I tried pickleball for beginners - here's what I learned about the popular sport after just one session

Pickleball is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world for a reason, as Health Editor Grace Walsh found out playing pickleball for beginners

Health Editor Grace Walsh playing pickleball for beginners
(Image credit: Grace Walsh/Future)

Pickleball is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world but you'd be forgiven if you didn't know anything about it. I didn't either, until about a year ago when I heard of wild increases in new sign-ups for sessions of pickleball for beginners. So, when I got the opportunity to try the sport for myself, I jumped at the chance - and this is what I discovered.  

Pickleball is a sport that combines many elements of the racquet sports we know and love, like tennis, ping pong, badminton, and squash. It's played either indoors or outdoors on a court with a paddle and a plastic ball with holes in it. Whether you want to play just you and one other or two of you against another couple, that's up to you. 

As someone who does a fair amount of exercise but never any group activities, I was a little hesitant stepping out onto the pickleball court myself. I'd played tennis when I was younger but could never get to grips with all the skills you needed - or the rules for that matter. On stepping out onto the court though - one of two newly built at Four Seasons Resort Nevis - I soon realized they are two very different activities. 

As health editor at woman&home, I'm no stranger to trying new things - so I signed up for a session myself to see why pickleball for beginners is so popular. Was it easier than tennis? Were there more benefits than other similar cardio activities like running for weight loss or walking as a workout? With a pick of the best running shorts on and paddle in hand, I stepped out onto the pickleball court to see what all the fuss was about. 

What I learned playing pickleball for beginners 

1. The rules are simple to learn

Before I even stepped onto the pickleball court, I was briefed on the rules and my first impression was that pickleball is a fun mixture of ping pong and tennis. 

So, how do you play? As Todd Jungling, an IPTAPA Level II certified pickleball instructor tells us, the sport is generally played as doubles, which means there are two picklers (that's pickleball players to you and me) on a team. "Games are typically played to 11 points and while there are some nuanced considerations around serving, serving is basically an under-hand move diagonally across the net, and you're aiming for beyond the opponent's non-volley line," he explains. This dark-blue colored box on the court closest to the net is otherwise known as 'the kitchen'.

The 'kitchen' is the first unique rule in pickleball. "Although you can enter this area at any time, you are not allowed to volley (which means hitting the ball without letting it bounce first) when you're standing within this area."

A second unique rule is the two-bounce rule, he says. "Essentially, the ball must bounce one time on each side of the net before any player is allowed to hit the ball. And, of course, never when positioned in the non-volley zone.

As someone who regularly does strength training in the gym, running, and cycling (i.e. sports that don't involve any rules at all or other people), I was a little hesitant to start playing. How easy was it really going to be to pick up the rules? Very easy, as it turns out. While there were a few times I messed up at the beginning, it's nothing like learning the complex rules and scoring system of sports like tennis. 

Health Editor Grace Walsh playing pickleball for beginners, stepping up to the 'kitchen' in one picture and hitting the ball in another

(Image credit: Grace Walsh/Future)

2. Pickleball is much easier to play than tennis

Tennis and pickleball are compared a lot - especially when it comes to talking about pickleball for beginners. When I started playing, I compared the two as well, coming to the quick conclusion that pickleball is a much easier sport. For starters, you can fit about three or four pickleball courts into a traditional tennis court size-wise, so even if you're playing one-on-one, there's a lot less ground to move on. But the traditional rules of the game suggest pickleball is played as doubles - with two picklers on each side of the court - meaning there's even less than a quarter of a tennis court to move on. 

On picking up my paddle, one of the first things I noticed was how easy it was to hold. Compared to a tennis racquet, it's much shorter and lighter, with a smooth surface that makes contact with the ball feel easy. 

Pickleball paddle and view of Health Editor Grace Walsh playing pickleball

A pickleball paddle is shorter and lighter than most other racquets and paddles, making it easier to hold. 

