By John A. Tures, Professor of Political Science, LaGrange College
Top American sportswriter Rick Reilly took a whack at Pickleball, the latest U.S. sports craze, in a Washington Post column. But Reilly may be out of bounds on this one, as the game is rallying across the country in general, especially in Cobb County.
It’s hard to believe that the game originated in a politician’s backyard, but that’s what happened in 1965, when Washington state legislator (and future congressman and lieutenant governor) Joel Pritchard and neighbors Bill Bell and Barney McCallum had finished golfing, and couldn’t find their badminton equipment. They then grabbed a wiffleball, ping pong paddles, and the game was on. Major League Pickleball was formed in 2021, a year after The New York Times asked if was it the perfect post-pandemic sport.
I’ve read lots of stories about the name, from that of a family dog to the “pickle” boat of a motley crew of rowers in a competition. But whatever the case, there’s no denying the popularity of the sport. According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), there were 4.8 million players over the age of six last year. It’s now 8.9 million players this year, making it the fastest growing sport for the third straight year, a shocking 160 percent increase in players over the last three years. And I’m one of those new players, as is my teenage son, our college chaplain, a fellow professor, a Bengali storeowner, and a law enforcement agent, none of whom are retirees, showing the game has greater reach than the over-65 crowd. Our county recently won a multi-million-dollar grant to build a number of Pickleball courts.
The bigger the success, the greater the detractors, it seems. Reilly attacks Pickleball for being loud for the whacking sound, being “less elegant” than tennis, and argues that you get less exercise in playing the game than you would by walking.
He may be right on individual points. For example, I found a hard-fought 15-minute doubles match netted me a tenth of a mile of distance, far less than I would have had I opted to walk. But health isn’t only about steps. In another Washington Post article, Kelyn Soong noted research from Canada that backs up my findings on distance. But he also cited University of Manitoba Associate Professor of Physical Therapy Sandra Webber, who found that the heart rate of players “reached about 111 beats per minute, a level that would put older people into the moderate-exercise range.” This level of moderate activity is backed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 4.5 hours of playing a week would qualify a moderate level of activity.
Yes, there are injuries, as there are in any physical activity, including walking. And the whacks of pickleball paddles are quite comparable to the cracks of wood or modern pings of metal from the bats of America’s pastime, in sound. As for getting people outside in the sun (instead of sitting or mall-walking), and to have the mental challenge of the strategy-based game of Pickleball (it combines smarts with speed), as well as the thrill and endorphins reached from competition that just aren’t there from walking, the health benefits far exceed any drawbacks.
Cobb County provides many opportunities for residents to play, even observe, the sport. There’s a Memorial Day Pickleball Tournament on May 27th and May 28th at Oregon Park in Marietta. And Cobb Parks is providing Pickleball lessons from April 25th through June 1st at the Ward Recreation Center. Or you can go to Shaw Park in Marietta Georgia to try it out. You can see for yourselves, rather taking my word for it, or Mr. Reilly’s…the ball is in your court.