I’m really addicted to table tennis. If you are taking the time to read this blog, there is an excellent chance that you are as well. Being a sports addict of any kind is not such a bad thing. It is certainly less harmful than alcohol, gambling, or any number of other addictions that are harmful to your physical or mental health. The longer you play table tennis, the more you may find you have developed an ability to stay focused beyond the abilities of other mortals. This extreme focus may or may not be useful in other areas of your life, but it certainly is essential for returning corkscrew serves or blocking loops coming at you at 70 mph.
If you are really hooked on table tennis and find yourself staring off into space contemplating the difference between 2.0mm sponge and 2.1mm, and how that extra .1mm might change your life for the better, then it is likely the sport has become an escape from the major issues and minor problems of everyday life. Sometimes, though, the parallels of lessons learned at the table start to overflow into unlikely philosophical and political discussions.
The recent Georgia Games provided some insights that, in my mind, have broader implications. One of our team members was playing in his first sanctioned tournament and came away with a USATT rating of 2110. I felt he had been playing at a 2000 level for some time and was glad to see that he was now being recognized for his persistence and talent. The fact that he ended up rated over 2100 began a discussion as to whether he was truly a 2100 level player. From this discussion came the idea that we are probably all too quick to label people.
To label is to categorize, while a sign is meant to indicate useful information. The 2110 rating is a sign that he may be expected to play at this level, and current information indicates he is capable of it. To label him a 2100-level player is more opinionated and subjective. Labeling merely puts him into a category of what we think a 2100 player should look like, play like, and only indicates our biases.
As I began to contemplate the difference between signs and labels, at least as I see it, something else happened that made me look at this in a broader context. I am usually deliberately vague if any of my students bring up controversial subjects not related to table tennis. Right now, nothing could be more controversial than the upcoming U.S. elections. Recently two of my students and one of my relatives made some comments regarding the current presidential election. Clearly, all three assumed I would probably agree with them. Apparently I fit the stereotype of a Libertarian, a Democrat, and a Republican. I was once told I was a great fence sitter, which is probably closer to the truth than any affiliation with a political party.
I do know that I have not found all Republicans to be racist. I have not found all Democrats to be evil or all Libertarians to be naïve. These are labels that perhaps help us see the world in a certain way. The table tennis community has players from many countries and backgrounds who get along week after week, despite having many differences. Even in the world of table tennis, we do get along better with clearly written rules, as signs to indicate what is acceptable. The labels we assign to each other are the walls that we have built ourselves. Tearing down those walls would be a good sign.