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Pickleball: Sweeping the nation – and popping up in fire stations

The wildly popular sport is a great workout for firefighters and EMS professionals


“Many firefighters and EMS providers alike are getting in on the pickleball action – a great way to get exercise amid some friendly competition,” Gaines writes.

Photo/Courtesy of Chris Haston via NBC

By Jennifer Gaines

Did you know that there is more than one meaning for 9-1-1? Yes, it is the universal code for emergency, but it could also be your score in the wildly popular sport of pickleball. And firefighters and EMS personnel have the perfect playing surface – right on the fire station apron or inside the ambulance bay.

All the rage

For the uninitiated, pickleball is a racquet sport that at first glance looks a lot like tennis but is played on a smaller court with paddles instead of traditional racquets. It’s actually closer to a mashup of ping pong and badminton.

Pickleball is certainly all the rage these days, but the sport has actually been around for a long time – since the 1960s, in fact. Pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in America, and according to USA Pickleball, there are approximately 8.9 million players in the United States over the age of 6.

What makes pickleball so popular? For one, it can be played by people of all ages and at all athletic levels. The game is fast-paced, and with scoring that goes to 11, a single game can be played in a short amount of time, typically within 15 to 20 minutes.

The rules are easy to follow, and beginners will learn how to play in less than one hour. The most difficult part for many is simply learning how to say the score – that third number can trip up new players. It’s nice to have others on the court who can help keep track, and it doesn’t take long to get the hang of it. Playing once or twice is usually all that’s needed to understand the craze.

Healthy competition

Many firefighters and EMS providers alike are getting in on the pickleball action – a great way to get exercise amid some friendly competition. Physical activity is good for both the body and the mind. Pickleball, depending on your level of exertion, will not only increase your heart rate, but it can improve cardiovascular health, reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes, and improve blood pressure. It can also improve flexibility, muscle strength, balance and eye-hand coordination. The social aspect of pickleball makes it excellent for mental health too. “Feel good” endorphins are released while playing as it increases energy levels and naturally helps boost your mood.

Pickleball also works well for first responders because it’s a fast-paced group fitness activity. Like tennis, you can play singles or doubles. Playing together as a doubles team or playing against a fellow crewmember in singles may bring out the competitive side in a player. The constant pace that is required in responding to an emergency is repeated on the pickleball court with quick reactions and fast thinking. Communication that is crucial in a first responders’ world is also critical in the game – in keeping score, calling balls out, and letting your partner know if you are going for a ball.

Let the games begin

If you’re ready to get in on the pickleball action, all you need are some athletic shoes, a few pieces of equipment, and a little eye-hand coordination.

You’ll see many “picklers,” as the players are called, playing on tennis courts where pickleball lines have been added. But you can simply measure off your own court at the station with some chalk or sturdy tape like gaffer’s tape (typically used in theater and on stages). A court is the same size as a doubles badminton court and measures 20×44 feet.

A portable pickleball net can be ordered from Amazon, Walmart or your local sporting goods store for as little as $50. You’ll need two to four paddles and a pack of pickleball balls. There are indoor and outdoor balls, however if you are using a tennis court or a concrete surface, it is best to use the outdoor balls with slightly smaller holes.

When first learning to play, it’s important to become familiar with the lines of the court, understanding when a ball would be called in versus out versus and which zones make up the service area and the “Kitchen.” The “Kitchen” – the area closest to the net on both sides – is a key area of focus. A player can go in the Kitchen but only if the ball bounces first. Then the player must quickly exit the Kitchen as to not get hit with the ball.

The easiest way to learn how to play is to have someone with at least some experience show you the basics of the game or you can watch a video on YouTube – there are tons to choose from. Practice hitting the ball with two people, with one person on each side of the net, to familiarize yourself with how the paddle feels, and how much force is needed to lob or launch the ball within the court boundaries. Don’t have anyone to hit with? Use a wall. Simply tape a line (with permission, of course) on the side of the bay wall that’s the same height as the net, and practice hitting the ball with or without letting it bounce.

Take the challenge

Some players get serious on the court, and some keep it on the lighter side. For many, pickleball is a great way to relieve stress, get some exercise and foster camaraderie. With the minimal setup involved, it is an ideal activity for fire and EMS personnel. When a true emergency 9-1-1 occurs, just drop the paddles and go.

About the author

Jennifer Gaines is a business development manager for EMS Management & Consultants as well a pickleball enthusiast.