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  • Marc Iturriaga

Belonging in Recreation: My Pickleball Story

I'm here to dissuade a myth that the main limits to participation in sport and recreation for adults are the BIG 3: Time, Money, and Convenience. Sure, these are very important factors that rec providers need to negotiate with their participants, but it has been the sole focus for too long. I am on a professional and personal crusade to shift that focus to BELONGING, and here's why: Pickleball.

Pickleball is a paddleball sport (similar to a racquet sport) that combines elements of tennis, badminton, and table tennis. It is a fast growing trend in many rec centres and seems like a great introductory sport to many who are looking to get back to being active.

My Pickleball Story

My spouse and I have talked recently about finding an activity that we could do together. Enter Pickleball at our local community centre. The BIG 3 was taken care of: It was at our local community centre just minutes away, it was during a time we were both home from work and the kids were at school, and it was a FREE drop in program. Both of us have some experience with racquet sports but by no means are we experts, and neither of us had played Pickleball. The website said all skill levels welcome and we thought maybe this would be an excellent way for us to get regular exercise and have some fun together.

When we arrived, the facility was packed. There was definitely a system in place that we did not know, the skill level seemed very competitive, and there was a chaos that we did not know how to navigate. We stood in the gym like 2 lost, wayward souls unsure of what we were getting ourselves into. After standing around for what seemed like forever, a kind woman walked past us and my spouse asked her if she could explain what was going on as it was our first time. She gave us had a 5 minute crash course about what the system was, how to play the game, the paddle reservation system, etc. She was taking time out of her own playing time to help us out and we were grateful but she was also rushed to get back to her playing. We sat down to wait our turn, looked at each other and asked ourselves "Did you get any of that?". Eventually it was our turn, an elderly couple walked us to our court and split us up to play with them. They were very kind, patient, and extremely skilled. They tried to teach us some strategy, repeated the rules multiple times as we both continued to forget them, and played a game with us that lasted maybe 5 minutes. We shook hands, walked off the court, and out of the gym. We have yet to return.

What Happened?

The participants were very kind and patient. The helped us try to understand the game and they welcomed us into their space. The BIG 3 was navigated, yet both my spouse and I didn't feel like playing again. The players that were participating didn't feel like us: They were generally much older, they were more skilled, they understood the culture and systems, and they knew each other. We didn't feel like we BELONG. It wasn't the Pickleball players fault. It wasn't the rec centre's fault. I would argue it wasn't our fault either. The fault lies in the current culture that puts the ownership on participants to navigate the challenging landscape of sport and recreation. We assume that participants coming to our facilities feel welcome, invited and included because we provided time to play, put up advertisements, and offer activities that people want. There is little to no intentional efforts to create a sense of belonging - we hope that the participants will do it themselves.

What If?

What could have been done differently? Let's play a WHAT IF game. What if there was someone scheduled to greet us at the door, engage us to ask us questions and spend some time to make us feel comfortable? What if there was a dedicated court or scheduled time for beginners to come out and learn basic skills and rules without feeling like we are putting out those who are experienced and looking for competitive play? What if there was a court for just my spouse and I to hit the ball back and forth without worry about rules or points (which to be honest, is really what we were looking for). Any one of these What Ifs? would have helped us feel closer to belonging and probably would have led to us staying longer and playing regularly, because we both admitted that Pickleball looked like fun!

I'm on a journey exploring the importance BELONGING in sport and recreation. My theory is: when people feel like they BELONG - that is they feel Welcome, Invited, and Included - we will begin to see a tipping point in our society of more people, more active, more often. When rec organizations, communities, and governments put more resources into BELONGING in sport and recreation rather than systems, facilities, and infrastructure - Focus on PEOPLE rather than SPACE and MONEY, we will begin to see a revolution of increased participation. I want to shine the spotlight on people and organizations that have made BELONGING a priority and to help others use BELONGING as a critical outcome to success.

I want to play a sport like Pickleball with my spouse and feel like I BELONG!

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