Coach Sheth aims to draw youth to table tennis

June 17, 2009, 1:39 p.m. (ET)

For the next week, we will be featuring an honorable coach from a different sport each day. Today, read about how table tennis transformed coach Rajul Sheth's life.

Rajul Sheth got to see lots of interesting people while working at a filling station in the Bay Area of California.

But only one of them changed his life.

 It happened when Michael Green stopped at the gas station for a routine fill-up back in 2003.

Green, a table tennis player since 1960 who had even traveled with the U.S. delegation prior to the 1971 "Ping Pong Diplomacy" trip to China, happened to be wearing one of his table tennis T-shirts that night.

Little did he know that this gas-station stop and his T-shirt selection that morning would turn into the birth of a coaching career for the man behind the counter.

When Sheth saw the shirt, he ran outside to ask Green where he could play table tennis in the area.

"I didn't think he was really serious at the time," Green says, now laughing at his mistake. "He was a nice guy but, like I said, he doesn't really look like a player."

Sheth, who had trouble finding work in his trained occupation as a mechanical engineer, was splitting about 80 hours per week between working at the gas station and at a local sporting goods store. After seeing Green a couple of more times at the gas station, Sheth persuaded Green to take him to a table tennis club. It wasn't long before Sheth was making his new friend look silly.

"I took him to the club and played a couple matches but I couldn't beat him, and I didn't know why," Green said. "I didn't know he was such a great player."

Oh yeah. That's because Sheth omitted one key element from his biography: He never mentioned to Green that he was a former national-level table tennis player and coach in his native India. Details, details.

Green never could have known it at the time, but by taking him to those table tennis clubs and helping him sign up for tournaments, he was reigniting a fire under Sheth that eventually could result in the first U.S. Olympic medal in table tennis.

So it should come as no surprise to find out that the U.S. Olympic Committee recently named Sheth the 2008 Developmental Coach of the Year. He was among five Olympic coaches who were honored this past week at the 2009 National Coaching Educators' Conference in Pittsburgh.

"I have won a lot of tournaments and medals," Sheth said. "But as a coach this is my first one, so this is my most happy moment as a coach."

Sheth's playing days are definitely over. He happily retired from playing in 1996. But six years after meeting Green at that gas station, Sheth has gone on to create the largest full-time table tennis facility in North America.

And that's just the beginning.  

The India Community Center Table Tennis Club in Milpitas, Calif., has grown exponentially since Sheth created it in 2005, adding more tables, more space, more players and a highly successful summer camp program. Last year, two of Sheth's athletes, ages 12 and 13, became the youngest players to ever play for Team USA at the world championships.

In hindsight, Sheth appears to have been made for coaching table tennis. After playing for more than 15 years on the Indian pro circuit, he coached a top Indian team from 1993 until 2000, working mainly with the younger kids. But when he and his wife moved to the United States in 2002, Sheth wanted to find a more secure job so he could support his wife while she was in school.

"When I started, it was a hard decision because you come here with a family and you don't know your future," Sheth said. "This was a completely new sport for anyone in this country so you don't find any full-time coaches in this country."

Unfortunately, he couldn't find any mechanical engineering jobs either, so he took jobs at the gas station and sporting goods store. After meeting Green, however, things began to change. Once people began to see Sheth play, he began developing a reputation.

That reputation started getting Sheth some private coaching gigs, and pretty soon, he was able to quit his job at the gas station. Then in 2005, he started the ICC Table Tennis Club.

The club had a modest beginning, with about six to eight kids and four tables, but it really took off in 2006 when Sheth took his kids to the Junior Olympics and they won 13 gold medals.

"That was my first exposure for all of my kids," Sheth said.

Shortly afterward, Sheth quit his job at the sporting goods store and became a full-time coach. He also started his weekly summer camps in 2006. Sheth's style and skills continued to be noticed, and in 2007 the club moved into a bigger location, this time with 12 tables. The progression continued to the current location, which is about 10,000 square feet and has 20 tables. It is filled to capacity, Sheth said.

The summer camps have become a staple for the club today. What began with about 20 kids in 2006 has increased to a projected 300 this summer. And through his connections, Sheth is able to bring top players and national teams in from around the world to help work with the children (and some adults) in the classes.

