Way Forward

Are we going in the Right Direction?

Rowden Fullen (2002)

In life as in table tennis you can grow and develop or you can stagnate. You are not the same at five, twelve, eighteen, thirty and fifty years of age, you don’t think or act the same. The same applies to your table tennis, there should be growth, a progression. However just how many players can honestly say that their game is developing and that there is a definite upward trend? How many ask themselves regularly — ‘What is new or different in my game over the last six months, one year? How is my game growing? What changes do I have in serve and receive, strokes, placement or tactics? What development can I see in spin, speed, variation, timing or mental approach? Even, do I actually know where I am going, what is my ultimate goal?’

It is all too easy to drift, to procrastinate, to accept lesser levels of achievement. It’s very human to take the easy road. Many players don’t seem to question where they are going — they just drift. After a while the mind becomes frozen and they don’t even question any more. It’s also all too easy to be limited by those around you, both coaches and players. How often do I hear the phrase — ‘But you must face up to reality!’ But what is reality? Ten players in your club will tell you it’s impossible to become a world champion. But if you talk to one or two world champions, they won’t laugh at you for thinking and aiming big, because they have already done it! It’s all a matter of perception — if you set limits in your own mind on what you expect to achieve, then you will indeed never exceed these limits. Just what is your reality!

How many players also know how to get the best out of their own game, what is effective with their own personal style of play? If you ask players how they win points, what is their winning weapon, they may well know this. But if you go into their style in more detail you get fewer and fewer answers and often little understanding of several important areas. Many players do not seem to be aware of their most effective playing distance from the table or how much of the table they would cover with the forehand or the backhand for example. If you start to explore in depth, which serve and receive is most effective with their style of play against designated opponents, how they change against defence or pimples, ask if they can take advantage knowledgeably of return spin on the third or fourth ball and use elastic energy or the Magnus effect against defence players, often you only get blank looks in reply.

In fact if you compare the young players of today in Europe with those who have been at the top for many years and are now between 25 — 38, there seems to be much less individualism among the young and rather less flair and feeling in their game. Swedish players such as Waldner, Persson, Appelgren and Lindh all have very different styles of play as do Primorac, Gatien, Saive, Korbel and Kreanga. Most of the younger players are more robotic in their play and there appears to be developing in Europe a sameness of play, a universality of style, strong, efficient and workmanlike but without the personal, unique touches that differentiate the really special performers from the run-of-the-mill players.

If our European style of play is changing, the first question to ask is why. What has changed over the last twenty years since the older players were in their formative period? Is it the coaches, the players or the system or some combination of all three? Or is it that with more interaction between European countries, more joint training ventures, more mass media, magazines, internet, there is now a standardization of coaching, less invention and fewer ideas? Is it perhaps that in many countries we now have more top players being involved in coaching, especially in the National centres, who as a result of their own background, look at the development of style in a rather different light, or even consider certain styles of play more preferable to others? It would appear that whatever the reasons that there are fewer ‘extreme’ styles coming through in Europe at the moment and fewer trainers working with the more unusual type of game as played by Carl Prean or Ni Xialan for example.

The other vital question we must ask ourselves is — ‘Are we going in the right direction?’ Is our modern, efficient, workmanlike style going to dominate world play for the next I0 — 20 years and sweep aside the Asian block countries? How many of our up-and-coming players in Europe between say I7 – 20 have really made the transition from top juniors to top senior level and are in a position to positively challenge the older stars? The young Swedish players of the ‘80’s were in every team final from I983 to I995 winning 3 gold and 4 silver. Before that Stellan Bengtsson was world champion at the tender age of I7 years! There would appear to be little or no evidence that the current youth of Europe is reaching world level at a similar sort of age.

Perhaps one of the biggest dangers of being encouraged to play a certain type of game, whether the influence is from coaches, media, other players or role models, is that there is a lessening of the individual input. What should always be remembered is that all players are unique and they should be urged to accentuate and develop their own personal style and to do what they do best. To imitate others often means that you try to develop areas of your game where at best you will only ever be mediocre. Some coaches even seem to think along the lines, ‘we’ in our country have ‘our own National style’. This too is a rather dangerous assumption as there is then a tendency to ignore potential which doesn’t fit in with the ‘National Plan’!

If we are to look at technical areas where we have some reasonable chance to dominate the Asian players, then surely we must examine their training programmes and methods and isolate aspects where they fear the strengths of the European game. The conventional fast attack game has been common for many years in Asia and as a result training programmes and exercises are traditionally aimed more at speed with shorter, more compact movements. Many coaches have not laid so much emphasis on the lower centre of gravity and the use of the body and legs. It is only relatively recently that Asian coaches have started to allocate much more time to looping and especially to counter–looping techniques and to raising the level of their players’ understanding of the use of arm and body and the required movement patterns. Many coaches from the Far East feel that once the rally has progressed to a longer range loop to loop battle that their players are at a disadvantage against the Europeans. The power of the European backhand causes further problems to Asian players, many are weak against repeated attacks to this wing or even to take a strong enough initiative themselves here. In fact many Asian players even those who use the normal shakehands grip often don’t develop their backhand wing to the same extent as the forehand side.

In fact if you look at the victories over China, I979 Hungary and I989 – 93 and 2000 Sweden, these wins were achieved by the use of topspin, strong backhands and an emphasis on individual style development. In view of the advantage that Europe already has in the two-winged topspin game, there would seem to be much to be said for continuing to consolidate our position with this playing style. Perhaps however we should emphasize the topspin element a little more than many of our young players do in Europe at the moment – the larger ball dips quite quickly and can cause problems for many opponents. Also in many countries in Europe backhand development with good spin appears to be stagnating — perhaps now is the time to strengthen the backhand again and the ability to accelerate from block to drive and from drive to spin at will.

But above all if we are to make real inroads at world level I feel that the single most important aspect is to develop the individual strengths of our players, and to adapt selected techniques to give maximum effect to their individual styles of play. Although table tennis at world level is now in fact much more integrated with differing styles and techniques flowing one into the other, the basic principle still applies that it is only by building on and allowing players’ personal specialties to flower that they will eventually reach full potential.

Does the System Protect the Professionals?

Rowden Fullen (2000)

In almost every country in the world including China table tennis is on the decline. If we look at the top players in Europe, most of the big names are over thirty, many well over thirty and there seems to be little indication that there are many younger players of exceptional talent coming through to fill their shoes. One of the main reasons is the ranking system which makes it extremely difficult for the up-and-coming younger players to break into the top ranking positions and which tends to preserve the positions of the top professionals. It is very hard to get into the top few ranking positions but once there you are reasonably safe and the chances of suddenly dropping down are equally quite remote.

