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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Master’s Enjoyable Introduction to Pickleball: A View from the Stands


CLIFTON PARK — As I attempt to hit ‌the hovering ‍orb, Obi-Wan Comito cheers me on with infectious enthusiasm.

My ‌swing misses.

Our goal isn’t to destroy‍ the Death Star, but ‍rather to introduce ​me to⁤ the game of pickleball at ‍the Southern Saratoga branch ⁤of the Capital District⁤ YMCA on a bright Thursday morning.

My mentor for the day ⁢is Susan Comito, who was recently voted as the top pickleball instructor in a Pickleball518 ⁣poll with over 350 participants. It seemed like a fun and​ fitting way to highlight her story ⁤by learning the game under her guidance.

That was a pickleball whizzing past me from her racket last week, while my playing partner, Jennifer Kendrick, the CDYMCA ⁣pickleball ​program director and Comito’s regular doubles partner, echoed Comito’s ⁣words of encouragement.

“Go for it, Mike!”

I understand.

It doesn’t take ⁣long to see why Comito is so adored as a pickleball​ instructor. Her 32 ⁢years of experience ‌as a ⁤retired physical education teacher in the South ⁣Colonie School District ​is evident⁢ in this enlightening ⁢lesson.

As a child, ​I‌ played badminton, took‍ tennis ‍lessons, and enjoyed ping pong during rainy vacation ⁤days ‍at Whispering Woods on Long​ Lake. I’ve also played ‍racquetball. So, ​I have a bit of a history with racquet sports.

Pickleball, which continues to gain popularity in the U.S. — the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) reported‌ in 2023 that it was the ⁤fastest growing sport in the U.S. for the third consecutive year — should have been a natural fit for me.‌ But it wasn’t.

That’s why having an excellent teacher like Comito ‌is⁣ invaluable.

Not surprisingly, she is also a ‍successful amateur ‍player, having won⁣ the 2023 women’s singles senior national ⁢championship and ‍a ‌gold medal at the 2023 Senior Olympics. In January, she and Kendrick ⁣won a bronze medal for ⁣women’s doubles in the World Pickleball Tour Amateur Invitational Championship in Texas.

“We⁣ introduced it in our phys ed classes, using wooden paddles with countless holes in them,” she recalls after our lesson. “I enjoyed it, and so did the kids, because it’s a game ⁢that, in my opinion, anyone can play.

“After⁤ I retired and my sister passed away suddenly, I was in a sad place and decided I needed something to lift my spirits. Sports⁤ have always been my go-to in difficult times. When you have a bad⁢ day,‌ you go to practice …‍ it was something like ‍that.”

Once she ‌started ‌taking the sport more ⁣seriously, Comito emerged as a player⁢ of national ⁣caliber.

Then, the player became the teacher,​ once again.

“I’ve always⁣ had⁤ a passion for teaching,” she⁤ says. “So I ​thought, ‘Why not teach pickleball?’ I was retired, I needed ‍something to do, my husband was still teaching phys ⁤ed, my kids are all set.

“So I took Level I instruction and knew ‌this wasn’t enough for‌ me. I advanced to Level II, because that’s something I’m familiar with. Level II allows you to watch someone play, analyze their game, and​ break it down to the biomechanics, if necessary.”

Comito’s pickleball students ​come from a wide range of ​ages ⁤and‌ skill levels.

In my case, she’s teaching a 62-year-old who can still move a bit, and has a certain level of confidence ⁢based on some experience with various racquets.

I miss ⁤again.

The pickleball is essentially a Wiffle Ball, the paddle is about ⁣twice the size of a⁣ ping pong paddle, the net is just 34 inches high and the ⁢small court doesn’t seem too intimidating to cover.

Until you miss. Or step into the “kitchen,” a narrow area marked by a line seven feet from the net, and attempt a slam off a volley. No slamming allowed if your feet ⁢are in the kitchen.

It takes⁣ me a while to understand how the ball bounces off the floor‌ and the ⁤boundaries⁣ of where shots need to go, but even after I ‌get⁤ into a bit of a rhythm, I miss shots right in front of me, ‍or get caught ‍out by poor footwork.

“For me, even when you ⁤first came ⁤in ​here, giving up at the net, I hit back and forth⁣ just to see your mechanics,” Comito⁣ says. “To ⁣see your hand-eye coordination. I was basically assessing your ‌basic ​ball-hitting skills.

“And then I‍ usually proceed from there. If you’re very good and I need to challenge ⁣you, then ⁤I’ll‌ set ‍up targets.‌ So I’ll say, ⁢‘OK,‍ Mike. You’re really getting this​ serve in. You’re serving it deep. Let’s maybe try some targets.’ So I adjust my teaching to ⁤the level ⁢of my student.

“I’m comfortable⁣ in ‌a gym.‍ I’ve been doing it since I⁢ was 19 ‌years old. So that’s ‍why​ I feel so comfortable ⁤in here. You put me at a cash register, anywhere else ⁣… but in a gym, ⁤that’s where I feel⁢ the⁤ most comfortable.”

It’s not unusual for Kendrick to⁤ check in on Comito at home and find her tweaking a lesson.

Comito⁣ is also excited about starting an agility/strength class at the ⁣Y specifically​ for ​pickleball.

“Even in private lessons, I’ll ask my students, ‘What do you need?‌ I‌ will tailor my ‍lesson around you,’” she says. “I ⁣have a template, of course, but ⁣my lesson plans — and this was how I taught, too ⁢— are always tailored to my audience.

“Even‍ with you,‌ let’s just do this quickly, get​ you out there‌ playing, because you ​had some​ skills … you were using your wrist, you stopped doing that ​in the end.”

“I didn’t ⁣even⁤ notice,” I admit.

So I get a rundown of the rules from ‍Comito and Kendrick, we hit some balls around, then we play two games, up to 11, the first of which Comito wins 11-0.

“We just got pickled,” Kendrick informs me with‍ a cheerful grin.

We don’t get pickled a second time. But we do lose again.

Comito tells me what an honor it is to have been voted best ​instructor in the Pickleball518 poll, “because there ‌are so many great coaches. And that ⁢could’ve been ​shared. I was honored because people believed in me, and they let me come in and teach, and I always thank them for⁢ the opportunity. That’s‍ just who​ I am.

“Honestly, my most important ⁤thing is them continuing ‌the sport. Them enjoying the sport, and ⁣laughing when they’re ​out there.

“I ⁤had a gentleman, his wife wants to take my classes, but ⁢he said she’s‍ a little‍ shy or whatever. I said, ‘Bring her.⁤ She’ll be fine with ‌me.’ Sometimes people do need ‍that reassurance.”

Oh, and for anyone who⁣ thinks pickleball is just a leisurely game of hitting ⁢a plastic ball, I went for a run the⁤ morning⁢ after my half-hour lesson and could still feel​ the effects of the pickleball in⁢ my ⁣hips and the backs ​of ‍my thighs.

It felt good out there, but let’s just say I⁣ didn’t make the ‌Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.

Beckett Nielson
Beckett Nielson
Transitioning from a collegiate athlete to a sports journalist, Beckett O’Neal channels his passion for sports into engaging stories. A Boston College graduate, Beckett specializes in local sports coverage, from high school heroes to regional professional teams, providing in-depth analysis and an athlete's insight.
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  1. Agree. Watching from the stands allows you to appreciate the game from a different perspective and still enjoy the excitement.


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