What Is Pickleball? Benefits, How To Play And More

What Is Pickleball? Benefits, How To Play And More

Want to try the fastest growing sport in the U.S.? Get your paddle ready.

Pickleball now has 4.8 million participants nationwide and a 39.3% growth rate over the last two years, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) 2022 Sports, Fitness and Leisure Activities Topline Participation Report. In fact, this badminton/tennis/Ping-Pong mashup volleyed itself into the top spot for fastest growing sport in the U.S. for the second year in a row.

“It’s social and extremely fun and easy for the whole family to play—everyone from a young kid to a grandma,” says professional pickleball player Parris Todd, a former competitive tennis player who switched to pickleball during the pandemic and hasn’t looked back. “​​Plus, the health benefits are not only the exercise, but also the joy it brings.”

Read on to learn more about the hottest sport on a court.

A Brief History of Pickleball

Pickleball was created in 1965 in Bainbridge Island, Washington, by Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum. The three neighbors initially came up with the concept—using some old Ping-Pong paddles and a perforated ball on a badminton court—as a game to keep their bored kids busy on a rainy day.

But in a 2015 interview with the Pickleball Channel, McCallum (the last living pickleball creator at the time and who died in 2019 at the age of 93) explained that it very quickly became an adult activity.

“Well, frankly, the early kids got pushed out,” laughed McCallum in his Pickleball Channel interview. “We had no purpose … nobody said, ‘Let’s sit down and make this a game.’ There was no conversation like that—it was strictly for our own pleasure.” But over time—admittedly with quite a few arguments about rules and scoring—they eventually developed what is now called pickleball. And it took off in a way they never could have imagined.

By 1967, the first permanent pickleball court was constructed, and in 1972, the first corporation was formed to protect the creation of pickleball. By 1984, the USA Pickleball Association governed the sport. And today, what was once a rainy-day activity has blossomed into a worldwide phenomenon.

Why the Sudden Peak in Pickleball Popularity?

What sparked the astronomical uptick in pickleball play? As a pandemic-friendly activity, COVID-19 didn’t hinder its growth at all.

“During the pandemic, many Americans were seeking ways to stay healthy and active near their homes,” says Laura Gainor, director of media relations for USA Pickleball. “Due to the pickleball court being a quarter of the size of a tennis court, it’s easy to create a court in your driveway, in a parking lot or within a gym space, so many people were introduced to the sport during those unprecedented times playing with their family of four in the driveway.”

But even before the pandemic, pickleball popularity was on the rise. In fact, the number of participants doubled in the last five years. Many players describe it as a great workout that doesn’t feel like a workout. Also, pickleball is purportedly easier on the body—especially the hips and knees—than tennis and other racquet sports.

The fact that anyone can play is a big draw, too. “The game is multi-generational, so we’re seeing grandparents playing with their grandkids and young adults in their 20s and 30s enjoying playing with their parents,” says Gainor.

What Equipment Is Needed to Play Pickleball?

Requirements for playing pickleball are minimal, but you do need some basic equipment to get started.

Pickleball is played with a flat paddle as opposed to a stringed racket as seen in tennis and badminton. Though the original paddles were cut out of wood by McCallum himself, today’s modern versions come in various sizes and thickness levels to accommodate your style of play. However, the paddle length cannot exceed 17 inches.

The ball used in pickleball is plastic and perforated with anywhere from 26 to 40 holes, similar to a wiffle ball. The holes create more drag and are a lot lighter and easier to hit than tennis balls. They’re also responsible for the slightly slower pace of the game. The size of the ball is usually 2.87 to 2.97 inches in diameter, and the ball must be a single color (save for any logos).

The sport also requires a 3-foot-long net that’s hung at a height of 34 inches in the center. You need a court space as well, which should be about 44 feet long and 20 feet wide.

Thanks to the sport’s growing popularity, you can now find all-in-one pickleball starter kits at most sporting goods stores, major retailers like Target or Walmart and online.

How to Play Pickleball

Pickleball is played as either a singles or doubles game, with the same size court used for both. Singles and doubles are basically identical but with slight differences in serving rules and scoring.

At the most basic level, however, the game is played as such: One pickler (the unofficial term for players) serves the ball underhand over the net and diagonally into their opponent’s service court. The ball is then hit back and forth over the net until a player misses. Points are scored only by the serving team. Each game goes to 11 points, but you must win by two points.

There’s a no-volley zone called the “kitchen,” which is located 7 feet from the net on both sides. Volleying is prohibited in this no-volley zone.

The typical “tournament” format is to play matches consisting of three games each, but depending on the venue, you may find other variations, such as round-robins or challenge courts (where a person stays on a court until they lose a game). If you’re not at a formal pickleball club, however, you can play whatever match format works for you.

You can read more about the official rules and how to score singles versus doubles on the USA Pickleball Rules Summary page.

Potential Benefits of Playing Pickleball

There are many health benefits of playing pickleball, not least of which is that it’s a quick picker-upper.

Not only is the “fun factor” evident, but a recent study of 153 older adults in the journal Leisure Studies found playing pickleball to be associated with lower levels of depression. Other research shows it may also improve cognitive performance.

On a physical level, pickleball can support better hand-eye coordination (which is also important for daily tasks like driving and eating). Additionally, studies indicate that playing pickleball increases agility and coordination, as well as muscle strength and function.

A prominent 2018 study conducted by Western State Colorado University found regular pickleball participation offers substantive cardio benefits, too. Picklers who committed to playing for one hour three times a week showed marked improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness and cholesterol levels. Their blood pressure dropped significantly as well.

Potential Risks of Playing Pickleball

Overall, pickleball is a very safe and accessible sport and can actually be a great activity for people recovering from injuries. Like with anything, however, there are some risks.

According to Noe Sariban, a physical therapist known as “The Pickleball Doctor,” some common pickleball injuries might include accidental falls, strains, sprains and tendonitis.

The most common type of fall happens when people trip while back-pedaling to try to get an overhead ball. Sariban says players can minimize this risk by turning around and running toward the back of a court when someone hits a lob instead. Little tips and tricks like that one can help make your matchplay even safer.

If you do sustain a pickleball injury, consult your doctor or physical therapist so you can heal correctly and get back on the court as soon as possible.

Pickleball Into the Future

There’s no doubt pickleball is here to stay. Approximately 70 countries across the globe have joined the International Federation of Pickleball, and there’s even talk of trying to add it to the 2028 Olympic games as a demonstration sport.

With so many new players, the U.S. is hustling to keep up with the demand for courts. As a result, many homeowner associations (HOAs) and hotels like the Ritz-Carlton and Marriott are building or converting languishing courts from tennis to pickleball.

According to USA Pickleball, there are currently about 10,000 places to play (you can find one near you here), with more being added frequently.

If you want pickleball in your own personal future, take a lesson at your local club, suggests Todd. “Or the best way is to just do it—pick up a paddle and try it with a friend,” she says. “Before you know it, people will join, and you’ll master the game.”

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