Colleen is a psychotherapist with an interest in sports psychology and motivation
The following is my husbands commentary.
During the year 2017, the social club I attended purchased two table tennis tables. There were four experienced players in the club. Myself, having no previous experience, became the guy who lost every game. Undeterred, I visited an established table tennis club who were keen to coach new members.
Within a year, I was regularly returning to the social club and winning most of my games. Two years later, I was playing in our local table tennis league and qualified as an England level one coach.
Progression of Arthritis
The following year, whilst having a medical check-up, the doctor diagnosed me with advanced arthritis in both of my knees and right wrist. While continuing to play table tennis as a standing player, I searched for a lighter weight blade with a grip that would not require excessive wrist movement.
The Table Tennis Blades I Tested
The following blades I tested over several months were either light weight or a design believed to reduce stress on the wrist. The Nittaku Tenaly, Re-Impact Ergonomic, TSP Balsa 5, Sanwei Type 96 Leaning Handle 5ply, and Gambler Ergonomic Super Grip.
The Table Tennis Rubbers I Tested on These Blades
Aurus and Aurus Soft, Kokutaku 868, Spectol Blue and Red, Leon and Butterfly Anti Spin, and Victas V>11 Extra.
My Transition Into a Wheelchair
As a standing player, I opted for the re-impact blade with a pair of Victas V>11 Extra rubbers.
Soon after this choice, my knees gave way to arthritis. Although able to walk, I was left with no option but to use a wheelchair in order to continue playing table tennis.
The sudden transition proved difficult for me. Prior to this, my style of play had been as the tall agile attacking top spinner. Now, I was tucked down low and close to the table pushing and chopping hoping to top spin the occasional long ball.
Generally my peers and coaches advised me to play close to the table, take the ball early, use rubbers that would nullify incoming spin, and flat hit my return balls. In other words, I needed to learn to become a wheelchair player.
Whilst some of this advice proved fruitful, I wanted to retain my style of play. However, this meant overcoming significant problems that any wheelchair player might encounter. I modified my equipment within the rules.
How to Raise The Height of Your Playing Position
The average height of a wheelchair seat is 19 inches (48cm). You might be able to find a model that is an inch or two higher. I chose the I-Go Airex LT Self Propelled which has a seat height of 53cm.
ITTF Rules of Wheelchair Cushions
The ITTF rules state that a wheelchair player can have one or two cushions that in total are not more than 15cm in depth. This sounds good, but generally cushions are for comfort and compress when sat upon.
You can overcome this by purchasing a cushion made of reconstituted sponge foam super dense 9LB per cubic foot. This material has virtually no give at all, and will provide a substantial elevation of your torso and sitting height.
There are numerous online sponge foam suppliers who will cut the product to fit your wheelchair seat dimensions. Generally 16"X18" (41x46cm). The cost is reasonable. You can cover the cushion with a lining if you wish. I use a black cotton cover.
Under The Table Access
You might be concerned that your knees will not fit under the edge of the table tennis table. I suggest you drop your footrests to the lowest setting and if possible shorten the angle stops so that the inner edges of the rests are even lower. You can also remove and play without wearing trainers-sneakers. Finally I trimmed 4cm depth from the front edge of my cushion, thereby allowing my thighs to be lower whilst not affecting the height of my torso.
Further Wheelchair Adjustments
You will notice from the images of the wheelchair that I have removed the arm rests and the push handles from the rear and folded the back support. The two split tennis balls cover the handle hinges. Overall this allows me to both drop and swing my arm upwards. This wheelchair model has a handy rear pocket in which one can store and easily reach several table tennis balls.
How to Increase Your Arm Reach Towards the Incoming Ball
Having achieved a reasonable seated height which allowed me to improve my front and backhand top spin, I realised that a couple of inches of extra reach in all directions could make a difference in my ability to make contact with the incoming ball.
My Final Choice of Blade
The blade I finally chose was the Gambler ergonomic super grip. Rather than using a shake-hand grip I hold the handle with my thumb and four fingers. I estimate the blade extends my reach by 3 to 4 cm. The ergonomics allow the blade to naturally rest at a lower angle, and offer a firmer grip. Both my arthritic wrist pain and blade control improved. I also feel that the ball gains more spin having travelled across a larger rubber surface area.
