AS THE SPORT IS SWEEPING ACROSS AMERICA and around the globe, it’s winning hearts and inspiring devotion on a deep level. Pickleball ignites a transformative passion among those who pick up the paddle. To simply call pickleball a sport doesn’t do it justice—both comforting and exhilarating, it’s a full fledged lifestyle. Official estimates say there are about 5 million pickleball players in America, but that figure is probably low. It’s about more (much more) than the sheer thrill of the game—triggering something bigger, happier, healthier, and kinder in the lives of players. “An opportunity to get outside, be with people, and play is what’s so desperately needed now for our well-being. Fun and togetherness matter,” says Susie Moore, life coach, podcast host, and author of Let It Be Easy. “I’ve seen a real shift in people who play. Some have found friends, some found romance, some lost weight. It’s heartwarming,” adds Deonne Linenberger, of Biloxi, Mississippi, who, with husband Tom, plays five days a week and organizes pickleball groups. (The couple are USA Pickleball ambassadors and cofounded the nonprofit public charity Mississippi Gulf Coast Pickleball.) Here, we take a closer look at pickleball’s power.
IT BUILDS BRIDGES
As you talk to pickleball players, one thing becomes clear: It is a social bonder that brings people together from all walks of life. “I’ve heard it said that pickleball reaches across cultural lines to make a community that all of America might benefit from emulating,” says Tom Linenberger. Given the pickup nature of the sport—with people just turning up at recreational spaces, paddle in hand—all kinds of individuals are brought together, those who likely would never cross paths otherwise. In the quest to join games, players are open to sharing a court with anyone who’s available to volley. “I really enjoy that social aspect,” says CJ Johnson, a pickleball, golf, and ski pro in Lake Tahoe (you may know her from YouTube’s Better Pickleball channel). “I used to play tennis and it was really challenging to find partners. But now, with pickleball, you can play with all different people. That has an appeal I never really experienced before.”
Many people started to play during the pandemic—often multiple generations joining together for a match, even if only in their driveway. Today, new situations are drawing fresh devotees. Johnson says she’s noticed growing numbers of millennials who work in a nearby tech hub taking to the court after work. “And they keep bringing more friends who then bring their friends,” she says.
This thirtysomething age group seems to be pickleball’s current sweet spot. “The average age of a Smash Park guest is 34 now, which is a much younger crowd than people assume about pickleball,” says Monty Lockyear, CEO of West Des Moines–based Smash Park, “play, drink, eat” spaces where “dink and drink” nights sell out in a flash. But with pickleball players, age is just a number. Dawn Horan, a USA Pickleball ambassador in Fort Wayne, Indiana, says she’s in her 50s but has competed in doubles with someone in their teens. Young, old, male, female, political values, financial status—these lines blur immediately as people gather and bond over their shared love for the game.
COME AS YOU ARE
While there are hugely talented competitive pickleball players who train rigorously to hone their skills, it’s also a sport that is friendly and forgiving to just about anyone at any level. It’s an activity that adapts to you, rather than one that requires you to adapt to it. Once you learn the basics, you can play with someone who’s been on the court for years.
The game is a potent family bonder for this reason. “It’s the only sport I know of where three generations can be playing, and everyone finds it fun, challenging, and rewarding,” says Harold Holeman, who teaches pickleball at the Diamond State Pickleball Club in Wilmington, Delaware. “My wife and I, who are in our 70s, play with our son, who’s in his 50s, and his son, who’s 14. This is not unusual when it comes to pickleball.” There are other ways the game meets you where you are, making it fit —and fuel—your lifestyle: You can swing by a court and enjoy a match when you only have a half hour free, since a game can be played in less than 20 minutes. And in these challenging economic times, pickleball is remarkably gentle on the wallet. “I couldn’t spend $1,000 on pickleball if I wanted to,” says Holeman. “You can spend 60 bucks for nice shoes and the same amount on a good paddle, which will last three or four years. I either play for free or for just a couple of dollars.”
