Every now and then, something comes along that’s a true phenomenon — a remarkable development or trend that catches us by surprise and captures our attention. In the world of sports, such a phenomenon has emerged in recent years, taking hold in our collective psyche: pickleball.
If you had told me a year ago that I would be spending so much time playing, thinking about, and talking about this sport, I would have cheerfully challenged you. But now I’m obsessed.
It started last fall, while I was playing tennis at Life Time Eden Prairie Athletic in Minnesota. “You should try pickleball!” longtime member Barbara and tennis pro Raj suggested.
“Absolutely not,” I quickly responded. “I don’t want this to impact my already not-so-good tennis game.”
Still, I stuck around and watched them play for a few minutes and was intrigued. One Sunday shortly thereafter, I got on the court myself.
A few hours later, I was hooked — in the best possible way. I’m now playing at least a couple of times per week. Sometimes it’s with family and friends; other times it’s during open play, when I go up against strangers, who quickly become friendly competitors.
Developed in the mid-1960s (for more on its history, check out Ben Johns’s cover story), pickleball was relatively obscure until just a few years ago, when it started gaining traction. Some attribute its rapid growth to how quickly you can learn the game; others credit its playful, social aspect.
Regardless, it’s now the world’s fastest-growing sport, with an estimated 4.8 million devotees — almost double the number from just five years ago.
The more I play, the more I understand why pickleball is catching on — and what an amazing opportunity it is to get more people moving and help them get healthier, too.
- It’s accessible for many people. In fact, it’s the most accessible sport I’ve ever witnessed in my life. Unlike tennis, which takes months (if not years) of training, the learning curve for pickleball is 15 minutes. Regardless of age, everyone can quickly learn to play.
- It’s as competitive as you make it. Even though I’m a beginner and not very good, I still tend to be pretty serious about my game. When I play, I’m in it to win, and I give it my best effort, every time. The level of competitiveness you bring to the court, however, is entirely up to you.
- It’s social. For many, pickleball is a great way to get your heart pumping and adrenaline flowing with friends. Many people play doubles, but admittedly, I love playing singles — then I can blame only myself when a point or game doesn’t go as planned. It’s a great way to meet new people; just drop in for open play or join a mixer.
- It’s healthy. Pickleball is a low-impact sport that can boost your fitness level. Research also shows it can support healthy blood pressure and cardiovascular function — plus, it’s a legitimate aerobic workout.
On a personal level, pickleball inadvertently helped me get ready for the summer biking season. In early May, I start training for the Leadville Trail 100 MTB in August, which means I typically need to lose about 20 pounds to get in optimal biking shape. This year, I was already down half of that thanks to pickleball — I didn’t make any other changes to my routine. It was fun to reap these unexpected results from something I can’t wait to do.
- It’s a unifying force. From my perspective, pickleball is bringing together people from all across the country in a way that I haven’t seen anything else do. Step onto one of Life Time’s courts, for instance, and you will see the most beautiful melting pot — all ages, all genders, all ethnicities, all abilities. Everyone feels welcome.
For all of these reasons, Life Time — like so many of the players who have taken to the court — is going all in on pickleball. And thanks to the existing footprint of our athletic country clubs across the United States (and a few in Canada, too), we’re aiming to be not only the biggest provider of the sport, but also the best.
We’re in the process of modifying and updating many of our spaces, and by the time the July/August 2022 issue of Experience Life is in your hands, we’ll have more than 200 dedicated pickleball courts across our 160-plus locations — with more to come as we open more Life Times in the months and years ahead.
We’re doing this because I imagine pickleball might just be the sport that gets the largest number of people moving — for fun, connection, competition, and the simple love of the game. And Life Time is poised to be the place where you pick up that paddle and get playing.