Batting at school doors for players
Scottish table tennis is set for a rebirth in schools. Ironically, it will take the death of the Scottish Schools' Table Tennis Association to help accomplish this but there will be a new beginning for the sport after the summer.
Schools' games will in future come under the wing of the national governing body for the sport, the Scottish Table Tennis Association, which will deal with planning and organising tournaments and overseeing the development of young players.
"In past years, it has been the case of three people trying to look after all of the Scottish schools' game," explains Ralph Knowles, secretary of the STTA, "and it was just not possible. The STTA's resources are not much greater but it makes sense to bring it all under one umbrella."
The STTA wants to address the lack of youngsters taking up a bat and, indeed, the falling number of players throughout the game. Three years ago there were 1,100 registered players in Scotland but the figure has fallen to 900.
"Quite simply, it's down to players ageing and dropping out of the game and not enough young players coming in to replace them," says Mr Knowles.
"Unfortunately, some league clubs do not encourage youngsters to join as the older players don't want to jeopardise their places in the team. Table tennis being the sport it is, you can have players in their seventies or eighties still playing at local league level.
"It's an issue for the whole of Scottish table tennis. We need to replace the players that are being lost and give more opportunities to young players."
The STTA has not had a full-time national coach for the past four or five years, since Sportscotland revised its funding package. However, there is a Lottery-funded national youth squad of 20 players at under-21 level, most of whom are still at school.
The game is strong in certain pockets of the country with Dumfries, Aberdeen, Perth and Stirlingshire all doing well at junior schools level and there are signs that Edinburgh is starting to make inroads in schools.
Ken Cadogan, chairman of the Edinburgh League, has been responsible for breathing new life into the youth game in the city, taking the stand that if schools were not knocking on the door of the STTA then he must tae the game to schools. Ironically, it is through an Age Concern millennium fund that he has been able to push the schools game. He received a grant of pound;7,000 last year to fund a two to three year project in Edinburgh. There is now an informal Edinburgh schools league, with matches held every week at Meadowbank and 30-35 children competing.
"I went along to Broughton High, Portobello High and Firrhill High initially and found there was interest in playing the game," says Mr Cadogan, "Portobello was particularly good as we had between 10 and 12 playing.
"Some schools have tables but they haven't been used for years. James Gillespie's High had seven tables and they had just been gathering dust.
"The school sports co-ordinators have shown they are keen to take up table tennis, so we were able to identify players to go to the national schools championships at Bell's Sports Centre in Perth last week. We have also been able to identify a group who receive advanced one-to-one coaching with coaching director Billy Gibbs at the North Merchiston club.
"We are getting into more and more schools and community centres and I've been able to use the grant from Age Concern to pay for coaches and equipment."
One of the STTA's main concerns is the lack of primary school players taking up the game but there was a respectable entry at the Scottish Primary Schools Championships in Blairgowrie earlier this month.
"Players can drift away from the sport when they leave school," says Ralph Knowles. "It is only the dedicated players that continue to play seriously and there is a fall-off rate at the ages of 17-18, particularly of girls."
There are around 110 clubs in Scotland, which is "not bad", says Mr Knowles,but there are still areas which could be improved.
"Edinburgh has around 200 players but Glasgow is just short of 100, which is a big failing and we must look at improving that," he says. "But there is still a lot of good work done in Glasgow. And Terry McLernon has done well with young players at the Drumchapel club and he has extended out to Cardonald.
"Sometimes it's good to start with a clean slate and that's what we'll be more or less doing with the schools.
"We still have to set an infrastructure in place in the schools, so that we can build the game up and keep a stream of young players coming into the sport."