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The power and potential of ping pong & parkrun

Tim Holtam 
February 2020

When considering the next stages in the rapid development of Brighton Table Tennis Club, I have been reflecting on the parallels between the development of parkrun and the potential realisable for table tennis, with an emphasis on social cohesion and community as well as success in the game. 

Some clubs are already on this road and are leading the way. Over the last year London Ping has been running fully inclusive London Community Rankings tournaments that are Ping Pong's equivalent of parkrun in many ways. Absolutely everyone is welcome from senior internationals to six year old complete beginners. There is total flexibility from the organiser to accommodate everyone by putting up minimal barriers to entry. There is an online, easy to use form to enter, and if players turn up on the day then everyone is welcomed and put in the band that they ask to play in.

Recently I took ten players from Brighton to the Greenhouse Centre in Marylebone for the latest of these events. Things have been thought through to make this as flexible and inclusive as possible, and how brand new players to the sport play alongside professional senior international players on the next table. This is unique in Table Tennis, and feels in many ways like being at parkrun.

Brighton Table Tennis Club players at a London Community Rankings competition.

In contrast to this, at traditional Table Tennis competitions, entries have to be submitted at least two weeks in advance and often by post. Events are usually for a fixed age range (eg, under 13 girls or 40+ men), a type of disability or a local league “closed” competition. The tournament organising desk often appears stressed with a limited flexibility. All players need to have paid for a Table Tennis England membership and a licence number to even play in local league or an entry level competition. 

However, the organising desk at the Community Rankings tournaments, staffed by Jon Kaufman and Maggie Curran, was at all times genuinely relaxed, warm, friendly and fun. It helps that they know 90% of the players in the competition personally and have a track record going back thirty years of running grassroots and elite Table Tennis in London. If the memories, connotations and associations of your first competition for a new player are positive, that it was fun, that there were hundreds of other people there buzzing about Table Tennis, then you are of course far more likely to go back to your club and train hard in anticipation of the next one.

Table Tennis local league and county structures in comparison feel more "closed", potentially closing the game to large numbers of new players, when in fact it is such an accessible and brilliant sport. London Ping is showcasing exactly this with their Community Ranking Tournaments that have now over 1000 players on an alternative ranking list. You don’t need to have a £16 Table Tennis England membership to be involved.

Here is the report from the organiser Jon Kaufman after the November 2019 Community Ranking Tournament:

“With just over 200 entries, this was always going to be another big London Ranking Tournament. But when 66 youngsters turned up for the Band 5 event in the afternoon, it quickly became apparent that a new record was about to be set. Six months ago in the London Academy an impressive 57 players battled it out for Band 5 honours. That looked like a record that was going to be hard to beat. But this past weekend, in the magnificent Greenhouse Sports Centre, that record was exceeded by nine. Playing on 11 tables in groups of six, the 66 would-be champions battled it out for four hours and fifteen minutes. And thanks to the wonderful efforts of the on-the-day volunteers, there was barely a problem to be had. 

If ever there was proof needed that young people can compete and cooperate at the very same time, this was it. In sporting journalism it is customary to highlight the winners. But in London PING tournaments every participant is regarded as a winner. And so it was last weekend. In the spirit of total inclusion, players of international standing rubbed shoulders with complete novices.

Band 1 continued its growing reputation for high quality performances but of equal importance was the Band 5b and 6b groups where young beginners could battle away against fellow novices on an equal footing. In a day of many highlights, it is hard to find something more dramatic and more satisfying than watching those young beginners develop their table tennis tournament skills. 

And who could not but be impressed by the regular participation of the England Down Syndrome team who bring endless joy, humour and passion to the London PING tournaments. We welcome your valuable participation both for your wonderful skills and as a continued reminder of the irrepressible human spirit.”

In 2007, I co-founded Brighton Table Tennis Club (BTTC) and the club is now looked at as a model for community integration. A large part of the inspiration behind it was Jon Kaufman, who set up and ran London Progress TTC for 20 years in Willesden, Stonebridge Park and then Southall. 

