When Jeffrey van der Eems moved from the Netherlands to the Quad-Cities in September 2018, he had never heard of pickleball.
His mother-in-law Irene, who lives in Eldridge, encouraged him to try. He was captivated by a sport that is a mixture of tennis, ping pong and badminton.
So much so that it became his livelihood.
Van der Eems, 37, runs a company called PiQCkleball & More in the Quad-Cities that specializes in private and small-group pickleball and tennis lessons.
Initially, van der Eems saw pickleball as an activity for retirees. According to a report earlier this year by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, there are 4.8 million people playing pickleball – double the number just five years ago.
There are outdoor pickleball courts scattered throughout the Quad Cities – Davenport’s Northwest Park, Bettendorf Middle School, Sheridan Meadows Park in Eldridge, Forest Grove Park near the TBK Bank Complex, Riverside Park in Moline, LeClaire, Silvis and more.
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“I’m very surprised, very surprised,” van der Eems said when asked about the rapid rise. “It grew so fast because it’s so addictive and it’s easier to learn than tennis because the court is so much smaller.”
What do you need to play? A court, a net, a racket and a ball. The racket is smaller than a tennis racket but larger than a ping pong racket.
Shovels cost between $40 and $50 and can cost upwards of $125. The pickeball is like a whiffle ball with holes in it. The court is about 20 feet wide and 44 feet long.
The game is suitable for any age group. van der Eems instructed a child starting primary school as well as a 75-year-old.
“Pickleball is a sport for everyone,” he said.
Raised about 120 kilometers northeast of Amsterdam in a town called Heerenveen, van der Eems met his future wife in 2012 at a city festival when she was visiting a friend. After two years of a long-distance relationship, his wife moved to the Netherlands and lived with him for about four years before the couple moved to the United States.
That’s when pickleball came into van der Eems’ life.
“It gave me a whole new social life,” he said.
van der Eems was a physical therapist in the Netherlands and had a passion for racket sports – tennis, squash and badminton.
“I wanted to be (physical therapist) here, but it didn’t work out,” he said. “I was sitting on the couch and I suddenly thought maybe I should start my own coaching business and do what I really love with my passion for racket sports.
“When I started playing, as a foreigner, his social network wasn’t very big at first.”
Through instructions, referrals, and word of mouth, van deer Eems built his business. He teaches classes, runs clinics in and around the Quad-Cities, and hosted a pickleball tournament last August. He has another tournament scheduled for May 21 in Eldridge.
van der Eems said he spends approximately 20 to 30 hours a week on classes, clinics and small groups.
The game has especially increased in popularity among the younger generation.
“When young people see something new, they want to try it too,” said van der Eems. “The dynamics, with the racket, hitting the ball and strategy, all those aspects make it a dynamic sport. That’s what kids like, when a sport is really dynamic and they can hit a ball.
“It’s a very strategic game. Every sport has a strategy, but pickleball is like a game of chess and you are constantly going back and forth.”
van der Eems and his wife are avid pickleball players, and van der Eems will participate in a professional doubles event next month in St. Louis.
“I’m not a full-time touring professional,” he said. “I don’t have time to go to all these tournaments across the country, but I’ve played against the best professionals in all these tournaments. I know what it’s like to play at that level.”
More than anything, a game he has known for less than four years has brought him great joy. This allowed him to build his brand and create lasting friendships.
“You never know what it’s like, but maybe I have my own teaching facility or work at a teaching facility where I can develop the sport and work with more coaches,” said van der Eems.
What’s important to van der Eems in the immediate future is making the sport available to anyone who wants to participate.
“It’s exercise and you’re being active,” he said. “So many sports are good and offer the same things, but pickleball brings a lot of those things together. At the end of the day, it’s about having fun.
“You want people to leave feeling like I had fun and got something out of the lesson.”
For more information about PiQCkleball & More, you can contact van der Eems at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 563-209-3743.