Life Lessons from Ping Pong

Pico Iyer’s unique perspective on this unpopular sport

Photo by Josh Sorenson

Author Pico Iyer spent the bulk of his career in rural Japan, where he spends most of his time writing books, capturing photographs, and playing ping-pong in his local health studio. To get to this studio, he has to endure a 15-minute climb up a hill, an activity he indulges in every other night.

The health studio was far from big and fancy, housing just three ping-pong tables, which were arranged a bit too close to each other, causing balls to often collide in mid-air. The games they often play are doubles, and because they change partners every five minutes, nobody can really tell who’s won. “In Japan”, Pico says, “they’ve built a competitive spirit without competition.”

“Everyone’s trying to win points, but nobody’s keeping track of who’s winning games”

President Richard Nixon, then the member of the US Table Tennis Association, helped engineer a decision that arguably shaped today’s world economy —re-opening US-China relations, which lead to the US lifting an economic containment policy against China on June 10, 1971, an act now famously known as the ping-pong diplomacy.

A brief history of ping-pong

Ping-pong may sound like an Eastern singsong, but it was actually initiated by the Brits, who back in the days were hitting wine corks to rows of books after dinner, out of pure boredom. After the first world war, the game had spread into Europe and was dominated by the Austro-Hungarians. They were notoriously good at returning every ball played at them that they nearly brought the entire sport to the ground.

In April of 1936, on one championship match in Prague, the longest time every spent on a single point was recorded. The opening point was said to have lasted 2 hours and 12 minutes. The opening point! To add to the peculiarity, one player told his teammates to set up a chess board on the sidelines, and started directing chess moves while continuing the match just to annoy his opponent. The move did not only annoy his opponent, it irritated the crowd as well — clearing out a fair portion of the seats before the point was even concluded.

16 years later, Japan entered the scene when an unremarkable watchmaker by the name of Hiroji Satoh stepped up for his country in the 1952 championship in Bombay. He was a pretty average bloke, not too tall, not too muscular, and he wore spectacles. But all that came with a trick up his sleeves — a bat that was covered in a layer of spongy rubber, which made the ball bounce in ways that was then unfamiliar to the ping-pong scene. As a result, he brought home gold that year.

“Not knowing who has won feels like the ultimate victory”

Back to Pico’s club

There, Pico says they never played singles — only doubles — changing partners every five minutes. They often play the best of 2 sets, something that’s unheard of in the current sporting industry as it would defeat the conventional purpose of playing games, opening up a sizeable room for draws.

Growing up in England, Pico was taught that the point of playing a game was to win, but in Japan, he was encouraged to believe that the point is really to make as many people around you feel like they are winners.

“In Japan, a game of ping-pong is really like an act of love — you’re taught to play with somebody, rather than against somebody”

When Pico moved back to England, he started playing singles again, and he noticed a peculiar problem beginning to take shape, as he quote:

“After every loss, I was always left heart broken, but after every win, I couldn’t sleep either because I knew there was only one way to go after that, and it was down”

In Japan, the competitive-sans-competition mindset transcends beyond just ping-pong, it’s constructed in the very language of their sport ecosystem. If a baseball game there sits at a tie after four hours, it ends in a draw. Since draws are by the rule awarded points as well, a team chalking up more draws could theoretically finish ahead of a team with more victories.

The first US baseball coach to have managed a Japanese baseball team lead a mediocre team — the Chiba Lotte Marines — to a sensational second place finish in the 1995 Pacific League season. His name was Bobby Valentine and he was instantly fired after the feat. Why? Because of his emphasis on winning.

Pico offers the perfect analogy of a choir to describe this concept. In a chorus group, individuals are given the sole task of playing their small part perfectly and by doing so help create a beautiful harmony that’s much greater than the sum of all its parts. A solo performance, on the other hand, relies entirely on an individual’s skill and flair to determine the final quality of its output. When harmony and beauty is favoured over skill, a 30-person choir wins over a group of 30 of the best soloists all singing the same part of the song in the same tune.

“The opposite of winning isn’t losing, it’s failing to see the larger picture”

After his usual ping-pong sessions, he notice his friends are always filing out in seemingly equal delights — having only known that each of them had a great time blasting their sweat out trying to win each point. He is reminded every night that ‘not getting ahead’ isn’t the same thing as ‘falling behind’.

Some researchers have even found that ping-pong can actually help a little with mild mental disorders and autism.

Let’s now go back to that championship game in 1936, the game of the 2-hour point. One of the players in that game ended up in a concentration camp in Auschwitz six years later. In this instance, thankfully, he walked out alive. None of us can be sure of the underlying reason he was let off the hook, but it was believed that one of the guards in his chamber recognised him from his ping-pong playing days. Had he been the winner of that epic match, it hardly mattered, as he recalls that many people had fled out even before the first point had been concluded. Legend has it that the only thing that saved him was the fact that he took part.

“The best way to win any game”, Pico says, “as Japan had told him every other night, is to never, never, think about the score.”

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Junior doctor, writer, photographer, and part-time social media strategist. Receive weekly updates from me ⤵

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