International Training

Michel Gadal (2005)

Michel feels that the training components necessary to achieve the highest performance are technical/tactical, physical and mental preparation and that at the top level it is the mental side that makes all the difference. There are certain basic areas in which players must be competent.


is one of the fundamental elements required to reach world class levels (players need to learn techniques to adapt to any given situation, whether these be material combinations, differing styles or methods of play, or unusual tactical ploys).


is vital, the concept of ‘knowing’ and watching the opponent rather than focusing on yourself and what you are doing. In practice for example too many players tend to focus too much on themselves.


covers a number of areas – the need to be fast, to create speed on the ball, to take it early, between the bounce and ‘peak’ and the ability to move fast, which should be taught in the early stages of a player’s career. If you play line balls at speed be aware too that 80% will be returned in the same direction.


and the ability to use the table are important. Top players use the corners, the lines and wide angles and hit to the crossover – weaker players play mainly to the middle. A study in 1989 indicated that it was better to play the ball 20% slower but deeper, right on the white line. This opens up the match, gives much better results and creates more opportunities to gain a real advantage.


– table tennis is after all a competition between two brains! You need to be able to focus on the right elements and learn not to be distracted and also practise maintaining focus during the non-playing time.

Each time a coach is coaching he should ask himself whether he is including at least one of these 5 elements (Adaptability, anticipation, speed, precision, concentration). Coaches often know much about technique but not enough about the game. THE GAME IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN TECHNIQUE — YOU ADAPT YOUR TECHNIQUES TO THE GAME. Speed and accuracy should be increased together. In the case of service teach the various spins with at first wrist only. The appropriate service should be used according to the player’s own style and the game situation.


– a player must be able to give a good/appropriate response, preferably topspin with speed, to any ball. The technique may be with the whole body if there is time, or just with the wrist and elbow. The player should at all times train for the game. Practice should be aimed at the game situation. Sometimes it is more important for a player to adopt his own tactics and to learn from his mistakes. TRAIN FOR COURAGE – TABLE TENNIS IS A VERY RISKY GAME. Many coaches tell players not to take risks, but from the beginning we should train players to think for themselves, take risks and play in an unexpected manner and when the situation is tight to do a little more ( but without going crazy).


The player should practise the game – his game – for the match and at the same intensity as match play. HE SHOULD TRY TO WIN EVERY SINGLE POINT.

The training hall is where players learn their trade. In practice partners can fulfil different functions, being at first totally cooperative, then 50% cooperative and finally competitive/difficult all of the time. Partners should be changed every exercise (around 30 – 40 minutes per exercise) so as to adapt to different playing styles. If a player is making less than 4 successful routines out of 10 then the exercise is too difficult but 8 out of 10 then it’s too easy. Make the exercises easier or more difficult but do not accept the player making too many mistakes. Also in practice teach refocusing in non-playing time to break the sequence of a high level of mistakes.

Regarding duration of exercises it’s good to change and not to be too rigid in timing. Be open to what is happening, listen to players and be flexible. Let players try things out in games and learn from their own experience. Before competition train as you would do in competition and schedule in breaks between exercises so that the players learn to wait between matches.

Technique should be taught for use in different situations. With young players first teach – ‘What should I do with the ball?’ Maybe it’s an arm action first, starting with the wrist and building up with the forearm, whole arm and then whole body (upper and lower body for power). (When the player is inconsistent use the whole body). Let players find their own movement and tempo. A soft hand is important for returning short service. Start with early timing even though this is more difficult. Start playing slow and build up to fast, rather than fast to slow. The timing is slightly later for the slow ball. Teach difficult techniques – what is hardest to learn – early. Young players are able to absorb advanced aspects more easily than you might think. The best age to begin learning is around 7/8 years. Build on something good or new in the player’s game and always be positive. A challenge needs to be given to the more talented player, possibly a more difficult task within the same exercise (playing to only half of the table instead of the whole).

Regarding competition players should always have a reasonable chance to win or at least to put up a fight. Players learn from playing from 9 – 9. Speed glue can be used by young players provided that they are training often – practice only 3 times per week no glue, train 12 to 15 hours use glue. Also let players try out different rubbers, perhaps 20 – 30 minutes per week in match play. In this way they will develop a better understanding of how to play against different material. Be flexible in teaching the flick – the timing and the action. There are a number of different possibilities.

Above all remember it is the player who plays, who wins and who loses. The coach should be ready to stay in the background.

Develop a Winning Playing Style

Carl Danner (2007)

So you’ve taken your table tennis seriously for a while and started to develop some reasonable strokes. But in matches you struggle to win points by any means possible and never achieve the flowing game the better players seem to have. What you need is a winning playing style – both to raise your playing level and to make your matches more enjoyable.

Indeed, there is an interesting contradiction evident in top world-class play. On the one hand, such players can presumably execute any stroke, probably quite well. Their choice of shots would appear limitless. On the other hand, world-class players use distinct styles that depend on the repeated execution of a few key strokes they seem to have mastered. How they decide what those shots are and how they compel their opponents to allow them to make those shots, are the key elements that they (and you) need to address in developing a style that will deliver more wins and fun.

Let’s go through the process of developing a playing style. These basics are useful both for relative newcomers trying to get started in the sport, as well as for intermediate or advanced players who aspire to further improvement. Even experienced tournament players sometimes have trouble putting it all together, and might benefit from a refresher.

1. What is a playing style, and how does it work?

Generally, a style has two parts. First, a style is built around a particular, reliable way to win points. It might be, for example, a strong forehand loop. It might be consistent backspin (or “chopping”) defence to force opponents into errors. Perhaps you want to throw repeated topspins at your opponents until they miss. Because modern table tennis rackets let players hit a wide variety of shots, there are numerous ways in which points can be won – a subject we address further below. But for an effective style, you need to pick one shot (or shot sequence) as your goal for how most points should end.

Secondly, a style uses all the shots you hit in a point to encourage your opponent to feed into your point-winning play. Conversely, a style also eliminates from your game other shots that encourage returns from your opponent that don’t feed into your winning approach. For example, if you prefer to attack your opponents’ topspin shots, then you will want to use serves that encourage such returns – and perhaps even give up the use of other serves that don’t, even if those serves sometimes win points outright. Likewise, a looper who wants backspin pushes to attack is better off serving low and short, rather than using deeper serves that will let your opponent topspin first.

2. Choosing a style to develop

For some players a style seems to develop on its own, while others may have to make a conscious choice of which one to use. Either way, at some stage it will benefit you as a player to decide what your style is, or should be. As a starting point, consider a winning stroke that’s already comfortable for you. Perhaps you have a strong loop, when you get a chance to use it. Maybe fast hands make your backhand counter-play solid. Some players take pleasure in manoeuvring their opponents around with steady shots that are hard to attack. Defence is still a viable option in the era of the bigger ball. Chances are that some combination of your best current shots and your personal preferences (how you really want to play) will make a good starting point for your style. Your regular opponents are another source of information about which aspects of your game seem promising, or hard for others to handle.

Here are some typical point-winning plays which top players have used as the foundation of a winning style:

  1. Looping forehands for winners;
  2. Counter-hitting steadily until opponents make errors;
  3. Quick, well-placed blocking;
  4. Top-spinning consistently from both forehand and backhand sides to outlast opponents;
  5. Outlasting opponents through consistent, passive defence (retrieving);
  6. Aggressive defence using spinny chops and aggressive counter-loops;
  7. Pips-out flat hitting;
  8. Looping aggressively (off the bounce) at the table for winners from both forehand and backhand sides;
  9. Counter-hitting to set up a consistent forehand smash;
  10. ‘Twiddling’ (using a combination racket with one dead and one spinny side) for a mix of defence and offence.

How can you choose from so many interesting possibilities? Physically, the relative quickness of your hands and feet are important. Quick hands are good for the close-to-the-table work of styles such as counter-hitting, flat hitting, or quick off-the-bounce looping. By contrast, fast feet are a necessity for a big forehand loop, any kind of defence, and consistent top-spinning. You should enjoy your preferred style, just for the fun of it and to help motivate the practice needed to pull the pieces together. So again, feel free to pick one you like.

3. Turning style into strength

Having chosen a style, it’s time to build it into a winning approach. To do so requires you to develop and perfect your weapon(s) of choice, while constructing the rest of your game to create opportunities to use that weapon. Let’s start with your winning play before turning to the other shots and rallying techniques that will let you use that play as often as possible.

Refining your weapon

It’s critical to develop your winning shot, or sequence of shots, into reliable weapons. It is important to develop tactics around the first three to seven strokes of any point as most rallies end within this number of strokes. Opponents around your playing level should almost always lose the point if they fall (or can be pushed) into the shot(s) you want to play. This means that your winners should not just be powerful, but also that they must be highly dependable. Remember – top players rarely miss their signature shots! For example, you should be able to make your loop kill or forehand smash (to use two possible examples) virtually every time they are available. As another example, if defence is your game, then your chopping, retrieving and/or pick hitting must be rock solid against the normal kinds of attacking shots you might encourage from opponents. By contrast, many players overlook the importance of reliability, and take high risks in trying for winners. A big swing that misses is no threat, just a lost point.

