Why Pickleball Should Be Your Next Hobby
Chances are you've heard of a sport called pickleball in the last few years — and your initial reaction may have been to laugh at its (admittedly chuckle-worthy) name. But plenty of pickleball enthusiasts look past the name: the sport's fanbase is growing steadily and includes celebrities from Bill and Melinda Gates to Kim and Khloé Kardashian. In 2021, The Economist officially declared pickleball the fastest-growing sport in America. Here's everything you need to know about this social sport that seemingly blew up overnight.
What Is Pickleball?
Think of it as tennis's younger, more inclusive cousin. Pickleball is played on a court that's a quarter the size of a tennis court — which means you don't need access to a tennis court in order to play, according to Laura Gainor, director of media relations at USA Pickleball. People can (and do) set up pickleball courts in their driveways, their neighborhood streets, or on gym floors, with the help of portable pickleball nets. Unlike tennis, pickleball is played with a paddle as opposed to a racket. The latter has strings, the former does not. Pickleball is typically played as doubles (with two teams of two), but can also be played one-to-one.
The smaller court size makes pickleball easier on the body — there's no need to cover a huge area on foot the way you may need to while playing tennis — so athletic prowess isn't a prerequisite here. This makes pickleball a great multigenerational option. Families can play together, with young children and seniors in the mix.
Leigh Waters, 42, and her daughter, Anna Leigh Waters, 15, appreciate that multigenerational appeal. They are the only mother-daughter duo to complete together in the world of professional pickleball, with both ranked among the top players in the United States. Waters, who was a tennis player in college, learned the game while visiting her father in 2017.
"It's probably the only sport where you can have a teenager, an 80-year-old, a novice player, and an advanced player on the same court, and you can still play a game and have fun," says Leigh. "There's something special about a sport that allows anyone to go play. I think that's [driving] the huge growth and success of the sport."
How Did Pickleball Become So Popular?
While pickleball has enjoyed a recent surge in popularity, it originated in 1965, according to Gainor. "It was three dads that started it," she says. "They had a badminton net and the kids were kind of bored, so they kind of made up the rules of the game for their kids to entertain them and get them playing a sport." Urban legend says that a dog named — you guessed it — Pickles loved chasing the ball the founders used, which inspired the game's name. The founders simply showed others the game while traveling and socializing, and it caught on, says Gainor.
Like most everything else, pickleball's popularity was affected by the pandemic. "Covid was the best thing that ever happened to the sport," says Leigh. "People were stuck home with their families — the one thing that was open was the park, or their driveways, or even the road in their neighborhood. People could go to Target or Dick's and pick up a starter set, set up a pickleball net, and chalk out the lines [to create a pickleball court] wherever they were. I really attribute the growth to Covid. It was something [people] could do with their families while they were quarantining or staying away from large groups."
Thanks to the game's recent surge in popularity, it's even possible to make a living off of the sport. The Professional Pickleball Association has created a professional tour, and there are three tiers of players within the tour, according to Leigh.
"When we first started playing, you couldn't really make a career in pickleball unless you taught it, and taught a lot of it," says Leigh. "You really couldn't be a touring pro and make a career out of it. But now, as the sport has absolutely exploded, the top players actually can make a living between the prize money [from tournaments] and the sponsorship [opportunities]." The pickleball community is hopeful that the game will eventually become an Olympic sport, according to Gainor.
How to Play Pickleball
Many people describe pickleball as a cross between tennis and ping pong, according to Anna Leigh. Similarly, opponents hit a ball back and forth until someone misses, but certain pickleball rules are unique. For example, in pickleball, you can only score a point when you're serving. (If you serve and your opponent misses the ball, you gain the next serve but do not earn a point.) The setup of a pickleball court lends itself to the sport's rules as well.
"There is a non-volley zone, which is what makes pickleball different — it's an area on the court, and you can't step into [that area] unless the ball bounces," says Anna Leigh, who shares that this non-volley zone is colloquially known as "the kitchen." (The area is located next to the net on either side.) You win each rally of the game if you hit the ball into your opponent's court, and they either fail to hit the ball at all, hit it into the net, or hit it out of bounds — but you only score the point if your team served during that rally.
Still, following? "When you serve, [you serve diagonally and] the returner can't hit the ball out of the air," adds Anna Leigh. "The [ball has to bounce] before you can hit the next shot. The other tricky thing about pickleball, which takes a few games to figure out, is the scoring. There are three numbers in pickleball: You say your score, your opponent's score, and then which server you're on, which would either be a one or a two."
If this all seems confusing, don't worry. Videos on YouTube help break down the games with visual representation, which makes it all easier to wrap your head around the particulars. And, if you're still lost, it may just take playing a few games alongside someone who knows the sport for it to all make sense.
"The really cool thing about pickleball is that it's a really big community and a really giving community," says Leigh. "If you want to get into pickleball, find your local park or community — that could be a park, a community center, a tennis center. Wherever people are going to play pickleball, if you show up and people find out you're a newbie, they are so gracious. They teach you the game. People show up all the time at our local parks and they're welcomed and literally taught the game."
A pickleball game ends when one side scores 11 points, provided they are leading by at least two points. If, for example, the score is 11 to 10, you would continue playing until the score reaches 12 to 10, according to Gainor.
What Pickleball Gear Do You Need?
Pickleball requires pickleball paddles, a net, and a ball, which has holes all around it (similar to a Wiffle ball). You can pick up a starter set, which will contain everything you need to set up a game, at retailers such as Target or Dick's Sporting Goods. As far as footwear is concerned, opt for a court or tennis shoe over a running sneaker.
Where Can You Play Pickleball?
If you're ready to give it a try, you can find pickleball courts by heading to places2play.org and typing in your zip code to find locations to play near you. The game can be played indoors or outdoors. If you'd like to find an official instructor, you can find an ambassador who is certified to teach the sport through the USA Pickleball Association.
You may also see a pickleball court pop up in an unexpected spot near you. "There are a lot of entertainment complexes opening up that are attached to a bar or restaurant," says Gainor. "Malls are putting courts into their spaces. Having pickleball courts where you can play an indoor game when going to dinner or going shopping will really amp up the fun, social aspect of the game."
As mentioned, playing a game of pickleball in your driveway is also a thing. In order to create a court at home, you can simply use chalk or tape to create a rectangular space on either side of the net to create "the kitchen", with two squares placed behind the kitchen on either side. You can use these pickleball court dimensions if you want to DIY.
What Are the Benefits of Pickleball?
The sport is "very active," with noteworthy potential health benefits, says Gainor. This may seem surprising, considering pickleball was once considered a "senior citizen" or "retirement community" game. But here's the thing about pickleball: If you enjoy it, you may find yourself playing during family or social gatherings (like Gainor, who created a group to play pickleball every Friday night after falling in love with sport) without needing to carve out dedicated time in your schedule for fitness.
Given that pickleball is a social activity and an approachable form of exercise, the sport's recent spike in popularity is no mystery. "You can play for one or two hours and get some great exercise, but not really feel like you're exercising," says Gainor.