‘This sport is for everyone’ – a phrase often used but once dug into, might not necessarily ring true.
In the case of table tennis, however, the term is entirely accurate.
The sport is continually growing in Ireland with over 50 clubs and is backed by a group of very passionate individuals.
Jing Yi Graham is the Female Lead Coordinator with Table Tennis Ireland but is engrained in all parts of their participation efforts. After working with Table Tennis Ulster as a Junior Development Officer, Director of Coaching and then High-Performance Coach for 15 years, she moved into the national set-up.
Though Ireland’s presence on the international stage may be small, it is by no means insignificant.
“We have improved over the years”, she explains.
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“This is a long-term development, the player’s pathway. We have a few very talented male and female players in Ireland. Sophie Earley is number one in Europe in her age group, she’s a cadet.
“Also, Owen Cathcart is a junior now. But because of COVID, they haven’t really played international events for the last year or so. Colin Judge is trying to compete in the Paralympics this year.
“Those are all the role models for other players.”
Judge, in particular, has been very vocal about the positive impact table tennis has had on his life. Having been born with three missing limbs, a sporting career might not have been predicted in his future, but that all changed when he was introduced to table tennis.
Speaking previously to Pundit Arena, he explained how the sport changed his life.
“As a 13-year-old boy, I was really struggling with my disability, I was in an able-bodied school, I had a lot of good friends but felt I couldn’t really relate to them. I suppose I was quite jealous of what they could do. I wasn’t really aware of my disability in the earlier years but it became really apparent when they were doing rugby and lots of other things that I couldn’t do.
“Table tennis changed my life. It was the first time that I had a passion and a drive, something that made me realise that for all the things I couldn’t do, there was a hell of a lot that I could do. The reason I love table tennis is because it’s a sport I can compete in with no limits. I can compete at quite a high level in able-bodied here in Ireland which is what I’ve always wanted and I never wanted to let my disability to get in the way of what I could achieve and table tennis has really taught me that.
“There’s more than one way of doing something, and you can use what you’ve got to your advantage.”
The accessibility of table tennis is a major draw to the sport. No matter your age, no matter your physical ability, no matter your gender, you can pick up a bat and take part.
And it’s a selling point Table Tennis Ireland are keen to stress.
“Table tennis is one of the sports that doesn’t cost you a lot. It’s very cost-effective, I know a lot of sports can be very expensive to play”, Graham continues.
“Table tennis is for all ages. You don’t have to be very young to start, you can join in at any age. Just for health purposes. We ran a programme and people with no background at all came in to play and what they said was that it was actually recommended by their doctors to pick up table tennis because it helps their balance and reflexes. So they were actually referred by their doctors.
“Table tennis for young people is really great to help you focus and relieve the stress of school and any other aspects of life that makes you feel under pressure. When you come to play table tennis, you can just forget and enjoy it and make friends.”
It’s not just doctors who are seeing the positive effects of table tennis, but schools too. And Table Tennis Ireland’s various schools and young leadership programmes have yielded very positive feedback.
“Before COVID, we had two different programmes. One was primary schools, we did roadshows. We worked with local partnerships, we did roadshows just to introduce table tennis to primary school kids. The majority of the schools don’t have tables but we use their desks, their dining tables, and the kids loved it.
“We follow up by training the teachers or multi-sport coaches in the partnership. The first year I was involved we qualified over 60 coaches. We deliver a four-week course and then after that, the teachers and the multi-sport coaches will follow up.
“The other one we had was the Youth Leadership Programme. That was provided for the Transition Year students. So again, it was learning basic table tennis skills and make them feel that they can play sport. A lot of the girls feel ‘Oh I’m not sporty’, and ‘I can’t’. But we actually have a t-shirt with the logo ‘Girls Can’. So it has built their confidence.”
The COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to most sporting activities all over the country but while they couldn’t meet face-to-face, a little creative innovation meant that table tennis could be continued without any interruptions at home.
“Table tennis is for everyone. Table tennis is for every age group. Table tennis is one of the few sports you can play at home, it doesn’t require a big arena or a hall, you can just play at home and that’s why we organised TT At Home to encourage people to play at a dining table, at a desk and become creative with bats and balls and nets. Just to help people be physically active and mentally positive, especially during these difficult times.”
To find out more about how you can become involved with table tennis, visit https://tabletennisireland.ie/