When I first discovered pickleball, one of the things I loved most about the sport was the openness of it all. I was a basketball player, so ‘pickup’ was a very familiar concept. But this idea of ‘open play’ was not common to tennis, where many of these new players were migrating from. Open play is actually quite unique to basketball and does not come without some issues. On most competitive courts, when a game is being played, new teams are being formed by a ‘captain’ by claiming they have ‘next.’
But depending on the ‘rules of the court,’ the captain might pick people based on his discretion rather than who was there first. More organized pickup games, like at fitness or community centers might have sign up lists and the next people on the list form a team. This is more in line with paddle stacking. But with this system comes less consistency in the quality of play.
We are starting to see these growing pains in pickleball as well. As new players flock to the courts, the infrastructure is being stretched thin. While much has been made about pickleball players commandeering tennis and basketball courts, what hasn’t been discussed is the more nuanced struggle of more skilled players not being as accommodating to newer, less skilled players.
The pandemic was an incredibly unique time of our lives. Many of us had more free time than we were comfortable with. Which made playing pickleball the perfect hobby to fill the void. We discovered this new game that brought us so much joy in a time of uncertainty. Many of us, yours truly included, jumped in head first. I became obsessed with the game and everything that came with it.
I loved meeting new people, and I was so appreciative of those who were playing before me that welcomed me with open arms and taught me this sport, that I paid it forward. I would play with anyone who wanted to learn, teaching them how to score, strategies, and drilling techniques.
But as the pandemic began to cede, and normal life crept back into our lives, our time became more precious once again. Thank goodness for normalcy, right? Well, maybe.
While I am very happy to see the crisis of Covid behind us, I miss the days when I didn’t check my watch to see how many more minutes I could play. Normal life means obligations, driving kids to lessons and games, places to be, and meetings to attend.
These ‘back to normal’ hours have not stopped me from my obsession with this sport. I love pickleball more now than ever. But the amount of time I have out on the court is no longer infinite. And as the sport has blossomed, finding court time has only gotten more competitive. These two realities have left me struggling to be as generous with my time for beginners and questioning what my obligations are to this sport in welcoming those to the game, the way I was welcomed when I got started.
I don’t have the answers, but I see the struggles of open play becoming more competitive and less friendly. More courts are needed, more training is necessary, and better organization and infrastructure will be crucial for this sport’s success at the scale it deserves.
But these issues take serious investment and I am encouraged that some very smart and ambitious people will invest their dollars and time in ways that will benefit pickleball.
I might not have millions of dollars to invest in building out facilities, but what I do have to invest is my time. I have started setting aside 2 hours a week to spend with friends, family, and anyone else who wants to get started in this sport. This time will be for them, not me. I won’t worry about improving my drops or my drives, but rather to give others the opportunity to fall in love with this game the way I have. I feel I owe it to the sport. But this is not an altruistic act, because if I have learned anything from playing pickleball, I know that the relationships you make on these courts are way more valuable and fulfilling than any shot you can hit or win you can claim.
This sport is about the people, for the people.
Long live pickleball.
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