What makes pickleball the perfect sport for everybody to enjoy – USA TODAY

Jessie Irvine was a highly ranked junior tennis player. She aspired for more. The year-round training and the grinding lifestyle of what it would take to become a pro fit her personality.
“I never wanted to take days off,” she tells USA TODAY Sports. “And it was because the mindset was, ‘Well, there’s some kid in Russia that’s out there probably playing. And if I take this time off, they’re gonna get better than me.’ ”  
Her biggest obstacle wasn’t an opponent, though. From the time Irvine was about 12, her joints hurt. It wasn’t because she worked out too much. She learned from a doctor she was born with a small amount of cartilage. The lack of cartilage led to a pinched nerve.
She wouldn’t be able to lift her arm for weeks, let alone serve.
“Emotionally after a while, that was mentally hard for me to deal with,” she says. “I never knew when the impingement of the nerve was going to happen. It was very random.”
Irvine pulled the plug on her competitive tennis career around age 20. She moved to Los Angeles for a fresh start, and primarily for the warm weather. She found a new love.
This is the story of a feel-good sport and one of its most enthusiastic players. It’s a sport anyone of virtually any age can learn almost instantly, especially if you have played tennis. In fact, this player who couldn’t lift her serving arm is now one of its top professional players in the world.
“I had already kind of moved on in my life,” says Irvine, who is ranked in the top 10 in doubles and mixed doubles on the PPA tour. “I was already accepting that. And then, all of the sudden, here I am, mid-30s and it’s like, ‘Oh, here’s a chance to be competitive again.’ ”
Irvine has found joy she never expected in a sport with a peculiar name that is played with a paddle, a plastic ball with holes and a sense of community that is bringing millions of Americans together.
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Jason Jamison started to catch the bug when he worked a booth at a national physical education conference in Chicago in 2005. Like Irvine, his life was consumed by tennis. He had played the sport in high school and college but was especially passionate about the recreational side of tennis. He trained volunteers, teachers and certified pros how to introduce the game and make it more fun.
His employer, the United States Tennis Association, had a fancy display at the conference. A more modest stand caught his attention, though. People were lined up to get paddles to play pickleball. The next year, when the conference was in Salt Lake City, Jamison saw another long line for pickleball and he bought two paddles.
“You ever read the book, ‘The Tipping Point’?” says Jamison, now a national recreation and coaching consultant for USA Pickleball. “Pickleball tipped. It tipped big, and I saw it happening. Almost like an investor, I saw something really interesting, and I’m like, ‘This is gonna get big.’ And no one was paying attention in the tennis world. They were like, ‘No, don’t worry about it.’ They even told me that. I’m seeing this in these conferences and I’m seeing the schools that I’m working with and they’re doing pickleball.”
Seven years later, after trying out the sport on his own, Jamison went to USA Pickleball nationals in Arizona to study the sport further.
“It was a very modest adult tournament format,” he says. “And that was very humble compared to, like, other national championships of sports. It was so social, though. It was like going to a big party. And I have it on video, and I was interviewing people. It was like a big drop-in, open-play festival, and it would get to national championships.”
The tipping point, when the sport exploded, can be pinpointed to about a year ago, when pickleball participation in the U.S. almost doubled, increasing by 85.7% year-over-year and by 158.6% over three years, according to the 2023 Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s (SFIA) Topline Participation Report.
According to the report, pickleball now has 8.9 million players in the United States over the age of six, an increase from 4.8 million in 2022. 
One of the three rules of a tipping point for an idea or product, Malcolm Gladwell writes in his book, is something called the stickiness factor, or whether it sticks in the mainstream. Pickleball seemed to stick, Irvine suggests, because a large number of people found how naturally it came to them.
“I don’t think people realized until pickleball, ‘Hey, now I have this thing where I’m active, I’m having fun and I’m competitive. I can win, I can lose, we don’t know. … Here you have a 60-year-old person, was never really into sports, had no kind of sport background. All of a sudden, they pick up pickleball, and now they’re winning points, they’re in it. Now they’re like, ‘Oh, wow, this is fun.’ That competitiveness is fun.
“I think that’s the core thing about it, is the idea that people are now able to be competitive at all ages. And I think that’s the addictive part.”
Here’s why Irvine, and so many others, are taking so much pleasure in pickleball:
The sport originated on a badminton court in Bainbridge Island, Washington. As the story goes, Joel Pritchard, a U.S. congressman from Washington state, and businessman Bill Bell returned to the Pritchard summer home near Seattle to find their families looking for an activity.
A new sport was born out of what they could find: ping pong paddles, a perforated plastic ball and a high net. Later in the weekend, the net was lowered to 36 inches. The idea behind the game, which was held true to today, is that the whole family could play it.
“I’ve seen pure beginners go out there and, within a couple of balls, they’re rallying with each other, which, just, would never happen in tennis. It just wouldn’t,” Irvine says. “The problem is, you hit one ball in tennis and then you’re just chasing the ball. And the idea of having a four-ball rally is not gonna happen for two complete beginners in tennis. But it happens in pickleball.”
Irvine took ibuprofen every time she played tennis. It was the only thing she could do, she says, to, the manage the pain.
When she first moved to LA, and was studying at UCLA, all that ibuprofen she had taken from her early teens to her late teens caught up with her. Her body shut down. Her doctor said she had kidney failure.
“Everything kind of stopped,” she says. “It was kind of like a train … everything just stopped all at once and my body just was like, ‘Oh, we’re done.’ Everything just crashed.”
