Michelle likes to write about humor, and the episodes in life that make us recognize the underlying humanity in all of us.
Pickleball 1, Me 0
The sport that is not really a sport, but more of a friendly game played with friends and family, can be a lot of fun. Not really that competitive, yet it "schooled" me.
As a young teen, I was fairly quick on my feet but also shy and bookish. When it involved running around on a court, or field, or gymnasium, I often felt super awkward and confused about where my legs and arms should go.
Into adulthood, I have kept fit with yoga, walking, hiking, and some tennis. Not a great tennis player, I did, however, manage to achieve some beginner-level capability. So I naturally assumed that I would be as adept at pickleball. Not so. Pickleball took me down.
Well, let me rephrase that. I got a true ego bashing from my attempts at pickleball.
What I’d really like to share is the humor and lightness that can be derived from a seeming failure, and hope that my readers will feel sympatico with my anecdote. I'll provide a few tidbits about the sport too, for those unfamiliar.
Dimensions and Size of Pickleball Court
What the heck is pickleball?
Well, It’s kind of like a cross between tennis and badminton.
Here's a summary of the basics.
- You can think of pickleball as a low-impact sport, in that the court size is only 22 feet by 18 feet. It is also usually played doubles, so not much running is involved.
- There is an area of 7 feet, that is marked by lines from the net to the 7-foot mark inside each side of the court, that is called the "kitchen," and is an important boundary for serving and hitting short shots.
- The score goes up to 11 points, making games short and sweet. It only takes about 15-30 minutes to play one game.
- The first two shots, the serve and first return, must bounce once before being returned. After that you are allowed to hit either volleys (no bounce required) or regular ground shots (bounce).
- The skill level is not truly graded like in tennis. But there are definitely players who are very good. Being able to hit low and hard shots is a skill that is acquired over time. The serve also can be improved upon with steady practice
Rules and Scoring in Pickleball
Origins of Pickleball
Pickleball started out as a hobby. It was invented in 1965 by three dads in Washington state, one of whom was congressman Joel Pritchard. After a golf game, they came home to find bored kids sitting around doing nothing, and got the idea to use their badminton court and improvise with what they had available. They used some ping pong paddles and a perforated plastic ball, and came up with some rules.
The name "pickleball" was coined by Joel Pritchard's wife, Joan. Apparently she had been a crew boat member, and “pickle boat” is the term used for a random collecting of people who are left over from other boats.
Who Plays Pickleball?
Up until recently, pickleball was almost exclusively played by seniors, or the 55+ age group. It began to snowball in 2009, at first in the sunbelt states where many seniors retire, and more pickleball courts were constructed at RV communities and senior centers. With an increasing number of courts in municipal centers, at public tennis courts, and parks, the sport eventually caught on to middle-aged and younger persons. No longer a senior-only sport, non-retirees now make up the fastest growing segment of the sport.
One reason for its growing popularity is the fact that it's accessible to all age groups, does not require a high level of performance, allowing a wider reach as well as an opportunity for family members to play together (Loudin, 2019).
Where and How to Find Players
The national organization, USAPA, provides a listing of pickleball groups all over the United States, which can be searched by zip code. It also is a good resource for events, tournaments, and how-to's regarding rules and organized play. Generally, pickleball is played at recreation centers and public courts. There are also local groups that organize games through Meetup.com and other groups. I advise you to search on Google. Finally, YouTube also offers some great tips and videos of play to help you improve.
My Pickleball Story: A Dink on the Court of Life
A few years ago, I decided to give pickleball a try. You see, I had one of those friends that dives in when she discovers something new. She was constantly bubbling over with glee about pickleball—she enjoyed the community of players, the physical movement, the competition, and the ease of learning. Her encouragement propelled me to seek out a group.
My first game was inside of a medium-sized recreation center, on the court of a standard-sized gymnasium. Upon entering, there are bleachers on one side. It was easy to find the organizer and get my name on the list as a new player.
