Net gains: How table tennis improves pupils; health and behaviour

Children's work, behaviour and even health can be improved by getting them involved in playing table tennis. Could the transformation seen in Glaswegian schools be replicated elsewhere?

Gordon Cairns
Thursday 27 November 2008 01:00 GMT

Table tennis, that most understated of Olympic sports, has been introduced in one of Britain's poorest areas to give pre-teens the chance to lead a successful, fulfilling and healthy life.

Drumchapel, a sprawling housing estate on the edge of Glasgow, is blighted by poverty, poor health, gang violence and drug taking. But the local table tennis club has grown from a small group with only three shaky tables 20 years ago to being one of the biggest clubs in Britain today.

In the process it has made a huge difference to the thousands of locals who have passed through its doors. A healthy living initiative has now extended the sport's reach to 16 local primary and two secondary schools, with 60 tables now available for children to play on.

The impact of the club has been noted by the Scottish Government. Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish Health Secretary is certainly impressed. "The club has rightly won plaudits for encouraging so many young people from the area to take up, and excel in, table tennis," she says. "The club commands strong support in the community and is a shining example of how sport can change people's lives for the better."

Although table tennis was introduced into the schools to tackle from an early age the health problems endemic in the community, head teachers are reporting a wide range of related positive results. Anecdotal evidence suggests discipline is improving and parents are using the sport as a carrot for unruly charges.

First, pupils come in before the school day begins to play ping pong. In one school this has made the incidences of lateness a fraction of what they were. This also means pupils are using breakfast clubs and getting something healthy into their stomachs early in the day.

Teachers have noted that regular players are more alert in class and self-esteem has been boosted as they have found something they are good at. Improved communication is another by-product: teachers are seeing difficult pupils in a positive light for the first time.

"Drumchapel Table Tennis Club is a fantastic example of the part that sport can play in enhancing the lives of the local community," says Louise Martin, chair of sportscotland, which has helped to fund the club and the schools initiative. "The drive and commitment of Terry McLernon, the coach, and his team of volunteers has made a real difference to the lives of young people in the area."

When questioned about his success, McLernon is modest: "Some people say Drumchapel is an institution," he says. "I think it is just a table tennis club."

The head of PE at another local secondary is desperate to get his department involved in the sport, explains McLernon. "He told me, 'We have to get table tennis in our school, hundreds of our kids have come up from primary playing the sport but we can't offer it'.

"Table tennis," he adds, "is bouncing out everywhere."

When we meet, McLernon is at local primary school St Clare's to oversee a drop-in session, led by four pupil mentors. It is being held for any child who wants to take up the sport. Around 20 children have willingly given up their half an hour of running around outside, to try the game.

Four large green tables are laid out across the length of the gym. At one end of each table stands the mentor, batting the ball across to the child at the front of the queue of children waiting to have a go.

Sometimes the game stops so that the novice coach can adjust his opponent's grip. Some balls go flying across the hall, but most children seem to getthe hang of it quite quickly.

Andrew Lawor, 10, is here for the first time and boasts: "I got 25 [in one rally]. No one is going to get better than that!" Mentor Matthew Brown, who has only being playing the sport for a month has noticed a side effect also mentioned by classroom teachers – playing table tennis seems to make pupils more alert in class.

"It wakes me up a wee bit because it's a tough game and you need to watch for the ball coming from everywhere," he says.

The children also like the simplicity of the sport, which they can play without having to change out of their school uniform.

Friends Kayleigh McConville and Amy Drennan, both 10, enjoy a sport that can be picked up quickly, and enjoyed alongside the boys. "Football takes you a little while to get good at, but in table tennis you get it just like that," says Kayleigh, with a click of her fingers.

Amy adds: "Other things like dancing you have to practise, practise and practise to get anywhere."

Kenny MacDonald, manager of Drumchapel LIFE, a local healthy living initiative, approached the Drumchapel club to help get table tennis into primary schools after he saw the effect it was having on local adults.

"The people involved in the Drumchapel club are different from the majority of people who live in the area; they are successful; they aren't unemployed, they have done well at school and they are either at college, university or working.

"But they didn't start out that differently [from other members of the community]. Once they became involved in sport they had something positive in their lives and it has moved them on."

The cost of the scheme, including supplying coaches and equipment, is £20,000 a year. "For engaging up to 500 kids, that's not a lot of money," says MacDonald.

The head of St Clare's, Gerard McLaughlin, has already noted a change in the school but says it is due to a range of action, not just to the table tennis.

"We have noticed fewer discipline problems since last year," he says. And he is impressed by the order imposed on the game's players. No research has looked at the long-term effects of the project, which is entering its fourth year, but the evidence is going in the right direction.

One former pupil at St Clare's had problems controlling his temper and wasn't taking part in school or sport. But he started coming along to the table tennis club which ran before school started and that solved his unpunctuality.

"This pupil had problems following instructions from adults and was a very poor loser, but the work done here and in the table tennis club has made a huge difference to him," says McLaughlin. "He has moved on to high school where he is still coming to school early and is now a table tennis mentor for the younger kids."

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