Liha Table Tennis Throwback: A Fresh Alternative to Fitness

By Michael L. Babuin, Ph.D., Chairman of the Board, USA Table Tennis

 

The ancient style of the sport of table tennis has successfully been kept alive by a country that has never really been known for playing it, but is now in the perfect position to make the preservation even more worthwhile through its re-entry into the active and healthy Filipino pastime.

In today’s world, over 200 million people play table tennis in some manner. It circumvents age, physical ability (or disability), gender, height, and weight. Of all sports, the sport of table tennis provides one of the most aerobic, cardio-friendly exercise regimens available.

Regardless whether a player is just starting out, is already an expert, or is used to playing a different sport, the excitement that longer competitive rallies in games bring is always satisfying and continuously experiencing it even in just recreational matches is no different.

More than the conventional table tennis, however, a special form of table tennis that has historic and cultural significance between the Philippines and the United States resurfaces – a version that uses lengthier exchanges to develop one’s skills, technique, and stamina better, while promoting a fun atmosphere in the process.

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The Origins

Back in its infancy, table tennis started out in the United Kingdom in the late 1800s and quickly migrated to the USA by 1898. Equipment of the time consisted of ‘battledores’ long-handled, hand-made bats (or rackets/paddles, as we call them) with a racket head-covered in animal skin. These were used up until around 1905, but earlier than that (perhaps by 1902), battledores were slowly being replaced by smaller handheld rackets covered with sandpaper surfaces. ‘Sandbats,’ as they are called, were used up through approximately 1928 in international competitions – only to be replaced by rackets covered with hard, pimpled rubber (short pips facing outward).

In the Philippines, table tennis was introduced around 1900 by American soldiers, who were part of the first American colonization period in the Philippines. They brought with them early table tennis boxed sets and in their past time between duties, they introduced table tennis to the local natives. It was called ‘ping-pong,’ as marketed by Parker Brothers Company (creators of the popular game of Monopoly), and the introduction of table tennis into the Philippines by the Americans themselves, or in other cases, through early teachers known as the “Thomasites.” After the US service members left the Philippines, the Thomasites continued to introduce and perpetuate table tennis throughout the islands.

These early efforts were re-discovered by former Philippine National Table Tennis Team member and now table tennis historian and Liha Ambassador – Peter Cua, from Manila, who learned about this long lost history around 2008, after being forgotten for decades. While the history may have been ancient, Cua discovered that liha table tennis actually has been kept alive by many individuals playing in private residences and back-alleys for decades.

Sandbat play or liha table tennis in the Philippines is from the native Tagalog word ‘liha’ or sandpaper – and is a direct descendant of play that existed over 100 years ago. Nowhere else has this been preserved so well.

 

Conventional vs Liha Table Tennis

What is unique about table tennis in the Philippines for 1recreational purposes is the fact that it has been played at an almost elite level by a select private population that still uses sandpaper rackets. At lower levels, it is played by the general public in the streets, alleys, and local gymnasiums, or anywhere at all where there happens to be a table and people to play. Of course, the ‘regular’ elite table tennis athletes (as in all countries) use modern equipment, but the vast majority of the recreational Filipino players still use sandbats, even when the rest of the world have moved away from sandbats and gravitated towards the hardbats and cheap rubber rackets a long time ago. Only in the Philippines has the preservation of sandbat play persisted, more so thrived and excelled. The top elite liha experts (called lihadors) are many in the Philippines and their level of skill is very high. To watch them compete is akin to watching pure grace and beauty, performance, and artistry, all rolled into one.

Apart from the rules, the biggest difference and distinction to the casual observer that is readily apparent between liha and the modern table tennis is that the players learn to become equally proficient, skilled, and ‘balanced’ in both offensive and defensive strokes or shots, provided that the old liha rules of the sport are applied. This proficiency is sorely lacking in modern table tennis both at the recreational and elite high-performance levels worldwide.

 

The Liha Movement through Fitness

As some would say, “Sometimes the old ways are best,” and based on its history, merits, and values, sticking to the old practice of liha table tennis to promote a fit, able, and healthy lifestyle is vital. The first thing to understand about liha table tennis is that you must use the traditional Liha rules, including the old-fashioned 38-mm celluloid balls that have been carried over for generations. Application of these rules and equipment guarantee that equal skill and technique will result from players, who learn the sport as it was intended to be played. As equal skill for offensive and defensive strokes is provided, students of the sport will attain a significantly greater aerobic workout, receive more cardiovascular benefits, and experience longer rallies, which is the primary goal of this sport in comparison to modern table tennis – also increasing the fun of the sport and further developing the equal-skill levels for participants as they go on.

Liha table tennis promises to be perhaps one of the most appropriate, effective, and long-term physical activities that exist today. Unlike many sports that are aerobic but only cater to the young body, liha table tennis defies age – it is enjoyed by kids, young adults, middle-aged adults, and senior citizens alike. Man Iking, from Cavite City, is one prime example of someone in their 90s but is able to retain physically fitness and stay away from joint and skeletal issues by keeping active and mobile through liha table tennis.

 

Liha Table Tennis School Program

Formulation of a school liha program model is something that is relatively simple to do and something that can be done with the skills and expertise of others who have done it before. Case in point: Professor Oscar Santileces (also, a former National Team athlete and coach) of the University of the Philippines (Diliman) has run many liha tournaments and leagues and would be an excellent source of knowledge to help launch a program of this magnitude. Below is a step-by-step guide to forming a liha table tennis program within your respective institutions:

 

STEP 1:

In order to introduce this into the school system – solicit as many participants in each school as possible. Find a mentor to help – either a teacher, coach, or a local volunteer table tennis player that can pass along basic skills to the group not once but on a recurring basis.

STEP 2:

Form a league! Take the number of students and create a league within the school to fit with the school term. Perhaps a league that lasts for 12 weeks.

STEP 3:

Form a varsity team! After a year or so, run a tournament within the school and determine who the best five players are – that will be your “Team A.” Then develop a “Team B” for the next best five players.

STEP 4:

Talk amongst schools – form an inter-school league and cap it off at the end with a seasonal inter-school championship!

Repeat this process each year. Costs are minimal and should be looked at as initial costs (capital investment to buy tables, nets, liha rackets, uniforms, et al) and operating costs (costs to send teams to other schools for inter-school competitions). Costs can be approached slowly but as compared to many other sports, they are small.
Liha table tennis offers the youth a sustainable, valued, and fun-filled aerobic opportunity that they can take with them not only during their school years, but throughout their lifetime. The benefit to society will include lower healthcare costs as children become adults and have less health-related problems due to weigh tissues or obesity, as their metabolism changes to a more sedentary mode. One’s overall future well-being is also improved as any sport can do when started early in life. Liha now and later in life will ensure healthy lifestyles, less cardiovascular problems, and more internal energy as adults. The added benefit is the promotion and application of this sport preserves a cultural link between the Philippines and the USA that has existed for over 114 years.