Pickleball has grown to over 4 million players. There are thousands of pickleball courts, which are increasing every day. There are two professional pickleball tours, thousands of pickleball tournaments, and hundreds of paddle manufacturers. Thousands of people and entities jockeying to establish their position in the industry’s landscape. It is exciting to have a front row seat to the growth of pickleball, which includes both positive and negative stories and feedback along the way. With that said, the sport of pickleball, at its core, is inherently positive and affecting lives in ways that reach far beyond the court.
We recently sat down with two pickleball players from Boise, Idaho—Mariah Hick and pro pickleball player, Susannah Barr—that have showcased the sport of pickleball at its very best.
To set the stage for the events that we will describe in this pickleball blog, it is important to explain the motivation or the “why” behind the events. Tragically, in 2018, Hick lost her brother to suicide. So, during COVID, Hick reached out to Barr to do “something” to bring awareness to mental health and suicide, as one of the most important things that can be done for mental health and suicide is to bring more awareness, and more open space for discussion, to these issues. Hick wanted to use the sport of pickleball to bring awareness to mental health and suicide because, just as pickleball does not discriminate with age, as players of all ages can play, mental health and suicide also does not discriminate and can affect people of all ages. Before this moment when Hick reached out to Barr, the two did not know each other (although the two had mutual friends). Nevertheless, Barr jumped at the opportunity to be involved and raise awareness for these issues, which are especially important during the COVID era.
Barr set out to organize a mental health awareness pickleball event during May 2021 (which the month of May is Mental Health Awareness Month). The mental health awareness pickleball event did not feature a traditional pickleball tournament. Rather, the event featured a team round robin format. This format was inspired by Barr’s experience in a similar event in Utah, as Barr thought that this team format would allow the event to have a competitive element (although less than a typical pickleball tournament), but also bring the pickleball community together in a healthy, fun, and positive way. The team format featured the following:
- 4 players per team (2 women and 2 men)
- Teams were divided into skill levels
- Teams in each division played each other in a round robin format – each team played each other team once
- Partnerships for mixed doubles were not set until the match and were chosen using rock-paper-scissors
- Teams were encouraged to dress up and cheer for each other
- Competitiveness, but more focus on FUN, team, and community, where players mixed of all ages and mingled and cheered on all skill levels
- Divisions were staggered throughout the day in time blocks, so that everyone knew exactly when they would be playing and were not on the pickleball courts all day long
- Teams paid $100 per team ($25 per player), so that cost was kept low
This one-day mental health awareness pickleball event brought together over 200 pickleball players, family, and volunteers in the Boise community, and raised approximately $7,000 through entry fees, sponsorships, and raffles for the non-profit organization, National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI). All proceeds went directly to NAMI and the event was entirely volunteer run.
When asked to reflect on the event, both Hick and Barr were mostly moved by how appreciative the participants of the event were. The space that Hick and Barr created with their mental health awareness pickleball event gave some people the freedom to open up about their own experiences, losses, and struggles with mental health or suicide. For others, the space created allowed them to feel more connected, make new friendships, and become more engrained in the pickleball community. In this COVID era, we are reminded that community and connectedness are important to who we are as human beings. We, as human beings, crave both community and connectedness, and this ability to connect and belong to a community may just be the sport of pickleball’s “secret sauce.”
The sport of pickleball was at its best in Boise, Idaho at the mental health awareness pickleball event. Hick and Barr hope to make this mental health awareness pickleball event an annual one, as they set their sights on having it again in May 2022. With that said, Hick and Barr also encourage every other community to hold similar team events, whether focused on mental health or any other important cause. They note that this team format is easily replicated, as the only limiting factor is the number of available courts. Plus, an event like the one Hick and Barr organized is something that every community can do together. It is a day that is focused on community (rather than money or competition). From their own experience, Hick and Barr note that so many people are willing to help and get involved when the purpose is right.
The sport of pickleball unites all backgrounds and ages and connects us as a community and as humans. It provides an outlet. It is a form of exercise, which is a form of medicine in itself. It allows for a rare moment when no one is on their phones, but rather completely in the moment, focused on hitting a little, plastic whiffle ball. Plus, it is a sport that provides for longevity, as it can be played for a lifetime. The breadth of the sport allows pickleball to connect with so many people and so many causes, including the importance of mental health, which affects 1 in 5 adults in the United States.
We encourage every community to get involved, connect, and experience the power of pickleball—whether to bring awareness and discussion to mental health, or any other important cause—just as Mariah and Susannah led the Boise community to do. If your community is interested in running an event, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The month of September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. For more information, visit https://www.nami.org.