Pickleball Is Picking Up: Instructors Say It’s Healthy for Both Mind and Body

Mindy Wassel (far left) and Joy Naden play pickleball with Allan Weksburg at the JCC in Owings Mills. (Photo by Heather M. Ross)

Pickleball started in 1965 with three men and some spare equipment; it was founded by Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum on Bainbridge Island, Wash. Within days, Pritchard’s wife, Joan, started to call their game pickleball because “the combination of different sports reminded me of the pickle boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.”

Now, it’s one of the fastest-growing sports in the United States, according to research by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA).

“Pickleball is the No. 1 growing sport in America because it’s very social, and I think people were starved for that aspect of life. Pickleball is also relatively easy to learn,” said Adam Stein, certified tennis and pickleball director at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore.

“My entire family can get on the court and play together,” he said. “If we [the JCC] are a community center, pickleball is the epitome of community. There’s such a variety of ages and diversity, all doing the same activity.”

The SFIA’s 2022 report on pickleball stated that in 2021, the sport grew to include 4.8 million players in the United States. That represents a 12.8% jump from 2020 to 2021, following a 21.3% jump the previous year. Fun fact: “Naples, Fla., has claimed the unofficial title of Pickleball Capital of the World.”

“Pickleball is a good activity as it allows for aerobic movement with less stress on the joints compared to other racquet sports. It keeps you moving, which helps with agility. You can also burn some calories while getting the emotional benefits of socializing with others,” says Dr. Erica Gaertner, a primary care sports medicine physician with the LifeBridge Health Sports Medicine Institute in Maryland.

According to Stein, the JCC has about 100 regular pickleball players who range in skill level from beginner to expert. Their next league starts on Jan. 23, in which 12 teams will play on three indoor courts. In April, the number of courts is expected to increase to 10 as the weather warms and JCC fitness activities head back outside.

Mindy Wassel (left) and Naden on the pickleball court at the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC. (Photo by Heather M. Ross)

“It’s exciting to see that many people wanting to come and play,” said Stuart Montgomery, who’s been active in pickleball at the JCC since early 2020. He said he was originally drawn to the sport while walking there for exercise and seeing others playing the game.

“It looked like a lot of fun,” he said.

The social benefits of the activity are something players certainly seem to agree on.

“My friend group has gotten bigger” because of the game, noted Karen Perlstein, who was at the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC this month enjoying the facilities. “It’s a community; it just feels like you’re more a part of the community.”

Perlstein has been playing pickleball at the JCC since the spring of 2022. She said she has seen the program grow significantly since she started, in part due to the ease of play, community, health benefits and support for the diverse crowd that enjoys it.

“We have all levels of skill,” said Perlstein. “We have older people, younger people — there’s definitely a vast, diverse group here. People come from different religious backgrounds, too.”

‘Positioning was very straightforward’

Another reason why pickleball has been gaining steam at the JCC and beyond is because of its basic benefits and the fact that it is easier on the body than many other sports.

According to Stein, pickleball provides exercise for both the mind and the body, improving hand-eye coordination. The racket/paddle sport combines elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong. Two to four players use solid paddles to hit a hollow ball over a net on a badminton-sized court.

While pickleball has many benefits for those in the 65-and-over crowd, the majority of players in the United States are age 54 and younger, according to USA Pickleball, the nonprofit national governing body for pickleball in the country.

Pickleball’s gameplay itself isn’t complicated, though it has just enough rules to make it so that a physically robust person doesn’t necessarily dominate the sport, according to Stein. “It’s almost like playing tennis standing on a ping-pong table,” he explained.

The rules are relatively few. The ball must stay in bounds; there must only be one bounce per side; the players must serve at the baseline; servers cannot land in the no-volley zone; and the game ends at 11, 15 or 21 points.

“It’s not hard to learn at all, and the instructor was very patient,” said Montgomery. “Learning the rules and positioning was very straightforward.”

There are many ways that people can enjoy the benefits of pickleball — whether on their own, in the community, at a designated facility or sports center, or places like the JCC. To play, all that’s needed are some paddles, a wiffle ball and a court. Pickleball can be played just about anywhere there’s a tennis court, including at Riverside Pickleball Court, Solo Gibbs Pickleball Court and Patterson Park Tennis Courts, all in the Baltimore area.

The Owings Mills JCC offers drop-in pickleball from September through mid-June, with meet-up times for both more experienced players and those who are just starting out. The drop-in sessions are free for JCC members and $20 daily for guests. Also offered are pickleball classes, as well as tournament opportunities.

Scott Shindell enjoys a game of pickleball at the Owings Mills JCC. (Photo by Heather M. Ross)
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