THE GAME FEEDS YOUR WELL-BEING
Pickleball can do a lot for your body since it involves running and builds muscles as you play, not to mention endurance.
Many people with past injuries (sports-related or otherwise) can play regularly. “If you don’t have a bad elbow, knee, or hip, we don’t want you,” jokes Holeman, “because we have all those things. Even if you can’t run around the court well, it’s OK. This sport involves a lot of strategy. I’ve seen players who can stand in one spot and beat much more agile players.”
It’s common to hear players say that picking up a paddle has transformed their well-being. And research at Western Colorado University explains why, showing that people who play at least three days a week can expect to see health improvements: a 12 percent increase in cardiorespiratory health, a 3.5 percent drop in blood pressure, and a 5 percent boost in levels of good cholesterol.
For some players with weight loss goals, it’s been game-changing. Says Johnson, “Twenty years ago, I lost 100 pounds, and I’ve kept it off. I am always physically active, and pickleball adds a nice component to my fitness plan. I drill fairly often with a partner or a ball machine.”
Beyond the physical benefits, pickleball is a source of great joy and emotional support that’s too often missing today; it’s a shining moment in the day that feeds mental health and happiness. The Journal of Positive Psychology shared a study that found that highly engaged pickleball players were more likely to be extremely satisfied with their lives and have a positive experience with aging. And the rush of feel-good endorphins amps up the good vibes.
Even where you play—outside, in fresh air—has a lasting impact. An article from the University of Minnesota shows that immersing yourself in nature, or even viewing nature, reduces anger, fear, and stress. It helps you feel better emotionally, and it uplifts your physical well-being by lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and the production of stress hormones.
THERE’S THE KINDNESS QUOTIENT
Pickleball’s committed, caring community is a big part of its magic. “It’s such a pro-social sport,” says Kane Phelps, a psychotherapist and pickleball player in Pacific Palisades, California. “There’s a baked-in ethos that no matter how good you are, you welcome others.”
Bonds are forged that last long after the paddles are put away, Holeman explains. “Whoever shows up, plays up. I’ll play for an hour or two and have six or seven partners and 15 different opponents. It’s so social that those who really want to play have to say, ‘Enough with the chitchat!’”
“There’s a special camaraderie with those early-morning games where everyone has their bedhead hair and no makeup on. You sit in the bleachers waiting your turn to play and get to know whoever else is there,” adds Violetta Armour, author of five novels, including the mystery A Pickleball Poison.
The welcome mat is there for the “have paddle, will travel” set who play pickleball wherever they may be. “I was in Florida for a few months recently and found plenty of people to play with,” says Horan. “And with pickleball, there’s an 85 percent chance you’ll all be getting margaritas together afterward.”
Indeed, it’s less a matter of having pickleball buddies than having a pickleball community.
THE FEEL-GOOD, DO-GOOD FACTOR
The pickleball world sees charitable outreach as an extension of the game. In fact, the desire to help others seems to go hand- in-hand with possessing a paddle. Grassroots organizations are uniting players and helping them find places to play and build more courts. The Linenbergers, for instance, have built a Facebook community of over 1,100 players seeking to connect. Ninety percent are recreational players, 10 percent are tournament players, and they all pull together.
The sport feels a strong pull to give back, too. There are programs in schools, hospitals, and mental health clinics. Fundraising tournaments take place across the country, benefiting St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, local food banks, and other causes. The Vera Bradley Foundation for Breast Cancer, for example, which has gifted $50 million for research, added pickleball sponsorship to its fund raising efforts because of the way it’s galvanized the country. “It was clear that pickleball was the new, up-and-coming sport,” says Mary Ellen Elizondo, cochair of the Pink Pickleball Tournament. “It has such a broad appeal, we’ve been expanding to meet the demand. So many love the game and want to participate!”
This is a game with heart. As the bumper stickers say, “Peace. Love. Pickleball.” It’s that simple.