Becoming a Pickleballer
With Ben Johns
Season 5, Episode 11 | June 28, 2022
Ben Johns is one of the top-ranked pickleball players worldwide, and at just 23, he has been labeled the “the present (and future) of pickleball.” In this episode, he joins us to talk about this inclusive and increasingly popular sport, including how he went from playing for fun to playing pro, what he thinks makes him a good player, and why the sport is so appealing for so many of us.
Ben Johns is an American professional pickleball player, ranked No. 1 in the world for doubles, mixed doubles, and singles by the Pro Pickleball Association, as well as by the World Pickleball Rankings and Global Pickleball Rankings.
He first started playing pickleball in 2016 at the age of 17. He soon after started competing and has won more than 50 gold medals in his professional career to date, including 14 triple crowns (winning singles, doubles, and mixed-doubles pro events in the same tournament).
In this episode, Johns shares his thoughts around different aspects of the sport:
- The popularity of pickleball: “It kind of seeped into my life,” says Johns. “Just like most think they’re just doing a hobby — and then suddenly it’s their full-on addiction. They get fanatical about it, and they don’t want to stop playing. And that’s so awesome to see, because it’s the healthiest addiction I’ve ever seen. People are getting exercise, they’re enjoying something, and they’re doing it with other people.”
- Who pickleball is for: “The really cool thing about it is it’s a sport for most everybody,” explains Johns. “I’ve seen 5-year-olds play and enjoy it. I’ve seen 90-year-olds play and enjoy it. Gender — it’s a fairly even distribution there. Socioeconomic status, culture — it just doesn’t matter. So, if you ever think a sport is not for you, I beg to differ. I think if you don’t like sports, pickleball might just be one that you will love.”
- The future of pickleball: “It’s so hard to predict, because just in the past three years it’s come such a long way,” Johns says. “But how I see pickleball in my utopia is that it’s going to be a sport that everybody has heard of in the world that almost everybody wants to play for whatever reason. Everybody watches the NFL, but not everybody plays. I could see pickleball, in 10 to 15 years, being the sport to play, no matter what you do — and that’s where I’d like to see it. If everyone plays, the future could be anything.”
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Transcript: Becoming a Pickleballer
Season 5, Episode 11 | June 28, 2022
[MUSIC PLAYING] Hey, everyone. Welcome back to another episode of Life Time Talks. I’m Jamie Martin.
And I’m David Freeman.
And we’re really excited today for our conversation with Ben Johns. He is an American professional pickleball player, ranked number one in the world for doubles, mixed doubles, and singles, by the Pro Pickleball Association, as well as by the World Pickleball Rankings and Global Pickleball Rankings. He first started playing pickleball back in 2016 at the age of 17 and he soon after started competing. He’s since won now more than 50 gold medals so far in his professional career, 11 of which are triple crowns. Ben, thanks so much for being here with us.
Thank you guys for having me. Looking forward to it.
Yeah, Ben. So we are super excited to have you on our LT Talks and also, to be featured on our upcoming issue of Experience Life. So thanks again so much for coming on. How are you doing today?
I’ve never been better. Actually today is launch day for me for switching primary sponsors. So it’s been a very busy morning and we’re just going full steam ahead I guess right on to this.
I love it. I love it. So Jamie gave us a little bit of the background. So let’s set that stage right now. Take us back to your teenage years when you discovered pickleball. When and where did you discover the sport, and what about it appealed to you.
Yeah, I discovered it near Naples, Florida, Southwest Florida. And I was a tennis and table tennis player. And the tennis courts I trained out with my brother at the time were right next to pickleball courts that had been recently built. And I walked by a couple of times, I saw it played. It looked like fun but I didn’t even know what it was or I didn’t know enough about it to be like oh, I want to go play that.
But I saw it enough times where eventually I was just like, I’ll give this sport a try. Why not? It seems like I can have fun with it a couple of times. Play with some friends maybe. And so I went out the first time and I was like, this sport is really fun. Like just immediately. It was super interesting to me that it was like a blend of tennis and table tennis, right in between the two, my two primary background sports.
