ASK someone about their past experience in table tennis, and you can invariably guess the answer, writes Fraser Watson.
“The occasional knock about on holiday” is arguably the most frequent response, closely followed by “the odd game in my mate’s garage as a youngster.”
Few however, can ever confess to a deep involvement in the game, fuelled by regular training and competitive tournaments.
And despite the sport’s long standing history in both the Olympic and Commonwealth Games, it’s fair to say that television and national newspaper coverage is rare.
My own personal memories date back to a few matches with my brother when growing up – where rules, and often score lines, were made up as we went along.
So therefore, I had little clue of what to expect when I turned up at Haverfordwest Table Tennis Club one Monday night for my fifteenth Commonwealth Games challenge.
I was met by Pete Lavender, who is currently running the club in the temporary absence of club secretary Barry Chambers.
“Unfortunately, compared to other sports, the game is not well publicised,” admitted Pete, who also used to run a club in Narberth.
“And therefore, people can’t always appreciate just how difficult it is.
“Many people see table tennis as simply knocking a ball back and for over a net – but it’s a sport that combines speed, technical ability, and real skill.”
And as Pete explained, it’s also a sport where the young or old can excel.
“We cater for all ages and abilities here – and newcomers will be helped out by those with more experience,” he said.
“Players will hold matches, rallies or training drills between themselves and we have a knockout competition each year.
“We currently have about 16 members training but we would like to expand and would encourage anyone interested to come along.”
Pete is also one of three registered coaches at the club, and it was he who got me started on the basics of grip and technique.
Sure enough, my tendency to hold a bat as if it were a miniature tennis racket was swiftly corrected.
My early attempts at mastering the serve and forehand brought about some erratic results, before I slowly got to grips with the concepts of rhythm and top spin.
But what troubled me above all else, was remembering Pete’s coaching pointers while trying to operate at high speed.
“Concentration is key in table tennis and it’s a game that takes a lot of getting used to,” Pete told me.
“You are focussing on a small ball that is often travelling at more than 80 miles per hour.
“So you need good hand eye co-ordination and fitness is important to, as you are constantly on the move from side to side.”
Sound advice, especially as my next tutorial was to come from the ever competitive Bernie Armstrong, a highly regarded player at local level.
He drilled me on my forehand, backhand, chop and push shot, at what felt like a frenetic pace.
Indeed, all too often I was left flat footed as I hesitated over shot selection, and any intense rallies invariably ended with me reverting to type with an errand return.
“In table tennis standing still is a crime,” Bernie told me.
“You constantly have to get your feet into position to be in the right place and you need to be close to the table.”
Managing the latter was difficult, and I found myself retreating more and more towards the back wall as I scrambled to return Bernie’s powerfully placed shots.
And again, maintaining technique, or even remembering the obvious principle of ‘keeping my eye on the ball’, proved difficult under pressure.
But such pressure was put into perspective when I watched Bernie go head to head with fellow club member Neil Hulme, a former English international at junior level.
The pair rallied with levels of speed and tenacity that I found difficult to follow with the naked eye.
But if Bernie had given me lesson in intensity, I was about to receive another in the more intricate aspects of the game.
The club’s third qualified coach is the familiar face of Bill Carne, who seldom forgets to remind me about his prowess in the sport.
Bill, the game’s equivalent of a wily old fox, likes to manoeuvre opponents around the table and uses spin to maximum effect.
“I see the game as chess with a ball,” he said.
“There is a lot of skill involved in table tennis and timing is everything.
“It’s easy sometimes to try to hard but some shots, push shots especially, are gentle ones where the main thing is to maintain control."
Indeed, Bill tested me with three different serves, all with varied levels of spin.
Each time, he predicted beforehand where my return would end up, and each time, I duly obliged.
And although my form and composure picked up slightly in the final moments of the session, I have no qualms admitting I was left mentally, if not physically, exhausted.
And indeed, Pete’s words at the beginning of the session rang true – unless you try the game at a proper level, you simply cannot appreciate its complexity.
Grip, shot selection, spin, feet position, transfer of weight, angle of bat – all components of the thought process that goes in to playing a table tennis shot.
But it’s a thought process that has to be executed in the blink of an eye. Indeed, few other sports demand so much technical capability at such a frantic speed.
So make no mistake - table tennis is a game that requires hours upon hours of practice in order for an individual to excel.
And as I’m now all too aware, it’s a game that requires far more than the ‘occasional knock up on holiday’ to perfect.
Bill Carne's verdict:
Playing table tennis probably presented one of the greater Commonwealth Games challenges for Fraser Watson because he readily admitted that he had played a few games on holiday but little else - and knew he was likely to come up against some good players at Haverfordwest Table Tennis Club.
This eclectic bunch included Steve Jones, who has improved dramatically, as has Neil Watts, a giant at 6’5 who has developed a wicked forehand.
Then there’s Robert Yau, who loves to attack every ball – whilst Neil Hulme is a former English junior international who played at a high level, before he moved to the area and we dragged him down a little!
Sadly missing after a bout of illness was Barry Chambers, who at 82 has run the club for a number of years and has the enthusiasm of a 15-year-old. Barry would have had Fraser in fits and could arguably have taught Mr Watson better than any of us.
Charged with the responsibly of giving advice was Pete Lavender, who at 67 loves playing as much as ever, Bernie Armstrong, the only home-grown player capable of pushing Neil Hulme all the way, and yours truly, who has been playing for 53 years!
We had previously decided we would each look at different aspects of Fraser's play and given his inexperience we started off by showing him how to grip the bat!
But Fraser is a battler and he was soon up and running, with Pete showing him how to play the basic shots on his forehand - while Bernie and I confused him while playing on the next table and shouting across suggestions!
Bernie gave some attention to backhand play and managed to get Fraser to loop the ball over the net smoothly, as well as using his feet to get into position to play shots.
By now there was a slightly glazed look across Fraser's face as I took him under my wing and worked on his serve - and getting those feet into position so that he could master weight transference as he played each shot.
By the end of our time with him, Fraser was beginning to build rallies and keep the ball on the table - Pete even felt that given time we could make something of him as a table tennis player!
Tune into this week’s Radio Pembrokeshire Friday Night Sports Show, between 6-8pm, to hear Bill Carne interview Fraser about his introduction to table tennis, and members of the Haverfordwest club about their involvement.
For more on table tennis in Pembrokeshire, visit the Sport Pembrokeshire Facebook page or www.pembrokeshire.gov.uk/sport.