Last year a documentary called Ping Pong followed eight players on their way to the over-80s world table tennis championships in China. It was reported that the 3500 competitors may be elderly, but they are fierce on the table – and off it. ‘This old girl, I don’t care how good she is, I should get her. She can’t move’. says one of the female players, talking about the oldest player in the 2010 tournament: 101-year old Dorothy Delow from Australia. The Burnham U3A table tennis group, however, does not play in competitions or leagues so will not be competing and I only saw one person in the group who would be eligible, but unlike Dorothy Delow, he could move.
Apparently the filmmakers are taking the film and ‘ping pong kits’ to care homes and community centres around the country to encourage older people to play for both their physical and mental benefits. We all know exercise is beneficial but scientists believe that table tennis may be especially so because it combines a physical and social activity with spatial and cognitive skills. Those playing in the U3A group certainly proved their spatial awareness with nifty footwork avoiding the actions of their doubles partner (well nearly always, fits of laughter evoked when things didn’t quite go as planned).
The group started almost a decade ago. Two members, Geoff Charge & the late Len Benfield, managed to obtain a lottery grant for £500 which was used to buy two tables and some balls. At the time the group met at the local school where a presentation ceremony took place. These same two tables are still in use today and with a third provided by the Sports Centre, where the group now meet weekly on a Monday afternoon, mean that a dozen people can be playing at any one time.
When I visited the tables were in continuous use with quick change overs of partners where everyone plays against, and with, everyone else. One of the newer members told me how ‘encouraging and patient’ the group was when she first joined. Noticeable was the amount of quiet concentration and then the bursts of laughter and they all agreed that it was a very happy group to belong to. I was very impressed with the variety of shots used and the long rallies.
I was lent a bat and had a few misplaced hits, but mostly misses, and it was obvious I had a long way to go to be as good as they were, but they assured me I would rapidly learn. Unfortunately the group is full; this is not due to space, like so many other groups, but to the ratio of playing and sitting out. If, however, anyone else would like to start another group at a different time the U3A tables would be available to them. Group leader Yvonne Charge made me very welcome and I thank her and the group for a very entertaining afternoon.