The top professionals have access to regular international matches and to the major big money tournaments and invitation events from which the lesser players are excluded. In fact the younger players are often in a catch-22 situation, if they work full-time then they don’t have enough practice time to get into the top ranking positions, if they play full-time then what are they supposed to live on? The situation has altered from some 10/15 years ago when players in a number of European countries including England were paid at not too much below the rate in industry. They were paid for matches even if they didn’t actually play but just sat on the bench as a reserve and they were also paid to attend training camps. This of course meant that it was much easier to aim for the top without the added pressure of having to earn a living.

Nowadays the system controls the opportunities and therefore controls which players are allowed through to challenge the professionals. The system controls the national centres where many of the top players train, it controls entry to these centres, it controls selection for training camps and for national events. Therefore the opportunities available to the up-and-coming youngster to make a breakthrough on his own without being in the system are few and far between. He will certainly need private resources or considerable financial backing (it is increasingly difficult for even the talented youngsters of working-class families to reach their full potential) and in addition access to top level coaching and sparring.

He will certainly need access to rather better coaching and development than that available in many national centres throughout Europe. There is little pressure on them to actually produce the results! In fact in many countries in Europe there is little indication that national centres are really producing the goods – where are the younger players to take over the mantle of Waldner, Persson, Gatien, Primorac or Saive? Why is it that we have a 40 year old winning the European women’s championships? In a number of countries there appear to be many promises and few results. It is also strange that in a number of countries the very top players don’t attend the national centres even in the face of threats of expulsion from their own national teams – are they perhaps trying to tell us something? And just what are the National Associations indicating to us when they actually have to threaten top players to attend their centres? Somewhere along the line a drastic re-think is needed!

It is also quite commonplace for top players to gravitate into coaching at the end of their careers or if they are injured and very few questions ever seem to be asked as to their qualifications or capabilities for such duties. Such ex-players of course continue to support and preserve the system they have been brought up with, so the chances of anything new or innovative happening are very remote! Unfortunately the career path of a player is often very different from that of a coach. In many cases players have a background of knowledge primarily from training camps, are not as flexible as coaches and have an inflated idea of the value of their own personal playing style. They will on many occasions influence their protégés to play in the same way as they themselves did and have limited understanding of the value of other methods of play. Coaches on the other hand are rather more aware of just what can be achieved by varying styles of play and have had much closer contact with the development of a variety of players. One of the reasons why playing styles are becoming more and more stereotyped throughout Europe and why we have less and less unusual or extreme styles such as Carl Prean or Ni Xialan is probably because of more ex-players being involved in coaching at national level.

Often also ex-players are moved sideways into a coaching position at the close of their careers, where their total experience is of quite limited value. Take the male player who in his mid-thirties is expected to take over junior girls’ training. Very little he has done in his own training is applicable to this new situation. Is he fully conversant with the theory of table tennis and especially relating to the women’s game? Does he know how to coach and develop the much larger variety of styles in the female game, is he fully conversant with the greater number of various rubber surfaces used by the girls and the varying techniques and tactics to be used here? Does he have any idea of the completely different mental problems he will encounter in coaching the female of the species? It would appear that if we are going to continue to use players in this fashion, then it is really necessary to have a system of upgrading courses available so that ex-players can be more immediately effective.

One of the few ways left to bypass the system and still make it to the top is through the major European clubs. The big clubs pay well to have talented players in their teams. They are like mini-associations in their own right with top level administrators, coaches and sparring and they have access to opportunities at the highest levels. Obviously if a young player is playing and working in the club then the leaders are usually prepared to put themselves out to help. The top clubs usually have a sound financial structure, good sponsorship opportunities and access to sports foundation and European Union grant aid.

Of course once you have reached a good level or even if you have an unusual style there are opportunities to practise in the big clubs in Europe or even to train in a number of national centres. Top coaches everywhere are on the lookout to improve and develop their own players – if players from elsewhere are good enough or have different or unusual styles and want to train in their club or national centre then they are usually welcome. Many of the top women and young girls throughout Europe train on a regular basis at Statisztika in Hungary which has a well-deserved reputation as the top club on the Continent for women players. Croatia and also Poland for example which have had so many successes in Europe with their players in the junior events are welcome to train in almost any national centre. This can also be another avenue to the top for the aspiring young player who finds in general that the level of sparring and coaching in his own country is of poor or inadequate quality.

It would seem that if we are to produce young players of real quality in Europe and certainly if we have any aims to try and match the Asian players and wrest world titles from the hands of the Chinese, then we must really have a total rethink about our approach and methods. As a priority we should look to support all our talented players whether in the system or not and to try to make sure that all players have equal levels of opportunity regardless of background, class or personal wealth. Secondly we must look to upgrade our national centres throughout Europe particularly from the viewpoint of the level of individual and personal attention and guidance, which allows us to unlock the real talent of the player and gives him or her the opportunity to achieve full potential. In both cases it all comes down to opportunity, without the basic opportunities players are going nowhere!

Chinese Views on European Play

Rowden Fullen (2000)

After many years of trial and error and a certain amount of exploration, European players have gradually established their own techniques and styles and have arrived at a plateau where they combine speed and spin in the same stroke. Their technical areas of superiority are a powerful forehand loop drive with fast speed and strong spin, an extensive and sustainable range of successive topspin drives which it is difficult to find any defence against, the capability to play quality loop drives from both wings and a noticeable improvement in the speed of the backhand wing which adds further to their weaponry.

The top Europeans have good fast flick attack over the table, fast switch between defence and attack and excellent rallying capabilities. Most also have an instinctive counter-loop which allows them to shift into direct attack at the slightest trace of hesitancy in the opponent’s play, whether this be a little lesser speed or spin or just bad placement. Usually they are in favour of the short or half-long serve with sidespin, no-spin or topspin so that they pressure the opponent into a touch or push return, which is vulnerable to their fast flick attack.

If the Europeans have weaknesses these are more in positional play. Often they use the long channels to the corners with the occasional centre line stroke and usually there is not enough variation in length. Many balls land in the same areas between 12 – 20 centimetres from the table edge and even top players seem to pay little attention to opening very short or very long. With the forehand topspin as their main stroke in opening against a long backspin ball, they are much more likely to be counter-looped hard by the opponent if their length is too predictable.

With the fast technical development in world table tennis the weak points of our classical fast penhold attack game have become more apparent. However there is no reason why we shouldn’t produce outstanding shakehands grip players too, provided only that we think of innovative approaches and tailor specialist techniques to suit each player — our work with players such as Kong Linghui and Wang Liqin indicate that we are moving in the right direction.

The decisive power of the forehand loop drive is a major factor in today’s game. However over the past three decades, fast attack has been the theme in our table tennis and has governed all the training systems and the principles of training, which require stroke movements to be short, compact and quick (with unfortunately little attention being paid to use of the waist and the legs and coordination between these). As a result our players are more suited to close-to-table combat and better against the first one or two loop drives. Once the rally has progressed to a medium or long-range control situation, then our players lack the required power!

