What to Know About Pickleball

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on November 14, 2022
5 min read

If you were designing the perfect sport, it would be easy to learn, inexpensive to play, and, most of all, a lot of fun. Meet pickleball, the sport that checks all the boxes and is good exercise for all ages. 

If you happen upon a game of pickleball, you'll notice that the court is small, about a quarter of the size of a tennis court, with a net in the middle. On each side, players grip squarish paddles a little bigger than those used in table tennis. They play with a brightly colored plastic ball with holes in it. And you may notice that the players are having a lot of fun.

Pickleball is a versatile, accessible sport because of features like these: 

  • You can play either singles or doubles on a pickleball court with the same boundary lines.
  • You can play indoors or out.
  • You can convert a tennis court into a pickleball court and then switch it back again.
  • Those who use wheelchairs can play with their own official rules.

Pickleball has an interesting history. It was born in 1965 at the Bainbridge Island summer home of Joel Pritchard, a Washington State businessman and politician. Pritchard and two golf buddies improvised the game to entertain their families. Pritchard's summer home had a badminton court but no equipment, so they started playing with ping pong paddles and a plastic ball with holes in it. 

At first, the inventors followed badminton rules, but soon they discovered the different equipment affected play. They tweaked the rules and also lowered the net. Soon, friends and neighbors took up the game. 

By 2000, there were over 500 pickleball players in the United States. But the next few years would see those numbers explode. Pickleball became popular in retirement communities in Florida and California. Soon it was being played in all 50 states. Various authorities touted it as the fastest-growing sport in the United States. Other countries adopted it, too.

Everyone wants to know how pickleball got its name. In one account, Pritchard's wife Joan took the name from the sport of rowing. A pickle boat is a fishing boat manned by anyone available rather than a regular team. The name "pickle" fit since the inventors wanted their game to be playable by people of all ages and abilities. The story is true that the Pritchard family had a dog named Pickles, but it's unclear whether they named their dog after the game or vice versa.

Pickleball provides all the benefits of regular exercise plus some extra perks. Health benefits include: 

Any activity that improves cardiovascular health is good for the brain. Pickleball also forces you to use your brain in different ways. You must engage your short-term memory to keep up with the rules, the score, the order of service, winning strategies, and other aspects of the game. 

Pickleball can also improve mental health. The small size of the pickleball court invites interaction with other players. Exercise releases endorphins, the feel-good hormones. The combination of social interaction and movement can improve mood and fend off depression

Playing pickleball can widen your friend circle. Players pride themselves on welcoming newcomers. Often, you can show up at a pickleball court alone and find someone willing to play. The game does not need much equipment, so you can play when traveling. All these aspects can improve your quality of life, which, in turn, improves health.

Pickleball is a good fit for older people who want to exercise but need to protect their health. It's easier on the joints than some sports. The ball is so light that it's unlikely to cause injury. Using a paddle instead of a racket with strings minimizes arm stress. The elimination of overhead strokes also reduces injuries. 

One study of 153 older adults investigated "serious leisure" and how it affected how older individuals felt about their lives. It found that "as a form of serious leisure," pickleball significantly increased the participants' satisfaction with their lives. It was more important to their perceived well-being than their financial status, contributing to a happy retirement.

It's easy to learn how to play pickleball. Experienced players are usually happy to help you learn. Pickleball rules are easy to pick up when you are playing. These are the basic rules for doubles. Singles rules are much the same:

  • Don't swing the paddle overhead. Instead, when the paddle contacts the ball, it must be below the waist.
  • To serve, you stand outside the court behind the service line and either serve the ball underhand or use a drop serve.
  • The serve must go into the court opposite you diagonally. 
  • The receiving player must let the ball bounce before returning it.
  • When the ball returns, the serving team must also let the ball bounce.
  • After the serving team returns the ball, you may volley the ball (return it before it strikes the ground). 
  • You may not volley a ball while standing in the no-volley zone, an area within 7 feet of the net.
  • When one team or the other commits a fault, the point is over.
  • The same player serves until their side commits a fault.
  • The server then passes to the server's partner.
  • When the serving team commits a second fault, the serve goes to the other side.
  • There are no second serves.

Pickleball scoring is quite simple:

  • Only the serving team can earn a point.
  • Games go until a team has 11 points and is ahead by 2.
  • If tournament play, games may go to 15 or 21 points, with a margin of 2 points.

There is some risk of injury in pickleball. Although the court is small enough that you seldom need to run, you will be turning and pivoting. The game can be very fast-paced. If you've led a sedentary lifestyle, you could suffer an injury.

The most common pickleball injuries are:

Prevent injuries with these steps:

  • Learn proper form and technique.
  • Warm up before you play.
  • Wear a good shoe designed for side-to-side movement.
  • Use a moderately wide stance for stability.
  • Avoid running backward.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Try not to overdo it, as fatigue leads to injuries.

If you want to play pickleball and stay injury-free, consider seeing a physical therapist first. A physical therapist can assess your movements and prescribe exercises to strengthen weak areas. And it's always a good idea to talk to your doctor before beginning a new activity.