Table Tennis England – Still asking the wrong questions.

I understand the governing body of table tennis are in the midst of a root and branch examination of their governing structures. This was forced upon them by some of the old guard kicking back against the modern era being imposed on the organisation by Sport England who bluntly told them modernise your structures or loose all your public funding. Quite right. By the old guard I refer to the League and County committees who, hiding behind the fake banner of democracy, resent having Sport England meddling in their decades old control of the sport.

Not for them the 21st century and the bracing winds of modernity, accountability and transparency. I have no idea how the exercise will pan out and to be honest I, and most table tennis enthusiasts, don’t actually care. This is all set to be a token consultation that has no intention of asking the key question: How is it that of all the tens of thousands of youngsters that have been drawn into the sport over the past years, only a tiny handful are still playing? And if you don’t ask the right sort of questions you have precious little chance of yielding the right sort of answers.

Actually, the answer to the above question is blatantly obvious. Very few youngsters stick to the game because they were knocked out of the sport by the very governing body that was charged to develop the game. And I mean this literally. Table Tennis England, under successive administrations, has been wedded to the knockout tournament structure whereby you start with an all play all group of four with the top two then progressing to the knockout stage and the bottom two, if they’re lucky, being entered into a consolation event. This archaic structure ensures, that for the majority of participants, they are only going to play four or perhaps five matches. Not much return for high entrance fees and maybe four or five hours of motorway driving. As for the so called consolation event, this turns out to be very little consolation at all, providing for fifty percent of the players just one more game.

From the organisers point of view, all they seem interested in, is getting through the tournament as quickly as possible with no consideration for the quality of experience for the middle or lower achievers. When quizzed on the matter, they feebly plead its all down to a shortage of tables and/or a shortage of time. Never do they concede that it is the knockout format that is the problem. Once a youngster has tasted this miserable experience a few times, they simple vote with their feet and find another leisure activity that gives a better return on their time and money. As for the governing body, they seem intent only in getting to the final stages as quickly as possible which turns out to involve the same few elite performers until they too hang up their bats and the next elite group step up to the podium.

To be fair, some local organisers have rejected this self-defeating format and adopted the more engaging two group format, whereby players play a group of six in the morning and then move into another group in the afternoon depending on their morning results. Nobody gets knocked out and everybody gets the same number of matches. Considering that everybody pays the same entry fee, this seems perfectly equitable. So inequitable is the knockout system that there seems a damn good case for taking out a class action against the governing body on behalf of those tens of thousands of youngsters that have been short-changed by the knock-out system over the years. I might just do it.

When kids I know come back from tournaments, particularly ones I may have encouraged to enter, I always ask them, not how they got on, but how much they enjoyed it. That can be a very revealing question. You quickly learn to decipher from their stunted answers and their body language that it was a pretty miserable affair. Of course, it would be. Three or four matches over an entire day and then a long trip back down the motorway with your parents, where you have plenty of time to reflect on what a shitty day it has been. Next time, best stay at home and play the X Box.

It has not been all bad practice at the officially sanctioned junior tournaments. The national organiser of the National Cadet and Junior Leagues has stipulated in the rules that every player must have a minimum of nine matches per day. Well done Mr Atchison! You’re a bloody hero to me. But these two tournaments aside, the prevailing culture at Table Tennis England is still – get them in and knock them out. One has to ask oneself whether these administrators either understand children or perhaps whether they even like children.

Of course, Table Tennis England has fine sounding child protection documents but what is the point of fine sounding platitudes if you systematically short change the kids every time they dare to enter one of your tournaments? Knocking kids out of tournaments in not only self-defeating but might even be considered a mild form of neglect. That might sound harsh but as a grassroots organiser of many years standing, I have had to pick up the pieces of deflated and demoralised children far too often. Attend a Table Tennis England tournament and for many kids it’s one step forward, two steps back.

Well, I doubt if any of this will be under consideration during the consultation of table tennis governance. Of course, children can be delightful and difficult in equal measure and sometimes at the very same time. But if we don’t nurture the ones we have then the sport will never reach anywhere near its potential and no amount of shuffling the committees will grow the sport. We need a child centred philosophy to replace the 1950’s middle class racket sport mentality. Let’s hope Sport England have the courage of their convictions to force some meaning change where change is so obviously needed.

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