As the sport of pickleball has grown exponentially in Niagara-on-the-Lake since the days of drop-in games in the community centre more than four years ago, so too has the skill level of those who were then just beginners in a sport that was new to them.
With 300 members in the club now, some prefer to playing indoors through the winter, without the sun and wind to deal with, and others make the most of the outdoor town courts in Virgil in the summer, and will likely continue to do so until the town takes the nets down, typically around the end of October.
A number of players have also chosen to compete in tournaments across the province, such as one held recently in Peterborough. Evidence of their level of improvement is in the medals they have brought home with them.
But whether NOTL Pickleball Club members choose to compete further afield or to remain playing at a local, social level, their enthusiasm and passion for the sport has never waned, says club president John Hindle.
“They love being out on the court, they love learning, and love playing with others. The joy we see everyday makes it all so worthwhile.”
Although the pandemic years have presented challenges for the membership, the outdoor courts this summer “were maxed out.” There were 24 people playing on the six courts and another six waiting to rotate in at any time during the club’s four scheduled hours each day, says Hindle.
Also, “thanks to the town’s foresight in building the best outdoor facility in the region,” players from across Niagara have joined the local club, also enticed by lessons offered by two new club coaches. They represent “a slightly different demographic” to the club, more in the age range of 45 to 60, and often bringing with them a higher level of play.
Hindle is expecting and planning for the same level of enthusiasm from the locals as the club moves inside next Wednesday, although he’s unsure how many members will want to play.
“We’re going to start very slowly at the community centre first, through our partnership with the town, and use up all the opportunities it has to offer. There are a couple of unknowns, such as how many of our players will want to move indoors.”
Also a factor is how many club members who typically travel south for the winter will take that risk, and how many of the members from outside NOTL will move indoors on courts closer to home, in St. Catharines and other parts of the region, where they won’t have to travel so far in the winter, he says.
Those who want to play will have to show proof they’re fully vaccinated, as mandated by the town, says Hindle.
There are no more drop-in sessions — thanks to the growing number of players, and COVID protocols which allow fewer people waiting to rotate in at any one time, the club is relying on an online pre-registration. They must limit players to 12 players on three courts for each session, and six on the community centre stage, waiting to rotate in, accommodating a maximum of 18 people per session.
Hindle explains pickleball is different from tennis in that players don’t schedule a court. The club books two-hour time slots on the three courts available to them, and as each game of four people is completed, usually in about 10 minutes or so, they take a short break and others rotate in.
As the schedules fill up, he can add more, he says — mornings for people who are early birds, afternoons for others who are less so, and evenings for working people and families — to the extent that there is availability at the community centre. If they become full as well, he may look to alternative sites, such as the gym in the former Virgil school, to accommodate more members.
“Some members would be happy to play every day,” he says. “How many days a week we’ll be able to schedule is the magic question. For now, we’re starting off slow, and we’ll see where it goes.”
He may also have to figure out a way to limit the number of sessions for each player, to ensure all members have access to the courts, and to be sure players get to be on the courts with others at their level of play. “It’s complicated” he says, also factoring in the level of play, and special sessions for beginners and families. “Our plan is to grow into our audience.”
And what would make him happy would be to see more young people and kids coming out. In the summer, he loved seeing groups of kids arrive at the Virgil courts, paddles in hand, ready to play. “They might not know the rules, but they have a whale of a time,” says Hindle.
“This is an ideal sport for kids, and easy to learn. I love seeing families getting involved. It’s an amazing sport for all generations, all ages, all levels. And it’s great for families who can all play the same game together.”