Len Winkler has been in the table tennis business since opening a club in a Phoenix strip mall in 1997.
In the intervening years, he has coached about 1,500 players, including many of the athletes at the Big Island Open — Winkler moved to Hawaii six years ago.
For someone interested in competing at the tournament level, the ITTF and USATT-certified coach said it’s never too early to start training.
“The younger the better,” he said, and he means it.
When Winkler began teaching his son — now a champion table tennis player — to play the game, the younger Winkler stood on a stool to see over the table.
“Everything is muscle memory,” Winkler said.
A table tennis ball can fly at speeds approaching 90 mph, spinning as fast as 4,000 rotations per second. In the time it takes a major league fastball to reach home plate, Winkler said, the table tennis ball has been hit six times — once every quarter of a second. The player needs training to be in position to return the ball before the ball is there to be returned.
“The table is only 5 feet wide, but you have to move,” he added. “If it’s not ingrained properly, you won’t get there.”
In addition to personalized instruction, players improve by playing better competition.
Hawaii Island, Winkler said, is the hot-bed of table tennis in the state, with four clubs meeting weekly. The Kona table tennis club meets at Yano Hall in Captain Cook on Thursdays. Another group meets at the Waimea Community Center on Wednesdays, and the Hisaoka Gymnasium at Kamehameha Park in Kapaau is the location for Tuesday and Thursday matches.
A club meeting at the Boys and Girls Club in Hilo plays for about three hours on Tuesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. It is the only Big Island club to charge for play — about $100 per year, with single-day admission available. Players of all skill levels and abilities are welcome.
Tables at the Big Island Open cost upwards of $2,000 apiece. Winkler sells this high-end equipment for the serious athlete, but he recommends the novice player shop Sports Authority, Sears or other mass market retailer. He said a decent table can be purchased for about $250 on sale.
Official paddles are constructed with a wood blade and red and black rubber faces. The size of the paddle is up to the player, as is the material used to make the handle, be it carbon fiber, aluminum, wood or something more experimental. Loaners are usually available at the weekly club meets.
Table tennis balls are readily available, and they are perfectly acceptable for practice and learning the sport. Three-star ITTF-certified balls, which sell for about $3 apiece, are the only ones accepted for tournament play.
For information about private lessons or purchasing table tennis equipment, visit Winkler’s website, tabletennisandmore.com.