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Pickleball: The Hottest Sport for Boomers

Kelly Spors

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—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, just outside Seattle. Three 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 fabricated some paddles from plywood. Thus, Pickleball was born.

According to legend, the odd name for the sport appears to have been derived from the “pickle boat,” a nickname for the last boat to return from a fishing trip. However, the origin of the name is debated. The other story is that the owner of the home where the sport was invented, then-state Rep. Joel Pritchard—a future congressman and lieutenant governor of Washington—had a family dog named Pickles.

No matter where the name came from, pickleball soon became extremely popular among Pritchard’s neighbors, spreading from there to become a worldwide sport.

Catching On Across the U.S.

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.

Although the sport is now more than 50 years old, it’s grown rapidly over the past decade. The USAPA estimates that more than 2.46 million people now play the game nationwide and there are nearly 4,000 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.

A big reason for the popularity of the game among seniors is that it lets 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.

The sport also has rules specific to wheelchair-bound players.

Another allure: It’s easy to learn to play pickleball, and many seniors 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.”

The sport has particularly taken off in retirement communities in southern states, such as Florida and Arizona, where the game can be played outdoors year-round. But it’s also starting to grow in popularity in northern states. Some local athletic centers, such as YMCAs, have even begun hosting leagues and marking pickleball lines on tennis courts.

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

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.

Given that pickleball offers a nice mix of physical activity and socialization, it’s a great sport to try out. There’s no time like the present to get started.

Keep Reading: 7 Ways to Stay Motivated to Exercise

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