Students, faculty, staff and community members certainly relish the opportunity to learn and play pickleball at Texas A&M University-Commerce. Dubbed America's fastest-growing sport, pickleball appeals to a wide demographic including men, women, athletes and non-athletes of all ages.
The sport combines elements of tennis, badminton and table tennis. Players—known as picklers—send a plastic, wiffle-like ball back and forth over a 36-inch-high net using slightly oversized paddles akin to those used in table tennis. Teams of two play on a court similar to tennis, but only a fourth of the size. Games can be played outside or indoors. Most matches are played to 11 points with a two-point win margin. A team that fails to score any points in a match is deemed to have been pickled.
“Pickleball is a great physical activity because it's fun, easy to learn and encourages cardiovascular conditioning,” said Dr. Sandy Kimbrough, professor and associate head of the Department of Health and Human Performance at A&M-Commerce. “Players can choose their own level of movement, from running nearly every play, to maintaining a relatively static position and trying to place shots away from their opponents.”
After witnessing its growing popularity, Kimbrough began hosting weekly drop-in pickleball sessions in early 2022. With games open to the university community and the public, it wasn't long before the growing number of players required Kimbrough to add more hours and another day to the schedule.
“We went from playing two hours a week to hosting games from 5-9 p.m. on Tuesdays and 10 a.m. to noon on Fridays,” Kimbrough said of the sessions, which are held in the gymnasium inside the Nursing and Health Sciences Building on campus. “Tuesday is our busy night with anywhere from 12-20 or more players. Our Friday sessions are less hectic.”
Kimbrough believes the A&M-Commerce community has adopted pickleball quickly because of its accessibility, inclusion and camaraderie. The drop-in format means that players don't need to sign up or pay for a membership; they can just show up and play in the next available game. All equipment is provided, though many participants bring their own paddle. Players are encouraged to play with new partners so they meet new people and play with—and against—partners of varying skill levels.
Another draw is that seasoned players are eager to share their knowledge and gamesmanship with less experienced players, making the game less intimidating and easier to learn.
Retired software engineer Stephen Moore is a wily pickleball veteran who often coaches new players. Moore routinely commutes from Greenville to play at A&M-Commerce on Tuesdays and Fridays.
“I really enjoy being around the students and faculty, and instructing the beginners in basic rules, skills and strategies,” Moore said.
He advised that YouTube videos are helpful for learning the game, as well as formal and informal skills training sessions offered at many pickleball facilities.
“There is a lot of chess mentality to playing pickleball well, but to do the chess moves, you need the skills to make subtle shots,” Moore added.
He continued: “Most of my skill comes from lots of playing time. The best teacher is hours on the court with the best players who are willing to play with you.” He usually logs 15-20 hours per week playing at locations throughout Northeast Texas.
The games at A&M-Commerce also provide a social connection for students.
Michael Hall is a kinesiology major at A&M-Commerce who plans to work as a teacher and coach after graduating in Spring 2023. As a newcomer to the sport, he appreciates the welcoming environment at the drop-in games.
“I started playing pickleball about three months ago,” Hall said. “I enjoy the diverse group of players, and everyone was super kind when I first showed up and didn't know how to play.”
Although he focuses on finishing classes so he can graduate on time, he welcomes the distraction that pickleball provides.
“Playing pickleball keeps me active,” Hall said. “It's in the same building as my classes, so I play every Tuesday after my last class. It's something I look forward to each week.”
He's even convinced a few of his friends to join him occasionally. “I think everyone should give it a try,” Hall said. “It's easy to learn and fun to play.”
In addition to the drop-in sessions hosted by Health and Human Performance, A&M-Commerce picklers can also play in an intramural league hosted by the Morris Recreation Center (MRC) each semester through imleagues.
Two pickleball courts located at the back of the MRC's outdoor tennis facility are available to all players when not in use by the intramural league. Membership is required to access the MRC courts.
With a relatively easy entry point for beginners and unlimited potential to advance in skill level, pickleball continues to grow in popularity. High-profile sports figures including Tom Brady, LeBron James and Mark Cuban have invested in pickleball teams and leagues. Some previous tennis facilities such as Oasis Pickleball Club in Rockwall, Texas, have converted to full-fledged pickleball facilities. Oasis recently hosted a pickleball tournament with more than 800 players participating.
One thing seems certain; picklers at A&M-Commerce won't sour on the sport any time soon.