My Final Choice of Rubbers
On my forehand I am using Tibhar Aurus 2.1 and on my backhand I am using Victas V>11 Extra 2.1. Update August 2021: I am now using Victas Spectol S2 short pimple rubber on my backhand. Update November 2021: I am now using Aurus 2.1 on both sides of my blade. This has further improved my game and was recommended by my coach Ryan Morton of Bishop Auckland Table Tennis Club.
I wear glasses. Playing from the wheelchair, pushing and attacking the early ball means leaning forward at a lower angle. Hence, the upper rim of everyday glasses can interfere with your line of vision. I suggest finding glasses that are rimless or have larger lenses that sit higher above the brow.
Collecting balls from the floor presents difficulty for the wheelchair user. Having access to a supply of balls is helpful. I purchased a Knight Table Sport Training Ball Basket which is collapsible, and can be quickly clipped on to most table tennis tables. This is ideal for multi-ball practise and I fill mine with about 200+ balls. The basket is quite difficult to assemble for first time use, and I recommend that if you purchase one, you look for one that states “assembled”.
Telescopic Ball Collector
Often players that are sitting out waiting for a game will collect balls for you and add them to your ball holder. Whilst this is a helpful gesture, I believe in not taking assistance for granted. For a few pounds one can purchase a small telescopic handle collection net (search for a butterfly net).This can be kept with you usually behind your seat. When you have some spare minutes you can whizz round the games hall and collect balls both for yourself and other players.
Changing From White to Orange Table Tennis Balls
As a standing player my visual background during a game would be a downward view of the table top (blue or green) or the floor (grey or brown shades).
As a wheelchair player, nearer to the ground, I am aware that background colours are akin to my horizontal line of vision. An opponents shirt might be multi coloured, the table top net might have white braid along its top, and walls might be white or light coloured. Altogether, I became aware that occasionally my visual tracking and control of the ball was hindered.
I tried the orange ball and overcame this problem.
When I play in a competitive environment I ask my opponent if they feel comfortable using an orange ball. I have never had anyone object. However, if you are playing in a league or competition you should obtain advance permission from the referee or venue management. I always carry with me some Nittaku ITTF approved 3 star orange balls.
With disability adjustments, permission can be easy to obtain, but provision is another obstacle. Be ready!
Social Disappointments and Inclusion
Hopefully, when you arrive with your wheelchair at a table tennis club you will be warmly greeted. Generally friends will be keen to include you in play, while coaches will use their skills to ensure inclusion is part of the session.
Being a player who has transitioned you will be more sensitive to any subtle changes in other people’s behaviour towards you.
Hopefully, you won’t experience the following
- Waiting on the side-lines, hoping to join a game. Disappointingly, everyone declines to make eye contact with you.
- The session coach says "wait there and I'll try and find someone to play with you"
- When issuing the balls you are given the same amount as the standing players, or worse, you are given less balls than other players with a disability. Is it because they are more disabled than you are?
- At a local club I attended I was directed to a table. A catch net was placed at one end. The coach gave me two dozen balls suggesting I practise my service, and left me there for an hour. I don't go there anymore.
- Make sure you know the rules that apply to players with a disability who use wheelchairs. Hence, when a standing player opponent says he gains a point because you stood out of your seat or your foot touched the floor, you can explain that they are incorrect.
The good work of Table Tennis England provides that every aspect of diversity and inclusion are part of their substance and it is their dedication that makes table tennis truly a sport for everyone.
© 2021 Colleen Swan
Colleen Swan (author) from County Durham on June 17, 2021:
Thank you Tom, any ideas for arm extensions are welcome. I think the International Table Tennis Federation would have a problem with new rules.
Thomas Swan from New Zealand on June 17, 2021:
It's good that the sport accommodates wheelchair users and the necessary equipment is out there. I would love to see a bat with some kind of button-assisted extendable arm for extra reach on some shots. It would require a whole new skill set to know when to press the button on the bat's handle!
Colleen Swan (author) from County Durham on June 17, 2021:
Thank you John, Yes table tennis is a great game. Anyone can play anyone and get a good workout.
John Hansen from Gondwana Land on June 16, 2021:
I don't have to use a wheelchair but I do get some arthritis in my wrists, and I love table tennis. I found this interesting and will look for those ergonomic blades. Thank you for sharing this, Colleen.