Growing the Game at the Youth Level in Southern Arizona, One Pickleball Event at a Time

USA Pickleball Ambassador, Lenny Friedman, a former middle school math teacher, teaches the game and coordinates tournaments around southern Arizona.

By Stephen Hunt
Red Line Editorial

Lenny Friedman started playing pickleball in 2011, a few years before moving to Arizona full-time. Since making the move, he’s increasingly tapped into his teaching background to introduce the game to others, including both senior citizens and now children, too.

“I started pickleball in my community where I taught 300 senior citizens and introduced the sport here,” he said. “Got the developer to put 16 courts at Quail Creek Country Club in Green Valley. In the next month, they’re going to open another 16 courts.”

After seeing how quickly the senior citizens he taught became avid picklers, Friedman decided to teach the game to younger players, a paradigm shift that wasn’t a big adjustment considering he’d taught middle school math in Oregon for 10 years before retiring.

“I’ve been teaching (pickleball) in four different schools,” he said. “My main goal now is to teach the physical education teachers how to teach pickleball. It’s a better utilization of my time. At one school, I taught three classes of 60 kids. At another school, I taught three classes with close to 70 kids. (The kids) really enjoy it and take to it. To start playing pickleball from third grade on is definitely a lifelong sport for them.

“I’m comfortable with (kids at) that age,” he added, “and not everyone is.”

A USA Pickleball Ambassador for nine years, Friedman said he likes the camaraderie pickleball is known for and that it’s a lower-impact activity compared to most other sports. He’s even tried to steer a couple of his grandchildren who play youth hockey more toward his new adopted sport.

Friedman has also worked to further expand pickleball’s reach in southern Arizona through coordinating several tournaments. Three of those events, which featured between 150 and 200 players each, raised over $30,000 for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the Memphis-based charity that provides medical care for children suffering from cancer and other catastrophic illnesses and assists their families free of charge.

“What’s really fortunate is that I’ve been putting on a small tournament with a local school for the past couple years and I’ve expanded my teaching of pickleball,” Friedman said. “(My teaching) has been adopted or endorsed by the Southern Valley League in southern Arizona. There are about nine or 10 schools that are a part of (that league), and I hope to expand the offering to a lot more kids from fifth through eighth grade.”

His latest tournament was the Southern Valley League Pickleball Tournament, which was held May 10 at a local school in Green Valley, Arizona. The event featured kids ages 10 to 15, with volunteers helping out as referees and in other roles.

“The participants had a great time and advanced their pickleball skills and made new friends,” Friedman said in an email to volunteers afterward.

Given his passion not only for pickleball but for teaching the game, plus his proven ability to hold successful tournaments in southern Arizona, he was confident heading into the event.

“The last couple I did, they ran smoothly” Friedman said prior to the tournament. “The kids had a great time and we had donations, so all the kids went home with a bag full of goodies if not winning medals or paddles.”

Teaching pickleball, a sport that has become his new passion, is the latest bullet point for Friedman in a life where he’s already accomplished a great deal. A native of Yonkers, New York, he was educated in engineering at New York University and what’s now Long Island University’s Post campus before working on the Apollo program with Northrop Grumman, a project that ultimately send 24 astronauts to the moon during the 1960s and 1970s.

He also worked in computer manufacturing for IBM before moving to Oregon, where he ran an organic juice manufacturing company for over two decades. After earning his teaching certificate from Southern Oregon University, he taught middle school math, coordinated his school’s gifted and talented program and coached football for 10 years. After retiring, he helped start an after-school program at the same school.

Giving back has always been in Lenny Friedman’s DNA, so it makes sense that he now occupies much of his time post-retirement teaching pickleball to the next generation of players, something inherently rewarding.

“They’re kids who are generally not athletic, but they’re able to play and enjoy the game (like) those who are highly athletic,” he said. “They can become very competitive.”

Stephen Hunt is an accomplished freelance writer and sports statistician who has been blessed to cover a multitude of subjects and sports in his time. He is a freelance contributor to USA Pickleball on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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*article is courtesy of USA Pickleball