What we must look to first is to raise the level of awareness of smooth movement and coordination of arms, waist and legs in all our training programmes. Also as the key to power release we must stress forearm speed and fast forearm fold. Above all as with any system of movement we must avoid the extremes, relying too much on the arm without the coordination of waist and legs or too much on the coordination without the fast arm movement which leads to poor or uncontrolled power release.

The counter-loop technique plays a decisive role in matches. It has a major effect on the first three balls and in the switch from defence to attack. If at any time you open with a marginally weaker ball, you are liable to find this counter-looped past you! Yet even though it is in fact a key technique in today’s play, it is by no means an easy technique to master. Except for a few of our top players many of our provincial and regional level performers have not really mastered this and are limited to close or medium range counter-play. We also tend to lack the confidence and ability in our service play to encourage the opponent to loop the 2nd ball by serving the half long serve (second bounce on the white line), then counter-looping his opening ball. Even in the first few balls (2nd, 3rd and 4th) we often lack the awareness and ability to counter-loop after playing one or two control strokes. These deficiencies tend to lead us more into serving short and safe and have restricted our long serving.

Basically we have to bring the training for counter-loop into the spotlight at all levels throughout our playing system. The most important is the counter-loop against the opponent’s first loop drive initiated from a backspin ball. This specific technique holds the key to all counter-looping techniques. The mastery and awareness of counter-loop techniques have to be brought to the attention of and fostered among young players from an early age.

Because of the heightened levels of receive among the top Europeans the need for stronger backhand play becomes imperative. Backhand block and push will only offer the opponent direct attacking opportunities to obtain the upper hand immediately. Most Europeans now adopt the step around forehand receive, which makes it easier for them to control the table with the forehand side of the racket and makes variation of placement simpler. Often the server is restricted and it’s hard to follow up with a forehand attack or with a strong enough forehand attack.

Most penholders in the national team have adopted the reverse side of racket play. However this reverse side loop cannot be played with much force and because of grip restriction it’s difficult to loop drive to the centre line. Though European players are inconvenienced the threat is not as dangerous as it might appear, for block is after all a passive play and during a tight rally, it’s hard to switch on to a real offensive unless the player actually steps around.

The marriage of block and fast backhand loop drive is innovative. It becomes even more effective when you target the opponent’s backhand immediately after a hard attack to his forehand side. But just what strokes do you include in this backhand arsenal (stop-block, drive, topspin, loop) and how is the change from one to the other to be executed and which switches are most effective? What is your finishing stroke, a fast drive or a topspin?

Our shakehands players have difficulty in coping on the backhand side with rallies at medium to long range. Due to the lack of strength and power players find it very hard to switch on to the offensive when they have been forced back into a defensive position on this wing. This has to do in fact with our own training where we often spend a great deal of time on strengthening the forehand rally play back from the table and have tended to neglect the backhand area at a similar depth. We must re-think out training priorities.

In the case of development of ‘shakehands’ techniques we must not be afraid to learn from the European players. They have in fact developed in a number of individual ways and we should admire them for this. The Swedish players with Waldner as the spearhead have successfully combined speed and spin in loop play from a rather closer-to-table position with a variety of strong backhand strokes. Gatien has close-to-table attacking techniques with a very fast forehand similar to our own play, only he is much stronger with his counter-loop initiatives against topspin balls. Saive specializes in fast loop forehand initiative over almost the whole table and is particularly skilful at topspinning ‘second-bounce’ balls or the half-long service. It’s not difficult to come to an understanding that the Europeans are not only working rather more to develop individual styles of play but that they are also prepared to ‘borrow’ techniques from other styles and integrate these into their own game where applicable. What we must also realize in China is that world table tennis has now advanced to a new era where all styles and techniques tend to mix with and inter-relate one with another.

First and foremost we must work to restore our traditional advantage in the ‘first three balls’. We have let this slip away so that now we are on level terms or even a little behind with the serve and handling the 2nd and 3rd balls. Also we have to reinforce control and counter-control measures in the 4th, 5th and 6th balls so we maintain an offensive initiative and do not let the play drift into a stalemate situation. We must give rather more thought to being flexible, positive and aggressive in the mind with the first 5/6 balls, to achieve mastery in the three decisive areas, quick transition to attack, quick tactical switches and our traditional fast speed on the opening ball. Also of course we must overcome our weaknesses in loop and counter-loop play so that we are not at a disadvantage against the Europeans.

Above all however the principle for our shakehands development, the theme if you like for the future, must be one that emphasizes ‘all-round skills with no apparent weaknesses’ and a personalized specialty. We should of course be self-reliant and confident in our own methods and strong enough in our own play that we can dominate and impose our game on the opponent. However we should not ignore that other styles and cultures have techniques to offer and we should never be afraid to ‘borrow’ and build on the ideas and concepts of others.

One of the main themes of Chinese coaching tradition over the years has been to try and make each player different, to develop the individual strengths, to give players an unusual specialty. It is then of course much harder for the opponent to adapt to a new and different technique. Perhaps we have the Europeans and particularly the Swedish players with their innovative styles, to thank for redirecting our attention to the fact that the individual emphasis is of paramount importance when developing players

Sweden Will the Old Methods Still Work?

Rowden Fullen (2000)

Some time ago I read an article in the ‘Table Tennis’ which asked – ‘What is the secret of China’s dominance in world table tennis.’ I don’t think there is any big secret. They work more in areas that matter at a younger age, concentrate ruthlessly on even the smallest aspects of technique and movement and also train against all styles of play. In comparison in many countries in Europe we are just ‘amateurs’, we only ‘play’ at coaching and development. In Sweden for example we produce players who reach the National team with quite major faults in their game, both in technique and tactics — unfortunately at international level there is absolutely no hiding place if you have weaknesses. The lack of individual attention is understandable given the number of coaches in Sweden (those in full-time employment can probably be numbered almost on the fingers of one hand!) and the ratio of players per coach. Unfortunately it means we are bringing up a generation of new players whose ultimate level of play is limited. In most cases they don’t have access to the right kind of guidance at the time when they need it. It’s rather like putting a teenager in a car and saying — ‘Here are the keys, get on with it, learn to drive.’ Yes, they learn to drive after a while, but just how many good drivers do we get?

If I look back in the old magazines even in the mid-eighties we had headlines such as - ‘We must solve our youth development problems!’ Sixteen or seventeen years ago we were looking for more leaders and coaches, we were not satisfied with results from the Junior Europeans and we were complaining about lack of success in the women’s game. So just what has changed? It seems to me essentially nothing! Successive administrations have sat back and done nothing — the men’s team was successful and that was enough, no need to actually do anything to solve the real problems! Now we still have the problems but we are rapidly running out of old men to keep our men’s team at the top. So, just when are we going to do something? It’s also not enough to do a few isolated things at top level, like the new centre at Köping, we must get things moving over a much larger area. Regions and districts must be involved a great deal more to improve levels at the base of the pyramid, otherwise we shall have fewer and fewer players and also players of lesser quality to actually attend in Köping! One way or another we must get over the inertia that seems to be holding everyone back.

