For pickleball, your equipment needs are simple.
You need sport shoes with smooth tread for tennis-type courts, because running shoes on court surfaces can abruptly terminate your forward progress, ending in a nasty fall. Think about getting a pair of inexpensive sport goggles, because sometimes an errant ball might be attracted to your eyes or nose, and wear old, loose sports clothing because you soon will be ready to buy a smaller size.
Now, let’s talk about the paddle.
Like many of you, I first bought two of those wooden paddles, and they soon became very expensive firewood. I should have known better. I spent a lifetime developing and marketing tennis rackets using the same materials used in pickleball paddles, and I am even confused today when I go to the Internet to determine paddle playability differences.
I normally have 10 assorted demo paddles with me when I go to various pickleball venues. When you hit with my demo paddles, or your friends’ paddles, you realize there is definitely playability difference.
Paddles, by nature of materials, design and geometry, have larger or smaller sweet spots, more or less control, more or less shock, and ditto on power. In this article, I will address the questions I most frequently hear about paddles. I typically try to inject humor into my articles, but paddles are very serious to pickleballers.
I spoke with the CEO and owner of ProLite Pickleball Paddles, Neil Friedenberg, about how they go about designing and developing paddles, and his comments were informative.
“We listen to our pros on what they look for in a paddle. They have thoughts on weights, length, feel, power — you name it. We always take into consideration their backgrounds, too ... what a tennis player looks for, racquetball player, table tennis, squash, etc.”
Regrettably, some paddles are designed abroad, just to meet a price point. As an example, once there was a worldwide shortage of tennis balls and I visited a factory in South Korea to see if they might be able to produce quality tennis balls.
The balls met all the technical requirements, but management in the factory had no idea about playability. In fact, the only tennis racket they had was in a display mounted above the executive meeting room. I had to physically climb a wall to grab it and go outside and hit balls against a wall. The balls were awful.
Believe me, you want the executives that produce pickleball paddles playing and listening to top players in the game. If you buy a paddle manufactured in the United States, I think you improve your chances for satisfaction.
The most asked question is “Should I get a ‘graphite’ paddle or a ‘composite’ paddle?” Those two questions can actually be the same thing, since composite means composing or sandwiching various materials (including graphite) into a paddle or racket. Other materials, besides graphite, frequently used in paddle face “composite” construction are the higher-end carbon fiber, fiberglass and polypropylene, which can be enhanced within allowable limits to improve spin on a ball.
The second question I hear frequently is “Should I play with graphite?” My response to the question is, normally, “I don’t know — Are you a power player or a control player?” Some graphite paddles — those that use the higher-end carbon fiber — are powerful, while many others are poorly assembled.
The magic isn’t in the graphite, it’s in the total construction, and so much depends on the core. Often (though not always), the loud sound associated with graphite paddles is shock, which travels down the handle of an inferior paddle directly to your elbow and shoulder. The consumer, not suspecting the source of their problem is the paddle, buys yet another elbow or arm wrap. If you need power, you probably want to get a well-constructed paddle.
“Light paddle weight” seems to be in contention for the second most-asked question. Many female players tell me they want to use a very lightweight paddle with a very small handle. Why not play with a bird feather, because that would answer both paddle weight and handle requirements. Of course, the feather would be too light to generate any power, and the handle so small it would twist in the hand.
There are those who tell me with a great deal of assertiveness that they want a paddle exactly 7.8 ounces, or 8.2 ounces. In a vacuum, those numbers mean absolutely nothing unless you are matching it up to the weight of your previous paddle.
The swing weight, not total weight, is the most important piece of information about any racket, paddle, baseball or cricket bat, or golf club. The design and swing weight will allow the desired control and punch. ProLite introduced the first pickleball paddle for women late last year — lighter but with more swing weight.
Another question I hear frequently is about the edge guard, and this one makes me — not you — chuckle. Some folks tell me, quite adamantly, they don’t want the edge guard, which is wrapped around the edge of paddles to protect the court. The edge guard also protects you from rough edges produced when the paddle strikes the surface. Believe me — you don’t want a piece of graphite to get into your hand or finger and bloodstream.
The reason the consumer apparently wants edgeless is because they hit so many balls at the edge of their paddle. Every fiber in my body wants to scream, “Practice, and watch the ball!”
The only rule governing the size of the paddle is that total length and width cannot exceed 24 square inches, and the total length cannot exceed 17 inches, which has led to some interesting shapes. There are also rules governing the amount of allowable texture in the face of the paddle. An ideal combination of texture and core can allow for a surprising amount of spin.
Another question is handle size. Unlike tennis rackets, pickleball paddle handle lengths and circumferences vary by the different models offered, rather than a particular handle size per model. Circumference can be modified by applying different grips or adding overwraps.
A good question I never hear would be, “Do I want a half-inch-thick paddle or a 3/8-inch paddle?” since they absorb shock differently.
The core can be Nomex honeycomb, aluminum honeycomb or the new polymer honeycomb. The American manufacturers combined their R&D resources a few years ago to develop an engineered polymer honeycomb core that specifically would be quieter in pickleball communities. A side benefit was that the polymer honeycomb core led to more ball control, just as less string tension in tennis rackets results in more ball control.
Other players have explained that they purchased this model or that model because it was the most expensive paddle they could find online. Attention: To those players — when you are next in the market, I have a faded designer demo paddle with engineered scratches and chips that I am selling for $999.
Paddle material prices are going up this summer, but you can still buy a quality U.S.-made paddle for between $50 and $150. If you are like the average consumer, you are going to play so much Pickleball that your cost per session for a quality paddle might range between 8 and 16 cents an hour over the first year of ownership.
Here are the three questions consumers should ask themselves: Which product is best suited to my individual game? Which just feels better in my hand? And, finally, how easy will it be to replace (warranty/guarantee) a paddle should it break? At the end of the day, your pickleball paddle — your new best friend — should feel comfortable in your hand, because you are going to spend many hours together.
Vaughn “The Baron” Baker is a Senior Olympics gold-medalist in pickleball, and is public relations director for the First State Pickleball Club (FSPC) and captain of the Ocean View Crew pickleball community. He spent his career working with top tennis professionals while working for Wilson Sporting Goods and introducing the Prince Tennis Racket and Wimbledon Tennis Lines. For more information, visit PickleballCoast.com.