49-Day Countdown to Change in the ITTF's Presidency

By Sheri Cioroslan | July 14, 2014, 5 p.m. (ET)

Day 49, July 14 - Polona Cehovin Susin Combines Hard Work with Passion

“I realized that I actually belong to table tennis.” 

Polona Cehovin SusinPolona Cehovin Susin approaches her work with passion.  In today’s Countdown series, the leader of the ITTF’s Education and Training Program recounts her life in table tennis so far. 

Let’s start with your playing background.  How did you get started and where did that lead you?

I started playing at the age of six in my birth town, Koper, Slovenia. My neighbor, who was an amateur coach invited us, the kids who spent all the days playing outdoors, to the club. Actually he used chewing gum to attract us. So, I can credit chewing gum for changing my life. 

We were a good team, very good friends, too.  But, at the same time, we were very competitive, which surely contributed to our quite fast improvement.  Therefore good results started coming up pretty quickly.  In 1989 two of us managed to qualify for the at-the-time Yugoslavian cadet national team. 

At the age of 15, after receiving an offer from the strongest club in Slovenia that was also one of the best in ex-Yugoslavia, I moved to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. The club was practically the center of the Federal Republic of Slovenia and later on, also in the country, when in 1991 Slovenia became independent. 

During my cadet and junior years, I won 5 medals at the European Youth Championships.  At that time I was thinking, actually dreaming, of having a great playing career.  But, unfortunately, after Slovenia gained its independence, the situation in the country deteriorated for some sports. We are a nation of 2 million people.  That impacted the financial situation of the not-so-much commercial sports a great deal: competitions were not as strong as in the former Yugoslavia and also practice was weaker.  For some time we compensated with trainings camps abroad, but when I realized that I was not able to keep the pace with my generation in Europe, I decided to stop playing for the national team.  I am not a person who particularly likes losing, especially to opponents that I used to beat earlier.  

I continued playing at the club level in the Slovenian league and devoted myself to my studies of economics at the University of Ljubljana. At the same time I started coaching in my club since I wanted to pass along my knowledge and experience to the younger generations, hoping to make a difference for them. 

At some point, you became associated with the Slovenia NOC.  What was your function there?

My very first job was actually at the Slovenian Table Tennis Association, where I started as head coach of the cadet and junior girls’ national teams.  Later, after having my daughter, I tried to travel less, at least for some time, and was offered the position of Secretary General, which I kept until moving to the National Olympic Committee. There I worked in marketing, first as a project manager and later as director of the NOC’s subsidiary, which was established to run marketing activities for the NOC. 

Examples of what I did were management of sponsorships of the Slovenian Olympic Team, work for the Olympic Games Teams including the Slovenian Hospitality House during the Olympic Games, marketing of the “Sport for All” programs, etc., and also for other clients from the world of sports, mainly National Sport Associations and Organizing Committees of international events.

The job looked like a perfect combination of business and sports to me, but after some time I started missing TT too much. As you can imagine at the NOC they are not really happy if staff is directly involved in a specific sport.  So when I was offered to join the European TTU as Development Manager, I accepted without hesitation. 

What were your responsibilities there?  Can you describe that journey?

After the very interesting experience within the Olympic Movement -- I have to admit that as a former athlete, I do think there is a special romanticism in the 5 Olympic Rings -- that I have to say I don’t regret at all as I learned a lot and it also enabled me to obtain another completely new and different point of view of sports, I realized that I actually belong to table tennis.

Since I started at such an early age, I practically don’t remember life without it and after having been involved at the National Association level and later with the NOC, working for a Continental Union somehow made sense to me.

Quite a number of articles in your great Countdown series have touched on the area of Development.  I think that practically everyone who is involved internationally has an idea of what Continental Development Managers (CDMs) do.  But believe me, if taken seriously, it’s a very demanding and responsible job.

I really believe that with a proper team of experts that CDMs need around them -- and of course by working closely with competitions and other programs and with the international body -- big things can be achieved.

It is not really about “producing” players or coaches that I have in mind, this is the role of clubs, centers and associations, but about educating, guiding and above all creating opportunities. Some will be taken, some won’t.  That’s life.  But if opportunities are taken, and they eventually produce results that leave a long-term legacy, it’s surely very motivating for the others to follow, and at the same time very rewarding for the CDMs themselves. 