Since the 1960’s when I first worked with Chinese coaches I have been a strong advocate of individual attention. When I established my own club in England in the 1970’s we operated on a ratio of four to eight players per coach — we produced seven number one ranked players over ten years and in the early 1990’s had 5 players, 3 girls and 2 boys in the England teams. The problem of more individual attention in Sweden is by no means without solutions, there are a number of alternatives, especially if you are prepared to ‘think around corners’. However the main problem would be whether the solutions would be politically acceptable to the clubs. In the majority of cases an acceptable level of technical and tactical guidance along with individual style development cannot be provided at club level, especially if you are talking about European top twenty standards. Times are changing and we will almost certainly not produce the players of the future, with the methods of the past!

Fortunately you have one of the best club systems in the world, unfortunately almost all are traditionally insular. In Sweden it seems tradition is more important than ideas. If I were to point out that it’s next to impossible to achieve the highest levels in isolation, the bigger the pool, the more chance you have to produce top players, you would probably agree with me. But if in the next breath I were to suggest that Malmö and Eslöv, Helsingborg and Falkenberg, Kalmar and Enig, Ängby and Spårvägens should cooperate and work together to raise the overall level, I would probably be told — ‘You’re not Swedish, you don’t understand, that’s traditionally unacceptable.’ In other words club priorities are more important than the development of players or even national considerations. Traditions are important, however there is one inescapable fact of life, everything changes. Progress, development mean change. Resist change and try to stay as you are and stagnation sets in. Does anyone really think that the great household names of Swedish table tennis, the Waldners, Appelgrens, Perssons and Lindhs just grew and developed by playing all their lives in one or two clubs in Sweden, even big clubs? They went out into the big pool of world play and their development was shaped by their experiences in many different lands.

Even in little Långemåla they succeeded in getting money for their ‘Girls’ Table Tennis in Focus’ project, to develop girls’ table tennis in Småland and had players and coaches from England, Sweden, Wales and Poland supported by E.U. funding. They have facilities to run camps for up to 40 players and coaches with accommodation and this in a very small club set in a very small village community of only some 300 persons. That so much has happened here is largely due to the ideas and energy of one man, Stig-Olof Holm. It is just a little surprising perhaps that more is not happening in other areas of Sweden where there are much bigger clubs and communities, with more resources and many more people working for table tennis. However it is not the size of the club that is significant in making things happen, it is in fact often largely a matter of one or two people with the ideas and the ability and energy to translate ideas into reality.

Quite many of our young players are now moving out of Sweden to play and in some cases to live in other countries in Europe. One or two have come to realize an important fact of life — if you only travel to play matches, European clubs will use you but they are not too interested in helping you develop your game, however if you stay and work in the club then they are prepared to invest some time in you. And just how do these clubs finance their foreign players? Do they use their hard-earned sponsorship money? Of course not. The first question they ask is — ‘How do we get a player or a coach free? What grants, assistance, are available in our country, in their country, from the local community, the National Sports Foundation, what European Union schemes fit our particular case?’ Quite often the clubs will get a free coach or player, just as in fact many clubs in Sweden could. But of course if you think in traditional ways and you remain isolated in your own club, then there is perhaps less flexibility of thought and less willingness to consider new ideas. When I had my own club I took players all over Europe to camps and tournaments but always with other people’s money!

Of course soon we shall have our own centre in Köping — here we seem to have a community which is very supportive and people who can turn ideas into reality. But is one centre enough for a country the size of Sweden? And will it attract the top players? Experience in several countries in Europe has shown that the best players often choose not to go to the national centres and even in those countries where many of the top players do attend, results at world level have hardly been encouraging. Also in most countries players are only selected for these centres at an older age when their style is already set. Perhaps again we should be ‘thinking around corners’ and be considering other approaches, not I would emphasize instead of, but in addition to the new centre. One or two countries have been experimenting with taking the coach or sparring partner to the players instead of bringing the players to one centre. One of the main themes for instance of the ‘Girls’ table tennis in focus’ project in Småland was that the coach and sparring players should go out into the clubs to follow up on players who had been on the camps. Just think what we could achieve for starters, if every district in Sweden were to set up coaching groups on a regular basis at the younger age levels, 11 and 13 both boys and girls — not only is guidance important at a young age but also some continuity.

Let me finish by saying that I have nothing but admiration for what little Sweden has achieved in men’s table tennis over the last twenty years. But no-one can live on past glories. Change is the essence of life, if you don’t change, you stagnate. Change is the essential element of progress, of development. Traditionally Swedish players are thought (in other countries) to be innovative and colourful in their play. Perhaps now is the time for the leaders and organizers in clubs and districts to move away from traditional avenues of thinking, be more flexible in attitudes and less conventional in their approach to our sport.

Is our Priority to Produce Players?

Rowden Fullen(2006)

If we compare the advantages we have today in our sport of table tennis to the situation 25 years ago, then we should be producing far better players than we do. Players have access to better equipment and training facilities, to comprehensive methods of handling mental and physical training, to more coaching expertise, to a much more unified approach to European development through the strengths of the ETTU and the ITTF. We should certainly not be producing much worse results than we did 20 years ago - in other sports such as athletics, records are being broken month after month and there is just no comparison with a couple of decades ago.

Yet as far as the development of top young players in Europe is concerned we appear to be on the slippery downhill slope and indeed a large number of the top coaches are concerned as to the lack of strength in depth. Instead many of the famous names are still there, playing well into their thirties (even the forties in the case of one Chinese-born player at the Worlds and still doing well). Many of these older players are still high in the rankings. But where are the young players in any numbers (of course there is the odd one like M. Maze or M. Steff) to take over the mantle of greatness? In the 1971 we had European players like S. Bengtsson winning the Worlds at the tender age of 17, in 1982 we had Waldner in the final of the men’s in Europe at 16 years. Looking at the players we are producing now it seems most unlikely we will have anyone to challenge the Asian players in the foreseeable future. Perhaps now is the time to have a closer look at what has been happening in Europe over the last 10 years and to have a rethink as to just how to reshape our policies and methods.

The salient point is that we appear to be drifting away from the real essentials of producing players. We could even query if our priority is to produce top players in any sort of numbers or if we have some other form of agenda. In a number of European countries it seems that some of the best people are not used in the system or are left sitting on the sidelines and certain ‘favourites’ are handpicked instead. Top ex-players are often ‘fast-tracked’ into coaching without the need to take coaching exams and it appears to be assumed that they will have both the experience and the communication skills to adapt overnight. Unfortunately over the whole of Europe the ‘old boy system’ prevails and it’s not a question of what you know but rather who you know. Also as far as rewards are concerned table tennis is very much a ‘Mickey Mouse’ sport with only ‘breadline’ payments even at National levels. As a result the best coaches aren’t really interested, go into other jobs outside table tennis or to U.S.A or the Middle East where they can earn enough in 5 years to set them up for life.

