Pickleball Scotland: We try the fastest growing sport at an Edinburgh beginners session

Pickleball paddlesPickleball paddles
Pickleball paddles
It’s less intimidating than tennis

The first rule of Pickleball is that you don’t talk about Pickleball.

Actually, scratch that. According to Louise Harrison of Pickleball Scotland, the most important thing is to shout ‘BALL!’ if it rolls into another court, then play is stopped so you can retrieve it.

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It seems that this game is rather more polite than your average racquet sport. There’s no smashing, or whacking and you probably won’t injure yourself. Unlike Andy Murray at the Australian Open, you can presumably go to the toilet anytime you want.

Linda Hamilton and Louise Harrison of Pickleball ScotlandLinda Hamilton and Louise Harrison of Pickleball Scotland
Linda Hamilton and Louise Harrison of Pickleball Scotland

Perhaps this approach is what makes it the fastest growing sport in the US. There are 4.8 million players over there and, last year, it became the official state sport of Washington, where it was created by Joel Pritchard, Barney McCallum and Bill Bell, back in 1965.

It's hugely popular, and the UK is catching up. However, many of us haven’t heard of it. That included me, until Edinburgh Leisure invited me along to a two-hour-long adult group session at Craiglockhart Sports Centre. They’re also offering classes at other venues, including the newly refurbished Meadowbank Sports Centre.

“It might be new to you, but it’s amazing how fast it’s growing in Scotland at the moment. I went through to Glasgow and there are numerous clubs”, she says. “The one I go to has about 50 people showing up. It’s also very strong in Fife, Grampians, Borders and East Lothian. As from this week it’s going to be really strong in Edinburgh”.

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Harrison took up Pickleball after injuries and illness meant that she had to stop playing tennis.

Pickleball paddle and ballPickleball paddle and ball
Pickleball paddle and ball

The newer sport is played on a smaller badminton court, the net is lower and the rules make it less strenuous.

“I started in 2019, in Nairn. It's quite a bit further ahead than Edinburgh. Someone suggested it and I got addicted right from the start. It’s something you can play if you’ve got a dodgy leg or back or if you’re older. It’s absolutely addictive”, Harrison says.

Most of us want to find out why it’s called Pickleball. I’m hoping for a Rick & Morty reference or gherkins at half time, but no such luck. According to Harrison, it’s named after one of the inventors’ dogs, Pickles, who kept having to fetch the ball while they were playing.

Fans of the sport are called Picklers.

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Pickleball class at Edinburgh Leisure's indoor courtsPickleball class at Edinburgh Leisure's indoor courts
Pickleball class at Edinburgh Leisure's indoor courts

Anyway, I’m a complete novice. I did have tennis lessons for a while, as a teenager, but I was too myopic to hit anything. I also enjoyed badminton at school. I’ll gravitate to a ping-pong table, though I spend most of my time chasing the ball.

This is a blend of all of those activities.

“Within an hour we’ll have you playing and having some fun,” promises Harrison.

Today’s class consists of a mix of ages. Well, sort of, there are a couple of twenty and thirty-somethings and the rest, like me, have grey-ish hair.

We start easy, by picking up a paddle and one of the balls, which are plastic and perforated. They don’t have bounce, and Harrison wants us to get used to the feel of them, by underarming them off the paddles. We all obey and some of us go for the full hoop-la up to the rafters.

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As the balls are hollow, our communal batting sounds like popcorn in the microwave.

Next, we choose a partner. I go for Sonja (we’ve all got name badges on), and we practise knocking the ball across the net back and forward. I feel that my partner is struggling not to whack it and take my eye out. She’s definitely a tennis person.

We spend most of our time retrieving the ball. I also keep forgetting to shout ‘BALL!’ whenever it rolls onto someone else’s court. I’m already breaking the rules.

Apparently, to avoid the full-on slamming technique, ‘dinking’ can help. This is a strategy that involves gentle back and forward shots into the non-volley ‘kitchen’ area at the front of the net.

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We also try serving, which is an underhand shot, with the paddle only lifted to hip height, taken from the back of the court. It has to bounce once on the other side, before your partner can attempt to return it, then it has to bounce on the way back too.

Eventually, we get to try a proper doubles match. When it comes to the point scoring, I’m utterly bewildered. Thankfully, there are others who’ve played before, and they keep a handle on what’s going on. You can only score when it’s your team’s serve, you play to 11 points and the player on the right service court will serve first for a team.

Although I am completely reliant on others keeping tabs, it soon dawns on me that we’re losing badly.

That’s okay. I might not be a winner, but that doesn’t mean I won’t ever be a Pickler.

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