We have it in our power to build the world anewAn interview with Tim Holtam, the founder of Brighton Table Tennis Club
As part of our Community Heroes project, we went to meet Tim Holtam, co-founder of Brighton Table Tennis Club. Our aim is to raise awareness of the fantastic work the club is doing in the local community.
If you’d like to help them do more, we’d love you to show your support by donating whatever you can. Simply click the donate button at the bottom of this page, or contact Tim Holtam directly via the contact details provided.
Thanks for reading.
Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and the club, in a nutshell
The club started after I [Tim Holtam] met a guy called Harry McCarney – a really good table tennis player. I was 22 at the time and Harry was 27. We’d both played as kids and hadn’t played for a while, so we talked a lot about setting this up and it went from there. We said “alright let’s do something and try and get the local kids involved” and it just worked. An amazing guy called Wen Wei got involved from the very beginning too – he’s a former UK-Chinese champion and used to be sparer for the Chinese national girl’s team – so he’s an amazing player as well.
We started in the youth centre in 2007, with two broken old tables! Fast forward and we’re ten years down the line celebrating a decade of doing this – on 23rd Feb 2017!
Setting up the club also led to me getting a job at Patcham high school in 2009 for six years and it overlapped – every year I was there, there was more table tennis and less teaching, so it really kicked on – as I began teaching life skills, citizenship and PSHE with some fantastic colleagues.
What sacrifices have you had to make to get the club going and keep it successful?
Some people say to me, “you’ve taken a bit of a risk – you’ve got a teaching job with security, holidays, pension etc.” but to me it doesn’t feel like a risk – it’s always felt like the right thing to do. Obviously, sometimes it’s difficult to make ends meet at the end of the month, in that we’ve got to the stage where we need quite a bit of money coming through every month to pay everyone, the rent, minibus maintenance etc. (It’s five or six people’s full-time job now). But I don’t see any of it as a sacrifice
I think if you’re a professional player, you have to make a lot of sacrifices – but I don’t feel like I’ve had to make any at all.
I love what I do – every time I open up in the morning I can’t believe I’ve got this place and all the things that are happening… the friendships being made and all the trips we’ve got planned. We went to Malmo in Sweden on the 9th of Feb 2017 for five days, with all the learning disabilities players, in addition to ten of our best kids coming out for another five days for a training camp at a Champions League club in Sweden. We’ve also got loads of international trips planned for the future.
That’s not all down to me, far from it! Harry McCarney, who I spoke about earlier, is on the Trustee board and my fellow co-founder. We talk about a lot of things and make the decisions, but we’ve also employed an amazing head coach from Portugal who’s transformed loads of people in the last six months, in terms of their playing level.
There’s plenty of goodwill too – people wanting to be part of it – so, we find out what they’re good at and say ‘OK, that’s your area of expertise, let’s play to your strengths’. For the coaches we say: ‘ok you’re good at working with the primary schools, you’re good with the elderly etc.’ and put them all in the right place to maximise their impact.
“The biggest challenge is I never switch off. It’s going home that’s the biggest challenge. Someone said to me ‘you need to get a social life mate’. But this is the best social life you could get, I love it.”
Do you find a lot of people want to help out / help with funding? Can you tell us more too about the mix of cultures and levels you have at the club – to show people what an incredible initiative they’ll be supporting?
We’ve got a lot of volunteers and even more people approaching us now – saying they want to play with the refugees. There can be a bit of people wanting to play with the refugees so they can feel good about themselves and tell their mates they’ve done that and helped out – but what about all the kids who’ve come in from the PRU (Brighton & Hove Pupil Referral Unit) – the really left behind, forgotten about British kids – who don’t get any of that press.
Obviously there is thought and organisation going into sessions for specific training etc. and there’s also times when the Afghan lads are here and the PRU lot turn up and they all play table tennis together.
Then there’s a session with the Friends, Families and Travellers, – Irish traveller kids who come twice a week. On top of that we’ve got unaccompanied minors from Afghanistan and down syndrome coaches working with traveller kids. What other activity or sport does that!? I genuinely don’t think there is one.
I think there needs to be more community clubs – not even necessarily sport, even drama or arts. Obviously we’re biased about table tennis, there’s something about it. It’s a sport where you can pick it up really quickly and develop fast.
Have Sport England being supportive?
We have good contacts at the top of Sport England now, which means that a lot of doors are opening.
The model that Sport England has asked us to develop is nearly there – there’s just a final stage to tweak. Sport England are incredibly supportive – there’s talk of them offering us more money than we’ve ever seen – not for facilities but for delivery of an expanded programme working with refugees and asylum seekers in the first year. The second year would be other minority groups – the people that aren’t engaged at the moment – so homeless outreach and people with mental health issues.