I know of very experienced coaches apparently not good enough to work with National setups in Europe (who have for example been rejected in favour of the local favourite, a twenty-year old ex-junior National player who is being fast-tracked into coaching) who have then gone straight into coaching overseas on considerable dollar salaries where their record and qualities were immediately recognized. I also know coaches who attract quite large salaries abroad working with National teams but who are not even allowed to supervise the stage one coaching courses in their own countries as they have no qualifications.

A system which insists on using juniors or young senior players who are either injured or not good enough to make it at European or world level does not seem to be drawing on a sound experience basis for developing future talent. Nor does this take account of the fact that the development path of a player is very different to that of a coach. Why for example employ young players on National training camps when in many European countries we have Grade 4 coaches who are apparently not allowed or considered good enough to participate? If these coaches have achieved such high qualifications why are they not used more often? Or is it that the younger player/coaches are more easily controlled!

Equally any system which uses older players/coaches who are out of touch with modern methods and techniques is not liable to get very far. You only have to watch world-wide coverage of major table tennis events to spot some of the amazing ‘gaffes’ made by ex-national coaches or top players who should know better.

In many table tennis setups we have too many players and few coaches, whose priority is often not the players. You can’t run groups of twenty players and develop individual potential to the full for the efforts of the coach are too diluted. In addition many National coaches and also those in major clubs have far too heavy an administrative work load so their time for ‘hands on’ coaching is again limited. This again is one of the necessary restrictions where you have only limited funding. Systems employ top coaches to do everything, so as a result their real talents (those of developing players to their full potential) are very much underutilised.

Some thirty to thirty five years ago when some of the greatest talents in Europe and the world were developing things were rather different. Coaching was less invasive and less organized and players played more matches and trained more match play often with a very competitive attitude, playing for drinks or a meal for example, but playing thousands of matches in training and often in the training hall seven days per week. Training was not always just table tennis - players thought up many fun ways to compete and switch off but like the gladiators of old there was always this intense element of contest.

In these modern times it is very different. Group interests are put before the individual. Players attend 2 - 4 sessions per week which are more organized with more exercises but less real competitive play. We spend far more time on the intricacies of the physical and mental sides than we ever did before. We have many more young ‘designer’ coaches at top level who seem to think that one of their main functions is to keep thinking up new ideas and new ways of doing things perhaps to keep the players’ interest. For the players to keep up with the new ideas can sometimes be a problem. Instead of producing fighters and competitors we tend to produce ‘designer’ players. But in all of this we are producing less good players and achieving poorer results at world level than ever before.

Many National setups even seem to feel the necessity to control their players, running down the players’ own coaches and trainers and restricting access to new ideas apparently on the grounds that only they know what they are doing. Yet in a number of countries over Europe very little is done to develop coaching experience - there are fewer courses, few workshops and seminars to bring existing coaches up to date. Even updating courses churn out the same old material from 30/40 years ago. At National level many coaches seem reluctant to liaise with ‘inferior’ coaches, who are the ones developing the players. It makes one wonder if the general reluctance to hold forums etc. and to meet the coaching public is due to a lack of confidence in the top trainers’ own knowledge and abilities! If they possess the knowledge, why the necessity to keep it such a secret?

It seems too that in many countries any form of criticism is no longer allowed - this seems to be seen as ‘rocking the boat’, generally being negative and therefore counterproductive. This even applies when there are obvious and major deficiencies to address. Yet if one tries to have a quiet word at top level then of course nothing happens. It would appear that it is necessary to shield those at the top from any sort of confrontation. Personally I have always held the opinion that if you can’t stand your corner, prove yourself and defend your methods and ideas, then you shouldn’t really be in the job! The same applies to results. Certainly those in top jobs in industry and even in other sports such as football, have to produce the goods otherwise they are on their way and looking for a new job very quickly.

Players are sent to train in other countries in Europe at some expense to their parents, many even at a very young age when they are still developing technically. Is this because we feel inadequate ourselves and not able to develop our own players or do we genuinely think that coaches in other countries have a real interest in helping our players to reach their full potential? The only valid reason is perhaps to get a little different and better sparring but even much of this is wasted when players are still at a fairly basic level.

It would seem that many coaches have lost sight of two vital facts –

  • Table tennis is basically a simple but very competitive game and we certainly don’t need to make it more involved than it already is.
  • If players do not develop as individuals with their own playing style then they will never achieve their full potential.

If we want to get back to producing good players in numbers in Europe then we have to start making some changes. Just how many countries are in any sort of touch with their table tennis public? In most European countries for instance coaching policy is controlled by just one or two individuals - it should be obvious that no one or two individuals are experts over all areas of coaching, so to be effective they should have access to a panel of specialists. We have had some ten to fifteen years of operating pretty much in the same old way and nothing much has happened. Both the numbers and quality of cadet and junior players have gone down - the situation in the boys’ game is bad, in the case of the girls’ it’s a total disaster. So just what do we need to do?

Let’s take a look at the European Junior Championships, July 2005. Romania topped the medal table, taking 3 gold and 2 silver, with their girls (they have in fact 4 girls in the top 20 in junior rankings), but didn’t take any medals in the boys events. Russia took 3 gold and a silver, gold in cadet girls’ team, cadet mixed and cadet girls’ singles, silver in junior girls’ doubles (they have 5 girls in the European top 20 cadet rankings). Germany had 5 of the 8 quarter finalists in junior boys and both finalists, (the same 5 are in the top 20 in Europe including the top three) but also won the cadet girls doubles and took silver in the final of the cadet girls team (Germany have 4 girls ranked in the top 20 in cadets in Europe). England dominated the cadet boys winning 2 gold in team and singles and 2 silver in singles and cadet mixed (they have 3 boys in the top 14 in European cadets including the 1 and 2) but took no medals in the girls.

To summarize it would seem from this that England and Germany are successful with boys and Romania, Russia and Germany (and don’t forget Spain) are producing quality girls. However of all the countries in Europe only Germany can claim to have a good level of success with both. There would appear to be fewer countries participating in the top level successes. A measure of the dominance of countries such as Germany, England and Romania was that for the first time in many years they had both finalists in their best events, (the last time this happened was in 1980 in Poznan) which doesn’t really say too much for the many other countries taking part. In a number of cases it’s going to be a case of ‘back to the drawing board’ and with a vengeance.

But will anything actually happen or will it just be a case of plodding along in the same old way? Unfortunately in Europe as we stated earlier a number of associations are not at all in touch with the feelings of their table tennis public and to be honest don’t really seem to care much. Politics too often seem to take precedence over the needs of the players. There are always plenty of people prepared to ‘dabble’ in the player’s development (and often at the parents’ expense rather than their own) but few prepared to get down to the hard daily toil of shaping that player so that he or she eventually achieves his or her full potential.