To build a consistent weapon requires an unusual kind of practice – that of hitting repeated winners, or playing repeated winning sequences. For example, a looper should practice looping pushes and service returns for winners, a hitter should smash numerous forehands, a steady spinner should play long topspin rallies to conclusion and so on. Or if serve and attack is part of your strategy, a significant part of your practice time should be spent serving and looping winners off the returns. Executing your winning shot or play should become second nature and should be practised frequently. Because so many points end just a few shots after the serve, it’s helpful to start practice points with a serious serve and return. Handling the transition from a serve and/or return into your attacking shots is a critical part of the modern game. The little touch shots that go along with this effort (such as a short return of serve, or a flick shot against a short serve or push) are also important to start the attack and to keep your opponent from starting his. Such “short game” skills often determine the outcome of matches between highly-skilled opponents.

This is also an area where good coaching can be important. It’s worth making sure of your technique for your winning shot, including paying an expert coach from time to time for a tune-up. If such assistance is not available in your area, consider approaching a top coach for some help during a free moment at a regional or national tournament.

Who opens, and how

To “open” in a rally means to hit the first offensive shot (usually with topspin). For some styles, it’s critical to open first. Strong loopers, for example, want to take the first swing, as do most hitters. By contrast, counter-hitters and defenders may prefer opponents to open, albeit against balls that can’t be hit for immediate winners. Players with quick hands may even invite attacking shots which they can block back forcefully.

In any event, you need to decide which player you want to open first, given your style. If it’s you, then you need to emphasize short, low serves and service returns, a good short game in general, and learning to attack every long serve (i.e., one that doesn’t bounce twice). If it’s just as well for your opponent to open first, then you can use more long serves (and long topspin serves especially), push a little deeper to your opponent’s weaker wing and learn to roll the ball (a gentle topspin) deep to the location from which you would like your opponent to make a topspin return.

By contrast, many problems occur if there’s a clash between your style and your strategy for opening points. For example, a blocker with a weak loop may not want to serve backspin or push very much, because it just sets up opponents to tee off on big shots. Instead, blockers might want to serve topspin to start their kind of rally immediately. As another example also noted above, a looper usually should serve and push short and refrain from serves or deep pushes that let their opponents open first.

Beyond these basics, there are many fine points of matching style and opening that can best be learned by watching high-level play. Select a top player or two who uses your preferred style and observe carefully how he or she serves (and opens) to get the most helpful returns. It’s even worth taping some matches so you can go back to verify, as questions arise, how a player of your style should handle a given shot.

Regaining control of the rally

Anything can happen when a rally gets going and you can’t always play points the way you would like. But you can try to force the flow of the point back into your strengths.

Basically, you have three choices when your opponent succeeds in starting the type of rally he/she wants (as opposed to the one you want). First, you can escalate your shots and try to win the point immediately. Secondly, you can play along and hope to prevail even on your opponent’s terms. Thirdly, you can try to reset the point, using a neutralizing shot to shut down the rally and let you try again for the opening play you prefer.

Of these options, the first can be worth trying if your opponent is very consistent, and highly likely to earn points played according to his/her style. In that case, you might have to take your first decent shot at a winner, even if the percentages are not favourable. More often, however, it’s better to de-escalate the rally through a neutralizing shot – such as a low soft block, a deep consistent topspin to your opponent’s weaker wing, or even a simple chop that forces your opponent to open again or push. That way, you can slow things down and give yourself another chance to get in position and bring your weapons into play.

As with the above discussion of opening, space doesn’t permit a full description of how players of different styles can use neutralizing shots. But watching how they regain control of rallies is another key technique to observe among top players who play the style you want to learn.

4. Conclusion: Pulling it all together

If you have followed the steps described above, you will have chosen your preferred style and method of winning points; you will have practised your best shots until they are highly reliable and you will have structured your serve, short game and recovery shots to promote the kinds of returns you want in order to execute your preferred tactics. These elements of a winning playing style should let you approach matches at any level (basement, club, or tournament) with the confidence of having a plan and the means to carry it out.

Indeed, if you are like most players, you may find yourself spending many months or years working on your personal style, picking up tips from like-minded competitors and even debating the merits of various styles with your friends. It’s all part of a varied and interesting sport, so have fun with it!

Moving Up a Level

Larry Hodges (2007)

What does it mean to move up a level in table tennis? I’d define two players to be on different levels if it would be a major upset if one defeated the other. Another way of looking at it would be to say that if the stronger player plays his normal level, he would win nearly every time.

Based on this, I’d say that a level in table tennis (using the USATT rating system) ranges from about 300 points at the lower levels (under 1000) to about 100 points at the higher levels (over 2500). For most USATT players, a level would be about 200 points. How can you move up a level? By improving all parts of your game, because one weak link in your game is like a weak link in a chain. You could work hard, dramatically improve one aspect of your game, and hope to move up a level. But it’s not that simple. Suppose you develop a really nice forehand loop. With this weapon, you would think that your level would go up dramatically. And sure enough, you will do better against players around your own level.

But when you play players at a level higher, their level is far enough ahead of yours that they’ll simply do something to disarm your new weapon. They may serve or push short, push very heavy, throw spinny or fast serves at you, use ball placement, block well, force backhand exchanges, play quick shots, or simply attack first to take your weapon (in this case your forehand loop) away. Often, stronger players will seem to win on one of their strengths, when in fact they are winning by exploiting a weakness of yours that allows them to use their strength. A strength in your game can compensate for a weakness, but only to a certain extent. A stronger player will simply set up his strengths by going at your weaknesses.

The lesson is that to move up a level, you need to improve your game overall, not just one aspect. A player who is a level stronger than you rarely defeats you with one aspect of his game; he does so by using the overall level of his game. There are, of course, players who have improved all but one aspect of their game and by improving that one final aspect, suddenly go up the coveted level! So how do you go about moving your game up a level? You have to be able to match the higher-level players on five key things:

  1. Returning your opponent’s serves as well as they return yours.
  2. Either rally as fast as your opponents do, or force your opponents to rally at your pace (by slowing the pace down with pushes, slow loops, controlled drives, etc.). Rallying at their pace can also mean reacting to their pace (i.e. blocking or chopping), because “pace” means both speed and quickness.
  3. Reacting to your opponent’s rallying spins (loops, pushes, chops, lobs, spins returned by long pips, etc.) as well as they react to yours.
  4. Ending the point (i.e. smashing or loop killing) as well as your opponents do. This can also mean stopping them from ending the point effectively or consistently by not giving them easy shots, or it can mean a series of strong shots that win the point.
  5. And finally, possessing at least one strength which threatens your opponents as much as their strengths threaten you. This includes having a way to get your strength(s) into play.

You may have noted that tactics is not one of the five “keys.” This is because tactics is part of all five keys. Stronger/weaker tactics simply make you stronger/weaker in each key. If you can do some (but not all) of the above five keys, your performance in a tournament will go up some, perhaps half a level, but not a full level. Developing a single “overpowering” strength won’t raise your level as much as you’d think, as opponents a level higher will beat you on the less developed parts of your game. Even players at your “previous” level will still often beat you by exploiting these weaknesses. But … if you work to improve all five of these keys, you may find yourself going up dramatically.

What’s stronger, a chain with four powerful links and one weak one, or a chain with five pretty strong ones?

Ten Tips for Future Champions

J.O. Waldner (2005)

Ten Tips for Future Champions , By Jan-Ove Waldner 1989 & 1997 World Men’s Singles Champion, 4-time World Men’s Team Champion, 1992 Olympic Men’s Singles Champion, 7-time European Top Twelve Men’s Singles Champion and many other titles. He is considered by many to be the greatest table tennis champion ever. Excerpt from book “J-O Waldner: When the Feeling Decides,” by Jens Fellke, sold by Pioneers ( and American Table Tennis (

1. Become a complete player

In order to win big titles, you must master play against all playing styles. Therefore, you must regularly practice and compete against players of different styles. The most important styles to embrace are loopers (maximum topspin), attackers (maximum speed) and choppers (maximum backspin).Another important aspect is play against left-handed players. I would like to remind you that both right and left-handed players spend 85% of their time playing against right-handed players.

To be successful against both right- and left-handed players requires well-developed technique and very good balance. I have had the advantage of practising a lot with left-handed players, e.g. Mikael Appelgren and Ulf Thorsell in my first club Spårvägen. Later on, in the Swedish national team, left-handed players were well represented: Appelgren again, Stellan Bengtsson, Erik Lindh, Ulf Bengtsson, Thomas von Scheele and Peter Nilsson.

2. Acquire point-winning weapons

Table tennis is a tough sport, exercised under a high level of stress. Often you have to play many matches per day. Therefore, it is important to be able to win simple and quick points. I have always been able to rely upon my serves, frequently directly point-winning. I have furthermore worked hard to follow up my serves with a varying forehand stroke. Spend some time analyzing which point-winning weapons you already possess. And remember that new weapons can be developed!

3. Develop a relaxed technique

Table tennis requires a tremendous amount of practice. Always try to play as relaxed as possible. This will increase your chances to play relaxed even in tight situations and at the same time decrease your susceptibility for injuries. Personally, I have managed to avoid lengthy injuries, which is one of the reasons why I have been able to remain at the top for so many years.

