In conversation with : Tim Holtam - How table tennis can create a more inclusive society

In conversation with : Tim Holtam - How table tennis can create a more inclusive society

It is hard to imagine how two old table tennis tables and a couple of bats could be the start of a highly successful and truly inclusive, multicultural sports club for an entire community.

But from these humble origins, what began as a small venture for a Sussex University student, who wanted to bring ‘ping pong’ to the youth of Brighton, has turned into a thriving organisation.

“When people pick up a table tennis bat you can visibly see them leaving the baggage that they brought with them behind."

Indeed, Tim Holtam - Founder Director of Brighton Table Tennis Club, and a Churchill Fellow – is now helping other community clubs and groups to adopt his successful model, and has been inspired to do so from his Fellowship learnings.

Tim’s Churchill Fellowship, which he undertook in 2018, is among many which have helped inform our groundbreaking Migration Report ‘Learning from Living Well Together’.

Creating an inclusive sports club

Tim is a lifelong table tennis enthusiast, so when he went to Sussex University he was keen to do some coaching, and to bring the game to the local community.

“There was no provision for table tennis for young people in Brighton so we approached a local youth centre and asked if we could use their space once a week. There were two broken tables, but it was enough to get us started in 2007 and we never looked back.”

Almost unwittingly, his model for the club’s makeup was based on his very diverse upbringing.

“When I was a kid, my dad was a vicar on the Isle of Dogs and my school was 70-80 per cent Bangladeshi kids, but when you’re young, you just see people as people not with a label of where they are from.

“Then when I was 11, we moved to central London. I started going to London Progress Table Tennis club in Willesden, which had players coming from all over the world. I also went to an incredibly diverse secondary school, Pimlico, so my whole upbringing was multicultural.”

Brighton Table Tennis Club (BTCC), since 2015, has had its own premises and is run as a full-time centre. Gradually, and with the changing demographic of Brighton, the club has become increasingly inclusive.

“We have people with disabilities, with long-term health conditions, and people with Down Syndrome who came to the club and who are now coaches. We have asylum seekers, people from the Irish traveller community… and they are all in the same room and they are all playing table tennis. Everyone is taken as a person, first and foremost. If you include our outreach sessions in schools and prisons, we have about 2,000 people playing every week, and although the majority are young people, we are reaching all ages.”

Learning though the Churchill Fellowship

In 2016, Brighton Table Tennis Club was named the first ever Sports Club of Sanctuary, by the City of Sanctuary network, which aims to create hospitality and inclusiveness for refugees and asylum seekers.

Sport England also took an interest and, through the club, ran a five-year refugee integration project.

Tim wanted to take this further, so used his Fellowship as an opportunity to explore how sport can build bridges between communities.

He travelled first to Jordan, to visit Za’atari refugee camp near the border with Syria, where the International Table Tennis Federation has a programme, training coaches and bringing the sport to refugees.

“I remember visiting one family at the camp. The dad, Ab’dul Rahman, was training as a coach, and his kids loved table tennis. Inside his home, he had constructed a beautifully homemade table tennis table. Just about standard size and height, and with a net made from a head scarf from his wife with some string carefully stitched across to the top to keep the net tight. It was a beautiful sight.”

Tim also visited a club in Sicily, where many asylum seekers arrive from Africa, to explore the possibility of a European-wide project. He planned a third trip, to see a table tennis programme in Holland working with asylum seekers. However, Covid prevented this visit from taking place until later.

Extending into the wider community

Inspired by what he witnessed and learnt during his Fellowship, Tim and BTTC have introduced two initiatives. Both are aimed as spreading the benefits of table tennis and participation to a wider community, far beyond Brighton.

Mirroring the Parkrun model, Tim and his team have launched ‘AllStars TT’, which is “for anyone, anywhere, any table, any time. It’s a new model for mass participation community table tennis. It’s completely free and anyone can play, anywhere in the world”.

Using an app, anyone playing table tennis – be they in a refugee camp, in prison, or in Brighton – can log their games, and work towards milestone t-shirts. Already, 2,000 have registered and played 150,000 games of table tennis. It can only grow from here.

The second initiative is aimed at helping other sports clubs and community groups learn from the Brighton model, so they too can become diverse and inclusive organisations.

BTCC has developed a free course, called ‘Building a Grassroots Community’ based on its own experiences, which helps participants work towards building resilient communities, share ideas and learn from each.

Why table tennis?

Tim says it is universal - even when you don’t speak the same language, you are close enough to your opponent to make eye contact, to smile, and to communicate through body language.

You can improve very quickly so you are soon invested in it. It’s fun and works on every level, from the weakest to the strongest.

“When people pick up a table tennis bat you can visibly see them leaving the baggage that they brought with them behind. This could be anything from a child who has been bullied on social media, a homeless person worried about where they will sleep tonight, a prisoner that knows he will go back to his cell and be locked up again, to family members killed back home in Syria.

“I always think about Za’atari and that table in a house with a scarf as a net. If they can play AllStars TT as part of a shared experience, it is so exciting for us and the club. It’s grassroots, it’s free, it’s bottom up.”


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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