American’s fastest-growing sport has made it to Delmarva

Have you heard about pickleball? It’s known as the fastest-growing sport in the U.S. today. The great thing about pickleball is that it’s enjoying fans in all age groups, and part of the reason for the popularity is that, regardless of your athletic skill level, you can play.

This sport is a heck of a lot of fun. It combines many elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong. It’s played with a paddle and a plastic ball, much like a whiffle ball, on a court that is about a third the size of a tennis court. The rules are very simple, and the game itself is easy for beginners to learn.

I love the fact that you get to choose the level of play that works for you. If you have physical or other health issues that might limit you, you can play at a more leisurely pace. But, the game can adapt to any level of play you choose, so it can expand into a quick, fast-paced, competitive game for people who want more challenges or have become more experienced players.

Great for getting people together, the game can accommodate two players or doubles matches.

This is a sport that helps people of all ages be active. Pickleball is being introduced to kids and teenagers in physical education classes in middle and high schools. Many retirement communities and organizations across the country are offering lessons and have opened clubs, because it has become extremely popular with players 50 and older.

I really want to encourage you, no matter how old you are, to give it some thought, because it is lower-impact and easier on the joints, including the hips and knees. At the same time, it’s an excellent way to increase cardiovascular fitness. This all-age sport is even helping the economy. It has actually caused a building boom, because of the explosion of new court construction across the country.

Just to give you a sense of how popular this sport has become, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s (SFIA) 2015 Participant Report, there are more than 2.46 million pickleball participants in the United States, according to USAPA (USA Pickleball Association), the rising popularity can be seen by the now-nearly 13,000 indoor and outdoor courts for pickleball that now exist in the U.S. The organization says there’s at least one location in each of the 50 states.

Pickleball’s popularity has spread to the Delmarva Peninsula, too. It’s so popular around here that there’s a First State Pickleball Club. Individuals and close friends can play together, but you can also contact First State Pickleball Club to learn how to join area teams and take advantage of the many social activities, including a variety of events, tournaments and socials.

In fact, this article is a sneak preview of some of the information that I’ll be talking about when I speak at a pickleball preventative sports injury clinic for Sussex County-area residents. The First State Pickle Club is hosting the event, and they’ve asked me to head up the clinic that is set to take place on June 14 atHYPERLINK "" 6 p.m. at Saint Ann’s Catholic Church, which is located at 691 Garfield Parkway in Bethany Beach.

If you come to the clinic, you’ll learn the details behind the importance of properly preparing for the sport’s activity and how to prevent injuries. I’ll also have staff with me to demonstrate exercises you should know and how to properly perform those exercises so you won’t get hurt.

Whether you can be on hand or want to learn from this article, you’ll want to understand more about how to prevent injuries, because you or somebody you care about will very likely be playing pickleball soon, if not already.

What you need to keep in mind is that pickleball is like any sport, which means there are always risks of injury. You have to watch for musculoskeletal injuries, including minor sprains and strains, and the risk of more serious injuries, such as ligament and tendon injuries or fractures.

The most typical injuries associated with this sport include shoulder strains, wrist fractures, ankle strains, Achilles tendon strains, quad and hamstring strains, knee strains, heel bruises and plantar fasciitis.

Obviously, preventing injuries is your priority, and there are a number of ways you can do just that.

Warm-ups are critical to getting your body ready to play. The main purpose of a warm-up period is to raise the general body temperature prior to playing. When the body temperature is raised, it will increase your ability to perform the stretching exercises.

The warm-up period should be approximately 5 to 10 minutes. You can accomplish the proper warm-up for pickleball in a number of ways. Some good examples are a fast walk, riding a bike or getting on a treadmill.

Once you warm up — which means your heart rate, body temperature and breathing have increased — you want to take time to stretch. Stretching is another important element of preparing to play, because it increases your flexibility, and that’s key to decreasing your chances of suffering an injury. It has the added bonus of helping you play better, too.

A proper exercise program should make sure the muscles and joints are prepared in crucial areas, such as your shoulders and arms, your lower back, your ankles and calves, as well as your Achilles tendon, your quadriceps (at the front of your upper leg), your hamstrings (at the back of your upper leg), low back, shoulder and arms.

I’m not a fan of one-size-fits-all warm-up and stretch plans, which is why I am not recommending any specific elements of a program here. Every individual has their own history, and it’s important to consider your specific needs.

Your doctor can recommend a physical therapist to talk to about how you can prepare with the right warm-ups and exercises that take into account your health history. What’s great about this kind of personalized advice is that it not only prepares you for your sport, but it helps you reduce the risk of injury.

Equipment is an important part of injury prevention. You need to get the right shoe, because this sport has such impact on your feet and ankles. When choosing a shoe, talk to someone who is in the shoe business. When selecting the right shoe, look at factors such as whether you are playing indoor or outdoor pickleball and whether you have a history of foot or ankle problems.

For example, if you’ve had problems with sprained ankles, you might want to look at a high-top athletic shoe. You definitely want to look at a shoe that gives you plenty of stability on the outside of your ankle, whether you are playing indoors or outdoors, and whether you have or haven’t had a problem with ankle sprains in the past.

If you are someone who has ever had a problem with heel pain or plantar fasciitis, you need to focus on choosing shoes that give you above-average support, with mid-sole protection. You might also look into a shoe insert that offers memory foam for your heel, to prevent blistering and to keep your heels well-supported.

It might surprise you, but eye protection is important, because the ball you are playing may lull you into a false sense of security. Sure, it’s light and hollow, but it’s made of a hard polymer, and that ball can move at a high rate of speed. If you wear glasses, you have an even greater need to protect your eyes and eyewear. Stores that sell sports equipment can advise you, and you can also get in touch with the pickleball club for advice.

The rules that apply to any injury apply here, too. If you are injured, don’t wait to see your doctor. Before you go, write down what happened when you were injured. Tell your doctor if you have had previous problems or injuries that might have contributed to this injury.

Have you had any health issues lately? Share those, too, because sometimes the cause of an injury can relate to a previous condition that may seem unrelated. Did you warm up and stretch before you began to play? Share that information, too. As always, remember to tell your doctor about all your medications and any supplements, including vitamins, that you are taking as well.

Expect that your doctor will conduct a thorough exam and may order additional tests, depending on the nature of your injury. Many injuries associated with sports like these require physical therapy to get you back to your normal routines. A physical therapist trained in sports rehabilitation has the experience that is so important in sports-related injuries. Your physician and your physical therapist will consult on your recovery plan to give you a customized treatment program to address your specific needs.

If you’re thinking about taking up pickleball, good for you. As with any sport or new exercise routine, remember to talk to your doctor before you begin.

I’m really excited about how this sport is taking off. I hope you give it some thought, because this year-round sport could be just your ticket to fun, new friendships and fitness. And, when all is said and done, the quality of your life is what’s it all about, isn’t it?

Bob Cairo is a licensed physical therapist at Tidewater Physical Therapy. He can be reached by calling (302) 537-7260.