'There's a need here:' After-school pickleball teaches lessons about the sport, life

NOW: ’There’s a need here:’ After-school pickleball teaches lessons about the sport, life

RACINE, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Inside Racine's Knapp Elementary, Wednesday is pickleball day.

"Given that I'm the basketball coach in the building, too, I'm used to the kids asking me about that in the hallways," explained Zyaire Strowder, community school coordinator at Knapp. "It quickly transitioned to pickleball, so I was like 'Okay, there's a need here' so maybe I need to up my role here and provide more opportunities."

Strowder, or as her students call here, Coach Z, says the idea for an afterschool pickleball club came up during a brainstorming session with a colleague.

"Me and my supervisor were just sitting down and just talking about other community schools that we visited and all of the things that they offer," Strowder said. "We made a little joke about pickleball because, I think we saw Jamie Foxx was playing or something. It was like an awkward moment of silence, but then we were like, 'Maybe we should see if we can give that to our kids."

That awkward silence Strowder mentioned turned into a conversation with the Racine Area Pickleball Club, who, along with pickleball pro and Racine native Zane Navratil, donated balls and paddles for the kids to use.

"United Way purchased a net. I asked our kids if they wanted to try it," Strowder recalled. "They had no clue what it was but they were like 'Yeah! If you're the coach, let's do it."

Just like that, the former division one basketball player is now a pickleball coach.

"People think of a coach, like obviously, some kind of expert who can give you real, true skill and knowledge of a sport," laughed Strowder. "I think by me being honest with the kids and telling them 'Hey, I'm learning too' or 'That drill is hard, I struggle with that' I kind of like, you know, show them that I'm a human too and I make mistakes as well."

That's what's important to Strowder; the kids having the ability to have fun and make mistakes while learning.

"Being in this community, there aren't a lot of, I guess, areas where the kids can actually express themselves in like a safe way and actually try new things," Strowder said. "It's important that we find ways to bring those things into the school, because this is already a place that they trust, and they love and they come to every day."

For a half hour after school every Wednesday, the new basketball turned pickleball coach sets up the donated net and breaks out the donated paddles and balls to help guide the elementary-aged students through different drills focused on teaching them the sport of pickleball, which continues to grow by the millions each year.

The group is typically made up of about ten students, including third grader Aniya Williams and fifth grader Jordan Johnson.

"You have to hit the ball softly so it don't go out," explained Williams. "(Coach Z) is a good coach and she teaches us a lot of stuff."

"She teaches us drills. First, we would like hit the wall with the pickleball and try hitting it for about 30 seconds," added Johnson "We do some wall sits and we would do the same thing. Try to balance it on the other pickleball racket."

While some student's skillsets are more fitting for the game than others, not one student in the gym could be seen without a smile on their face as they continue to practice and learn the new sport, and learn life lessons from Coach Z along the way, something important to Strowder.

"It is great to see them advance on a physical level within a sport, but just mentally, that's where I'm most proud," Strowder said. "I hear some of the things that they say throughout the day, and they'll catch me and are like 'Hey, I had a hard time earlier, I remember you told me that I can do it, so I got through it, and I feel good.' That makes me feel great as a person. Okay, wow, these kids are listening and it's important that I'm instilling the correct things in them because they're going to carry it with them everywhere that they go."

Coach Z has intentions to carry on the pickleball lessons to Mitchell Elementary in Racine, too, although she couldn't provide specifics as to when that might happen. She did add that the schools need more paddles to be able to allow more kids to play, with several students currently having to share.

As the club continues to grow, Strowder is grateful for the lessons being learned by the students and by the coach.

"They're extremely amazing children. I have a blast hanging out with them," Strowder said. "There's times when I'm tired and I don't really want to come to work but then I get to think about those children, right, and hang out with them, spend my lunch with them, see what's going on and it just kind of makes it worth it. When I'm also provided opportunities to lift some of the barriers that they're facing in this area, I just feel really good about myself as a person, and I just want to continue to do it."

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