Pickleball Secrets for Seniors - Don't Let Limited Mobility Defeat Your Winning Game
By Khevin Barnes
READERS BE FOREWARNED: This article is being written by an old man. If you are one of the young, athletic pickleballer’s with enough stamina and fortitude to actually jog back to your serving position in your Dolce & Gabbana designer sneakers after each rally; then this story is for you.
And, if you’re like me, a 72 year old pickleball aficionado with mismatched socks and what appear to be meaningful tattoos from the 60’s but are actually just scars from last weeks dermatology biopsy—then this story is for you too. And that’s because, even though we may be divided by age (and possibly by the numbers of real teeth in our mouths), we rely on the very same collection of skill sets to play a winning game of pickleball.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
I’m not exactly certain when I became a so-called “senior citizen”. And from what I can gather by asking around, no one can answer that question for me. There appear to be many definitions of that tenuous title floating about. At age 50, you are eligible to join AARP (American Association of Retired Persons). Some shops and restaurants offer senior discounts beginning at age 55, and Medicare eligibility begins at 65.
Sometimes it feels to me as though pickleball was designed with people over 50 years of age in mind because of the smaller courts, the slower ball (I’m remembering my racquetball days from the 70’s) and the sheer number of courts being built in retirement communities like the one I live in. All of these things make pickleball for seniors more attractive than ever.
MAKE WAY FOR THE YOUNG AND RESTLESS
Of course, the percentage of young people playing the game has soared exponentially in recent years, and many of the competitions we watch online or in person feature the dazzling young superstars of the game...
According to the USA Pickleball Association, growth of total participants from 2020 to 2021 was the fastest among players under 24 years of age (21%)
I enjoy watching these young athletes duke it out on the court with their mesmerizing rivalry of precision and patience. A good game of pickleball after all, is like synchronized dancing. And for those of us seniors who still take to the dance floor; the moves haven’t changed. It’s just that the steps have gotten a little slower.
Eight years ago, when my wife and I moved into our “Over 55” community here in Arizona, one of my first pickleball teachers was a senior player by the name of Fred. He was short, a little on the heavy side with limited mobility, and he didn’t say a lot while playing. But Fred was a master at placement. His shots were slow but deliberate, like dove feathers that get caught up in light wind and suddenly change direction and speed up before hurtling toward the Earth. They were elegant, deceptive and effective.
SENIOR SECRETS REVEALED
As senior players, we are competing in a different game, despite the familiar components that we’ve come to understand and enjoy. This is our time to choose placement over movement. This is our moment to implement precision over power. Instead of seeing myself as an old guy who is being outpaced by younger players, I’m beginning to understand the advantage of precision play. My senior body is actually quite capable of playing a decent game against more agile players because I have a “secret” advantage. My softer kill shots, stiffer body parts and slower reaction time are actually ideal factors to both inspire and require a more controlled game.
SKINNY SINGLES: IT’S NOT JUST FOR THIN PEOPLE
For many of us who play regularly, drilling becomes part of a routine to elevate our game. And there’s no better way to improve our placement accuracy than to practice it outside of group play. But no matter how often and how long I drill on my own, the dynamics of the game change drastically the minute I add another player to the mix. I follow all of the moves I’ve practiced over and over again, and still, something feels different in the real game. But despite all of my fussing, I am improving.
A great way to practice accuracy and placement without the drudgery of drilling is to play “skinny singles”. It’s a pickleball drill played using only half of the court in a one on one game. Playing in a limited area forces you think about where you’re hitting the ball, and while there may be a bit more running involved since you won’t have a partner playing beside you, that’s the very reason to place your return shots strategically in order to slow the pace and take advantage of all your senior potential.
ADD CUNNING, NOT RUNNING
As seniors we can learn to replace running with cunning; swap mobility with accuracy and trade exasperation for imagination. Disciplined play and strategic purposeful shots can put the spring back into a senior’s stride and rejuvenate that sense of childlike play and wonder that makes pickleball the game for all ages.
Khevin Barnes is a health journalist and active senior player living in the Del Webb retirement community in Vail, Arizona. He and his wife play two hours a day, 5 days a week