• Henry Arthur

Novice's guide to table tennis: A five-part series to help you on your table tennis journey.


Table tennis is an easy game to pick up and play at a beginner and social level but what happens if you wish to take it more seriously and start playing competitively? There may be many questions that you have, and I will attempt to use this five-part blog series to pass on some advice to make your entry into the sport a little less nerve-wracking! Points I will cover include:

Is there a table tennis club near you? How do I find a club? How do I know it is the right one for me?

How much practice does it take to become “good”? How much will it cost? How to find a coach and what should I be looking for in a coach? Group coaching or 1 to 1 coaching?

What equipment do I need? What type of competitions can I play in? Is there a pathway to elite performance?

This guide is aimed at adult players who are new to the sport as well as for the parents of youngsters who have just taken up the sport.

In this episode we will look at the various types of competitions and tournaments that are available for the novice or improving player to test their skills in a competitive environment.

Although table tennis may well be a minority sport in England when it comes to those who play competitively in structured tournaments, there are still a large range and variety of competitions to suit players of all levels. Some of these competitions will be run on weekday evenings and some of them at weekends so there should always be the opportunity for competitive play no matter what your circumstances are.

For junior players, their first taste of competitive table tennis could be in a school setting, whether it be an inter-school or intra-school competition. Following on from that, they might represent their school in their County School's tournament (either as an individual or in a team). Outside of school events, there are also a wide range of events open to junior players. It might be that your local table tennis association runs a junior league and if so, then these are the perfect introduction to competitive table tennis for youngsters. Many youngsters will also play in the senior league organised by their local table tennis association but these matches are played on weekday evenings and can involve late finishes which can make them an unattractive proposition for junior players, or for their parents at least! The national cadet (under 15) and national junior (under 18) leagues are excellent team tournaments for improving juniors and are run on a regional level and played at weekends. There are also a range of individual tournaments that range from 1 star events through to 4 star events. The 1 star events can vary in standards but they are suitable for the improving youngster who has already gained some competitive experience and has developed their basic skills. These tournaments generally have a variety of age restricted events such as under 11s, under 13s, under 15s and under 18s age categories.

For adult players coming into the sport then most will find that their first taste of competitive table tennis will be in the form of their local table tennis league. Indeed for many players they will only ever play local league table tennis and never compete in any of the various tournaments that go on up and down the country most weekends. This could be for a variety of reasons. It could be that the player doesn't think they are good enough which is almost never true as the standard in these weekend events varies greatly. It might be that playing at weekends doesn't fit in with their family life. It might even be that many players are not even aware of these tournaments.

As local league table tennis is where most people end up competing, I will spend a bit of time trying to explain the format of the competition. It can vary slightly from league to league but the general format is that a club will enter a team(s) into their local league competition. Most leagues run using the format of three player teams and a match consists of nine singles matches plus a doubles match. Matches tend to start at 7.30pm and finish around 10.30pm. Most leagues run on a home/away basis but there are some leagues that have a central venue that hosts all league matches. Table tennis is predominantly a winter sport and so the local league season will generally start in September or October and will finish in April or May. Most leagues have several divisions with promotion and relegation at the end of the season. Often there is an end of season presentation evening which can be an excellent social night for all the players following on from a long, competitive and (hopefully) fun season. Some leagues (or maybe even individual clubs) will run a summer league which is often run in teams of two as opposed to the usual three player format that many winter leagues use. Most leagues will have a website that keeps members informed of the latest news as well as having a comprehensive list of results, player averages and league tables. Here is the website of the Kettering and District Table Tennis League: Kettering Table Tennis League | TT Leagues Local league organisers will often run cup competitions throughout the season as well and very often these are run using a "handicap" system to ensure competitive matches between teams from the higher and lower divisions in their respective league. Most leagues run an annual "closed" tournament which only players who are registered to that league can play in. These tournaments usually have a variety of age ranged and ability ranged (or banded) events to encourage entry from players across the various divisions in the league.

Whereas local league matches are played on weekday evenings, there are plenty of opportunities to compete at weekends too. I will cover these in more detail in a future blog episode but will spend a little bit of time focussing on 1 star tournaments right now, whether that be at veteran level (over 40), senior level or junior level (under 18). These events are usually organised by clubs and run by trained volunteers who have had to pass relevant qualifications to be able to put on these tournaments, Indeed without the thousands of unpaid hours that volunteers put in there would be very little opportunity to play organised competitions and we should all thank them for giving up their time to plan, promote and organise these events. The National Junior League and National Cadet Leagues are both 1 star team tournaments (or equivalent to a 1 star tournament) and tend to operate on four Saturdays or Sundays during the season at regional venues throughout the country. There might be three or four divisions at each venue with the lower division (especially in the cadet age group) being made up of youngsters who are relatively new to the sport. In the higher divisions, the players have generally been playing 2-3 years and are already at a very good standard. Teams consist of three players and are often of mixed gender as it's all about ability and not gender. A team could play between four and six matches on each matchday depending of the format, with each player likely to play between 10-12 matches per day. Play usually starts at 9am and will aim to finish between 4pm-5pm. This competition gives a good grounding for players and helps them learn how to manage themselves so that they can be as alert when playing their final match of the day at 4pm as they were when they played their first match of the day at 9am. Due to the nature of the day and the amount of matches played, it is also a great way of learning how to deal with the highs and lows of the sport (and life in general) as most players will taste both success and defeat over the course of the day.

At veteran level (over 40s) the most common one star tournaments tend to be ratings tournaments. In these competitions, players are put into groups of (usually) eight and play each other in a "round-robin" event so each player will get seven matches. Group 1 will have the top eight ranked players that have entered the tournament in that group, with group 2 having the next 8 ranked players in it and so on down to the final group having the lowest ranked players. This should mean that every match in each group is a competitive match with very few easy wins/big defeats as the players in each group should all be roughly the same level. If a player does not have a national ranking then they are usually put into the lowest group but the tournament organiser does have the discretion to put unranked players in a higher group based on their known playing ability. At senior level there are very few one star tournaments but there are plenty of team events and individual tournaments for senior players to enter still. These such as the Senior British League competition, two star, three star and four star individual tournaments as well as the Grand Prix circuit of tournaments. In general (but not always the case), as you move up through the tournament star ratings, the quality of players entering those tournaments improves.

Costs to enter tournaments can vary with the higher standard (4 star and grand prix) tournaments generally costing much more than the one star events. For cadet and junior players, the National Cadet League or National Junior League offer a very good structured and competitive tournament with plenty of matches for very little outlay. Currently it costs £82 to enter a team into the event so based on a team of three that would come to just over £27 per player. Costs to play in a local league match can vary from club to club but it seems that £5 per match is probably the standard fee in the majority of clubs. To enter a 1 star tournament you will probably be looking at an entry fee of £20-£25 depending on the event. A junior player entering a one star tournament would probably be looking to pay between £6-£10 for each age category they enter in that tournament. To play in any team tournament or individual tournament (including the local league) you will need to become a member of Table Tennis England. There are different levels of playing membership available and full details can be found on this link: Register or renew your membership— Table Tennis England

For more details about the various opportunities there are for people to compete then click on this link from the Table Tennis England website: Competitions— Table Tennis England

I hope you have found this blog helpful and it has given you some understanding of the range and variety of competitive opportunities there are to play table tennis. Look out for episode five in this five-part series where I talk about the player pathway. And as always, please feel free to contact me with any questions.

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