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Table Tennis Commentary

Promoting Ping-Pong to the Public

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Table Tennis Commentary

Matthew Syed - player, journalist, and commentator!

Photo by: Matthew Syed, by courtesy of the ITTF
The news that the ITTF have chosen two new commentators (Sebastian Hallen and Jonathan Cowan) in response to the growing demands for commentary on their itTV video portal, got me thinking about what I'd like to hear from the new voices of table tennis. Commentary is a tough job, since a good commentator seamlessly enhances the action out on court, and as such does not always get the recognition he deserves. On the other hand, a bad or ignorant commentator is immediately obvious, and can easily grate on the viewer's nerves and have them reaching for the mute button.

It can also be very hard to please all the viewers, since everybody has different tastes when it comes to the type of commentary they prefer. For example, I know the English commentators Donald Parker and Matthew Syed both have their fans and detractors, while the USA's Dan Seemiller is also liked by many but not popular with some other table tennis viewers.

Having been called on to commentate a match once or twice in the past, I can vouch for the fact that it actually much more difficult than it looks (or is that more difficult than it sounds?!). And while I don't think the ITTF will be calling me anytime soon to start commentating their Pro Tour, I thought I'd share a couple of thoughts regarding what a good commentator might bring to the booth when voicing a match.

  • Be enthusiastic but not over the top. This seems like an obvious point to make, but some commentators don't put enough life into their voice, and after a while the droning tends to send me to sleep. On the other hand, there are one or two people who describe a simple towel break as if it was a life and death experience. When every minute detail is treated as if it is fantastically exciting, then nothing stands out anymore – and the commentator sounds like a bit of a nit!
  • Be knowledgeable about the sport. Not all commentators can be expected to have played table tennis at the highest level, but a little research should be done into the basics of the sport, so that the correct terminology can be used at least, along with understanding the importance of spin and tactics in the sport. I remember listening to the World Championships of Ping-Pong commentary earlier this year, and the frequent use of the term "smack-away" really started to grate on my nerves. Admittedly, this term was chosen on purpose in order to liven up the commentary a little for the general public, but to an actual table tennis player it was kind of jarring.
  • Be knowledgeable about the players. This isn't always easy, since the ITTF don't exactly go out of their way to provide player biographies and statistics. But the more you can learn about the players you are talking about, the easier it is make the viewer feel a connection of some sort with each competitor, which helps get them engaged in the match. Sport is about human beings competing against each other, not just faceless robots. I know I certainly enjoy watching sport more when I know a little bit about the competitors and what's at stake.
  • Don't avoid jargon, explain it. But not all at once! Table tennis is filled with a number of technical terms that are understood by serious players but which are less than clear to uninformed spectators. Many times, commentators attempt to solve this problem by avoiding the jargon completely, which results in a generic, bland type of commentary, where there are "attacks" and "defence" but no loops, powerloops, chops, floats, smashes, drives, blocks, pushes etc.

    This is an area where table tennis commentators could take a leaf out of the UFC's commentary team's book. When Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan describe the action in MMA (mixed martial arts), they are talking about a sport that has even more techniques than table tennis, and with names even more outlandish to boot. But Mike and Joe don't avoid the jargon, instead they use it freely, and every now and then they'll take the time to explain in more detail about a particular technique. That way a viewer can follow the action, and each time they watch a match they learn a little more about the sport.

    When commentating for table tennis, there is a real urge to try to explain every aspect of the sport in excruciating detail so that the viewer is fully educated regarding every little nuance. Unfortunately this tends to make the viewer's eyes glaze over and while you are explaining all this, you are not keeping up with the actual action out there on the table.

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