My Thoughts and Observations about Recreational Pickleball

Pro Player
(Image credit: Kerry Pittenger)

After playing pickleball for the first time, my wife came home and told me about it, her body language and tone of voice energized, the details spilling out of her mouth in excited bursts. And knowing that she had never taken pleasure in any form of exercise, I was eager to discover what had generated the sparkling eyes, the wide smile, the lilting voice, the animation from head to foot. Before long she had suggested that I play, or at least knock the ball around with her and see if it would ignite my curiosity and interest. 

               We played on weekends here and there, using no-name-brand paddles; she explained the game, the rules, the fundamentals, and we got moving, the whole time talking, joking, ignoring life’s troubles and stresses and getting exercise.  How pleased we were that playing pickleball could benefit us and cost almost nothing. Now having a common interest, inspiration propelled us both mentally and physically, fueling our desire to play often and with enthusiasm.

Keen to understand the game and develop skills which would help me keep up with her, I searched the internet for information, where I found the PPA (Professional Pickleball Association) and their tournament schedule, along with names of several top players, and videos of matches past and recent. The first player I discovered was the passionate, charismatic Anna Leigh Waters, who is determined to bring widespread attention to pickleball, a pursuit which to date has been fruitful. The sport’s popularity is mushrooming fast, no doubt about it. Next I found Ben Johns, considered by many to be the best player in the world. Further searching turned up a roster of others, not one of them second-rate. Awed by everyone’s talent, regardless of ranking, I got caught up in browsing the sites, my interest ballooned. Mind you, I had no idea that pickleball had been around since the 1960s; no idea how popular it had become in recent years; no idea how intense and exciting the matches often were because of the number of “bangers” and hard-hitting firefights at the net.  Also I noticed the professionalism of the athletes: when they made mistakes they shrugged off the error and kept working; when playing doubles, players who made bad shots or committed gaffes were tapped on the back or patted on the shoulder (or with a paddle) by their teammate as if to say “Don’t worry about it. Better next time.  Play the next point.” Such sportsmanship had me believing that all pickleball players, novice as well as professional, behaved like that. Time would tell if I had gotten the wrong impression.

As my wife and I played match after match and I became more proficient I started playing with a group she had been getting together with. Her friends gave me sufficient time to develop, to play at their level, or close to it, never complaining about my amateurish blunders. And, not wanting to slow them down, I even told my wife that if I couldn’t keep up I would leave the group rather than become a hindrance. So, with a little extra work and learning what I could from watching the top players I improved enough to fit in. Although lacking skill and knowledge despite considerable practice and observation, I can sustain momentum and guarantee competitive matches. And, I’m fortunate to report, I’m still playing with the same group! Looking back now, I remain grateful for their patience, for their kindness, for their attitude, for their good cheer, and yes, for their friendship. Bev, Rebekah, John, Jody, Kim, Olivia, Dave, Elaine—Thank you all!

What happens, though, if the fun fades? Well, you can’t let it. Always cherish and call to mind the good times when circumstances have you playing with the wrong people. Because the truth is, it will happen to you. Some players I’ve heard about and come across take the game very seriously, maybe too seriously, acting as if nothing is as important as pickleball, as if they own the court and can dictate who is worthy of being on it, as if they are by every measure infallible.  The serious, intense ones are quick to scrutinize, point out mistakes, scold, show disrespect. In fact, during a game I was told by a controlling teammate to play their way. I refused, my words measured, firm, polite. We played on without conflict. Lucky for me that player never chirped in my ear again. If they had, I would have done the same thing then avoided them next time. 

No shortage of stories about those who play for fun having to endure unsolicited criticism and analysis from those who are ridiculously competitive, believing every match a battle for total domination, control, intimidation. None of this I understand. None of this is useful or helpful to pickleball and its purpose. What it does is deaden the spirit of healthy competition, pulling attention away from the game, causing unnecessary friction in what should be a light-hearted and amusing form of recreation and fellowship for all ages. As a matter of fact, on TV professionals always seem to support and encourage their teammate during fiery matches, even when behind by several points, and even when their partner is making mistakes and not playing up to expectations. Because I’m not competitive in general, and because I’ve seen commendable behavior on the pro court, I fail to see any room in the game for rough talk or ridicule.  Keep that rubbish out. If you play pickleball for fun, never let anyone or anything color your thinking or diminish the pleasure of playing. Should that happen, everybody loses.

Pickleball has been a pleasurable form of exercise, benefitting my health, giving me laughter, friends, and good times outdoors, while increasing my appreciation for the full-time athletes. Though all the major players on the professional circuit are superb and fun to watch and learn from, the ones who I have followed the most are Anna Leigh Waters, Ben Johns, Catherine Parenteau, the Johnson siblings, Federico Staksrud, Anna Bright, Travis Rettenmaier, Thomas Wilson, James Ignatowich, and Vivienne David (always smiling, laughing, making funny faces, gestures, and so forth, one of the best personalities in the sport). Again, from watching them (and the referees and line judges) I’ve learned more about the game than I thought possible. Who needs lessons when you can educate yourself?

Summing up, my wife and I have no interest in playing in tournaments, in playing at a professional level, in taking lessons, or in playing alongside preachers and egomaniacs. Using our own style of play (and still using no-name-brand paddles, ha!), we’re having fun and getting better as a matter of course. That’s enough for us. That’s the sole purpose of playing in the first place: to have fun. Right? 

Take from pickleball what you wish. Too many situations in life are pitting us against each other, creating problems we don’t need and can’t solve.  I hope the game doesn’t become marred by arrogance and poor court manners, by know-it-alls spitting out orders and trying to instruct when not asked, by those consumed with where the others place themselves on the 1.0 to 5+ rating system—irrelevant details that detract from the sheer enjoyment of recreational play. 

Just play! 

And should you come across players who work against your interests, look elsewhere for someone whose attitude, personality, and temperament complement your own. Doing this, you will thrive.  

It’s time for a firefight!

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About David Boyle

A versatile and diversified writer, David Boyle has written three short story collections, published by independent presses. Though he earned his readership by writing reality-based fiction, Boyle has gained a reputation for literary stories, essays, articles, reviews, interviews, analyses, travel writing, reportage, and poems, a good number of which have appeared in both print and online magazines. Inspired by his wife's passion for the sport, David now loves pickleball and aims to illuminate current pickleball events and subjects with a fresh, creative perspective, offering readers something they can't find anywhere else. | My website | | My Pickleball Journal

1 thought on “My Thoughts and Observations about Recreational Pickleball”

  1. I love this article…It perfectly captures how I feel about this sport! You can play with people who are better skilled than you or less skilled and still have fun, and every time you play, you become a better player. It is a social activity and a great way to meet new people. Sportsmanship is truly important, and simply coming out to have a fun time should be the core value of Pickleball. Even in a competitive match, we should not lose sight of these values. Everyone who steps onto the court should feel fulfilled and happy.


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