I waited 20 years for a sport to free me from childhood angst. Pickleball … mostly delivered.
In ninth grade, while trying to avoid exposing any part of my body in the locker room after soccer practice, my never-promising career in sports came to an abrupt end.
“Some tough cuts coming up,” a teammate said to no one in particular, in between half-hearted towel whips. But I knew that casual barb was really aimed at me, the kid who was too old to be this terrible at soccer and still expect to play on the team.
I don’t know if I ever really enjoyed the sport; I always hated the running. As a kid, I took up soccer without much thought; it seemed less boring than T-ball, which reliably put me and the other 5-year-olds to sleep in left field. I liked the Ziplocs of orange slices and the ritual of arming yourself with shin guards, long socks, and cleats. I didn’t like when boys would show off their ball juggles, high above their floppy ’90s haircuts, for the very simple reason that I couldn’t do anything like that.
In middle school, others on my team picked up another skill with ease: riffing on a hefty supply of homophobic jokes. So when I was inevitably cut from the lineup, I wish I could say I shrugged it off and gave a hearty, “Thanks for nothing, jerks.”
As I grew older, I occasionally felt pangs of regret. Whatever the “working out” gene is, I absolutely do not have it. (See also: wanting to hide every part of my body.) But I like being outside, and I like games. I have the privilege of relatively good health, and the time and money for a hobby. What if there were some other sport out there for me?
“Have you heard of pickle … ball?”
In the midst of the pandemic, my parents were about to move from their Minnesotan home to a house four miles away. (They were ready to be done with stairs.) To pique my flagging interest in the endeavor over the phone, they mentioned there was a pickleball court in the half-built development they were joining. It was apparently next door to their new house.
My parents weren’t too sure what the game was or how to play it — it sounded like a fever dream combining badminton, ping-pong, and tennis. Plus a whiffle ball? Good, however, for exercise with aging knees.
“It seems like it might be kind of noisy, though? Well, we’ll give it a go.”
When I finally was able to come visit, they had three paddles ready for action. Now I was intrigued; we are usually a sit-and-read family. I joined them to hit the ball around and found myself immediately chasing after every volley like a happy pup, the perfect sun of a Midwestern summer shining down on my arms, as scrawny and freckled and slathered in sunscreen as they were in my soccer days. This was just fun, unadulterated by adulthood.
Over the course of my stay, I began to fall in love. It’s hopeless to try to break down why anyone likes anything, but here are the main points for me: Pickleball looks supremely silly, but feels like a sport. It’s slow enough to feel strategic and not make you too winded, but you also get to chase after balls and attempt athletic flailing of the limbs. There is a high skill ceiling, but the floor is low and inviting. This is a game about polite introductions: The serves are underhand, and you have to wait for the ball to bounce once on each side of the court before you can start smashing it at each other.
Also: The paddles make a nice thwacking sound, much like, say, a locker room towel fight, but blissfully free of teenage, bro-y bullshit.
It’s all very Pacific Northwest, I assume; that’s where the sport sprang up in the ’60s after a family was bored in their backyard one day and could only find half a badminton set. Here, confuse yourselves more with a video.
Pickleball has seen a surge in interest with the rise of the pandemic hobby; this one has the advantage of being outdoors, social, and relatively easy to pick up for people of all ages. Four million Americans are supposedly playing now.
At my parents’ place, I started waking up early, eager to practice hitting balls to no one. When I flew back home, I lurked around local tennis courts to see if people like me were really allowed there.
I sometimes go to absurd lengths to avoid spending money on myself. I once moved apartments by lugging four broken suitcases and a trash bag on the New York subway to a Megabus. But I decided I was ready to spend a little — on a sport! — and signed up for a single pickleball lesson. I did not even own gym shorts at that point. Or, for that matter, a paddle that could reliably hit the ball more than 6 feet.