It’s very easy to be an ‘exercise setter’, one or two coaches on a national training camp with 30 players for example changing the exercises every 10 - 15 minutes. “We will now all play FH loop against block”. “The next exercise is the Reverse Falkenberg controlling from the FH corner”. Yes good sparring and group interaction is important in a player’s development but it’s only one small part of the whole package.

Coaching in large groups with little individual input will produce clones which is what is tending to happen nowadays in Europe. If you look at the great players of the 1980’s, players such as Waldner, Persson, Appelgren, Gatien, Saive, Grubba, Secretin for example, they all had their own individual way of playing. Their individual strengths and style were allowed to develop and flower. They were not forced into a mould, they were guided or in a number of cases had the strength of mind to select the right style direction for them.

It is difficult if not impossible for a player to evolve completely in a group environment. Certain areas such as the mental side, serve and receive and style development require the ‘one to one’ situation to be really effective. This of course presupposes that you have the coaches available who recognize just where the player is going and how to get there. Coaches involved with style development must also be conversant with the large number of different paths which are available to players, especially for example in the women’s game, where you can have defenders, blockers or attackers and often with a large variety of different materials. If coaches do not have in depth knowledge of the various rubbers and how to play with and against them, then their effectiveness in the development phase or at National level is severely restricted. It is the prime function of the coach at whatever level he or she operates to unlock the full potential of the player.

What we need to do in Europe is to allow the top coaches to coach. Their time should be spent on ‘hands on’ work with the players, not in administration, office work or arranging sponsorship etc. Equally where we have coaches whose specialist fields are in style development, serve and receive, the women’s game, defence or pimple play, then their input must be used on training camps and on a one to one basis. We need more specialist individual emphasis even at National levels - rather than individual high-performance directors we need the team approach, a team of specialists working individually with players in their own areas of expertise. The player must have access to the differing specialists in order to reach their full potential.

Table tennis is a very technical sport and the basic law is adaptation and counter-adaptation. The player must have the capability to read what is happening and to adapt quickly in an ever-changing situation. Each player tries to adapt to the technique, tactics and playing style of the opponent and to avoid being ‘controlled’ by the way the opponent plays. The prime skill of table tennis is to read the game and to adapt in an ever-changing situation.

This is why it is so vital for coaches to ensure that their players, right from the 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, which the player has to work so hard to build up, cover a much larger series of actions and it is rather easier for him or her to adapt to new situations. In other words the content and method of training assume rather more importance than we may have initially thought, especially in the formative years.

Finally it’s important to develop the ‘complete package’ in the formative period. Many coaches feel that they can leave certain advanced techniques till a later stage when their player is stronger and more mature. It doesn’t work like this. Once the automated reactions are established it’s difficult if not impossible to start changing technical aspects. Many of the top coaches in Europe will agree (and they don’t agree on too many things) that the technical development of the player must be completed by the last year cadet or at the latest by the first year in the juniors.

Perhaps it is felt over most of Europe that image is important and we need to give the impression of a young virile sport. This may be the reason why we need to see young (ex)players developing the stars of the future. Sadly it means that a great amount of experience built up over many decades is then ignored and wasted. As Sheri Pittman of the U.S.A. Association said in her July/August report 2005 — ‘Experience creates the possibility of excellent preparation’. One of my coaching acquaintances (now in his eighties) told me recently - ‘ I was informed by a national official that I was a dinosaur and should give up coaching or at least bring myself up to date with modern methods. Strangely enough I did neither and yet my player still got to number 1 at national level within one year and is now ranked in Europe’.

In Asia knowledge is respected and you see many quite ancient coaches even at the World Championships along with young ex-world champions who have gone into coaching. However behind the scenes in the regional coaching centres you find a great many older coaches whose job it is to prepare the young player during his or her formative years. Their experience is used at the right time in the player’s development. Interestingly enough the latest innovation in China, the reverse pen-hold backhand, did not originate from one of the new player coaches but from a much older coach, well into his forties, working in one of the provincial centres.

The Key to the Future

Rowden Fullen(2003)

As an English coach working in Sweden I was interested in the articles by Linus Mernsten and Sören Åhlen in issue 24 of the I.T.T.F. magazine. Both indicated the value of quality early technical development, a sentiment I would wholeheartedly endorse.

However if we in Europe are to compete on any sort of terms with the Asian players especially in the women’s game, I feel it of prime importance that we start much further back along the line of evolution than ‘the critical years after the junior ranks’. We have an appalling drop-out rate in the mid-teens, we have so much talent wasted, missed or self-destructing because of lack of access in the early years to informed guidance.

The key coaching emphasis must be in the 9 – 13 age group and the key aspects which should be carefully established, nurtured and monitored, are the structuring of sound technique (including movement patterns), the development of individual style and the cultivation of innovative attitudes. Get the players to a higher level at a younger age and they will achieve both more success and want to play longer.


Too many young players in Europe reach quite a high level with built-in weaknesses or problems either in stroke-play or movement, which restrict and limit further development and deny them the chance of ever achieving their full potential. Again this is particularly noticeable in the girls’ game. The problems of technique go back to early club training and not to the quality or the number of sparring partners, but to how you train and what guidance is available to you. In many small clubs there is little structured training and development is uncontrolled and unmonitored, in many big clubs groups are far too large and the main priority of the coach is not the young player, but the elite team or the European League. Even the National trainers can make little impact in the areas of technique — they don’t see the players often enough.

If technical development is to be effective it must be checked and monitored on a regular basis. There must be a continuity of training and the young player should have access to informed guidance at each stage of development. In our Western world it is more often than not socially unacceptable to remove young children from the home environment — in the case of the talented few it may be necessary to look at ways of taking the coaching to the player.


Too often it seems to be overlooked that all players are individuals with differing strengths and weaknesses and certainly differing natural gifts. You cannot force a player into a mould of your own choosing or indeed select a national style and expect players to conform to this and then be successful.

If a player is to reach full potential their style should of course be guided and channelled towards their own strengths and natural talents, even from a young age. Style however is not an area where the coach should dominate — rather it should be a continuing dialogue between coach and player. In the final analysis only the player knows whether he is comfortable with the way he plays, what level of risk-taking he is happy with and how positive and inventive he will be.

Many coaches will tell you that there are far more styles in the women’s game and style development is more vital here. Only partially true. Look at the Swedish men of the last fifteen years, Waldner, Lindh, Appelgren and Persson — they have achieved success with very different ways of playing. Far too rarely however do young players understand how they should play to make the best use of their own natural qualities and skills. Such understanding is only achieved after considerable experience but can often be stimulated and expedited by a close working relationship on a one-to-one basis with a coach of some considerable experience.


In many areas of Europe we seem to produce young players who are generally competent enough but without any real flair, too much rigidity of play with nothing different or unusual, power and pace but without feeling and variation. Equally we see many young players in the 10 – 13 age groups who promise great things, but fade away and by 15 – 17 are just run-of-the-mill performers, their game stagnating with no real way forward.

