Move over, golf and tennis. A new favorite pastime is taking off with American Boomers.
A growing number of people are playing pickleball—a sport that combines tennis, badminton and ping-pong, and that is played by two to four players using paddles and a plastic ball with holes, on either an indoor or outdoor court about one-third the size of a standard tennis court.
The game has become particularly popular among people in their 50s, 60s and 70s looking for an activity that offers good aerobic exercise without being as strenuous as traditional racket sports— and which affords players the chance to socialize during the game.
“It’s the right mix of exercise and socializing for a person my age,” Martha Card, 64, told the Chesterfield Observer in Virginia. Card plays the sport several times a week at a local pickleball center.
How Pickleball Began
The game was first invented in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, Washington near Seattle at the home of former U.S. Congressman Joel Pritchard—who was then just a state rep. He and two other dads returned from golfing to find their families bored. No one could find the shuttlecock for the badminton, so they used Wiffle balls instead, lowered the badminton net, and used ping-pong paddles to invent their own game. Thus, Pickleball was born.
The origin of the name has been debated. Some people have claimed the odd name for the sport was derived from the “pickle boat,” a nickname for the last boat to return from a fishing trip that carried the leftover oarsman and gear (similar to how pickleball began by using leftover equipment from other sports). However, a family friend has said the Pritchards had a cocker spaniel named Pickles who would chase after the balls while they were playing the game, so they named the game after him.
No matter where the name came from, pickleball soon became extremely popular among Pritchard’s neighbors, eventually spreading from Bainbridge Island to become a worldwide sport.
The first known pickleball tournament was held in 1976, according to the USA Pickleball Association. USAPA was organized in 1984, and the first official rulebook was published that same year. By 1990, pickleball was being played in all 50 states. The sport continued to spread as it became increasingly popular in senior athletic events in the early 2000s. Though the sport is now more than 50 years old, it’s grown rapidly over the past decade. The USAPA estimates that about 3.1 million people now play the game nationwide and there are nearly 6,900 known places to play, up from fewer than 50 places in 2003.
The association hosts tournaments around the country, allowing more people to learn about and watch the sport.
Why is Pickleball So Popular? And Why is it a Great Activity for Retirees?
A big reason for the popularity of the game among Boomers is that it helps them stay physically active, albeit on a smaller court, with a slightly lower net and larger, slower-paced balls relative to tennis. This means it can be enjoyed by people who may not be in good enough physical shape to play tennis, but still enjoy similar games.
For players of any age, pickleball offers the mental and physical challenge and hand-eye coordination required by a game like ping-pong while providing more physical activity—often outdoors. At the same time, it’s generally less strenuous and easier to learn how to play pickleball than a more-intense racquet sports like racquetball or tennis, which can take months of practice to play well. By comparison, pickleball is generally easier and faster to learn.
For retirees, it is also a great way to stay social while staying fit. In fact, many retirement communities across the U.S.—particularly in southern states such as Florida and Arizona—have built on-site pickleball courts in recent years and have designated the sport as one of the main social activities they promote among their residents.
Another allure: Many pickleball players can teach their children and grandchildren to play with them.
“This is an easy sport to learn,” Jay Schofield, a retired high school physical education teacher who lives on Martha’s Vineyard, told the island’s paper. “You can develop some proficiency pretty quickly. I’ll get someone who’s never played, and they will be playing competitively within a couple of sessions.”
Though it’s especially popular in southern states where it can be played outdoors year-round, its popularity is growing in northern states as well. Some local athletic centers, such as YMCAs, now host leagues and mark pickleball lines on tennis courts so they can be used for both sports.
The game has gotten so popular in some areas that lines can form outside pickleball courts, causing many enthusiasts to urge their communities to add more courts.
Rules of the Game
Pickleball can be played as either a singles or doubles game. For both singles and doubles, the size of the court is 20×44 feet, the same as a double badminton court.
Rules of the game include:
- The serve must be underhand and below the waist—and it must be made at least one foot behind the baseline, struck diagonally
- The serve must land within the opposite diagonal court
- Only the team serving the ball is able to score points, which take place when the opposite side fails to return the ball or commits other faults, such as hitting the ball out of bounds
- When the ball is served, the receiving team must let the ball bounce once before hitting it back, as must the serving team when returning it
- Once the ball has bounced once in each team’s court, it is permitted to volley the ball (i.e., hit it before it bounces)
- Games normally go to 11 points, with the leading team needing to be 2 points ahead to win
The sport also has rules specific to players in wheelchairs. Though many of the rules are similar to the standard rules, there are some basic differences. Wheelchair-bound players, for example, get up to two bounces of the ball on their side of the net instead of one and the wheelchair can move once while the player is serving the ball.
How to Start Playing
Thanks to the fast-growing popularity of the game, it’s easier than ever to start playing and to find other players in your area.