(Image credit: Grace Walsh/Future)

3. Anyone can play pickleball

Perhaps why pickleball for beginners is so popular these days is that really anyone can play it. It's easier than other racquet sports like tennis and squash but it also doesn't really require a high level of fitness, knowledge of the game, agility, or a certain level of strength.

Unlike in tennis where you need a particular grip to properly hold the racquet, there's no specific hold for a pickleball paddle. It's also an underhand movement when serving, which is so much easier than the skill-specific serve in tennis, the powerful starting shot in squash, or a backhand movement in ping pong. 

Pickleball is also slower to play than any of the other racquet sports I've tried too, since the ball is a wiffle-like, plastic ball that moves slower through the air. There's less space to cover on the ground, as noted, and as games only go up to 11 points, you're normally playing for between 15 and 25 minutes. For those who want an easy game to improve their fitness with minimal rules, or anyone with mobility issues in their hands, pickleball will be a great option. There's even some research from the University of Wisconsin to suggest that pickleball is better for those with heart conditions too. 

5. More people than ever are playing pickleball

That being said, don't expect to stand still when playing pickleball. While it might be more accessible than many other sports out there, it's still an excellent workout. It was already 82.4 Fahrenheit (28 degrees Celsius) when we walked onto the court that morning but within 10 minutes that glimmer of sweat had turned into a heavy sheen. 

Provided you get stuck in, pickleball can be a serious cardiovascular workout. There haven't been many studies done on the sport, considering that it only became really popular a few years ago, but research by Brigham Young University suggests pickleball players burn 36% more calories than walkers in 30 minutes, with a 14% higher heart rate. While another study by Western Colorado University puts pickleball alongside other popular workouts like hiking, doing yoga every day, and water aerobics, as picklers of middle age and older tend to reach an average heart rate of 109 beats per minute and burn up to 354 calories per hour. That's more than some people would burn doing cycling as a workout.

While I just had one session of pickleball, this is hugely promising for those looking to make pickleball their hobby of choice in the long term. The same study by Western Colorado University also found picklers who played for an hour every other day for six weeks saw improvements in their cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and V02 max, which is a good measure of your fitness age

And, naturally, pickleball is great for finding your balance and hand-eye coordination too. You have to hit a ball coming at different angles every time and move in multiple directions through the game, stretching down for lower shots, which works your core as well as your lower body. 

5. Pickleball is fun

Perhaps the most important thing I learned during my session was that pickleball is fun. So often we find ourselves asking if certain sports (like running) is better for us than others (like yoga) because of their benefits for our bodies, especially as we approach major life events like perimenopause and know we need to make changes. But as the research shows, the best sport for us will be the one we enjoy the most. And trust me, if you enjoy exercise, it's not difficult to find enjoyment in pickleball - especially if you're playing with friends. 

There's even research to prove it. The University of Almería collected research papers on the effects of pickleball, with over 90% of participants being over 50 years old, and found significant improvements in personal wellbeing, life satisfaction, depression, stress, happiness, and more, going so far as to recommend the sport as a "new tool to work and improve people's mental health" that "does not need adaptions".  

This is something that instructor Jungling, who works with PickleballMax, has seen for himself. "People with and without sports backgrounds are flocking to the courts because of pickleball's physical, social, and mental components. Not to mention, the camaraderie and joy it brings to those who play."

Health Editor Grace Walsh playing pickleball

(Image credit: Grace Walsh/Future)

5. More pickleball courts

If you're looking to try pickleball for beginners, the good news is that you won't be alone. Per the most recent report from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), there are 8.9 million regular players in the United States currently - with no sign that sign-ups are slowing down. The report also shows that 14% of adult Americans (that's about 36.5 million people) have played pickleball at least once between 2022 and 2021. 

"As a pickleball instructor, I can attest to the steady growth of new players interested in the sport with the exploding number of requests for beginner lessons, clinics, and drill sessions," says Jungling. 

