I’ve said it a million times, and will continue to say it because it’s true: pickleball is growing at the speed of light.
At the root of that growth in our beautiful city, is the Vancouver Pickleball Association (VPA). They have worked in association with the city as well as pickleball players to develop the game by lobbying for courts and by creating community outreach initiatives to bring the sport to more people.
Among these, the LGBTQ+ outreach initiative has proven very successful.
With almost 80 registered players, and an average of around 20 attendees per session (13 sessions starting in July 2022), the VPA has created an opportunity for a community who otherwise may not have learned about this wonderful sport.
Our partner HEAD also graciously donated 20 paddles, 50 pickle balls and 1 transport bag to get the program started.
The initiative is the brainchild of Paul Scheffer. Jacqueline Clarke is a member of the team who helped get it off the ground. We sat down with the VPA member and pickleball aficionado to learn more.
What kind of work do you do for the VPA specifically related to the LGBTQ+ community?
JACQUELINE: Greg Feehan, the president of the VPA, asked me to help Paul Scheffer get an initiative off the ground. The idea was basically to create two things: a safe space for LGBTQ+ folk to play pickleball, as well as to invite LGBTQ+ folk who were already in other leagues to try pickleball; for example participants in the gay curling, hockey or soccer league. He wanted to get people who already had a background in athletics to try pickleball, because he knew after trying it, they would be hooked. So I worked with him to try and get it off the ground; where to do it, what day of the week to do it, and how to promote it.
What role does the VPA play in helping pickleball grow, especially in Vancouver?
JACQUELINE: I think that the VPA has been critical to the growth of Vancouver pickleball. The association has successfully advocated for more courts; one of the sport's biggest challenges in any city. VPA was responsible for getting dedicated courts at Queen Elizabeth Park, and the addition of several other smaller locations like Brewers Park and Pandora Park. And this summer, the association played a significant role in getting the pop-up courts.
They have also provided significant financial support, providing nets for three of the playing locations as well as all of the pop-up courts to make these locations "playable". Finally, the association has had an important impact on building community and encouraging people to play. They’ve put on initiatives like this one with the LGBTQ+ community, as well as with a few schools.
We’ve seen the game grow massively over the last several years, what is it that you think makes the game so popular? Do you think there is a shallower learning curve, at least at introductory levels?
JACQUELINE: I think it’s two things. I think the game is really easy to play. You play doubles, so you’re not covering the whole court by yourself, and it’s also a smaller court. It’s got familiarity too since it has elements from tennis, badminton and table-tennis. But it's not like tennis where you may have to play for a long time before seeing any results. For example, with our LGBTQ+ sessions, we do a two-hour introduction, and they are ready to play the game. You won't become the best player in the world overnight, but you can pick it up and enjoy playing right away.
I also think the other reason it's taken off is COVID. The game has been around since 1965 and developed in several locations, such as Florida and Arizona. With COVID, when people couldn’t do anything indoors, they were looking for options, and pickleball fit the bill.
Why is it important for the VPA that we develop these outreach initiatives to bring the sport to more people?
JACQUELINE: There are a number of reasons. First of all, it’s the right thing to do. In Vancouver, there’s a high cost of living and pickleball is very affordable. Paddles can be cheap, and public courts cost nothing. Making sure people have affordable sports options is the right thing to do. Secondly, if we want to grow the sport, we need the youth. If we want the sport to go to the Olympics, we need to have the youth involved. We also need pickleball to be inclusive. Olympic committees look for that, and with good reason, so to get our sport on the global stage, we need it to be accessible to all.
Sports help keep society sane and healthy.
Everyone should have access to an activity that stretches the legs, gets the heart rate pumping, and the competitive juices flowing. But not every sport is easy to learn. We need sports like pickleball, where the initial learning curve is shallow, so that anyone can get playing quickly, to a point where they enjoy the game.
The fact that pickleball was so accessible during the height of COVID-19 is testament to its role in keeping many people happy during the most trying of times.
Entering a public sport setting as a novice can be intimidating. How does the VPA conduct its outreach initiatives to make pickleball feel welcoming, especially for those in the LGBTQ+ community?
JACQUELINE: For one, we run the program twice a week, and that’s to create as many opportunities as possible to learn to play and to practice. We have some people who already know how to play, and we pair them up with others of the same level. We also have some people who have never played before, so we also run an introductory session. We start by letting the new players get a feel for the ball and the court, encouraging them to try hitting the ball from the mid-court, baseline and kitchen, to finally get them to a point when they can start scoring while knowing the basics. Simplicity is key at first, and developing an understanding for the game before trying too hard to develop skill can lead to a more comfortable experience down the road. At least they can think when they get onto the court, “I know what I’m doing”.
The next thing we want to do, is a "field trip": take these players to Queen Elizabeth Park. When you first get to QEP, it can be intimidating, so we’ll take them there to show them where the paddles go, when to go on court and when to give up the court. That way they won’t feel added stress about court etiquette in a public setting.
After a few sessions now, have you seen an uptick in the quality of play and sense of competition?
JACQUELINE: In terms of getting competitive, I don’t think we’re there yet, but we’ve definitely seen some newbies who are ready to hold their own with 2.0 players. We also see some folks who have had experience in racket sports already, and they pick it up right away and are ready to start playing with players who have been playing a bit longer. And there's some talk of taking a rainbow Team Vancouver to the Vienna 2024 Euro Games.
There are emotional barriers to entry in any sport.
For one, the frustration involved in trying to learn a technical sport can cause many to walk away. Jacqueline's background in teaching as well as the VPA's willingness to bring in coaches is key to teaching the sport the right way. Easy at first, and the rest will come with time and training if you are willing.
It can also be very intimidating to walk up to public courts like the ones at Queen Elizabeth Park and get lost in the sea of advanced players and court rules. Giving newcomers the basics to court etiquette and pickleball rules is important as it gives confidence to people who might otherwise feel too anxious to approach the public courts.
Have you seen a lot of players coming back with growing interest, or more newcomers coming to give pickleball a shot?
JACQUELINE: The last few sessions, we’ve had consistently around 20 people show up, 3-4 newcomers, but also a group of people who have been consistently coming back. They signed up at the very beginning and have been coming ever since. So, of the 80 players that we’ve signed up, we definitely see a group that’s coming back and enjoying the sport.
Do you hope the players attending the sessions go out seeking pickleball outside of the outreach programs?
JACQUELINE: Yes, I tell the players, “we can only teach you so much, go out and take lessons”. I also give them a handout which provides some ideas for “what’s next?”. The handout offers pointers on getting their own paddle, joining VPA and finding places to play. I’ve also started suggesting that they connect with each other to link up outside of our sessions and play together.
After the success of the LGBTQ+ initiative, how does the VPA plan to develop its outreach programs in the future?
JACQUELINE: The pop-up court trial has been a fantastic opportunity to run these initiatives (Champlain Heights Park and Memorial South Park). Once the trial is over, it’s going to be difficult to continue running these initiatives. During the wintertime, we will have a hard time trying to book indoor court time. But we hope to get access to more courts in the future so we can open the sport to more communities.
That's just it, pickelball, like any sport, is for all.
It’s only by actively engaging with different communities that the sport will continue its stratospheric rise. The game does sell itself, in a way. It’s easy to learn, sociable, competitive, and a heck of a lot of fun. It just needs a platform to give a comfortable, safe environment for people to learn, and that’s just what the VPA is providing with its community outreach programs. For that, we tip our hats.
Rackets & Runners is a proud sponsor of the VPA and offers a wide variety of pickleball gear to get your started.