4. Play a lot while young

Table tennis requires advanced motor coordination and dexterity. It is therefore important that you learn technically as much as possible before the age of about 13. As long as you still have fun, practise and compete as often as possible. Use your imagination by continuously trying out new strokes, even during matches. Try a new strategy in the middle of a game. Consider a deuce in the deciding game as a challenge to test your most effective serve, or a new type of serve return.

Remember that your career in table tennis is quite long. When feeling bad about a loss, try to think instead about the next tournament and how you can improve.

5. Master three distances

Many players master play from only one or two distances. My recommendation is that you consciously practise play from all three distances after the bounce as indicated below:

  • Distance 1 - ball on its way up: You must hit the ball before it reaches its highest point after the bounce. You should learn to use short and quick strokes with little backswing.
  • Distance 2 - ball at its highest point: You should learn to use a relaxed technique when hitting the ball at its highest point after the bounce. A large variety of strokes can be successfully applied at this distance.
  • Distance 3 – ball on its way down: You hit the ball after it has reached its highest point after the bounce and on its way down. This distance requires a technique where you use a large forearm movement before ball impact.

6. Study good players

Watch as much table tennis as possible. Study video recordings, both of yourself and world class players. In particular, I used to study the Hungarian player Tibor Klampar. His wrist movements and ball hits were of extraordinary quality. By studying a number of Chinese players, I learned to appreciate the importance of developing effective serves.

Try to imitate certain players in order to get a better understanding of advantages and disadvantages of different playing styles, racket grips, movement patterns, etc. In the Swedish national team, we have throughout the years very much enjoyed mimicking different players. Erik Lindh is a master at imitating many of our opponents.

7. Analyze your opponents

Only when you are up against a player the first time can you get an appreciation of, for instance, the quality of his or her forehand loop. Therefore, enlist the help of those of your pals who have played the person in question. Bring forward to discussion all relevant details. Remember that there are many ways to win matches in table tennis. The better prepared you are, the greater are your chances. The margins in this game sometimes appear minuscule, but it is always the best and most professional player who profits from them.

8. Use your head

Mental strength is a vast and important subject and perhaps the most difficult characteristic to develop through training. Personally, I have developed a way to think and act that I believe suits my personality. The starting point must be yourself, in my opinion.

Mental strength is based on experience and acquired knowledge about your sport. Listen to the advice of others who you trust but remember that, in the final analysis, you must rely upon your own judgment. When I was younger, I studied in detail many successful Swedish athletes, including Björn Borg (tennis) and Ingemar Stenmark (alpine skiing). I was impressed by their calmness when competing. Over the years, I have learned to analyze my losses and then forget them as quickly as possible. To the contrary, I do carry around memories of my victories in order to boost my self-confidence.

9. Be respectful

A table tennis match is decided in a short time and it does not take much to lose by underestimating your opponent. It is important to graciously accept losses and to show respect for your opponent. Whether I win or not, my strategy has always been to keep a low profile.

10. Think long-term

To conclude, I would like to emphasize that it takes a long time to become a good table tennis player. There are always new things to learn. Try to think long-term and avoid focusing too much on results when you are young.

If you aspire to compete with the best, you must walk a narrow road. You must realize that only a large amount of training and tough training, will lead to the goal. The principle applies both to training at the table and to physical conditioning. However, don’t forget to now and then have some fun and experiment a bit. Occasionally, you will discover something that will be useful in match play.

Good Luck!

What it takes to be a Champion

Sean O’Neill (2007)

Does it take determination, discipline, desire, or maybe God-given talent, superior genes, the perfect playing environment and just a little luck? No single component by itself will make you a champion, but clearly the more key ingredients you possess, the brighter you will shine in table tennis and in life.

You have no control over who your parents are, so there is little benefit in spending time worrying about your genetics. For most American players, having an Olympic-level coach or full-time club in your backyard is unlikely, so there is not much point in being upset if you don’t have these. Good-luck charms or being Irish won’t suffice either, so what can you do?

The good news is that you do have control over many of the ingredients that help create a champion. A burning desire to succeed, the love of competition, an eagerness to improve and an understanding that each match possesses golden nuggets of knowledge that you can learn from are all important pieces of the puzzle. Remember, becoming a champion isn’t a part-time job, but a full-time commitment to excellence.

The pursuit of excellence is the fuel that champions rely on to push themselves to higher levels of play. It is said that it takes a something extra to make a champion and this is true. For those who would like to take the journey to the top of the mountain, here are ten winning traits to keep in mind. No one is born a champion. It requires many years of hard work and dedication. The journey begins with one small step and a belief that “I can and I will.”

1. Champions enjoy hard work

Serve practice, multi-ball, footwork drills, running, weightlifting and video analysis aren’t always the most fun activities, especially after a tough loss. However, approaching these tasks with vigour will provide a springboard that will let you leapfrog the competition. Champions use tournament results as feedback to adjust their workouts and goals. The day after a rough tournament, don’t be surprised to see a champion be the first to arrive at practice and the last to leave. During practice, each point should be treated with value and nothing should be taken for granted.

2. Champions plan for success

Remember that failing to prepare is preparing to fail. But, what is your plan for success? Do you intend to cram on Friday night before a tournament or hope to “get hot” in the final in order to achieve success? Champions don’t hope for victory, they plan for it. Becoming a champion takes time and requires thoughtful planning. Create measurable goals with timelines that are realistic based on your performance and rate of improvement. Write down your daily, monthly, and yearly goals, and place them in your racket case to review before and after each time you play.

3. Champions are confident and optimistic.

We play the ultimate individual sport: there is no one to hit a homer while you are on base or sink a free throw while you are on the bench; the ball is in your hands and hopefully on your racket during each rally. You must believe in yourself, if you expect to succeed. Champions know that with proper preparation they will play their best and thus they can rightfully believe they can come out on top. When the score looks bleak, they know it only takes one point to start a great comeback. If someone just pulled off an upset, interact with them. Ask them how they did it. Their positive energy will be contagious. At practice, look to associate with players who have self-confidence and high expectations. Negative thinkers and pessimists are powerful energy zappers who should be avoided at all costs at tournaments.

4. Champions visualize success

If you can imagine it, you can achieve it! Champions understand the importance of mental imagery and visualization. This is a common skill most youngsters have until adults begin to tell them that they can’t do something. Prior to practice and competition, it is prudent to daydream about the perfect performance. Find a quiet place to relax and close your eyes. Imagine hitting that winning shot against Waldner or beating an upcoming opponent. The more vivid the imagery, the more powerful the impact. Your subconscious mind doesn’t know the difference between real and imagined events.

5. Champions are consistent

Champions know that success is the direct result of commitment and discipline. After a successful tournament, when it would be easy to take it easy, champions don’t break their stride and often take it up a notch. During events, champions know how to run their own mental program during matches and don’t wait until it is too late to make adjustments. Champions don’t get too excited when they perform their best nor get too nervous when they aren’t playing well. The key to being consistent is playing within oneself and not attempting risky moves that aren’t dependable at crunch time.

6. Champions are focused

Champions know that you can train hard and prepare well, but if you don’t have 100% concentration during competition, the chance for success will be haphazard. Before important matches, leave the building, take a break, clear your mind, and start to get focused for a point-by-point war. If you can win the battle of minds, you can play relaxed and at ease, but your attention must be on the task at hand. When your mind starts to wander, use a dependable technique like breathing control to re-focus your attention. Revisiting your written goals on a regular basis will make sure that you are always focused on your long-term success.

7. Champions are creative

Champions understand the need to think outside the box and to create their own unique style and strategy. Always following the lead of others, or becoming a carbon copy, is a recipe for mediocrity. Be original. Have your own set of serves. Learn from the best players. But, modify their skill set to fit your needs. Don’t be afraid to add parts of other games into your own unique style.

8. Champions never quit

Far too many comebacks have been lost when players gave up a point too early. In our new eleven-point scoring system, amazing comebacks are at hand, if one is willing to believe the game is never over. Momentum is huge in table tennis, and failure to give an inch on the final point of a game will often lead to a shift in momentum for the remainder of the match. Regardless of the score, a champion knows anything can happen, in either direction.

9. Champions help others

Champions know that by helping others you are helping the game. Coaching or encouraging others before or during a tournament will only help you in the long run. Don’t be afraid after a match to speak with your opponent or their coach to share thoughts on what happened. While all of us enjoy easy victories, it is the hard-fought matches that stay with us the longest. When practising, much can be gained by working with lesser players in the areas of consistency and control.

10. Champions love the game

The final trait which champions possess is a love and respect for the game. They recognize the past champions for their greatness and look to them for inspiration and guidance. Even when doing something else, champions figure out a way to tie it to the sport and use it to help their skills improve. With a love of the game comes the enjoyment of a difficult challenge. This desire and need to be tested will allow you to be at your best when your best is needed.

The Improvement Pyramid

Richard McAfee (2007)

For any athlete looking to be a champion, it is indeed a long path towards glory. Studies of Olympic Athletes have shown that it takes about ten years of organized training to achieve elite status. Within the Sport of Table Tennis, there is a definite progression of skill development. To help my students understand where they are on this developmental path, I have created a tool called, “The Pyramid of Success.”

