LNP – “You can’t take a break for education”-Lalith Priyantha

A table tennis legend speaks

Table tennis was one of worst affected sports due to the pandemic. One reason for this could be that most players are also engaged in some kind of coaching; hence there being a loss in income.

Table tennis legend and veteran’s player Lalith Priyantha was one such player. He said that he survived a difficult period.

We can’t sometimes fathom as to how Priyantha stays in shape and contests the veterans’ events. Times were hard during the past one year without coaching and Priyantha looks back and can send a sigh of relief.

He coaches two schools and Methodist College, one of those schools, was good enough to release his salary in full despite table tennis activities coming to a standstill in the country. Life for table tennis coaches looked bleak for almost a full year because health authorities banned all sports in the island.

Exactly after March last year the table tennis players got an opportunity last February to access their growing skills when they contested the All Island Ranking Table Tennis Tournament conducted by the Western Province Table Tennis Association for the year 2020. Afterwards they played in another All Island Ranking Table Tennis Tournament in Kegalle which was conducted by the Sabaragamuwa Province Table Tennis Association, also of these being events in the table tennis calendar for year 2020.

Priyantha is one person who sought media attention for the sport during the pandemic. He organised press conferences and said table tennis would be one of the safest disciplines to conduct because the players positioned themselves at a safe distance during matches. He is of the opinion that the Table Tennis Association of Sri Lanka (TTASL) must be innovative and shouldn’t wait till the government or the Ministry of Sports clears the path for them.

The sport over the years lacked the involvement of former national players as administrators. The reason for this is a rule brought by the Minister of Sports that individuals involved in coaching can’t hold office in national sports associations. That literarily ruined the chances of Priyantha serving the TTASL; which he once did in the capacity of president. But he states that he is willing to serve the TTASL in an advisory role if he along with past national players are drafted into a committee to help the sport. He states that much can be done to take the game to schools which have not had the table tennis experience.

One thing that is to his advantage is that he still plays competitive table tennis and contests all the veterans’ tournaments. “This helps me to be in touch with the players. I can also relate to them because I also coach schoolgirl table tennis players. A coach must be able to be the sparring partner of players and play his shots” said Priyantha who is still fit for a 55 year old veteran player. For the record he is the present singles champ and has won the doubles and mixed doubles events at the national veterans’ table tennis tournaments.

Priyantha is happy about the present facilities the players enjoy. Most tournaments are now played on carpet and the players play with the best rackets and shoes. But it was not so many years ago. Priyantha remembers wearing t-shirts which were not stretchable; which made playing shots all the more difficult. But the sun shone on him in 1987-1988 when Butterfly company (Japan) sponsored him offering him rubbers, rackets and t-shirts. That was a boon, but he had other advantages. He was squint-eyed so opponents struggled to read his movements. He finished off his opponents with his forehand play; hence his backhand rubber was rarely wasted.

If there is one word that describes this man it’s ‘versatile’. Of course during his playing days he was known by the press by a gamut of names: Piranha, Dark Horse, King of Ping Pong and King Kong of Ping Pong. But after retiring in 1993 after the national players’ tour to Germany he stepped on his coaching and also served the association as an administrator and Sri Lanka coach.

Describing his career in table tennis he compared it to following a map and not as a venture where he was achieving one goal after another. He enjoyed playing table tennis and one of the benefits or fringe benefits he received was winning medals. He won on most days he played, but there were also days where he lost. Winning a tournament and waiting anxiously overnight to read about it in the newspapers the next day destroyed his sleep.

He is a coach who creates bridges so that the younger generation of players can reach him. Apart from coaching the players at the two schools he is coaching Priyantha also undertakes private coaching. He would be mindful when talking with youngsters and avoid saying, at any cost, words like, “During my time things were different and we did things differently’. That would, according to Priyantha, burn the bridges that would connect the present generation with the past. “I never compare people in different eras because the present generation wouldn’t relate to that. I just appreciate and acknowledge their skills and effort” said Priyantha who during his youth was rated as the island’s number one player and also became the Sri Lankan male player with the highest world ranking.

He wants the present players to do well and bring glory to the country. According to Priyantha winning a medal outside South Asia is extremely difficult for Sri Lankans, but not unthinkable if the right contributions and exposure are provided for the players. In one rare instance of comparing eras Priyantha said that players during his time played in about 10 domestic tournaments while the present generation players are contesting as little as 3-4 domestic tournaments per year; hence lesser opportunities for the present players to grow and much easier to secure player rankings.

He is also concerned about education clashing with table tennis in a country like Sri Lanka. “Players in this country think very differently and take a break from the sport to pursue exams. This is an unhealthy practice and something of great concern. In other countries players manage both table tennis and education and this method of balancing sports and studies continues throughout their sports careers till they complete their degrees,” reminded Priyantha.

The veterans table tennis player wishes to work with the younger generation of players for many more years. He wants a player to come up from the present set of players and make Sri Lanka proud. He wishes them to be better players and at the same time be educated individuals. But he wishes them to see the thin dividing line that separates those who receive an education and end up as average performers and those who receive the same education and become extremely successful and to be in that second group he wishes his chargers to cultivate intelligence.

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