Fit in my 40s: I suck at table tennis. Instead, here are my final seven fitness lessons

My last observation – of everything from boxing to circus skills – is that competition between beginners is a mug’s game

It was shortly after the table tennis, in which Chinese player battled Chinese player to the final victory of Ma Long in the Tokyo Olympics, when Sophy, my informal instructor, taught me and my son some basics. Everyone was obsessed by Ma’s grip: the champion has your classic bat grip, where you grab it with all your fingers like a regular person. Everyone else has a quirk. My son tried out a frankly idiosyncratic hold, with only two fingers holding the stem and his index and middle finger straight up the bat like a short-order chef getting ready to fry with it.

This is my final fitness column, so I may be imparting more wisdom about trying new things than advice on table tennis, which I suck at. First thing I’ve learned? Don’t get too fancy the first time you try something. Second, if you take your kid to anything, they are guaranteed to be better at it than you, unless it relates to their cardiovascular fitness, which is hopeless. Third, the easier something looks when professionals do it, the harder it will be for the novice.

Seriously good table tennis players loom over the table, to the extent that you can sometimes hardly see what’s going on. World-class ones do that, too, but they can also get miles away, so that the very air becomes their play space. I would strongly recommend, for a newcomer to the sport, sticking close to the net. If you try too hard to anticipate the ball’s trajectory, you’ll be having to pick it up the entire time. Indeed, that will be most of your calorie usage, chasing this surprisingly skittish projectile across the floor.

Fourth lesson: lose that mechanistic view of your body – that you put a certain number of calories into your mouth and have to find a sport that gets them out again. There are deeper truths at work. Namely, that if you find an activity that makes you glad to be alive, that will have an effect on your fitness you can’t even count. This, for me, was not table tennis.

Fifth: it is also incredibly valuable to feel engrossed, and to do activities that are unfamiliar, even if you can’t feel the burn. Again, not table tennis for me, given that we couldn’t sustain a rally. But my kid did express surprise that I was hitting it back, given my famously poor hand-eye coordination.

That’s lesson six: just because you were bad at something 10 years ago doesn’t mean you’re still bad. The arc of history tends toward getting better at things, at least technical things, such as spatial awareness. Think about it: have you met a 65-year-old who couldn’t parallel park?

If you’re playing seriously for points, concentrate on your serve. Proper players put so much thought into it, it’s almost ritualistic. But my seventh observation – not only of ping-pong, but everything from boxing to circus skills – is that competition between beginners is a mug’s game. I’m not just saying that because neither of us, in any formal sense, won .

What I learned

This is the most popular indoor sport in the world, so it’s outrageous how dismissive I’m being. But that’s another lesson: you don’t have to go wild for every ball sport. You’re not a labrador.

Contributor

Zoe Williams

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Fit in my 40s: Tennis is no longer a languid game of gents. It’s for fitness freaks | Zoe Williams
The play has changed, the rackets have changed, even the speed of the ball has changed – which all makes a difference, even to a novice

Zoe Williams

03, Aug, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
Fit in my 40s: ‘Give up this fitness tracker? I’ll die first’
How Zoe Williams fell in love with the Fitbit Blaze smartwatch

Zoe Williams

21, Oct, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
Fit in my 40s: does Cindy Crawford’s 90s fitness video stand the test of time? | Zoe Williams
If you don’t get a huge amount from big hair and beach shots, this will feel a bit kitsch. But much of it still works

Zoe Williams

13, Jul, 2019 @6:01 AM

Article image
Fit in my 40s: ‘British Military Fitness reminded me of being in labour’
We did so many sit-ups that my abs went into a catatonic state and I finished using only two dusty vertebrae in my lower back

Zoe Williams

07, Apr, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
Fit in my 40s: Canada's Air Force fitness drills are a retro, noisy tonic
This is my favourite home workout by far

Zoe Williams

01, Feb, 2020 @7:00 AM

Article image
Fit in my 40s: does military fitness work without the person shouting at you?
First I need to find my baseline. Then I will know if I am superior to yesterday’s self

Zoe Williams

18, Jan, 2020 @7:00 AM

Article image
Fit in my 40s: protein boosts fitness, but who wants to eat a kilo of chicken a day? | Zoe Williams
Powders are the way forward – you can even bake with them

Zoe Williams

01, Aug, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
Fit in my 40s: ‘Yoga has turned me into an idealised Jilly-Cooper version of myself’ | Zoe Williams
More things than I realised have their roots in yoga, because yoga is at the root of all things

Zoe Williams

12, May, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
Fit in my 40s: ‘I have the forward hunch of a sedentary worker’
Everything at the front needs stretching, and everything at the back needs strengthening

Zoe Williams

26, Aug, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
Fit in my 40s: ‘I usually drink every night. So how’s my sober October?’
The month thing is not really about giving up drinking, it’s about making a promise that you’ll start again

Zoe Williams

07, Oct, 2017 @6:00 AM