Dealing with illegal serves, white t-shirts & poor lighting

In this week’s blog post I’m going to address some issues raised by a reader of my blog called David from the USA. David has been playing table tennis for many years, but has become a little disillusioned because of illegal serves, white t-shirts and poor venue lighting…

In David’s words…

“It is estimated that a person loses about one percent of their vision per year after age 20 or so. As an older player with old eyes, these factors may affect me more than a young person…But it is difficult to bring these things up with other players, as there is little or no backup from coaches, organizers, club owners, national associations. Furthermore, few tournament matches in the USA can afford umpire officials, so improper serving and clothing almost never gets challenged.”

In this blog post, I’ll give my thoughts on David’s concerns and what the table tennis community can do about it…

The reality of amateur table tennis

In local league table tennis and amateur competitions, playing conditions can be very variable. Sometimes we have good facilities, good tables, good lighting and good umpiring.

Other times, it’s the complete opposite. I have played league matches in a dark church tin shed, in a company’s bright white computer server room and a staff canteen with low hanging lights and a perilous drop 3 metres from the table!

I have played against other players who wear white t-shirts, obscene t-shirts, string vests, and multi-coloured psychedelic t-shirts.

I regularly play against people whose serves are illegal. Some are borderline. Some are not even close to being legal. Very rarely in local league will an umpire (who is usually another payer) challenge illegal serves.

This can all be very frustrating. Even more so, if like David, your eyesight is not as sharp as it used to be. I coach many older players, and I know very well what a difference good lighting and being able to see the ball more clearly makes to a someone’s overall playing ability.

So what can be done about all of this?

White t-shirts

Let’s start with the easy one.

The ITTF rules are very clear…

“The main colour of a shirt, skirt or shorts, other than sleeves and collar of a shirt shall be clearly different from that of the ball in use.”

So if you’re using a white ball, you’re not allowed to wear a white t-shirt.

A white ball against a white t-shirt can be more difficult for some players to see.

So everyone should wear non-white clothing. This really shouldn’t be an issue, as I’m sure everyone owns (or can buy very cheaply) a non-white t-shirt. Every league and tournament should insist on it.

Sometimes a new player may be unaware of the rule, but I have never known anyone take offence when told about the rule.

So this is simple. Wear a non-white t-shirt (if playing with a white ball).

Illegal serves

If you play competitively in a league or tournament, you should try your best to serve legally.

There’s a load of service rules, which you can read on the ITTF website (section 2.6), but the two main rules to follow are…

  • Toss the ball 16cm and contact the ball as it is falling
  • Don’t hide your serves with your body/arm

I understand why the issue of illegal serves doesn’t get addressed as much as it should, as it tends to create a very bad atmosphere.

A player is often unaware he is serving illegally and can get upset or angry when he’s told. In local league, where we have no independent umpires, it can be very difficult for the umpire (who is usually another player) to fully enforce the rules without big arguments taking place.

But this should not be an excuse.

Everyone should try to serve legally. Players should not get confrontational if they are told their serves are illegal. Umpires, including myself, should be braver in calling out foul serves.

For a player like David, whose eyesight is not so strong, illegal serves can be much harder to see. As he said in his email to me…”This gives the server an unfair advantage, and kills my motivation.”

Poor lighting and white walls

The hardest issue to address is poor lighting and white walls. This is because most table tennis clubs do not own the space they play in. They usually share the space with other sports and community groups, so there are limits to improvements you can make. In the UK, most clubs are grateful to have any type of space at an affordable rate.

But there still may be things a club can do.

My club in Cambridge is based in a school sports halls. The space is shared with many different groups. The walls in the hall used to be white. This was an issue for many players, as a white ball can merge with a white wall and make it harder to see.

Our first solution (led by Kwok – our coach / fixer / inventor!) was to erect some dark green sheets around the hall. But this ended up being a bit too time consuming to put up and take down every session.

Eventually we were able to agree with the school to paint the walls a different colour (again Kwok did most of the hard work!).

A very simple solution, but it has made the playing conditions better for everyone, especially those whose eyesight is not so strong.

Lighting is much more costly to improve, but I know some clubs in the UK who have gone to great lengths to raise the funds to install new lighting. It’s a tough one to sort out, but can be done.

A good playing experience for everyone

Table tennis is a sport for everyone and every age. Table tennis is popular – and will always be popular – with older players, as it’s a sport which is less physically demanding compared to other racket sports. You can keep on playing into your 80s (and longer).

As we get older, our eyesight does get weaker. This doesn’t mean we have to stop playing. But we shouldn’t be putting extra obstacles in the way either.

So creating playing environments where it is easier to see the ball creates a better playing experience for everyone. This means wearing appropriate clothing. It also means making sure your serves are visible. And ideally (although not always possible), playing in venues with decent lighting and non-white walls.

I think the onus is on everyone – players, coaches, umpires, organisers and national associations – to advocate for this. Everyone benefits. If playing conditions are better – if everyone plays by the rules – table tennis will continue to grow as a sport.

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