When my kids were little, I helped coach their recreational soccer teams.
I sometimes felt bad, because before games, we would roll out a few balls and kids from both teams would be running around, having a great time. Then the adults would decide it was time for the game to start, make half the kids go sit down, and put the rest of the kids out at certain positions with rules and responsibilities. We turned joyful chaos into structured “fun.”
I mention that because I recently came across a story about someone opening 40 indoor pickleball clubs somewhere in the Lower 48 over the next two or three years. The sport-specific facilities will include electronic sensors to detect out-of-bounds balls, and video equipment to livestream matches.
In some places, now-defunct retail stores are being turned into pickleball clubs. Other developers are building “upscale and chic” exclusive facilities, with clubhouses, juice bars and pro shops. And in those pro shops, you can apparently spend $200 on a pickleball paddle.
Talk about structured fun.
For those not familiar with “America’s fastest growing sport,” pickleball was invented in the 1960s and combines elements of tennis, badminton and ping pong. As the legend goes, the inventors’ families were on vacation at a summer cottage, and the kids were bored. In a “when we were your age” moment, a parent suggested they invent their own game, and pickleball was born.
I learned about pickleball in the 1980s. My high school had a PE unit on the sport, and there was an annual intramural tournament that filled the time between the end of the basketball season and the start of spring sports.
As I recall, it was far and away the most popular PE and intramural activity offered. The way we played, it wasn’t too far off from the game’s creative roots. The school gym teachers put down tape lines in the gym to mark off eight or 10 courts, and dragged all of the old volleyball nets out of the storage closet.
We didn’t have electronic sensors to judge the lines. If there was a dispute, you just replayed the point. There weren’t barriers between courts either, so if the rally from the next court over spilled into yours, you just let them play through.
And nobody had a $200 paddle. In fact, there was only one “official” pickleball paddle in the school. The shop classes used it as a template to cut paddles out of plywood for everyone to use. You had to pick your paddle carefully to make sure you got one that had been well-sanded, and you didn’t leave class with any splinters.
I’m sure it wasn’t the whole school, but a lot of students played in the intramural tournament, as did several teachers. What I remember about it is the joyful chaos of a hundred or so kids playing a game invented just for fun.
Pickleball has been popular in this area for a number of years, well before the recent surge. In fact, you can find regular pickleball sessions at all of the local recreation centers. And you can find a paddle for much less than $200 at one of the local big box stores.
I haven’t played pickleball since high school, so I can’t claim to be an aficionado or purist. But I do think, whether it’s pickleball or youth soccer, we adults sometimes forget about the joy. We have rules and guidelines and sidelines and electronic sensors to tell us when we’re out of bounds, all in the name fun.
Because maybe you can’t have too much fun, but we can all use a little more joy in our lives.
Will Morrow lives in Kenai. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.