Picture of people between Pickleball points taken through a fence surrounding the pickleball courts at Ephesus Park

What is it about Pickleball, anyway?

At the blog blog we often poke fun at Pickleball and its proponents, as well as their tennis player mortal enemies, but some of us are actually big fans. We thought we’d share this piece from a Triangle Blog Blog reader and recent Pickleball enthusiast about what drew him to the game.

Picture of people between Pickleball points taken through a fence surrounding the pickleball courts at Ephesus Park
Pickleball players in Ephesus Park in Chapel Hill on July 15, 2022

Just what is it about Pickleball?

I’m not some pickleball enthusiast who has been playing for long enough that I tell people “Oh, I’ve been playing for X years” to show off I joined in before the viral wave. If I were, I’d tell you that just like every other proud early adopter does when you first meet them.

No, I started three months ago, just like almost everyone else did. And I play a lot. I mean a lot. My close friends and family would say I am addicted. They are wrong.

Look, I don’t have a problem, you have a problem.

So just what is it about pickleball? 

First, I think we have to talk about what it isn’t. It sure as heck isn’t the name. Much has been written about the name and I’ll spare you the details again here, but I do have a theory that has to do with the name: pickleball would have been huge a long long time ago if it had a better name. I know, I know, you’re a pickleball diehard and you’re screaming “OH MY GOD THE NAME IS PERFECT LOOK AT THE FUNNY JOKE ON MY SHIRT I LOVE IT.” It’s okay, calm down, nobody is going to change the name. No, seriously, put the knife down, I’m not coming after it.

But yeah, the name is terrible. I think the name cost pickleball maybe 40 years of adoption. Instead of Lebron James and Tom Brady buying “major league pickleball teams” (seriously, what does this even mean? Nobody in pickleball seems to know), we might have Tom Brady flirting with retirement FROM pickleball while Lebron dominates with his son as his partner and we’re talking about Francis Tiafoe as the next great pickleball prodigy.

What’s the other great KNOCK on the sport? Well, I guess if I had to pick *something* that people complain about it’s the sound.

Oh and people do complain about the sound. I guess I sort of get it… there are courts adjacent to some pretty expensive vacation places. I could envision someone checking into their posh AirBnB late one evening after a long drive.

They open up the windows to let in a cool breeze from the nearby lake and they go to sleep late from a long travel day with dreams in their heads of relaxation and rest and are awakened at sunrise to KNOCK….KNOCK…. KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK…KNOCK…you get the idea.

The sound is somewhat aggressive, if not downright obnoxious. But it doesn’t carry that far, and you have to be kind of unlucky to end up in the situation I described above. I don’t know, it’s definitely a little bit worse than tennis, but nowhere near a leaf blower. It’s certainly no worse than an outdoor basketball court.

So back to the topic of what is it about pickleball? Why is it exploding in popularity and why now? The now is easy… critical mass. It finally achieved enough players that everyone at least knows someone who plays and loves it. So how did it get there? I think it’s a lot of little reasons that add up in a big way…

First, it’s just the right level of easy to do but complicated to understand.

People standing around in a sitting area outside pickleball courts with trees in the background standing and sitting and looking at the pickleball courts

Let’s unpack that… first, the easy to do.

That speaks to accessibility. From the equipment you need to the physical skills. On the equipment side, the big one is the court. But thankfully you can play on a tennis court with some additional lines, of which there are now many to choose from.

You can also play with a relatively cheap portable net and some tape or chalk for lines. You simply need a relatively small flat space of asphalt or concrete to play outdoors, and indoors you can get a couple courts on one basketball or tennis court. 

As for the gear, well, that’s even easier. Pickleball paddles (yes, they are mostly called paddles, though nobody seems to really care if you call it a racquet, either) are cheap. I mean like $25 cheap. And usually available in $100 starter packs that come with four paddles and a few balls and a bag to carry it all in.

And the difference between a $25 paddle and a $250 paddle is a lot less than you’d think if we’re all being honest (I’ve spent like, wait, nevermind I better not print what I’ve spent in paddles in three months because my wife might just be masochistic enough to read this).

And then there’s the ball. There are choices, but let’s just say they’re a couple bucks each and last a lot longer than an entire can of tennis balls do. And you don’t have to remember to seal that can back for fear of them “going dead” on you due to age.

And that’s about it. Sure, you can buy special court shoes, but pretty much any cross trainer will do fine. You can buy special pickleball glasses, but on this point pretty much anything (or nothing!) will do. Basically, whatever you’d normally run or walk or play basketball in will work as your gear for quite some time.

Now the other part of “easy to do”…. playing the game. Assuming you don’t walk on to the court for your first match with experienced players acting like you are one of them, most folks can move well enough and swing that paddle well enough to hit the ball back to the other side. It’s just not that hard.

