Table tennis in Dumfries and Galloway has been thriving with a full-time development officer, writes Roddy Mackenzie
Dumfries and Galloway traditionally has been a strong area for table tennis but since the appointment of a development officer for the sport 20 months ago, there has been a spectacular resurgence of interest.
Chris Topping is the only full-time development officer for the sport in Scotland, jointly funded by Table Tennis Scotland, the sport's governing body, Dumfries and Galloway Council, Dumfries Table Tennis Club and the Ryan Centre in Stranraer. He was appointed on a two-year contract ending in July, but the council has been so impressed that it plans to announce a three-year extension.
When Mr Topping took up the post, there was only one recognised table tennis club in the area. Now there are 13 locations offering regular sessions.
Mr Topping has used high-profile players such as the Dumfries sisters Nicola and Claire Bentley to inspire a new generation. The sisters, who started out under Keith Powell at the Dumfries club, played in the final of the women's singles at the Scottish Championships on March 1 - younger sister Nicola won the title - and are ranked number one and two in Scotland.
"I cover the entire region, from Sanquhar to Stranraer," explains Mr Topping, "but a few clubs are now established and have their own chairman, secretary and treasurer and have been passed over to the volunteers to run.
That is the ideal model. I come in and set the foundations for a club and then move on and it runs itself."
Getting into schools was a priority for Mr Topping and now there is hardly a primary or secondary school in the region that he has not visited.
Schools have had six-week blocks of table tennis coaching and many now run lunchtime or after-school clubs.
"We generally start children at the age of eight as that is when they are starting to develop their hand-eye co-ordination, but we do have players aged seven and even as young as six," he says.
"There are flexi-tables, where the legs can be adjusted to suit a youngster's height. There is also a table at the Dumfries club with its legs cut off. But you generally find that once a youngster starts playing, it isn't too long before he or she wants a full-size table."
There have been clear signs of success. Eaglesfield Primary, near Annan, won the team of the year accolade at the Scottish Primary Schools Championships at Bell's Sports Centre in Perth for having the best overall results.
Eight youngsters from all over the region are in Scotland's under-13 squad, and an under-16 squad recently travelled to Larne in Antrim to play against an Ulster select team.
The recent Annan and Eskdale Schools Closed Championships attracted 40 players and local tournaments regularly boast entries of 40-60 players.
All 26 places on an under-16 three-day training camp next month have been filled. The training, at Barony College in Dumfries, will be conducted by the Scottish national coach, Keith Satchell.
Table tennis is now so popular in the region that when Scotland Against Drugs funds six-week blocks of sport in schools this month to promote a healthy lifestyle, the chosen sports will be football, rugby and table tennis.
The difficulties Mr Topping has encountered are mainly a lack of equipment in some schools and attracting and sustaining a volunteer workforce to run events. However, the main company which supplies table tennis equipment in Britain can hardly keep up with demand from schools in the area. Dalry Secondary has ordered three tables.
The success of the Dumfries and Galloway programme is likely to lead to other areas following suit if funding can be found.
Ralph Knowles, administrator of Table Tennis Scotland, says: "There are encouraging signs throughout the country. There are schools leagues in Glasgow and Terry McLernon, the guiding light in the Drumchapel club, is leaving his job to become a full-time development officer. Stirlingshire had a strong entry for its schools' qualifying competition for the national championships. We have 45 schools affiliated, including Castlebay Community School on the Isle of Barra.
"We are keen to put together a curriculum-based programme and a coaching video for schools.
"There are still areas where we are not getting much further forward, like Fife, Inverness and north of Glasgow, but hopefully we can get some volunteers to help."