Irvine coached tennis at a country club and high school. She hit tennis balls with friends, or played paddle tennis, which didn’t require a serve. Some friends told her about sport where she could serve underhand and compete in a number of tournaments.
Irvine tried pickleball in late 2018, when the sport was beginning to tip. Within a few months, she was playing professionally.
Ben Johns, another former tennis player, rose to No. 1 in the world after taking up the sport. The beauty of pickleball to many, though, is players from kids to senior citizens can learn it quickly.
 “Grandparents can play with their grandkids,” Jamison says. “Eight-year-olds can play with grandma, and the parents in between get to play and everyone can do it and you can’t do that with any sport. It’s like the perfect product. The only thing that held it back, I think, was the name.”
More on that name later.
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Pickleball is still played on a badminton-sized court with a hard surface, though other hard surfaces like a gymnasium floor work if you don’t have access to a hardcourt. You serve underhand to the player diagonally across the court from you. Each side must let the ball bounce once before volleying is allowed.
Another key difference from tennis is there is a non-volley zone within seven feet on both sides of the net. If you hit the ball into the “kitchen,” as the area is called, your opponent must let the ball bounce.
Like any beginner to pickleball, Irvine learned she could neutralize stronger opponents with an effective short game. In fact, she spent her first several months playing the sport working on her soft game without hitting the ball hard.
Irvine likes to tell beginners: “Less is more.”
“The less you do, the better you’re actually going to be. The more you’re in trouble, the softer you want to hit, which is just so counterintuitive, especially for tennis players,” she says.
It’s an approach all players can take – from kids to seniors – and immediately score points.
“You can be more of a touch player and be successful or you can be a power player and have fun with it and the best players do both,” Jamison says. “And the seniors can be effective against young crushers.
“Instead of aging out of the sport, you can stay in the sport. That’s what I love about pickleball. You’re not aging out of it. You’re aging into it.”
Jamison and his colleague, Hope Tolley, see how pickleball can be an equalizer when they bring the game into schools. Within the videos and resources they provide for teachers to spread the rules, you see kids picking up the game quickly and playing confidently.
Pickleball has a pickup nature to it that makes it informal, competitive and inclusive at the same time. You can run  hitting drills that occupy kids without a net. You can improvise nets using a badminton and volleyball nets on the ground taped between bikes or trash cans or chairs.
Pickleball is expanding rapidly in middle school and high school physical education classes and is becoming an intramural and club sport in schools and colleges around the country.
“In addition to exponential growth we are observing taking place in schools, there have been some organizations anxious to start travel team formats similar to other youth sports,” Jamison says. “Even though travel teams are quite common, focusing on elite players with competitive practice and play formats have shown to lead to burnout, especially at the younger ages.
“Pickleball has the opportunity to leverage the inclusive and open play formats that are growing the game so quickly for the benefit of kids. The focus can be on providing play opportunities that develop players of all levels and abilities without filtering out kids through traditional travel formats that have policies for cutting players.”
In pickleball, as with any sport, there will still be stronger players, but there is not such a disparity in skill levels. Players of a wide range of ages can compete, even at the top levels of the sport.
Irvine is 34, and she’s holding her own against kids who are 15 years younger than her. Anna Leigh Waters, the top-ranked women’s player in the world, is 16.
“I always tell people, ‘When you play pickleball, you’re not going to necessarily feel really tired,’ ” Irvine says. “You’re not gonna really even get winded, unless you’re playing singles. I always compare it to Pilates.  You don’t necessarily feel like you’re working hard but your muscles do get sore. It’s a different kind of workout, which is why, I think, the sport has grown and why I think it’s really popular.”
There is something else, though, something deeper, that connects Americans to pickleball, and to each other.
Tolley, USA Pickleball’s managing director for recreational programs, senses the feeling when she’s out at courts. Once you show up, she says, people invite you onto their court.
“They’re open to say, ‘Hey, come on, jump in,’ and not even know you and not even know if you can play,” says Tolley, who plays pickleball with her two kids (16 and 13). “I think the organic growth that surrounds pickleball right now is the fact that it’s fun, it’s social and it’s a sense of community. So what parent wouldn’t want their kid to participate in a sport that has all of those wonderful attributes?”
Pickleball is wildly popular as a doubles sport because of that social aspect. Irvine has found the main events at the professional tournaments are doubles and mixed doubles – the top players play in them – because the people who come to watch also play pickleball. The fans play doubles, too.
Congressman Prichard’s wife,, Joan is credited with naming the sport. An alum of the University of Washington, she loved to watched local collegiate crew races. “Pickle Ball” referenced the ones involving the rowers who weren’t starters who raced in “pickle boat” races just for fun.
“Pickleball” is actually an apt description for a sport craved by Irvine and so many others. She is playing the sport full time and making a living at it. She finds joy in that idea, for however long her career in professional pickleball lasts.
“As competitive as I am, I’m still very grateful for the opportunity and I also do a very good job of balancing, kind of, understanding: ‘Hey, Jessie, look, realistically, there’s no other sport where you’d be able to do this right now so just be competitive on the court. But once you step off the court, have a good time, smile, all is good.
“You’re winning right now. Even if you lose the match, Jessie, you’re winning.”
Steve Borelli, aka Coach Steve, has been an editor and writer with USA TODAY since 1999. He spent 10 years coaching his two sons’ baseball and basketball teams. He and his wife, Colleen, are now sports parents for a high schooler and middle schooler. His column is posted weekly. For his past columns, click here.
Got a question for Coach Steve you want answered in a column? Email him at sborelli@usatoday.com


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