My first few games were fun. I felt comfortable with the group, and the bonus was that the organizer was both a nice guy and a really good instructor. He patiently went over the rules, volunteered to play as my partner so that I could learn faster, and also offered a lot of encouragement. He also would practice one-on-one with me to learn short shots, dinks, and volleys. My first sessions on the court were like a new romance. Little did I know that the court I was playing on would soon be cordoned off to me!
Pickleball Honeymoon: Over
After playing for about three or four weeks, about once a week, and sometimes an additional day when I did not have any clients scheduled, I began to feel like I was doing rather well. I could hit the ball without missing, and return it on most volleys. But I was lacking one important attribute: enthusiasm. For me, it was just a way to exercise. As a beginner, I was not able to provide much in the way of competition. In retrospect, my fellow players pegged me as a wimpy player from the get-go.
After a few weeks, I noticed that the group I was playing with consisted pretty much of the exact same 20 or so people every week, and ditto no matter what day I attended. They all seemed to have known each other for a long time, and had a type of shorthand communication that evaded me. They would say a few words to each other, sign up on a sheet to get in line to play, and sit on bleachers near to each other, sometimes having conversations and sometimes not.
By week five or so, it became evident that I was being treated as an “outsider.”
At first, I wondered if I was being oversensitive, or imagining this weird ostracization. Having been one of those kids who was always the last chosen for team sports, like volleyball or baseball, I had scars of athletic ineptitude that had left little engrams on my self-esteem.
Am I Really That Bad at Pickleball?
I decided that I must be overreacting. So I returned for another week and made more “aggressive” attempts at communication with some of the other players. One day I even positioned myself on the bleachers and sat next to a 60-something man who was one of the regulars, and asked him some simple questions that I thought would get him talking, like “How long have you played pickleball?” His answer was: “Two years.” I nodded - the usual gesture of acknowledgement and also invitation to elaborate on details of original answer… nothing. I tried again with another question: “Does it take a long time to get good at this?” Answer: “Yes.” No expansion on that either.
With this fail, I still patted myself on my back for trying to get “in” with this crowd, and also resolved to not let myself feel defeated. Maybe he was just in a bad mood, or didn’t feel like talking that day. I also considered the possibility that sometimes older people are in pain or have a sports injury that makes it difficult for them to be “chatty.” Yes, I went there. Anything but the harsh reality that he did not like me, or, did not like playing with me.
The following two or three weeks afterwards, I tried to chat with other players. I tried sharing my own story to see if that elicited any reaction. It didn’t. My methods of introducing myself and sharing small tidbits about my life were not reciprocated. My words seemed to dissipate into wisps of dandelion hairs in the vacuous high ceiling of the court. After awhile, I began to feel truly invisible. Not only that, I was not sure if I was more hurt, angry, or just confused… maybe some combination of all three. Then I felt silly for feeling so easily wounded. It was stuck in a vicious circle of emotional "yuckiness."
But still, I was willing to accept that perhaps these people were justified in their reaction since I really was not a strong player. I still worked while most of them were retired. It’s sort of difficult for me to “not like” people. I always want to believe that there is some magical way in.
So I decided that my best course of action was to switch to the other “beginner” pickleball recreation center, still a community center, and not far from where I had been playing.
This turned out to be okay, but not that much fun. Players that had never played, or were really terrible (i.e., even worse than me) showed up to basically swat at the ball without much recall of the score, what went wrong, or intent to improve! As I say, I was not the most enthused of players, but I did enjoy it and tried my best to improve. Now it felt as if I was banished to a virtual pickleball purgatory, where you play and play but never get any better, and also never see any new or different players. The guy I mentioned, the volunteer pickleball instructor, was usually there to give pointers and instruct new players on the rules of the game. Why couldn't I have his patience, and ability to help myself and others get better?
After a few months of playing at this “pickleball for dummies” court, I really started to get depressed. Here I was, trying to get healthy by exercising, and may I add I had also been hoping to meet some new friends or at least become friendly with a few people. In my mind, I imagined fantastically sport-like salutations as I greeted fellow pickleballers, like “Hey, see you out there,” or “You played really well last week.” Instead, I was the dunce in the corner holding my racket and staring at my shoes.