One of the main reasons is that cheap little plastic ball with the dumb holes in it. You could put a top tennis pro at the other baseline hitting to you at your baseline and, well, you’d be able to return it. Why? Unlike a tennis ball, it loses a LOT of energy very quickly. Now, if you both move closer to the net then you start to see big differences in talent and experience, but the point here is that newbies can enjoy some modicum of success at this game fairly quickly because the ball just…slows down for you.

And it’s fairly big and usually very yellow and thus easy to see. And your paddle isn’t very small. Yes, there are rule limits on how big it can be, but they are generous.

And the court is relatively small. You don’t have to be super quick (thank you, slow ball), and if you do have to move quickly you won’t have to do it over enough distance that you get up much speed and thus stopping isn’t terribly hard, either.

Yes, much has already been written about how orthopedists love pickleball because it has increased the number of patients they see and that’s true, but it’s really mostly true because it’s brought a set of seniors back onto courts again who are predisposed to injuries if they do sports. Trust me, the overall health of America is CLIMBING thanks to pickleball’s popularity, not decreasing. As far as court sports go, it’s very easy on the body.

The last thing, and I think this is a big key, is that it might be easy to do but it’s also great exercise at the same time. And by “great exercise” I mean that in many ways. It’s a lot more thorough in the movements that you do than biking and running since it’s got so much upper body, lower body, lateral movement, needing to be low, needing to sometimes jump, etc.

But you get breaks so it’s not all about constant endurance. Games are relatively short, so you’re also free to take however much break between games that best suites you. And for some people, some level of competition can make things enough more “fun” than just working out in a weight room or doing Pilates or running for miles.

So what about that “complicated to understand” part and how the heck is that “good”?

Maybe it’s not actually good. It’s certainly debatable. But I think it is good, and the reason is that it gives the more established players reason to stay welcoming to newbies. They get to show off their sport and it’s complexities in the name of helping the newbies become as enamored with the sport as they are.

It gives certain type-A’s a good reason to become “pickleball ambassadors” at the local courts and use their drive to “coach” to instead “help” folks get started. I think down deep most of us like getting to teach/coach others on some level, and it’s just easy to do with this sport.

And the truth is, pickleball has some convoluted rules, especially to a newbie. I contend that those rules are actually quite elegant and make sense once you start to play and understand them better, which is also part of why the game is sort of addictive (wait, I don’t have a problem, you…nevermind).

It does take some mentorship those first few games you play, but the simple truth is this: if you have three other players who understand the rules and are willing to help you, the rules make enough sense that you pick them up really quickly. So while it’s really helpful to have someone willing and friendly to guide you, it also feels good that you “got it” quickly in basically your first outing. That helps lead to a second outing, and a third, and an addiction, err, I mean, well…nevermind.

The final thing pickleball has going for it is that once you get started, while you are far from a top player, the game always gives you a few great moments anyway. Even on your worst days it seems like you’ll have one or two great shots. Sure, they might be more luck than skill, but they look like skill, and that’s enough to stroke our egos just enough to keep us coming back. And if you keep coming back you will probably notice those great moments happen a little more often because those skills keep growing.

I’ve found that our local community is pretty great at helping with free coaching, especially if you ask. There are some really great local players who actually seem to enjoy it when you ask them for help.

Don’t be shy… when you end up with a partner who seems way better than you, mention at the beginning of the game that you would welcome coaching and they will usually oblige. Sometimes folks aren’t good at it or just don’t want to, but more often than not I’ve found this tactic quite useful. I’ll bet most of the thriving local pickups scenes around the country are quite similar in this regard.

As for my personal journey, I have to point out that I actually resisted pickleball for a few years. I’ve got friends who tried to get me to play for a long time. And it wasn’t that I didn’t want to, it was strangely kind of the opposite. I wanted to, I just never made the time to try it that first time. Once I did, though, I was hooked.

We have a great local park with six courts and a great pickup situation where you can always show up by yourself and find good games or show up with your foursome if you want and rotate through. The people there are mostly kind and helpful, but you can find some seriously great players to get help from if you want, too.

Is the sport actually addictive? I’ll leave that question open for debate but I do know that most folks who try it find it incredibly fun and stick with it. Sure, there are folks who might read this and say “not me, I love XYZ more!” And that’s fine. But pickleball is a sport has something for everyone. From 8 to 80 (and beyond!). But don’t try it unless you don’t mind maybe, just maybe, finding a nice new somewhat healthy addiction.

Triangle Blog Blog Official Pickelball Correspondent DJ Barnes is a NYTimes best-selling reader, former maker of hats that are red, and not afraid to stare into the eye of the donut and try to exercise it away. Friend of development, but not a developer.