Ping pong lessons in El Hato

I stood in the airport with my luggage full of materials, nets, balls, rackets, etc.  At every border I had to open my bag because they were suspicious when they saw these strange things on the radar.  So you can imagine I was really delighted when we arrived in Antigua and I could finally drop off the bag.

The first week at school, we sat together with Salina discussing the opportunities for table tennis lessons in El Hato.  We decided to give three classes a week, after the school hours.  Also, Salina managed to find a carpenter who could make two tables with the right dimensions.  Without tables it would be very difficult to practice table tennis!  When we received the tables, we started organizing the first lessons. Melodie, my girlfriend (also a volunteer in the school), made an inviting flyer where the kids could enroll in the classes.  At the end of the first day, twenty kids from 4th, 5th & 6th grade had already signed up.

For the first class we decided to put the tables on the playground, because it was a sunny day (again).  When the bell rang and the classes were finished, a mass of children came to the tables to investigate what the strange paddles and balls were.  A lot of kids tried to make their first moves in the table tennis scene, and I suspect they were glad to try another sport besides football and basketball.  Even maestro Carlos tried to show his tricks, without great success.

During the subsequent weeks I tried to teach them some basic skills in the world of table tennis.  They learned how to serve correctly when playing a match, how to do a correct forehand, etc.  But kids will be kids, and the first time we played a game where they had to smash plastic cups, they loved it!  So from that moment on, after the basic training part of every class, they always asked if they could play the game with the “vasos”.  After a while, they became pretty good in it, and that’s when I decided to organize our first “campeonato”, where they could win a gold medal.  Within the tournament roster, everybody had to play against everybody, so it couldn’t have been fairer.  The tensions rose through the tournament, and sometimes they were small discussions about the fallen cups.  Most of the time, the discussion was the same: did the wind make the cup fall, or was it really the ping pong ball??  Luckily, they knew and practiced the principles of sportsmanship.  When all the matches were finished, the stage ceremony began.  Third place went to one of the hardest workers in the ping pong classes, Josue.  The difference between first and second place was only one point, but in the end Willy from 5th grade won the first gold medal ever in El Hato, beating Carlos from 4th grade.  At the end of the campeonato, each participant got a brand new t-shirt I brought from Belgium.  So they all went home with a big smile on their face.

Every week on Monday, the basico students come to school in the afternoon to take different classes.  Together with Octavio, their head teacher, we decided to give every group of the basico’s 45 minutes of table tennis lessons also.  These older students were learning this new sport pretty fast, so I decided to invent an obstacle course full of table tennis exercises.  In 45 minutes they had to gather as many points as they could, but winning these points wasn’t that easy.  They had to go through seven obstacles while doing keep-ups, hitting smiley faces, putting a ball in baskets, hitting plastic cups or keep-ups with a ball while walking over chairs.  It was very intensive, but a lot of the students did manage to do the tour a few times without any fault.  For us, it was a small wonder that nobody broke a leg or fell off a chair.  But that way, they could all go home with more technique and skills than they ever had.

Table tennis has always been the most watched sport in the entire world, mainly because almost every Chinese person watches the game at home or in their local pub.  And from now on, even in El Hato, this beautiful small village in Guatemala, parents and their kids can watch future Olympic table tennis stars in action!

–Xavier Holvoet