The Pyramid shows the nine developmental stages that athletes go through on their journey to becoming a complete player. See if you can locate where you are on your own personal journey towards becoming a champion.

 Athlete Pyramid


Stage 1 – Basic Stroke Techniques

At this stage, athletes are simply learning the fundamental techniques of the game such as basic strokes, elementary spin theory, simple serve and return and the rules of the game.

Stage 2 – Basic Stroke Combinations

Once the athlete can control the basic strokes, the coach then begins to combine these strokes together to form combinations, bringing together both forehand and backhand techniques. This combining of strokes also requires that the athlete begins to move more and lessons in footwork start at this stage.

Stage 3 – The 5-Point System

When the athlete can control the basic stroke combinations, the focus is turned to learning how to play points. As most points in a game are finished by the fifth stroke, the emphasis is placed on the first five possible strokes of a game. As all points must begin with either a serve or a return, these techniques are stressed during this stage. Third and fifth ball attacks are introduced, as well as fourth ball counter attacks or defence. The goal of this stage is to move the athlete from thinking of executing one stroke at a time, into planning out whole points.

Stage 4 – Style Awareness

During stage three, the athlete’s natural style begins to express itself. It can be seen in how the athlete chooses to begin putting his points together. Does the athlete naturally prefer to hit rather than loop? Does the athlete have natural early or late timing? Does the athlete prefer to play close to the table or at mid-distance? These and other telltale signs start to show as the athlete learns to play whole points. During this stage athletes should be introduced to the basic styles of the game, through written materials and the use of videotapes. He or she should watch the better players at the club and place these players into style categories. Finally, the athlete should write a complete description of his or her own style. An athlete’s style is normally a blend of two of the major styles.

Stage 5 – Advanced Stroke Techniques

Now that the athlete understands what his style will be, he must begin to learn the advanced techniques necessary to complete that style. What these techniques are will vary greatly from style to style. Pips-out hitters, all-round topspin attackers, and choppers all need to learn very different techniques.

Stage 6 – Advanced Stroke Combinations

Once these advanced techniques are learned, they must be combined with the athlete’s existing strokes and blended into the desired style of play. During this stage, the Five-Point System is revisited and practised using the new combination of advanced strokes.

Stage 7 – Self-Awareness

At this stage, the athlete has all the technical tools necessary to execute his desired style of play. The focus at this level of development is on gaining match experience and learning how to use his style to defeat opponents at International Level. As the athlete is still somewhat inexperienced, he is still focused rather more on what he is attempting to do than on what his opponent is doing. The athlete has become self-aware but often cannot focus outwardly towards his opponent.

Stage 8 – Refining Style

As the athlete begins to gather more and more match experience, he will continually be making small corrections and additions to his style of play. Ideally, athletes will return to this stage over and over again throughout their competitive life. When an athlete stops learning and improving his game, his development is over.

Stage 9 – Full Awareness

This is the stage of development that all athletes strive for. It is often called “the peak experience.” During this stage, the athlete is almost totally focused outside himself. Fully aware athletes often report feelings of time moving more slowly, the ball appearing larger and feeling that they can do anything they want to do with the ball. While most athletes experience this “peak experience” at some point in their lives, the fully aware athlete can reproduce this experience much more often.

Important Points

Please remember that an athlete’s development does not follow rigid, set stages. Rather, it flows as a process with each athlete spending more or less time in any one stage, as needed. Movement is not always in an upward direction. Sometimes, an athlete will need to return to a lower stage to correct some problem or learn material that was missed.

Most coaches feel that it takes about ten years of training to take an athlete to the top of their game. Hopefully, the Table Tennis Pyramid of Success will give athletes, coaches, and parents, a guide to understanding the athlete’s journey towards reaching his goals. While many try to become champions, only a few actually make it all the way to Stage 9. In fact, some athletes will stall out at each level. These athletes will make up the majority of players who participate in our sport. For that reason, it is important for everyone involved to understand that “the quality of the journey is more important than the destination.”

The Pyramid of Success not only represents the path of the athlete but also the overall development of our sport. There will always be a smaller number of athletes at each increasing Pyramid Stage. The greater the numbers of athletes entering Stage 1 of the Pyramid, the greater the number of elite athletes produced and the higher their level will be.

The Coach

Clive Woodward (2002)

If you want to compete by playing and thinking differently, you must work with coaches who have a similar mentality.

A good coach opens your mind to new possibilities and plants the idea that to win against the best players in the world needs a whole armoury of playing tactics. Just like there are no rules in business there are no rules in sport. It is all right to question traditional thinking in others, who do things in certain ways because that’s the way they’ve always been done.

Good coaches don’t necessarily take credit for a lot of original thought, they crib and steal and plagiarise wherever necessary. But they know the essentials – if the players cheat in training, they’ll give less than their best in matches and in life in general. The first chance to win is usually the best chance, so the player had better make the most of it.


Thinking correctly –

  1. Make training fun and games enjoyable.
  2. Have your own style, do things differently and in your own way.
  3. Build success, build on your strengths when you win, learn from your mistakes when you lose.

Plan, organise –

  1. Commitment, do players have the same level as the coach?
  2. Help in key areas, can players organise their own mental and physical preparation?
  3. Support structures, can other club members and family etc. get involved?

Coach to the player’s individual style –

  1. Does the player know where he/she is going and how to get there?
  2. Does training suit the player’s developmental pattern.
  3. Is there a suitable level of competition and sparring (even if this means working abroad).

When you’re participating, your interest is to become actively involved in a sport or pastime and to enjoy being involved in the game. When you become serious about your game and about securing victories then you have elevated yourself beyond participation to a level of competition. It is only when you begin playing at an elite level compared to those around you, when you become obsessed with doing whatever it takes for victory, only then that you are operating in the realm of winning.


Too many people do things using conventional wisdom, ‘because that’s the way it’s always been done’. Inherited thinking is a curse. It’s the biggest impediment to thinking in any organisation. Before we do anything we have to change the way we think. Not just on court but off it too. We have to learn to think differently about every aspect of what we do. One of the toughest skills to teach any athlete is how to think.

There are two parts to this concept – lateral thinking or thinking differently and vertical thinking or thinking detail.


Hannibal won his wars by doing exactly the opposite to what his enemies thought and to what tradition had always dictated.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.

To create success, everyone’s nose must be pointing in the same direction.

As a player or coach I’ve never seen the benefit, when faced with a powerful opponent, of buying into the ‘mystique’ of their strengths and successes. To focus your attention on your opponent’s strengths leads either to revering or fearing them. You cannot spend enough time analysing your opponents but this needs to create respect and not fear – there is a huge difference. Equally important are your own strengths and addressing your own weaknesses and also finding areas that will set you apart from the opposition.

It’s not all about skills. It’s about attitude and the effect on other players in your squad. One wrong team player can sap the energy from the group.

We are so often let down by our performance under pressure and in our preparation. There seem to be a thousand things to distract us at any one time. We have to improve our efforts in preparation off the court before we can see any consistent improvements on it.

How do you want to be remembered? You are a National elite player. You must take the full responsibility that this honour brings to you. Nothing must be left to chance and absolutely no ‘if onlys’ or excuses are acceptable.


  1. Body language, self-control, handling the pressure.
  2. Identify opportunities.
  3. Decisiveness.
  4. Time management.
  5. Momentum.
  6. Work-rate.
  7. Stubbornness, never give in.
  8. Think correctly under pressure.


I learn from the past — but I dream of the future, for that is where I want to spend the rest of my life.

Winning is not a sometime thing; it’s an all time thing. You don’t win once in a while; you don’t do things right once in a while; you do things right all the time. Winning is a habit. So, unfortunately, is losing.

In professional sport where winning is the only thing that counts, you cannot compromise on anything you do.

Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them – a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have the skill and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill. Muhammad Ali.

Coaching with Carrington

Jack Carrington(1960’s)


In match-play a ‘good chopper’ spells certain death to –

  • The beginner and intermediate player
  • The unskilled player
  • The lazy player
  • The impatient player
  • The gambling player (at least the bad gambler)
  • The unfit player

Techniques against chop –You cannot be content with just ‘not losing points’, you must win some points by your own actions. There are a number of different methods of tackling the good defender.

  1. Drive two or three 80% balls, push or drop one
  2. Same as 1 but switch to different targets (bear in mind the body is always a good target)
  3. Play a selection of slow push shots all over the table, then attack hard
  4. Vary loop (slow more spin) and loop-drives (faster more speed) interspersed with drop shots and hard hits
  5. Use BH or FH depending on the situation and your own capabilities

Situation Assessment

  1. At this moment, in this rally, what is my situation? Am I ready for this next ball? With a plan? Balance good? Strength good? Eye clear? Touch good? Confident?
  2. At this stage of the match what is my situation? Could this be classified as – dominating, advantage, neutral, disadvantage, desperate? Have I a lead in games, or on points in this game? Am I on the upgrade physically and mentally or on the downgrade?

