Pickleball grows in popularity among older, active adults

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Photo Gallery | Pickleball at Pittsfield Family YMCA

What began as a backyard game to entertain kids has become a swiftly growing sport across the country, now dominated by players in the over-50 set.

Pickleball, also written as pickle-ball, is a contemporary racquet sport blending elements of badminton, tennis and table tennis. It's played informally and in professionally organized leagues and in singles and doubles formats alike.

In Berkshire County, Mass., Windsor couple Susan and Doug Edwards have been actively promoting the sport and organizing local groups since they took up pickleball just about two years ago.

They attended an April 2014 clinic in the neighboring town of Dalton's Community Recreation Association. It was organized by their friend, Lew Clark, and his daughter-in-law, Anne Clark. Lew's son, Rocky Clark is a pickleball gold medalist and Atlantic region ambassador for the USA Pickleball Association.

"It was fun. We had been playing badminton and pingpong with our kids when they were younger. But they're up and gone, so this was a way to get into a fun new sport," Doug said.

The Edwardses, who are both in the targeted over-50 demographic, run groups four times a week at the Dalton CRA, and are working with the Pittsfield Family YMCA to get clinics and groups established there. The couple says that the sport — while played in middle schools to retirement communities — particularly appeals to older adults in that it's accessible and can be modified to be low or high impact, and is even played in tournaments by people who use wheelchairs.

"A person my age would be hard pressed to pick up tennis," said Susan. "Any adult can pick this up easily. It's good for the hand-eye coordination. ... It's also got all the fun of tennis in a smaller area."

Joe DelGallo of Pittsfield, Mass., says that the latter suits his needs.

"I can't run long distances," he said, noting he deals with arthritis, "but this game accommodates and gives you a chance to learn a skill."

Doug said the game isn't exactly for people who haven't gotten off the couch in two years — "you should be in good health and moderately fit." But even if you haven't had experience with racquetball sports, you can learn easily and reap the health and social benefits of the game.

Susan said that compared to other sports, pickleball is also "inexpensive to play and the equipment is minimal."

The lightweight paddles, for example, range from $8 to $80, depending on the composite and manufacturer, with the popular Diller hardwoord paddle going for about $24. Balls can be purchased for a few dollars. Nets are typically provided by the game venue. Other than that, you need a good pair of sneakers and comfortable clothes to move in.

The name of the game

According to numerous sources, pickleball was invented on Washington's Bainbridge Island by three fathers — then-state Rep. Joel Pritchard, William "Bill" Bell and Barney McCallum — who were looking to entertain their family members on a lazy Saturday afternoon. Lacking a full set to play badminton, they improvised using table tennis paddles and a perforated hard plastic ball. Over the course of the weekend, they lowered the net and moved to the asphalt where the ball bounced better.

There's no definitive evidence on how the game got it's name, but some say it was named after the Pritchards cocker spaniel, Pickles, who had a tendency to get in the game and run off with the ball.

The game attracted neighbors and friends, and, according to a history of the game on the USA Pickleball Association website, it grew. Larger paddles were made out of plywood. By 1967, the first pickleball court was made, and in 1972, the game was officially incorporated.

Today, there are standards for regulation-sized pickleball paddles, balls, nets, and court size, the latter of which is typically 20-by-40 feet.

In the same vein as any racket sport, pickleball can be played either in singles or doubles formats, though doubles is the most common.

In doubles, the player serving the ball stands on the right-hand side of the court behind the designated seven-foot no-volley zone on either side of the net. (Spiking, therefore, is not allowed.) The player serves underhand in a diagonal direction to the opponent across the net. Pickleball has a two-bounce rule in that when the ball is served, the receiving team must let it bounce once before returning, and then the serving team must let it bounce before returning. After the ball has bounced once in each team's court, both teams may either volley the ball or play it off a bounce.

Points are scored by the serving team, and games are typically played to 11 points, with a win by two; tournaments may be played up to 15 or 21.

According to a 2015 fact sheet published by The USAPA, it "is conservatively tracking over 200,000 pickleball players and 9,863 pickleball courts in North America, with an average of 62 new places to play pickleball debuting across the U.S. and Canada each month!"

