Rahul Mathew: The face behind the ICC Table Tennis Academy, Melbourne

Rahul Mathew, the founder of the ICC Table Tennis Academy in Australia, explains the idea behind setting up this platform. In this interesting feature, he compares and contrasts the basics of professional Table Tennis in Australia to India and discusses the scope for Table Tennis in Australia. 

Furqan ur Rehman: Tell us about yourself, and your Table Tennis journey?

Rahul Mathew: I work as a high performance and competition manager at Table Tennis Victoria and I am the head of ICC Table Tennis Academy which is based in Melbourne. I’m 2 units away from completing my Masters in Sports Management from Deakin University.

Since my parents were always busy, it was difficult for them to take care of me and my brother due to their long work hours. They tried to make me and my brother join different after-school programs including art and music to keep us engaged, but we both didn’t find much interest in them and constantly dropped out of them.

It was finally the YMCA Table Tennis which had daily evening and morning sessions that really got our attention.

I used to show up for my sessions 1-2 hours earlier just to work on my skills, which often caught the attention of my coaches and helped get my first state championship medal in my first competition. Within a year, I made it into the state team and then there was no looking back.

My parents started investing in more professional training for me which included camps by international coaches like Jayanta Pushilal from Bengal, the former national coach of South Korea and Rajesh Ramanathan who’s one of the Indian junior team coaches.

How does the Table Tennis scene in Australia compare to back home in India?

 I moved to Australia and surprisingly found out that professional players in Australia play very few hours (2-3 days) compared to the ones in India where we used to train 6-8 hours every day and 6 days a week.

I was also shocked to hear that the players have to pay for each and everything from their state team uniforms to entry fees for representing their state. This explained the fewer participation numbers in the sport as the players have little motivating elements or attractions other than the honour of representing their state or country.

The prices for table hire and coaching is fairly high in Australia compared to India as here it is often regarded as a full-time job while in India it is driven by passion as most of the coaches have other full-time office jobs and they do Table Tennis coaching part-time and not mostly for profit.

Another major difference is that in India, they often offer athletes government jobs and scholarships which can help them settle down after their playing careers and acts as a major motivator among athletes. No such programs exist in Australia as of now, and players often quit when they reach high school or university.

Table Tennis is more of a social sport in Australia with huge participation numbers. From a competitive perspective, India has very high participation numbers showing up for competitions, so it definitely has the potential to grow even further if the state bodies can convert these social players into competitive players.

If you want to remain ordinary, you can carry on what you are doing now, but extraordinary people put in the extra hours, take those risks and do unique things and they are the ones more likely to be on the top.

Share the story behind the ICC Table Tennis Academy, what inspired you to start your own company? Are you the only founder, or are there other co-founders?

One month after landing in Australia I started searching for part-time work to fund my living expenses, I did some odd jobs. However, I was dissatisfied with this. I had played for 15 years, did all that hard work, and now I was wasting my skills working as a flyer distributor. 

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Luckily, I found an employer who was offering school coaching subcontracts, and I was offered the subcontract for Wesley College. That’s how my coaching journey started in 2018, I worked with that employer for almost a year and throughout that period I met amazing people involved with Australian Table Tennis. I got to learn more about how Table Tennis works in Australia.

Due to differences with my employer, I left the job and decided to start my own. I consulted 2 of my Table Tennis friends Parth Phansekhar who was a former Indian national player himself, and Bradley Paton who is a current Victorian state team representative they offered their support and motivated me to go ahead.

Coincidently, the owner of Balwyn United Table Tennis club, which is a club near to Deakin University where I used to play socially, came up to me and enquired whether I could coach at his venue. This was the turning point in my life and the beginning of ICC Table Tennis club in September 2019.

What are the challenges of running an organisation as a student in Australia?

The major challenge is to balance both education and the business together and dealing with pressures from both ends.

Running an organization offers a different set of challenges and pursuing your Masters’ education along with it just makes it more difficult, but the experience that I gained during my playing days helped me in learning to carry both education and training together. The Australian education system is very relaxed compared to the Indian education system which gave an added advantage.

Another major challenge is that I was missing out on the University social life. Most of my friends are from work as that’s where I spent most of my time and I have a very small group of university friends who are very supportive and understanding so they don’t feel bad about me missing parties and trips.

As I am doing my Masters in Sports Management, I see running my organisation as the practical application of what I learn from those classrooms and it has definitely given me some advantages.

Have you ever faced prejudice in the industry?

