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HealthConnections - A look at the emerging game of pickleball


This episode of HealthConnections focuses on the sport of pickleball. Dr. Carole Myers, a professor emeritus in the University of Tennessee College of Nursing, talks with Elaine Culbert of Oak Ridge about how to play, the history of pickleball, and some safety statistics. Is the hype about the international phenomenon of Pickleball backed-up by tangible benefits? What are the health connections?

WUOT’s Carole Myers: Pickleball is America's fastest growing sport. According to a 2023 report pickleball participation almost doubled in 2022 increasing by 85.7% year over year, and by an astounding 158.6% over three years. At one time, the majority of pickler, that's what you call pickleball players, were aged 55 or older. Currently, though, the fastest growing segment of players is under age 24. So what's behind this phenomenon of pickleball? Here today to help me answer the question is Elaine Culbert of Oak Ridge. Elaine and her husband are avid picklers, and I've heard first about pickleball from Elaine. Elaine, welcome to help connections.

Elaine Culbert: Thank you, Dr. Myers for the opportunity to talk about a game that sparked my interest that moment I saw it played 10 years ago.

Great. Well, let's get started. Can you paint a picture of the game of pickleball for our listeners?

Pickleball is a paddle sport, a combination of badminton, tennis and ping pong. If you've never played, imagine four people standing on a court about half the size of a tennis court. Each player is holding a solid lightweight paddle that's a little bigger than a ping pong paddle. The ball is a hard plastic wiffle like ball with holes, making it a little slower and it doesn't bounce as high as a tennis ball so there's less running, the serve is underhanded and below the waist making it easy on the shoulder. The object is to hit the ball over the net into your opponent's court in a way that makes it difficult for them to return the ball until one side scores 11 points. It's mainly played with doubles but can be played as singles and is played indoors or outdoors. It has some fun terms like the kitchen, which is the non-volley zone closest to the net, and the dink which means hitting the ball in a soft dark just over the net making it hard for your opponents to attack. The games usually last about 15 minutes, during which there's a lot of banter and laughter and players often complimenting their opponents on a good shot. After the game, all the players meet at the net touch paddles and say good game.

Quite a different game. So Elaine, please tell us about pickleball players. Who are they?

Pickleball is truly the great equalizer sport. People of all ages as well as men and women can play competitively against each other. In fact, as many women play as men. Players with greater skill of being able to strategically place the ball and change its pace during a point can often win against a younger more athletic player. In fact, there's a funny Facebook post showing an above 30 something year old man saying if a 70 year old woman with a knee brace challenges you to a game get ready to be humiliated. I played with kids from middle school to adults as old as 90. I played with people who have Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, and achondroplasia dwarfism and a man with a below-the-knee prosthetic leg. All these players can be competitive.

Wow, the great equalizer like you said. Tell us please a little bit about the history of pickleball.

The game was invented in 1965. It was the brainchild of three neighbors in Bainbridge Island in Washington. One a state legislator named Joel Pritchard. The idea was to design a game that would be fun and the whole family could play. It gets its name from rowing, not from the family dog named pickles that you often hear. Pritchard’s wife was a competitive rower and since the game was a combination of different sports, it reminded her of the thrown together crew sometimes drawn at random for the pickup boat. Now more than one in 10 Americans play pickleball in any of the 10,000+ places to play. The United States Amateur Pickleball Association has been around for almost 40 years. 70 countries have joined the International Federation of Pickleball. There are professional leagues. This year, there have been 47 major pickleball tournaments in the United States with total winnings between nine and $11 million. Today, pickleball is being played in community centers, school playgrounds, and even jails and prisons, and many communities are converting their underused tennis and basketball courts into pickleball courts.

Well, what makes pickleball so popular?

Pickleball is easy to learn, inexpensive and extremely social. Avid players plan their day around the game and can spend hours on the court competing, chatting and forming friendships. I know couples who met playing pickleball and later married. There was even a feature article in The New York Times memes about a wedding ceremony on a pickleball court. The sport saw a surge during the COVID 19 pandemic because you could buy pickleball sets including the nets and set them up in your driveway and play with family and invite friends and neighbors. Some were likely seeing the game for the first time. It was a way to stay fit, have fun and socialize at a safe distance.

So we are on Health Connections. So I must ask what are the health connections or benefits associated with pickleball weighing?

The health benefits are not only from the exercise, but from the camaraderie of interacting with the other players. It improves memory, executive function, cardiorespiratory fitness, core body strength, hand eye coordination, balance, agility and pain. It has positive effects on personal well being, life satisfaction, depression, stress and happiness.

While I must ask about injuries, what can be done to prevent injuries and pickleball?

Well, considering the potential rigor it is a relatively safe sport, but injuries do happen. As of 2018, the number and pattern of injuries were similar to those seen in tennis. About two thirds of the injuries are from slips, trips, falls, or dives. These are mostly sprains, strains and fractures as well as contusions from being hit by the ball or paddle. If players could keep from going after the ball too aggressively, they might avoid many of the injuries. It's important to adapt your game to your physical abilities. But as you become more skilled, you'll be less likely to injure yourself. On a positive note, because there's less running, pickleball players are half as likely to have a heart attack on the court compared to tennis players. So before starting the sport it is best to have some minimal level of fitness. A good segue would be to start a basic walking program. It's also important to wear court shoes, protective eyewear, and spend time warming up before games.

Great, thank you. Well, you've piqued my interest in pickleball even more than when you first told me about it. And I'm sure there are listeners who want to know more about pickleball. How does someone get started, Elaine, playing pickleball?

You can find places to play and learn where to get instruction by searching online ‘Knoxville pickleball’. The USA Pickleball Association website has a lot of information including the simple rules of the game. YouTube is filled with tutorials, tips on how to play and competition games you can watch.

This transcript has been lightly edited for content.


Greg joined WUOT in 2007, first as operations director and now as assistant director/director of programming. His duties range from analyzing audience data to helping clear WUOT’s satellite dish of snow and ice. Greg started in public radio in 2000 in Shreveport, La., at Red River Radio and was, prior to coming WUOT, at WYSO in Dayton, Ohio, where he also was director of programming and operations.