About 10 years ago an obsession started in financial circles and with funding agencies with regard to “Risk Assessment”. When I would attend the final meeting with the Auditors for any organisation for which I was involved, they would always ask the same question “What are the risks that could affect your organisation negatively?”, “Do you have a Risk Management plan?” and “Have you done a Risk Assessment study for this organisation?”.

Of course, the standard answers were always the same, the risks include losing a sponsor or sponsors, funding reduction from the funding agencies, being kicked out of the Olympic Games and that’s about it. Can’t think of anything else really.

I wonder if some organisations have a Risk Assessment plan including Tsunamis, Earthquakes, Floods and other natural disasters. Maybe, but I doubt that any sports organisation at the national or international level has such a contingency plan. Or even war? I also doubt it, although in 1999 just a few weeks before the start of the World Championships in Belgrade a war started and NATO attacked Serbia resulting of course in the WTTC being cancelled. That was definitely not in our plans at the ITTF level or in the plans of any national TT association.

Did any organisation include a “Pandemic” as part of their Risk Assessment? Probably not, although we had several epidemics like SARS, MERS and H1N1 recently that did have some effect on sport, including table tennis.

Well, in 1999 the reaction to the cancellation of the WTTC showed how resilient humans are and how adaptable we can be. Very quickly, within days of the cancellation of the 1999 WTTC in Belgrade, as President of the ITTF I saw a golden opportunity to try to split the WTTC and separate the Individual Events from the Team events and plan for yearly world championships in the future. The Netherlands TTA with its courageous leaders stepped up and took over the Individual WTTC in Eindhoven in August of 1999. The Malaysian TTA with its pragmatic leaders offered to stage the Team WTTC in Kuala Lumpur in February 2000. Canada participated in both those events. In fact, it gave our players double the world class exposure within 6 months.

Was this part of a Risk Assessment or a Risk Management plan? Not at all. It was courageous leaders and pragmatic leaders finding solutions to a problem and converting what appeared as a disaster into an opportunity.

I also wonder how many now have the foresight to include in their Risk Assessment and management plan the possibility of another future Pandemic?

So, what does it all mean? Are we supposed to be ready now to include the possibility of another virus in our Risk Assessments? Really? And what’s next? Aliens invading Earth? On the positive side it could increase our membership.

We are asked to be specific in our Risk Assessment. So, we list all what we think could happen that may have an adverse effect. Then none of that happens and something completely new and unpredictable does happen. We are caught by surprise and everyone scrambles and panics.

Based on my own experience as ITTF president with the War in 1999, SARS affecting the 2013 WTTC in Paris, the Tsunami in Japan and other unpredictable happenings in TTCAN more recently, I have come to realize that leaders need the same quality that top athletes need, namely “Emotional Intelligence”.

For athletes the sport is usually divided in the traditional components, which are technical, physical, mental and tactical. The missing catalyst that glues these four components together is “Emotional Intelligence”. It is the ability to perform and take decisions regardless of the conditions, predicaments or environment in which we find ourselves. It is the ability to think clearly and implement a plan, a variation to a plan or even improvise a new plan appropriate to the situation at hand. This means staying calm if necessary, excited if required, aggressive if beneficial and defensive if preferable. The real champions has this ability. It may be innate, but surely it could also be developed. It applies to all walks of life and not only in business where it was, and is, promoted.

The same applies to anyone in a leadership role. To take a good decision without pressure is easy, but to take a good decision under pressure requires Emotional Intelligence. In my opinion there are at least 10 solutions to each problem, but there usually is only one or two “good” solutions. The trick is to be able to choose the best solution for any given problem. To do that you need, you guessed it, “Emotional Intelligence”.

My conclusion is instead of having a Risk Assessment Plan based on the traditional, I would much prefer to train our leaders and our coaches to be able to solve problems, to be able to select the best solution to each problem, to be able to maintain their body temperature the same regardless of the hardship they are facing, to be able to stay calm and analyze the issues without panic, and to be able to articulate simple solutions that everyone can understand and can support.

The next time I will be asked by an Auditor, or a representative of a funding agency, or a consultant reviewing our governance system and suite of policies, the inevitable question “What is your Risk Assessment management plan?”, I will simply answer “I am studying Emotional Intelligence, my colleagues are studying it as well and we are getting good at it”.

2020 was an unpredictable year. Many of our plans are on the back burner and we have definitely lost the momentum we had in the first quarter of the year. We are surviving, our athletes are finding creative ways to train, but our main worry is the lack of actual real competitions for our athletes. This is a serious concern. What shall we do? We need a creative plan to make sure that we create real competitions in a different way during the Pandemic and respecting the health regulations and restrictions. Solutions do exist, but now we must together find the solution that will work the best.

In a few days, I will write about looking back at 2020, and looking forward at 2021. Until then, I wish all of you a peaceful Merry Christmas and hope that our table tennis family stays healthy enjoying a calm and prudent holiday season.

Adham Sharara


25 December 2020