Why I Play Pickleball (and You Should Try It Too)
Why I Changed Sports
I used to write a lot. It's hard for me to believe that just a few years ago, I was cranking out three or four blogs a week (and engaging in plenty of Facebook debates on the side). And this was not exactly light-hearted reading: religion, philosophy, politics, economics, history, you name it. At my high point, it became difficult to shut my brain off.
I can list a number of excuses for why I haven't written a blog or engaged in an online debate in months. The primary reason, however, is that I have fallen fairly deeply into a "have fun" mode. After so many years of working hard, helping to raise two kids, and being held back by a certain amount of social anxiety, I may be finally learning how to relax and enjoy life. Maybe life does begin at 50.
In recent weeks, however, I have begun to feel the itch to exercise that more creative and productive part of the brain. But since they say that you should write about your passions of the moment, I have decided to combine hobbies and blog about the fastest growing sport in the United States: pickleball. This is because a lot of the fun I have been having over the past six months or so has been on pickleball courts all over Southern California.
The goal of this article is not to describe the sport of pickleball. If you have never heard of it, simply google "pickleball" and you can quickly learn the basics. Instead, I am going to explain why I have quickly become addicted to this game and why you should do yourself a favor and give it a try. So in no particular order, here is a short list of reasons why you might want to become a fellow "pickler."
1. You Can Become Competent Fairly Quickly
As a person who played many years of racquetball and used to play some tennis back in the day, I can tell you that it takes far less time to become a decent player in pickleball than it does in those other racquet sports. This is particularly true if you have any experience playing ping pong, racquetball, tennis, or badminton. The paddle is easier to handle, and the ball easier to control, than in those other games. Since racquet sports are far more fun when you are having rallies instead of just wandering around picking up the ball, I would especially encourage people who have struggled with other racquet sports to give pickleball a try. If nothing else, you can learn fairly quickly to keep the ball alive.
In just six months, my game has made pretty rapid progress, largely because of all those years of playing racquetball (and from growing up playing a lot of ping pong). But like any sport, there is always plenty of room for growth. Every time I think I'm getting really good, I go up against people far better, and I realize that there is still plenty to learn. I eagerly look forward to where I can be in a few years when I truly start to figure out what the hell I am doing.
2. It's Easier on the Body Than Other Racquet Sports
Before taking up pickleball this past September, I had been a pretty hardcore racquetball player for about 15 years. While I loved just about every minute of it, I had noticed in recent years that the aches and pains were starting to increase. I also learned through past experience that I could maybe play racquetball hard about three times a week (and never on consecutive days). In addition, I noticed that there were a lot of racquetball players of my age or older walking with a limp, talking about their latest operations, or struggling to lift their arms over their heads. In a nutshell, I was getting a possible look at my future. Still, I enjoyed it too much, and would get too good of a workout playing, to give it up just yet.
But over the past couple years, I would periodically hear about pickleball. A racquetball player I knew told me about it one day, and it sounded interesting. It wasn't long before I stopped seeing that guy on the racquetball courts. I then heard about another long-time player who sold all his racquetball stuff and took up pickleball. So I eventually decided to buy a couple paddles and give it a try. If nothing else, maybe I could play it with my wife and friends. But I ended up liking the game far more than expected, and when it became obvious right away that this game caused fewer aches and pains than racquetball, it wasn't long before I made the switch. Apparently, many racquetball players have gone through a similar process. In the relatively short time I have been playing, I keep running into former racquetball players I used to know.
Don't get me wrong. You can get a hell of a workout playing pickleball, especially if you play singles. But because most people typically play doubles, and the court is only the size of a badminton court, the game tends to be far easier on the legs than racquetball or tennis. Also, since you are playing with a plastic wiffle ball that you hit with a paddle, your arm isn't exposed to the kind of tension that you get when hitting a racquet ball or tennis ball as hard as you can. (And as I discuss later, pickleball tends to be more of a finesse sport anyway.)
This does present one little problem. Because pickleball is easier on my body than racquetball, I am able to play longer and more often. At times, it feels like I can play forever. Unfortunately, even pickleball—in excess—can take its toll, and I've pushed it a little too hard at times. Fortunately, the recovery time has been pretty fast so far, and I've been back out there in a day or two.
3. It's a Finesse Game
In racquetball in particular, really strong players can overpower most opponents. The same to some extent can be said about tennis. Pickleball, however, is a different ball game. Because the court is fairly small, and the ball does not move too fast (or far) nor bounce particularly high, placement is generally more important than power. Anyone who has ever tried to defeat good players by whacking the ball hard all the time has learned pretty quickly that you must learn how to hit soft shots to win, and it is crucial to wait for the right moments to attack. The higher the level of play, the more pickleball is like a chess match.
