The repetitive plunking sound of plastic balls popping off paddles gets louder as players continue to join in the back-and-forth volley going down at Lake Placid Park in Virginia Beach. Seasoned swatters and newbies alike fill the four outdoor courts on a recent morning that’s prime for a match or two of pickleball—a game that’s increasing in popularity…and not just among the senior set.
“It used to be known as tennis for older people,” jokes local pickleball aficionado and coach Jim Belcher. But he’s not sour about it. Belcher, a former college tennis player himself, says he was also hesitant to embrace the game at first—and the funny name didn’t help. However, he’s been a passionate convert for nearly seven years now. “The first time I played I was hooked,” he says. “And I’ve been playing ever since.”
And Belcher is not alone. According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s (SFIA) 2021 Topline Participation Report, the sport grew to 4.2 million players in the U.S. in 2020, a 21.3% increase from 2019. Though it has been around since 1965, people of all ages are really starting to adopt what Belcher describes as several benefits of the game, including not being as demanding on the body as tennis.
“You can play with anybody and have fun,” he says. “And it’s just an easy game to play with not a lot of equipment to get.” Belcher adds that an influx of new outdoor courts around Coastal Virginia in the past several months will really fuel the local growth of pickleball.
He has seen a big increase in demand for lessons and currently leads 15-18 sessions per week throughout the region. Today, he’s at Lake Placid for one-on-one instruction with Joan Tyson, who started playing last September. Belcher says that Tyson has become quite skilled in a short amount of time and absorbs top coaching tips like “Always be in ready position” and “If your feet get you to the right spot, the game gets easier.”
“I really like it, and I’m meeting so many nice people,” Tyson says. “I have a neighbor who just built a court in his backyard. I’ve got to become friendlier with him.”
It’s Sort of a Big Dill
Jim Aldrich believes in the potential of pickleball, so much so that he and his business partner came up with the idea to refurbish the aging and abandoned outdoor tennis courts at the former Owls Creek Tennis Center in Virginia Beach into pickleball courts.
The new, 14-acre Pickleball Virginia Beach facility, made to accommodate 50 outdoor courts, opened in November, kicking things off with a tournament that included more than 400 players. Annual club members (package pricing varies) includes access to unlimited play, lighted courts with windscreens, bathrooms, lockers and showers. A pro shop and tiki bar are on the way.
“There’s no way that if you come here there’s not a court that you could play on,” says Aldrich. “And it’s just going to continue to grow and also be a destination base for people that come and stay in Virginia Beach.”
Norfolk also hopes to attract players looking for places to get their fix of what some call a badminton/ping pong mix. Recently opened MacArthur Pickleball offers four free outdoor courts located across from the NORVA at MacArthur Center Mall. Nets can be set up to play any time between sunrise and 9 p.m.
Aldrich says a key factor in the growth of pickleball both nationally and locally in the past few years has been COVID and people looking for new and interesting forms of outdoor exercise. “You could be socially distant anytime you played on the court,” he explains.
Belcher says a lot of pickleball’s popularity also comes from the social nature of the sport and the camaraderie among the players. “I used to have a guy who came here [to Lake Placid Park], who, when it was real hot, would bring this big tent with fans and all kinds of food,” he says. “And everybody would gather and just sit over there and eat and drink and talk and occasionally play a little bit.”
For more on Pickleball Virginia Beach, visit PickleballVB.com. MacArthur Pickleball, Facebook.com/Picklemall, hosts group meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 5:30 p.m. and Sunday 9:30 a.m. Beginners are welcome. For places to play throughout Coastal Virginia: USAPickleball.org/Play/Places-2-Play.