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The Pickleball Paradox: Saving Democracy One Serve at a Time

Posted by Nicole Johnston on Mar 1, 2024 11:16:08 AM

With warm weather on the horizon, the popping sound of pickleballs will soon return to our neighborhoods. As an avid fan of pickleball and skills-based learning, I often think about the life skills acquired in pickleball. Combine this with my position as a history teacher, and my mind wanders to the question, can pickleball save democracy? I know it sounds like a stretch but stick with me on this for a bit.

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Pickleball is a social sport. A player can search for courts with open play, show up on their own, and jump into a game. This can take place in their neighborhood or while traveling for vacation or work. For those unfamiliar with pickleball, it is often played in a doubles format. Many times, you meet your partner when you arrive at the court. When engaging in an open-play format, your partner is constantly changing to allow all players an opportunity. Depending on the number of players, you may spend time waiting for your turn, which provides you with the opportunity to talk with others also waiting to play. In these formats, there are no judges calling balls in or out. The players engaged in the game determine the calls. When you take all of this into account, teamwork, communication, and conflict resolution are skills present in pickleball. What does this mean for democracy?

George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” For a long time, I used this quote with students when discussing government, current events, and our role as citizens. When I started playing pickleball, Shaw’s words became more palpable. Teamwork, with a partner you are meeting for the first time, requires communication. Players need to share their strengths and coordinate their strategies. It involves give and take as well as the art of compromise to make the partnership work. Playing with a variety of partners allows players to develop empathy and perspective-taking skills. Working effectively as a team on the court can lead to stronger collaboration in all aspects of life, including community initiatives. Effective communication is also important to create a fun, positive atmosphere on the court and to call balls in or out. The latter helps build the skill of conflict resolution. At times, disagreements or conflicts in the court due to disputed calls take place. Learning to resolve conflicts peacefully, negotiate differences, and find common ground are essential for pickleball and democracy.

One of the most fascinating elements of communication that takes place in pickleball is the exchanging of tips and strategies. How often are we willing to take advice from a stranger about ways we can personally improve? In pickleball, it happens all the time. Sometimes, we take the advice; other times, we decide it will not work for us. The key to the conversation is that we listen to what the other person has to say. We not only listen to their advice, but we listen to the experience that led them to their opinion. Engaging in meaningful dialogue, understanding others’ perspectives, and empathizing with their experiences contribute to social intelligence and interpersonal sensitivity. In a democracy, open and respectful dialogue is essential for addressing complex challenges. Through pickleball, you can learn to facilitate dialogue by fostering a culture of listening, empathy, and mutual understanding, even when disagreeing over a call.

The welcoming nature of pickleball allows you to play the game no matter where you travel. Before pickleball, I do not recall a time when I knew I would be welcomed to a new place I was visiting. The game fosters an inclusive and supportive environment. It brings together individuals from diverse backgrounds, ages, and skill levels. Playing in different areas of the country provides the opportunity to learn about the issues impacting various communities. Because of pickleball, I have expanded my network and built connections with players from different locations and backgrounds. I have also had to eat some humble pie when getting schooled by players twenty years younger and twenty years older than me.

That leads me to my last point, and possibly the most important. Pickleball can save democracy by encouraging dialogue, debate, and collaboration between different age groups. Every generation has a unique perspective. Each generation possesses valuable knowledge and experience. Pickleball strengthens social cohesion by bridging the generation gap and creating mutual respect. The interdependence of different generations is essential for democracy.

As a history teacher, I can teach the meaning of the U.S. Constitution and the structure of our government, but without teaching them how to engage with it, we have not provided what our students and our country need. I am also not naïve. I understand that disagreements in pickleball and taking advice about ways to improve your performance are widely different than the issues confronting our nation. But if we take more time to listen, knowing we might still disagree but at least understand where someone is coming from and build intergenerational relationships, we could move forward as a nation. Then, maybe we can all work together to achieve John Winthrop’s “City on the Hill” I read about when I was in high school.

Topics: politiccs, history, growth mindset, diversity, equity, inclusion and justice, social justice, Community

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