The Socially Distanced “Sport” That’s Perfect for Families

Two pickleball paddles
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Franklin.

This summer, my wife and I needed an outdoor activity. The pool requires reservations days in advance; outdoor restaurants do not seem safe; we’ve already walked the entire neighborhood. But you just gotta get out of the house sometimes—more specifically, you need to get away from the kids. And while my wife and I share many interests (Buffy, travel, cards, treats), we’ve never had a sport in common.

The problem was we’d never seemed compatible when it came to sports. I have played a lot of tennis and know my NTRP rating (I’m a 4.5); my wife took tennis as her PE requirement in college but hasn’t really played since. She, however, as a former lifeguard and competitive swimmer, is very at home in the water, while I did not learn to swim until I was 13 and still fear jellyfish, even in pools.

But this summer we discovered a sport that both of us like, that we’re both pretty good at, and that has a totally hilarious name: pickleball.

Think of pickleball as human-size ping-pong. The court is about half the size of a tennis court, and the net is about the same height. You play with big wooden paddles, and the ball is basically a whiffle ball, plastic and perforated so it slows down in flight and doesn’t bounce very high. The rules are pretty basic—get more details here—but they basically boil down to: Hit it off the bounce or on the fly, but you can’t smash it before it bounces if you’re standing too close to the net. You have to be serving to score, and you play to 11.

Here’s what’s great about pickleball: It’s just not that hard. I mean, sure, I bet there are pickleball purists who train, practice lobs, and perfect their drop shots. There’s even a professional league—the PPA Championship is currently scheduled for Oct. 22, 2020, with a winner’s purse of (checks website) (checks it again) (eyes pop out of head) (bow tie spins like a propeller) $150,000. But basically, pickleball doesn’t require too much running, too much athleticism, or too much skill. If you’ve played a lot of tennis, you sort of have an advantage, but it is also way less like tennis than you think it is, so your tennis instincts will often betray you.

My wife and I tried out pickleball, and pretty quickly we were competitive with each other: She wins sometimes, and I win sometimes. It’s perfect for this era of social distancing—we played against some friends who had never even heard of the game, and they nearly beat us on their first go-round. And pickleball is a great intergenerational sport. Sometimes we allow our kids to come with us to pickleball, and they play it fine. Older people can play with ease. In fact, pickleball courts are reportedly becoming a must-have amenity in finer retirement communities. Grandchildren and grandparents can even play together.

There’s also a very low barrier to entry. Here’s what you need to play:

Paddles. You can buy a pair or a set of four. They usually come with some balls.

Extra balls. You’ll definitely lose all your pickleballs.

A net. People often play on tennis courts—it’s easy to adapt the court for pickleball. But if you have a big driveway or access to any flat rectangle of pavement, you can put up your own net too. Here’s a fancy one, and here’s a cheap one.

Sidewalk chalk. Chalk out your own lines!

A good water bottle. Sure, you could fill your bottle with water, but another great thing about pickleball is you can definitely still play while enjoying margaritas. Or, in honor of the name of the game, a Pickled Surfer.