Matt Hetherington Interview

By Rahul Acharya | March 15, 2015, 12 a.m. (ET)

What do Matthew Hetherington, a 24-year-old from New Zealand, and I have in common? Well, at least two things - both of us love table tennis and both of us blog about table tennis. I know Matt from the Lily Yip Table Tennis Center, NJ, where he currently coaches.

Anyways, Matt recently made headlines with his video showing off some serious ping pong skills using a Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and then, with just its battery. I spoke to him about table tennis and some other stuff. Enjoy!

Quick facts about Matthew Hetherington:
Highest rating 2262
ITTF Level 2 Certified Coach
2013 National Hopes Coach - New Zealand
Blog Editor - www.mhtabletennis.com

Matthew Hetherington (Auckland, New Zealand)

1. First off, how does it feel to be the interviewee rather than the interviewer?

It's definitely different to be on the other end of the questions and it's not a position I am often in, so I guess I will make the most of it. 

2. Okay, let's get to business. How did you, a New Zealander, end up playing table tennis when it is all about rugby and cricket? 
Yeah, rugby is very popular in New Zealand and also netball. There was a small table tennis club, not far down the road from my house growing up, which had a family club night. My sister ended up staying with her friends one weekend and their family went and then the next weekend my family went with them. That was kind of my transition into that table tennis club and I started learning how to play. I was probably about 8 years old at the time, so it was quite a while ago now. So it started from one family night and branched into junior nights and coaching sessions and eventually my family stepped away from it and I kept on going.

3. Please share with us when and why you came to the U.S.?
I came to the USA in August 2013 to the Lily Yip Table Tennis Center. They were hosting the World Hopes Team Training Camp and I had just been in Austria at the Schlager Academy for the Hopes Trial. I was fortunate enough to have coached a young player from New Zealand who had made the team, so I ended up accompanying him here as his coach. I really like the environment in the Center and it has a real family vibe to it. I love the people and I'm well looked after here and so I returned already on a few occasions for extended training trips and of course, I like to help out the kids while I'm here too.

4. What equipment do you use?
Blade: Donic Waldner Senso Carbon
Forehand rubber: Butterfly Tenergy05
Backhand rubber: Butterfly Tenergy05

5. How often do you play and train?
This is really dependent on my health. Two years ago I was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease so I get sick from time to time and it has a big impact on my energy levels and the ability to focus on playing a sport. Obviously, when I'm in good health, I like to train as often as possible, every day if I can, for at least 2-3 hours. Being out of the sport for patches means I have to work even harder when I come back to the table which has been a challenge I have always tried to rise to. As an example, I was training with Lily Yip every day prior to the LYTTC February Open and was able to play well and win the Under 2400 event. Unfortunately, after that I became ill again and haven't really been able to train much since so, it has almost been a month since I have been able to really dedicate to regular and high quality practice.

6. When did you start coaching? Tell us about your coaching career.
I started coaching when I was around 15 years old. The level in my home club had diminished quite a lot and so I started teaching beginning players and other kids younger than me. I started taking more interest in coaching during University and completed my ITTF Level 1 Coaching Certificate. I left University and became a regional development officer and coach in New Zealand for 6 months and then in 2013 I was fortunate enough to travel as the NZ Coach in the Hopes Program.

Last year I had the opportunity to coach LYTTC USA at the Canadian Cadet and Junior Open where Allen Wang, Teddy Tran, and Timothy Chen made the final. That was a great experience and I really enjoyed being able to contribute something to the U.S. teams and players.

I'm currently in the process of looking at basing myself at LYTTC medium to long term, so there may be a longer potential coaching career in the USA ahead of me. I'm really hoping so!

7. What do you enjoy more - coaching or playing? Why?
Both have their benefits. You can learn a lot about yourself and about the sport by coaching and teaching others. It helps reinforce your knowledge and some of your skills. In saying that, my passion has always been in playing and I usually find it much harder to focus on coaching if I'm not actively playing. I would find it difficult to see myself coaching so much that I wasn't able to play for myself. So at the current phase of my career, I still prefer playing to coaching and I still have a lot of goals as a player which I need to try and somewhat prioritize.

8. What are your goals with regards to table tennis?
My main goal is to play a World Championships. I represented New Zealand on a couple of occasions at continental events, the Oceania Championships and the Australian Open, but I'm definitely interested in trying to prepare to play some World Tour events just for the experience and travel and of course to see how well I can compete. So although I'm a long way from home, I am still trying to qualify for a place in the New Zealand Men's Team. That's my main goal at the moment.