NB. On your answers to the above will depend the degree of risk or enterprise which you can afford for the next ball/points. ‘Dominating’ or ‘Desperate’ are large, dramatic canvasses, painted in bold colours for all to see. It is in the ‘neutral’ situation that most mistakes are made. The ‘neutral’ situation is one in which neither player has any automatic advantage and neither can reach an ‘advantage’ position unless he shows successful enterprise, or his opponent tries to show enterprise but loses. If you are foiled by a superb defensive return or an acute angle, stabilise the situation with neutral play. Another neutral situation occurs when both players are driving fast and it’s difficult to secure an advantage because the rapidity of play prevents you from doing anything clever. In this situation can you angle or slow the ball suddenly or even step back and use the extra space and time to feed in more power or spin? In practice situations train to progress from neutral to advantage. Remember neutral play is only a pause in the main design. Too many ‘top’ young players seem ashamed to resort to neutral play, when even the greatest of champions are seen to accept the necessity of using it from time to time.


  1. If a ball gives you an advantage – take it
  2. If a ball puts you at a disadvantage – play for safety
  3. If a ball is ‘neutral’, play ‘neutral’ or ‘enterprising’
  4. If a ball puzzles you, play ‘neutral’
  5. If a ball surprises you – relax body and grip and play light
  6. If you are desperate – play bold


  1. Long-distance chopped balls
  2. Long-distance floats
  3. Close-distance chops/pushes or block/stop-block defence
  4. Deep topspin defence – long and low (not too fast, use more topspin) or high-lob defence
  5. Hard counter-drive
  6. Sidespin returns
  7. Serve and 3rd ball
  8. 2nd ball flick/attack

Topspin Timing Points

Of the 5 timing points for topspin only one, E, is below table level. It is necessary to learn to contact the ball at differing stages in the trajectory.

  • Against chop in order of – C, D, B, E, A.
  • Against topspin (using FH) – C, B, D, A, E.
  • Against topspin (using BH) – B, A, C, D, E.

Steady topspin is one you can repeat 100 times with only 5 mistakes or less. When you can spin consistently from each individual timing point the next stage (in 20’s with no mistakes) is to switch from one timing point to another without losing consistency. Use the knees, hips and shoulders to adjust the contact height. Use variation in power with consistency.Use variation in direction with consistency.

Remember fast explosive situations create excitement – excitement creates body tension – body tension is the enemy of soft touch and block strokes and change of pace. Keep body and knees relaxed whenever possible. The coach’s aim is to increase the desirable speed in any of the skills. What is desirable? To the extent that you have control. Control speed is the maximum speed at which you can operate at 85% consistency and still select targets on the table.


  • Speed of thinking – early recognition of ball or situation
  • Speed of thinking – early decision on your action
  • Speed of feet – early arrival at good position
  • Speed of feet – quick recovery to alert position
  • Speed of arm
    • controlled speed of arm
    • controlled speed of rotation and body weight
    • controlled recovery of arm and body

Work on the areas where you are weak.

7 Point Winning Weapons

Rowden October 2015

Many players play, but don't think. To be successful at the higher levels a player needs to know how he/she plays best, which are the best weapons and against which type of opponent.

What works against one opponent may play straight into the hands of the next. No player can play the same against all varied opposition. Each player needs alternatives, the capability to change when his/her usual tactics/strategies don't work. Players will have differing strengths and weaknesses in strokes, serve/receive, movement, will and mental powers etc, but tactics, techniques and strategies will be based on the seven point winning areas. Players need awareness of the areas in which they excel and the capability not only to utilise more than one area effectively, but also the instinct to switch in and out of differing areas as and when applicable.

Speed : This is the first and most important area in table tennis. If you are faster than the opponent in all areas of speed, thought, reactions, movement, stroke and timing and can cope with everything he/she throws at you, then his/her chances of beating you are slim. Unless the opponent changes something. So just what can you do when it's the opposition which is faster? Play short, slow the game down, take time with your serves, try to return the opponent's fast serve/ball with a slow return. Don't be predictable, vary pace, spin and placement, hard and soft, into the body and straight not diagonal, use the angles. A stop/start type of game is much more difficult to adjust to for any opponent. Also use your set pieces, serve and 3rd ball etc. Remember too that the plastic ball slows dramatically and even many top players have problems with the slower, dying ball.

Power: This is particularly important with the plastic ball. Players who have the ability to use real power effectively, rather than just keeping the ball on the table, will have a big advantage with the new ball. Of course this also means being able to keep the ball in play and selecting the right shot at the right time; shot selection assumes rather more importance. Players can still play off the table with topspin but now power comes into the equation more than spin. Playing with plastic, more balls are going to come back and it's important to realise this and to be really effective with the kill shots, both in power and placement. But also the short drop ball is equally very efficient, as the plastic ball dies quickly and this is another good tactic against opponents who want to back away and lob. Against players who are more powerful than you it will be necessary to limit their power or use this against them. You can play faster than them to limit their preparation, make them play more short or over the table, play stop/start or short/long to disrupt their play or return power with speed or lack of speed or more or less spin.

Placement: With placement it's vital to use all the table, short and long, straight and diagonal, to the body and crossover and also to the wide angles. Remember some short shots and extreme angles will need early timing and some feeling (soft hands). Early in the game look for areas where the opponent has problems; into the crossover, straight or wide to FH then back to BH. All players, whatever their level will be less effective and will be weaker against certain serves/strokes or in certain areas of the table or against certain combinations. It's just a matter of identifying these and using them, while avoiding the opponent's strengths. Players who place the ball well are the hardest of all categories to come to terms with. They are able to place the ball so well that often they limit your options to return or make you return to an area of the table where they are waiting. What you need to do is work out how to disrupt the pattern and return the ball where they don’t want it.

Spin: There will be less spin with the plastic ball. The Chinese National Team tested the 38 and 40mm celluloid balls and there was a reduction in spin of some 12% with the larger ball. The 40mm celluloid ball was manufactured within certain parameters between 39.5 and 40.5mm. The plastic ball is 40mm plus up to a maximum of 40.6mm but the polymers are very different and the spin noticeably less, resulting in a further reduction of some 24%. Obviously this impacts on a number of areas in the modern game. The topspin game off the table will be less effective and it's easier to counter with a block or hard hit/drive as the ball comes through slower and tends to ‘sit’ up after the bounce. However the slow spin can be quite effective as the ball drops quickly below table level. It's possible to serve with substantial spin but this is lost quite rapidly as the rally progresses. Against players whose spin causes you problems you have to limit their opportunities to create maximum spin or when they do, use this against them. Play faster and reduce their time frame, play short and over the table, play the stop/start type of game, or block soft (throwing their spin back) or force through the ball giving them little chance to continue spinning.

Control: There are often longer rallies with the plastic ball, due to less speed and spin and a higher bounce. Players will need to focus more on control and shot selection and those who like to finish points quickly in the rally may often try to force the play too early. Control overall will assume a higher priority, especially in the women's game and it will be necessary for players to be able to keep the ball in play while they look at using differing strategies to win points. Against players who have a high level of control, patience is important and the ability to make openings to use power, spin, or slow balls, or to disrupt the play with variations for example in placement, pace or spin. The stop/start type of game is the most difficult for good control players.

Slow Balls: It is a fact with the plastic ball that short returns, slow spins and drop shots over the table tend to slow down or ‘die’. This can be of advantage when slow spinning a backspin serve half-long or when dropping a lob short off the bounce, rolling a slow ball with short pimples or when playing defenders and should not be overlooked within your tactical and strategic planning.

Set Pieces: Serve and receive now have a different emphasis. It is more difficult to serve really short and tight to stop the opponent attacking. Many coaches and top players feel that the service is no longer such a big advantage, or that the balance is even swinging in favour of the good receivers. It is a fact that sidespin is now the most important spin in the server's armoury (often combined with either back or topspin) as this helps to keep the ball lower over the net and after the bounce. Service is also favouring half-long or longer serves as opposed to the very short variations.
Dropping very short from an early timing point is still an option against shorter serves and the flick is also more effective. It is therefore important both in the men's and women's games for all players to upgrade their short play and maintain this at a high level. Aspects such as playing against the sidespin to achieve extreme angles or fading the flick should also be researched.
Serves, in the women's game especially, have always been longer but this will now almost certainly increase as will the focus on third ball play in an attempt to win points earlier. Even against the fast long serves however there needs to be variation in receive, not only in spin but also in speed. Players who use pace on the long serve want pace on the return. The capability to return a slower or shorter ball against a fast serve is a viable option. Receivers must research varying methods of receive and the second and fourth balls will be of particular importance within the framework of the rally.

Summary: What becomes vital if you are to reach the higher levels of our sport is the ability to think strategically. Few players will be equally strong in all seven areas but most top players will be strong in at least four or five. You need to identify which are your best areas, then how and when to user them. Each opponent you face will be strong or stronger in some of the seven areas. You need to identify (and quickly) which are the opponents’ strengths, how to counteract these and then how to use your strengths against them.

Within all of the above it must be considered that at the moment the plastic balls are not uniform either in quality or behaviour. Differing brands of ball behave in different ways and breakages and strange bounces are common. Equally differing brands have different characteristics in terms of spin or control so for players even at quite a high standard we do not yet have a level playing field. The advice has to be, find out which ball will be used at your next event and train with this beforehand.