I can't see a local pickleball court around where I live - but I'm the exception. According to USA Pickleball, there were 9,524 known pickleball courts in the United States in 2020 with nearly 800 more added by the end of 2021. That's 66 new locations every month. Find one near you at Places2Play.

Why is it called pickleball? 

The name pickleball, like all good things, was born out of a little imagination. The story, per Sporting News, goes that pickleball was invented by the former congressman of Washington state Joel Pritchard and his neighbors, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum in 1965. The three men were looking for badminton equipment to keep their kids occupied during the summer but unable to find any, they picked out some ping-pong paddles and a Wiffle ball. 

While many people believe the sport was then named after the family dog, Pickles, this isn't true. Pritchard's wife, Joan, named the sport after the final boat in rowing - the pickle boat. Much like how the crew of a pickle boat is the least competitive in the race, with a crew thrown together at random out of the rowers available, the families created pickleball with a combination of equipment from other sports.

Pickleball might have been invented almost 60 years ago but the name has stuck and the Major Pickleball League came together in 2021, firmly putting the sport on the map. 

Despite getting its name in the mid-1960s, pickleball has only become a popular sport in the last few years. According to the same SFIA report, which was released earlier this year, pickleball's popularity has grown by a huge 158.6% since 2021. 

Part of the rise in pickleball's popularity is attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic. While other sports were shut down with the closing of fitness studios and gyms, pickleball could flourish as courts were easily set up in backyards and on streets with adapted nets and chalk outlines. With up to 20 feet between players on opposite sites of the net, it's also a perfect sport for social distancing. 

As the pandemic slowly came to an end, it left behind a renewed interest in respiratory fitness and overall health, so pickleball became a favorite as it really can be played by anyone - regardless of age (17% of pickleball players in the US are over 65, per USA Pickleball) or current fitness level. 

However, the sport was invented almost 60 years ago so it has been popular in more niche sporting communities ever since then. Instructor Jungling has been playing since 2014 while fans of the sport over the decades (such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates) are finally seeing their favorite hobby gain new fans.

Tennis vs pickleball 

We've weighed up tennis vs pickleball a lot so far - but what are the key differences between the two sports? 

  • Pickleball is a better choice for beginners: If you're looking for a beginner-friendly sport, pickleball is the one for you. Just as you should always go walking more before you try and find the benefits of running 30 minutes a day, starting off with pickleball is a great choice on its own, and/or it can help you develop skills to use in other racquet sports. 
  • Pickleball is suitable for all ages: The light paddles, Wiffle-like balls, and simple rules make pickleball the perfect sport for anyone from six years old well into older age. Players in pickleball don't need as much power in their shot as tennis players do but still maintain good, high-impact cardio activity during the session, which improves heart health and can help reduce the chance of conditions like osteoporosis.
  • Players run more in tennis: Due to the size of tennis courts versus pickleball courts, tennis players are going to be running further to hit the ball in a session than picklers, who only have about a quarter to a third of the court space. 
  • There are more tennis courts than pickleball courts: While the love for pickleball is growing worldwide more and more every year, you're still more likely to find a place to play tennis than pickleball. Although, what's to say you couldn't try out pickleball on a tennis court? 
  • Tennis is much older than pickleball: As a sport, tennis has a long history. Having been invented in the 12th Century, people have had a lot more time to fall in love with tennis which also means there are more people who play it. But, as noted, this is changing fast.  
Grace Walsh
Health Channel Editor

Grace Walsh is woman&home's Health Channel Editor, working across the areas of fitness, nutrition, sleep, mental health, relationships, and sex. She is also a qualified fitness instructor. In 2024, she will be taking on her second marathon in Rome, cycling from Manchester to London (350km) for charity, and qualifying as a certified personal trainer and nutrition coach. 

A digital journalist with over six years experience as a writer and editor for UK publications, Grace has covered (almost) everything in the world of health and wellbeing with bylines in Cosmopolitan, Red, The i Paper, GoodtoKnow, and more.