University Table Tennis in America
(By Bill Draper)
As I finalize this article I am in Munich, Germany for business. Last week I was in Hong Kong. Any time I travel, in addition to busy business meetings during the day, I always try to make time to find a club nearby to play and to experience table tennis in various countries around the world. It goes without saying that table tennis is quite strong in both Hong Kong and Germany. This week the club FC Bayern Munich has been gracious enough to allow me to play as a guest at their club (Thanks again Rudi!). FC Bayern is best known for their soccer (football to the rest of the world) club, but less known to most of us is that they also are a club for other sports, including table tennis.
While none of this seems directly related to university Table Tennis in America, it is nevertheless interesting to compare and contrast table tennis in other countries, especially those that consistently produce strong international competitors.
In Germany, for example, most aspiring young players will belong to a club team. These clubs play in various leagues against other clubs. Clubs and league competition, as a club team, are almost synonymous. One of those leagues, the Bundesliga, is among the strongest in the world, arguably second only to the Chinese Super League. FC Bayern currently has a team competing in Division 3 of the Bundesliga.
In Hong Kong there are several academies that attract the most promising talent who go on to play in a strong university program with various club leagues as additional outlets.
In America, local clubs are where most players learn and develop, with no official support by the school systems. Some universities in the US are practically defined by their football or basketball programs. High school and university students enjoy daily coaching and training, paid for by the school system. Coaches thrive. Players thrive. And these programs help America to excel on a global scale at such sanctioned sports.
Few such school programs exist for table tennis in America.
But this article is not meant to criticize or bemoan our current situation in the USA. Those who are passionate and serious about any sport will always find a way. Clubs in America have been growing and that includes university clubs. While not an “official” sport on par with football and basketball, university clubs are alive and well in America. These clubs are not sanctioned and officially supported by the school athletic program. But it should be noted that there have been, and continue to be, efforts underway for some time by highly dedicated individuals and groups in our sport working to expand table tennis into school programs as an “official” sport.
University clubs can participate in tournaments against other university clubs, sanctioned by the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association (NCTTA). In addition to supporting tournament play, the association is seeking to have table tennis included as a sport in the NCAA, a major achievement if they succeed.
The NCTTA hosts a Fall semester Divisional tournament. Spring semesters consist of a Divisional tournament, Regionals and a National tournament. There are currently approximately 150 Universities participating in NCTTA play.
One such club is the University of Maryland College Park table tennis club. The team captain is MDTTC’s very own Nathan Hsu. Nathan is joined by Rui Xu, Rohith Jayarajan, Hari Ananth, and Javier Chong. They represent a mix of undergrad and graduate students attending the U of M club team. Members of the club must be university students.
Nathan started playing at age 9 in an after-school program in Connecticut. He later joined the Maryland Table Tennis Center and has been fortunate enough to be coached by some of MDTTC’s great coaches, including Cheng Yinghua, Jack Huang, Larry Hodges, Chen Jian, and Wang Qingliang, among many others.
The U. of M. club recently hosted a USATT-sanctioned tournament at the university, and to encourage more students to play, they made the entry fee free to all of their club’s team members. Through their efforts, the competitive team is now up to 16 players!
Their club plays in the NCTTA Washington, DC division and recently won first place in their division in the Fall Divisional competition.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, unlike mainstream college sports, table tennis at the university level is often not taken quite as seriously by the athletes as they do other club teams they may belong to, or individual tournaments. Table tennis at the university level brings with it a certain social element that may be a contributing factor. One might expect to see this change should table tennis ever become an official NCAA sanctioned sport.
Can you imagine a day when fans come out to cheer on their university table tennis team? Where cheerleaders perform between games? Where the university band plays to build excitement for the home team? Where sports channels pay for broadcast rights to games? All a huge stretch of course, but it’s great to see the sport growing at the university level.