Candid Conversations: Sport in Today’s World is a series exploring what sport looks like during the current season we are in. Sport is such an integral part of daily life: from general fitness and exercising, to keeping mentally healthy; socialising and creating community with others, and even just for the sake of enjoyment – be it watching live fixtures on TV or taking part yourself. During this series we will be talking to different people from across the sector about their sporting experiences in a real, raw and honest fashion, to understand what their sporting life looks like in today’s world.

Isabelle Joubeily is both President and Coach Scholar of the Table Tennis club here are the University of Leeds, before which she played competitively. We were lucky enough to have a chat about what it is like volunteering as a student; the highlights and drawbacks to volunteering; and why more students should get involved in helping out with voluntary programmes.

How did you get started in Table Tennis?

I was at primary school, and they had small – half size – tables. And I was just walking along the corridor and I looked into the hall and saw that people were playing. It turns out I really enjoyed, it so I asked Santa (my parents) and we got a table for Christmas. I couldn’t even hit the ball with the bat, and my hand-eye coordination was all over the place when I was seven. But I still got into it, and then I eventually found a local club and started training. It kind of just snowballed from there really and I was so lucky to have my Dad who would do 8 hour round trips or more in a single day to get me to the places I needed to be for competitions. We’d leave at 4am, I’d play a tournament and if I was lucky, be back for midnight! He was my biggest support and was incredibly motivating.

You used to play competitively, but eventually stopped. What changed for you?

When I was 17 years old, I couldn’t find a good enough club at the level I had reached within my local area and also my studies were more important for me at the time given that there is no money in Table Tennis – it’s unfortunate, but the reality. I guess I could’ve tried going abroad but I didn’t have the money to fund that and so when I came to university I stopped for a while. Table Tennis is the kind of sport that everyone knows as a ‘social sport’ rather than a competitive sport. In fact, most people probably laugh when you say [I play competitive Table Tennis]. At least that’s my experience and it’s sad really. I’d say on the whole as a sport it’s not taken seriously by people.

For our readers who may not have any experience with the competitive nature of the sport, could you explain a little bit about what goes into playing at the competitive level?

Some people think ‘oh really, table tennis’, when I mention competing as they think we just stand there moving our arm and there is nothing else to it. But there’s so much more to it than that. While it won’t take more than moving your arm around to have a social game of table tennis, it’s not quite the same at the competitive level. Not only is there the general fitness training but also the mental, physical, and tactical training – training of all sorts – that goes in to playing table tennis at the competitive level. But again, I kind of get where people come from yet when they see me play they’re like ‘oh wow okay I can tell you put some effort in to this’ and I find that very rewarding having raised their awareness and changed their perception of the sport.

Of course, you are now very involved with the society. In your view, how is university sport different from club sport?

Oh gosh, yes, it’s very different. Coming here [table tennis] is very social, but a few people play competitively. It’s been great to get back into it and share the experience with other students at the same time. I didn’t get involved with the society straight away, but I missed it. Unfortunately, the pandemic has prevented a lot of events happening this year.

In your role as a Coach Scholar, you volunteer your time to share your wealth of knowledge and insights with others. What motivated you to do this?

Yes, so I’m one of the volunteer Coach Scholars which is something I got into this year because I really wanted to, but of course Covid has made that very difficult. I’ve had experience in coaching before – for example, I help coach at a three-week table tennis camp in Denmark and so I’m able to share my experience there as well as coaching at my old table tennis club, like a lot of people involved with sports end up doing. In terms of coaching though, you just become a coach by playing. In table tennis, you’re always playing with someone (or against them!) and so you just start to give each other pointers and stuff like that. It was a really gentle way into coaching, which is incredibly rewarding, and encourages me to continue to give my time and volunteer.

How has volunteering benefitted you?

It’s not just volunteering in sport which is great, but volunteering in general. You get back so much more than you give. When I was in my second year of university I just wanted to start volunteering, and after looking at opportunities online I began volunteering at Left Bank Leeds. It really helps a lot in so many ways – the mental, physical, emotional benefits are…I wouldn’t be able to count them! If I had to give the best bit about volunteering, for me it’s definitely the social interaction. It’s nice to see people, to help people, especially people you wouldn’t normally cross paths with in your daily life. In fact, I think volunteering as a coach is actually somewhat, at least for me, better than when I was serious about playing and trained all the time. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the competitiveness nor the training, but coaching is so much more rewarding. I can spread knowledge to people who want to get better but just don’t know how, especially for table tennis where few people know how to get better. Also, there will be people who have never picked up a bat before who will ask for help or tips with a certain stroke and they can go from not being able to hit the ball at all to the longest rallies and that’s really amazing.

What is your favourite part about being a volunteer coach?

Wow, that’s so many great things. I think one of them is just seeing that moment with a certain skill clicks on someone’s head and they’ve made so much process. Or especially when it’s someone who you have an emotional connection with, or someone you just understand really well. For example, I’ve been coaching a guy who needs to adapt his playing style due to certain physical impediments. And so I know he has a different playing style, and I know the way we are playing still works for him and it won’t hurt his body. When you know someone it’s amazing how much more you can achieve and how much more rewarding it is. It’s the perseverance of people and seeing them adapt and develop in sport which is probably my favourite thing.

We’ve chatted about the good, but what about the downsides to volunteering – are there any?

No. Absolutely not. Volunteering especially in sport is the kind of thing where you will always receive more than you give.

As a final question then, given that volunteering is such a beneficial part of your life, what would you say, or is there any advice you would give to students wanting to get involved with volunteering?

You should definitely do it. There are no two questions about it. It is the most rewarding thing that you ever do. And university is such a great time to start, because never in your life will you have the flexibility that comes with being a student. Even if it’s not in sport, volunteering in any sector is great – be it Leeds Mind or Leeds Nightline, they are great places to start. No matter where you volunteer though, volunteering will give you things that you will take with you for the rest of your life, and you learn so much from it.

You can find out more about the LUU Table Tennis club here. For more information about volunteering in sport check out our current opportunities here. For more information on wider volunteering opportunities outside of sport across the University & the city visit the Leeds Volunteering Hub on MyCareer.