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How many other sports allow you to break a sweat while still holding a beer? (Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto/Getty)

Spikeball Is the Perfect Pandemic Activity

When COVID-19 hit, one Outside editor found solace in an unexpected hobby

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All of us had those hobbies we picked up in the early stages of the pandemic, when we seemed to collectively realize, “Oh shit, we’re going to be here for a while.” Baking was a big one. Puzzles flew off shelves nearly as fast as toilet paper. Gardens sprouted up to varying levels of success.

Like you, I dabbled in this world. My personal highlights include whipping up some gummy Chinese soup dumplings and a couple months spent dusting off my graphic design skills. It almost felt fun, like an extended staycation, except for that strange cocktail of guilt (for even mildly enjoying quarantine), shock, and bone-chilling terror that swirled heavily around my self-improvements.

COVID-19 was largely a mystery back then, and the outside world screamed of viral danger. We scrubbed our hands, and then our groceries, and then our hands again, unaware that the coronavirus doesn’t travel through plastics or front yard barbecues all that well. So we piddled around in solitude and uploaded it all to Instagram. God, we were lonely.

That was certainly true for me. I completed my master’s degree in December 2019 and had been hot on the job hunt when the world went to hell. In May 2020, I moved back home to Oklahoma in an effort to save what little money I could. It had been two years since I’d stepped foot there for more than a Christmas hello, and my Okie friend group had noticeably thinned.

I was pretty sick of myself and the walls I lived between by June, so when I got an invitation from an old roommate to play Spikeball, I jumped at the chance. Well, first I Googled “what is Spikeball?” Then I jumped at the chance.

As it turned out, it’s the perfect COVID-19 activity.

The standard style of play includes four people standing an equidistant, CDC-approved six feet apart with a miniature trampoline-like net in the center. Armed with a squishy bright-yellow ball about the size of a grapefruit, players divide into teams of two, with partners to the left or right of each other. The game plays a lot like volleyball from there. A player serves the ball, giving the opponent opposite them the chance to spike it back or set it to their teammate. If set, the teammate can then set it for a final time or spike it, just like volleyball.

When I pulled up to the park that first time, I was tentative—mask firmly on and precious hand sanitizer at the ready—but the six feet apart thing put my mind at ease. I was more nervous about seeing actual people.

Apart from my affable old roommate, Logan, I didn’t know the rest of these Spikeballers all that well. Most of them were friends from college, but it had been years since we’d really spoken.

There was Evan, a pilot and St. Louis Cardinals fan. His wife, Pauline, a dog lover from Belgium. Johnna, a librarian in graduate school. Her boyfriend, Ben, a nurse who’d been moved to the COVID-19 intensive care unit, was the only one of the four I hadn’t met.

I found out a few things fairly quickly. Nobody was very good, except for maybe Ben, who has a certain ultimate Frisbee–like athleticism to him. Johnna has some history playing volleyball in school, and it showed. Logan and I seemed to be good teammates—he was scratching the surface of what would later be a nasty serve, and I liked to relive my baseball-playing glory days by diving for a loose ball whenever possible. In the beginning, there were ample opportunities for diving.

I also realized pretty much immediately how much we all needed the outlet. It was a pleasant shock to the system to be around people, to hear about their lives, to just have fun. As I drove home from that first meetup, I realized I’d had my first joyous night since the pandemic started. I remember hoping that they had all enjoyed themselves as much as I did.

Fortunately, they had. A group text, dubbed “The Fellowwwship of the Ring”—don’t ask me, I didn’t name it—was born before I pulled into my driveway.

That group text became the place we’d send each other some unbelievable Spikeball highlight we came across on Instagram, usually followed by a blooper of us made from the night before. Naturally, it was also where one of us would throw in a “So…who’s in this weekend?” The answer was almost always everyone.

We played all through summer and deep into fall. Sure enough, the group got better, as tends to happen with time and practice. We experimented with the rules, serve styles, and gear—I sadly wouldn’t recommend Spikeball’s SpikeBrite LED rim lights; they do a fine job illuminating the net but are a bit bulky and shrink the surface area of the circle. Mostly, though, we just sipped beers and laughed really hard and chased those little yellow balls late into the night.

I realized exactly how much that little Spikeball group had meant to me and how lucky I was to have a weekly injection of joy into such a bleak period of life.

In between all that, life happened. When my family came down with the coronavirus in November, I immediately sought advice from Ben, who had probably just come off a grueling shift at the hospital but was still incredibly gracious. He checked in several times that week. Ben would actually propose to Johnna a few months later. They married in January. Evan and Pauline added a beautiful Labrador puppy to their family. They got new countertops (which I remember because the guy who installed them played a few rounds with us that day). Logan met someone, and before long he’d brought her along to an evening of Spikeball. She was remarkably nice, and by the time she admitted that she—in an effort to impress us—had watched Spikeball tutorials prior to coming, I knew it was more than a fling. They’ve been together ever since.

As for me, I got a job as Outside’s audience development editor. I’d put so much into my career and had left family and friends behind to attend graduate school, only for COVID-19 to decimate my industry. I remember telling Ben about the possibility of working at Outside as we sat in lawn chairs in the park. The next time we played, I shared the news and, strangely enough, it felt bittersweet: I had accepted this amazing, long-sought-after gig, but I’d be leaving the circle and heading to Santa Fe. Through everyone’s excitement and support, I also picked up on a tinge of sadness.

That’s the moment I realized exactly how much that little Spikeball group had meant to me and how lucky I was to have a weekly injection of joy into such a bleak period of life. It was my connection to normalcy and the outside world.

Now that we’re well into pandemic summer number two and experiencing boomeranging COVID-19 numbers and subsequent CDC protocols, I’m sensing a weariness in the people I come into contact with. It’s an ache that I recognize, because I feel it too. Except I’ve had a springy net, a squishy ball, and a circle of friends to get me through some of my toughest days. Has my neighbor had that? My coworker? What about the woman who bagged my groceries today? Is she OK?

It’s strange to experience trauma as a collective, but that’s the reality, and we’re going to need each other moving forward. If this shitshow has taught us anything, I sincerely hope it’s that.

So, if you’re in need of a new hobby, I’m recommending Spikeball. How many other sports allow you to break a sweat while still holding a beer? It’s relatively inexpensive, too—sets are currently going for $54. And if none of this sounds the least bit interesting, that’s fine. I hope you find your own Spikeball, something to get you through your tough days. Because it really doesn’t matter what you do. Just find ways to laugh with people you love.

Lead Photo: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto/Getty
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