by Ron Gentile, Moodfit CEO & Co-founder
Pickleball is taking the U.S. by storm. It's now the fastest growing sport for the third year in a row. I confess - I'm hooked, so much so I'm up early before work meeting friends to play, and sending text messages with tips or interesting pickleball shots.
So what is it about pickleball that is so appealing to so many people, and that keeps people coming back and telling others about it?
One possible explanation is that pickleball encompasses several attributes that happen to be good for people's mental health.
If an activity puts us in a good mood we're more likely to do it again, and more likely to tell others about it. Additionally, the timing of this couldn't be better - a record number of people in the U.S. now suffer from mental health challenges. (According to a recent Gallup poll 17.8% of U.S. adults currently suffer from depression.) Making matters worse, there is a treatment gap - there are not enough mental health providers to treat those in need.
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10 reasons pickleball is good for your mental health
Easy to get started: Unlike other sports and hobbies, pickleball is very easy to get started with and enjoy. In 10 minutes you can be engaged in and enjoying a game. The last thing you want when you're in a low mood is to have to struggle with an activity that presents many barriers to entry.
Welcoming community: The pickleball community is incredibly welcoming which can help combat the isolation associated with mental health challenges. This welcoming nature speaks to the joy people get from playing pickleball and the resulting kindness that is extended to new players. One of the first times I played with a friend who was also new to the sport, a couple other players effectively adopted us, taught us the rules and basic shots, played a couple games with us, and even gave us the proper type of ball.
Sense of mastery: The game mechanics of pickleball are very inclusive to all genders, ages, and levels of athleticism. Because it has different type of shots - some powerful, some subtle and precise, anyone can find their sweet spot in the sport and feel proficient. The internet is full of memes talking about the humility of playing pickleball and being "schooled" by a grandparent who knew the strategy and was adept at the subtle shots. I can attest firsthand to this humility. In short, everyone can achieve a sense of mastery at different aspects of the game and as a result, participate at a significant level.
Room to grow: Though it's easy to start and participate, there is endless room to grow and advance one's skills and abilities. Pickleball has several different shots and strategies that one can learn and practice for months or years and still advance. Additionally, this advancement quickly reflects one's practice and continuously builds an increasing sense of mastery.
Social: Pickleball is most often played as doubles and one often plays with many partners during a session which provides the opportunity to meet many new people. In addition, pickleball has the tradition that between points teammates touch paddles to acknowledge and encourage one another no matter what happened during the prior point. And after the game all four players meet at the net, touch paddles, and thank and congratulate one another on the game. Rolled up in these traditions - one feels seen and appreciated which are good for one's mental health.
Exercise: A positive relationship between exercise and mental health has been shown. In fact, some studies have shown regular exercise can be as helpful to depression as medications. Getting exercise as a side effect of an activity that brings one joy makes it easier to stay with over time.
Outdoors: Pickleball is played mostly outdoors. There is a known positive link between sunlight exposure and mental health.
Movement: Moving one's body has been shown to be helpful to one's mental health especially for issues that reside in the emotional part of the brain which is linked closely to the body (where the brain stem, limbic region and the amygdala reside). Pickleball offers both subtle, soft shots where attention to detail is required, and more powerful shots with more explosive movement. In all cases, shots tend to involve the entire body in a fluid movement.
No time for rumination: Pickleball moves fast. Matches may take only 10-20 minutes, and points can happen only seconds apart. Make a bad shot? There's little time to beat oneself up since the next point is coming in seconds. As I've heard many times, "There are no sorries in pickleball." In addition, it's hard to ruminate about one's worries while playing at the fast pace of pickleball. You may show up feeling stressed about work or family, but you can't help but quickly be absorbed in the fast-paced game.
Behavioral activation: In psychology, behavioral activation is a treatment approach that involves using behaviors to influence one's emotional state instead of waiting for one's emotional state to first change. The idea being that by deliberately practicing certain behaviors, one can “activate” a positive emotional state. Given the attributes of pickleball discussed above, using this as an activity to activate a positive emotional state makes great sense.
While I don't think mental health providers are suddenly going to start writing prescriptions for pickleball, or health insurance companies are going to send out pickleball paddles to members like they do pedometers, given the many positive mental health attributes of pickleball, it wouldn't be a bad idea.
Pickleball, which is a cross between ping pong, badminton, and tennis, was invented by vacationers on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle in 1965. For an overview, watch this short video. To learn about the history of the sport, watch this video.