BTTC’s mission is to inspire everyone to be a champion, instil a lifelong love for table tennis and a positive sense of community within all our players. In April 2019 we started doing the local parkrun with players from the BTTC and thirty of us completely new to running are now thoroughly addicted to our Saturday morning “fix” of running (jogging/ walking/ volunteering), community and trying to beat last week’s PB.

A couple of years before, in June 2017, BTTC started running weekly sessions in HMP High Down and has been doing so ever since. There has been an 83% reduction in “red entries” (usually incidents of drugs and violence) among participants. In High Down alone, over 300 prisoners have taken part and 62 have done a Level 1 coaching qualification. Every landing of every wing of every prison has a Table Tennis table and a pool table for recreation. The level is already good but bringing in some structure and showing them some spinny serves has done wonders for improving behaviour. Improving at anything and learning new skills is invaluable. If you would otherwise be locked up for 23 hours a day, then thinking about and playing ping pong is a great outlet. One prisoner said “It gets me off the wing, I forget where I am when I’m playing Table Tennis every Tuesday morning.”

Table Tennis at HMP High Down (Photo by Alexis Maryon)

We have expanded the prisons’ programme into four gaols and one immigration detention centre. HMP Downview is a women’s prison in Sutton and we have good links with the PE department there after working with them weekly for 18 months.

Keith Thurston is the PE Instructor who first got us into High Down. He now works next door at HMP Downview Women’s prison. Keith knew that BTTC loved parkrun and was in conversation with parkrun UK about setting up the first ever parkrun in a women’s prison in Europe. In October 2019 BTTC were invited to help at the launch event. Starting in Downview women’s prison was a flagship but characteristically low key celebration of parkrun’s 15th anniversary. 

There I was honoured to meet Jo Sinton-Hewitt, Head of Event Support at parkrun UK and wife of parkrun Founder Paul Sinton-Hewitt. We talked about the many shared values between BTTC and parkrun as well as the scale and ingredients required for a new parkrun to be set up. We agreed that running a community based Table Tennis club was different from parkrun in that it was more niche, more artisan and less easily replicable than the parkrun model which has to be done on Saturday at 9am and be 5km, making it really tightly controlled and easy to do in another local park with a team of enthusiastic volunteers giving up a few hours a week for a great cause. 

Jo Sinton-Hewitt said that until recently parkrun had never given much thought to targeting any particular groups in any local area. They were aware that certain communities were more likely to come to a parkrun, and then go back and talk to their same communities, risking a self selecting group. BTTC has, since the outset, been pro-active and intentional about working with people that wouldn’t otherwise be given opportunities of top level coaching and competition. I took it as a massive compliment to BTTC’s work that parkrun’s Head of Health & Well-Being is planning a visit to Brighton and is interested in learning about our outreach and engagement.

There are 6 million people registered globally for parkrun, “from prisoners to pensioners, buggy-pushers to record-breakers.” From Bushy Park in south London, parkrun is now in Swaziland, Siberia, Japan and the rate of expansion is phenomenal. To celebrate parkrun’s 15th anniversary Paul Sinton- Hewitt said: “One of the things that I’m most proud of is that every year the average finish time at parkrun has slowed. That means we are reaching more people for whom physical activity hasn’t been the norm.

“I would like to see that continue, and for more people to understand that parkrun is truly welcoming of those who want to walk, jog, run or volunteer, especially those who would like to take their first steps on the path of being physically active.”

Dr Ollie Hart says in this excellent video: “Parkrun seems to have filled a need in society, it gives this asset to the community that just wasn’t there before.”  As fewer people go to church or identify as being religious, parkrun and BTTC act in some ways like a surrogate religion, giving purpose and community. In this age of hyper connectivity, when people have never felt more lonely, ping pong and parkrun I think provide beautiful solutions.

parkrun average finish times 2005-2017

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Graph of growth of parkrun events globally

The IT system at parkrun uses barcodes and finishing tokens which means that everyone tracks their own progress and aims to improve every week.  You get an email an hour after you’ve finished and the evangelical volunteers have compiled the results. You can see all of your times, where you’ve ever run, your averages, age graded position and loads more, there is a lot of data. The IT system behind parkrun is a major reason for its success and scalability.

