Think at London Business School
Tuesday 30 November 2021
How to keep experimenting so you and your organisation can continue to find new opportunities rather than drifting back into tired old ways
By Rob James, Jules Goddard
When it comes to competitive table tennis, Dr Yaping Deng holds an impressive record: between 1988 and 1997, she won 18 world championships, and is now considered one of the greatest players in the history of the sport. Having won Gold in both singles and doubles tournaments at her first Olympic Games in 1992, she then repeated the achievement at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. At the age of 24, she retired from professional sport, and was voted Chinese Sports Personality of the Century two years later.
But instead of remaining in China and basking in her fame, Yaping decided to embrace a new challenge and move to the UK to study. Today, having completed a Masters at Nottingham University and a PhD in Land Economy at the University of Cambridge, Yaping spends most of her time working with the Deng Yaping Sports Investment Fund, which she set in 2016 up to develop the sports industry in China. Just a few years earlier, she wasn’t able to recite all 26 letters of the English alphabet.
Herminia Ibarra, Charles Handy Professor of Organisational Behaviour, says Yaping is a “role model” for anyone wanting to make a career pivot – something that is becoming much more common but isn’t always easy to achieve.
Hermina Ibarra: Yaping, you’re an amazing athlete and one of the greatest table tennis players in the history of the sport. After your table tennis career, you didn’t do the usual thing and become a coach. You went on to become an academic. And you didn’t stop there. Can we kick off by you telling us a little bit about your sports career?
Yaping Deng: I started playing ping pong when I was five-years-old. My father was my coach and he was a national champion in China, so it was a family matter. I was quite short, so I had to stand on a wooden box to reach the table – but I gradually began to show some talent and was invited to play in the provincial team on a trial period. But, not long after that, the coach asked my father to take me home. I wasn’t told why, and I couldn’t understand it. I could beat most of the other players in the team. Later on, I found out from my father that the reason was my height.
They thought I’d be too short to play in the national team and have a future career in table tennis. But I continued to train with my father because I was determined to prove them wrong. The conditions were so bad: this was the 1980s in China. In winter, it was freezing with no heating, and in summer, I trained in 40-degree heat with no air conditioning. But I had a dream: I wanted to win a world championship. So, the poor conditions didn’t matter to me. I wanted to win.
"My father put sandbags on my legs to make me run faster"
My father trained me so hard. I trained 90 hours a week between Monday and Saturday. Because I’m short, I needed to learn to run extra fast to get to the ball. My father put me in a sand vest and put sandbags on my legs, adding 15kg of weight to me to run with. So, when I took them off, I felt so light, I could “fly”! The feeling was great. That was hard work for about four years.
Then, when I was 13 years old, I was selected to represent my province to compete in the national championships. I started to win all the time. I beat many national champions, even world champions. But I wasn’t asked to join the national team. The reason was the same as that given by provincial coaches. I was too short. Only the Head Coach, the only coach out of five, had a different opinion. He saw my height as a positive factor, believing that, because I’m short, I see the ball higher than it is, so I’d attack rather than defend.
Finally, I joined the national team when I was 15 years old, and just five months later won my first world championship, becoming the youngest world champion ever. From that time, I dominated world women’s table tennis.
How do you retire from something you love so much and fought so hard for?
Athletes know they’ll have to retire young, and after retirement, they often become coaches. My coach was also a world champion. I thought that if I became a coach, that would be the next 30 years of my life, and I felt like I wanted to do something new and challenging. Athletes are so focused on training and competition, and not on education. So that’s why I decided to go back to school and learn something new. Also, I was lucky enough that in 1997, I was invited to join the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Athletes’ Commission.
The official languages at the commission are English and French. I could speak neither and was the only one to bring an interpreter with me. I couldn’t even contribute properly, because by the time I was ready, the topic of conversation had passed. It was embarrassing. For the first two years, I was afraid to attend any kind of international conference or meeting. I couldn’t share any of my thoughts. The only way I could become a good member and represent the third-world developing countries – only two of us were from Asia – was to learn English, as well as understand the international environment of this organisation.
"I thought: I’m a world table tennis champion, but I’m the worst student at Tsinghua University. That was a very difficult period"
This is what led me to enrol in Tsinghua University in Beijing to do a BA degree in English. At the start of the programme, I was a complete beginner. I couldn’t read or write. I thought: I’m a world table tennis champion, but I’m the worst student at Tsinghua University. That was a very difficult period.
You make a very good point. When you make the shift from being an expert to being a complete beginner – it happens to people at different stages in their lives – it feels weird. It feels awful. How was that: going from being at the top of your game to playing in a new and different field?
You’re right: it really was a struggle for me. Everyone knows who I am in China, but in my studies, I was so weak. When we’re young, we spend years learning a lot of things. Then we become specialists in that area. I started playing table tennis when I was five and 11 years later, I became world champion. But that’s a lot of years of hard work. You shouldn’t be afraid to learn something new; to face difficulties and overcome them. You’ll be happy when you see progress, even little by little. I enjoy those moments; the process of learning. I’m not afraid to face a new challenge.
What were the focal areas for the IOC Athlete’s Commission while you were a member?
Gender equality was always a very important issue for the commission. This was divided into three areas: participation, prize money and salary. Through many years of hard work, the Athlete’s Commission has, for the first time, achieved almost equal participation at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games (postponed as a result of COVID-19), with 48.2% female participation, compared to 45.2% at the Rio Games. In terms of levelling the playing field with prize money, we’ve also made progress, especially in tennis in the Grand Slams. But in other sports, like football, there’s still a very long way to go.
Final question. You’re such an such important role model, not just in China, but also beyond. How do you see this new generation of women in China fighting for equality and transforming the country?
I’m really happy to see new generations of young girls, so independent, with their own characters, wanting to show that they have the capability to make new contributions to society and their families. But also keeping the traditional culture and taking responsibility for the family. During COVID-19, the government sent 42,000 medical staff to Wuhan and Hubei to help the local people. More than 60% of those medical professionals were women. This really shows that Chinese women are tough: they’re willing to show they have the capability and professionalism to help the country, and this has been recognised.
What does China’s post-pandemic future look like and how will its relationship with the rest of the world evolve? Hear the views of expert economists, investors and consultants invited to speak on the topic at the China Business Forum.
The China Business Forum 2020 was organised by the CBF Committee, led by Gaby Wu MBA2021 and Yan Hou MBA2021. Founded in 2012, the China Business Forum is one of the largest China-focused business forums in Europe.
This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event moved online for the first time in its nine-year history. With a line-up comprising Dean François Ortalo-Magné, four LBS faculty, five LBS alumni, and more than 15 world-class speakers, it attracted over 2,000 registrants and over 1,400 unique viewers. For more information, please visit www.lbscbf.com.