And what attracted the sport to me initially was that combination between the two I’m familiar with. And also just the new strategy. Like I’m always very interested in figuring a new sport or game out. And it was very clear, very early that I was good in terms of eye hand coordination and movement from tennis and all that, but I didn’t know what to do. I had no idea what I was doing on the court.
So figuring that out was an instant attraction to me. And it just seemed like the whole community and everyone I played with was so welcoming and they were all so fun and nice. It’s just a very engaging world as anyone who plays soon finds out.
Absolutely. So tell us a little bit about that transition from when this became a just for fun for you sport, when you decided to really pursue it, and eventually to go pro with it.
Yeah, no, there’s definitely a couple key moments. It’s also pretty gradual though. It seeped into my life and, one second I was like, it’s a fun game. And then somehow a couple of years later I’m just like gosh, I don’t even think I’m going to use my degree. So it was very interesting how it just got into my life. Just like most people they think they’re just doing a hobby and then suddenly it’s their full on addiction.
But for me, my first tournament ever I just happened to live very close to the first US Open ever in 2016, it was like half an hour away. So that was my first tournament. People were like oh, you’re pretty good. You should play. It’ll be a historic experience for everybody going, so I was like I’ll play, sure why not. I didn’t know how good I was so I was just like, I’m going to sign up for pro. Let me play pro just for the fun of it.
And if I lose really badly that’s fine, I’ll still be able to say I did it. And I ended up getting fifth in that, so I was like I guess I am pretty good at this game. And it made me want to keep playing. But because I went back to Maryland later that year away from Florida where there’s not a lot of pickleball, I didn’t get to play a lot. I played two more tournaments that whole year. And it was still fun to me. Didn’t really care that much, it was just a hobby.
And then coming back in 2017, back to Florida again, I was playing like every day. I really wanted to do well and I enjoyed it a lot, but still wasn’t thinking of it seriously as like a professional sport or anything like that. But ended up being that I came back one year later and I won the 2017 US Open. So that was one of the key moments where I was just like, I guess I am pretty good at this sport and maybe I should keep playing because it’s a lot of fun.
And I did it for the rest of the year. And then that fall I went to the University of Maryland as a freshman but I knew I wanted to keep playing simultaneously. And I’d say the other key moment for me that turned it into hey, this could be a career for me rather than just on the side simultaneous thing, is when I signed with Franklin Sports in 2019. They were the first brand to get into pickleball and sponsoring athletes that wasn’t a pickleball brand. They were an exterior brand, they were in MLD, NHL.
So they wanted to sponsor me, and at the time that was revolutionary for the sport and for me. So I was just like, if this is happening who knows what’ll happen in the next couple of years. And this could be a very viable professional career. And it seemed like a lot of fun to me still, so I was like, why not?
Love it. Breaking down walls, right? I love that. So we take a minute to actually talk about the sport of pickleball itself. It’s one of the fastest growing sports in America. And the adoption rate is wild. So a lot of times people might put it in a box of saying there’s a certain age group that this caters to, but since it has such a high adoption rate, can you tell us, who is pickleball for?
Yeah, no, absolutely. That’s a perfect question really. And that is that the real attraction to it is not that it’s a sport for old people, it just happened that I was in a microcosm that very much enjoyed it. The really cool thing about it that I find that is why it applies to all people as well is because it’s a sport for absolutely anybody and everybody. I’ve seen five-year-olds play and enjoy it, I’ve seen 90-year-olds play and enjoy it. Guys, girls, it’s a fairly even distribution there. Socioeconomic status, culture.
It just doesn’t matter. I’ve seen everybody and anybody play with each other. And as soon as you get on that court you’re one and the same. You’re brought together by the sport you like playing. That’s also why I think it’s a big thing with celebrities. Like you have Leonardo DiCaprio playing, he’s got a court at his house. So many other celebrities that I just feel like it’s so attractive because you might not be able to duke it out on the television set or directing or producing, but when you get on the pickleball court it’s like oh, it’s game time. We want to compete in this.
So it can be competitive, it can be fun, and it can be for absolutely anybody. And I feel like that’s why I’ve met more unique and interesting people in pickleball than I have in any other aspect of my life. There’s just so many unique people, because anybody plays it. So if you ever think that sport’s not for you, I mean I beg to differ. I think if you don’t like sports, pickleball might be just one you will.
