About three months ago, my husband came in from golfing and told me about a new sport that's all the rage.
"It's called pickleball," he said.
"I hate it," I said.
"You know about it already?"
"No," I said, "I just can't trust a sport with the word pickle in it."
I learned this response from him. Anytime I admit to altering a beloved recipe a bit (generally meaning I accidentally left out three of the six ingredients and substituted something that rhymes for one of the other two), he's openly doubtful about the outcome. Now it was my turn to be doubtful. "Paybacks are hell," I'm fond of saying, though what makes them hell is the fact that they're usually petty and almost never advance your cause. Case in point: dissing pickleball, the future sport of my dreams, before trying it.
Here's how my pickleball passion unfolded: Ever since our gym closed in the spring, I had been complaining about not getting enough exercise. "I just want a sport I can love," I kept saying, knowing that this was an oxymoron of the highest order, since I'm uninterested in every sport known to the civilized world, as well as those yet to be invented, with the exception of horseback riding, which I do not consider a sport but an art form.
But while I find sports a bore surpassed only in magnitude by tuba lessons and native plant identification, I detest organized exercise. For five years prior to our gym closing, my husband and I worked out with a personal trainer every Tuesday and Thursday morning at 8 a.m. Every workout morning, I drank my coffee and ate my heaping mound of granola with all the joy of a death-row inmate downing their last meal. In the car on the way to workout there arose a sense of dread so profound I considered starting my own existential movement in honor of it. For the entire hour, I watched the clock to be certain we didn't slip into overtime. And as soon as I got home I immediately hid — yes, hid — my workout shoes, so that I would not be reminded of workout on my "free" days.
So the idea that I would find a sport I liked — much less loved — was unlikely.
And then came pickleball. Pickleball is a cross between table tennis, badminton and regular tennis. The racquets are bigger than a ping-pong paddle but shorter than a tennis racquet, and the hollow plastic ball is about the size of a large peach. Pickleball courts are about a third the size of tennis courts. The smaller court, and the fact that it's primarily a doubles game, makes it a good sport for older people who can't move as nimbly as tennis requires but still want to remain flexible. At the same time, it offers younger people and those with a competitive bent the opportunity for fast, aggressive play. Just watch an experienced foursome play, and you'll see that, in spite of its name, the sport demands a little respect.
So, because my husband ultimately eats everything I cook and then compliments it, including all those dinners missing essential elements, I went to a pickleball training clinic. And, like horseback riding, like Instant Breakfast chocolate-flavored beverage, like single earrings on boys in the 1980s, I loved it immediately.
Why? A bunch of reasons. In these COVID times, there are few activities that feel safer than being outdoors. Also, in COVID times (and non-COVID times alike), I need a way to release pent--up anxiety, energy and frustration. You can whack a pickleball with the force of everything that's been bothering you since 1965 and, owing to the holes in the ball, it won't go much farther than the other court. Plus, if you hit your opponent (or get hit) by the ball, it barely leaves a mark.
I also love pickleball because it demands focus, presence and concentration. So not only am I getting a great physical workout — I play for two hours twice a week and sometimes in the evenings — it's also exercising parts of my brain that have been greatly challenged these last few months.
I've learned it's not enough to just whack the ball, satisfying as that is. You have to think ahead to your opponents' next shot. You have to be where you are on the court, but also where you aren't — which means you have to try to get to areas your opponent is likely to aim for — which means you have to have to be a mind reader AND be quick.
Everything I did in my much-despised workout class — balance work, flexibility exercises and something called maintaining your "fast-twitch" — it's all there in pickleball (with the possible exception of strength training, and that I get by wearing a 20-pound poodle on my hip 24-7 the rest of the week). Only it's not called work, exercise or training. It's called "playing." And somehow, unlike every other sport I've tried, this one really feels like it. So much so that I look forward to it on my off days. And I never even hide my shoes.
Email Dana Shavin at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Facebook at Dana Shavin Writes. Read more at Danashavin.com.