For those who haven’t played pickleball, first assumptions generally follow a pattern:“What kind of name is that?” said Andrew Hartzler, professor of accounting.
“That’s for older folks, right?” wondered Gilberto Perez, dean of students.
“I thought it was a dumbed-down version of tennis,” said Rebecca Stoltzfus, president of Goshen College. “To play pickleball is to admit you’re old.”
Pickleball may have a reputation for being a sport for people in their encore years, but an intergenerational mix of Goshen community members are challenging that.
After playing pickleball for the first time, these newcomers had three things in common: they realized that it’s not just for old people, the learning curve was surprisingly quick, and it is “just a bunch of fun,” as Perez puts it.
Invented in 1965 by three middle-aged men on vacation in the Pacific Northwest — and named after their dog, Pickles — the game is now the fastest-growing sport in the nation according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. With 4.8 million players nationwide, it has grown almost 40% in the past two years.
The game is played with paddles and a plastic ball, similar to a wiffle ball. The court is about one third the size of a tennis court, and the underhanded service motion and slower moving ball are easier to pick up than tennis. Most pickleball is played as doubles, which limits the amount of running involved.
Testimonials for pickleball abound: Just ask anyone who plays, and you’ll see their eyes light up as they sing its praises.
Hartzler loves how quickly anyone can pick it up, saying it’s “the perfect mix of a fun and accessible game.”
“You can start to hit good shots within the first 30 minutes of learning the game,” he said.
Simon Hertzler Gascho, a junior environmental science major, started playing in August and has found it “surprisingly addictive — every time I play, I can’t wait to play again.”
Perez described how it added an athletic “spark” to his marriage: He and his wife are usually competitors when it comes to card games or ping pong, but when they play pickleball together, he said they can “be on a team while competing, which we haven’t done since our early days of dating and playing doubles tennis.”
These pickleball ambassadors pale in comparison, though, to Jill Perry and her husband, Doug, a retired couple in their 70s who help run the Goshen Pickleball organization.
When asked for an interview, Perry responded: “I always love to talk about pickleball. However, I would rather be playing it.”
She then proceeded to invite me to come out and see for myself “what the hype is all about.”
The comradery found in pickleball is a key to its appeal. An “family” environment where “all are welcome, regardless of age or ability,” is part of why it’s so fun, explained Perry. She then affectionately mimicked a 93-year-old player’s hobbling gait, saying that seeing him play against people 40 years younger showed how intergenerational the sport is.
To call Goshen Pickleball an organization is generous, though; it is an organic, loosely structured group of people on an email list who love to play pickleball. They gather for “open play” most days of the week, as well as monthly “Dink and Dine” events during the summer with a potluck-style cuisine, round robin play and a traveling trophy.
Although pickleball certainly has found a crowd among the retirees, the future of pickleball is becoming younger every year, said Perry. The No. 1 woman in the world is a 15-year-old from Florida, Perry noted, and “we’ve seen so many more college students and high schoolers in the past two years.”
Last year, as part of her push to bring the sport to younger ages, Perry helped organize a fundraiser for purchasing pickleball sets for local middle schools. They raised over $6,000 from two hundred participants, and four schools received free sets.
Perry’s passion for helping people of all ability levels is hard to miss: She gave free lessons to beginners all summer, puts in hours of work every month organizing court times and tournaments, and was tough to interview due to her continually giving helpful little tips on my strokes and asking me questions about tennis.
No matter who you ask, the sport is fun, and it is growing — Perry says she’s seen “numbers at the courts double since Covid. I think it’ll be an Olympic sport in five years.”
President Stoltzfus said she “had a blast,” with her kids in their 20s having as much fun as her 88-year-old father. “The culture in this sport is unique to pickleball,” Stoltzfus said, “where it’s about the fun, not domination.”
Perry would agree. After a poorly placed lob that set up her opponent for a slam, Perry walked back to the baseline and apologized to her reporter teammate, shaking her head with a smile. “I’m still working on that.”