When Kim Lanzilli moved from New Jersey to South Florida last year, she put out a call on Facebook asking where she could find some pickleball being played.
Lucky for her, somebody told the 45-year-old pickleball novice about a local guy who has been quietly running a free pickleball clinic in Delray Beach for years.
No, it’s not where you think it would be, on those courts that are part of the glitzy tennis center, the place where televised tournaments are held, and where Leigh and Anna Leigh Waters play. Instead, it’s in a quiet city park tucked into a modest neighborhood miles away, a park dominated by a water play area for small children.
The Catherine Strong Splash Park is named after the woman who, in 1954, became the first female mayor of the city. She made her mark by fighting against efforts to segregate the city’s beaches by race and by fending off attempts to redraw city boundaries to exclude Black neighborhoods.
So, in a way, this little park has been on quite a journey: From civil rights to playing pickleball right.
Now, pickleball players who are lucky enough to land a reservation in the 10-week intermediate-level clinic drive long distances to get to this hidden little park.
If you look for pickleball courts there, you won’t find them. There are two dilapidated tennis courts with shabby nets, faint lines and lunar surfaces.
But just about every Wednesday of the year (he only takes a one-week break between sessions), pickleball evangelist and local guru Michael Niss pulls up in his car, unloads the four bags with portable nets from his trunk, and turns a corner of the park into a bustling pickleball clinic.
On a recent Wednesday when The Pickler was there, the rest of the park was empty. Not a kid in the splash zone. Nobody on the walking paths, or picnicking in the covered pavilion. It was just the pickleballers.
That’s the way it always is, Niss said. The pickleball clinic is a kind of phantom tenant. Move in, move out. See you next week.
“We don’t even reserve the courts,” Niss said.
The big trick is getting one of the coveted reservations to be part of the clinic.
“Right now, we’re booked until April,” he said. “We’re a victim of our own success.”
So what’s the big deal? Yes, it’s free. But that alone doesn’t explain why a group of South Floridians – ranging from people in the 30s to their 80s – will subject themselves to two hours of shadeless, punishing South Florida summer swelter.
“Oh my gosh,” Lanzilli said. “It was amazing. It was like a science the way Mike broke the game down shot by shot.”
Lanzelli recently wrote Niss and Norm Dickman, the head of the Delray Beach Pickleball Club, a note of thanks. She credited the club-sponsored clinic for putting her on the path to her golden ticket into the 3.5 mixed doubles competition in the upcoming Margaritaville USA Pickleball Championships at Indian Wells, California.
“I wouldn’t have improved without you guys and the clinic,” she wrote.
Niss, 59, is a natural teacher. When he’s not playing pickleball, he’s teaching a college class on neurology. He’s also the founder of a company that provides continuing education classes to medical professionals.
So, when he and his wife, Daniella, took up pickleball six years ago, and started traveling to tournaments, it was just a matter of time before Niss would go from a pickleball player to a pickleball explainer.
He does it for free. The only condition for his class is that students must be members of the Delray Beach Pickleball Club – which can be achieved by paying $25 for dues – and have some ability in basic shots.
“I don’t get paid. I don’t want to get paid,” Niss said. “If I get paid, then it’s a job, and I don’t want to make it a job. It’s the hobbies that we enjoy the most.”
Niss said his approach to pickleball is simple: Play with intention.
“There’s got to be a plan for every shot,” he says. “With every shot, you’ve got to say, ‘What’s my goal?’”
Niss and a few assistants take players through game situations, spending a whole two-hour session on one shot or situation, both from an offensive and defensive position.
“The difference between bangers and whackers is that whackers don’t know where the ball they hit is going,” he says.
Niss is a human fortune cookie of memorable lines.
“Stop trying to win,” he says.
Winning is a result, not a strategy, he tells students. Often the purpose of a shot is not to hit a winner, but to set up another shot, he says.
“If all you want to do is beat the people you’re already playing, then this isn’t for you,” Niss tells his students. “You don’t need to beat players that suck. You need to beat the players who are better than you.”
He tells players to be wary of “premature-attackulation.”
And on a class that covers lobs, he advises that in low-stakes games, the lob should not be used to exploit a player with mobility issues.
“There’s pickleball rules, and then there’s humanity,” he said.
“D-B-A-D” he says, then explains that means “don’t be a … er, um … well, you get the idea.”
Tracy Hibshman, 48, drives from Parkland, a 30-minute drive, for the weekly clinic.
“It has made me a more cognizant player,” she said. “I’m more aware of things.”
Don Mahon, at 86, is the oldest member of the class.
“Since I took this class, I’m playing more position now, and trying different shots,” he said.
After the first group of 16 get their session, Niss, Dickman and the other volunteers sit down in the shade. They cool down with ice pops and relax. But not for long.
The day’s second group of students are starting to arrive.