You’ve heard of pickleball, and if you don’t already play it, you’ve likely developed an opinion about it. The upcoming racquet sport has attracted true believers and harsh critics in equal measure. In the process, it has gained a reputation as a pastime that is prompting many senior citizens to get out and get active again.
“Picklers,” as they’re informally called, have made their presence and their growing clout known in Manhattan; a lot of the courts needed for the cult game need to be built and given the stamp of approval by the Parks Department, of course, which has taken over some of the public space used by fans of other recreational activities (running, basketball, street hockey, and the more widely-accepted tennis). Already, skirmishes have broken out in spaces ranging from Carl Schurz Park–where a play area that is now home to three pickle courts just received a nearly $3 million budget infusion–to Central Park, where famed ice-skating haunt Wollman Rink now hosts 14 gleaming courts through the off-season. Another pickleball controversy in the latter park was recently explored by The New York Times, which profiled a gadfly paddleball player and dissident against pickle reputedly named Paul Owens.
The catch with Wollman Rink is that it’s $30 per person--and that it has too many takers for too little racquet time. In an interview with Straus News, the president of InPickleball Magazine, Richard Porter, pointed out why this creates a unique problem for the sport as it metastasizes. As he sees it, pickleball has no problem with demand. Rather, he says the “biggest constraint today is the number of courts.” When Porter stopped by Wollman (which he called a “great location”), hoping to snag a court for a spirited match with his son, he was out of luck. All the courts had sold out.
As for the escalating beef between pickle and more traditional racquet sports, Porter believes that the argument that pickleball is gearing up to supplant tennis is far-fetched, or even disingenuous. In fact, he’s noticed that the biggest crossover player base for pickleball consists of golfers. For Porter, that should hopefully silence critics of the notion that tennis is bleeding support in favor of a scrappier alternative.
Pickleball is a high-octane game, and that doesn’t preclude some measure of risk.The Times highlighted a study from Injury Epidemiology that indicated the “the number of injuries [due to pickleball] ‘grew rapidly’ from 2010 to 2019.”
Another study written by Nicholas Greiner for Missouri Medicine, contains the observation: “Sprains of the ankle joint, particularly with inversion, are very common in tennis and the mechanism for this injury would be similar for Pickleball.” In addition to ankle sprains, Greiner goes on to list Achilles sprains, knee sprains, and calf sprains. Tears are also possible in severe scenarios. Falling and injuring one’s wrist or shoulder–perhaps when diving for a ball–is also listed as a risk facing picklers, not to mention longer-term issues gained from repetitive playing such as heel contusions or even “epicondylitis” (colloquially known as tennis elbow).
Greiner’s study isn’t all doom-and-gloom, however, and he goes out of his way to emphasize some of the readily available prophylactics against injury, such as “regular cardiovascular exercise outside of Pickleball” and wearing tennis shoes rather than running shoes. His conclusion is that by ”taking a few steps in preparation coupled with proper knowledge of one’s own health, Pickleball can be an enriching activity enjoyed by players of all ages.”
Porter echoed many of the study’s findings. He similarly suggests that newcomers “kind of take an audit of where your body is” and make sure that they’re in shape before playing–and he also spoke strongly in favor of tennis over running shoes. The way he describes it, “running shoes are made for going in one direction...forward.”
Porter also suggested wearing eye protection. After all, pickleball is a fast-paced sport, one that involves a lot of close-quarters action in “the kitchen” or net area of the court. “That ball can suddenly come at you quite quickly,” Porter remarked, adding that “even though it’s a plastic ball, I’ll tell you what, it’s gonna hurt ya.” Safety goggles, in other words, are a must.
Porter has taken great interest in the growing pan-generational appeal of the sport. The “active recreational pickleball player,” as Porter describes it, has a median age range of over 60 years-of-age as recently as two years ago. That’s all changing. He believes that now, the fastest-growing demographic is apparently “17-18 year-olds.”
What does this mean for senior citizens, who might want to jump into a sport all their friends are raving about, but are hesitant to compete against spryer and less risk-averse young people increasingly joining play? As Porter suggests, lead by example. A possible reason youngsters are picking up on the sport may be due to older family members or friends coaxing them onto the courts. “You learn the game from somebody older than you, and if you become avid, there you go,” he says. Basically, bring your grandkids to practice. They’ll thank you for it.