9. I believe you have travelled to many places for table tennis. What was the most memorable trip and why?
Austria was definitely the most memorable for me. The Werner Schlager Academy was a real eye-opener for me. It's a superb training center with a lot of highly knowledgeable coaching staff. I learned a lot during my short stay there and of course Vienna is a beautiful city and the weather was nice. I still have a lot of other places I would like to visit and train in, so China is next on my cards.

10. Who is your favorite international table tennis player? Why?
Without a doubt, it's Werner Schlager. I remember as a child watching videos of him winning the World Championships in 2003 in Paris. I was ecstatic when I had the opportunity to interview him early in 2013 and then, I had the chance to meet him in Austria at the World Hopes Trial. He is an incredibly humble and welcoming athlete and he shared a lot of knowledge with me and was a generally nice guy so I have a lot of respect for him and his achievements and investments back into table tennis. 

11. What do you like to do when you are not playing or coaching table tennis?
I watch a lot of movies and eat a lot of sushi. I like to go out and eat. I'm a really big food enthusiast and actually like to cook myself when I get the chance. I think last time I spent time in the U.S., I must have gone out to 13 or 14 movies and sushi is kind of a weekend tradition for us. Of course I like to do a lot of things online with table tennis and spend time maintaining my blog and also sometimes making videos, though not so much anymore. Really table tennis has become a significant part of my life so the amount of time I'm apart from it is usually spent with other table tennis players. I always agree with the statement that friends in table tennis are friends for life!


12. If you didn't play table tennis, what might you be doing?
That is an incredibly difficult question and one of the reasons I prefer to be the one asking the questions. I find it difficult to imagine that scenario. I was a very promising economics student at University, so I imagine if I had wanted to, I could have pursued a career in the financial industry and maybe focused on getting rich. I don't think I would have enjoyed it very much though. My slogan is, if I wouldn't enjoy doing it for free, then it's not worth too much of my time. 

13. Your recent video showing you playing with a Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and then just with its battery has made headlines. What prompted you to make the video and did you expect that it would get the attention that it did? 
(For those who missed the video, check it out here.)
I felt like making a video. That was basically it. I just thought that my activities online were getting a little stale as they often do in cycles. It's hard to maintain the same level of commitment to a blog over a long period of time so I tend to become more and less involved with it in waves. I thought it would be fun to do something a little different. I knew it would be fun to film either way. I knew there was some potential for it to be shared around a little bit, but I didn't think it would get picked up much by the mainstream media, so it was a nice surprise.


14.  In your opinion, what role can social media play in making table tennis more popular? 
Social media is really shaping the world a lot in this generation so I think it's role is pivotal in promoting table tennis. We are starting to see more viral videos and people are generally appreciating some of the more "out there" table tennis shots and rallies. I think it is really the avenue by which we need to try and connect to people who aren't currently considered "fans" of the sport. The opportunities online for anything these days are really endless.

15. What are your thoughts on the plastic ball - right direction or mistake?
If anything the timing was a mistake. The balls we are currently playing with are not of a high enough standard for prolonged training or high intensity matches. Obviously I prefer the celluloid balls, but if things have to change, then we don't really have a choice. I just believe that we are paying a higher price for a lower quality product and that isn't fair on the players. ITTF really has a duty of care to present something which is suitable for international competition before they approve balls for international competition. At the end of the day, the manufacturers weren't prepared for the introduction of the ball, but it was rushed through.

16. If you could choose to possess any magical power for a day what would that be?
I would want a genie to grant me three wishes. That way, my one day of "magical power" would last a lifetime for 3 things. I would definitely wish for perfect health as one of them. That would be a great start.

17. Anything else that you would like to add?
I think table tennis is a sport which is often overlooked as a sport for the future. Kids get to a reasonable level and then stop playing or lose their commitment and focus on school and what they consider "real careers". Right now it is possible to make a career out of table tennis, but you have to work incredibly hard and sacrifice a lot. To really improve the sport, we need to make table tennis a more viable professional sport, whether it be through competing, coaching, national and international leagues, etc. It's a great sport! I hope it will reach its full potential one day!

Matt, thanks for your time. Amongst many other things, I wish you the best of health. I also do hope that you are able to establish yourself in the U.S. long term and add value to the U.S. table tennis scene.