What We Can All Learn from Pickleball

What We Can All Learn from Pickleball

Pickleball can no longer be ignored.  3.2 million people were playing it last year, and the press is filled with tales of new courts are cropping up in parks and buildings everywhere.  Some to the disgruntlement of the neighbors.  Pickleball can get loud.  The ball strike makes a noise, and people can get loud when they are having fun. 

That aside, pickleball is “sweeping the nation,” as it were.  Some organizations are even considering getting it into the Olympics.  Fun fact:  in order for a sport to be considered for the Olympics, it has to be played in at least 70 countries worldwide.  Alas, such is not the case for pickleball, yet.  It is very much concentrated in the US, although some other countries are now catching on.

What’s special about pickleball

There are some mysteries surrounding pickleball.  We know that it got started in 1965 by a former congressman named Joe Pritchard and some of his friends.  However, it is not clear why it is called “pickleball.”  Obviously, the ball does not look like a pickle.  It looks like a Whiffle ball.  In spite of the mystery, people who play pickleball are proud to be called “picklers”. 

The game was largely ignored until 2017, when it mysteriously started to take off.  Now, it is played in all 50 states.  There is a USA Pickleball Association, and a Pickleball Canada Organization.  Then along came the pandemic, which really gave pickleball a boost.  People could play it outdoors, have fun, and avoid germs, all at the same time.  People sheltering in place had a new activity option to get them out of the house. 

Another thing:  Boomers and not-quite Boomers flocked to it.  Stats tell us that about 75% of players are age 55 or older, and 43% are over 65.  The allure is there…pickleball seems to be easy to play, doesn’t require a ton of athleticism (some might argue that), and takes place on a small court. 

What injuries should we watch out for? 

But what do the people in sports medicine, orthopedics, physical therapy, and emergency medicine have to say?  The unique population of picklers present certain challenges that can result in injury.  Are there specific precautions to take to prevent them?   

Having said that, injury prevention applies to everyone.  A report looked at racquet sport players between 1997 and 2016 (at that time, pickleball was not considered).  Broken bones happened twice as often in people 18 and younger.  None of us are immune to tendon and ligament tears, ankle sprains, rotator cuff problems, and so on. 

So, what exactly is the profile of injuries from pickleball?  Are there some that seem to be happening more than others?  Can they be prevented? 

Here’s where pickleball continues to be mysterious.  Shockingly, recent research compiling many studies looking at information on pickleball injuries came up with a big, fat, nothing-burger.  There certainly are injuries happening, it just isn’t clear what or how many.

Why pickleball injuries are difficult to track

It can be tricky to find out what is actually going on.  It’s not like in football, where someone drops on the grid and gets taken off the field.  Or professional tennis where a player has to withdraw because of a back, ankle, or hamstring problem.  Pickleball injuries can be more subtle. 

For one thing, because of the older age of many players, people are often playing with a history of other injuries or infirmities.  An injury may present as an aggravation of an old problem, and would not necessarily be attributed to pickleball.  For another thing, the older population may show up with overuse injuries before they start. When that gets aggravated, people may not attribute it to pickleball (in other words, they blame it on being older).

So what do we have? A lot of anecdotes. And, doctors are not necessarily keeping track of injuries from pickleball (Personal note:  I recently had surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon – not a pickleball injury. My doc indicated that he is getting lots more business because of pickleball).

Enough of the gloom and doom!  It should be stressed that most people get along just fine, and enjoy the benefits of pickleball:  improvements in cardiovascular health, agility, balance, general coordination, and the opportunity to socialize.

But people are people, and injuries happen!

Some useful advice for everyone 

Here is a short list of items that may help pickleball players, or anyone else for that matter, stay injury free. 

1. Wear the right kind of shoes for the activity.
In the case of pickleball, it is court shoes.  Something you would wear to play tennis, racquetball, or squash.  Why?  Because pickleball involves quick changes in direction.  Shoes for running or walking are not made for side-to-side motion.  The idea is to match the shoe to the activity.  It is a good investment. 

2. It is important to warm up all joints before jumping into activity.
Side-to-side motion and quick starts and stops can be hard on joints, particularly if they have some arthritis.  While activity is generally good for arthritis, warming up is essential to get tissues ready for action.    

Another reason to warm up is that older muscles and everything that connects them get stiffer as we age.  They need TLC before starting an activity where muscles are being asked to do something new. 

3. Work on your balance.
Anecdotally, some pickleball injuries have occurred because of falls or tripping.  Sometimes, the result can be a wrist break, ankle sprain, or even a bump on the head.  Working on balance is a great idea any time, even if you are not a “pickler.” 

The USA Pickleball Association has a few suggestions for warming up and fall prevention.  See the link below. 

Pickleball Fitness: Exercises to help reduce injuries

Bottom line:  The injury prevention principles here for “picklers” are universal.  They apply to anyone starting a new sport or just getting active in general.  


© 2024 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved.
Photo Credit: Olga Nikiforova | iStock

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