By Elisa Sandri
The Brighton Table Tennis Club (BTTC) is a table tennis club located in the area of Kemptown (Brighton). It was founded in 2007, aiming to use table tennis as a vehicle for community integration and well being. Originally, the BTTC engaged young people from disadvantaged backgrounds living in the local community. More recently, the diversity of club members has expanded, currently including sessions for adults over 50, people affected by cancer, people with Down’s Syndrome, learning disabilities or serious mental health issues. The club runs coaching sessions, after school clubs, drop-in sessions, and local and national tournaments. It also delivers outreach sessions in schools, colleges, care homes, prisons, a psychiatric hospital, as well as frequently participating in events across the country and abroad.
In May 2017, I started a twelve-month research project at the BTTC, investigating how table tennis contributes to the overall wellbeing of young refugees and to their social lives. Around 130 refugees played table tennis over the course of the year, and eight of these have qualified as table tennis coaches. Refugees who attend the club are mostly boys aged 15-20, and come from Afghanistan, Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Chad, Albania, Vietnam and Eritrea. Over the course of the year, I carried out ethnographic fieldwork and interviews and played a lot of table tennis (my table tennis skills have definitely improved). The research was funded by Sport England and it was supervised by Dr Mark Doidge, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Brighton.
Sport as a social activity
When refugees arrive in a new society, they often struggle with marginalisation and exclusion. Sport can work as a ‘hook’, bringing in many different types of people to enjoy a fun, relaxing and engaging activity. By focusing on fun, sport can bring together people regardless of their backgrounds. As sites for socialisation experiences, sport clubs may help cultivate a sense of belonging and reduce social isolation, especially when they are connected to the social fabric of local communities.
Nevertheless, it is not sport itself that encourages these behaviours, it is the people within it. The positive benefits of sport can only be achieved through an active approach of managers, coaches and volunteers. The BTTC have based their practice on an idea of equality that resists labelling players based on where they come from, their physical and mental abilities and so on. As Tim Holtam, BTTC Co-founder and Director, outlined: “Here in the club you are not a refugee, or a person with a disability, you are a member of the club. Everybody is equal.”
Importantly, BTTC managers and coaches have identified through their practice that community cohesion does not simply involve an individual fitting into wider society. There are many different groups and identities to which an individual belongs. The community that revolves around the club reflects the variety of people that live in the wider society. By breaking down dominant categorisations (dis/able-bodied, elderly/young, refugee/non-refugee and so on), players are less restricted and more able to move and interact across groups in the club. The focus on being a table tennis player tries to encourage the dissolution of the boundaries between the different groups that attend the club.
Breaking down barriers and treating players as equals, does not imply not recognising differences. The club has celebrated diversity through a variety of small, but powerful actions, such as hanging flags and maps on the walls of the club. All new players are asked to put a pin in a world map to signal where they are from, and over time more and more pins appear across the world.
Opportunities to belong
The BTTC actively encourage members to play different people and create opportunities to make friends within the club. The social aspect of the BTTC has been made possible by the active engagement, promotion and interventions of coaches, managers and volunteers.
For refugees, fleeing leads to a loss of ties in their home countries and sometimes to a loss of identity. Young unaccompanied refugees, particularly when they first arrive in the UK, often face loneliness and isolation, as they do not have any relationship in the new country. Having the opportunity to socialise at the club with people from the same age group, and who may have gone through similar experiences, helped refugee players to form meaningful relationships.
The BTTC, by cultivating the sport, organising trips and matches and mixing players, has given refugees ‘opportunities to belong’ and a deeper connection to the host country. Belonging to the club has been incredibly important for some of the refugee players, as they often do not have ties to the UK on arrival and struggle to forge relationships in the community:
“Now I see the club as my second home after I left my country… when I came, I knew nobody in Brighton, I just knew my brother… and now when I joined the club I made friends, I have gone on holidays, I have gone swimming with them” Refugee player
Through table tennis skills, players could appreciate ‘they were good at something’. Taking part in competitions and succeeding in the sport has undoubtedly boosted the refugee players’ individual and social confidence. This is an invaluable achievement, particularly for young refugees who have been through traumatic experiences and often have low self-esteem as a result. Table tennis has been a means for the young refugees to feel proud of themselves and to be proud of being refugees too.
“When I went to the Junior league in London with [another refugee player], we won the second place and we got medals. We were the only refugees in the league, that was the proudest moment for me.” Refugee player
|“On the minibus to Cardiff, there are young BTTC players from all corners of the world: Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Sudan, Kurdistan, Eritrea and the UK. Players and coaches are travelling to join an event that brings together other table tennis clubs from around the country. The young players (from 11 to 17 years old) are starting to be bored by the long trip, music choices have run out and stomachs are rumbling. Tim, the designated driver, can feel that the mood of the young people is plunging. To cheer spirits up, and to introduce Wales to the bored passengers, he puts on a famous song traditionally sung at Wales rugby matches. The song is fairly long, with a complicated vocabulary, but it has a relatively simple chorus, which gets played over and over again in the minibus. Slowly, all players start paying attention to the song and start singing it at the top of their lungs, some in broken English, some just imitating the sounds. Everyone in the minibus has their spirits restored and the song has already become the soundtrack of the trip!” (from the field diary)|
Together with the nuanced approach to communities, and the active approach to community cohesion, the BTTC fostered an ‘inclusive narrative’ surrounding the club to encourage integration among players. The inclusive narrative has been recreated on a daily basis by the actions and activities within the club. For example, rather than creating teams based on players’ origins, ages, dis/abilities, and so on, the club actively mixes players during sessions and for competitions. Having sessions and tournaments that cut across these demographic labels helps break down the potential barriers between individuals, but also reinforces solidarity and respect between players.
The club’s narrative is taken up by members and it creates a firm foundation to embrace differences among players, but also enables them to be table tennis players first and foremost. This ‘identity work’ is a continuous process of repetition of a discourse that helps members distinguish between ‘us’ and ‘others’.
Like sport, social cohesion and community integration are regular, iterative practises that develop over time. The regular, mundane interactions at a sport club like the BTTC build up into a new set of skills, outlooks and behaviours. The everyday, mundane but repetitive practises are really important for fostering friendships and trusting relationships. Sport clubs like the BTTC provide the space and the opportunities to put these regular, repetitive exchanges into action.