If I got a real paddle, I fretted, it would be a statement. It takes up space in your home, and it’s a little scary to walk by every day: A person who plays sports lives here? Who am I fooling?
I was determined, however, to keep up the pretense long enough that it would be too embarrassing to suddenly quit. A representative text “exchange” (read: extremely one-sided conversation) with a friend from this period:
“I just paid money for a pickleball lesson”
“like 40 dollars”
“it’s at 8 am on a saturday”
“I’m very excited”
On that October morning, I was late, and not quite as excited. I found our instructor on the court already, clad in athletic wear, a visor emblazoned with pickleballs, a slightly worrying leg cast, and a boundless smile. She could not have been more enthusiastic about this sport — perhaps still riding the pandemic hobby high. Or maybe, I hoped, this was the infinite confidence of a person who had found their thing.
I was matched with two much older women who were much better at bending their knees than me, and one ringer with suspiciously pendulum-like serves who eventually admitted to extensive tennis training.
The early going was rough. The “just try to bounce the ball on your paddle like a ping-pong ball” exercise immediately sent me chasing balls into the rose bushes, as did the “just gently bounce the ball and tap it over the net” exercise. My serves got only begrudging approval. Still, after whiffing many a dink and cross-dink, soon my doubles partner and I were playing and winning a real game, grunts and sighs and smashes and all.
Our coach beamed at our modest improvement, and encouraged us to take another class and then maybe check out drop-in play with the local club. We nodded dutifully. But didn’t she see me crush those limber-limbed older ladies? I was ready for the big leagues!
A cold night. A misty rain. And under the glaring stadium lights, an endless pop pop pop pop on a grid of green courts, full of young, hungry pickleball players here for drop-in play. I scanned the courts from a distance and saw no friendly older ladies. A pastiche of every ’90s underdog sports movie ran through my head: This was the big leagues, and I was not ready.
If you are wondering what the vibe of a not-quite-professional pickleball player is, it’s maybe like someone who bikes a lot. You might see them engaging in very light trash talk while tossing back wayward balls or, in at least one incredible case, stuffing a spare one into tight gym short pockets. They’re all angling to play someone who is just a little better than they are, in hopes of making it up a rung on the metaphorical ladder.
I was a wallflower: I walked around to get a closer look; confirmed that, yes, everyone here knew everyone already; walked out; and sat on a park bench, shielding my paddle in my jacket from the rain. Why did the stakes feel so high? Isn’t this why I gave up on sports in the first place?
The bench was cold, though, and I came all this way. I bit the bullet and asked a couple people lounging in camp chairs by the court if I could join a game.
Obviously, I got trounced.
But sticking around rewarded me with an invite to gay pickleball, which in my limited experience takes an already pretty relaxed game and truly brings it to the level of friendly competition and affirmation I crave.
I tried to delicately broach the subject of non-gay pickleball and got a lot of reassuring nods. “It’s too aggro; those guys just smash the ball,” one attendee said, although to be clear, smashing the ball is something that person does very well. Last time I played, everyone went home with a birthday cookie. Take that, ninth grade jerks.
Is this who I am now? I’m not sure. The thrill of facing a tiny fear can only last so long — I’m not dreaming about pickleball anymore. I’m not sure I’m getting any better at it, either. I try to show up regularly anyway. Every time, I’m surprised at how good it feels; I otherwise would only be outside in the winter to shuffle in my parka to the corner store for some seltzer.
I still play in jeans. For months, I resisted spending any more money. “How can you even hit with that thing?” one of the regulars asked, eyeing my $15 glorified piece of plywood. Finally, I dragged a friend on an inflation-era shopping spree and found the best pickleball paddle a medium amount of money can buy. (I may or may not have also bought rollerblades I have never used.)
But it’s okay to fool yourself; it’s okay to try on a new persona that feels a little ridiculous, no matter your age. I play a sport now, and no one can take that away from me.
Tim Ryan Williams is the deputy style and standards editor at Vox.com.