Two adults play pickleball outside.
Pickleball is often called the fastest-growing sport in America. Learn what you need to know. (For Corewell Health Beat)

Bob Trout has all the normal aches and pains of a 66-year-old man.

But most days of the week, year-round, you’ll find him on a pickleball court.

“When I’m on the court, I feel like I’m a high school kid again, so it’s very much worth it,” said Trout, membership coordinator for the Grand Rapids Pickleball Club.

Trout is not alone in his love of the health and social benefits of the game. Called by some the fastest-growing sport in America, it’s estimated that more than 3 million people now play pickleball in the United States. Since the Grand Rapids Pickleball Club was formed in 2012, it has grown from 30 to more than 700 members.

It’s a trend that Matthew Axtman, DO, a Corewell Health orthopedic sports medicine specialist, noticed immediately after coming to Grand Rapids, Michigan, eight years ago. He researched the sport so he could better help patients who came to him with pickleball injuries.

“It’s a sport that is just taking over recently in the Midwest,” he said. “I had never heard about it before.”

Like Trout, many local players first learned about pickleball from retirees in warmer states like Arizona and Florida.

So, what exactly is pickleball? Some describe it as a combination of tennis, badminton and ping-pong. Invented in the 1960s, it’s a paddle sport accessible to all ages and skill levels, played indoors or outdoors on a badminton-sized court, using a paddle and plastic ball with holes, for singles or doubles teams.

Because the court is smaller than a tennis court, players do not have to run over a large area and do not have to stretch themselves out as much to reach the ball, Dr. Axtman said. The ball—like a Wiffle ball but smaller—also doesn’t travel as fast as a tennis ball.

He likes that players of all ages, especially older people, can play—recreationally and competitively.

“It’s something that gets people out and active,” Dr. Axtman said. “We always want to find things we love to do, but can do without injuries.”

Pickleball offers cardiovascular benefits, joint mobility, muscle stability and strength, he said.

But players should be careful to avoid injury. Dr. Axtman says he sees patients with elbow and shoulder injuries from pickleball—typically repetitive use syndromes including tendonitis.

He also sees broken wrists from players putting their hand down if they fall while going for the ball.

5 tips for embracing the pickleball trend, safely:

1. Start slow

Learn the game’s rules, and then start playing leisurely until you get conditioned.

“Get out and play with someone to show you the ropes of the game,” Dr. Axtman said. “Start slow and increase as you feel like you can.”

Trout said lessons are available through the Grand Rapids Pickleball Club.

“If you have any athletic ability or coordination at all, within a half hour to a few hours you can be playing games and having fun with it,” Trout said. “It’s easy to get started, but there is a long way you can go to improve, too.”

2. Warm up and stretch

Stretching before playing is critical to avoid injury, Dr. Axtman said. That includes shoulders, elbows, wrists and legs.

Trout said this is an area where many pickleball players could improve.

“They will (practice swinging) for a few minutes and then say, ‘Let’s start playing.’ They’re not stretched out as well as they could be.”

3. Play safely

Pickleball players can also avoid injury by not taking unneeded risks such as rushing for shots.

For instance, there’s a common shot in pickleball called a lob shot, which goes up and over players’ heads.

“We teach that players should never run backwards to try to get those shots,” Trout said. “They end up catching their heels and then trying to catch themselves and have broken wrists and sometimes bump their heads. It’s a safety thing. They should turn around first and run to the ball, not run backwards.”

Also, never play on a wet pickleball court.

4. Get the proper gear

Dr. Axtman said having the proper gear, especially shoes, is critical. The best choice is court shoes, such as tennis shoes for outdoor play and volleyball or racquetball shoes for indoor play, Trout said.

“Lots of people tend to come out, especially early on, in running shoes or walking shoes,” Trout said. “Those are good for going straight, but most of pickleball is side to side.”

Some companies are even beginning to manufacture pickleball shoes, he said.

5. See your doctor sooner rather than later

Dr. Axtman said many of the repetitive use injuries of pickleball (similar to golfer’s elbow or tennis elbow) are best treated right away.

“We want to keep you active, so it’s important to get evaluated early. If you let it go too long, then we might have to tell you to take a break,” Dr. Axtman said. “Our goal is to keep you active, not shut you down.”