I’m not a team sports sort of person. With a career spent mostly as a freelancer, it’s no surprise I like to go it alone. But for some reason, pickleball called to me. (Maybe it was the name – I love pickles.)
Pickleball is a mashup of tennis, badminton, and ping pong. Played on a badminton-size court, the game uses a large, flat paddle to send a wiffle ball, roughly the size of a baseball, back and forth over a net.
Kinder to the body than its more aggressive cousin tennis, pickleball is America’s fastest growing sport. Even Dumb and Dumber actor Jeff Daniels (also a prolific playwright) wrote a comedy about the game, which is premiering at his Michigan theater next month. USA Pickleball, the sport’s official governing body, is 50,000 members strong. The US Open Pickleball Championship (yes, there is one) airs on CBS Sports in April.
Retirees are credited for its rapid rise, which may explain why its US Open is held in Naples, Florida. Even though I am creeping ever closer to social security age, Kara Biller, founder of Ocean State Pickleball, assures me that there are plenty of GenXers and Millennials taking to the courts. Indeed, according to the 2022 Pickleball Report from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, only 17 percent of
pickleballers are aged 65 and up; under-25s make up a third of the players.
Biller, a former college tennis athlete, founded Ocean State Pickleball during COVID, after her pandemic-induced job loss as an occupational therapist. Introduced to the sport by a friend, she “poo-pooed it,” given her tennis background. However, after she picked up a paddle and played for the first time, she recalls, “I thought, this is occupational therapy.” Pickleball, she explains, ticks off the three boxes of OT. “The game uses your brain a lot, which is good for memory. It’s good exercise, and there’s a great social component to the activity. That’s huge.”
I meet Biller at the upper tennis courts at Old Mountain Field in South Kingstown for my first lesson. “Former athletes like the game,” she says. “Speed, strength, and coordination are big advantages.”
Coordination? I was the kid that always took a ball to the face in elementary school PE. “Anyone can play this game,” she assures me.
Biller ran down rules of the game – of which there are plenty – before we began our lesson. The most important takeaway: keep the ball low. Unlike tennis, where a nice pop up can confound your opponent, pickleball is best played close to the net. “It’s really about the footwork,” she says.
To begin, Biller ran me through a series of warmups, which include dynamic stretches and, surprisingly, walking with a slightly exaggerated trunk rotation (Biller says it’s the way we should be walking, to get more core involved) as well as lunges with a twist. We did some sideways speed work, reminding me of the importance of working in all planes of movement. We wrapped things up with a monster walk, legs kicking up on each step, for a great hamstring stretch.
Warm up complete, I was primed to begin my first lesson. Tennis wasn’t something I pursued in my youth and for pickleball, that’s a good thing, since the similarities end at the clay court. Sure, you want to hit a ball over a net, but a strong backhand isn’t the point of the game.
I got into a knees-slightly-bent position, with my weight on my toes, and we began to volley. It went against every instinct to keep from giving the ball a hard whack. “You don’t want to play with your whole body,” Biller said, reminding me to focus on footwork instead.
It took a while, but I finally got the hang of it, able to serve and volley back and forth for 10 or so times before my next hit would go out of control. Biller recommends three 90-minute lessons to get the basics down, and, she notes, the other players are always supportive of newbies, ready to help coach them through the intricacies of the sport.
While pickleball doesn’t have the same appeal as a crunchy kosher dill, I can see myself playing fun, low-stakes games with friends. For the more competitive, Ocean State Pickleball offers several leagues and tournaments. But they also have one-on-one and group lessons as well as match play sessions.
Location varies; visit OceanStatePickleball.com for details.
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