Pickleball’s popularity among first responders not only keeps them fit, it builds trust and camaraderie.
Inside firehouses and behind police stations, the sticky tape on the ground is evidence that pickleball has come to the rescue of the nation’s first responders.
Before her retirement from the Biloxi Fire Department as Battalion Chief of Health and Safety, Michelle Crowley saw firsthand how pickleball benefits the firefighters she worked with.
“We saw it happen in Biloxi when we started this pickleball revolution a few years ago,” she says. “It caught on with the fire stations because we could tape down a couple of pickleball courts in an area the size of a typical pumperhall and, instead of sitting on the couch, everyone was playing pickleball.”
Before ascending to battalion chief, Crowley was a captain and, after 17 years with the department, she’d seen it all.
“It was amazing for the firefighters to participate—to see so much attention being paid to their physical fitness,” she says.
With her station as part of a larger municipal complex, Crowley says pickleball courts eventually popped up across the street in the recreation facility, eliminating the need to tape down courts in the firehouse.
“They still play in the large facility across the street from one of our firehouses, mostly in the evenings, but also when they standby,” she explains. ”Spending time with each other is a huge part of building the bonds you need in this field. Everything is a team building skill with us, and a large percentage of the department took up pickleball because it’s an inexpensive sport they can participate in with just a paddle. It’s easy to access, and it’s good for them.”
Retired firefighter Jim Barnes of Idaho, and a co-founder of Selkirk Sport, discovered pickleball outside of the station and tried to introduce it to his department. And while it never got off the ground during his tenure there, he says the sport is ideal for emergency responders in general and firefighters in particular.
“Firefighters have the opportunity because they have the time [to play],” Barnes explains. “And a lot of departments are getting away from basketball because of injuries, so they wanted us to participate in low-impact sports like pickleball. Pickleball is perfect in that it provides camaraderie, and firemen are highly competitive in general. Anytime you have an opportunity for teamwork, competitiveness and physical fitness—which is one of the biggest things you need—you go for it. There are guys who don’t do the physical fitness like they should, so pickleball is a good opportunity to get guys out there who wouldn’t normally be out there. It’s also very strategic—all of these attributes are things we enjoy, so it’s a natural fit.”
Timothy Connor retired as a commander for a police department in Farmington Hills, MI, before moving to Tennessee. He didn’t discover pickleball until after his retirement in 2010, but wishes he’d known about it earlier in his career—not just for all the fun it’s brought him, but because it can help officers in ways most people don’t think about.
“I do some instructing, and you can approach it as going to battle, a gunfight of sorts—the kind of prep, focus, mindset—the tactics transfer from firearms to pickleball patterns fairly easily,” he says. “From a physical point of view, pickleball can enhance agility, balance, movement, your ability to maintain movement laterally, forward and backward, hand-eye coordination, perceiving and tracking moving targets and aiming. These physical things transfer from the court into the officer’s street life.”
What’s more, Connor adds that the mental aspect of the game is extremely beneficial to police work in that it sharpens focus, concentration, perception and reaction time. Playing in teams provides even more benefits because you have the opportunity to work on communication skills, which also mirrors police situations.
“The communication is especially important in a tactical situation. Those short, quick, concise, loud, one- or two-word transmissions all occur on the street as well,” he says. “When you’re working with a partner, it’s pure teamwork—assessing a fluid, tactical, changing situation on the fly as the ball’s moving back and forth. Things change from offensive to defensive and back. All those transfer from the street to the court and vice versa.”
While police officers typically don’t have the kind of downtime firefighters do, Connor notes that municipalities with forward-thinking, progressive management will usually work with local facilities to give officers a chance to work out during the workday.
“We used to work out for an hour and do aerobics or lift weights, but you could just as easily meet the guys somewhere in a parks and rec facility,” he says. “The only caveat is you’re subject to recall, so you can’t get too sweaty or dirty only to have the big one hit and be back on duty in 60 seconds.”
For all the first responders across the country who have never tried it, pickleball can definitely up your game off the court. Plus, the ability to have fun and blow off some steam during a shift can help a first responder’s performance when it matters most—while saving lives.
Crowley says one of the most enjoyable aspects of setting up pickleball for the first time in a first responder facility is watching how everyone underestimates the sport and the skills necessary to master it.
“You go out there thinking you have a lot of sports and athletics in your background. You think it’s a small court—this will be easy,” she says. “And it challenges you more than you realize.”