To a hardcore racquetball player, this may sound boring. But don't worry. If you play your cards right, you will have plenty of opportunities to put the ball away by crushing it as hard as you can. Just be sure to pick your spots wisely.
4. There Are Roughly an Equal Number of Men and Women Playing
Needless to say, there are plenty of women playing all racquet sports, and there are a lot of women who can kick most men's asses in all these sports. But with racquetball players in particular, especially at high levels, men can generally outrun and overpower women. From what I can tell so far, this is less true with pickleball. Wherever I have played, I have seen women of all ages, shapes, and sizes who can hold their own with any of the men out there. Skill seems to take precedent over sheer size, speed, and power.
When I first started playing, I often judged players by appearances. If I saw a woman who appeared to be in her 60s standing on the other side of the net, I thought that I might need to take it easy on her. After having my ass kicked enough times by women and men of all ages, I don't think that way any more.
P.S. As a side note, there may also be some dating potential here. Because my wife is not in favor of me trying to date other women, I cannot speak from personal experience. But if you are a man or woman seeking out members of the opposite sex, pickleball may not be a bad place to start. As purely a numbers game, your odds of getting some action are a hell of a lot better—for men in particular—than on an indoor racquetball court. Just saying.
5. It's Growing
I was noticing in recent years that racquetball is a dying sport. It's hard to find places to play indoor racquetball any more, and many gyms are either taking out courts or being built without them. I also get the sense that older sports like tennis, badminton, and ping pong have either hit their plateaus or may even be shrinking. Pickleball, on the other hand, is growing remarkably fast. (In fact, if you go to a tennis center that offers pickleball, the pickleball courts often seem far busier than the tennis courts.) In the short time I have been playing, I have seen several new venues pop up in Southern California, and whatever the day or time, you can always find a game if you know where to look.
6. It's the People
Sports tend to have a culture. While I met a lot of cool people over the years playing racquetball, the sport seemed to attract, on average, a lot of highly competitive, testosterone driven people. It may simply be the product of a sport in which you are encouraged to hit the ball as hard as humanly possible. Basketball seemed to attract a lot of trash talkers and ball hogs. I noticed right from the start, however, that pickleball people tend to be generally friendly, mellow, and out to have fun. I have played in multiple venues in just the past six months, and I have felt welcome in every place I have gone. And while many people (including myself) seek out people who play at a similar level, almost everyone is more than happy at least some of the time to play with whoever shows up. As I get to know all kinds of people who often travel around like myself to various venues, it increasingly feels like I am walking into the bar at Cheers, going off to a friendly place where everyone knows your name.
7. You Can Play It (Well) for Life
My first love was basketball. I gave it up in my early 30s because I was tired of nagging injuries, and it clearly was a young man's sport. My second love was racquetball, and not long ago, I could hardly imagine giving it up. It was becoming increasingly clear, however, that it was also a young man's sport. Maybe as we get older, our common sense grows and we realize all the ways you can get injured: twisted ankles, jammed thumbs, racquet balls or racquets to the face, crashing into walls, etc. While pickleball is not perfectly safe, the prospects for injury and general wear and tear on the body are far less. Given how many really good players in their 70s and 80s I have already met, I may have finally found my sport for life.
8. You Can Play With Your Wife, Friends, or Kids
I never really considered inviting my wife, friends, or kids to play racquetball with me. I knew it would take years before any of them could get to a point where they could compete with me or even play on the court safely. In just a few months, I've already gotten my wife, a couple of old friends, and even my mom to give pickleball a try. Just this morning and several times before that, my wife and friends have ventured off on their own to play in various places. Although we are all at various levels, we still get together sometimes for a little friendly "competition."
9. It's a Chance to Try Something New
It's a chance to try something new: After 15 years, I reached a point in racquetball, given how much (or little) it was practical for me to play, where I was not going to get much better. I essentially hit a plateau, and the only thing I could maybe do for a while was maintain the same level. Because pickleball is still so new for me, there is plenty of room for progress, and every time I step on the court, it's a new adventure. This can be frustrating at times for someone like me who grew accustomed to playing a sport where I had become so comfortable. It's not easy to be such an amateur again. There is something to be said, however, for stepping out of one's comfort zone and gaining a little humility.
So if you live in the vicinity of Southern California and this sounds like something you want to try, let me know. Both I, and a whole lot of friendly pickleball people, can hook you up in no time. Hope to see you on the courts. I'll be the left-handed bald guy, who yells at himself from time to time, but mostly has a smile on his face.