The Dialectic of Aging in Table Tennis

Submitted by stephen on Wed, 12/07/2016 - 13:49

In an article posted on USATT Insider entitled Middle-Aged Table Tennis Training, author, Joe Ciarrochi relentlessly exhorts us to accept the gradual physical deterioration which inevitably accompanies age. I suggest a more elevating perspective for table tennis players, competing from ages 8 to 80. Table tennis is a game of physical, mental, and emotional skill. Certainly our physical fitness might deteriorate with age, however strength, agility, and quickness comprise only one dimension of "physical skill". 

The physical skills which are required for this game include a vast array of technical abilities to execute very specific shot types. These skills can only be learned individually through time and experience. Training time is limited. As we age we have the capacity to accumulate far more of these skills than a younger person might, simply due to the training time available.

Here’s an example: I’ve been playing a younger Japanese pen-hold style player since I began the sport. He was trained in China and has beaten me always. Recently I trained two very specific shot types; a quick push against a half long side underspin serve to the forehand corner, and a backhand add topspin response to long underspin to that same spot. A week later I won two matches in a row against this player through an improvement in physical skill… at age 63!

As a youth, emotional poise for me was a function of hormones, ambition, anger, fear, and the myriad other turbulent forces which run through the mind and body of a young athlete. Through time, and with training, I continue to improve my emotional skill daily. This is less difficult with age, and the perspective and wisdom which might be available to those who remain curious. With less fight or flight imperatives limiting my choices, I become freer to utilize the entire repertoire of options which were once unavailable to me due to youthful emotional immaturity.

Accompanying that ever-increasing feature set of physical skills an older player accumulates, emotional poise offers access to a variety of new ideas on how to play the game. For instance, we can address the spin and/or speed energy of an oncoming ball in four ways; we can use speed/spin, we can reduce speed/spin, we can add speed/spin, or we might use and add speed/spin. The mental skill of sorting out the appropriate option and its consequences is the kind of evolving thinking which can improve with age.

So by all means take joy in the moment. Accept physical deterioration. It’s coming for us all! However, at 63 I am a better player than I was at 43. Table tennis – like life – is comprised of a complex set of skills which might improve and deteriorate dialectically and indefinitely.