The Personality of Pickleball

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Pickleball is popular at the Farmington Valley YMCA. Photo by CJ Gibson

It happened one day last summer. Driving into Salmon Brook Park I saw a few people playing tennis. At least that’s what it looked like. They were playing doubles and crowding the nets more than usual. I didn’t think anything of it until I was heading out of the park later and stopped to watch. They were playing tennis with a whiffle ball. Huh.

My curiosity got the best of me, so I hung by the fence for a couple of minutes. There were some older folks, but also a young family playing with their kids. It seemed like everyone was having fun, laughing, joking, and whooping it up. The rackets were oddly shaped, short handled and had no strings. The court lines were much shorter than tennis court dimensions…what?

When one player came to the fence to retrieve their whiffle ball, I asked them what game this was. They smiled and said, “pickleball,” and jogged back to the game. Pickleball?

It turns out that pickleball is one of the fastest growing sports in our country. There are thousands of new courts being built, and opportunities to play and learn this sport are cropping up everywhere.  At some places there is a waiting list every day just to get on a court.

After watching some YouTube videos, I signed up for group lessons with the Granby Recreation Department and spent time learning the basics. Figuring out how to keep score was a bit confusing, but after a few games it became second nature. And there were always plenty of teammates to help a newbie get it right. Staying out of the kitchen—an area in front of the net that a player can’t hang around in—was another challenge, and adjusting to hitting that whiffle ball with a solid paddle took some time. I either clubbed it into the ground or skied it out of bounds. “Gee, this game is harder than it looks”, I said, “but it IS fun”.

Beside the physical aspects of the game, and learning the rules and strategies involved, I learned a lot about many of the people who play it. Pickleball players are fun and easy going as far as gamesmanship goes. There were lots of different styles of players. Smashers who hit every shot as hard as possible, finesse players, dinkers (soft touch and spinning returns) but everyone has fun. For an old coot like me, the game and the people were lots of fun to be around. I made new friends hanging by the courts at the park. On any given night, you can find a game or two to join, and just like at the golf course, players are most often welcoming to a stranger who just wants to play a game and get some exercise.

The story goes that pickleball was invented by a father who was trying to make a game in his driveway for his family to play. It is self-officiated, involves hand/eye coordination, flexibility and good sportsmanship. Most often it is played in a doubles format, with teams and partners rotating after a game or two. This keeps the competition balanced and makes the game fun yet challenging. Rotating partners promotes friendly competition and sportsmanship, and a sense of trying hard, but not taking things so seriously that we forget what’s important in life. While winning is always important to competition, in pickleball, like in life, it’s important that you enjoy the game.

Over the winter, I tried indoor pickleball. It’s a little faster game, with no weather elements to contend with, and uses regulation height nets, which are three inches lower than those at the park. Once again, those who came out to play in the evenings at the middle school gym were some of the nicest people, and everyone had a fun couple of nights each week, socializing, competing, laughing and playing this sport with the funny name. Some of the players there said this was their date night and more fun than a movie and a pizza. What a compliment, eh?

The Recreation Department offers several pickleball groups, and pickleball is played at the YMCA three days a week. If you are so inclined, maybe go and watch a few games, get some pointers, and try it. I can almost guarantee that you’ll like the experience, have some laughs, laugh at yourself a bit, and meet some new folks.

Since pickleball is self-officiated, promotes good sportsmanship, and is about how you play the game maybe we should invite some of the world leaders to join up. I figure it couldn’t make things worse, and it might just get them to stay out of each other’s kitchens.

Peace and pickleball. You got to love that.

Pickleball racquets and balls. Photo by CJ Gibson