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The Fun Sport That Has Really Changed My Life

Why older women are taking it up in droves.

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Woman at the net of a pickleball court
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I remember the first time someone on the pickleball court said, “You are so competitive!” I looked around to see who she was talking to.

“I’m talking to you,” she said, pointing at me.

I was astonished. This was far from how I saw myself. I always wanted to win something other than one of the 10 “honorary fifth place” ribbons in the horse shows of my childhood, but it never occurred to me to ask my riding instructors what I could do better.

And I did take tennis lessons for a short time as a teenager, but I was mainly in it for the cute tennis pro, and I never even learned how to serve.

“I’m just not competitive,” I would say when people asked why I didn’t play a sport in school. As a tall teen, basketball would have been a natural choice — but the real reason was lack of confidence. I believed sports ability was innate, and that I had none.

Then, at the age of 58, I discovered pickleball, and everything I thought I knew about “innate sports ability” and my “lack of competitiveness” was turned on its head. By the time that person on the court opposite me called me competitive, I’d been playing almost every day of the week for a year. And then I went on to compete in my first tournament.

Pickleball is having a moment, and I am among the sport’s biggest fans. Invented in 1965 by three dads on Bainbridge Island, Washington — Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum — it was an attempt to find a novel activity for their kids, who were bored during summer vacation.

By 1990, pickleball had caught on in all 50 states, and last year, the Sports and Fitness Industry Association reported that it has been the fastest-growing sport in America for three years running, currently with 8.9 million players (a number that's growing every day).

While it’s popular with people of all ages, it has especially caught on with older adults. There are many reasons why. The court is one-third the size of a tennis court; and most games are played with a partner, making it easier to cover territory. If you have mobility problems; the paddles and balls are lightweight, lessening the risk of muscle strain. And, the game can be played indoors, in a temperature-controlled setting.

In addition to being excellent exercise, pickleball also helps sharpen visual-motor acuity, is highly social and can improve memory skills, all of which are value-added plusses for older players.

There’s no doubt that involvement in a sport strengthens self-confidence, teaches the value of leadership and teamwork and ups your chances of living a healthy lifestyle. So it’s great to start young. But what about those of us who came to sports in the second half of life? Can it provide the same benefits, and change the way we, as women, see and think about ourselves?

I put the question to a cross-section of female pickleball players over 50. This pool included Rachel Goldberg, a marriage and family therapist who specializes in treating women with eating disorders, and Dr. Nathan Baumann, a clinical psychologist with expertise in body image and athletics.

I asked players if pickleball has changed their image of themselves in any way, and if so, how. And I asked Goldberg and Baumann to share their thoughts on the benefits of athleticism (no matter the skill level) for older women.

Overwhelmingly, the women who responded to my questions reported that their involvement in pickleball has resulted in higher levels of self-confidence and reduced feelings of insecurity. They said these shifts were apparent particularly around men and younger people, against whom they often competed, or were paired.

“Pickleball has made me reach out and talk to people I might not normally have spoken to,” said Alyson Gondek, 60, who won a gold medal with her partner at the Senior Olympics qualifying games this past winter in Chattanooga, TN. “And because it’s a sport that doesn’t just rely on speed or athleticism, but involves strategy and accuracy, I have more confidence in those abilities.”

Grace Morizio Carr, 77, lives and plays pickleball in Toms River, NJ. She says that pickleball “leveled the field” for her, and showed her that she is capable of competing in an athletic environment.

Alison West Brown, 63, of Clearwater, FL. said that, although she was athletic growing up, she had stepped away from sports until about two years ago. Then, when she discovered pickleball, it “made me aware how strong my body still is, and how interacting with a group of total strangers (who are now friends) has added strength and balance, and returned to me the thrill of competition.”

Several other women said that pickleball stretches them in the realms of physical, mental and social awareness; has given them a sense of athletic prowess that they never had; and is a grounding force by providing them with a sense of belonging to a larger group. This last takeaway was as important for women who were very social before discovering pickleball as it was for women who, pre-pickleball, were self-described “loners.”

Therapist Rachel Goldberg pointed out that there are many positive benefits to women playing sports in general, not just pickleball: “Physical activity through sports can lead to improved body image … [and] help women feel more comfortable and confident in their bodies, [as they are] focusing on strength and capabilities rather than appearance alone,” she said.

Goldberg added that the skills we develop on the court such as “resilience and trust in oneself” are also keys to development in other areas of life off the court.

There are times when I feel like pickleball has magically bestowed upon me a long-absent sense of self-confidence, heady feelings of competence, never-before-recognized athletic ability, and has even made me more likable. I know it isn’t really magic. But for those of us who came to sports late in the game, seeing ourselves in an increasingly positive light — watching ourselves lunge and hoot and slam balls and celebrate wins — feels nothing short of magical.

These days when someone calls me competitive, I don’t look around the courts to see who they are talking to. I just smile and say, “Yes, I am!”

 How many of you have taken up pickleball? What do you love about it? Let us know in the comments below.

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