What we want to do is give people twelve weeks of one-to-one coaching with someone who makes them feel welcome – then after that, integrate people into the sessions that will help them most.
Are there plans for expansion?
What I think is a good model is to setup a network of table tennis clubs. There’s one in Cardiff that’s doing really good stuff, a couple in London, Leeds, Sheffield, Glasgow. The aim should be to make a link between the clubs and share good practice. Then other table tennis clubs could come together for training about delivery of sessions, how to structure them so they’re appropriate for the individuals in them, how to reach out to local partners and build referral networks and share other good ideas that have worked in different places.
“We now have the foundations in place to do loads more outreach with older people, or people living with cancer – we can take this anywhere because table tennis is so accessible.”
What’s your proudest moment?
Some of the things that have happened here I’d call Brighton table tennis club ‘Magic Moments’ – where I step back, watch it and can’t believe it’s happening.
We do sessions in Millview Psychiatric hospital – they’ve got a table in every ward. A few people playing at Brighton table tennis club mentioned that the hospital had tables set up, so now we go there twice a week and hold inter-ward tournaments with a range of ages, from 70 year old women to 25 year old men – 30/40 people, including staff and patients. One of the staff came over to me and said she’s been there for 15 years and it’s the best initiative she’s seen for bringing people of all backgrounds and ages together.
It’s a full circle too. When patients come out of Millview, they come to Brighton table tennis club and have an activity to take part in as a part of their lives.
Even at Lewes Prison – there’s a table tennis table in every wing too. There’s table tennis going on at First Base (street homeless day centre) – the momentum being built is great.
All of that, including the new stuff with First Base and Brighton Housing Trust, Millview and Lewes prison – there’s big potential to do more of that and continue our impact.
How did you celebrate your 10-year anniversary?
We had a big do! Some of the very first players in the club from 2007 came back and joined in, now aged 26 and fully grown up. There was food and drink – a great celebration of everything we’ve achieved so far and the exciting things to come.
At this point a group of kids aged walk in and start warming up together on the tables – it’s great to see what a hive of activity it is and just how much of a bond there is between everyone there. Also – even at a young age, these girls and boys are ridiculously talented players!
What age do players start at the club?
We’ve got kids as young as six here, who as they progress,could be incredible talents.
It’s about grass roots and building a strong community, BUT, we want to show that it’s possible to combine that with elite sport. Some people think it’s mutually exclusive – a lot of people I think are thinking this is ALL about the outdoor tables, refugees support and disability inclusion etc.
The only way to disprove that is to get results with the kids. We can win all the local stuff, which is great, but we want them be pushing on now. We’ve got a few kids ranked in the top 20-30 in England, we want them in the top 2, or at the very top in England… and that’s coming, for sure.
When do you see that happening, (breaking into the very top elite of players in England)?
I don’t know – there’s a few things on the horizon, like the National Schools Team event. For example Patcham school has a group of four players with a chance of winning that event.
Get them started young enough and there’s no limit to where they can go.
“We’ve got a great team now – six full time staff, including a caretaker, administrator, and four coaches and also lots of other part-time staff and volunteers. We’ve got the right team to do more, we just need the funding!”
Where does your funding come from and how can people help to support the club?
As mentioned Sport England are interested but that’s a specific aspect of the club, so we need more help.
If there’s anyone out there who’s interested in making a donation, becoming a partner or a sponsor, we’d really welcome that.
We’ve got a great team now – six full time staff, including a caretaker, administrator, and four coaches and also lots of other part-time staff and volunteers. We’ve got the right team to do more, we just need the funding!
We now have the foundations in place to do loads more outreach with older people, or people living with cancer – we can take this anywhere because table tennis is so accessible.
The next thing we’d like to set up is a health facility – linking in with hospital. Table tennis can have massive benefits for people with dementia, people who’ve had strokes, people with mental health issues. There’s so much more we want to do!
What advice would you give to someone looking to set up a social enterprise or community project?
It’s the best thing you could do!
I used to teach in a school and the enjoyment I get out of this has got me back to why I got into teaching in the first place.
What were the biggest challenges you faced setting up the club / face every day running the club?
The biggest challenge is I never switch off. It’s going home that’s the biggest challenge. Someone said to me ‘you need to get a social life mate’. But this is the best social life you could get, I love it.
Finding that work life balance is the key really, so I guess keeping that in mind is what I’d say.
Just £10 pays for a beginners table tennis bat and £30 pays for club kit for 10 children from low income households.
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