"We started a good activity in the summertime where earlier, all of the kids, if they wanted to play in the summer they had to play in China because there was not enough competition in this country," Sheth said. "But now those players do not have to go to China. We get all the top coaches from China and India here, we get the top players here."

As the club continues to grow, so do Sheth's dreams. He is in talks to move into an even bigger facility within the next year, more than doubling the space and doubling the amount of tables in the current facility.

He also dreams to take Ariel Hsing and Lily Zhang, the young girls whom he guided to the 2009 World Championships, to the 2012 London Olympics and to coach them to medals at the 2016 Olympics.

"So far, when you see the U.S. team you see the women's team is all 30-plus," Sheth said. "I will change that and help the younger players get into it. I am quite confident on Ariel and Lily making it to the 2012 Olympics; both will be 14-15 at the time."

After his improbable rise to the national developmental coach of the year in just four years, few doubt Sheth's abilities now. Especially Green.

A lifelong table tennis player, Green had been stuck at an 1850 rating for more than 30 years. In 2005, he began taking private lessons with Sheth, hoping to reach a rating of 2000. Pretty soon, the 60-plus man with arthritis had a rating of 2072 and reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Over-60 division.

"So my goal was to reach 2000, and I exceeded it, and this was due to the private lessons, the coaching from Rajul personally," Green said.

Green now works as one of the assistant coaches at the ICC Table Tennis Club and can see first-hand why Sheth is so successful. Sheth set his club up to be professional, making it slightly more expensive but giving it more accountability than the part-time clubs that rely on volunteers.

He also has a true passion for the kids, making sure that they are having fun before trying to teach them technique. And the student-teacher ratio at his club is never higher than three to one.

"I think truly it's his interest in the kids, because Rajul is so personable,'' Green said. "No matter how young you are, how good or bad you are, he is truly interested and he will work with you at whatever level you are. He himself is a very patient person. I think his patience and true interest in developing your skills and having fun in the sport that he loves so much, and that is one of the first things that he wants you to know.

"Even if you are 6-year-old and can't hit a ball, you can come to the camp and have fun and enjoy yourself-and know how to hit a ball at the end of the week."

Sheth says that focus on letting the kids have fun is what really sets his program apart from the others in the Bay Area.

"If anyone comes to us, like new kids, our first thing is to make sure kids are having fun," Sheth said. "On the first day or second day if you try to give them too much technique, that kid is not going to stick it out. A first time player needs to enjoy the game. ... That's how I think my program grew, because I think my first thing was to make sure they are into the game first, and then you start teaching them technique."

The future looks bright for Sheth and his club. He recently led a fundraiser that generated $47,000 to the club, and demand for expansion continues to grow. With Sheth's generosity and passion toward his students, the ICC Table Tennis Club is only just beginning.

"The motivation at the end of the day was to get a USA table tennis medal at the Olympics," Sheth said. "To make it happen I need to grow my program, right now 100, I need it to grow to 600, 700, 800 kids. If you grow it to that level, you have more chances to produce a world-class player."

Or, perhaps, just stop at your nearby gas station.

 

Additional words from the sidelines:

1. What made you want to get into coaching?

"The motivation at the end of the day was to get a USA table tennis medal at the Olympics."

"I just love table tennis. I played table tennis for more than 24 years, I just couldn't stop myself. And I saw that there was potential."

2. What has been your most fulfilling moment as a coach?

"This award is probably the happiest moment for me. This is my first ever in life, and the first one is the biggest one, so I am really happy about it because I have won a lot of tournaments and medals.  But as a coach this is my first one, so this is my most happy moment as a coach."

3. What do you enjoy most about being a coach?

"Frankly speaking, I enjoy training with small kids. I just love the small kids, and I don't know [why] but I just love training with the small kids and training with the kids myself. I grab a paddle in my hand and just start training on the table. And just watching their progress. We keep everything recorded. So when a kid is training with me I have a folder with exactly what he is doing. So basically, I enjoy personally playing, taking a paddle in the hand and playing with them, instead of just walking and the group thing. I love to play with them actually."

4. Do you have a motto or theme to live/coach by?

"Start young, train hard."

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Chrös McDougall is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.

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