According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association 2015 Participation Report, "there are 2.5 million people playing pickleball nationwide — surpassing more well-known sports like lacrosse and hockey."

Growing more popular

Over the past six months alone, Massachusetts has gone from having 53 places to play to now having 71 hosting venues, according to Doug. Retirement population-dense areas, like Arizona and Texas, have well over 100 venues, while more than 300 courts cover the state of Florida.

In the Berkshires, pickleball courts are available for public use in Dalton and Pittsfield. Groups, clinics and games are also available in neighboring Bennington and Brattleboro, Vt., according to a USAPA map and directory.

Chris Hurley of Pittsfield, Mass., who wears an ankle brace, picked up the sport at the Dalton CRA about six weeks ago. "It's just enough of a workout without being too difficult," she said.

Her friend, Pam Dwyer, also of Pittsfield, said she got into the game after seeing it at a Dallas, Texas, senior center, and has been addicted ever since, playing a few times a week at the Dalton CRA and at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, which started offering pickleball in the fall.

Don Briggs of Windsor, Mass., is brand new to the game, but gained enough experience to help facilitate a clinic at the Pittsfield Family YMCA earlier this week. His main reason for giving pickleball a shot? "I was invited," he said. The Edwardses are his neighbors.

"It's fun," he added, "and you get to meet a lot of great people."

Bounce it

National/international directories

USA Pickleball Association: usapa.org

Pickle-ball Inc.: pickleball.com

In the Berkshires

• Dalton CRA, 400 Main St., Dalton

Schedule: Mondays, 9:30 a.m. to noon, for beginner and intermediate players; Thursdays, 9:30 a.m. to noon, for intermediate and advanced players; Fridays, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., for intermediate and advanced players. Pickleball lines are also on the seasonal courts at Nessacus Regional Middle School.

Cost is free for CRA members; $2 per session for nonmembers. Info: Doug and Susan Edwards at berkshirepb@gmail.com.

• Berkshire Community College, Paterson Field House, 1350 West St., Pittsfield

Schedule: Wednesdays, 3 to 5 p.m.

Info: Sherry Scheer or Lauren Pellegrino at 413-239-1661 or 413-236-1670.

In Southwestern Vermont

• Tuesday nights at Bennington Elementary School, 128 Park St., Bennington.

For winter session times, contact Jerry Wall at 518-461-3101.

• Brattleboro Senior Center, Gibson Aiken Building, 207 Main St., Brattleboro.

Schedule: Mondays, 11:45 a.m. to 1:20 p.m.; Tuesdays, 1:20 to 3 p.m.; Wednesdays, 9 to 11 a.m.; Fridays, 1:20 to 3 p.m.

Info: 802-257-7570. National/international directories

USA Pickleball Association: usapa.org

Pickle-ball Inc.: pickleball.com

In the Berkshires

• Dalton CRA, 400 Main St., Dalton

Schedule: Mondays, 9:30 a.m. to noon, for beginner and intermediate players; Thursdays, 9:30 a.m. to noon, for intermediate and advanced players; Fridays, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., for intermediate and advanced players. Pickleball lines are also on the seasonal courts at Nessacus Regional Middle School.

Cost is free for CRA members; $2 per session for nonmembers. Info: Doug and Susan Edwards at berkshirepb@gmail.com.

• Berkshire Community College, Paterson Field House, 1350 West St., Pittsfield

Schedule: Wednesdays, 3 to 5 p.m.

Info: Sherry Scheer or Lauren Pellegrino at 413-239-1661 or 413-236-1670.

In Southwestern Vermont

• Tuesday nights at Bennington Elementary School, 128 Park St., Bennington.

For winter session times, contact Jerry Wall at 518-461-3101.

• Brattleboro Senior Center, Gibson Aiken Building, 207 Main St., Brattleboro.

Schedule: Mondays, 11:45 a.m. to 1:20 p.m.; Tuesdays, 1:20 to 3 p.m.; Wednesdays, 9 to 11 a.m.; Fridays, 1:20 to 3 p.m.

Info: 802-257-7570.


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