Well, that’s something we keep hearing. And just in full disclosure obviously, we are with Lifetime, this is the Lifetime Talks podcast that’s a focus for our organization right now. And we keep hearing that just the people who are getting involved in the growth of it within our organization. So I know Ben, you’ve played up here in Lakeville, Minnesota where I’m at, and competed in tournaments. I mean the explosion of tournaments and seeing who’s doing this. I mean, I’m just amazed whenever I see photos on our stream about who’s all out there. It truly is for everyone.
It’s wild. Not only is it for everybody, but most people that play, it’s like an addiction. They get fanatical about it and they don’t want to stop playing. And that’s just so awesome to see. Because it’s like the healthiest addiction I’ve ever seen. People are getting exercise, they’re enjoying something, they do it with other people. There’s just nothing bad about it. I mean it can even be therapeutic. The number of people that have had injuries in other sports and get to play pickleball as like a revamping their body, and then they never leave it it’s just crazy. It’s just good for really every situation I’ve ever seen.
That’s awesome. OK. So we want to talk a little bit too about, you have in six years since you picked it up for fun and now you’ve grown into being the number one player, you’ve got these triple crowns, you’re a number one player in these various different divisions, what makes you a really good pickleball player. Like why is this the sport for you.
Yeah. I’d say I mean it’s definitely a combination of things. The first I’d have to credit is definitely the background sports. So currently almost all the top ranking players are former tennis players, usually D1 or better, some former professional ATP, WTA, that kind of thing. And I wasn’t that level, my brother was, he was an ATP player. But I was a fairly good tennis player but I was also a fairly good table tennis player. So I feel like that combination really offers a lot of things because anybody can see looking at the court that there’s similarities to both.
So having both background sports certainly helps. But I’d say the more key thing, more than anything else probably, is that pickleball is what I call an unsolved sport. Like everyone’s still very much figuring out what are the good things to do. Like how do you play the sport at its optimum? And nobody’s really figured that out. It’s currently developing just year to year. You see different strategies players picking up different things and we’re all learning from each other.
And one of the things I’ve always said based on not just pickleball but in any area really, is just experiment and learn things based on trying new things. So I guess I keep adding new things and getting better mostly because of that.
Yeah you said something earlier that’s an oxymoron as far as healthy addictions so I’m always curious, being a high performance athlete, we do devote a lot of our time and energy to what it is that we’re passionate about within our craft. So I have to ask the question and I’m guaranteeing our viewers and our listeners want to know this answer, how do you find the balance to be able to relax and unwind and also make time for other things that are important in life too.
Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I feel like it’s one I’m still working on. I can’t find a perfect balance yet, maybe I never will. But it’s really all in what makes you happy. I get happiness out of striving for something, doing the best I can out of it. And I think to be the best at something like this it’s not 100% work hard all the time. I function at full 100% capacity and performance if I do dedicate some time to other things.
And for me that’s not necessarily just like relaxation, but I have a couple businesses that I run. And to be like doing stuff like that can even be just changing my mind from one mindset to the other is relaxing. Doing a workout although it seems like work and maybe it’s for pickleball, that can be relaxing to me. Like people have hobbies that are not specifically for relaxation or happiness but somehow they do make you happy anyway just because they’re different.
So for me I’d say variety is big and once again, experimenting with different routines and different types of time management and that kind of thing helps me to figure out what makes me happy and still is able to get me to perform at my top and best.
So you’ve mentioned this now, you have these two businesses that you’re focused on, you’re also finishing your degree in engineering, and I had seen the update today about your new sponsorships and all of this and your plans going forward. So like with all those things in mind finishing up your degree, these other businesses, tell us a little bit about those endeavors and what’s next for you with those.
Sure, yeah. So getting my degree has always been very important to me. I know at this point that when I graduate I’m not going to be using it directly. But honestly even before pickleball I never thought I was going to be a 9:00 to 5:00 person. I always wanted to run my own business and apply the things I learned personally rather than for somebody else. So that’s not shocking to me that I’m doing this now, it’s just funny that pickleball played such a large role in it.
