Pickleball Points: Hieroglyphs,Gifts, & Paddles

At a recent pickleball session, I listened to the comments of new Pickleballers as they hit with demo paddles I had furnished so they might experience the differences in paddles. It was clear they were confused about paddles, and it is easy to understand why. I fussed at the pickleball industry the last few years for their poorly written, confusing, and all encompassing marketing claims. They might as well be writing in hieroglyphs. It matters not if you buy a paddle as a gift for a friend, or yourself, there are some very specific playability reasons to consider.

First, please ask yourself. Do you really need a new paddle? Many times a new replacement grip is all someone needs to get a grip on their game. I am constantly re-gripping paddles and the players are delighted. Fifteen or twenty dollars! But if a new paddle is still in the genie bottle, then ask yourself:

1. Are you looking for more power or control? Paddle materials significantly impact playability and can enhance or distract from your style of play.

2. Are you looking for a larger sweet spot? Are there a lot of balls you hit on the edge of your paddle that float up before being devoured by your opponents? Design and materials can increase the size of the sweet spot, but only marginally so. Balls hit on the edge will still stray into the kill zone. Maybe moving your feet is the issue. Maybe you need dancing shoes. Losing weight and footwork exercises might be more helpful for some consumers.

3. Are you more interested in paddle balance? Some paddles just feel clunky, and are junky and clunky. They have likely been been thrown together with the cheapest materials available to satisfy a cheap price point, and play like junk.

4. You might be in the market because you want, or your spouse wants, a paddle with a smaller handle. Of course, the smaller the handle circumference, the more torquing on off center hits resulting in the loss of control. Handle lengths vary as well. Because of my tennis background, I prefer the longer handle. Manufacturers are primarily restrained by total square inches so shapes and sizes of paddles vary more than tennis rackets.

5. You might also want a lighter or heavier paddle for yourself or spouse. A heavier paddle either absorbs more of the shock at impact and/or imparts more power into a shot. But weight is much less important than ‘swing weight’ which incorporates weight and balance and represents the effective hitting weight of a paddle. After I do a paddle clinic and explain handle size, handle length, and swing weight versus weight, almost every participant tells me, breathlessly, they want a very light paddle, 7.2 ounces, with a very small handle. I say to myself, “Did you hear a word I said?” Then I say, “Why not 7.3? Why not 3.7? Why not a feather?” Come to think of it, these questions might be the reason I don’t sell more paddles. What’s the old expression? The customer is always right? NOT!

6. Are you looking for relief for your arm, or your friend’s arm? Increasingly, this is becoming the issue as players spend more hours on the court playing four or five days a week. I used to run the field tests for Wilson tennis rackets, and consumers faced the same problems with tennis rackets. The shockwaves that flow out of the racket or paddle into your hand is the source of the problem. The pickleball weighs less than an ounce, but the number of times you strike the ball, frequently off balance, begins to contribute to the soreness. I asked a rhetorical question of a retired submariner? When you ping a steel ship and a whale, which gives you a stronger signal? The answer of course is the steel ship because the whale absorbs a greater portion of ping while the ship returns most of it . Ditto Pickkeball paddles.

– The face of the paddle is made with different materials, and those materials absorb more or less shock. I frequently will drop a quarter on the face of a paddle so consumers can actually hear the difference in shock. Shock runs from the impact, up your hand and finds an old arthritic joint and says, “Hey neat, let’s see how much damage we can do here.”

– The core, the internal part of the paddle onto which the face is adhered, is very important. Paddle cores are manufactured using wood, or various honeycomb materials including Nomex (paper) and aluminum. Plastic polymers are becoming the most popular, and marketing gurus will tell you that the polymers are quieter making a less abrasive sound at impact. I will tell you they are quieter because they absorb nasty repetitive shock trying to attack your arm.

– Some paddleball paddle cores are thicker, and companies might blend their own proprietary materials into the polymer mixture. The thickness and combination of core and facing is what you mostly feel when you use a paddle.

– There is also a moderate balance issue. How well the adhesive is applied between the face and core can impact the balance at one end of the spectrum with too much glue slopped onto the core. At the other end of the spectrum, unequally applied glue can result in soft spots, bubbles, and droplets of glue dropping into the honeycomb and sounding like a baby rattle.

– In summary, design, materials, workmanship all collectively influence playability, and they definitely play differently.

7. Price is the final consideration. I understand that no one wants to pay too much for a paddle and then have it sit around the house. However, people tend to first buy several of the cheap wood paddles and play with them for several weeks. They throw them into the garage and immediately decide to buy lighter weight composite paddles, but mad at themselves for buying the wood paddles they then buy cheap composites, and within three months realize that they should have purchased better quality paddles. By the time they get around to buying a quality paddle, they already have spent more than a good paddle will cost. So borrow a friend’s old paddle, they all made the same mistake, and play with that until you or your spouse is ready for a quality paddle. You will spend between $100 and $160. If you divide the cost of that paddle by the number of hours you will play with it before you buy your next one, it will cost you somewhere between 6 cents and 10 cents an hour for the greatest recreation you have ever tried. So obviously, your decision on the next paddle should not revolve around price but playability!