One of the first things a table tennis fan is keen to tell you is that theirs is a friendly, social and inclusive pastime. But what else is it that appeals to such a diverse community of players?
“How about table tennis for the November sports pages,” said our lovely Editor Sarah. “Sure,” I replied, while thinking to myself: Is this really a sport? Isn’t it just two people having a knock-about? But, as I quickly discovered, there is a reason you should never underestimate any physical activity, especially one that experienced practitioners make look easy.
You may have memories of table tennis being played in the club of your youth but the sport (yes, it is a sport) has been enjoying something of a resurgence, despite setbacks such as Sport England’s decision to suspend funding last year when Table Tennis England’s (TTE) memberships’ representatives chose to reject proposals to comply with governance requirements.
That resurgence is not just at Olympic and Paralympic standard but at local and regional levels as well as in settings such as Bounce, Europe’s largest purpose-built ‘social ping pong’ club in London’s Hoxton, an area in which you’d be forgiven for picturing trendy young natives more likely to be downing turmeric shots and tucking into smashed avocado.
For starters, table tennis has numerous benefits on physical, cerebral and social levels. It improves reflexes and hand-eye co-ordination, develops mental agility, is gentle on joints, burns calories, helps with balance and keeps the brain sharp.
The sport now claims more than 42,000 TTE members (and on the rise), has a substantial number of leagues across the country, and a 10-year plan to get table tennis offered to young people in 500 additional community venues and played in 1,000 more schools.
In Kent there are a variety of leagues in which people can play, with opportunities for everyone from casual beginners looking for the sociable side of a sport to those seeking more structured skills training.
The Table Tennis England’s website (see Get Involved, far right) has a finder option where people can locate their nearest club and contact them directly for more information.
Ping in the Community
Loop was created by Table Tennis England with a vision to see more people enjoying the benefits of playing table tennis and by bringing the game into non-traditional settings.
The successful scheme was relaunched this September as Ping in the Community to strengthen work in bringing free table tennis to places people are already spending time in their everyday lives.
Keely Armitt, Head of Participation at Table Tennis England, explains: “The ‘community’ initiative aims to give all groups of society access to free or very affordable table tennis, and as such it aligns perfectly with the Ping! project, which has successfully been delivering free table tennis in non-traditional places for the past nine years.
“Ping! has grown over time from a summer festival into a year-round project with a vast reach, and the hope is that by embedding table tennis into community places many more people will play the game regularly and enjoy the many health and wellbeing benefits it brings,” says Keely, adding: “Workplaces will still be able to purchase subsidised table tennis packages through our Loop at Work initiative, while shoppers can visit any of our free-to-play Ping Pong Parlours located in 28 shopping centres nationwide.”
Where there’s a Will
By spontaneously climbing on the table at the end of table tennis final at the Paralympics, Will Bayley provided us with one of the iconic images from Rio 2016.
The 30-year-old from Tunbridge Wells was born with arthrogryposis, a condition that results in multiple curved joints. At the age of seven, he was diagnosed with cancer and it was during recovery his grandmother bought the now world number one his first table. By 16, he was representing the Kent men’s team of able-bodied players in the county’s league.
Even before his stunning victory in Brazil, Will was much sought-after for his inspirational speaking and ambassadorial roles.
“I’d advise anyone interested – able-bodied or with a disability – to join their local club. One of the things I loved about table tennis is that it’s so inclusive,” says Will, who actively supports a number of sporting and community projects including Kent Sports Trust Foundation and Disability Sports Coaching.
“My first club was Byng Hall in Tunbridge Wells. I joined as a child and what I loved was that I would train with all ages – the juniors mixed with the seniors. Not only was this fantastic for my development but also for my social skills.”
He’s just competed at the World Para Table Tennis Championships in Slovenia (taking place as we went to press) but what’s next for Will Bayley?
“My ambition is to retain my gold medal in the Tokyo Paralympics in 2020. This has never been done before by a table tennis player,” says Will, who was appointed as an MBE in the 2017 New Year Honours.
“Another long-term ambition I have is to grow the sport in this country. There is much research showing table tennis helps the ageing process. I would love to encourage more people to take it up – it’s never too late.
And in what other sport do you find such a mix of young and old, able-bodied and disabled?”
10 Reasons to Play Table Tennis
1. It’s good for your health (as little as 10 minutes can do wonders).
2. It’s easy on the body and you can play within your capabilities.
3. It’s a game that welcomes literally all ages from eight (or younger) to 80 (or older).
4. Everyone can play regardless of gender, physical ability or previous experience.
5. You can play just about anywhere from sports halls to the workplace.
6. You can play anytime.
7. It’s good for the brain (it aids complex thinking and increases the cortex – the part of the brain that shrinks with age).
8. It’s affordable.
9. It’s sociable.
10. …and it’s fun!
Images: Tom Turner/TTE & Sport England