Players from Quail Creek’s and GVR’s pickleball clubs are volunteering their time to get the kids at Continental Elementary School excited about learning to play the game.
Through the efforts of Larry Friedman, USA Pickleball Association ambassador and Quail Creek Pickleball Club member, a new after-school program gives kids a chance to play pickleball while learning the rules and building their skills.
It’s not the first time kids at Continental have had a chance to play the game. Pickleball has been part of Continental’s physical education classes before, but what sets this program apart is the enthusiasm kids are showing in getting to play the game outside of regular school hours.
Steven Lathen, director of student services and the athletic director at Continental, has been with the school district for 12 years and spent 10 years as the physical education teacher before moving to an administrative position.
“When I came, there was a little bit of pickleball equipment and so we got more,” Lathen said. “Where I grew up in Idaho, we played pickleball there in our P.E. classes, so I brought that back to Continental School.”
The program began after Friedman, a former middle-school math teacher for 10 years, approached Lathen with the idea of starting an after-school program.
“I received a lot of support, not only from Mr. Lathen, but from the superintendent of schools who made a presentation to the school board who approved the concept of an after-school pickleball club,” Friedman said.
However, it is the time and effort Friedman and the other club volunteers bring to the school that Lathen said makes the pickleball program possible.
“We can do it in P.E., but without them and their continued support, both through tax credit donations as well as their time, an activity like this club would not be possible,” Lathen said.
On Fridays after classes end, students gather in the gym at Continental where Friedman and four other volunteers are waiting to begin. As the students start filling the gym, it quickly becomes a frenzy of excitement as the kids gather their paddles and start hitting balls all around.
With the pickleball program having moved from courts outside to inside the gym, it makes going after a wild ball much easier.
The after-school pickleball program is now in its sixth week. Typically, 25 to 35 students show up to play, but as many as 40 are signed up, Lathen noted.
While it can be easy to associate pickleball as a new trend for adults locally, given its rising popularity among the retired community in Green Valley and Sahuarita, it’s actually a family game that goes back to Bainbridge Island in Washington state in 1965.
According to the USAPA’s history of pickleball, three fathers invented the game as an alternative to other activities their kids had grown bored with. In 1984, the USAPA was organized to grow and advance pickleball on a national level, according to the organization’s website.
Increasing visibility and access to the sport is one of the reasons Friedman wanted to start an after-school program at Continental, but for him it’s just a beginning.
“My long-range plan, I’d love to see Continental play against Rio Rico, against Sahuarita, just like in basketball and other sports,” Friedman said. “This sport is growing so fast and to have a school in my backyard have an after-school club, it’s just the beginning of something greater.”
Pickleball is played with a graphite, composite or wooden paddle and a ball, similar to what is used in Wiffle ball. Gameplay is much slower paced than racquetball and tennis. The courts are also smaller than a regulation-sized tennis court.
While the game may not be as intense as tennis or racquetball, there may still be benefits that players of all ages can enjoy.
“It’s a slowed-down tennis game, on a smaller court with a ball that travels slower that’s easier to control, where kids can actually play against adults and can do it with success,” Lathen said. “We feel, especially myself as an educator, it’s about teaching kids lifelong sports, not just football and basketball.”
One reason pickleball is a good sport for life is because people can remain active and social playing the game well into retirement age, whereas it’s far less likely with football and basketball, Lathen said.
Friedman agreed that the game makes it easy for the youngsters to gain some level of success when they play, no matter what their athletic abilities are.
“So that makes it fun for them, whether it’s boys or girls,” he said.
Despite their initial excitement as they run around hitting balls at random, Friedman is able to quickly gather the students, who listen as he reviews what they have learned so far and what they will focus on this time.
The program isn’t just about playing pickleball for awhile and then going home. It is about learning the rules and building the skills necessary to play the game correctly.
With four nets and volunteers, Friedman divides the young players into even groups to practice drills like returning the ball before it hits the court, or controlling a return rather than simply hitting for strength.
At each net, the kids line up and wait their turn to practice what they have learned. More importantly, they are laughing, talking, working together and staying active.
“Being back with kids, in this environment, and to see how much fun they have, and it’s so much better than going home and playing with their phone or digital devices or watching television,” Friedman said. “This is much better for them.”
Jorge Encinas | 520-547-9732