Growth after Technique

Rowden Fullen (2003)

Just what happens when your player becomes reasonably proficient in technique and is able to get to most balls and play her strokes from all areas of the table? Obviously there must still be growth — technique on its own without the knowledge of how to use it effectively is an empty shell. Growth is also vital from the mental standpoint. The player will soon comprehend at least subconsciously that she has stopped progressing and this will lead to a general feeling of dissatisfaction.

It is however precisely at this stage of development where many coaches seem at a loss as to what to do next. They continue to concentrate on the minutiae of technique and work their players harder and harder physically and wonder why there is so often little improvement and diminishing motivation. Another aspect, which many coaches fail to fully appreciate, is that they are not starting afresh at a new stage in their player’s development. What happens next depends very much on whether the correct foundations have been laid in the formative years.

Of course before we even think of investigating how we are going to grow we must first identify exactly what we are going to grow into or in other words ‘destination’, where we are going. To do this we must first define the prime skill of table tennis. What qualities, abilities and capabilities should the prospective world champion possess in order to reach the very highest level? The prime skill of table tennis is quite simply to be able to adapt in an ever changing situation. Unless your player has the capacity to cope with all different styles of play it is extremely unlikely that she will ever reach the highest levels. Either she must be able to change and adjust quickly to the opponent’s game or her own game must be so different or unusual that other players have extreme difficulty in adapting to her style.

This is why too it is so vital for coaches to ensure that their players, right from the early formative years, have the opportunity to train and play against all styles of play and combinations of material. In this way the ‘automatic’ reflexes, the conditioned responses, that the player has to work so hard to build up, cover a much larger series of actions and it is rather easier for her to adapt to new situations. In other words the content and method of training of girl players assume rather more importance than we may have initially thought, especially in the formative years. Why ‘of girl players’? Quite simply because there are many more styles and many more ‘material’ players among the ranks of the women. To play at a high level in the women’s game requires a high ‘adaptation capability’.

Technique is the basis of tactics and the development of technique generally precedes that of tactics. When your player has mastered all-round technique successfully it is only then that she is able to use various tactics to real effect. But also the appropriate use of tactics can allow your player to use and develop her technique to the fullest extent. New techniques will inevitably give rise to new tactics. A thorough understanding of the interaction between technique and tactics will enable us to better understand the vital importance of innovation in tactics in our work with young players.

It is important to fully appreciate that a player will only ever reach full potential by cultivating her strengths and developing what she does best, not by working on her weak areas, until these are passable or adequate! That is why with young players it is important to isolate their strengths in the early years and to put in a fair amount of training time to make these as formidable as possible. Strengths should above all be used and used to win games. The player even at a relatively young age should know how to get her fortés in during the match. This is why too it is very important to work on serve and receive with your young players. Unless they develop an understanding of these areas of the game they are often restricted with what they can do with the next one, two or three balls and they never get the chance to play their winning strokes.

In the case of many of the more advanced areas you will now introduce, the groundwork will have been laid and the preparation made some years before. What will occur now is a refining of tactics and strategies in areas such as control of speed, different permutations of block, short play, early and late timing skills, use of the table, variation in spin, speed, placement and angles and methods of opening up. There will of course be much more serve and 3rd ball and receive and 2nd ball training and most of the exercises you use will be irregular or random.

There will be too a refinement in the mental approach, an understanding of the need to be flexible and positive, of the level of risk taking required if players are to reach the highest levels. Above all there will be an understanding that growth must continue however slow this may be. Whatever level the player may reach, the only alternative to progress is stagnation.

The prime aspect that many players and coaches do not seem to appreciate is that development above all must be in the right direction for the particular player and that the right training must be devised to enable that player to evolve and mature. Indeed it is the prime function of the coach to unlock the potential of his player. Direction is vital, if the player follows the wrong course for her then much of that potential can remain untapped.

It’s important that the player knows how to get the best out of her own game and knows what is effective with her own personal style of play. She should be aware of her most effective playing distance from the table and how much of the table she would cover with the forehand or the backhand. She should understand which serves and receives are most effective with her style of play against different types of opponent, how she should change her game against defenders or pimples and know how to take advantage knowledgeably of return spin on the third or fourth ball. She should know how she plays best — is she most effective in fast counter-play, in a slower game, is she good at looping or drive play, does she know how she wins points, can she change her game against different styles of play?

However at a personal level just how many players actually comprehend that they are training in the right way for them, with the right content and the right methods? Even if you become involved with women players who have been in their national squads for some years and have played in European and World Championships, often they are still not aware how to get the best out of their own game or indeed where they are going. It would appear that a thorough understanding of the relationship of tactics to technique and the intricacies of personal style development are not considered necessary at national level in many countries.

If a player is to continue evolving, each individual should develop their own unique style and do what they ‘do best’. It’s of vital importance that girls understand how they play best and in which way they are most effective. It’s equally important that they train in the right way to accentuate the growth of their own personal style and that they keep developing.