Hope For Your Pain

By Matthew Schwartz
March 12, 2024

The pain hits sometime after you get home from the pickleball courts. It’s usually a throbbing but sometimes searing pain you hoped would be cured by playing a little less, using a lighter paddle, applying ice, heat, creams, numbing sprays and popping Advil. But the pain in your elbow, forearm, wrist or hand just won’t go away for very long.

One expert says the pain is preventable and the reason is simple: You are holding the paddle the wrong way.

Holding the pickleball handle correctly is done with tightly curled fingers that are opposing a tightly curled thumb which do not overlap”, says Hope Sheehan, a certified hand therapist and occupational therapist, 4.0 player and author of Why Do Our Hands Hurt?: Inspirational Case Studies of Healing. Sheehan has spent 20 years helping athletes restore their hands, wrists and elbows to proper form and pain free function.

Sheehan says many pickleball players are holding their paddle one of several wrong ways (as seen in three photos below).

“The muscle pattern by which most people hold their paddle is like that of holding a key and turning it in the lock,” Sheehan says. “The forefinger is squishing toward the thumb. This muscle-use pattern is especially in evidence if the forefinger is in any way ‘straightish’ or pushing toward the thumb and away from the other fingers. Players’ hands on the paddle grip do not look as if they’re turning a key but this is the muscle use pattern at work.  These ‘key-turning’ muscles are small hand muscles and don’t cross the wrist. These little, clever muscles are built for finesse and dexterity, not for power. For many people, the forefinger works as a guiding finger, just as it does in inserting and turning the key in the lock. But still, it is small, in-hand muscles that are working that forefinger.”

Sheehan says the correct way to hold the paddle is similar to how a baseball player holds a bat.

(Sheehan says this is the best way to grip the paddle.)

“The shaft of a bat is shaped wider at the top and narrowest below the little fingers. This sloping shape facilitates the maximum amount of power from the hand and arm, the kind of power that can knock balls out of the park. The fingers all curl firmly around the shaft and lean toward the little finger, which grips the smallest circumference tightly,” Sheehan said.

Little fingers creating power?  This seems contradictory.

“The small fingers are built short so that they reach the palm the fastest, like first responders, Sheehan said. “They set the base for maximum strength, integrity and safety. The small fingers may be short, but the muscles that curl all the fingers are very long ones. These muscles actually lie in the forearm and cross through the wrist in the form of rope-like tendons, coursing into the hand and finally connecting to the very tips of the digits.  These muscles in the forearm that work the fingertips embed themselves even further upward, burrowing into the elbow and beyond. In this way, the power of the fingertips is linked all the way to the upper arm, shoulder and even back, creating massive strength and safety. All of this integrity starts from tightly curled, hard working little fingers. This is hard to believe but true.  It is this little finger power that must be utilized in a pickleball grip.”

It seemed to me that the baseball bat grip Sheehan recommends would make it difficult for pickleball players to have a good control game.

“Fear not,” Sheehan said. “The small dexterity muscles will still be working under the umbrella of the longer ones and will learn to deliver the same finesse you now deliver. Proof of this point is that, as a 4.0 player, I hold my paddle in the healthy manner which I suggest. At the risk of sounding arrogant, none of the men that I beat on the pickleball court are aware of any deficiencies in either my finesse or power!”

One of those men is Michael Tucker of Duncansville, PA, near Altoona. Tucker, 68, has been playing pickleball for eight years and now plays two or three times a week, sometimes with and against Sheehan, who treated him for hand pain.

“The pain was more of a discomfort and weakening of my grip,” Tucker told me. “This pain went on for a long, long time until I did something about it. Her diagnosis was I was getting an incorrect grip on the handle. She showed me how to build up the handle in certain places, so my fingers wrapped around properly. It was not difficult, because I still grip the same way, like a handshake, but almost immediately [re-shaping the handle] took away the discomfort, and I played actually even better.”

Sheehan says players with hand, elbow or arm pain not only have to change their grip, they also have to change their paddle’s handle. She believes the handle’s shape contributes to pain.

“An ideal pickleball shaft would be wide at the top and narrow at the base, much like a conical ice-cream cone,” she said. “Most paddle shafts are 4 1/4" in diameter. This too-narrow top encourages that ‘key-pinch’ grip. It also mistakenly allows the fingers and thumb to overlap. With this overlap, power is lost. It would be much like trying to grip a skinny rope rather than a thick one when playing tug-of-war. The same 4 1/4 width at the bottom of the shaft is also too wide so that the tightly gripping small-finger power of the baseball grip is being discouraged.”