To make real inroads at world level you need something extra — world class players do the bread and butter things of table tennis extraordinarily well. But even more vital is the fact that only the player who continues to accept new ideas and who is prepared to bring change into his or her game will progress and develop. When you stop being receptive to change you stay where you are and stop moving forward. This is the one great lesson that every player must learn at as early an age as possible.

The great Swedish player J.O.Waldner demonstrates innovation better than anyone — in his third decade of play at the highest level he is still looking for new things, to do old things differently. Whether consciously or not he understands that without change there is no progress. You can fault his over-inventive play at times — but you can never fault his innovative thinking.

Motivation or Methods

Rowden 2011

Many countries and Associations in Europe have the desire and motivation to produce world class players, sadly a good proportion just don’t have the right systems in place or the methods to realise their ambitions. Just what do we mean by this?

First there has to be the understanding of what is required to actually reach top level. Far too often there is the emphasis on large groups of young players of similar experience levels, styles and abilities who are expected to train together and somehow magically improve to reach the top 30 or so in the world! This of course will never happen. Why not? Quite simply because the right ingredients are not in place. Far too often players in Europe reach between 100 to 300 on the world ranking but never get any higher.

Above all we need to develop winners, players who know how to play table tennis at a high level. Too often in training sessions we spend an inordinate amount of time in developing ‘nice to look at’ flowing strokes. But what happens when these players play games? They never get the chance to use their flowing strokes because they can’t get past the serve/receive and short game scenario. To get players to higher levels we need to train in the right areas from the early days.

We don’t only need to examine the top players of today and look at what they do and how they play, we need to forecast how the game will develop and progress and to innovate for the future. Many of the ‘signs’ showing what will happen in the future are already visible today if only we look hard enough.

For example serve/receive and effective short play are more and more important at top level and must be introduced in the early stages of the player’s career. Equally the first 5 or 6 balls must be worked on in the developing phases at the time when the young player is most receptive. Many players also have little understanding of the efficient use of power and of the value of the differing responses.

There are too, signs in the movement patterns being used at top level (especially with the women) that the game will become more symmetrical and that the stance will remain more central. Economy in movement will be crucial, in and out movement with balance vital and it will be more and more important to sustain offensive play at a level to keep the opponent off balance, until the player can win the point.

Most important of all however are the methods of and approach to training. Table tennis is a game of adaptation and from the earliest age we should be looking not only to develop the ‘whole’ player, but to help adaptive intelligence to grow and flower and to cultivate the ability to assess the quality of each ball. This should be done throughout training both during exercises and also with multi-ball.

To develop the whole player is vital from the start. This means technical, physical and mental strengths growing together. Too often we train players to win cadet and mini-cadet events and forget the bigger picture. All players should be guided towards the senior game, this is the end product! We don’t have time to backtrack with junior players to prepare them for play at senior level.

To cultivate adaptive intelligence and quality assessment we need to work with exercises and multi-ball, which offer multiple choices. Players must be able to recognise the quality of the incoming ball and make a value judgment as to the most efficient response. This kind of ‘situational’ training should form the major part of the young player’s development and should be brought in right from the first 5/6 balls. In addition all players should train against variety, topspin, backspin, drive players, plus lefthanders and pimpled players.

The ultimate aim of course with all players is that they fully understand themselves how they should play to be most effective. Many players unfortunately go through their whole playing career without ever realising this. If we are to produce players to match the Asians there has to be a much greater emphasis on individual development throughout Europe and of course there has to be time to train and to practise.

Far too often the competition calendar is so intense that the players have no time to develop and to understand how they should play! The job of the coach is to guide the player towards this understanding and to appreciate himself that there are areas, where it is the player who must decide whether he/she feels comfortable playing in a certain way or not. It is not always up to the coach to dictate.

Professionalism in Europe

Rowden 2011


Why is it that European table tennis players, apart from the few rare exceptions, are no match for the Asians? Why are even the real top players in Europe quite old, many 30 to 40 years or more (and still able to win major events in Europe) while many of the top Asians are early 20’s or even in their teens and dominate at world level? Why don’t we in Europe get our young players to the top levels earlier?

If you listen to the top European stars they don’t seem to have much confidence in their early training. Timo Boll: ‘It’s only now at 30 years of age that I fully understand how I should play’. Werner Schlager (last European to win the Worlds): ‘When I look back much of my early training was wasted’. Michael Maze: ‘Now I have a Chinese coach, I have strengthened my BH and my movement is better and more dynamic’. Are all these top players saying that coaching is below par or in the wrong direction in Europe? If players of this level are dissatisfied then surely there is little hope for the rest of us!

As a matter of interest just what do the current top coaches and High Performance Directors in Europe think of our progress?

Peter Sartz: ‘Regarding women we do not have training programmes and methods only for women yet; that’s why European women mostly can’t play at top international level. Also in Europe many countries have done nothing to improve their women’.
Dusan Osmanagić: ‘We all see that the situation in European table tennis is not very good. For me one of the most important reasons for such a situation is the problem with coaches - speaking of course generally as there are for sure exceptions to the rule - most of our coaches are not capable to meet the required standards’.
Michel Gadal: ‘We in Europe are much behind, we usually start later, we think in age categories and try to make from young players champions in their age category, not to follow from the beginning only the goal to make a top senior player - in that way we lose a lot of time’.
Mario Amizić: ‘The Asian countries have adapted to modern table tennis, Europe has gone backwards. The last three years have seen a particularly rapid decline in Europe. The present situation in Europe is a catastrophe but if we really think about it, it is in fact the reality we should have expected. The methods we had in place some years ago produced a superb generation of players but these are not working any more. We have lost our way, we are not adapting to new trends and our model is no longer up-to-date. The older coaches in Europe will tell you we are not educating our coaches and trainers properly or indeed in the right way’.

Even the coaches at the sharp end of training in Europe are concerned as to the direction and scope of our training and the fact that we are not developing our players to match the Asians in any numbers. In the case of women’s play we are indeed woefully behind and show no real signs of moving forward in the near future. The last European woman to win the World Singles was Angelica Roseanu and the last time she won it was in 1955! This is 56 years ago!


In Europe far too often we coach young players to win mini-cadet or cadet events. Because of funding limitations (get results or no funding!) we focus on the means to win at a younger age. The weapons used to win at a young age are very different to those needed at world level. As a result we often have to backtrack later to try and re-structure the player’s game to be effective at senior level.

Many of the Asian countries and especially China, place little value on cadet and junior successes and the only results that matter are those in the senior game. Players such as Zhu Yuling have beaten women in the top 10 in the world at 15 years of age: what’s the point of playing cadet and junior events? The emphasis and the methods are completely different from development in Europe. If a player wins a continental cadet championship everybody expects him/her to become at least a good continental senior champion, but titles in cadet categories are not a sure indicator of a future high level career - such results only indicate that the player has certain qualities which may enable him/her to become a very good player. In fact very few cadet stars become senior champions!

