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Too old? Never! Top tips on coaching older people from the inimitable Olav Stahl

Avg: 4.56 / 5 (2votes)

Never too old image

Article from Coaching Edge Spring 2016: Still Got It 

(2019 Update: Coaching Edge magazine has now been replaced by a new digital subscription service from UK Coaching)

Olav Stahl has coached table tennis to hundreds of older people. As I discovered for Coaching Edge, his methods are often unorthodox, but no-one leaves his sessions without feeling uplifted, inspired and empowered.

It was in Fuerteventura that Olav Stahl had what he calls his ‘epiphany’ in how to coach older people. He was working as an entertainer at a five-star hotel on the Spanish island in 2004, organising sports activities during the day and cavorting on stage at night.

One day a man in his 60s walked by as Stahl was hosting a table tennis session. He tried to rope him into playing, but the man, seeming very dispirited, insisted he was no longer physically able to play sport since suffering a stroke.

But Stahl, whose gregarious personality and persuasive methods have reeled in many a reluctant punter, managed to get this man to at least pick up a bat. Stahl then used his own coaching technique, adapted from tennis, which he calls,‘One, Two, Hit’.

By both coach and player chanting this mantra as they rally (‘One’ as the coach hits the ball, ‘Two’ as it passes the net and ‘Hit!’ as the player hits it), Stahl finds players feel like they have more time to react and return the ball well.

‘Within minutes, we were having long rallies. We were literally screaming at each other, “One, two, HIT!’ remembers Stahl. ‘We were both surprised, excited and actually quite moved. We hugged each other and had tears in our eyes. This guy had a medically certified incapacity but I was playing some really nasty balls and he was getting them all back!

‘It taught me I’m actually pretty good at empowering seniors to go beyond their perceived limitations. This guy suddenly realised he had a new, different future. Half of his being slow and incapable wasn’t his stroke, but the frustration and mental drama he’d created around it.’

Since that day, Stahl who’s German but has lived in London for eight years, has worked with hundreds of retirement-age players. Inspired by Harvard professor Michael C Jensen’s studies on leadership, Stahl bases his entire table tennis coaching methodology on inspiration and empowerment.

‘Coaches often think too much about how and what to teach,’ Stahl states. ‘The content is something that comes automatically when you’re really listening to and empathising with someone. For me, it’s about finding out about them and then selecting the right tools to help them.

‘I have learned to empower older people by coaching in a playful, loud, humoristic but straight-talking way. I care about people; I think that’s the key.’

Stahl recently worked with the BAT Foundation on an experiment in using table tennis as a vehicle to help combat Alzheimer’s and dementia. The BBC filmed it for a documentary (provisionally entitled How To Stay Young) to be broadcast later this year.

Stahl’s coaching team worked with 11 pensioners for 10 weeks at Bounce, a table tennis-themed restaurant and nightclub in London. Scientists from King’s College London assessed the impact on the participants’ brains, comparing them to a ‘control’ group who just walked on a treadmill.

One 70-year-old man who took part barely moved for the first three weeks. His reactions were so slow he seemed almost paralysed. He continually missed the ball.

‘Eventually I took him aside and asked, “What’s going on?” He confessed he had a lot of problems in his life, had fallen out with his family, had lifelong depression and was frightened of making mistakes in front of other people,’ reflects Stahl.

‘I thanked him for confiding in me but told him it’s fear in life that keeps you frozen and inactive. I said, “Get on that table and stand up for yourself. Be a tiger!” I got in his face and was quite loud.

‘I told him to forget about landing it on the table, just to take all his anger and frustration out on the ball. He hit it with all his might. It was the first time in three weeks I saw him do anything faster than a snail. We did this for five minutes. I was screaming passionately, “Keep going!”’

Women playing table tennis image

Stahl had essentially turned table tennis into a transference exercise. After that, the man became one of the top three players in the group. ‘At the end, he said “thank you”, shook my hand and said it had changed his life,’ he says.

Another ‘light bulb’ moment came in an unlikely setting; a community club in a down-at-heel neighbourhood in south London.

‘I walked in and noticed a man and woman at the table, both pretty out of shape, in their 70s or 80s and with no technique,’ he remembers.

‘I gave these two an intense workout and – this is important – I corrected their technique. A lot of table tennis coaches, and those in other sports, think you shouldn’t try to change old people’s techniques. But with the right conversational skills to inspire and empower them, it’s easy.

‘I showed them the shakehand grip, told them it would feel weird at first but that it gives more control and power. I just encouraged them to give it a go for 10 minutes. We even started doing top-spin forehands. If you make it fun to learn, it makes them willing to learn it!

‘Afterwards, the woman grabbed my hand and said, “Thank you! Thank you so much!” At that moment, I really understood that I’d given her something she doesn’t very often get; a normal interaction.

‘Kids get showered in love, excitement and attention when they do well. That’s what I’d given this woman. I didn’t walk on eggshells or patronise her, I just treated her like a normal human being. She may be older and a bit slower, but I gave her a proper challenge, and she loved it.

I could tell both those people, living on that rundown estate or in care homes, didn’t get that respect in their daily lives.’

Stahl’s methods exemplify the cliché that age is just a number. Although many of his participants are in their twilight years, he is able to gently inspire and empower them to achieve things they no longer thought possible.

Olav with Shayne Ward and Mikey North

Coach To The Stars!

Olav Stahl’s extrovert personality tends to attract attention, so much so that when celebrities want table tennis lessons, he’s the man they call!

Last year he coached X-Factor winner Shayne Ward and fellow Coronation Street actor Mikey North (above) for a scene in the long-running soap opera. He also organises tournaments between stars of Emmerdale and Hollyoaks at the Manchester Pride festival.

He was once smuggled into the mansion of a billionaire named on the Forbes rich list to give him table tennis lessons as a surprise birthday present.

Even his expertise with older folk has a dash of stardust – one of his regular clients is celebrity shoe designer Stuart Weitzman, 75, who famously made the $1m pair of shoes that are worn by a different female nominee every year at the Oscars.

An accomplished player, Weitzman will fly to London in May to be trained by Stahl for two weeks ahead of the World Senior Table Tennis Championships in Alicante.

Stahl will join him there, and to prove he can ‘walk the walk, as well as talk the talk’ the 44 year old is set to compete in the over-40s competition.


Olav Stahl’s top tips for coaching seniors

  • Taking a genuine interest empowers and motivates them.
  • Don’t patronise by being scared of giving them a taxing workout.
  • Create a rapport and make it fun.
  • Don’t be afraid of correcting their technique. It’s never late to learn something new!

For more information on how you can receive Coaching Edge visit the UK Coaching website.

(2019 Update: Coaching Edge magazine has now been replaced by a new digital subscription service from UK Coaching)

What did you think of this article? Do you have any tips for coaching seniors? Leave a comment below

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Comments (1)

Great article :) I hope to be coaching an adult beginners' taster session soon and this gives me some good pointers as to how to approach it.
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