Sheehan says handles should be wide at the top and skinny at the bottom. She creates a conical shape and advises her clients to do the same. She described how she does this.

“The handle is stripped of wrapping and the cap removed and discarded. The bottom is reshaped on a grinder into a soft point. The handle is then re-strapped, adding padding at the top to form a conical shape. To make your shaft the right size for you, be sure that the curling small fingers come close to touching the palm at the bottom of the handle and at the top, the fingers and thumb are gapped apart by 1/4 to 3/8 of an inch.”

That seems like a lot of work, which is why Sheehan says, “The first pickleball company that decides to create a conically shaped handle for healthier pickleball will be doing a tremendous service to the world toward promoting pain-free pickleball play. But convincing players that the shift is actually worth it will be a huge marketing challenge.”

Dave Satka of Altoona was suffering with tennis elbow and sought out Hope for help about five years ago. “She advised me to reshape my grip into a conical shape,” Satka said. “I learned the importance of the pinkie and ring fingers with respect to gripping strength and assistance to the middle and index fingers. It is important not to have a strangle hold or even have a tight grip very often in pickleball. I recommend reshaping the standard grip into a conical shape. This grip provides the ability to have a much softer touch, which is key in pickleball.” Satka says his pain is gone and never returned. Now, he’s a 4.5 player.

More information about Hope and her book is on her website. https://www.hopeforhands.com/


My thoughts of the week, not all pickleball

I think Sunday night’s Academy Awards ceremony was very good overall and Jimmy Kimmel was an excellent host. Funny and quick on his feet.

Caitlyn Clark of the University of Iowa recently broke the all-time college scoring record held for 54 years by LSU’s Pete Maravich. I like watching Clark play (and I root for the Hawkeyes because my father was an alum) and she has beautifully handled the massive amount of attention she’s received. But some sportswriters who reported on her record and compared Clark to Pistol Pete compared apples to oranges. Clark has played four seasons, Maravich played three (starting in 1966) because freshmen were not allowed to play varsity back then. Also, there was no 3-point line or shot clock during Maravich’s college career. Can you imagine how many 3’s Maravich would’ve made? Still, Pistol Pete averaged a ridiculous 44.2 points per game. That’s still a record. No knock on Clark, she’s amazing and deserves the praise. I just think if you’re writing about Clark’s record and mention Maravich, include those differences.

This is nothing new but recently I’ve seen more people than ever in the best seats at sporting events who spend more time staring at their phones and/or texting than watching the game. What a waste of a seat.

My wife and I have only rescue dogs and it irks me that so many dog owners still just have to have a pup from a breeder or puppy mill. There are millions of wonderful, healthy and homeless dogs in shelters and rescues. If you must have a purebred you can find one, it just may take a bit longer.

Unless they had a last-minute emergency, I think players who sign up on Playtime Scheduler for a particular pickleball session and don’t show up are inconsiderate, especially to those who followed the rules and put their name on the waitlist.

RIP Richard Lewis. An underrated comedian whose standup act centering around his neurosis always made me laugh. He was hilarious with Larry David on David’s series, Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Some personal tidbits you’ll hopefully find at least a little interesting: I had a five-second walkthrough with my brother in the 1959 film, The FBI Story. The stars were Jimmy Stewart and Vera Miles. I was five years-old, my brother was three. Ms. Miles kept pinching my cheeks. The casting director was a neighbor and my mother schlepped us from our home in River Edge, NJ to Central Park on a sweltering July day. We were there for eight hours. My mom didn’t complain because she was adventurous, always up for a new and different experience. My brother and I were each paid $19. It’s the first payment listed on my Social Security Earnings Statement.

Tony Bennett was in my house when I was 10. He accompanied his wife, who was taking a course in stained glass taught by my mother. He got bored so he went outside to watch my friends and I, who were playing football. None of us knew who he was.

I picked up the great jazz trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie in 1985 at his house in Englewood, NJ, and drove him to New York for an interview with me. He asked if I minded if he lit up a joint in my car. I was working at my dream job, reporting for a New York television station, was worried about getting busted and told him I did mind. Dizzy understood.