Tickled with pickleball: Sport offers competition, exercise and fun for all ability levels

By Bruce McLellan | Living 50 Plus

Allen Kinworthy sat in the Aquadome Recreation Center bleachers and breathed deeply in between games of pickleball. He served as tangible evidence that the once-obscure sport can provide a workout.

“It gets the cardio back up,” acknowledged Kinworthy, a Decatur resident who says he’s older than 60. “Where I’ve just been walking and riding the bicycle, this is much better exercise for me than that, of course, getting the cardio up.”

Kinworthy is one of a growing number of local residents 50 and older who’ve taken up pickleball in the past year for reasons ranging from having the chance to exercise and enjoy camaraderie during the pandemic to competing in a sport designed for all levels of athletic ability.

“You have less ground to cover (than in tennis), but it still keeps you active,” Kellie Sims, recreation manager for Decatur Parks and Recreation, said. “It can be played indoors or outdoors so you’ve got the option there. It can be played year-round.”

Juli Lawson, 56, of Moulton was with a group that recently joined the regular pickleball games at the Aquadome as part of a Decatur Seventh-day Adventist Church fitness initiative.

“We chose this because it’s an activity that’s easy to pick up,” Lawson said. “My 82-year-old mother-in-law was out here with us a few weeks ago and she’s never played tennis or pickleball, and she picked it up like that.”

Pickleball combines elements of several other racket/paddleball sports. It uses paddles like in Ping-Pong, only they’re larger. It has a net like in tennis, but it’s not as high. The court resembles those marked for diagonal serving like in tennis and badminton. At 20-by-44 feet, a pickleball court has the same dimensions as a badminton doubles court but is smaller than a tennis court, requiring less running. The plastic ball is perforated, reducing its speed.

“We had a staff meeting one time and just kind of did an introduction to pickleball,” Sims said. “Most of our staff was like, ‘Man, this is fun. I’ve never played this before.’ It’s kind of an addicting thing.”

Sims said Parks and Recreation began trying to utilize pickleball last year.

“COVID really drove us to look at thinking outside the box and doing more for seniors,” she said. “Pickleball’s a game that you can kind of spread out. After we were shut down for so long, then that was one of the ideas to bring back into the gym because we could spread out. …. (With) the senior population, (pickleball) is very, very strong.”

David Easterling, 56, of Decatur, began playing pickleball earlier this year and now plays three to four times a week at the Aquadome.

He said players sweat, but “it’s not like you’re out running a marathon or anything. You get good activity. That may be one of the reasons it’s so popular with seniors is you do get your heart rate up, but it’s not overwhelming.”

Local seniors said pickleball offers the best of both worlds when it comes to taking on opponents.

“If you got a little (desire for) competition in you, you can still have it at this age,” said Pam Pike, 56.

But the sport isn’t all about winning and losing.

Stan Rogers, 60, said, “You can still have fun with varying levels of competition on the same court.”

He recalled one instance when his wife Sandy wondered why everyone on a court where her husband was playing had broken up in laughter.

“It was because I missed the ball so badly,” Stan Rogers said. “They’re laughing because they’ve all done it. You get so excited, you completely miss it.”

In addition to pickleball’s use of a smaller court, paddles and lower net, it has other elements that set it apart from tennis. Serves must be made underhand and can’t contact the ball above the waist. The first two times the ball crosses the net after a serve, the receiving team has to let the ball bounce before hitting a return. After those first two volleys, subsequent returns can be hit either after a bounce or before. After the first service sequence of a game in doubles, both players on a pickleball team have to lose their serves before serving switches to the opposition.

And pickleball players have to learn to stay out of the “kitchen.” That’s an area seven feet from the net on each side where a player can reach into with a paddle but can’t stand in while hitting a return unless the ball has bounced.

As of late May, public pickleball courts in Decatur were available from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at the Aquadome and from 3 to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursday at T.C. Almon Recreation Center.

Sims said if demand for pickleball court time increases, “we’d love to increase” hours.

Taking up the sport isn’t expensive. The Aquadome has paddles that players can borrow, and entry-level equipment packages with a pair of paddles and balls sell for about $20.

USA Pickleball says a Sports Fitness Industry Association report shows pickleball grew to 4.2 million U.S. players in 2020, an increase of 21.3% from a year earlier. Additionally, the SFIA’s more detailed data for 2019 indicated that 60% of pickleball’s core players — those who play eight or more times a year — were 55 and older.

Decatur’s Parks and Recreation Department anticipates more demand for courts and plans to turn three outdoor tennis courts at Austin Junior High into six pickleball courts. The department also has proposed adding pickleball overlays on three tennis courts at Wilson Morgan Park so they can be used for both sports.