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“The magic is not in me; the magic is in the game.”

Many pickleball fans have heard of Roger BelAir, who is best known for teaching pickleball in jails and prisons throughout the nation. In the last few years, BelAir’s mission to bring the sport into the criminal justice system has gained increased publicity, including a featured article in USA Today and an interview on NPR’s Only A Game podcast. Beginning in Chicago’s Cook County Jail, Roger’s first entrance to teach pickleball was all but inviting. “They [the inmates] were apathetic at best…eyes rolling, arms crossed,” Roger explains. But when we asked how his arrivals to Cook County have changed since his first visit, the scene has transformed from a bah-humbug gathering to a familiar picture of holiday cheer. “The last time I was there, I felt like Santa Claus walking into a grade school,” he says. Roger has become a recognized and welcomed figure in the jail—and more importantly, pickleball has proven to be the gift that keeps on giving.

What players of pickleball have come to know is the sport’s unique ability to transcend age, income, or powerhouse physical strength often required to succeed in other sports. BelAir’s goal has been to introduce this simple game into a complex U.S. criminal justice system, where 55% of those incarcerated in state prisons are in for violent offenses. When Roger first contacted the Cook County Jail to teach pickleball, his intent for the inmates was to provide a means of exercise and an opportunity to build general life skills that could be applied to their lives after release, such as processing mistakes and consequences and acting as a teammate. But Roger soon discovered that pickleball also created an incentive for the inmates to behave, and this has offered an eye-opening perspective upon an environment that is so prone to violence. While factors such as gang rivalries are key initiators to the violence on the inside, Roger says that this incentive to play (sparked by inmates discovering a love for the game) has broken down communication barriers between these rivalries.

Gang rivalries aren’t the only barrier that pickleball has impacted in BelAir’s experience. Roger told us one story of an inmate who he described as an NFL lineman in size. During Roger’s visit to the jail, this inmate approached Roger several times with questions about the game. To BelAir, this was an ordinary exchange between a teacher and player. What he found out later is that the inmate had been in prison for three weeks and had not uttered a single word to anyone until those moments with Roger. The guards had even assumed the inmate couldn’t speak English because of his weeks of silence.

So how does someone successfully teach the sport in a place that holds a stigma of fear? “The magic is not in me; the magic is in the game,” says BelAir. And although Roger leads with this humble attitude, we discovered that Roger’s talent for teaching is simply ingrained in who he is.  

BelAir started out in banking. “I was always quite ambitious,” says BelAir. After he and his business partner were featured in Money Magazine, BelAir went on to publish two books related to his finance background. He described an encounter he had at a party with Vince Lombardi’s son, who encouraged Roger to pursue a professional speaking career. After diving into professional speaking at business conventions, BelAir quickly recognized that a few key principles allowed him to be effective, including the ability to keep an audience awake and using humor. What Roger emphasized to us is that those traits are not only key to his professional speaking, but also to his teaching.

“I have a relaxed style. I think that it’s very important not to go in there [prisons] with a chip on your shoulder and start talking down to people,” BelAir explains. When teaching the game in prisons, BelAir aims to speak minimally but create maximum interaction for the inmates.

Yet, Roger stresses that teachers can’t force these qualities upon themselves. “What’s most important is that you be yourself, and that you be sincere. Humor works for me because it’s kind of who I am, so I don’t have to think about it—I just say what comes out of my mouth.”

As Roger continues staying active in his mission to bring the sport into prisons, he says that publicity is key in earning the credibility he needs to get inside a prison to teach. Since starting in Chicago at the Cook County Jail, he’s taught nationwide, including Alaska, Washington, and New York. After Roger taught at Rikers Island in New York, which cycles through nearly 80,000 inmates each year, Rikers ordered pickleball equipment for all ten of its sites. BelAir is also scheduled to teach in California’s San Quentin and supermax prison Pelican Bay.

In stark contrast to teaching in prisons, BelAir is an instructor at  Rancho La Puerta, a destination health spa in Baja California. “I kind of cover the gamut from people of the extremes of our society—from people on the inside that maybe have been convicted of murder, to people who are fortunate enough to go to a wonderful place like Rancho La Puerta,” BelAir says.

Now, with nearly 8,000 places in the U.S. for the public to play pickleball, we also talked to Roger about what players can do to continue to grow the game.  Roger says it first starts with staying focused on our personal strengths, unique talents, and ultimately, what we’re passionate about.  Roger encourages involvement within local communities, but he also stresses that it’s not just about pickleball. “It really extends far beyond pickleball. It could be somebody that enjoys the game of Bridge. And say ‘you know, here’s something that I could share with others and that they could benefit from’” BelAir says.

Roger’s advice, like pickleball, is simple: Maintain focus. “If we try to dilute our efforts into too many different directions, we kind of lose our perspective of where we want to go. But if you really focus on a kind of a narrow channel, then you can really accomplish big things,” BelAir explains. As the sport grows and continues to reach new audiences, BelAir maintains his focus to use pickleball to break down the toughest walls, and ultimately, positively influence the people within them.