Competitive pickleball player Haddow Thul takes a break from a game at the Bowness Sportsplex in northwest Calgary to explain the critical role of snacking for endurance.
“I want to make sure that I have enough food to play for about three hours,” he says.
Thul is the vice-president of Pickleball Alberta; he also won a gold medal in the men’s doubles 4.5 division at the Pickleball Canada National Championships 2021 that took place in Red Deer this summer.
And he’s is on a mission to bring pickleball to a younger crowd in Alberta.
But the paddle sport is already exploding in popularity across the province, so much so that venues are often booked up and membership in clubs has swelled.
There are 24 pickleball clubs across Alberta, including in Calgary, Airdrie, Red Deer, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat.
This year, Pickleball Alberta reported that membership in the Calgary Zone — where there are the most players — has grown by about 30 per cent since 2020, despite the pandemic, from 863 players to now 1,120.
Meanwhile Pickleball Canada reports that Alberta is the one of the top three provinces in terms of membership. British Columbia leads with about 8,500 members playing in 2021, then Quebec with about 5,200 and Alberta with over 5,100 players. This doesn’t include unregistered participants playing across the provinces.
“Pickleball is the fastest growing sport in the city,” said Tony Tighe, president of the Calgary Pickleball Club.
Part of that growth is due to snowbirds vacationing over the border playing, then bringing the sport back with them. Another factor is that pickleball is a fairly easy sport to pick up no matter your age.
“It’s easy to learn and hard to master. It’s got that appeal of you can play and have a rally the first day that you try it usually, but then there’s so many things you could work on to improve, ” said Kim Layton.
Layton is a mother of four from Calgary and another competitive pickleball player. She’s won gold medals in the mixed and single division in the highest skill division you can play at the sport.
Pickleball is played on an indoor or outdoor court the same size as for doubles badminton.
To play, either single players or doubles teams volley a plastic ball with holes in it back and forth over a net using paddles much like oversized ping pong paddles that can be made from wood, graphite and composite materials.
Layton says it’s the strategy involved in the game and the social aspect that is a big part of its draw.
In Alberta, the majority of people picking up a paddle are age 40 and older. Just 1.4 per cent of active members are under 18 years old, 1.8 per cent are between the ages of 18 and 29, and 3.4 per cent are between 30 and 39.
That’s something Thul is trying to change.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for kids because one, [pickelball is] fun to play, social and … you can work on your technical skills and get better at something which I think is really important for a kid’s confidence,” he said.
To spread the pickleball fever to a younger crowd, Thul plans on running summer camps in summer 2022 to teach gameplay.
It’s not a male-dominated sport either; female membership makes up over 52 per cent of players according to Pickleball Alberta.
“There’s a lot of women who get attracted to this sport that really haven’t been very active … but they can pick it up, they can be active,” said Beverly Walker, former president of Pickleball Alberta.
Layton says it’s another reason why she loves pickleball.
“In other sports, I feel like the men can out-power the women. But in pickleball, that’s really not the case. There’s more that goes into the game,” she said.
The issue of court time
One of the biggest issues facing the sport in Calgary is that players have limited court opportunities, players say.
“Every single time there’s a pickleball event or pickleball session being held at one of the locations that we can play, it’s always full,” said Thul.
In Red Deer, north of Calgary, the city opened one of the largest outdoor pickleball courts in Canada, boasting 20 courts. And new facilities are opening across the province, but Tighe says demand for space to play is increasing as the sport’s popularity grows.
That’s why he, Walker and others have created the Calgary Pickleball Complex Foundation to advocate for a dedicated facility.
In the meantime, finding court time can be a bit of pickle for players.