So, yeah, I’ll get my Materials Engineering degree and I hope to use that down the road, but maybe it’s with paddles, maybe it’s with something else. But I’m sure I’ll apply it somehow. Looking forward to graduating, it’s been a long road. And then other companies, mostly those they’re doing well and I really like running them. I don’t know if they’ll become like a primary business for me or anything, but they’re certainly fun to run simultaneously with the professional pickleball career. But the professional side, the performance and staying at tip top performance shape is going to be my primary focus from now on basically until that changes.
Ben, when I hear you talk it just obviously stands out. Ben Johns is a man with a plan.
It goes back to like early influences. And I’m curious, we’re curious as far as like the role models and the lessons that you learn from these individuals and how that influence has carried over to who you are today. So can you share a little bit about that background of Ben Johns the man that you are today and continue to evolve to become. What set the foundation for you?
Yeah. Obviously I guess it’s a cliche, a lot of people say it but you have to credit parents first. My parents are both amazing people. They gave me so many opportunities in every way. They’ve encouraged me through school, through pickleball, through any sports, through no sports. Whatever I wanted to do they’ve always been there and like hey, whatever you want, whatever you need, we’re here for you.
And I think they are to credit for independence and wanting to be good at anything really. I’m definitely where I am today because of them. And definitely my older brother. He was my biggest role model in terms of working hard and being good at something. He’s six years older so I saw him grind at professional tennis and he loved it so much, did such a good job just working hard at it. He would be my ideal role model as a sportsman.
And now I’m just lucky I get to be on the same side of the court with him. So we never had an opportunity to play tennis together because six years older that’s too much when you’re younger. But at pickleball now that we’re both 22, 28 or 23, 29 now, we get to be on the same side of the court and that’s just I couldn’t ask for a more fortunate sport. I’m just lucky to have found it.
So I’m just going to pause here for a second because I want to talk about when you’ve devoted so much of your time to this athletic pursuit obviously with balancing with other things, have there ever been times when you felt like it wasn’t worth it or like this isn’t quite the right thing for me. Or is it just when you found it. What’s that been for you? Have there been any mindset shifts you had to make.
Yes and no. I don’t think there’s ever been a time where I’ve been like this is too much I don’t want this or anything like that, nothing that extreme. But there’s always some moments of a little bit of doubt like maybe I’m doing too much, I feel overloaded right now whether that’s stress from various things or whatever. Like what we were talking about before, how do you balance your life, how do you make sure you’re still happy.
You’re always questioning that like is this what is making me happiest. What should I be doing with my life basically. And there have definitely been times where especially like are you doing this right? Maybe you should cut back on this or this or add this and all that. But that’s as far as the questioning goes. Really in pickleball I’ve always been confident because it’s just such a cool environment. Just the meeting people alone like I feel like if I wasn’t in the position I am being at the top of the sport, I would still love the sport and want to play just as well.
Ben, I love it. I’m getting excited, I’m getting an energy just hearing you talk. So when we talk about now let’s go to the next level as far as identity. It seems like you have a clear understanding as far as who you are. And then when we tie that into purpose, like a strong sense of purpose of what it is that you should be doing and you’re executing on that. So when we speak of purpose and what it is that you’re doing in life, tell me when you hear the word purpose what comes to mind for you.
Purpose, I’d say definitely, purpose to me is very specific. It’s got to be applicable to very specific things. So my purpose in pickleball is going to be very different from what I think my purpose is outside of pickleball. So for me in pickleball, for instance, I mean I would love to be at the top, like I think it’s my responsibility to myself and to pickleball to be as good as I possibly can for as long as I can.
I think there’s nothing more valuable than that, to advance the sport in terms of fans, other players, getting younger players into it. That’s how I’ve always looked at athletes in general. Anytime I find an athlete inspiring it was generally because they were the best or they worked harder than anybody or they had an inspiring story, something like that. So I don’t think I can do anything. My purpose in pickleball is to be the best that I can and work hard every day to be that for everybody else. And that’s what everyone expects, that’s what they want to see, so that’s what I’m going to do. That would be my purpose within pickleball at least.
Let’s keep tagging on some of these like bigger philosophical type questions here.
