryland not far from their office. Johns is now a sponsored athlete of JOOLA.
Chief Marketing Officer for JOOLA, Tom Nguyen said the sport and the demand for pickleball gear has “grown tremendously” since they started producing it, something that results from the “addicting, fun and social” nature of the sport.
The sport brings people of all ages together, he said, united across the net in competition. “Whether they are young or old, you’re going to love it,” Nguyen said. “That’s the beauty of the sport. You can see a 10 year old kid play against a 30 year old guy and beat him and you can see a 80 year old beat a 30 year old; it’s a sport for everyone.”
You can learn more about the DC Pickleball Team at dcpickleballteam.com.
Sarah Payne is a reporter for Capital Community News. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.