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From Juvenile Incarceration to Mental Health Professional: Why I’ll Play Pickleball for the Rest of My Life

by Guest Author on

I remember the look on my dad’s face when the court bailiff called my name for roll call and then immediately recognized me before I could respond.

He shook his head and smirked downward at the thought of me being in court so much that the bailiff and I were on a first name basis.

Between the ages 13 and 14 I was incarcerated in the local juvenile hall seven times. Every single time I was released I emphatically said I wasn’t coming back. And every single time, except for the last time, I did go back.

As an adult, I now understand my brain was still developing and was wrought with poor impulse control and a need to connect and feel like I belonged somewhere. Combined with a fiery and competitive personality, that meant trouble for me.

Despite the trouble (which at its core was related to my own traumas), I was really lucky. I grew up with friends that had it way worse than me. And while in juvenile hall, I saw the impact that systemic poverty and oppression had on my peers.

You might think those experiences would “scare me straight.”

Nope. That’s not how behavior change works.

Or you might think my passion for basketball and boxing (two sports I was actually good at) would keep me out of trouble.

Also, nope. I struggled. And it was a long, windy, non-linear road of self-discovery and growth that got me to where I am today.

By trade I’m a clinical psychologist that owns a mental health practice that helps people with trauma, stress, depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, and other mental health challenges, and yes, our staff serves youth struggling like I did as a teen.

We’re even contracted to provide mental health and substance use disorder services with the very same juvenile hall I was once incarcerated in. It’s been quite a trip.

I’m also an avid pickleball player. Or more authentically expressed, I’m completely obsessed with pickleball.

Like many, my obsession crystallized during the pandemic. I started playing once a week. That led to twice a week. Now I regularly compete in tournaments, play and train at least 4-5 times a week, and have my own pickleball coach! I’d play every day if I could!

I’ve reflected on why I love pickleball so much. It comes down to two primary experiences: improving at a skill over time and joy.

Getting better at pickleball

A non-pickleball playing friend recently asked me, “do you think you’ll ever go pro?” I immediately chuckled.

“Here’s one more outsider who just doesn’t know how good the pros are” I thought as I chalked his question up to the common misconception that pickleball isn’t a real sport.

But then I started thinking about the unique position pickleball is in, both as a sport and the longevity of the game. I of course am of the mindset that I’ll be playing pickleball well into my 80s.

Why not continuously get better? And where could that eventually take me?

I usually play 4.0/4.5 tournaments for singles and doubles, but of course I want to continue to improve and get better. I want to be playing 5.0 tournaments in the next couple of years consistently, and although I’m not going to leave my career and play pickleball full-time, why not at least compete in a pro-tourney draw when I’m eligible, get smoked in the first round by a real pro, and then be able to say I played in a pro tourney? Why not?

I don’t know if that will actually happen, but that’s why I love this sport. There’s always a way to improve. And as the game evolves with the influx of new players with creative talents, I plan to evolve with it!

Feeling joy

While I love the experience of getting better at pickleball, the overwhelming factor that keeps me playing is simple: When I play, win or lose, I experience joy.

Yes, I definitely want to win and can get extremely competitive, but I just love playing the game. It’s so dang fun!

When I’m out there on the court, I’m really there. I’m present and not concerned with anything else. I get the rush of dopamine through my brain as my nervous system works to track fire fights, cross court dinks, and executes my backhand punch shot (one of my strengths).

But why is a formerly incarcerated youth who’s now a mental health practice owner writing about the joy of pickleball?

In my mental health clinic, we encounter suffering everyday. And I will do anything I can to increase mental well-being on this planet. And I will also do anything I can to promote pickleball both as a sport and a vehicle for self-care.

Here’s some low hanging fruit for proactively taking care of your mental health: Find something that brings you unequivocal joy and do it. Do it consistently.

If you can get absolutely smoked 11-0 in a game and still walk away with the experience of joy, that’s something special. That’s pickleball for me (even though I of course want to win!).

I’m that guy that my friends have heard over and over say on an 11-10-2 serve: “no better way to spend a monday night than these last 3 hours of pickleball…” “no better way to spend a tuesday night…” and on and on.

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Pickleball has been an outlet for joy for me as I manage a mental health practice that deals with suffering every day. It’s helped me manage my own stresses and hardships as an individual, and it’s helped me connect with more pickleball obsessed folks around the country. I’ve even lost 30lbs (and counting) to improve my singles game, using primarily pickleball for cardio and healthy eating!

Pickleball’s been such a big impact that I am now, along with my wife, a pickleball entrepreneur! We invested our hard earned money into a short-term rental in Las Vegas and built two pickleball courts in the backyard. We call it The Pickle BnB, and it’s your Las Vegas pickleball vacation destination!

I write all of this to emphasize how much this sport has impacted my life in such a short amount of time. And that I’m in awe at the thought of how much it will continue to impact my life in the future; I really do want to play into my 80s!

You also might like: Heartwarming Pickleball Story That Will Give You Goosebumps

Follow your bliss

There you have it. From my early teen years of being in and out of juvenile hall and on a path of destruction, to transforming into a mental health leader, to becoming a pickleball entrepreneur.

I’ll never forget that look of embarrassment my dad had on his face that day in court when the bailiff recognized me immediately, but I’ll also never forget how amazing of a dad he was to me. My dad passed away about a year ago, just prior to his 83rd birthday.

Through all the visits at juvenile hall, the court hearings, picking me up from the police station, he (and my mom of course) never gave up on me. He was hard on me at times and knew when to be sensitive.

His message never changed though when it came to life: “Follow your bliss.”

And that’s what I’m doing every time I play pickleball, with our new venture, The Pickle BnB ((, and the development of mental health organizations: Following my bliss.

Follow your bliss. Play pickleball. Be your authentic self.

Sam Himelstein, PhD is a clinical psychologist by trade who co-owns a mental health and substance use disorder clinic that serves patients in the San Francisco Bay Area.

He’s a father of two and an avid, obsessed pickleball player. The Pickle BnB combines Sam's and his wife’s desire to invest in real estate and support joy through pickleball.

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