Tim Holtam

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 -  Brighton Table Tennis Club
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