Table tennis is a respected and popular sport in Hungary . I went to Eger, North East Hungary, to attend a table tennis training camp in 2017 before my first competitive season in the South Devon League Division Four (no less). It was also part pilgrimage to the home of many early world champions, part of the history of the game before the current era of Chinese dominance. There is still a strong table tennis culture throughout Eastern Europe, with every possibility of top players emerging, making this an exciting trip for me personally.
As a relative novice at this point of my late starting fledging table tennis career (everyone over 40 is classed as veteran and I was 51 at this point) I hoped this would be a spring board for my competitive game as I hadn’t even played in local leagues as yet.
The club in Eger is a full time one, with the tables permanently set up in a large dedicated hall a little outside the centre of the city. People can come and train anytime , a rare luxury in the UK. For those of us signing up for a week, mornings were spent on personal training and technique with a coach and evenings attending the open club nights either practicing drills or matches with regular members under the guidance of Balázs Pálosi , the head coach. Matches were, for the most part, me getting whopped off the table by (nearly) everyone from demon athletic children, teenagers and younger adults, through to older, more awkwardly shaped, knee strapped warriors. All were kind , patient and generous with their teaching and advice, but while playing there was no such thing as a ‘friendly’ as such – many of these guys are seriously competing in the Hungarian national leagues at high levels – I learned a lot about table tennis ( and humility).
Balázs himself was one of the knee strapped gladiators who despite veteran status was still playing in the top Hungarian league. He had that competitive fire that I find hard to locate in myself at times, I loved watching him play. I’m guessing I was a bit of a coaching challenge for him , as although at this stage I was competent in a flat / hard bat kind of game I was so much more clueless than I thought on the arts of spin shots and the proper game.
My main morning coach was Kobe, a smaller whippet like player who patiently took me through drills and multi-ball practice attempting to install in me the core foundations of forehand and back hand topspin shots (work in progress).
I had wondered if my long apprenticeship in yoga would help in table tennis ? Yes and no . The principles of Table Tennis are governed unforgivingly by the laws of physics, but also by the elusive ‘zone’ or ‘flow state’, the realm of the human mind and body in which everything: focus, movement, shots and tactics click together in fluid harmonious action. To train for this zone, rigorous repetition of movement and shots is needed in order to fully embody what you need to play in competitive matches under pressure. The mental preparation is perhaps more dependent on individual preference and temperament. The physical practices of yoga help – but not as much as I thought; relaxing and focusing generally is one thing, but staying loose, relaxed and alert in the heat of a match with an opponent pressuring you are not the same thing as a solo yoga practice. Translating what I know how to do in yoga into active practice was and has been an ongoing challenge. Yoga is stabilising and grounding, table tennis entails constant springy intensely alert movement and focus under pressure. Meditation can help with attitude, approach and sometimes with finding the almost mystical flow state in a match which is happening too fast to be only technical. Who gets into or nearest this zone is often what will determine who, of two technically similarly skilled players, will win in a given match.
Outside of table tennis , I stayed in in Villa Citadella a comfortable guesthouse just outside the centre of Eger and was collected and dropped off before and after each session by Kobe. Eger itself in an attractive partially tourist town made famous as symbol of Hungarian patriotic resistance due to their holding out against a siege by the Ottoman army in 1552 and also famous for strong red wine and beautiful women. Other than that my general knowledge of Hungary is limited beyond some recent history after the fall of Soviet communism. There is stunning baroque architecture , a strong classical music tradition and at times a very cultured seeming environment. Am I in Austria, Germany , Turkey or Russia ? It feels like a bit of all of that in different moments . They love saunas, thermal baths and hammams but also don’t mind a salami sausage and a large beer for breakfast sometimes. Incongruously in Eger there’s a Hare Krishna cafe flogging the Bhagavad Gita here , which despite my enjoyment of some Hungarian food has saved my diet a bit ..
Overall I felt welcomed and at home for a week and it was a great cultural experience as well as a sporting one. I’m waiting for my next opportunity to get back .
Information on how to go can be found here