November 16, 2023
Breaking down the acoustics of pickleball and USA Pickleball’s launch of a Quiet Category for pickleball equipment.
By Carl Schmits, USA Pickleball and Bob Unetich, Pickleball Sound Mitigation
The rapid growth of pickleball in recent years has led to the construction and expansion of many pickleball facilities, including public and private parks, to provide the playing areas that are needed. This expansion includes the conversion of neighborhood tennis courts. It seems likely that this trend will continue, as towns across America seek locations for additional pickleball courts to meet the demand of residents interested in the sport.
The court conversion is often done with little thought given to the impact of the sound of the sport, and that can lead to complaints from neighbors. The complaints will usually be a surprise to those constructing courts, but as the issue becomes more well-known, taking sound into account should become regular practice.
Other sports have their own unique sounds as well. We know what a bouncing basketball sounds like. Most of us can easily recognize what sport is being played nearby just by the sound of the ping or pop or thump. Pickleball has recently received media attention about its characteristic sound. Why is it a different issue than most other sports? The answer stems from the loudness, the tone or pitch, and how often the sound is heard.
The small court size in pickleball leads to frequent striking of the ball, plus it enables the placement of multiple courts in a relatively small area. Most tennis courts can hold four pickleball courts, which helps towns meet the community demand by converting tennis and basketball courts to pickleball. These conversions may save millions in greenfield construction costs for municipalities.
There are a variety of ways to mitigate the effects of pickleball sound, including reducing both the sound level and pitch of paddles and balls, and the installation of suitable barriers that block the normal path sound will travel.
Progress has been made by manufacturers to produce quieter paddles, balls, and other pickleball equipment, and USA Pickleball has been collaborating with these suppliers over the last 15 months to conduct more research on this topic. As the national governing body of the sport, USA Pickleball establishes the standards for both paddles and balls and has announced a new set of standards that will provide the potential for quieter play while maintaining the feel of play.
Paddles with a softer surface, thicker cores, and damping of vibration will be both quieter and of a lower audio pitch, moving the familiar 1,200 Hz “pop” to an octave or two lower. USA Pickleball’s Quiet Category will include equipment that is approximately 50 percent quieter than the current equipment being used.
Incorporating the damping of paddle vibration will result in a reduction of the sound power of a strike, the vibration of the handle, and potentially the vibration of the player’s arm, which may benefit those experiencing pickleball elbow.
Thicker paddles in general have a lower pitch and many players have adopted 16 mm or even 19 or 20 mm paddles. Another change to paddle design that can result in quieter ball strikes is the incorporation of holes in the playing surface. This basic change enables a reduction in air pressure variation associated with the ball hit, and if the hole sizes are small, the change to the game will be minimal.
Changing the design of paddles potentially changes the energy delivered when a paddle strikes the ball. While increasing velocity may sound like a benefit, the reality is that safety is a primary concern and it is part of the legacy of the sport. This means that ball speed should not increase as a result of any of these changes and that requirement will be part of the new standard.
Softer balls can produce quieter hits. Most tournaments use a relatively hard ball. USA Pickleball is encouraging manufacturers to search for new, quieter designs that will play like today’s most popular balls.
Heavy barriers of any sort blocking the path that sound will travel can be of benefit in reducing the sound level. That sometimes is not enough. Sound will diffract around and over a barrier, but often sound level can be reduced by 50 percent by installing a mass loaded vinyl sound barrier over 8 feet tall in the direction of homes if the elevation of the homes is not above the fence. High-rise buildings are a greater challenge and may need the construction of a roof or pavilion to effectively block the path sound travels.
Sound barriers have been used in various industrial applications for decades and there are numerous suppliers of sound barriers in the United States. Sound barriers attached to fencing require that the design of the fence can handle the weight and wind loading that is possible. There have been significant advances in this area recently, and USA Pickleball is researching the potential of active technologies customized for a specific site.
Often it is necessary to combine various sound mitigation techniques to bring the sound level of pickleball down to an acceptable level. That “acceptable level” is generally determined by the ordinary background noise at a particular location, with consideration given to existing ordinances and zoning for that area. It is essential to measure the background noise level before pickleball courts are installed so that a plan can be developed to meet agreed-to targets for the sound level of pickleball in that neighborhood.
USA Pickleball is updating the ASBA Court Construction Manual that will be available later this year. This new version will provide practical guidance for selecting paddles, balls and sound barriers. It will also provide communities with recommendations for developing uniform noise ordinances if none currently exist.
We encourage the pickleball community to recognize that in sound-sensitive locations, accepting the use of quieter gear and the installation of sound barriers can lead to more successful court construction and a more successful environment for pickleball.
While the enforced use of quieter equipment can be challenging, having the pickleball community and the wider neighborhood community aware of the need to take sound into account before courts are installed will benefit the entire community and enable the continued growth of pickleball. •