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  • Writer's pictureKevin Graham

State of the (pickleball) world

As I write this, I'm supposed to be playing pickleball, but I skipped out today, uncertain of my rightful place. Last time out, I was confronted by a woman who suggested, to be blunt about it, that I had no right to play with the seniors group. I should add that attaining the age of 50 qualifies you to play in the seniors group. In a short number of weeks, I’ll be 17 years past that threshold.

I'm only three months into playing this game and still learning. I’m an ‘okay’ player, but far from the best in the group. The challenge for some is in facing opponents with far greater skill. In equal measure, the challenge for others is in facing opponents with far lesser skill. The format is doubles, often mixed, with partners rotating so you can’t keep playing with the same person and win every game. Winners play against winners. Losers play against losers.

The woman who challenged my right to play had just lost a game with me on the other side of the net. Mindful of this person’s skill level, I tried to ‘take it easy’ when playing the ball to her. I saw this as the ‘right thing to do’… until her partner figured out what I was doing and repeatedly stepped in, poaching easy shots for the kill. Quite frankly, when that happened, my generosity flew out the window.

So… it wasn’t clear what was being asked of me… other than not to show up.

Are you asking me not to smash from overhead? Or are you asking me not to drive the ball from the baseline with force you can’t handle?

What next? Will you ask me not to spin the ball? What about drop shots? What about those nasty lobs over your head?

Are you asking me to lose a few points? Games?

Are you asking me to play friendly ping pong as you might with a six year-old, and to do so with someone who is trying their hardest to win and won't hesitate to smash, spin, lob, or drop the ball short if the opportunity arises?

It's a bit of a dance, I must say. 

I remember very well, almost 25 years ago, when my dear friend Steve Piltch, whom I’d just met, invited me to join him for some squash. Now Director of the School Leadership Program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, Steve was, at the time, Head of School at The Shipley School in Bryn Mawr. We played three or four games, all of which he won, but only by a couple of points each time. Afterward, he congratulated me on a good match, to which I replied, “C’mon now, Steve. I saw the picture on your office wall.” While completing his doctoral studies, Steve had been coach of Harvard University men’s and women’s squash teams, leading them to six national championships. Steve had mastered the ability to win while letting his opponent think that they’re actually in the game. I’ve yet to master that skill… but I am trying. 

My best life lessons, early on, were found in competitive athletics. Learning to play friendly was not a central part of the experience. Learning to sustain an edge of high intensity was absolutely the key. Competing with oneself, becoming better than yesterday's self, and measuring success on the scoreboard against others... that was a driving force. 

Challenged as I was earlier this week, I’m prompted to wonder: Can I, or should I, abandon this competitive paradigm in favour of another? Would it be an incremental shift like the transitions from telegraph to telephone and then to email and texting? Would it be a transformative shift like the one from foot to bicycle to internal combustion to electric… and maybe soon enough to "beam me up, Scottie"?

Or is it more like the acquired learning evolution from two cavemen fighting for survival over a single piece of meat to cooperative hunting, to the development of shared interests and community, followed by a step-back reversion to warring tribes, the amalgamation of these warring tribes into nations with common cause, and then to a series of devastating wars punctuated by brief moments of peace and cooperation? 

Is this back and forth dance of intermittent competition and cooperation doomed to an escalating destiny of mutual mass destruction?

Were my early-life athletic lessons lacking? Did I fail to learn something even more important than scraping my way to the top of the hill? Did I... do I... owe a contribution to my opponent's experience... and to my opponent's outcome? Maybe yes…

I've long recognized that I belong to things larger than myself... in innumerable ways. Stemming from this recognition, should a more accommodating paradigm be applied to a three hour rapid-fire winner-stays-on construct where everyone at play on four pickleball courts is fighting to be a winner? Maybe yes…

In circumstances where my own growth places me in an advantageous role, am I obliged to set aside world domination in favour of something else? Is there something else? Is there a higher purpose than winning? Should I be sharing my meagre gifts in aid of making the pie a little larger such that others may share? Maybe yes… this is something for me to ponder.

But we're just talking about pickleball here, eh? Hmmm… maybe not.

With respect,


Kevin Graham

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