Fit to Play with Jim Johnson: Why Pickleball?

Jim Johnson

Jim Johnson

Published: 05-06-2024 3:38 PM

Some suggest that pickleball is a fad but I believe it is here to stay. After all, some reports indicate that 36 million people played pickleball last year compared to around 24 million tennis players. Parks departments are inundated with requests to add pickleball courts. Some public parks are turning their tennis courts into pickleball. You can put four regulation pickleball courts in the same area as a tennis court. Pickleball lines are often added to tennis courts so that both games can be played on the same surface. Even though the game has been around since 1965, play was mostly limited to physical education classes. When Covid pushed people toward outdoor play, pickleball was an option, but it’s been the last two years that participation has exploded. Pickleball has become a game for everyone — young or old, skilled or unskilled — playing together, a game for the masses.

Like tennis, pickleball can be played indoor and outdoor. I’ve played pickleball and I’ve taught tennis, and I believe I can attest to the difference. Although I love the game of tennis, it is difficult. Beginning tennis players spend most of their time picking up balls. Balls go over the fence and have to be retrieved. And then there’s the overhand serve, a real challenge for beginners. Games are spent waiting for a serve to finally go in followed by a rally lasting a few seconds.

Pickleball players learn to serve in one day and can actually play a game. While tennis players struggle to even hit it in the court, pickleball players are reinforced with frequent good shots. Before long, players can start rallying, strategizing; the fun begins. According to Thorndike’s Law of Effect, positive reinforcement tends to lead to increased behavior. When we have success at something, we tend to want to do it again. In pickleball, it doesn’t take long to think you are good.

There is little question that a prime reason for the popularity of pickleball is that it’s fun. For many, the play and socializing aspect of the game outweighs fitness outcomes. Observe any game and you will see smiles, joy, and the social bonding so important for well-being. I believe play is the antidote to the harshness we often see in today’s society. Many people who play pickleball suggest that there is a culture unique to pickleball. Players are encouraged not to argue, cheat, question calls, trash talk, or overly celebrate victory. Fist or paddle bumps end games. They know that they are playing a game, and that games are for play. I believe that this culture is really just old fashioned sportsmanship, respect for the rules and opponents.

I’ve read several articles, seemingly surprised that people get hurt playing pickleball. Of course, people get hurt. Pickleball requires you to stop, turn, run backward, change direction. Few are prepared for this. Pickleball also recruits your fast twitch muscles — a good thing, but different from typical aerobic exercises. So what do you do about this? Prepare. A number of activities will reduce the incidence of injury. Prioritize your lower body. Do little things like skip, hop on one leg and then the other, jump sideways and back, run backward. Take your paddle and ball and hit against a wall, improving your skill and movement. Practice footwork by going onto a court alone or in your backyard and pretend to play. Start in the middle and go to each corner and back to the middle. Move quickly Rest and repeat. This is good for footwork and endurance. Always warm up prior to playing. This means actively warming up by hitting balls on the court.

Pickleball is good for you. As I have written in several columns, we need to move in different planes, improving mobility. Pickleball requires us to move in all directions, to react, to strategize. Pickleball gets us out of the gym, enabling us to socialize, laugh, yell. Social bonding improves well-being. Upon retirement I developed my own gym in my barn. Getting tired of training alone, I decided to join a local gym, but after three months I realized I had only talked to one guy for five minutes. I returned to the barn. Gyms seem to be full of people rushing around from station to station, head down, unsmiling, driven. It won’t be long before exercise scientists will publicize things like heart rate and the caloric expenditure of a pickleball game. I encourage you to ignore this information. Just keep playing, enjoy the game.

Jim Johnson is a retired professor of exercise and sport science after teaching 52 years at Smith College and Washington University in St. Louis. He comments about sport, exercise, and sports medicine. He can be reached at