Editor’s note: This story appeared in the Senior Living section of the May 11 edition of LNP.

There aren’t many sports that make me smile from ear to ear, but playing pickleball for the first time brought a surprising wave of joy.

Granted, I’m late to pickleball night — I’ve heard about it for years, but didn’t hit the court until this spring. The sport is a composite of other racquet sports – fortunately the court is much smaller than a tennis court, the paddles are larger than ping pong paddles and the ball lighter than a squash ball – with the goal of knocking the whistle-shaped plastic ball over the 34-inch-high Net to the other team. It can be played indoors or outdoors; playing doubles reduces sprint, but it’s still a challenge.

I decided to join the pickleball players at my gym, Universal Athletic Club, despite being warned that they were really good and took it seriously. Three pickleball courts are set up on the basketball courts, with sturdy nets suspended from the ceiling surrounding them so stray balls don’t travel far. As healthy competition reigned on the courts, the players generously shared their pickleball tips with me as we sat on the sideline waiting to join a game.

“We’re just here to have a good time and stay out of the kitchen!” said a comrade. “Kitchen” is the affectionate term for the first 7 feet of real estate on either side of the net. Another man shared that Bright in Lancaster and Lititz Rec offer pickleball lessons.

“Pickleball basically saved my life after I retired,” he added. “I found a spot (on the pickleball court) so I wouldn’t go too far.”

Another said he respected rookies, but added: “The more you play against good players, the better you will be.”

Indeed, the people who play on these grounds seem to be deeply attached to the sport mentally and physically – focused, agile and attentive in keeping score. Pickleball is like a kind of fountain of youth, keeping players literally on their toes and sharp-witted.

In recent years, the popularity of pickleball has exploded like an airborne crash. According to a recent Sports & Fitness Industry Association report published on

United StatesPickleball.org, 4.8 million people took the paddle in 2021, a staggering growth rate of more than 39% over two years. Among them, 1.4 million are “Core” players who play eight or more times a year; more than 33% of gamers aged 65 and over are Core gamers. Many people play several times a week in my gym.

While pickleball appeals to young and old, my gym’s pickleball courts are available weekdays from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., attracting mostly recent retirees and those who have celebrated more than a few milestone birthdays — and some young guys who maybe engage in truancy.

Which brings us back to my stance – feet wide, knees slightly bent – ​​pickleball racquet clutched in my right hand, hips facing the net, eyes on the ball. Hearing the snap of the ball on the paddle reminded me of the ping pong days of my wasted youth. You can never tell what latent motor skills will come in handy later in life, as demonstrated by my quick forehand clearing the net – and bouncing inbounds. Of course, these elegant exchanges were painfully rare on my first outing, but I was undeterred. It was very fun!

Although my legs initially looked like blocks of cement, over time my feet became lighter. At first, pickleball seems a little complicated with its constant changing of servers, two-bounce rule to follow, and three-part scoring when playing doubles. As a toddler, I just wanted to hit the ball!

Betsy, an 84-year-old agile and quick as a doe, took me under her pickleball wing, explaining the rules and basic technique of paddling. She politely shared the most urgent rule: stay out of the kitchen! And tricks like Face the net! Be ready! It probably pained the seasoned band to play with a complete amateur, but they patiently coached me. Luckily my past ping pong experience came in handy, although I still breathed in a few shots and hit a few before the ball bounced. But I managed some rewarding shots and volleys.

However, moments after my first foray into the sport, I thundered towards an expertly executed lob shot, my middle-aged momentum built, and I planted my face in the gigantic net surrounding the short, knocking over a chair and going full cat-claw into the mesh to save my knees. The seasoned pickleball players rushed to my aid, filled with worry and a little cheer, helping me up. Apparently, recklessly chasing the ball is a common mistake among rookies. Duly noted. I would have burned with shame in high school for such an awkward move, but among those seniors, I was able to unravel and move on.

On my second visit, my enthusiasm again eclipsed my athletic talent. Luckily someone mentioned there was a private pickleball lesson upstairs in a studio, so I took it up there. A woman named Peggy was teaching seven beginner-level students. She graciously let me join a team. Here, my talents – and my trial and error – were better received.

“The most important thing is to get the ball over the net,” Peggy explained. “So you can strategize.”

She demonstrated how important “dinking” is to the game. This is where you gently tap the ball over the net in the kitchen, forcing your opponent to sprint and possibly miss or kick it out of bounds. .

“Patience and precision are more important than power,” added Peggy.

This is perhaps the true appeal – and challenge – of the sport.