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Retaining New Players in Table Tennis

Oh won't you stay just a little bit longer...


Photo of table tennis players

Is your club a fun place to hang out?

© 2007 Greg Letts, licensed to About.com, Inc.
Every sport around the world is always on the lookout for new players, and table tennis in the USA is no exception. USATT numbers have been fairly static over the last couple of decades - with the current USATT member list coming in at around 7500 members or so, according to my memory. If every player could just bring in one friend to the USATT clan every year, the number of members would explode upwards.

Or would they?

The above scenario ignores one important factor - how many players are dropping out of the sport. Every year the USATT does attract new members, but it loses roughly the same amount of people as well, so overall numbers stay fairly stagnant. A lot of time and effort goes into bringing new players into the game, but many of these fresh faces disappear within a year, never to be seen again. If we could somehow keep these new players involved, the member lists of the USATT would soon be much larger.

With that in mind, I'd like to share some thoughts on how we can keep more players in the sport - more specifically, the players who start playing ping-pong and drop out before a year has gone by. Why do these players quit table tennis, and is there anything we can do to keep them playing?

To begin with, it's probably worthwhile to think about what reasons new players have for taking up the sport, and in fact I think just about any experienced table tennis player can probably rattle off a fairly comprehensive list of reasons why table tennis is a great sport to play - you can see my take on the subject here. But even with all these things going for table tennis, a large number of new players still quit playing - why is that?

Given that table tennis is a great sport to play, and that there is actually not a lot we can do to change the sport itself (that's up to the ITTF), the next thing to look at is the areas surrounding the sport - the venues, the players, the coaches, the officials, the media and so on. Are there opportunities to improve the way we do things in order to keep more new players? This can be a tough question to answer for people like myself, who have played for 25+ years - it's hard to remember what being a new player was like. But let's try to put ourselves in the shoes of a new table tennis player for a moment, and think about what they want from the sport.

What Do New Players Want?

As a new player, I think the main thing of importance is whether I am having fun playing the sport. There's no point telling me that it's good exercise, easy on my body, good for my mind and cheap to play if I'm not having a good time going to the club or tournaments. I think that the ping-pong is a lot of fun - I don't think we have to try to improve the sport itself. So what could be making table tennis less fun for new players? Here's a few things that I can think of:
  • Are there other new players to play with? When you are new, it's nice to have other beginners around your level to play against, compare your progress against, to encourage you and learn together. This is a bit of a vicious circle, since the less new players a club has, the tougher it is to keep new players, and so on.
  • How are you treated by established players? Are new players welcomed when they turn up at a club, or just ignored? There's nothing more discouraging than turning up at a club for the first time, eager to play, and being treated as the invisible man, or have nobody want to give you a hit on the table. I still have a vivid memory of this happening to me on my trip to Europe in 2008, and if it was my first time going to a table tennis club I don't think I'd ever bother going back.
  • Are players given status according to their level of play? As a new player, you are going to be one of the worst players, and it's not fun to feel that you are at the bottom of the social pecking order, especially when it's going to take a good long time to climb your way up the ladder. There is often a perception that better players deserve better treatment in a club because they have trained harder and paid their dues (I have been guilty of this myself at times), but is this really true? You turn up at a club and pay the same money as everyone else, so why shouldn't you have the same status?
  • When new players compete against better players, is it a fun experience? Now this can depend on the particular new player's temperament - since some new players enjoy being able to have some rallies, while others like facing the toughest shots a better player can throw at them. And others would rather just hit a few balls around with the better players, without playing games at all. I think the key here is for the better players to ask what the new player would like to do, so that the new player can have enjoy himself.
  • Are there clear opportunities to develop your game? New players are usually pretty hungry to improve as fast as possible. Is it easy for them to find out about coaches in order to improve? Do more experienced players give them a tip or two? It can be discouraging to want to improve but have no clue about what to do next.
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