Walking through your local park, you may notice a chorus of hollow "ticktock" sounds coming from the tennis courts. Realizing this is not the characteristic echo of a tennis serve, you venture closer and find that sometime in the last few years, a new upstart racket sport has taken courts by storm. And no, this isn't some new young fad; the courts are filled with seniors! In the past two decades, pickleball has come to the athletic forefront as a cross-generational phenomenon, with designated courts doubling, nationally, from 2013 to 2015, according to CityLabs online contributor Amanda Hurley in her 2015 article. Still on the rise, this cross of pingpong and tennis offers a dynamic aerobic workout for seniors and removes the high impact characteristics of tennis while leaving the challenging base of technical skill. These facets, combined with the sport's very low barriers to entry, make it the fastest-growing sport for seniors, according to the Medical University of South Carolina's contributor Tom Beck's article in 2016.
Beyond its easy playability, where teams of two (although the game can be played "singles") take turns rallying a yellow whiffle ball over a short, rigid net on micro-tennis courts, many people know very little about this obscure sport's origins. According to CityLab's Amanda Hurley, the general consensus is that U.S. Rep. Joel Pritchard invented the game in 1965 as a cross-generational weekend activity when he and his sons did not have enough equipment to play badminton, but instead had pingpong paddles. Pritchard improvised a court and a set of rules and would then spend the following weekends teaching his friends to play. However, there is some discrepancy surrounding the origins of the name "pickleball." Hurley claims that the simplest explanation is that Pritchard had a dog named Pickles, while Beck cites sources referring to the "pickleboat" being the slowest vessel in competitive rowing. And although pickleball is slower than tennis, it is by no means a slow game.
NPR contributor Ingfei Chen cites Weber State University exercise science professor Molly Smith, who says a competitive game of doubles pickleball can be an incredible aerobic workout for seniors, help them rehabilitate from overuse injuries and even bring them into the "moderate to high intensity zone" of heart function. Although mastery of pickleball does rely on dynamic prowess on the court, much of the game's appeal is in its technical side. Doubles players play one-close and one-far in relation to the net, because some of the most intense play can actually take place in "the kitchen," according to the USA Pickleball Association in their online Rules Summary. This area, also called the no-volley zone, is 7 feet on either side of the net and forces players to "dink" very precise and tiny hits just over the net to prevent opponents from smashing volleys if the net player gets sloppy and hits the ball too high or far.
Although the technical ins and outs of pickleball can provide years of growth, the cost of the sport is very low. Wooden paddles can be purchased for $12-$15, whereas the preferred graphite, Nomex polymer or composite aluminum paddles still can be purchased for $75 to $100. Whiffle balls come in at about $2 and court fees are usually free. All in all, the health, cost and comradery benefits for seniors explain why this sport has truly bloomed in the past few years. And from humbling personal experience on the courts, I know it provides the much-needed opportunity for seniors to still get out there and beat the young bucks!