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Pickleball, footgolf, padel, disc golf: they might sound like obscure arcade games but they’re actually emerging alternatives to more traditional sports like tennis and golf. And thanks to some A-list endorsement — from the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio (a pickleball champion) and Rafael Nadal (he’s a padel maestro) — they’ve rapidly taken hold in the UK, and across the world.
New sports are accessible, often involve cheaper equipment and are centred around fun. In other words, they’re perfect for those who are tired of the same old roster of spin classes and are looking for novel ways to keep fit. These are the ones to know.
Best for: Those looking for a fun, competitive take on tennis that you can pick up in 10 minutes.
Perhaps the most high-profile of the emerging alternative sports, padel is played by more than 10 million people worldwide, including the likes of Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, and Liverpool FC’s Mohamed Salah. A cross between tennis and squash, padel became part of the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) in 2019. “It’s incredibly social and easy to pick up,” said Tom Murray, head of padel for the LTA. “Because it has a smaller bat compared to a traditional tennis racket, those with fewer or no racquet skills can pick it up and be in contact with the ball within five or 10 minutes.” So far there are around 150 courts in the UK, and the LTA is hoping to expand that to 400 by the end of 2023.
Where to play: Will to Win (the organisation that runs the sporting facilities in many of London’s parks) has floodlit courts at Hyde Park and Regent’s Park. Stratford Padel Club (SPC) is the largest padel club in the UK, with its own dedicated indoor club (consisting of five padel courts). A full list of padel venues in the UK can be found on the LTA’s website.
Best for: Those after a gentler and less competitive version of traditional tennis, with a great social element.
A mash-up of tennis, badminton and table tennis, pickleball is less physically demanding than traditional tennis. Fans say the game is addictive, partly because it’s easy to play and becomes more challenging as skills improve. In competition it can get quite aggressive, but casual players of all ages have taken to pickleball, making it the fastest-growing game in America. Celebrity fans include the Clooneys, Kardashians and Leonardo DiCaprio.
“In the US it’s a sport that was really accelerated in Florida by ex-tennis players who can’t run around the court as much,” said Simon Pearson, racquets manager at David Lloyd (pickleball courts are currently available at 19 of the brand’s gyms across the UK, and there are plans to open more). “But for us it hasn’t just been an offering for older people: we’ve had a range of ages and sexes. It doesn’t quite have the same competitive edge that padel does at the moment. It’s a very social sport: you don’t just turn up and play, there’s usually food or drinks afterwards.”
Where to play: pickleballEngland is a not-for-profit which acts as a governing body for the sport in the UK — and it has a handy locator to help you find your nearest club.
Best for: Golf-lovers looking for a less physically intense pastime.
Another US import, disc golf is pretty much exactly as it sounds. Played using similar rules to traditional golf, players throw plastic frisbee-like discs at a target on nine or 18-hole greens. Just like using different clubs in the regular game, different frisbees are used for different throws, designed to go long or short distances, curve right or left, or even roll across the ground. And it shares the same joys and frustrations of golf, whether it’s sinking a long putt or hitting a tree halfway down the fairway. Between eight and 12 million people worldwide have played at least one round of disc golf, and more than 500,000 play regularly, according to the Professional Disc Golf Association. There are 93 disc golf courses in the UK and six in London at the moment.
Where to play: there are courses everywhere from Lee Valley Park for eastenders to Lost Jungle, Europe’s largest adventure golf course in Edgware. Check the course locator at Disc Golf UK for a full list.
Best for: Golf without all the expensive (and boring) bits.
Footgolf is essentially exactly the same as golf but played with a football. Unlike traditional golf, which often involves strict rules around what should be worn on the course and requires investing in specialist clubs, you don’t need anything more than trainers, you can bring your own ball or borrow one, and you don’t end up walking the best part of a half-marathon. In short: welcome to golf without any of the bad bits.
The rules are pretty much the same as real golf: aim the ball at hole and get it in, in as few shots as possible. The holes are shorter, generally between 60 and 100 yards, and they often cut across actual golf courses, sometimes to the annoyance of the old guard of golfers. It sounds easy, but fans of the sport say that’s why it works: it should be simple but — to the immense frustration of first-timers — it really isn’t.
Where to play: This course locator at UK Footgolf shows all the courses in the country. There are currently four in London: Hanger Lane, Horsenden Hill, Edmonton and Barnet.