A Complete Fail. I Must Suck at Pickleball.
So I quit playing. The final cut was made when I got brave and returned to the original recreation center of the "advanced players," to try and see if I had improved enough to rejoin this clique.
I should also mention that I’m the type of player who is very excited to return a volley and can emote this with a yelp or “yeah.” So maybe because I was so sick of all the politics involved, I really let myself go on this last hurrah game. Every time I got one over the net or won a point, I exclaimed it out loud with a verbal yell, and on a few occasions, accompanied this with a resonant stomp of my foot on the court. I noticed a bit of a reaction to this behavior… but you know what? I didn’t care, and perhaps that was my win.
At the end of this final game, a little tinkering mechanism deep inside my brain held onto the hope that I would feel invited back. Instead, one of the players, a woman with glasses and a dark/grey banded hairdo, kind of skunk-like, strode over and said, “You know, there’s a beginner group over at XYZ Recreation Center, and maybe you should go there.” I was so nauseated and deflated at the same time by this remark that I retorted “Okay, thank you,” with a strong emphasis on the OKAY. I left and never went back.
What is going on? I finally succumbed to the fact that I had to do something that I, and perhaps many other people, don’t want to do. I had to surrender to the experience. This was not the right group, right time, or right place. I wanted to hold onto pickleball like a mouse holds onto its cheese - or a pickleball freak his racquet!
And I felt unseen, unacknowledged. That was very hard. I spent some time in introspection, wondering what I had done, or not done, to warrant being excluded. I felt that this group really had no idea at all of what I was feeling, or how I was feeling left out. How callous and insensitive people can be at times.
So Do I Really Suck at Pickleball?
To this day, I am really not sure. I don’t ever achieve a high-performance status in any sport I try. But perhaps if I returned and practiced more regularly, I could improve. I really do like running and hitting a ball. But a nagging part of me still recalls feeling unlikable and uninvited.
I’m not even sure why I am writing this. I think it is in part a reminder that I can be too hard on myself, and that I should listen and heed my own perceptions. I knew the group was being cliquish, yet I did not know how to handle it, so I pretty much ignored it. I tried to be proactive and improve. Still, there was a pall in the room when I entered.
And I think it is a good example of how certain experiences in life can really and truly test our mettle. It's funny that the saying "it's just a game" carries so many connotations. Playing and socializing with others is a real-time activity that commands all of our attention. We cannot hide ourselves as easily on a court, nor can we pretend we can do something that's not in our wheelhouse. For me, I know I will continue to learn from this pickleball experience, and maybe one day it will no longer feel like a fail, but a true life lesson.
So What If I Suck
Fortunately for me, I have a good and supportive group of friends. I also follow spiritual teachings that build more fiber in my being than I ever knew possible.
If you feel left out, and we all do at one time or another, I hope you can read this and be amused. The experiences of childhood must eventually be left behind, and I am glad that I have a light and sound teacher that guides me in this direction. It is very hard to mature in this life. We grow up a bit, but often get arrested or derailed along the way in our development, due to karma, childhood trauma, and experiences that sour our viewpoint.
Knowing that we are made of more than just our emotions and a mind is a skill that is vastly underrated. I had to learn to trust my own gut instincts, remove myself from toxic situations and negative or disrespectful people, and simply move on.
But I still plan to return to pickleball someday... perhaps with a new and better group of supporters.
Loudin, A. (2019). Pickleball: The fastest growing sport you've never heard of. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/better/lifestyle/pickleball-fastest-growing-sport-you-ve-never-heard-ncna992106
USAPA Pickleball. (n.d.) [Membership site]. Retrieved from https://www.usapa.org/history-of-the-game/
April Heckard on August 06, 2020:
My experience exactly ! Thank you for writing it down.
Danette Watt from Illinois on June 11, 2020:
I enjoyed your piece on pickle ball. I teach yoga and one of my students also has been playing pickle ball for about a year. She loves it and has invited me to give it a try. She said her group is very forgiving of beginners, almost everyone is there to have fun and those who are more competitive stick together. I just have never found the time yet to give it a try. Maybe one of these days.