Table tennis can have a life-changing impact across social care settings in promoting accessible activity, social connection and friendships, according to new research.

The report from Table Tennis England and social care charity Community Integrated Care highlights how table tennis can be used in many innovative ways to enhance support, including being effectively used with talking therapies in mental health services, for people who access care and support services.

The findings of a two-year exploration of the sport were published in ‘Care To Play – Pioneering Table Tennis in Social Care’ which found that table tennis offers a uniquely inclusive platform for physical activity, with significant adaptability for people who have complex physical and learning disabilities.

Community Integrated Care has utilised table tennis in many services – from specialist dementia care services, to community projects for people who have learning disabilities – since 2018.

Table tennis during the pandemic

In June 2020, as Covid-19 brought lockdown to the UK, it innovatively identified that table tennis could maintain physical activity in care homes, as a socially distanced sport. The charity and Table Tennis England formed a strategic partnership to introduce the sport across its services and assess its impact.

This programme saw more than 200 of Community Integrated Care’s services receive table tennis starter packs, enabling thousands of people to remain active during the pandemic. This initial effort has since been furthered as the programme has evolved, with the charity creating table tennis hubs in 27 of its larger services, benefitting almost 1500 people, and creating a number of bespoke activity clubs.

With such an expansive programme, Community Integrated Care has explored the benefits of table tennis across a comprehensive range of client groups – including people with learning disabilities, autism, mental health concerns, dementia, acquired brain injuries, and other complex needs. These collectively represent a true cross-section of the social care sector in England, enabling first-of-its-kind insights into the application of the sport in social care.

The delivery of this programme was enabled by Community Integrated Care’s creation of www.CareToPlay.co.uk. This unique training guide to promoting table tennis in social care, which uses short and engaging videos, meant that its workforce was capable of effectively delivering the activity. This resource was made freely available to the public and care sector and has since been adopted by several other care and NHS organisations.

The charity’s specialist for Positive Behaviour Support, Vickie Martin, said: “During the pandemic, I spent extended time in one of our most complex autism services, where we have 12 people living together with complex needs. Nobody could go out and do their usual planned activities, and there were times when people were very upset and frustrated.

Table tennis gave them something positive to focus on in their day. It gave people time for themselves or with their support workers, and through the Care To Play training, our colleagues knew how to adapt the activity depending upon the needs of the individual.

“Table tennis can be very social, giving people a reason to come together, or it can be enclosed and more solitary if that’s what you need. Simply hitting the ball against a wall and using a repetitive action is very soothing for some.”

Research shows benefit for people with complex physical or learning disabilities

The report highlighted the impact of the sport as a social and adaptable game and how this is a recurring theme across all care settings from support for young adults who have learning disabilities, through to engagement with people in the later stages of life.

Colin Eley, Partnerships Manager at Table Tennis England, added: "We’re well-versed on the benefits Table Tennis can have on a person’s well-being. What we haven't necessarily been able to establish previously is the extent that the sport can benefit audiences who have complex physical or learning disabilities. Working with Community Integrated Care, we have not only been able to establish a wealth of insight and information to support our theories, but also positively impact the lives of people who typically may not have opportunities to engage with the sport.

"This is just the beginning of what we hope will be an embedded culture of the sport within Community Integrated Care and the social care sector as a whole. Special thanks to the charity's teams who shared our vision to take Ping Pong to the people!”