IIt was shortly after table tennis, in which a Chinese player faced off against a Chinese player for Ma Long’s final victory at the Tokyo Olympics, when Sophy, my informal instructor, taught me and me and to my son, some basics. Everyone was obsessed with taking Ma: the champion has your classic bat grip, where you grab her with all your fingers like a regular person. Everyone has a quirk. My son tried a downright idiosyncratic grip, with just two fingers holding the rod and his right index and middle finger on the bat like a chef preparing to fry with it.
This is my last fitness column, so maybe I’m giving more wisdom on trying new things than table tennis advice, which I suck. The first thing I learned? Don’t be too fancy the first time you try something. Second, if you take your child to anything, he is sure to be better than you, unless it is related to his cardiovascular fitness, which is hopeless. Third, the easier something seems when professionals do it, the harder it will be for the novice.
Very good table tennis players loom above the table, so much so that sometimes you can hardly see what’s going on. World class ones do that too, but they can also stray for miles away, so that the very air becomes their playing space. I would highly recommend, for a newcomer to the sport, to stay close to the net. If you try too hard to anticipate the path of the ball, you will have to pick it up all the time. Indeed, it will be the bulk of your calorie consumption, chasing that surprisingly finicky projectile to the ground.
Lesson Four: Lose that mechanistic view of your body – that you put a certain number of calories in your mouth, and you have to find a sport that gets them back. There are deeper truths at work. Namely, if you find an activity that makes you happy to be alive, it will have an effect on your fitness, you can’t even count. For me, it was not table tennis.
Fifth: It is also extremely helpful to feel engrossed and do activities that are unfamiliar even if you cannot feel the burn. Again no table tennis for me as we couldn’t support a rally. But my child expressed surprise that I hit him back, given my poor hand-eye coordination.
This is lesson six: Just because you were bad at something 10 years ago doesn’t mean you’re still bad. The arc of the story tends to improve in things, at least in technical things, such as spatial awareness. Think about it: have you met a 65 year old man who couldn’t parallel park?
If you are serious about points, focus on your serve. Good players have thought about it so much, it’s almost ritual. But my seventh observation – not just ping pong, but everything from boxing to the circus – is that competition between beginners is a hangover. I’m not saying this just because neither of us, in a formal sense, has won.
What I learned
It’s the most popular indoor sport in the world, so it’s outrageous how contemptuous I am. But that’s another lesson: you don’t have to go wild for all ball sports. You are not a Labrador.