Map of parkruns across the UK

In a survey of 60,000 parkrunners those who volunteer at parkrun reported the greatest improvement to their happiness. 84% said volunteering at parkrun made them feel happier. This suggests that volunteering, helping at a parkrun as a marshall or barcode scanner, was more beneficial to people’s happiness than actually doing the parkrun themselves. There are proven benefits to physical and mental health of being physically active, but it is harder to measure yet so vitally important to be part of a community. To belong.  

Sinton Hewitt and Kaufman have both stayed true to their founding principles. Cost should never be a barrier to taking part so it needs to be kept free in the case of parkrun, or £5 for the whole day for the Community Table Tennis Tournaments. They have both been advised about how they could charge more, or make more money out of their venture and have both resisted becoming commercial. This is unusual and refreshing in a world of corporate sponsored sporting events.

If the foundations of anything are built so strongly and are so deep-rooted, then the rest of the structure will sit well on top of it. Media coverage of sport, the focus of the vast majority of sports clubs and investment from sport’s national governing bodies is firmly biased towards elite players. Table Tennis England’s Annual Report still has 90% coverage of 2 or 3 elite players and on page 37 near the back, half a page is given to “Community” Table Tennis, thereby keeping it in the margins. If 500,000 more people were playing Table Tennis every week at “open to all” events that had a feel like the London Community Ranking Tournament or parkrun, then there would be more interest, more money, more support of Table Tennis and players at all levels would benefit. 

Tony Benn MP said in 1999: “Having served for nearly half a century in the House of Commons, I now want more time to devote to politics and more freedom to do so.” As Benn said and Jon Kaufman realised, it can be more efficient for change to act outside any formal slow process to achieve structural transformation. What we need to do is nurture individuals and groups who have a passion to do things differently and incubate new start-ups, just as parkrun does so well. The impact would be both creative and rapid, opening up access and ideas for physical and mental health and fitness across the country.It is the loyalty, devotion and networks of parkrun participants and volunteers that is stimulating the growth of new parkruns all over the world, and local community sports clubs have this potential too.

The ripples of London Progress Table Tennis Club are phenomenal. So many of the best Table Tennis players, coaches and clubs in the South of England in this century can be marked back to London Progress and Jon Kaufman as the source and inspiration. 

There are a number of other table tennis clubs and projects that were set up as a direct consequence of the impact of Jon Kaufman’s work. London Academy in Edgware has won multiple national titles and produced countless international junior superstars. Greenhouse Sports, a London wide charity, has provided employment to dozens of Table Tennis coaches working in schools and areas of disadvantage. Almost all of the original Greenhouse coaching staff are ex London Progress players.

The first ripples then from BTTC are that Bacon’s College in Southwark is now Table Tennis crazy. Denton Table Tennis Club in Newhaven has over sixty people playing each week. Worthing Ping United has recently set up and has the ingredients to do something really special half an hour west of Brighton along the coast. In Aalkmaar, Holland the club there was already along way into its journey but has set up a Refugee Integration, inspired by the work of BTTC with this group. Each of these clubs will inevitably create their own ripples.  Clubs that haven’t even been set up yet in Derby and even Canberra, Australia, are in touch saying that they have seen the model of grassroots inclusive sport at BTTC and want support in setting up new projects along similar lines. In 2020 it is possible for ideas, good and bad, to be shared instantly across the planet. 

These ripples are generated by relationships. If people experience something personally that makes them feel valued, rewarded, gives a sense of achievement and belonging, they will want more of it. This is about authenticity; about people involved in sport that genuinely want to build communities, seeing it being done elsewhere and then bringing it to their local community.

Reform or revolution?

