I took my first one-on-one pickleball lesson this week to answer America’s favorite recent question, “What is pickleball?” I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about the fastest-growing sport in America. It is clear that I have a ton to learn, but the 60-minute session left me confident that my tennis skills will translate well on the pickleball court. However, there were a few surprises for this brand new player. If you’re considering picking up a pickleball paddle, here are a few things that my instructor shared with me, as well as a few things that caught me off guard.
SHORTY GOT LOW, LOW, LOW
The coach explained that pickleball games are won by keeping the ball low. He stated that the game is basically three shots, with the third shot being critical. Serve…return…and BOOM. All shots, with the exception of the serve, should be kept insanely close to the top of the net, barely squeaking over. Heck, that could work for service, too.
As someone jumping into this experience relatively blind, I was surprised at how much of the game takes place at the non-volley zone line. Both players quickly make their way towards the kitchen, as that is where most points are won.
The speed of the game is more intense than I expected. And this makes sense now that I understand much of the action takes place at the net. I’m not sure how fast a pickleball travels, but given the length of the paddle and the close proximity to your opponent, it feels fast–very fast! So it’s clear to me that this game is going to be much more about reaction time than consistent form.
Coach kept asking me to loosen my grip on the paddle, almost to the point that it felt as if it was going to slip out of my hand. And each time I listened, I found myself hitting better shots and generating more spin. Perhaps I hold my tennis racket tight as well, but for pickleball, it’s clear I need to loosen up.
Just as I gained confidence playing against my coach, he would switch speeds on me, and my court position rendered me powerless. Part of the game might be disguising when you are going to hit a fast shot with a significant pace.
GET SPINNY WITH IT
Since the goal is to keep the ball low most of the time, it’s no surprise that spin, particularly slicing, is a big part of the game.
Since pickleball only allows for one serve, you need to make it count. Coach was clear that having an “intimidating” serve that you can hit consistently is a vital part of winning. However, there are three serves to choose from: a standard serve, a lob serve, and a spin serve, which is designed to put your opponent in a bad position off of the court so your subsequent shot can be a winner. You must serve from below your naval and within 10 seconds of calling out the score (we’ll save pickleball scoring for another day!).
IS IT A RACKET?
Last summer, before a planned trip to the Delaware coast, I bought my first pickleball paddle set. I just looked for the one paddle with the “best” reviews and was at an entry-level price. I’ve now hit with that paddle and a new Prince pickleball paddle that I bought for over $100. So far, if there are differences between the two, they are nuanced. I can see it being fun playing around with different shapes and sizes, as there is quite a bit of latitude within pickleball for how your paddle is constructed. But if you’re starting out, I don’t see equipment variations being all that important for this sport.
“No running sneakers,” said the form when I signed up for my pickleball lesson. But I didn’t think anyone would care or notice. I always play tennis in running sneakers. But Coach looked down at my feet and said, “Uh-uh, no running sneakers.” I’ve always favored playing tennis in running sneakers because of the light weight and extra cushion. Plus, I have always found tennis sneakers to be a bit heavy and hot. I will be researching pickleball sneakers soon!
BACK IT UP
A big reason why I want to learn pickleball and shift a bit away from tennis is due to chronic lower back issues that I’ve wrestled with over the past couple of years. However, after playing pickleball during this lesson, I realize there is a lot of bending and herky-jerky movements. This sport might not be the cure for my backyard back. However, I am much less sore after playing pickleball than tennis. Plus, no tennis elbow!
The pickleball court where my 1:1 lesson took place was nestled between two tennis courts where a high school team was practicing. It felt funny having the young kids watch my court in strange awe. They were probably wondering why this middle-aged guy was hitting wiffle balls out of the air. I sensed a perplexed curiosity emanating from their brains, like, why would anyone choose this over tennis. They may have a point, it’s too early to tell. And they also don’t know what it’s like to hurt when you tie your shoes in the morning.
ARE YOU AVAILABLE?
As we get closer to warmer weather here in New York, a significant factor of me sticking with pickleball will be the availability of courts and people to play with. Those are two factors that have always made tennis a little bit of a struggle to play regularly.
In closing, I was happy I took the lesson. I am enjoying the challenge of learning a new sport from the ground up. Plus, sharing my journey helps reinforce the knowledge I am gaining. I am also happy to see that the muscle memory I built from decades of tennis should make the transition much easier than someone just starting a racket/paddle sport today.
My plan moving forward is to play a minimum of once a week and see if my enjoyment of the game continues to grow. If it does, I might commit to becoming a certified instructor. Now that is cocky as hell to say at this point with such limited playing experience, but my instinct is telling me that there is a path, and I will listen to the voice, at least until a louder one comes along.
Just starting to play pickleball? I’d love to hear from you!