Rowden December 2020

Excellence is not the result of some gene you were born with, some great talent or skill you possess, which you never had to work for; though some athletes do have some marginal physical or mental advantages, better stamina, faster reactions, bigger size, more explosive speed, higher level of concentration, the list can be quite extensive.

The clue is in what Jesse Owen's coach said about him in the 1950's. 'He has probably the greatest athletic talent any coach has ever seen and would have been world champion in some events had he been coached by the local postman. In May 1935 he broke or equalled six World Records in less than one hour. He broke world records in events in which he never normally competed. But it was never the talent which produced such excellence; it was the approach to training, the dedication and work-rate. Jesse would still be out on the track training when everyone else was in the showers and finished for the day!’
To achieve real excellence is never about talent alone, it's about ATTITUDE, how you approach your sport, what time and effort you put in, about who you listen to and how to filter and analyse what you hear to make the best use of it. It's also, whether you understand it or not, about you controlling and developing you in the best way for you, you can't reach the dizzy heights by copying others or working to somebody else's program.

Game Management -- Seminar

Rowden April 2019

‘The ability to adapt and to be effective, whatever the style of the opponent’.
There are 3 main areas to consider:

Mind – Players can react in 3 ways to stress:
● Making excuses and giving up (players find it’s less painful to give in and get off the court, rather than being humiliated). Remember however – ‘It’s not the one who loses who fails, but the one who lies down and gives up’. Try to continue to play for points and to fight and think to try different things. Watch the opponent’s face for signs of weakness.
● Getting angry either with conditions/circumstances or themselves. Anger causes tension and leads to worse shots and restricts logical thinking. There’s no point in getting irritated over aspects beyond your control, you have to accept these and get on with the game. The one thing you can control is you, try to stay calm and direct your focus not internally, but on your opponent.
● Becoming afraid and this often happens when you are ahead in matches and the opponent starts to come back. This is when it’s easy to stop playing or to start playing safe so as not to lose. What you should be doing is thinking – ‘What have I been doing so far to get ahead and why don’t I just continue doing this!’ Interestingly enough this is really the last stage before becoming a winner and you just have to stay calm and get over this last hurdle.
The secret to success is being calm and relaxed, this is the state in which you think clearly and can plan the tactics against the opponent and judge when and what changes are needed in strategy.
All opponents are different and you have to be able to cope and adapt. There are 2 main aspects to consider:
● There are many differing styles out there and many different rubber combinations to deal with, so how do we go about dealing with this? Because much of our own play is automated it’s vital (as Waldner states in his book) to train against all styles, defenders, blockers, loopers, drive and pimple players, and left-handers.
● As our sport is so fast and much of the play over the table is below normal human reaction time, we all learn to play on autopilot. The one aspect which upsets autopilot is when we come up against something new or different which we don’t fully understand; it’s then that the automatic systems break down and we have to start thinking consciously which is of course much slower. It is therefore most useful to develop new things, serves, receives, strategies which upset the opponent’s rhythm.
The final area to consider in depth is that of alternatives. What answers can we find to cope with the problems already stated? We should of course aim to be less predictable so that opponents have more difficulty coming to terms with the way we play! We can do this in a number of ways.
● Train with varied placement, in:
o Width
o Length
o Tempo
● Use slow balls and sidespin
● Serves – Use many long serves with speed. Against the long serve return with control
● Short serves – Here you need to serve with quality. When returning use all 3 receives, short drop, flick and long push fast and early with or without spin
● Use more long pushes over the table
Plastic Ball
● Stay square to opponent (especially when close to table)
● Use shorter strokes and keep racket up, above table level
● Play strokes forward, go to the ball
● Ball slows over the table, the start of the stroke is more important
● More attention to placement and to in and out movement
● Use more slower/softer balls with spin or float
● More long serves in last 10 cms of the table and with speed
● More long pushes over the table
● Short serves and receives require more quality. On receive flick and drop short from as early a timing point as possible. With the long push use early timing with speed and vary spin
● All expect a faster game so tempo variations are important
● Develop BH strength overall and in case of women use BH from the middle of table in fast play
● Maintain good physical fitness to cope with longer rallies
● Good overall technique with no major weaknesses needed to reach top levels. This applies to all areas, serve/receive, short play, drive, smash and spin production and on both wings

Game Management

Rowden March 2018

In our sport it’s not necessarily the best player who always wins. It is the player who manages the game best and who is able to adapt and change to cope with differing opponents and situations.

To do this effectively requires focus and attention, to actively assess exactly what you have to change to cope with constantly variable circumstances. This means of course that you need to be calm and unruffled in attitude; if you are afraid, irritated, angry or upset it becomes much more difficult to stand back and to estimate objectively which is the most effective course of action that will work to your best advantage.
So what changes may we need to bring in to win games or cause maximum problems for the opposition? For a start what is the style of your opponents and which type of game do they prefer to meet? Do they like a fast game so they can use the speed against you? Do they play steadily and wait for you to open so they can counter? Do they use various spins to create openings so they can kill the ball and win points? And from your side of the table, which parts of your game are they comfortable with and which aspects cause them discomfort? Once you’ve identified how your opponent likes to play and what he/she doesn’t like about your game, then you’re in a position to start to make changes.
So just what types of change are available to you, to create advantage for you and put pressure on the opponent? Placement is of course the obvious choice. Most top players don’t play several balls to the same place, they don’t set up patterns which the opponent can use against them; instead they are unpredictable, wide angled balls off the side of the table, straight balls down the lines, balls to the crossover/body and there is of course constant change of direction so the opponent doesn’t get the opportunity to settle and plan counter-measures. Next is change of pace, hard and soft, short and long, so that opponents are not able to settle to a constant length and instead are obliged to move in and out in relation to their table position. Also do not underestimate the value of sidespin with the plastic ball and consider the use of the slower ball, which often does not come through to the opponent or stops short over the table.
But of course most important of all it is necessary that you have the weapons to be able to change things. If for example your opponent can’t handle short serves this doesn’t give you any advantage unless you are able to actually serve short! It is therefore vital that you have alternatives in all aspects of your game and that you are capable of initiating change when required and have the capability of playing differing types of strategies in differing situations. For example against short serve you will need short touch receives, long quick pushes with and without spin and attacking flicks from differing timing points, against long serves, topspin, drives, the full variety of differing blocks and even some chop returns. Again alternatives are required in the rallies too; against attackers, the ability to counter with topspin or drive, to use varied blocks, sidespin and even chops; against defenders the ability to spin slow or fast, to drive hard or even push off the bounce with or without spin to create openings.
But above all it is more important than anything else that you don’t fall into the habit of playing as you WANT to play: WINNERS do what they NEED to do to win.

Path to the Future You

Rowden June 2021

Habits can be good. In fact over 40% of our actions in any one day are habits not a result of conscious thought.

The brain welcomes habits because they enable us to do simple everyday tasks on autopilot, releasing the brain to focus on more important aspects. The automatization of your actions frees up energy that can be used to focus to other tasks. This can work to your advantage! But problems occur when bad habits become automated and you get locked into actions which are counter-productive.

Our sport of table tennis is largely automated, which it needs to be, as it is too quick for us to have to consciously think of every response to the opponent's actions. But there is danger in this automatization. We become programmed to play in certain ways without enough variety and innovation. If we are not careful not only can the number of alternatives we use become too few and limited and we become predictable and easy to 'read', but the much bigger danger is we stop thinking and become too fixed and narrow in our tactics and strategies.

This mental aspect is particularly crucial in view of the current science of table tennis with the plastic ball, which requires us to be more unpredictable and innovative, but with a lesser number of weapons at our disposal due to the much reduced spin and the ease of coping with the newer ball.

A further problem arises in the case of the developmental system in most National Associations, which removes players from their clubs often at a young age and puts them in high performance centres where they will evolve into top players. Unfortunately the coaches then handling the young stars don't know them, don't understand in detail how they play and often do not have enough table time with the players to form a productive relationship. Every player is of course an individual and should progress in the appropriate direction for their own skills and strengths and this personal indepth focus is quite often lacking at a time when it is most necessary. Or even worse if the current coach has his/her own ideas of how top players should perform, they will be encouraged to play in a counter-productive way which ignores their own strengths and basic instincts. At times too players will even be asked to copy world class stars, when in fact they possess none of the necessary qualities or attributes to perform as these players do.

Young players too are young. This should be obvious but what is not so obvious is that in many cases they understand little of the why and how they should train. The young often seem to have the attitude they are training to beat other little kids (and some coaches are the same), whereas the young player ideally is being given all the tools and weapons to survive and prosper at the senior level, which of course is the end product. Young players should always be taught the 'complete package' even from a very early age then it is not necessary to backtrack and to start learning suitable strategies for each subsequent level as they move on.

