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Summer School: How to play pickleball

A selfie photo with Vermont Public's Nina Keck and the pickleball players she learned from on a blue pickleball court.
Nina Keck
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Vermont Public
Vermont Public's Nina Keck snaps a selfie with her new pickleball buddies, left to right: Gloria Palmer, Jane MacKugler, Kathleen James, Alex Heintz and Jerry Wall. Nina recently got a lesson on dinking, serving and slamming at the Dana L. Thompson Memorial Park in Manchester.

Pickleball was invented in 1965 by three dads: Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum. They lived on Bainbridge Island, Washington, and were trying to find something fun for their kids to do.

Find our full Summer School series here.

Why the quirky name?

According to Pickleball Magazine (yes, there is one of those), Joan Pritchard —one of the founder's wives — had come up with the name “pickleball” as a reference to the "pickle boat" of crew races. It's a thrown-together boat that holds the leftover nonstarters of crew races.

According to the magazine, as the sport grew, a controversy ensued: a few neighbors said they were there when Joan Pritchard named the game after Pickles, the family dog. But the magazine dug into the story and found Pickles was born in 1968, three years after the sport's invention. So the boat story seems more accurate.

Whatever the history of the game's quirky name, today nearly 5 million people play pickleball, and courts are popping up all over Vermont.

How do you begin?

At the Dana L. Thompson Park in Manchester, pickleball courts share space with outdoor basketball courts.

Dorset resident Gloria Palmer is the executive director of the Green Mountain Academy of Lifelong Learning. She's also a certified pickleball instructor.

She begins my lesson by having me stand at the baseline — the line farthest from the net — with my feet slightly bent and my paddle up.

“You have to stand behind this line and serve diagonally,” she explains.

We're looking at a rectangle-shaped court with a net across the middle. It looks very much like a tennis court, but it's about a third the size. Palmer says to start a game, a player serves from the baseline over the net into the box that's diagonally across. A player on the other side will return the ball, but only after it's had a chance to bounce once.

Pickleball is a mashup of tennis, ping pong and badminton, and you can play singles or doubles — though doubles is more popular.

Four women hold paddles and play Pickleball on a blue and green court.
Nina Keck
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Vermont Public
Dorset resident Gloria Palmer (front left) is a certified pickleball instructor. Last week, she and several of her students demonstrated how to play at the Dana L. Thompson Recreation Center in Manchester. Pickleball shares space with the outdoor basketball courts. A portable net can be set up when people want to play.

Palmer and several of her students play for a few minutes to show me what pickleball actually looks like in action… and it looks fun.

Kathleen James is warming up with her wife Alex Heintz, hitting the ball back and forth.

“It’s so satisfying, too when you get a good thwack on it," James laughs.

Instead of a racquet, pickleball is played with a beefy-looking paddle, which helps make that satisfying thwack.

I found an assortment for sale on Amazon. The cheapest was $39, while carbon fiber models were more pricey.

Gloria Palmer says the balls look a lot like a Wiffle ball: "They’re plastic with holes in them, and they do bounce."

A yellow Pickleball lays next to a Pickleball paddle on a blue background.
Nina Keck
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Vermont Public
What you need to play pickleball? A paddle and a ball. Court shoes are helpful, but not a must. And instructor Gloria Palmer recommends players wear safety glasses or sunglasses to protect your eyes, as the ball is hard and she says it can hurt if you're struck by it.

Indoor pickle balls have larger holes than outdoor pickle balls, something Palmer says helps accommodate for wind.

And while they're light, Palmer says balls can hurt if one hits you at full force.

Despite the occasional smash and bruise, James says after just two months of playing, she and her wife are addicted.

"There's a reason it's the fastest growing sport in the universe," she says. "It's fun. It's easy to learn. If you have a racquet sports background, it's very, very easy to get good enough quickly to play a really, you know, a decent game with people."

James, who is 58, adds: "If you're of a certain age, it's not quite as grueling as other activities might be."

Jerry Wall of Bennington, who's also hitting balls in this group, is 72. 

"I think one of the things that attracted me early on was, yes, it was great that it was a physical activity that older people were enjoying," Wall says. "But it quickly became apparent to me that pickleball was more than a game. We become a community and almost like a family. And I think the social aspect of pickleball is one of the things that draws a lot of people, once they're in to stay."

The small group of players who stand nearby all nod in agreement.

Five Pickleball players stand in front of a net with their paddles.
Nina Keck
/
Vermont Public
Gloria Palmer, Jane MacKugler, Kathleen James, Alex Heintz and Jerry Wall are all avid pickleball players. While James and Heintz are new to the sport, Wall says he's been playing for years.

Another plus to the sport is that it's not terribly expensive. You don’t need any special clothes to play, although Gloria Palmer says court shoes are helpful, and she recommends people wear safety glasses or sunglasses, because it’s a hard ball and, well, people like to smack it.  

No, there is no 15-Love in pickleball

While tennis uses an odd scoring system that goes by increments of 15s and uses words like "love" and "deuce," pickleball is very different. It's more like ping pong or volleyball, Palmer says. 

"You score a point on your serve only,” she explains.

Games are usually played to 11, and you have to win by two points. Since you can only score on a serve, I ask Palmer to explain proper technique.

"The serve is underhand to begin with. And it is sort of like a bowling motion almost," she says. "The paddle has to make contact with the ball below your waist. So I find that the lower you can get actually puts a little bit more power behind it."

She bends her knees, lets go of the ball and before it hits the ground, gracefully thwacks it over the net into the correct box on the other side.

That's one type of serve. But Palmer says there's also a "drop serve," which allows a player to let the ball bounce before hitting it over the net.

"And some people find that a little bit easier,” she says, demonstrating that serve as well.

While players serve from the baseline, the line farthest from the net, Palmer says the non-volley line — a cross court line closer to the net — is where most of the game is played.

“And that non-volley zone line basically means you can't step into that area close to the net and hit it on the fly," Palmer says. "You have to be behind the non-volley zone line, or what we call the kitchen line. It's like, 'stay out of  the kitchen.'”

She’s not sure why they call that part of the court the kitchen, but like in any home, it’s where most of the action happens.

“You can step into that kitchen area if the ball bounces, but I would suggest you get out, because you can’t stand in there and then all of a sudden a hard ball, a volley comes at you, and if you happen to hit it, you lose the point," Palmer says.

A woman in a red baseball cap lunges to hit the ball in a game of pickleball.
Kathleen James, Courtesy
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Nina Keck finally gets to try her hand at Pickleball, learning what the other players call the finer points of dinking. Dinks are short, soft shots players make near the net.

By this point, I'm ready to try my luck. I pick up a paddle, and Jane MacKugler explains the finer points of dinking:

“Okay — so just a nice little dink ... coming from the shoulder. A nice little dink. Not too much power."

"So these little hits are called dinks?" I asks.

"Right," the group answers.

"So I'm dinking it," I ask.

"You’re dinking!" they confirm.

"I made a bumper sticker that says, 'I dink, therefore I am!'” MacKugler says.

I slowly but steadily begin to return shots faster and more confidently. But I have my share of flubs.

"By George, I think she's got it!" MacKugler says.

And by George, I kinda think I do.

Correction: 8:05am An earlier version of this story misspelled Jane MacKugler's name.

A square illustrated logo with an apple of a school chair in some grass with headphones and a curled cord leading from them, with the words "summer school" below
Elodie Reed
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Vermont Public

All summer long, Vermont Public reporters are learning how to do something. Have an idea? Send it to us here.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Nina Keck:

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