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Holding court: Vancouver Island reporter tries pickleball for the first time

Briones thoroughly enjoys ‘fun, physical and mental activity’

Pickleball. Why does this unique sport continue to grow in popularity?

I have seen how the game is played and wasn’t especially interested in the sport.

I play a number of racquet sports, these days mostly tennis. I know several people in the community who I used to play tennis with who have happily switched to pickleball. And they convinced me to come and try it out.

It is one of the fastest-growing participation sports in North America and Parksville Qualicum Beach is no exception, as it has a growing population of pickleball players. To find out what the fuss is all about, I was given the chance to give it a try.

Members of the Oceanside Pickleball Club and Parksville Oceanside Pickleball Society collaborated recently to help make my first attempt to play this hybrid of ping pong, badminton and tennis a memorable one.

Pickleball coach and instructor Ernie Pallott had the task of teaching me the finer points of the game. I won’t dwell too much on the differences between tennis and pickleball because there are many. What I will note is what I enjoyed about pickleball and why it’s so popular.

In pickleball, you use a paddle similar to ping pong but it’s larger and longer in size. It is shorter than a tennis racquet. The hitting surface is smooth, flat and unlike a tennis racquet it has no taut strings that can catapult the ball forward and further. It uses a perforated ball that does not bounce as high and is made out of plastic. They are lighter and easier to hit.

When you serve, you only can do it underhand. The ball has to clear the net and land cleanly inside the diagonal service court. Hitting it on the line or the net is a fault.

READ MORE: Pickleball stakeholders disappointed lack of designated courts in PQB region

In pickleball, the serving team, I learned, is at a disadvantage. They have to serve to the opposing player and before they can hit the return shot back, they have to make the ball bounce first. That means the other team gets to attack the net first and keep the serving team from advancing.

The playing area is about the size of a badminton court and a quarter of the size of a tennis court. It has a ‘kitchen’ that you are not allowed to encroach upon when making a shot.

In a pickle

Having played a lot of racquet sports, I have no problem with the groundstrokes. My ping pong experience, combined with my knowledge in tennis, allowed me to quickly get into the game. The one adjustment I needed to make was to shorten my huge backswing I’m used to in tennis. In pickleball, you need a shorter and more compact swing to be able to hit the ball quicker. The smaller playing area means the ball reaches you a lot faster. So early racquet preparation is key.

Those helping me that day indicated that I am an advanced beginner. That’s because off the bat, in my first game, I immediately got into a good long rally that was, to me, a bit intense and got my competitive juices to kick in. I wanted more of it after that. I eventually ended up losing both games due to my inexperience but it was a blast for sure.

So what did I like about it?

I love that the playing area is smaller and does not require lot of ground to cover especially when you’re playing doubles. Three quick steps and I am already at the ‘kitchen’ line where most of the rallies occur. The dink shot is the most popular shot used by players. It’s a soft shot that just clears the net and drops into the non-volley zone or the kitchen. The ability to hit dink shots consecutively is a fun exercise. The long rallies make this sport enjoyable.

I watched others playing and noticed how they find joy in the lengthy exchange of shots and scoring winners. The smiles, the laughter and the pleasure they feel were very noticeable. I think it’s what makes this sport addicting, in my view.

You just want to keep playing.

The makeshift playing courts at the Parksville Community Centre and also at the lacrosse box were full of players when I was there, with some in the wings waiting for their turn to play, which creates a moment for socializing. Pallot said this is also an essential component of the sport.

“Pickleball is not just physically active, it is also socially active,” said Pallot. “And social contact, specially to seniors… take seniors who have lost a spouse, they need this. Socialization is fitness of the mind. It’s the most social sport that I have ever seen. More social than tennis.”

As the pickleball community continues to grow, the drive to have designated public pickleball courts is growing. Representatives from both clubs have tried to convince the City of Parksville to build a 12-court facility at Springwood Park but due to the high cost, it was declined.

What the city agreed to do is to refurbish the current tennis courts at Parksville Community Park and to turn one court into a designated pickleball playing area and the other court a shared facility between tennis and pickleball. The lacrosse box is also going to be reconfigured to allow nine setup/takedown pickleball courts. Pickleballers say this is not going to be enough and this has caused disappointment and frustration.

I can understand their sentiments. Both makeshift courts were packed when I was there. Both clubs are doing their best to accommodate as many members as possible. If they have a designated court the clubs will be able to prolong their playing time as they don’t have to abandon the courts and take down the nets to make way for those who play tennis or lacrosse.

If the city builds more courts, they will certainly be well-used. This will offer not only club members a place to play, but also those visiting the area as well as local families a chance to try it out. The clubs will be able to host tournaments that will draw visitors to the city and provide economic benefits.

It’s a fun, physical and mental activity that leads to a very active and healthy community.

Would I play it again? I can’t wait.

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PQB News reporter Michael Briones returning a serve trying pickleball. (Kevin Forsyth photo)
PQB News reporter Michael Briones hitting a volley just outside the kitchen or non-volley zone. (Kevin Forsyth photo)

Michael Briones

About the Author: Michael Briones

I rejoined the PQB News team in April 2017 from the Comox Valley Echo, having previously covered sports for The NEWS in 1997.
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