Equally youngsters should be instructed in the mental aspects in the early stages. It is very easy for them to find a way of playing which wins matches at their beginner level and they then mentally become locked into this method (which works against the kids) and resist changing it as they think they have reached the final destination and have nothing else to learn. It is only much later that they realise at senior level table tennis is a completely different ball game, where one type of strategy has no chance against older much more experienced players, who keep changing the goal posts. The senior players keep changing all the time and in many different ways, change of placement, change of length and speed, use of angles and straight balls, shots into the body, change of spin, power and lack of power etc. At senior level unpredictability is the norm and players have available many more alternatives to cope with differing situations; as a result the player with only one major strategy has little or no chance.

The unpredictability and the alternatives should therefore also be taught EARLY as should the MENTAL grasp of the crucial nature of the wide-ranging approach to tactics and strategy.

Professional Training

Rowden Fullen (2010)

Professional training is just that – professional and not just part of the time but all of the time. The main difference is the mindset and there are three prerequisites:
• The player has to be mature or prepared to try and be mature
• The player has to be really motivated and to want to get to the top and be prepared to make the necessary sacrifices including moving towards the right kind of life style
• The player has to be prepared to make a major effort and to start thinking for him/herself and to be ready to develop this aspect. No top player is ever going to reach the heights and still be coach ‘reliant’

Once the training starts other factors come into play. The training itself (and this is where many European countries fall down) has to encompass the following aspects:
• It has to be enough in terms of length of time (usually we are talking around a minimum of 25 hours per week)
• It has to be intense enough. No player develops unless the training stretches his/her boundaries all the time
• It has to be individually meaningful. In other words the training has to be aimed specifically at what the player needs to do in order to progress
• It has to embrace both the necessary physical and mental requirements applicable to the particular player’s specific style
• It has to cover a suitable balance of the necessary contributions needed for the player’s total development – training, tournaments of differing types, rest etc
• Over the period of training there has to be a shift from coach responsibility to player responsibility. In other words the player has to take the step of assuming an increasingly larger part of the responsibility for his/her own development
• No development of this complexity can by its very nature be solely sports-oriented. Rather than the moulding of a sporting star we are talking about the expansion and development of the whole person.

In most countries in Europe unfortunately professional training is not engineered precisely enough. Usually the required intensity is lacking and almost always the individual emphasis is non-existent and much of the training is in fact not geared towards what the player needs. Most of the top coaches in Europe are more than a little concerned with the direction and quality of our coaching and three main areas are highlighted:
• The general decrease in the levels of expertise and coaching knowledge
• An increased emphasis on achievement for the young (sometimes the very young) at the expense of senior development and preparation for the senior game
• A growing lack of good coaches in the women’s game and in the overall knowledge of what is required to bring women up to the highest levels

A further comment which has been made in some Table Tennis Magazines in Europe is the lack of ‘substance’ among the top coaches, that they ‘talk’ good coaching but seem unable to produce the goods in terms of results with their players. The consequence is that even a number of the top young players are losing confidence in the ability of their associations to help them achieve the higher levels they aspire to.

I quote from an article in a recent magazine published in one of the top table tennis nations in Europe – ‘How do top juniors have any chance to develop their own game under any form of sensible and understanding leadership? They are expected to follow blindly the trainers’ directives and carry out numerous ‘exercises’ which may or may not suit their playing style. Some years ago the older World Champions in Europe had to develop their own game without the advantages of such detailed exercises and constant direction. This of course is something the current coaches never mention. Top youngsters are heartily fed up with hearing ‘coach speak’ such as ‘I will teach you all about table tennis’ or ‘We have everything you need to get you to the top in Europe’. Blatantly many coaches in the association are unable to produce the results they are paid for and this is quickly obvious to the players’.

In many cases coaches nowadays seem largely deficient in the areas of technical preparation and in understanding technical quality. How many coaches work on the principle that the basic ready position and movement patterns must accord even in the early stages to the performer’s playing style? The basic ready position and footwork play a significant and leading role in table tennis; these are the most basic skills and a crucial part in preparing to hit any ball. And what about the waist? In every technical skill the waist has an especially important function, for correct utilization of the waist is a key element in the coordination of every stroke, this enables fast footwork, increases the power of attacking and the spin in the topspin strokes.

What too about the five elements of technical quality: consistency, speed, spin, power and accuracy? The more of these elements you have in your stroke, the more difficult it will be to return and the higher the quality of the stroke. According to your purpose and the kind of stroke you should be able to hit the ball in different phases also. Independent of your individual style you should master play from differing distances but always bear in mind your predominant distance (the area in which you primarily operate). I could go on at some depth about timing, the flat and brush strokes, contact on differing parts of the ball and racket etc.

What appears to be happening now is that we are in the business of producing ‘clones’ rather than trying to develop a variety of top players. And sadly in many cases we have stopped listening to the players.

Perhaps more coaches should reconsider their own image and what they are trying to achieve. At all times it is the player who should be ‘in focus’. If the coach considers himself in charge and of importance then a certain amount of his energy is directed into maintaining his position and feeding his ego. Therefore not all of his energy is centred only on the player and in giving the player the best of all possible opportunities to reach his/her full potential. In this case it is the coach who is no longer professional.

Many careers nowadays unfortunately are about putting work before anything else. Then if the motivation is about achievement, what matters most are promotion, salary and the annual appraisal. It is the ‘me’ who is in focus. Are we serving the wrong things? If people work as a team, not for themselves but for each other, how much more can be achieved! And then in fact believe it or not, the results would flow!

In the final analysis the coach’s job is to make the player self-reliant and independent so that he/she, the coach, is no longer needed.

Sayings from the Past

J. Carrington (1960’s)

Jack Carrington was one of the greatest coaches of all time and many years ahead of his time in his approach to table tennis

Most players expect the coach to teach them new or better strokes, but the coach could do much more if they would allow him to teach them new or better thoughts.

The importance of BH/FH practice is that over 50% of all points lost in matches occur on a change of stroke between left and right-side play. This practice reduces the mistakes because it teaches you to be ready to turn. It also teaches you that after each turn there is a fraction of a second to think.

Baseline to baseline and short to short is the golden rule for non-expert players. Long shots need longer strokes, short shots only need short preparation and follow-through.

There is a whole family of push strokes – the push is a preparation for many other skills. Conversion is also a whole new field but don’t neglect the conversion of slow push to fast push.

In attacking shots the body weight should be moving upward and forward at the moment of contact – in defensive shots downwards.

There is a topspin answer for every ball, but it’s not always the best answer. Training for advanced players should include –

  • Discipline Tasks
  • Skill Tasks
  • Speed or speeding-up tasks
  • Ingenuity Tasks

‘Soft-touch’ skills are important, but possessing the skills is not enough, using them sensibly is what makes you advance in match-play. In classic defence the intention is to recover some time – recovering time is important to both defensive and attacking players. If attackers are blocked wide they too must know how to take the next ball later. Anticipation depends on watching what is happening at the other side of the table, good judgement, alertness and rapid movement into position.

A quick take-off to any position is something every player can train for until it is automatic. In advanced stages a very quick retreat over a short distance is often more effective than waiting a long way back.

It is in the field of mobility that the biggest advances can and must be made. Improve your mobility by 15% and this will immediately lift your game by one or two levels. Make it a habit to move somewhere, even if it’s just a few inches, immediately after each stroke. This creates an automatic ‘rebalancing’.

The Battle, Weapons and Alternatives

Rowden January 2015

Battles are won by having the right weapons, by using suitable tactics, but above all having the will, the desire and toughness to win. Heavy weapons usually prevail over light ones, the wrong tactics can turn victory into defeat, but without the will any sustained conflict is doomed to failure. What must also be understood is that new weapons and tactics are being developed year by year and time does not stand still. Our sport of table tennis is very similar to warfare.

Above all else each player must know how he/she performs best and how to be most effective, which are the best weapons and which is the best way to use them. In addition no individual can stagnate or be satisfied with current levels. Change is the essence of all existence and in sport we must move forward and keep bringing new aspects into our game. Equally we are all individuals and must find our own way to success; no two players perform in the same way. Finally we have to find the most suitable tactics to beat the opponent, what is effective against four players may fail miserably against the fifth. We must have alternatives and be aware of when and how to use these.
What many of us fail to understand is the need for differing alternatives to cope with differing situations. Not only do we need to develop the right weapons for us as individuals but we need as many alternatives as we can get, because this means we are more able to handle a bigger variety of strategies more easily. Also of course we need to be able to use different tactics against some players as we will always on occasion meet players who cope easily with our strongest shots. This is when we need the alternatives and to be able to think and act ‘outside the box’.
The aspect of minimizing one’s weaknesses is important: the expert opponent will very quickly take advantage of major areas of weakness and all top players are ‘complete’, in that they have no real holes in their game. However even more crucial is to focus primarily on developing one’s strengths: players only achieve their fullest potential by evolving in a way that their own natural strengths blossom and come to fruition. It is only by refining these individual specialties that you will reach the peak of performance because only in this way do you develop weapons which are both unusual and particular to you. Against such weapons there is no easy method of defence.
But in the final analysis as in any battle the mental aspect, the will is of paramount importance. Players must believe in themselves and their training; if they have good training and development and understand how they perform best, then nothing is impossible. In many contests there are in fact only very small margins between top players; technically and physically the differences will be minimal. The winner is in fact often determined not by these technical and physical factors but by attitudes, mental strength and self-belief!