I love it. [LAUGHS]
Yeah. So what gives you perspective. In other words, like what are the values or core beliefs that ground you in the day to day. Because it’s probably pretty easy with all you have going on to get like I’ve got this and that. But what brings you back to like who you are and like the true you, the authentic you.
Yeah, no. You’re very right about that. When you get so busy with stuff and so wrapped up in a world it’s so easy to forget about other stuff. Like I’ll go a couple days at a time where I’m only invested in a couple of things and I’m just that once in a while take a step back and take a deep breath and say, wow, you need to do this more often. This is good for you. You can’t be so wrapped up in everything you’re doing.
And I feel like that happens to a lot of people in life where it’s not even about being top in sports or anything like that, it just happens to everybody. And I’d say it’s probably similar for everybody that when you step back, I think it’s always, to me, it’s most important to just be grateful for the things you do have, that’s what gives me the most perspective. I’m very fortunate in what I’m doing now. And I’m fortunate outside of this sport for so many reasons.
So thinking about those things. Family, circumstances, friends, whatever it is that you’re grateful for. That’s what gives me perspective. It’s like even if I didn’t have whatever I have, there’s a whole lot more that I have to be grateful for.
One phrase, three words, health and wellness. What does it mean to you?
Health and wellness. Nice. Health and wellness to me I’d say it’s lifestyle. It comes down to lifestyle. People can do it any number of different ways. To me it comes back to the sport, training, performance, recovery, not being injured, all those things. But to other people it might just mean doing an activity once a day. It’s going to the gym, it’s playing pickleball. It’s whatever.
It could be mental health and wellness. If you’re happy or not. It can mean so many different things to so many different people. To me it comes down to that each individual person’s belief in are you healthy, are you happy, or are you doing stuff every day that gets you in that state.
Awesome. So one thing I want to throw out there for you and I don’t have this on the list of questions that we always prep ahead of time, is–
You’re one of our younger cover models who’s going to be, I called you a cover model. Cover subject, cover feature,
However you want to take it.
Cover model let’s go.
Yes, you’re ready.
I’m a model, just what I always wanted.
Your cover shot here. One thing, when you look out whether it’s five, 10, 15 years, what do you hope for the sport of pickleball and also just for yourself in general. Because you’re one of our younger people. Like oftentimes we’re doing more reflection but I want to look forward here.
Yeah, no, that’s a fantastic question. Glad you asked that one. So for pickleball, it’s so hard to predict. Because just in like three years it’s come such a long way. I’m excited for whatever it has to hold and I feel like any prediction I make is probably going to be wrong. But how I see it in my utopia for pickleball is that it’s going to be a sport that everybody has heard of in the world. That almost everybody wants to play for whatever reason.
Because like back to what I was saying before, more than any other sport maybe everybody watches the NFL or everybody watches soccer et cetera, but not everybody plays. And pickleball doesn’t need to be a spectator sport for everybody but I think it has the potential more than any other sport I’ve ever seen to be a sport that almost everyone can play and enjoy. Because it just turns transverses whatever it is you do, whatever it is you’re into. You’re all going to have fun, you’re all going to enjoy playing it, and that makes it also a very social game.
So it’s just something everyone can relate to. So I could see it in 10, 15 years being the sport to play no matter what you do. That’s where I’d like to see it. And I think just that principle alone spreads through any number of things that anyone else is like, this is the future of pickleball. It’s like well if everyone plays it, the future, it could be anything. So that would be the big thing for pickleball for me.
For myself, 10 to 15 years, I don’t really think about the future that much. I just feel like when you’re on a good path and just doing good stuff every day that makes you happy and all that stuff, then you’re probably going to be just fine and just happy in 10 to 15 years as well. So I’m not going to make any predictions. I just hope I’m still enjoying every day like I am now and probably doing some new and different stuff, I really love variety. So I don’t expect to be doing the exact same thing as I am these days. I’d expect to be doing any number of different things. So again, really hard to predict. Maybe as unpredictable as pickleball but I’m looking forward to anything that it holds.
David, any other questions beyond your two minute drill that’s coming up here. Anything else for Ben?
Nothing comes to mind Big Ben, I don’t know if you have anything else before I put you in this pickle.