In December 2019 BTTC won the Club of the Year at The Daily Mirror Pride of Sports Awards. The Judges said: “We talk about the power of sport to bring people together, and there could not be a better example than Brighton Table Tennis Club. It is a simple idea, but executed so brilliantly and it’s having such a profound effect. Every town and city should have a club like this.”

BTTC has been asked by Sport England to design and develop what is currently being called the “BTTC Community Coaching Qualification”. We’ve been asked to ‘break the mould' and create something that will be front and centre of training for community sports projects nationally. 

There's an amazing team of people involved at the BTTC and I am confident we are now in a position to distill some of what we have learned along the way and share it meaningfully with other grassroots organisations. Here is a preview of some of the potential modules:

  1. Being adventurous 

  2. Being outward facing - building connections/ outreach to targeted groups/ referral networks / thinking beyond sport

  3. Relationships & rapport 

  4. What does integration mean?

  5. The BTTC axes of grassroots and elite sport 

Running through all of these will be themes of community, ripples, policies & governance, philosophy and values in action, feedback and examples.

We hope we will be able to offer a uniquely interesting, immersive, thought provoking and challenging training package. Places will be competitive and there will be a selection process for those wanting to get on to the training. We want to collaborate with other organisations that genuinely care about their local communities, not just those that pay lip service for funding purposes.

There are so many amazing grassroots sports clubs out there, but there could and should be many, many more. It should be the rule not the exception for an individual to have memories of playing at somewhere like London Progress Table Tennis Club or the BTTC. 

Fully and truly inclusive, affordable events like the London Community Rankings Table Tennis Competitions can only be scaled up and happen nationwide if the values behind them can be shared. Individual people are not replicable, but ideas and philosophies are, and grassroots community sport can grow healthily.

Go to your local parkrun and witness the evangelism of the volunteers, the ambassadors, the hundreds of runners in thousands of local parks. Every Saturday at 9am across the world, the grassroots revolution of parkrun is taking place in thousands of local parks.

What I would love to see is a dawn of new community based sports clubs with shared values using sport to bring people together, with deep rooted local connections, that are grassroots, affordable and with an unprecedented impact. There should be minimal barriers to entry and no extra national sport membership/registration fee to pay on top of the local entry fee. 

Research done in 2016 by Street Games showed that ‘low income households spend just £3.21 a week on active sport compared to an average spend of £12.11 per week.’  £3.21 a week spent by an entire household on physical activity means that sport needs to either be free or very cheap if people are going to access it. If GPs could give out a prescription of six months’ free sessions at the local ping pong club then I it would be a cheap, affordable social prescription that I am sure would bring a whole host of benefits to individuals and their communities.

If the foundations of true grassroots sport are built big enough, necessarily separate from the corporate world of Premier League football and pay to view TV, then something financially sustainable and incredibly beneficial to the nation’s health is possible. An excellent example of this is Contra which is a brand of running clothing created by the founder of parkrun, ethically sourced and profits going “directly to supporting parkrun, helping to ensure these inspiring and inclusive community events stay free, for everyone, forever.” 

We need even more adventurous and innovative people involved in the world of sport who have deep rooted values and principles and who understand and reflect 21st century challenges. Such people are willing to take risks, change things, unsettle and embrace technology in order to open up access and engagement for increasing numbers of people.

Another world is possible, if we can look beyond to new patterns of engagement and see things even more creatively in a new light. Join your local parkrun, or start / help out with whatever your own adventurous local project might be. I simply cannot recommend doing either of these things enough. If local clubs and projects aren’t as progressive or adventurous as you would like them to be, then set your own up. Start small, find people to help.

It may be bold to dream that anything on the scale of parkrun can be done with Table Tennis. Poet and inspiration Lemm Sissay said “I believe that if you reach for the top of the tree, you get to the first branch. But if you reach for the stars, you get to the top of the tree. And I have never lived my life based on the standards that a lot of the institutionalised people around me have had, and I believe the same for happiness."

Posted on Mar 06, 2020