I have not and on the contrary, I have received a lot of support especially from the staff at my organisation Table Tennis Victoria who has provided me with a lot of opportunities.

The CEO Ritchie Hinton and the club and events manager of TTV, Claire Montgomery have often mentored me. Another honourable mention is Kameron Chan who was the former competition manager of Table Tennis Victoria and a true legend who made things easy for me and he is still available anytime if I need any help.

Mathew (right) shares Table Tennis tips with an athlete
Mathew (right) shares Table Tennis tips with an athlete. Source: supplied.

With so much emphasis on the sport here in Australia, why is Table Tennis not yet catching up?

When you consider the elite category of players, the key reasons are, they play fewer hours compared to other top countries and have a high cost for playing and fewer returns.

There are very few motivating elements and attractions. Australia has a very huge chunk of talent and they are often on par with the global standard till the juniors category and after that, the players often quit the sport when they reach high school or university in order to have a safe future. 

Most of the top players train overseas in Europe and Asia, but almost all of the Australian Team members train here and they play fewer international tournaments often limited to Oceania competitions.

The older generation was totally the opposite, players like William Henzel, Trevor Brown, Russell Lavalle, used to play the professional leagues in Europe and train in China and are often considered to have a higher standard in their time when compared to the present generation.

But when you consider the Social Table Tennis scene in Australia, it is huge and is increasing every year. 

How is the community response since the inception of the company?

It has been overwhelmingly positive, we are based in the South-Eastern Suburbs of Melbourne and it has a higher concentration of Asian families who consider Table Tennis as their preferred sport.

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So, most of our kids are from an Asian background and the word of mouth marketing which exists in these parents groups has helped the academy to grow a lot. We even have veterans players who are amazed by the development of the kids and offer support in the form of equipment and donations.

How many players are currently involved with the ICC Table Tennis Academy?

We primarily focus on Junior players and offer private sessions for selected senior players and in total have a total of 28 active players across different training programs among which 10 states team representatives who are ranked among the top the country and 2 are Australian Hopes team representatives

Is there a special group of players that you work with?

We have the ICC High-Performance Squad, which comprises of all the state team representatives which I personally look after and we add promising players from our Junior Development Squad to these groups to fast track their progress.

Mathew (second from right) poses with Table Tennis players
Mathew (second from right) poses with Table Tennis players. Source: Supplied

The sports industry is still skewed towards male dominance, tell us how is your organisation changing that?

Yes, it is true, especially the coaching field is male-dominated and from my observation, it’s mostly because most women don’t choose this field, but it’s definitely changing as more women are coming up.

Here, in my academy, we have a lot of female players training under us and all 4 of our coaches are male, so when I was in search for a Sports Psychologist for our academy to prepare the kids for the upcoming Junior National Championship, I had decided that I was only going to appoint a female as its easier for the players to connect and open up with a female mentor.

I wanted to change the dynamics of my organisation and I finally found the perfect person for the job, Sanika Divekar, who was a former national Table Tennis player and a member of the British Psychological Society.

In our brief call, you mentioned the type of technologies you are using to train students, including Robotics. Tell us more!

Two major technologies we use are Stupa Analytics which uses the player videos and match feed combined with analytics to find out strengths, weaknesses and form strategies.

The other one is the TTFIT app which is one of its kind and was developed by former international players from the United Kingdom, it has a wide range of exercises, drills, ask a coach options and journaling features that help the players a lot.

We use Robots from PowerPong for coaching beginner level players. There are new types of Robots coming up in the market which can be effective for elite training

A South Korean research project turned into a company by a person called Amir, who’s a former Iran national team Table Tennis player is called Fast Pong.

Fast Pong uses analytics to improve training results is something that I have been following closely recently and is something that I am keen on getting my hands on.

What comes next, what does ICC Table Tennis Academy have in store for us?

COVID 19 has affected our plans a lot but we are still hopeful. Our next goal is to conduct national-level training programs and scholarships to promising talents, my eventual dream is to have a high-performance International Table Tennis academy.

What would you advise to upcoming Table Tennis players or people who are seeking to make a difference in sport?

If you want to remain ordinary, you can carry on what you are doing now, but extraordinary people put in the extra hours, take those risks and do unique things and they are the ones more likely to be on the top.

So, you can decide for yourself, whether you want to remain ordinary or become extraordinary.

You can follow Rahul Mathew on LinkedIn
You can check out ICC Table Tennis Australia here
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