There is a lot going on in table tennis, says Wendy Suzuki, a tenured professor of neuroscience at New York University and author of Healthy Brain, Happy Life, a new book exploring how sport generally and table tennis specifically can affect the human brain. Attention is increasing, memory is increasing, you have a better mood. And you are building motor circuits in your brain. A bigger part of your brain is being activated.
Furthermore, according to Professor Suzuki. There are three major areas affected by this high-speed game. The fine motor control and exquisite hand-eye coordination involved with dodging and diving for the ball engages and enhances the primary motor cortex and cerebellum, areas responsible for arm and hand movement. Secondly, by anticipating an opponent’s shot, a player uses the prefrontal cortex for strategic planning. Thirdly, the aerobic exercise from the physical activity of the game stimulates the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is responsible for allowing us to form and retain long-term facts and events.
This blog is really directed at the thousands of head teachers and teaching staff who are yet to be convinced of the gigantic educational benefits of school table tennis. In terms of school children, those benefits might roughly be categorized by the following cognitive developmental areas: spatial awareness, social awareness, organisational awareness and puzzle solving awareness. Now, while these developmental areas may be difficult to precisely measure from one week to the next, their enhancement is so immediate and obvious that you can literally see the improvement lesson by lesson. And as cognitive areas develop, so too do the self-esteem and behavioural patterns of the students.
Admittedly, there are discernible occasions where placing a volatile or vulnerable student into a highly competitive arena can appear to do more harm than good. In those situations, a quieter one-to one or small group encounter is preferable. But for the vast majority of students, a well-managed school table tennis programme is a win-win situation for all involved. Of course, there will be melt-downs and conflicts aplenty, but paradoxically, the process of resolving those conflicts is often precisely what is required for a child’s all-round and speedy development.
Studies have repeatedly found that table tennis stimulates brain activity and cognitive development and awareness. Table tennis has been called the number one brain sport because it requires rapid thinking, anticipation, as well as physical agility. Furthermore,the speed, spin and placement of the ball are crucial in table tennis, and practised players are highly skilled in both creating and solving puzzles.
There are no end of such findings that testify to the cognitive benefits of playing table tennis but they tend to talk only in academic generalisations. What are the specifics as applied to very young school children? In terms of developing spatial awareness the benefits may seem obvious; anticipating trajectory, bounce, speed and spin. And for very young children these all represent considerable hurdles. Any table tennis coach working with very young children will recognise the scenario of the ball bouncing up into the face of the unsuspecting player. But what never fails to impress is just how quickly those young players adapt and master the bounce.
But it’s not all about the bounce. Confronted by a hall full of tables and balls and players, the real challenge for the children is to navigate the countless potential collisions that can happen at any moment. And here is the amazing thing. Year 3 & 4 children can and do navigate their way through the potential hazards with remarkable dexterity. While they’re busy having fun, they are also developing their spatial awareness. Nothing is being measured nor practically could it be, but the beneficial developments are real enough. After just a single term of table tennis sessions, the improvement in spatial coordination is plain to see.
Developing alongside spatial awareness is the essential cognitive skill of social awareness and cooperation. Table tennis has much to offer in this respect. The most obvious one is the skill of losing gracefully and winning gracefully. This applies to any sport, but ping is particularly useful in this respect in that the winning and losing is repeated multiple times throughout a single lesson. Changing overly aggressive behaviour doesn’t necessarily come quickly and it doesn’t necessarily come easily but with gentle but firm perseverance by the table tennis coach, it does come. Even the most combative, volatile and competitive of students will moderate their fight or flight behaviour, but only of course, if the coach themselves value these collaborative social attributes.
Table tennis develops social awareness in other ways too. Scoring one’s own match and umpiring other people’s matches is a direct way of developing in young students the notion of rules and social norms. Youngsters soon learn that deliberate cheating just creates chaos and conflict. Students seem to quickly tire of the stressful scenario of perpetual argument and opt instead to embrace a more rule governed approach. That is a mightily significant lesson at a young age and it is a lesson that can then be applied across the board. This social development occurs, often in spite of the student’s immediate intentions, because they come to accept that it is in their own self-interest to cooperate.
Closely associated with social awareness is that of developing organisational awareness. It never fails to impress when a class of Year 3 students learn so quickly to adapt to the organisational demands of top table, a whole class activity whereby winners and losers are continually moving up and down according to results. And if there are insufficient tables for the number of players and a queuing system is required, the children become equally adept at dealing with its logistical particularities. All the coach needs do is blow a whistle and the whole class magically move into their correct positions. The first few weeks might be a little chaotic but by mid-term it all seems to go remarkably smoothly.
In addition to the above, table tennis often described as chess on legs, clearly offers ample opportunities for developing problem solving strategies on the table. The coach may offer technical advice, but it is often better to let the students puzzle it out themselves. In response to repeatedly losing to the same player, the following piece of wisdom might be proffered by the coach. Fail. Then fail again. But next time, fail better. In the coming age of information technology, automation and robotics, problem solving may become the ultimate human skill.
In the many years I have been teaching table tennis in schools, I often wonder just how aware the senior staff are as to the cognitive and social developments that are taking place in their students whilst they appear to be harmlessly at play. Do they see it merely as a pleasurable physical activity or are they truly cognisant of the wider cognitive benefits? My guess is that whilst some do, the majority don’t. Schools are very busy places, with a thousand pressing things on the agenda. But, if head teachers only realised it, many of those pressing agenda items are directly addressed by a well-run table tennis programme. Individual and collective behaviour improves. Cognitive development is enhanced. And individual self-esteem is nurtured. Yes, in good measure it does depend on the awareness of the coach themselves, but the potential benefits are clear enough. And the science is now overwhelmingly supporting this claim.