When you started your ITTF Course Conductor role, where were those courses and what motivated you to go further?

I see you have good sources of information. 

It’s actually a funny story how I started conducting courses. One day in 2003, Lilamani de Soysa, who was managing the Women’s Development Program at the ITTF, called me and asked me to conduct a women’s course in Iran. 

It was during the time when I was working as Secretary General at the Slovenian Association. Since I the missed the action in the playing halls, I accepted. Well, it was also because I like to travel, discover new places and cultures and make friends from different parts of the world. Yes, we could say I’m an adventurous type of person.  

It was only after accepting that I realized I actually had no clue what an ITTF coaching course is about. At that time the ITTF Coaching Accreditation wasn’t yet in place. So, I improvised and adjusted to the situation.  Years later I found out that I wasn’t the first choice to conduct the course.  But since it was a women’s course, they were looking for a female expert; the previously contacted person apparently refused when hearing about the location of the course. What a mistake! 

Teheran, where the course was held, is a wonderful city.  Iranians are very hospitable and kind people -- completely different from what we so often hear in the media in the West.  It was a great course, and it was followed by a training camp.  I actually got so inspired that I looked very much forward to the next opportunity, which came pretty quickly. 

The second course I conducted was in Syria, which was a great experience, too. It somehow looked like I might be specializing in Islamic countries.  I thought it would be good to know more about the history of this part of the world, including their religion, so I started reading the Quran. I guess people thought I was going to convert, but actually I found it essential to be familiar with the local environment in all possible aspects in order to be effective with my work, especially in the area of development.      

I have heard that you are so passionate about what you do that you often lead courses or camps in a voluntary capacity during your holidays, especially in Africa.  Can you address that?

Thank you, but unfortunately it is not happening as often as I would like it to. Well, it is true that over the years I have developed a special passion for Africa, at work and also privately. Many of our family holidays in the last years have been spent in Africa.  The first few times were in the North.  Later we moved to the “real” heart of Africa.

In my opinion, either you like Africa and enjoy its uniqueness and find a way to cope with what is different and often unusual, or you don’t like it at all, and by generalizing, see it as “just an underdeveloped continent,” which is very unfair.

Its nature and landscape are very enthralling.  There are many breathtaking places. The wildlife is absolutely fabulous. I hope they will be able to preserve it. But what makes all the difference is the people. It might not always be easy to get close to them, partly maybe also because of their historical experience with Whites, but once you do, and they accept you, you can rediscover the many values of friendship and bonds among people that in the stressful world of today have been disappearing in the West.

On the other hand, when having TT in mind, I also see enormous potential in Africa.  In spite of the very rough and poor conditions most of our sisters and brothers work in, I think they don’t need much to make a significant step forward. I can give just a simple example about physical predispositions: almost every child in Africa I’ve worked with could be evaluated above average when doing physical abilities testing, while in Europe we almost have to teach children to run or jump rope when they enter school. 

Speaking of children, your daughter was actively engaged in volunteering at the recent World Hopes Week.  She was assisting with organizing Hopes, posting results, and conducting interviews. What are the shared experiences and values that the two of you enjoyed from that endeavor?

Ana, my daughter who is 12 now, really enjoyed the World Hopes Week during the few days she spent there. It was actually an ideal event to “introduce” her to what I do. Since the participants were exactly her age, she almost felt like one of them.

She assisted with many things. And, considering it was her first time, I think she did a good job, thanks also to her pretty good language skills and open personality.  As a mother, I try to instill in her all the values that sport taught me and that I find very positive, like teamwork, comradeship, fair-play, and hard work combined with passion.  The reward is having great experiences that make us grow and enrich our lives.  New friendships are born, you travel and get to know other places and cultures and finally, if you are active competitively, you can even become a champion. 

At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if you become the champion on your street, in your country or something bigger.  What does matter is that you learn to work hard to achieve your goals and to fight the obstacles along the way, which is pretty much the same way to succeed in life.

Thank you very much, Polona.  You’ve shared a lot of interesting life experiences that illustrate encouraging lessons on resilience, perseverance and personal drive.  This seems like a natural point to conclude today.  Tomorrow let’s focus on your vision and primary objectives in the ITTF’s Education and Training Program.