It was shortly after the table tennis, in which Chinese player battled Chinese player to the final victory of Ma Long in the Tokyo Olympics, when Sophy, my informal instructor, taught me and my son some basics. Everyone was obsessed by Ma’s grip: the champion has your classic bat grip, where you grab it with all your fingers like a regular person. Everyone else has a quirk. My son tried out a frankly idiosyncratic hold, with only two fingers holding the stem and his index and middle finger straight up the bat like a short-order chef getting ready to fry with it.
This is my final fitness column, so I may be imparting more wisdom about trying new things than advice on table tennis, which I suck at. First thing I’ve learned? Don’t get too fancy the first time you try something. Second, if you take your kid to anything, they are guaranteed to be better at it than you, unless it relates to their cardiovascular fitness, which is hopeless. Third, the easier something looks when professionals do it, the harder it will be for the novice.
Seriously good table tennis players loom over the table, to the extent that you can sometimes hardly see what’s going on. World-class ones do that, too, but they can also get miles away, so that the very air becomes their play space. I would strongly recommend, for a newcomer to the sport, sticking close to the net. If you try too hard to anticipate the ball’s trajectory, you’ll be having to pick it up the entire time. Indeed, that will be most of your calorie usage, chasing this surprisingly skittish projectile across the floor.
Fourth lesson: lose that mechanistic view of your body – that you put a certain number of calories into your mouth and have to find a sport that gets them out again. There are deeper truths at work. Namely, that if you find an activity that makes you glad to be alive, that will have an effect on your fitness you can’t even count. This, for me, was not table tennis.
Fifth: it is also incredibly valuable to feel engrossed, and to do activities that are unfamiliar, even if you can’t feel the burn. Again, not table tennis for me, given that we couldn’t sustain a rally. But my kid did express surprise that I was hitting it back, given my famously poor hand-eye coordination.
That’s lesson six: just because you were bad at something 10 years ago doesn’t mean you’re still bad. The arc of history tends toward getting better at things, at least technical things, such as spatial awareness. Think about it: have you met a 65-year-old who couldn’t parallel park?
If you’re playing seriously for points, concentrate on your serve. Proper players put so much thought into it, it’s almost ritualistic. But my seventh observation – not only of ping-pong, but everything from boxing to circus skills – is that competition between beginners is a mug’s game. I’m not just saying that because neither of us, in any formal sense, won .
What I learned
This is the most popular indoor sport in the world, so it’s outrageous how dismissive I’m being. But that’s another lesson: you don’t have to go wild for every ball sport. You’re not a labrador.