I know, I’m in a pickle. I have a question for you, David. I mean how much pickleball have you played? Have you been on the court? I want to know a little bit about you guys.
I have. I have. I’ve actually played, I want to say I’ve played up to at least 10 games now. I got exposed to it when I actually came up to Minnesota. Coach Lowell Lindsay Ogden called me out one evening and I learned all about the kitchen, I learned all about how to serve, and all those different things. And I absolutely–
Did you stay out of kitchen?
I stayed out, I was in the kitchen a lot at first.
All right, let me say that. I wasn’t cooking, I could tell you that much. But I will tell you that I absolutely fell in love with it, hands down. And ever since then, brought my kids out since we got back to Texas, my wife, friends, folks, from Alpha that I’ve coached. So I absolutely love it. I can see how addicting it can be, and how fun it can be, and just getting out and moving. I love that piece of it, just being in the health and fitness industry. So yes, I have played it. I’m a huge fan. And I also played ping pong too so if you ever want to get on some table tennis with me,
Yeah, I’m right there with you.
You guys have to go.
I got the spin going, baby.
I love it.
It makes me happy here and here in first place or is I usually ask about that because it’s usually either cute or funny or something because everyone usually falls in love with it. They’re just like I lost to this 80-year-old woman and I just —
It went to my head for the next week and I had to go back. I thought it was just too embarrassing to ever go back, but I had to, I had to. And from then on Ethel became my nemesis until I could beat her.
Oh, that’s so funny.
I got first question. We’re getting into the hot pickle seat today, y’all.
First question. Pet peeve, Big Ben, what you got?
I got to go with noise pollution. I really don’t like it when you’ve got a quiet peaceful day and then somebody’s revving their muffler at 100%. It irks me. So I’m going to go with that.
Noise pollution. OK. OK.
I’m with you.
I like it. I like it. Here we go. Favorite exercise movement to do.
That’s got to be squats, no question. I feel like it. Never skip leg day, everybody says it. Every day is like that. It makes every other exercise way better because you just get the blood rushing and it’s amazing. I like big muscular legs.
Yes. It’s all in the legs. It’s all in the legs. Now I got to go opposite here. Least favorite exercise movement.
Oh, this is the worst. But it’s cardio. I don’t like running. Running is not for me. And that’s funny because I know its legs and I play pickleball and you do a lot of running. But I would rather do like swimming for cardio than running. Running just, oh. I can’t do it.
OK. All right, here we go. Here we go. What is your weakness when it comes to food. So the food that you just can’t resist.
Oh [LAUGHS] I’m a big foodie so there’s a lot of foods I can’t resist. But I’m going to have to go with like probably tacos of any type. [LAUGHS] I’m in Austin so breakfast tacos, street tacos, food truck tacos, it doesn’t matter. I’m going to eat all of them.
I love it. I love it. OK. This last one, we get deep on the last one here, all right. What legacy does Big Ben want to leave this world with?
Oh, gosh. You gave me two minutes for total and not just this one.
Legacy for me. Well. I feel like my biggest legacy is work hard, be happy, and probably be grateful. If you’re happy and you’re grateful for what you have and I think that’s something anyone can do and anyone should probably do and that’s what I try to do.
I love it. We champion the happiness. Let’s take it back to grade school, if you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.
Let’s go. I’m into that.
Yes. Awesome stuff.
Oh, yeah. Well Ben, thanks so much for coming on. We want to make sure our listeners and viewers know where they can find you. So you’re on Instagram, TikTok, where else can they find you and what’s your handle.
Yeah. So it should be Ben Johns_PB for just about everything I think Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, on Facebook too if anybody still uses that platform. But yeah, primarily Instagram and TikTok these days.
Love it. All right. Well, thanks so much for coming on. We can’t wait to see your cover story. And we’ll get this out there for you. So thank you.
Absolutely. Thank you guys so much.
The information in this podcast is intended to provide broad understanding and knowledge of healthcare topics. This information is for educational purposes only and should not be considered complete and should not be used in place of advice from your physician or healthcare provider. We recommend you consult your physician or healthcare professional before beginning or altering your personal exercise, diet or supplementation program.