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Do Body Bags Have Any Place in Recreational Pickleball?

by Johnny Barth on

Defining the current pickleball “vibe” in America is becoming quite the conundrum.

From humble beginnings in Bainbridge Island in the 1960s, to regular appearances now in ESPN SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays – Pickleball in the year 2024 "hits different.”

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You’ve heard by now that pickleball "can be played by all" – a true sport-of-the-people. It’s one of the real endearing elements of the sport that equally attracts and captivates many.

There is, however, a looming threat that looks to disrupt the "everybody love everybody" facade that pickleball has been carrying. It’s been bubbling beneath the surface, and it’s growing.

You’ve likely been a victim of it.

Odds are you’ve even been a culprit.

Body Bags.

I know what you’re thinking. "Come on, it’s part of the game." 

I would tend to agree. The body-bag shot (tagging the opponent with the pickleball) is a long standing piece of pickleball. In fact, at 6’3” I’m surprised I’m not targeted more.

There is a lazy Pickleball narrative that the sport is a combination of tennis and table tennis. What it fails to describe is that – on occasion – it is equal parts dodgeball

You should ask yourself, is taking advantage of the body bag suited for every game?

The answer without hesitation should be – No.

On a recent episode of Picklepod, pro players Zane Navratil and Dekel Bar discussed their recent PPA slug-fest resulting in 16 (SIXTEEN!) body bags attempted, with seven hitting their target player (most of the targets hitting Dekel and Erik Lange’s 6-foot-plus frames).

Triggers were pulled. Bodies were tagged. Tyson McGuffin & Zane got a little chippy.

While this may make for an entertaining pro match, the reality is – we (the sub 5.0 level crowd) are not as adept as these elite touring players.

And in fact, it is my belief that targeting an opponent at the shoulder and above should for all intents and purposes be banned from non-tournament, open-court play (4.0 play and below).

Will this be easy? Probably not. Would this limit firefights? Perhaps. But proven targeted high attacks should be penalized.

Will I still attempt controlled targets on my good friends for fun in a private game? You bet. But we know the risk. 

But why?

The majority of forecasted pickleball players out there likely haven’t hit their first dinks yet. They also likely won’t take a formal lesson before hitting the courts.

Continued body-bag targeting will only INCREASE the barrier of entry for these future players-to-be.

At my last open play in Southwest Florida on the advanced courts – I couldn’t help but overhear a snow bird discussing his lack of depth perception after a detached retina from his early racketball days (yikes!).

While I applaud him for attempting some advanced pickleball after such an injury, the reality is, his random opponents will likely not understand his deficit. Eye for an eye? I hope not.

Personally (and remarkably), I’ve shared courts with players both half-my-age as well as twice-my-age (even within the same match). It’s one of the rare differentiators of pickleball as a sport that attracts so many.

I’ve also been torched (as many of us have) by a well placed dink from a "well seasoned" player (friggin Betty) ... It’s humbling, though a right of passage for the majority of us.

Jaume Martinez Vich on His Living Situation, How to Turn Pro and More on the PicklePod
Jaume Martinez Vich joins Zane Navratil and Thomas Shields on the latest episode of the PicklePod Podcast.

Pickleball should continue to reward players for playing the game the way it should be played. If Betty beats me with a bad-beat dink, she deserves a golf-clap and a good response on the next point.

(Though tempting for some of you out there – just saying), Betty to her credit, doesn’t deserve the "high-heat."

Where to go from here

With the majority of recreational players coming into the sport without formal coaching or understanding of etiquette – where will they learn from? Dinking can often times be non-existent when new/beginner players play.

Playing in pickup sports, it can be an outrage to intentionally-foul in a game of basketball or slide-tackle in a game of soccer.

The last thing pickleball should do is keep barriers-to-entry raised, especially with intimidating strikes.

I suggest the following to keep the momentum of pickleball going.

  • Include – Bring in new players and share etiquette with them. 
    • I won’t apologize for a net-cord winner, but I will apologize for a body-bag against someone I don’t know (and occasionally on my homies).
  • Reduce – Your speed with players playing below your level.
    • Just because you can put that ball away with pace, doesn’t mean you should – think control vs pace.
    • Seek well-angled finesse dinks to move players around.
    • Aim for the shoes when you can on putaways.
  • Ask – Players their name and how long they’ve been playing when you start. It’s fun to meet new people, but take the time to ask and tailor your game accordingly.
  • Apologize – If you aim high. It can’t always be avoided, but it should always be addressed.

Listen, I hate to lose, I really do. I’ll set aside my higher-level and tournament play separately, but the majority of my "GGs" will be at open-play.

Somewhere along the way I realized that mixing it up on the pickleball courts for fun is something I love more than my hate of losing. Playing with control keeps that going strong. I encourage you in doing the same.

You can follow Johnny on X and on Instagram for more Pickleball takes.

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