The Vital Factors of Early Development

Rowden Fullen (2010)

We must be aware from the very start that there are two basic coaching styles throughout Europe:
• The countries which have a quite rigid, basic framework within which players are expected to develop their technical skills
• The countries which place less value on a framework and more on the player and coach finding ways to develop their individual talents

Sweden is one of the leading exponents of individual development but it’s interesting to note that there are strong similarities in the way the Chinese and Swedish coach their young players. As von Scheele, the Swedish Junior Captain stresses: ‘The key phrases are responsibility for own development and driving force/motivation. To be a top player requires from an early age that you assume responsibility for solving your own problems in sport. Coaches in Europe help their players too much, they should pull back and teach more self-sufficiency’.

The Chinese basically combine the two systems. Although they are strong on the technical side and spend much time making sure that from a young age players have no weaknesses in technique, they are also always on the lookout for what they call the ‘specialty’. Some ability, tactic or playing style which makes the individual different and much more difficult to beat. In other words they look specifically for individual characteristics.

Too often we see the table tennis player as developing in steps, where we pass him/her on to more experienced coaches at higher levels, such as High-Performance, Regional or National Centres. Unfortunately however throughout Europe many of these ‘centres’ have fallen in level and are often no longer staffed by coaches who possess the required developmental skills and experience. Without some form of continuity this sort of system just doesn’t work. Do the coaches of today understand playing styles and the crucial importance of certain base techniques?

Too often too the men’s and women’s games are not seen as ‘two completely different sports’ and this is the main reason why women’s play is currently at such a low level throughout Europe. In the women’s game it is almost always speed which wins over spin, which is exactly the opposite of what happens with the men. There are also many more material players among the ranks of the women and coaches must be more fully informed as to the why, the how and the what. Many countries are quite backward in the coaching of girls and not much thought goes into their development. Girls must have a training programme which allows them to ‘get closest to their full potential’.

The trainer’s early focus in the first stages of development is particularly crucial and embraces a number of aspects, which the player must understand:
• Each technique should be as economical and as simple as possible
• In matches many techniques will be combined – this means knowledge of coordination, balance and automated footwork patterns
• Balance depends on rhythm and equal weight on both legs (both feet on the ground as much as possible)

Top coaches understand that certain factors, even in the very early stages of growth, have a direct bearing on style development:
• The grip influences from the start just what you can do with the ball, which strokes are more effective and from what distance
• The ready position is closely connected to the player’s style and influences balance, reach, the movement patterns which can be used and which type of strokes can be effectively played
• Rotation is particularly vital and should be developed prior to the stroke
• Movement and the correct movement patterns (for your particular style) are crucial as these allow you to ‘come right to the ball’ and play stronger shots. Even at the beginner stage, players should not play strokes from a static position but should learn to move and hit the ball

It is interesting to note that both the Swedish and Chinese coaching systems are in agreement with the importance of these factors in the early stages of development. But of course they must also be understood when the player moves on to various coaching groups at higher levels. All coaches must be aware that a forehand ready position leads to certain playing styles as a square ready position leads to very different styles. Also the movement patterns from differing ready positions will often be radically different. A very simple change, such as moving a foot back a few inches can dramatically alter just how efficient the player will be as he/she is no longer operating from the most effective position for his/her game.

This type of awareness is often less prevalent in Europe nowadays as many top trainers increasingly come from the ranks of the players and do not have an in-depth coaching background. Often too their understanding of a variety of playing styles is limited. They can be over-convinced as to the value of their own style and that this should perhaps be promoted at the expense of others which they don’t fully understand.

In fact many coach educators are increasingly concerned that top athletes are pushed into coaching roles without adequate preparation. They also feel that top athletes do not necessarily make top coaches and that their single-minded goal of pursuing personal excellence in one way of playing does not qualify them to advise others, who may have considerably different playing styles and physical and mental characteristics. In many cases too unfortunately the communication and people skills of top players are less than adequate.

What is required in Europe is a more in-depth understanding of ‘the whole coaching picture’. Coaching development is not something which occurs in stages, step by step and should not be seen like this. Trainee coaches must be made aware right from the very beginning of the crucial importance of many of the early factors of growth in directing the player towards the right path for him/her. Also coaches must understand the close relationship between techniques and tactics and that the appropriate techniques must be cultivated and refined so that the player is more easily able to execute the tactics suitable to his/her end style.

Does the Top Player make the Top Coach?

D. Turner(2009)

(Dave Turner is a principal lecturer in sports coaching at the University of Hertfordshire).

Quite a number of our top coaches and other individuals occupying top positions in the Association (selection for example) are ex-players and have been very good performers in their time. No-one would argue with this. What however we can take issue with is whether or not the top performer is the person best suited to take on the mantle of the top coach. It seems unlikely that the superstar acquires huge communication skills during his single-minded quest for gold medals or even the abilities to effectively cope with recalcitrant teenagers. Nor does it seem likely that a strong male, topspin player will have vast experience in coaching and developing female defenders or ‘funny’ bat players. Perhaps selection of those who will handle the development of our young potential requires rather more attention to detail than we may have thought in the past.

Rather than exceptional athletes being regarded as having potential for coaching roles – being effectively fast-tracked through coach education programmes and swiftly elevated to high profile positions – perhaps they should be recognised as requiring extra support in making the transition to thinking like a coach, with more comprehensive input from coach education and the accumulation of coaching experience in minor coaching roles. We certainly need a more sophisticated talent identification process for prospective coaches than athletic achievement alone; it takes a good coach educator to keep the player at the top.

Coaching is well recognised as a cognitive endeavour, as opposed to the predominantly physical nature of athletic participation. Coaching and performing are distinct undertakings and a period of learning and apprenticeship is required in each. Decision making is arguably the most important skill for coaches ahead of communication (you have to decide what to communicate first!).

In a recent research article on the origins of elite coaching knowledge, the majority of participating coaches believed that less naturally talented competitors would experience a smoother transition to coaching, simply because they had to think twice as hard and analyse more.

Talented ex-performers may well be more familiar with how the skills, techniques and tactics of the sport feel and are experienced by athletes. They may also intimately understand the pressures involved at elite level and may be able to inspire athletes with competitive examples of excellence. However in a study of successful high-school coaches, the breadth and extent of previous athletic experience was implicated as more important in development than great athletic ability. In respect of coaching, athletic ability may in some cases be an advantage, but it’s certainly not a necessity.

Some years ago while gathering research data from athletics’ coaches; I came across the following quote with regards to the achievement of athletic potential.

‘It is often the B+ and not the A-grade people who will eventually come through. You can get so far on natural ability, but if you’re not bothered to train or if things come too easily it takes a good coach to keep you at the top’.

This resonated with some of my coaching observations. Some novices would quickly take to the skills and techniques with apparent ease and experience much early success. However it often transpired that these early learners dropped out in the longer term and those, who had encountered initial difficulties would persist, work through problems and eventually flourish.

Over time I reflected on the above and began thinking that a parallel may exist with sports coaches. Might it be that coaches, who have endured adversity as athletes could exhibit a greater potential for coaching, compared to exceptionally gifted sports people, to whom success has come much more easily? Are effective coaches more likely to have been merely adequate or good athletes, rather than excellent ones?

Of England’s 1966 World Cup-winning team only Jack Charlton went on to achieve any degree of coaching success, taking the Republic of Ireland to two World Cups in 1990 and 1994. In contrast many contemporary foreign coaches working in English football have very humble playing backgrounds, yet far more impressive coaching records (eg. Arsene Wenger). Similarly, former coaches of the highest world-ranked test cricket sides – John Buchanan of Australia and England’s Duncan Fletcher – had never played test cricket. To be a good coach and to understand things technically you don’t have to have played at the highest level. Sometimes you can introduce better plans having viewed everything from afar, looking in, rather than being in it. It can well be that when you haven’t been there and haven’t done it, that you learn and understand the game more than those who have always taken it for granted and are completely natural players.

Straightforward athletic success as a competitor may result in a lack of compassion and empathic understanding towards the problems experienced by others, which is critical within coaching. Some qualities associated with a number of elite or high-performance athletes, such as selfishness or egotism, can be a major drawback in trying to selflessly help others to reach full potential.

The message is quite clear; while perfection is unattainable in coaching, striving for perfection is an essential prerequisite for effectiveness and/or excellence. As a coach you have to assiduously develop self-awareness, work hard through times of adversity and conscientiously endeavour to improve. Success will not just happen because of natural qualities or the accumulation of experience alone.

Despite the above, the tendency in European Associations is for ex-players to go into coaching or into the official structure in one capacity or another. So the system becomes self-perpetuating and it then becomes unlikely that anything new or innovative will occur. Perhaps it is felt that young ex-players have the right ‘image’ for public consumption.

Yet when you look at the top countries in the world such as China, yes they have their young ex-player coaches such as Liu Guoliang, but also they have the much older coaches in the Association, such as Mr. Li, who has been involved in women’s coaching in China for decades. Also in their Provincial Centres they have many older coaches involved in the development of young players. In fact the latest innovation from China, the reverse pen-hold backhand, was not ‘discovered’ by a player but came from an ‘older’ coach in the Harbin Provincial Centre.