Pickleball Champions Share Their Workout … Why the sport is great for seniors
San Antonio truck driver Joe Torres finishes his 10-hour overnight shift at 7:30 a.m., and by 8, he’s out on the pickleball court, ready to hone his skills in the increasingly popular game. Joe and his identical twin brother, John, hold the title of doubles champions at the Texas Senior Games in pickleball, a sport that is often described as a mixture of tennis and ping pong. The 60-year-olds, who live five blocks apart, have participated in more than 20 tournaments. This month they will represent their state at the National Senior Games’ first-ever pickleball competition.
“My brother and I have always been competitive,” says Joe. “In our family it seemed like, once you turn 40, they just didn’t do anything. But we loved the game of tennis and that kept us active all our adult lives, and now we’ve switched over to pickleball and I think we’ll play a long time.” The brothers first learned of pickleball when their tennis club director asked them to compete in the sport at the 2009 Texas Senior Games. After taking third place with only three weeks of training, Joe and John hung up their rackets and picked up paddles instead.
Pickleball, says John, who like Joe is a driver for Texas grocery chain H-E-B, is an ideal sport for older adults because it isn’t very physically demanding. There is a greater emphasis on strategy than on brute strength or killer serves. A smaller court means more time hitting the ball and less darting around. “You can play with people who are 70 and they’re still good against you,” Joe says. The National Senior Games in Cleveland will be the first time the twins compete at the national level. Joe is nursing a knee injury, which dampens their chance of winning, but, says John, “the team that beats us won’t have an easy time of it.”
For the brothers, the joy of pickleball is in the competition. They used to go to the gym, but they joke they’ve lost the discipline and would rather be playing against opponents. “I like the sport better because you don’t think about exercising, you’re just having fun,” says John. They don’t have a set workout routine, but both play three to five days a week for up to four hours each time.
The brothers play together every Saturday morning and leave chunks of their day open for impromptu practices. John will contact Joe after his shift to arrange a game, or they’ll wait for a call from one of their regular opponents. When they’re not playing others, John and Joe do drills to work on overhead shots, drop shots and volleys. According to Joe, volley technique is crucial.
“The most successful doubles teams come as close to the net as they can and volley the balls a lot, so we work on that too,” says Joe. “We’ll make sure we’re bringing the paddle out in front of us properly and hitting properly.”
Off the court, the brothers bike together two or three times a week, for up to 10 miles at a time, for cardiovascular strength and more endurance on the court. “We’re slower now, both on high-blood-pressure and cholesterol medicine, and I could probably stand to lose another 20 pounds,” says Joe. “But just by moving a lot, I think we’re healthier than a lot of people our age.” Their wives aren’t pickleball players, though they say family is a motivating factor in staying active. “I’ve got grandkids and I want to be able to do things with them,” says Joe.
They plan in retire in two years, at which point they will play “even more pickleball than we do now,” says John. “I just don’t want to be a person that sits around the house and grows old that way.”
The brothers say they don’t follow a specific diet, and take potassium and calcium supplements and occasionally drink low-calorie energy drinks. They’re watching their weight and generally avoid rich foods, though Joe says that their indulgent dish of choice is chicken with ranchero sauce. Before a tournament, they’ll load up on carb-heavy foods like pasta or baked potatoes.
A good paddle usually costs $50 to $60, and balls are often sold in packs of 12 for $10. Joe and John wear dry-fit Nike shorts and shirts and New Balance sneakers. They’ll wear almost anything, in any color, but they have one rule: They always dress alike, a tactic they started when they played tennis. “It seems to intimidate opponents when they see brothers dressed the same,” says Joe.
The Secret Weapon
The brothers say their biggest strength is their family bond. “There are a lot of players that have the same skill level as me and my brother, but, unlike them, we are always communicating, and that might be from playing together all our lives, or being twins, or maybe just being regular siblings,” says Joe. John adds, “We’ve played together so long that we just know each other’s moves and what we’re going to do. We know exactly where to go.”
In a Pickle: Play the Game More People Are Sweet On
If you take a game of tennis and slow it down—smaller court, slower racket, harder-to-hit ball—you get pickleball.
The sport is played with wooden paddles and a plastic ball (a ball with larger holes is often used for indoor play; smaller holes for outdoors) on a short, square court. The net is hung at 34 inches in the middle (compared with 36 inches for tennis), and there is a non-volley zone on both sides of the net to prevent high-speed spikes, according to the U.S.A. Pickleball Association rulebook. Players score when the other side can’t return a shot. The first side to reach 11 points with a two-point lead wins.
The game is believed to be the creation of the late Joel Pritchard, a Washington state congressman, who made up the game on the spot in the summer of 1965 in response to his children’s complaints of boredom. The name comes not from the family dog, Pickles, as popularly related. According to a newspaper column by Pritchard’s wife, Joan, it was so heavily based on other games it reminded her of the pickle boat in crew, “where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.”
Pickleball is the first sport to be added for competition in the National Senior Games in 20 years, says spokesman Del Moon. More than half of the states participating in the games recommended adding the sport, based on requests from pickleball players.
The popularity of pickleball has grown in the past five years, averaging a thousand new players per year, says Tom Burkhart, pickleball competition director for the NSGA and Mid-South Regional Director for the USAPA. There are now more than 100,000 players in the U.S., according to the USAPA. The number of pickleball courts in North America have doubled to more than 5,600 since 2010.
“This is a game that has a lot of participation from people who have never been an athlete in their life,” says Mr. Burkhart. “They can still acclimate and become a decent player.” The popularity among seniors is creating a trickle-down effect, and pickleball is becoming more popular with schools’ physical education programs and at recreational camps, says Becky Wesley, a spokeswoman for NSGA.
A version of this article appeared July 16, 2013, on page D3 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: For Brothers, Pickleball Is Double the Fun.
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