For a very long time, since its first days in the ’60s, pickleball didn’t take itself too seriously, and neither did we players. Other than following the USAPA rules as created in 1984 , few players insisted we do any one thing the “right” way. There was lots of room for experimentation and adaption, and it’s axiomatic that people who came to the game from another sport would routinely transfer their skills in with them. Many of the finest older pickleball players had started in tennis, platform tennis, badminton, table-tennis, racquetball or squash. Likewise teaching pickleball was not instituionalized; for a long time many of us took every role we could in helping others learn. At a couple of the clubs we were involved in, there was a free, extensive pickleball coaching and training curriculum, and regarding welcoming folks there was even a specific and scheduled volunteer role for people to simply hang out at the courts for a couple of hours a day, trying to recognize those just seeing the game for the first time, explaining the game and the basic rules, and if possible getting them on a court so they could move from observer to player and, before long, swell our ranks. Other folks who were givers and instructors by nature would likwise roam more informally, helping wherever they could. Nobody thought much of the lack of formality; the operative phrase was “It’s Only Pickleball”.
We hate to say it but lately we have thought that that casualness doesn’t exist as much. People seemed less informal, less giving. More people are soliciting for business and competition abounds. We live in tense times (we always have but especially lately, right?) and maybe worry and anxiety – and the drive for the dollar – has shut down some of the outward kindness and helpfulness we saw so much of in our early pickleball days. In fact we’ve been pretty negative about this phenomenen and have been vocal about how much different it is now than in the golden days. In addition it seemed to be moving to “everything for the buck” – same old, pay to play at every level, bitch, bitch, whine, whine.
This, of course, is all crap, endemic not of a change in the game or even the attitudes of those playing it but of a change in us. We’re moving into the COF (Crotchety Old Fart) category (with Irene quickly pointing out only one of us does much COFing), and people actually are the same, (except all politicians, who are venal, craven, self-serving and worse, no offense) and pickleball remains the same odd “family” it’s always been, as long as we take our blinders off and look around.
This truism is still playing out every day if one just looks. Recently we were both standing talking with a few friends on the neighborhood courts when a foursome of young folks strolled up . They were definitely wearing their newbee badges; the women had cute matching tennis outfits and they all had plywood starter-set paddles. We watched as they took a court and began to hit back and forth from the baselines. Very obviously they had some racquet skills, from the ground-strokes probably from tennis. At least one of them had watched a couple of YouTube clips (or had came to this site!) and had learned some basic rules, because soon they began debating what the two-bounce rule meant.
Of course, a simpler way for them to get a real grasp of pickleball would have been to hang on the fence awhile and watch some other game already in progress and then ask us hangers-on a few questions. After all that’s the old-school pickleball way; those of us who have now played the sport for a decade or more are very familiar by this concept of learning by watching. Back in the day there was little to no formal pickleball coaching or training whatsoever; we all picked up what we could wherever we could, usually by watching. The “A” players then, few that there were, didn’t want us on the courts with them (at least, not until the end of their play sessions) but loved to have us watch, and we did, intently.
But these younger folks weren’t hanging on our fence so eventually we went over and hung on their fence, instead. And after awhile, we began making occasional comments, so that it became obvious to them that we collectively knew at least something about the game, certainly more than they did, and were willing to share the love. Their questions and our answers began to fly and the “kids” turned out to be super-quick studies.
A short while later, the certified teacher among us was on the court with them, instructing, and the newbees were lovin’ it. The concept of dinking took a little more explanation as usual, and building that into the strategy of a third-shot drop and using patience was certainly something that they hadn’t yet grasped from a cursory YouTube review. But, (somewhat annoyingly) every one of them was athletic and bright and they even got the hang of a soft game ultra-fast, something that took us hours or months to get when we were learning.
So scroll forward a bit and now most of our group was out on the courts with this new foursome, playing real games. Some one of our gang would stop them every now and then to correct an egregious error or to “catch” them in baseline or kitchen foot-faults or to coach then on a serve. In all that time, with all the questions it was instructive that nobody was caustic, impatient or sarcastic. It was all good fun, and it was all old-school pickleball, with nobody getting paid and everybody sharing what they knew for the love of the sport. The time flew by and even from the fence we could see the hooks being set, we had a few more recruits.
That’s the way our sport was in the beginning. But it isn’t necessarily the way things are now. If one watched the amazingly-huge just-finished Nationals and tried to count the number of professionals and vendors there would reinforce the sport is growing up rapidly. Looking at who’s involved tells you that it will soon be the province of the young, as it should be. Now there are many, many folks earning their livings as full-time professional coaches, clinicians, instructors, equipment makers, clothing manufacturers and on and on.
To us, there will always be a bit of nostalgia, for the old times, not so many years back, when we constantly gave away training, clinics, organized round-robins, helped finance and build courts, started up and ran clubs, went out and pitched our sport where we could make a dime for the cause or perhaps even show one more group what our sport was really about. We still remember going to various City or Parks and Rec. board meetings, always with our bag of paddles and balls, which we always passed out so people could bounce the balls on the paddles during our presentation. If we got their hands on paddles, we thought, we had them. And it worked, almost every time. And with all of that none of us made a penny on anything we did and (to be frank) never thought about it, either. We did it only to grow the game, not just altruistically at all, but so we could have more courts to play on and a bigger player base to compete against.
So which time was or is better, then or now? On the one hand, nostalgia always creates a pretty picture, and the camraderie involved with doing something far bigger than we were was worth the effort – the people met and worked with were and are the best! On the other hand, now we no longer having to introduce the sport and explain its funny name to every single person we meet. And of course the assets now available to help people get started or grow in the sport are equivilant to any other big-person “real” sport. Pickleball has arrived, no doubt.
We aren’t in a position of judging which time is better, the past or the present. Except to say that, like it or not, we only live today. But that’s pretty good, still. Pickleball is still an amazing and vital sport, still somehow on this huge growing curve. It’s now very possible to imagine pickleball being an Olympic demonstration sport in our lifetimes. Back in the day, we had those kind of dreams but didn’t take them too seriously. Now we can. We hate this expression usually but it’s all good, it really is. Different is just different. Pickle on!