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Oct 17, 2022

The Tyranny of Pickleball and How To Escape It

It’s all the rage with seniors. But then, so are shingles.

By Ed Goldman

During a recent vacation, I played pickleball for the first time. I thoroughly hated it.

The game—which has caught on with the post-50 crowd faster than reverse mortgages endorsed by will-never-need-one Tom Selleck and 4:30 dinners at Denny’s—is a sadistic combination of tennis, ping-pong, racquetball, squash and, while I can’t quantify this, suicide.

Edgy Cartoon

Net loss

My OSSO (oh-so-significant-other) and I first decided to play during a spectacular dusk in a resort town when I couldn’t see a damn thing—not the ball, not the abbreviated paddle at the end of my arm nor, alas, my OSSO.

A day or two later we tried again and this time, we hit the whiffle-ball back and forth at least two out of 13 times—which, in our world, qualified as a volley—before we realized we were both out of breath and possibly our enthusiasm for this relatively recent hybrid sport.

We swiftly called it a day—and, according to a recent story in the New York Times, might have spared ourselves serious misery.

In a front-page (!) story headlined, “People Are Flocking to Pickleball and the E.R.,” reporter Matt Richtel recounted woebegone tales of inveterate pickleballers who suffered “Achilles’ strains or tears, shoulder problems, rotator cuff injuries, lower back problems such as disc injuries (and) muscle strains,” according to pickleball instructor, Noe Sariban, “who markets himself as the Pickleball Doctor.” 

Hmm. An instructor who then tends to the wounds his students endure playing the very game he taught them. Where are the monopoly police when you need them? This sounds as sordid as movie producers owning their own movie theaters.

In the journal Injury Epidemiology—don’t feel bad, I let my subscription lapse, too—a recent pickleball-themed article revealed that “people over 60… accounted for 85 percent of (emergency room) visits” from 2010 to 2019. “The most common injuries were sprains, strains and fractures,” wrote reporter Richtel.

An orthopedist weighed in, suggesting that pickleball, while it looks simple enough, “involves quick stops and starts, and lots of lunging and twisting.” More than a few players have “face-planted” themselves.

Most of the injuries, it turns out, are due to “tripping”—from oafishness, not opioids.

Neither my OSSO nor I tripped when we attempted to play, I hasten to point out—probably because we didn’t remain on the court long enough to do so. I’m sure there’s an actuarial table somewhere that indicates a couple must play pickleball for a full 27 minutes before they trip. I beat those odds by staggering off the court gasping for air in under 19. 

I’m sure my OSSO, who’s trim and athletic, could have gone longer. But seeing me sprawled against the chain link fence—like the one Shark or Jet who didn’t make the director’s cut of “West Side Story” because he screwed up the opening dance number failing to scramble over the playground enclosure—likely provoked concern on her part. (Note to Young Readers: This is what you build lasting relationships on, not Tinder.)

As it happens, pickleball is somewhat of the rage in my community, Cramps ‘r’ Common (oops. Campus Commons). It probably has something to do with the average age of the condo and home owners here (87, I believe; but attrition can change that at any minute). A few residents who suspect I still have many of my own teeth and some of my own hair have invited me to join them for a game. But they play much too early in the day for me—like 7 a.m., or noon, or 3 p.m., or something like that. 

Even so, since a few of them call me “kid” (because I still drive at night), I’m tempted to accept the invitation. I imagine myself spryly bounding onto the court, young-ing it up. 

But I know what would happen. They’d turn out to be like those old-guy cutthroats I used to play handball with at Cal State Long Beach, who’d wander onto the court from their nearby homes and ask for a game. And I, in my early 20s, would smirk and say, “Sure, Pops.” 

This would be the last thing I’d remember saying as they creamed me in record time, barely moving around the court but experienced enough to know just where and how to hit the ball so that even by somersaulting into and bouncing off of the concrete walls, my gameplay could be summarized as No Deposits, No Returns.

The other thing that could happen, of course, is that I’d bound onto the pickleball court, smile condescendingly at the senior players and, on the way to my playing spot, do an impromptu face-plant. Good thing I have the Pickleball Doctor on speed-dial.

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Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).