In pickleball, as in life – personalities may vary.

You can tell a lot about a person by observing their behavior while playing sports. Whether it’s a friendly round of golf, a pick-up basketball game or a tennis match, athletic competition at any level tends to emphasize personality traits. A person’s competitive nature, their perspective on rules and how they treat others is exposed on the court, the field or the course.

Since I’ve taken up pickleball, I’ve observed this firsthand. Pickleball is a friendly sport – for the most part. People are in it for fun, exercise and social interaction. It’s easy to learn and oddly addictive. But it’s not without colorful personalities and occasional on-court drama.

I live in a neighborhood that has organized drop-in pickleball play several mornings a week. Since there are varying skill levels, the first hour and a half is designated for “advanced players only” – If you’re not an advanced player, don’t show up. This I was told in no uncertain terms.

The next two hours is open to all player levels, and often the advanced stick around and mix with the beginner and intermediate players. It doesn’t always bode well and has been the topic of much debate around the pickle-ball “water cooler.” It seems that not all advanced players play nice with the newbies.

Sometimes the conflict revolves around play time procedures. Joining open play involves placing your paddle, in order of arrival, in a slot on the fence. When a court opens up, the next four players are up. This ensures that everyone has a chance to play and mixes up the teams. Sometimes you get a fun, friendly partner and sometimes you… don’t.

One Sunday, my neighbor and I walked over to the courts together just in time to witness a kerfuffle of sorts. Yes, I said “kerfuffle” – it’s a fun word. As I pretended not to be listening in, I did my best to eavesdrop. What was this drama on the pickleball court?

Apparently, an intermediate player had made the cardinal sin of moving her racquet back a few spots to “mix up” the teams. One of the advanced players clearly did not approve of this infraction and after a few choice words, took his paddle and went home in a huff. The drama fizzled down and everyone went back to their games, but that wasn’t the end of the story.

A few days later, an email from the neighborhood activities director arrived. “Attention all pickleball participants, this is a reminder that drop in pickleball is meant to be a friendly event for all residents. Please follow the rules for order of play. Thank you.”

The next Sunday, my neighbor suggested we try a park a few miles away. “There are tons of courts there and people are friendlier” she said.

We arrived to find a huge gaggle of players. All eight courts were in play and the smack of the ball against paddle had a welcoming sound. We placed our paddles in the requisite slots and before we knew it, we were off!

We played for a couple of hours and along with some good dinks and volleys, I met some really nice folks and also observed some interesting characters. The pickleball court is somewhat of an observational laboratory for human interaction. Sports imitates life and all that.

Without further ado, I present a sampling of the colorful personalities I’ve met in my foray into pickleball.

A fun and friendly pickleball match

The mansplainer:

My first match at the park was with three men who obviously all knew each other. They introduced themselves and asked what my “pickleball rating” was. When they were met with a blank stare, I realized I was now in the “mansplaining zone.” I assured them that while I was new, I was a former tennis player and did in fact, know (most of) the rules of pickleball, which was met with skeptical looks. As the game progressed, my tennis muscle memory kicked in and I held my own. The guys assured me that “I had potential” and I smiled inwardly as we headed back to the bench to wait for the next round.

The cute little married couple:

Game two was against a couple who appeared to be approaching their fifty-year anniversary mark. I learned that they play pickleball year-round and were high school sweethearts. Each time one of them missed a shot, there was that “married couple look” and occasional “married couple commentary.” I found myself hesitant to slam the ball past the wife as I towered over her – but she had a wicked dink shot and held her own.

The former college athlete who picks up the game lightning fast:

If you ever want to be humbled, play a sport (any sport) with someone a few decades younger who also happens to be a former college athlete. It doesn’t matter what sport, they have the speed, coordination and competitive drive to succeed. These athletic beings will pick up the sport and become an expert the next week. I played against a thirty-something mom who had been on the water polo team in college. “I’m a beginner,” she said, and then proceeded to trounce us quite handily.

The “just trying to help” coach:

My least favorite playing opponent or partner is the self-professed “coach.” Usually, they are about ten percent better than the person to whom they are giving helpful advice. In my case, I was using the wrong grip, my serve was above my waist (infraction) and I needed to yield all shots down the middle to her forehand. Never mind that I have a strong backhand. That middle area was her territory. “Let’s just call it,” I suggested. I was met with a blank stare.

The silent partner:

I’m chatty and I’m a morning person. Just putting that out there. Not everyone is. With drop-in play, it’s nice to introduce yourself to your partners and opponents and I like to get in a little “get to know you” banter but some are all business and shut that down pretty quickly. I tend to play a little stiff when I’m paired with a verbally spare partner. Something about friendly chatter puts me at ease. Plus, communication on court is key to success. “Your ball.”

The stealthy expert:

These players often come in the form of someone who hobbles in with a knee or elbow brace. They may be up there in years – or not look particularly athletic, but before you know it, they are serving up that wiffle ball with a spin that’s impossible to return. They artfully place the volleys at your feet or drop them out of reach every time. You later learn that they once competed at the 4.5 level in tennis league. Lesson learned. Never judge a pickleball player by their cover.

The fashionista:

Looking good on the court might not make you a better player but as any fashion-conscious girl knows, it’s always fun to have a new outfit. And I’ve seen some pretty amazing ensembles. Everything down to the shoes, visor and paddle cover coordinated. I often feel the urge to go shopping after encountering a fashionista.

Which leads me to my own pickleball persona. It wouldn’t be fair to poke fun at others without turning the pen on myself. Here goes. I’m that former tennis player whose size ten feet step into the “kitchen” too often. The person who when brand new to the game, led with “I’m new, I may need help with scoring.”

I compliment the other team’s shots and apologize to my partner for my own bad shots. I chat too much during games. I offer advice on stretching. I get everyone’s contact info and ask them where they are from, what they do and all kinds of personal questions.

In other words, I’m just as quirky as every other player out there and wouldn’t have it any other way. After all, the world would be a pretty dull place without a variety of personalities. And sports seem to bring out the best (and sometimes worst) traits in all of us. Pickleball anyone?

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