Over the past three months we have seen some extraordinary performances by both young and not-so-young players in the world of table tennis.
In February 2015, 11-year-old Tomokazu Harimoto got to the final of the Safir Open in Sweden, beating two of the world’s top 100 players on the way. Even more recently, 14-year-old Mima Ito became the youngest female single’s champion by winning the German Open in Bremen.
Not to be outdone by the youngsters, Jimmy Butler, aged 44, having recovered from a debilitating illness, won the 2014 US National Championships, 21 years after his last title. And on 29 March 2015, 52-year-old He Zhiwen became the oldest ever IITTF world tour champion by winning the men’s doubles at the Spanish Open.
Are there any other sports which can compete with table tennis in regards to the age range of potential and actual champions? I’m not sure there are.
There are sports where participants excel at a young age, such as gymnastics and swimming. And there are sports where participants can still compete at the highest level when past peak physical age, such as golf, archery and lawn bowls. But there aren’t many sports (if any) where it’s possible for an 11-year-old to get to the final of world event one month and a 52-year-old to win a tour title the next month.
Table tennis is even more inter-generational at a non-professional level. In local leagues all over the world there are players aged 8 to 80+ competing against each other. Even in the top divisions of these local leagues, where the standard is still seriously high, it is fairly common to see 13-year-olds and 63-year-olds spinning the ball back and forth displaying mesmerising movement, reactions and pinpoint accuracy.
So how is it possible that such a large age range of players can compete on seemingly equal terms?
There are three main reasons.
Firstly, physical strength in table tennis is an advantage, but certainly not essential. A table tennis ball is very light and you don’t have to hit it very far. You also don’t have to cover quite so much space as other racquet sports such as tennis, badminton and squash. So if your physical strength is only just developing (12-year-old) or your range of movement isn’t quite what it once was (62-year-old), this won’t impact you as much as other sports.
Secondly, table tennis is a very technical game. There are lots of different ways you can spin the ball. And because you’re playing on such a small area, your technique needs to be very good to get the ball on the table again and again. But, crucially, good technique is not dependent upon age. Certainly the more you practise, the better your technique becomes – which would seem to favour older players. But good basic technique typically takes around 1-3 years to develop. So it’s quite possible to have a 10-year-old, who has received good coaching for 3 years, to reach a fairly high standard of technical ability and compete equally with adults who have more physical strength but poorer technique.
Thirdly, table tennis is also a very tactical game. It’s often described as chess at 100 miles per hour. There are lots of different playing styles – drivers, loopers, pushers, blockers, choppers. You need to know how to play against these different styles, how to spot your opponent’s weaknesses and how to maximise your strengths. This tactical awareness seems to favour older players, who have more match experience. So a 70-year-old can easily beat a young player who has more mobility and better technique, simply through superior match tactics.
So table tennis truly is an intergenerational sport. You can start at any age, either playing for fun or playing competitively. And the best bit? It’s a sport you can play all your life. Some of my best defeats have come against much older or much younger players. It’s not that I enjoyed losing those matches, but it showed me what a wonderful sport table tennis can be when age seems to be no barrier to participation and success. So what are you waiting for? Pick up a table tennis bat and play!