If you’re a weekend athlete who loves to play basketball, tennis, soccer or another sportbut would rather compete on a pickup level instead of joining a league, what’s the best way to find a game or partner that suits you?
A generation ago, many amateur sportsmen and sportswomen found athletic competition by word of mouth or by hanging out at courts or fields of play in the hopes of getting into a game. The options for finding the right game or sports partner today are greater, thanks to technology. With a few keystrokes of your laptop or by punching in letters on your cellphone, you can locate potential tennis partners at your skill level in your neighborhood who are looking for someone to hit with – or find the nearest pickup game of ultimate (formerly known widely as ultimate Frisbee). You can also go online to find pickup soccer contests, including games for men and women and coed competitions.
Finding the right game or athletic partner is crucial. Joining a hoops, soccer or volleyball game where you’re completely overmatched, or hitting with a tennis partner you routinely crush, wouldn’t be any fun. “Competing with athletes of similar experience, skill and competitive expectations is one of the most crucial factors in having a rewarding sports experience,” says Christopher Cousins, a physical therapist in the District of Columbia who treats many people who injured themselves playing a pickup sport.
Good pickup games often have a core group of people who’ve played together for years, even decades. For example, Larry Gondelman is “commissioner” of a pickup basketball game that he and some fellow Georgetown University Law Center students launched in 1974, back when Richard Nixon was in the White House (though not for long). They’d play four-on-four, half-court, on one of the outdoor courts outside McDonough Gymnasium on the Georgetown University campus in the District of Columbia. They’d compete as long as it was dry and the temperature was at least 30 degrees. Eventually, Gondelman and his fellow hoopsters moved to an indoor gym.
Today, the band of basketball brothers includes about 18 core members, including a handful who, like Gondelman, have played together more than 40 years. To keep the game vibrant, Gondelman over the years has invited younger players, including the sons of some of the original members. And the attorney has recruited people he played with at the downtown YMCA. Others who’ve learned of the game from one of the regulars joined after asking Gondelman, 65, if they could play.
The competition at Gondelman’s hoops game is spirited, not cutthroat. Many of the hoopsters who’ve played in Gondelman’s game have formed or deepened friendships over the years; the players used to have an annual banquet, and some go to the beach together with their respective families. This sort of camaraderie is evident with many pickup groups. Nick Salafsky, 51, says he’s gotten to know the character of fellow ultimate players at his two weekly pickup games in the District of Columbia. “There are guys I’ve played disc with for 20 years,” he says. “You don’t know their last name, if they’re married or single, if they’re gay or straight, if they’re high-powered lawyers or bike couriers. Yet you know everything about their character, who cheats and who doesn’t, who you’d want to be in a foxhole with and who you wouldn’t. You don’t know anything conventional about them, but you know everything important about them.”
Whether you’re moving to a new town and need to find a new game, are taking up a new sport or are coming back from injury or looking for a fun way to exercise, finding the right group for pickup games can seem daunting. Longtime pickup athletes and a tennis instructor suggest these strategies:
Network as if you were job-hunting. Whatever the sport, “ask your friends, read local media and blogs, research like you would for a job,” Gondelman says. Asking friends and co-workers about pickup games can still be an effective way to find one that ‘s a good fit for you. Also, your pals and colleagues can invite you to the game or introduce you to its commissioner. Word of mouth is how Ella Lipin learned some of her co-workers at a think tank in the District of Columbia were playing in a weeknight pickup hoops game. “I liked that it was welcoming of all ages, genders and talent level, so I’ve continued to drop in whenever I can,” says Lipin, 28. “I briefly played JV basketball in high school, but unfortunately my love of basketball always far exceeded my skill.”
Look for games and sports partners online and on apps. There are plenty of online resources and apps to find pickup games in a variety of sports. For example, pickupultimate.com lists more than 50 cities in the mainland U.S., Alaska and Hawaii where ultimate players can find a game. Some ultimate pickup games, such as one in suburban Virginia, also use Facebook to communicate and plan games, says Jacob Kass, 27, a member of that group. There are Meetup groups online for people looking for pickup soccer, volleyball and tennis games. Pedro Ast, founder of the Bvddy app, says the service helps people find pickup games at their skill level in more than 70 sports, including basketball, badminton, field hockey and lacrosse. People can also use the app to find partners to go hiking or workout partners, he says.
Hang out at a public court or field. If you learn of a pickup game at a particular court or field, show up with your sneakers or cleats laced up, hang out and see if you can get into a game. If someone didn’t show up as usual, one of the teams might need a player. Some pickup games – such as those played on public fields or courts – may have a core group of players but, because they’re on a public facility, can’t keep the competition closed. So, you might be able to watch a game and call “next” and get in the next game. At some public tennis courts, you can show up with your racket and a can of balls and, with some luck, find someone else who’s looking for a partner to hit with.
Ask a coach. If you’re taking lessons to improve your game, ask your coach if he or she knows of anyone who’d be a good competitive match, says Chris Pelsor, a tennis pro with Affordable Tennis Lessons in Los Angeles. “Your coach will have other students, which comprise a network of players at all levels,” he says. “When you’re starting out and you’re at a certain level it might be difficult to find someone to play with because you’re self-conscious about whether you’re good enough. Your coach will know of other people looking for someone to play with.”
Don’t be a jerk. When you’re a newbie at a pickup game, keep in mind that the group you’re joining is likely to be assessing not just your sports skills in deciding whether to invite you back. For example, Gondelman puts newbies on a “probationary” period to see if they fit in with the group – that is, whether they’re at roughly the same skill level as the other players and get along with the gang. Gondelman’s group pays to rent the basketball court, and the commissioner doesn’t ask a newbie to chip in financially the first time he or she plays, in case it turns out to be the last time he or she is invited. “Over the years, there have been two players who didn’t make it off probation,” Gondelman says. “One because he was a terrible player, the other because he had a bit of an attitude.”