Starting Pickleball in Japan

The Japanese have three standard responses when faced with a complete foreigner like myself speaking fluent Japanese. The first (and the most common in Tokyo) is complete denial that they have seen anything out of the ordinary: They just can’t be bothered. The second is utter bewilderment (most common in the countryside), which generally leads to me giving my life story and ends in an exchange of business cards or a request for me to marry their daughter, niece, cousin or granddaughter, depending on the age of the parties involved. The second group has led to many interesting conversations, some friendships and even me being interviewed a few times as the representative for foreigners living in Japan. The final group refuses to believe that a person with my face can speak fluent Japanese. When I speak to them, they reply in marginal (at best) English, preferring to speak in one word sentences to accommodate the Gaijin who couldn’t possibly understand them.

IMG_0710

The participants of one of the first pickleball events ever held in Japan belonged to this third group of people. When I arrived, the organizers told me that I could only speak English, telling me they would translate for me because they had told everyone I was the US champion, and it would detract from the champion’s coolness if I spoke Japanese. Feeling rather like a trophy on display, I begrudgingly agreed to their request, resigning myself to being a circus animal performing tricks for the next 3 hours.

30 people attended, which I thought was a remarkably respectable number for an unknown sport in a new country. However, as I quickly found out, the reason I was not allowed to speak English was that 20 of the 30 participants were from a local mentally handicapped club. This was their weekly exercise event, and the organizers were accommodating these people, who they thought wouldn’t be able to comprehend the racial/linguistic gap. This actually proved false as I broke down a couple of hours into the event and started ignoring my translators. The handicapped people understood me perfectly well, and some were remarkably good players after just a couple of hours. I was still on display, as everyone simply called me champion even after I repeatedly told them my name was Daniel, but I didn’t mind so much 🙂

IMG_0713

The pickleball event, and my subsequent weekend trip to Korea have made me think about a few things. At first, I wrongly thought of handicapped people coming to our event as something depressing, like those were the only people we could gather. Then I realized how great it is that pickleball is accessible to everyone. They never quite grasped the rules (having 3 numbers in the score is confusing for anyone), but they had a great time. What a great testimonial for the sport. It is the only sport I know of that can accommodate grandparents and grandchildren, athletes and couch potatoes, wheelchairs and handicaps and to an extent, allow these people to have fun all playing on the same court. When I really thought about it, there might not have been a better way to launch the sport in Japan.

And second, I was reminded of the invaluability (that’s not a real word) of language. Taking away my linguistic ability in Japan, then traveling to Korea turned me from a fully functional, intelligent adult to struggling with basic communication. I’m reminded how thankful I am that I grew up speaking two languages, that Japan is still home and that there is a reason for me having grown up here. The reason is not entirely clear yet, but it is gradually becoming more apparent. Japan is weird and there are things that bug me, but that’s true of anywhere. It’s a pretty cool that I get to live here.

That is my story of starting pickleball in Japan. It’s going to be a long time before it’s mainstream, but you have to begin somewhere right?

IMG_0724

Advertisements

Nationals

Last week the 6th annual pickleball national tournament took place in Buckeye, Arizona. Over 800 players came from all over the country and competed in dozens of events. It was pretty cool to see this sport that I always thought was on the fringes actually becoming mainstream and succeeding. Being on the upward trend of a movement like that is kind of cool.

The best part of the week came on the last day, when I played in the Men’s Open Singles event. After winning the 19+ singles event  earlier in the week, I did get the #1 seed but as any tennis player will tell you, that doesn’t mean anything. You’re only as good as your next match. Fortunately, I got through the tournament, winning the gold in a great final against Wesley Gabrielson. In the second game, he was up 7-4 and I was having nightmares of him coming back and beating me in the third set. There was professional camera equipment and announcers commentating on the game (I’m interested to hear what they had to say) making it all very official. I will post the video when it comes out. My dad won the Senior Open Men’s Singles event as well, it was great to get a double win.

IMG_0317I always say this, but pickleball people really are the nicest in the world. I don’t miss the egos, the cheating, the politics that playing tennis at the same level brings. I think pickleball is effectively branding itself as the chill alternative to tennis, still great exercise but much less stuffy and elitist.

Two other great things came from this tournament. First, I’ve officially decided to try to launch pickleball in Japan. My friend who works for a television network wants to get a TV program introducing the sport, interviewing me as the American national champion. Should be a lot of fun but watch out Americans, when the Asians get into pickleball your hopes of global pickleball dominance are over 😉 The other was that I launched my own pickleball website around something I call the Paddletek Challenge. Anyone can challenge me in singles or my dad and I in doubles, if they beat us they get a free paddle of their choice 🙂 Check out the website at www.paddletekchallenge.com

IMG_8384

 

Winning & Losing

I’ve decided that winning and losing doesn’t matter, life is too short. But since it doesn’t matter and I obviously don’t care at all, I much prefer winning to losing 🙂 I’ve been doing some of both in both tennis and pickleball and wanted to share the story.

Two weeks ago I traveled to Ogden Utah to play in a professional pickleball tournament. Currently, it’s the only tournament in the world that gives out prize money, and my first tournament at the national level.

The first day, my dad and I played doubles together, drawing last year’s national champions in the first round. Not the greatest draw, but you have to beat everyone at some point if you’re going to win the tournament. We came out strong and beat them in straight sets, 11-6, 11-6, shocking the pickleball establishment. Everyone was watching us. We won the next match as well, beating the guys that would later get 1st and 5th in singles. In the semifinals, we played the guys who would eventually win the tournament. We made some stupid mistakes, didn’t convert when we really needed to, and got upset about (what I still think was) an unfair call. We lost in 3 sets, and lost the next match to the same guys we had beat in the 1st round (they had come up through the consolation bracket).

Singles was almost the same thing for me. I won my first three matches, getting to the semifinals where I played the guy who we lost to in doubles. I lost in 3 sets after having a match point, and lost my consolation match to the guy who would eventually get 2nd. My dad did better, getting 2nd place in the 50+ category (although he also let the final slip through his fingers).

The only thing I regret about the tournament was mental. I lost my tennis cool. I got upset about stupid things and when I did that, it took my focus off the point. Because in the end it really doesn’t matter, in competition you can’t let yourself get upset about little things.

Now to my tennis season. Now in my second year of coaching, I had gone a year and a half without a single team win. We had come agonizingly close. Like our 4-3 loss against Pueblo East last year when winning a single tiebreaker would have sealed the deal. Or last week when we were winning all our matches when buckets of rain came pouring down from a previously amicable sky. I was beginning to believe the tennis gods were thwarting me for partially converting to pickleball.

Then yesterday we played Harrison High School, a first year team that had not a single athlete, let along tennis player. We pulled out a few close matches and a couple of 10-point tie breakers, winning the match 7-0. Victory is sweet when it’s been long in the making! Morale was in critical need of a boost, and I’m buying the team bagels today, honoring my promise to buy them if anyone bageled another team (won 6-0).