DURING lockdown Isabella Crooks was only able to play table tennis outside in a local park.

“It was very difficult as spin and wind, unsurprisingly, aren’t the best of friends,” she says.

But she persevered, not wanting to miss her regular practice sessions.

Isabella, 17, who lives in Bingley, has played table tennis since the age of eight after picking up a leaflet at a local sports centre advertising a table tennis club.


“I love the fast speed of the sport, it’s quick and fun and involves a lot of technical accuracy: if you alter your technique slightly the ball will most likely go off,” she says.

“I also love the variety within competition. I love the sense of teamwork when playing in team competitions and also the necessary independence and self-motivation when playing in individual events."

The Beckfoot School pupil, who is studying for her A-levels, progressed in the sport under the expert coaching of Hans Soova, who has guided her since she first took hold of a bat.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Isabella and Hans practising at Beckfoot Table Tennis ClubIsabella and Hans practising at Beckfoot Table Tennis Club

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Isabella and Hans practising outsideIsabella and Hans practising outside

“He began teaching me basic top spin and simple strokes and over the years he has been adjusting my techniques, giving me feedback and helping me nail out any bad habits I’ve picked up,” she says.

Hans was very patient with me when I was first learning and is still very much so today - his many years of high-level experience really help me to understand what I’m doing well and exactly what I need to do to improve, in order to get better.”

A member of Beckfoot Table Tennis Club, she trains at school on a Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday morning.

“Tuesday’s session is for the younger pupils, where myself and a few others help Hans coach them basic strokes. Thursday is for the older players who are more committed to table tennis practice and Sunday, with my club, is a more intense session.”


Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Isabella lining up a shotIsabella lining up a shot

Isabella was nine years old when first played in a competition. “It was the Under 11 West Yorkshire Schools’ competition and although I didn’t win it really got me excited about future competitions and gave me motivation to improve,“ she says. “Aged ten I qualified for my first national championships in the under 11 category and again despite not getting through to the second stage, it was a great opportunity in my early playing days.”

She was just 12 when she first played for Yorkshire. “I won a few matches and gained a lot of experience as to what high-level inter-county competition was like. Since then I’ve played as part of the Yorkshire team on numerous occasions with the most successful time being in 2021 where our team came second in the county championships.”

Isabella would like to continue playing and competing. “When I hopefully go to university I would like to attend one where there are competitive table tennis teams and good practice sessions so I can better my game whilst there.”

As well as attending coaching Isabella can always practice with her family. “My mum played as a teen at school and enjoyed learning the strokes and spins. My dad plays occasionally at my club’s Sunday sessions, and my grandad played regularly as a teen and still plays now. “My family love the sport and are incredibly supportive of my playing as competition days can be very long and tiring and you can often come away without winning very much which can be difficult, but my parents and Hans are always there to give me positive feedback and to reassure me that my mistakes can be easily worked on.”


Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Isabella and Hans practisingIsabella and Hans practising

Hans is extremely proud of Isabella. “She has developed as an outstanding player,” he says. "She has worked really hard and continues to do so."

The widely-respected coach is celebrating an unexpected surprise, after discovering that he has coached more players than any other who have progressed to represent England - 24 international players in all.

The amazing statistic came to light through research by the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF).

“For me, this is a record to treasure. It had never crossed my mind in all my 57 years of coaching, it is unbelievable,” he says.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Hans Soova has coached many England playersHans Soova has coached many England players

Estonian Hans learned to play table tennis after watching others play in a Second World War refugee camp in Germany.

He came to England as a refugee in 1951. He learned to play table tennis after watching others play in a refugee camp, making his own bat from the wooden lid of a crate containing food parcels.

“I painted it black because I could not afford any material to cover the blade.”

He and his friends found broken balls and patched them with nail varnish and first aid plasters.

He began coaching in 1965 Rhodesway School. "We had two tables, one of which only stood up with pieces of string holding it together," he says. He then moved to Grange School. “We had ten new tables which was amazing. That was the start of it, when all the schools in Bradford could send their students to learn table - around 50 turned up.”

In 2013 he was awarded the British Empire Medal for Medal for services to table tennis, which he dedicated to his late wife Christine, who encouraged him when he started out.

Now 88, he shows no sign of slowing down and coaches three times a week.

“It has not been easy for me, but I want people to know that you should take every opportunity and make the most of them.”