USAPA’s website has many helpful resources, including a map of places to play and contacts for “ambassadors” of the sport and local pickleball clubs. They can connect you with others in your area who are already playing and may be willing to teach you.
Pickleball Equipment: What is Needed to Play?
Beyond having access to a pickleball court (or a tennis court with pickleball line markings), you also need some basic equipment to start playing. Here are the main essentials:
Paddle: A pickleball paddle is between the size of a tennis racket and a ping-pong paddle. You generally have a choice among several different types of core materials, including fiberglass (often called composite), graphite, aluminum and wood. The material of the paddle can affect its price, but also its performance. Aluminum, for example, is lightweight and provides a high level of control, but it may lack the power provided by a heavier paddle made of fiberglass. Wood paddles are often the cheapest, but they are also the heaviest, making them somewhat harder to control. A beginner may want to choose a lighter-weight paddle with an oversized head as it will provide more control and increase the odds of hitting the ball. A more experienced player, on the other hand, may be willing to choose a heavier paddle but one with more power. Ultimately, however, you should choose the paddle that feels most comfortable for you—so it’s worth trying out at least a few options before settling on one.
Pickleball: Pickleballs have holes like Wiffle Balls and come in two basic designs for either indoor or outdoor use. (The balls with larger holes are typically for indoor use, since wind is less of a concern.) They come in a large variety of colors, but yellow is the most popular color for outdoor balls because it stands out nicely against blue or green courts. Indoor pickleballs come in a wide range of colors. The International Federation of Pickleball requires that pickleballs not be more than one color.
Net: The court you use may already have a pickleball net of the right size and length, but if not, you can buy a USAPA Portable Net System that’s easy to carry and set up.
Pickleball Apparel and Accessories: What Do You Wear to Play?
Beyond the equipment, you may also want to buy some apparel and accessories that will make playing the game more comfortable. Here are the pickleball apparel and accessories worth considering:
Comfortable sportswear: You’ll want to wear clothes—whether shorts or sweatpants or short- or long-sleeved shirts—that allow you a good range of motion while keeping you cool even if you work up a sweat. Tennis-style skirts and dresses are a common apparel choice for women. Many clothes designed specifically for tennis and pickleball include wicking fabric that draw moisture away from the body.
Tennis shoes: Running shoes and cross-training sneakers won’t cut it. Running shoes have ridged soles that help propel you forward, but can cause slipping when you’re using them for other types of motions. Cross-training sneakers have grooves on the bottom that can stick to the court’s acrylic surface and also cause you to trip. Therefore, tennis sneakers will generally be the safest and most comfortable choice. They generally have rubber soles that provide cushion for the hardcourt surface but also have tough materials in the right places to support your feet and ankles during sudden starts and stops. In fact, you should look for tennis shoes that have a toe guard, extra padding and special cushioning for stop-and-go movements. According to PickleballAce.com, some of the best pickleball shoes for women and men include:
- The ASICS Women’s Gel Rocket 7
- K-Swiss Women’s Hypercourt 50TH-W
- ASICS Women’s Gel-Dedicate 4
- ASICS Men’s Gel Dedicate 5
- Adidas Men’s Barricade Club
- ASICS Men’s Gel Rocket 7
Carrying bag: Though not a requirement, a pickleball carrying case will make it easier to carry your paddle, balls and any other gear or personal items (such as keys and a towel) you choose to bring along. Look for a bag that fits the number and type of equipment you’re bringing, as some can hold multiple paddles and balls. Also consider getting one that includes a cooler that can hold your water bottles or other refreshments.
Sunglasses: If you play outdoors, having a pair of shatter-proof sunglasses designed for athletic wear will prevent the sun’s glare from interfering with your game while also protecting your eyes.
The USAPA offers the official USA Pickleball Association Store, which offers a complete line of pickleball clothing along with other merchandise emblazoned with the official association logo.
Pickleball Terms You Need to Know
Like most sports, pickleball has special terminology that its players use to describe various shots and situations. Some of the terms overlap those used in tennis and other racquet sports, but others are unique. You will surely begin to learn these terms as you start playing, but it’s helpful to know some key phrases beforehand. Here are some key ones:
Groundstroke: When a player hits the ball after it bounces once. There are two basic kinds: Forehand and backhand groundstrokes.
Dink: A shot that clears the net and lands within the “non-volley” zone on your opponent’s side.
Lob: A shot that moves in a deep, high arc over the net and often forces the opponent to back up to the baseline.
Dead ball: The ball is out of bounds and the current point is over.
Fault: A violation of a rule that stops the play.
Side Out: When the person or team serving the ball loses the point, a “side out” is declared and the opponent begins to serve.
No Better Time to Start Playing
Because pickleball combines many of the things seniors are looking for in an activity—including exercise and an opportunity to socialize and have fun—it’s worth at least trying it out. There’s no time like the present to get started.
Have a particular sport or hobby that you enjoy and keeps you fit and active? Let us know in the comments section below!