A few years ago, New Englander Addam Shand visited his parents in Naples, Florida, and discovered the pickleball courts in their community.
“I didn’t even know what it was,” he said.
Shand, a former college basketball player, said it looked less than challenging, and when his parents suggested he take a pickleball lesson, he jumped at the chance.
“I told the guy to not go easy on me,” Shand, who was 39 years old at the time, remembers.
His first lesson, it turned out, was with the frequently-medaled pickleball pro Kyle Yates.
“I didn’t touch the ball for a half-hour,” Shand remembers. “I was hooked.”
Shand turned his own love for this new game into realizing that unlike other sports, pickleball didn’t have established avenues for his own two daughters, ages 8 and 10, to also learn and appreciate the game.
There were no shortages of opportunities to introduce kids to soccer, basketball, baseball, tennis, football, and lacrosse in youth programs designed just for them.
But where were the youth pickleball programs and courts dedicated for kids to play? Efforts by pickleball ambassadors to bring pickleball into middle school physical education classes were popping up.
But recreational leagues for kids from elementary-school age to high school were missing. And adults were already fighting among themselves for limited court availability. So, Shand made it his business. Literally.
This past summer, Shand put together a team that brought pickleball to summer camps up and down the East Coast, introducing the sport to some 8,000 youth campers, by his own reckoning.
And he also formed a company, My Pickleball League, that has taken root in Southwest Florida, where he now lives. His company offers pickleball recreational programs designed just for kids.
“I was living in a community with 800 people and 400 kids, but none of them were playing on the pickleball courts,” he said. “I couldn’t understand why, so I hired some pros and put out a flier inviting kids to learn to play pickleball.
“Fifty kids showed up,” he said. “So I knew there was an interest. They just needed places to play with each other. It’s not as much fun for them to play with their grandparents.”
Since then, Shand has been running a youth pickleball program at seven locations in Southwest Florida. Parents pay $150-$200 for a six-week program for their kids. The kids get a free paddle, a T-shirt and a medal ceremony at the end of the session.
The program includes weekly skill lessons and game play as well as hosting tournaments for kids who are enrolled.
“This is not a babysitting class,” he said. “The biggest challenge we have isn’t with competition with other sports, it’s with convincing parents about the validity of the sport.”
In answering the question, “Why pickleball?” the company’s site tells parents that pickleball is easy to learn, it helps their kids make friends, and it’s one game that de-emphasizes age differences, meaning that they can play it with their own children.
To reach kids, you can’t just drill them as you would an adult, Shand said.
“Adults listen, understand and comprehend the first time. For kids, you have to incorporate games that can engage them while teaching them,” he said. “You’ve got to let them have fun.”
The purpose isn’t to create a feeder system for future pickleball pros.
“My goal is to make kids want to play this game for the rest of their lives,” Shand said.