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What the fastest growing sport in America can teach us about accessibility…

Last Updated:

November 22, 2023

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Did You Know? with Gorick is the weekly newsletter by Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules, where we deconstruct the untold paths to success — of people (or things) you know!

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Did You Know? You’re overcomplicating things

(1) A story from the past

Did you know? Pickleball, the fastest-growing sport in the USA for the third year in a row, was created as a “game for everyone.”

The year is 1965. It’s a summer weekend, and Washington State politician Joel Pritchard and his friend, businessman Bill Bell, found themselves and their families “with nothing to do.” To quell their boredom, they wanted to play badminton—but couldn’t find enough rackets.

After whimsically hitting a perforated plastic ball over a backyard badminton net with some ping pong paddles, the group found a new sport: “pickleball.”

The “pickle” part of the name was inspired by the term “pickle boat,” which was used in competitive rowing to describe a boat of rowers who weren’t good enough to be selected for more competitive boats.

Fast forward eight years and pickleball began to build momentum, ironically among tennis players. In 1976, Tennis magazine published an article about “America’s newest racquet sport.” Shortly thereafter, the first official pickleball tournament was held in Washington and was mostly filled with “college tennis players who practiced with wood paddles and a softball-sized plastic ball.” 

45 years later—and pickleball was named the fastest growing sport in 2021 and 2022 when star athletes Lebron James and Tom Brady purchased their own Major League Pickleball teams and television network CBS announced a celebrity pickleball tournament.

Are celebrity endorsements the only reason for pickleball’s popularity?

Celebrity endorsements are a reason, but I’d argue that it is not the reason. My argument? Pickleball is successful because it is accessible.

It’s tennis—except with simpler rules, a less bouncy ball, a shorter and lighter paddle, and a smaller court. Pickleball’s “cost of entry more affordable than sports like tennis or golf,” and it can even be played sitting, making the game financially feasible and physically accessible.

So, the next time that you hear a friend talking about pickleball—or find yourself playing it yourself— remember: You all had a choice to play tennis—and yet you didn’t. You picked the more accessible option. Take this lesson with you into the workplace. Your simpler idea is probably also your better idea!

Pickleball paddles and whiffle-like balls, via All Star Tennis Supply.

(2) A strategy for your future

Did you know? Stop trying to sound smart!

What pickleball can teach us is that the simpler you make an idea, the more likely you are to succeed.

Think back to your hardest class in school, whether it was physics, accounting, philosophy, or something else. Now, think back to the lectures you attended for that class.

Why was it so hard?

I’d bet that the class was hard because your professor made no sense. They may have been teaching in English, but the class might as well have been taught in Hungarian. And while they may have been explaining the world’s most important topic, no one stayed awake to hear it.

Don’t be that professor.

How? Try this:

(1) Think of something you’re trying to convince others of (at work, at school, or in life).

  • E.g., “I’m trying to convince the higher-ups to give me budget for X next year.”

(2) Turn on your phone’s voice recorder and start explaining why this thing is so important out loud.

  • E.g., “As part of this roadmap, I want to optimize this and test drive that strategy.”

(3) Listen to yourself and write down all of the words that a 16-year-old version of you would not understand.

  • E.g., (Probably everything I wrote in my example above.)

(4) Try saying what you want to say in language that a 16-year-old could understand.

  • E.g., “I need money to pay for a tool that will help the design team do its work twice as fast.”

(5) Consider saying what you said in step #4.

Workplace jargon has its place! Sometimes, it helps make things sound more polite. Other times, it makes something bad sound slightly less bad. But often, we use it to sound smart… only to end up not making sense at all.

I know it because I’ve experienced it: In fact, you’re witnessing it each week with this newsletter! Those of you who’ve subscribed to my newsletter since the beginning may notice that the format continues to shift each week. This is all an attempt at finding the simplest and yet most impactful newsletter you will read.

Be simple!

Gorick

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