Aspects which are vital in the seniors but often not worked on much at a young age are as follows: short play and control of short play, use of angles and placement, high level serve and receive, the first 6 balls, spin and control of spin, control at speed and how to win the point, power and uses of power, individual specialties and shot selection. Most senior players also work more with the mental side of the game, recognise much earlier the quality or lack of quality in the opponent’s shot and how to take advantage of this, see immediately when the opponent changes tactics or when something else changes in the game.


It would seem that the methods we have in place in Europe are no longer producing top players (or very few) and need to be updated and refined.

We need to be more focused towards individual and senior development from the outset. We should take the shortest and most direct route to the senior game. Often we don’t train as much or as professionally as the Asians, so we need to make the maximum use of our time. We also need to make maximum use of our energy, usually the Asians train harder and more intensely. Above all we need to be focused on the right techniques/tactics for top-level play.

It is necessary to look at all our training sessions, even the High Performance and National ones to ascertain if we are progressing in the right direction. Have we enough coaches (and of enough quality) to individualise training? Do we have enough variety in styles to help the player develop adaptive intelligence? Or do we only have young players of the same styles and same experience levels in the group? To reach world level we need to develop the adaptive capabilities to deal with any type of opponent. We also need our youngsters to work with players of higher experience levels (as well as with top coaches) to understand how they should individually play and develop.

Crucially we need to look at methods of training and what we wish to achieve by differing methods. For example the Chinese train a great deal on the first 5 balls. We do the same in Europe but we train generally and without a real purpose, the Asians train specifically. By this we mean the Europeans train serve and 3rd ball, trying to win the point on the 3rd ball regardless of how the ball is returned. The Chinese will train serve and 3rd ball but valuing the return: if the return is poor the player may flick hard and try to win, if the return is first-class the player will drop the ball short and try from there to get an advantage.

What the Chinese are doing by playing in this way is to improve adaptive intelligence and to increase the ability to do different things with the ball. They in other words are not developing in rigid patterns, they are training to play flexibly and to adjust to varying situations. This is one method we should certainly adopt in Europe.

‘Situational training’ is another aspect we should explore and this describes a specific type of drill. The player’s objective is to find the best possible solution within a given exchange of shots. In the early stage of a rally the ball direction/placement will be pre-arranged. However at a certain point during the rally one of the players has to decide about changing the placement of the next shot. The essence of situational training is that this decision should be carefully weighed with reference to the quality of the incoming ball. Thus, one expects the player to weigh up very quickly what needs to be done, whatever the situation may be, advantageous or disadvantageous or almost even.

In this situation a player, who faces a good shot by his opponent, will choose to play say alternative A. But if there is an incoming ball of poor quality, the player will choose alternative B trying to profit from the weak stroke of his opponent. Both alternatives of course should be specified prior to the drill. Thus situational training is a specific type of drill with its very own intention and this is to improve the athlete’s self-reliance, judgment and adaptive intelligence.

The prime criterion is that players develop an understanding of their own style of play as early as possible in their career. This should be based on a detailed evaluation of top players at world level and what is effective here and also on an assessment of their own physical and mental attributes. Also the player should of course be comfortable with the way he/she is going to play. If we are going to rock the Chinese then there needs to be a much higher level of individual development throughout Europe. There is really no excuse for a player reaching 25 – 30 years of age and only then beginning to understand how he/she should play!

However we must also be aware that part of the problem is in the way and the length of time it takes for the adolescent human brain to mature. The brain normally only attains its full levels of ‘hard-wiring’ between 24 and 26 years of age, which explains many of the poor decisions taken by teenagers and young 20 years olds – often in their formative period they are just not ready to listen or to learn, they want to do things their way. Having young adolescents of similar ages and experience-levels training together often only both undermines and solidifies crucial aspects of the learning situation.

The countries in Europe which continue to produce world-level players and especially young players of quality (and by this we mean top 50 – 60 not 100 to 250!), are those which have older performers still competing on the world scene. Sweden, France and Germany are prime examples. At the recent European Championships in October 2011, Germany had 4 players in the last 8 in the men and both finalists: there were also 2 players in the last 8 in the women from Germany, one of whom reached the final. There is just no substitute for having ‘role models’ still active and competing on home soil!

Success: Belief, Method and Vision

Rowden July 2012

If the coach doesn’t believe in the player, then he/ she will find it difficult to win. Players sense very quickly whether the coach is fully behind them and supportive or if he/she is just going through the motions and is really quite certain they have little or no chance. It often happens in Europe for example when Europeans meet Asian opponents that the lack of belief from the coach impacts on his/her player’s performance.

Too many coaches blame the players, when what is needed is support and guidance and not some form of blame culture. Whose fault is it if the player is inadequately prepared, not good enough or even several levels below the opposition? This is a situation for the coach to address in training or in an upgrade of coaching methods and is a subject for research from his/her side, not from the player’s perspective! It doesn’t help at all to come down hard on the player and destroy his/her confidence by ‘rubbishing’ the level of performance or dwelling on the gap between him/her and the opponents.

Too many National Coaches in Europe try to rule by fear and/or to insist on all the better players attending the National Academy, which is supposed to be the last word in top coaching, but quite often isn’t! As we become more civilised and try to respect the rights of children and teenagers in the West, the rule of fear no longer gets results and far too often only covers the inadequacies of the coaches and the coaching systems. As far as Academies are concerned it becomes rather difficult to explain just how putting a group of young, relatively inexperienced players of similar ages together in the same training group will produce world champions! Much more is required than this.

The one course of action which could and would work but which unfortunately is usually too little explored (and often for other reasons doesn’t happen), is to spend much more time on the individual characteristics of each player, working with him/her so that the player reaches maximum potential and is comfortable with the way in which he/she plays. Unfortunately for a coach to have a high level of understanding and success in this area more often than not requires decades of coaching experience and years of working with players of many diverse playing styles. This kind of development is not going to occur in Academies or High Performance Groups where large groups are involved and the coaches don't have enough time with the players, nor will it happen where the coaches are young ex-players, whose understanding of this aspect of player evolution is severely limited.

Too often in the West the coaches working at a high level with players just starting to get into National Teams, want to change things from the word go. It seems strange that a player who has done so well nationally that he/she is suddenly brought to the attention of the ‘top’ coaches, is immediately found to have so many areas in his/her game that need complete restructuring! It is perhaps even more surprising that such players are then not allowed to develop their own individual strengths and to play in the way which suits them and with which they feel most comfortable: instead they are pressurised into playing in a way which will be successful at international level (but which often isn’t, because everyone else is doing this and most others are better at it!).

It really is very simple. Too many coaches have an idea in their own mind of just how the successful player should perform, so they then try to force their players into this style of play. This method ignores certain very important principles:
• You will never make a player into a world-beater by spending time developing areas where he/she is at best only mediocre.
• Players perform best when they adopt a style of play which suits them and with which they are comfortable.
• If we are always looking to others (the top players of the moment) as role models to show us the way forward, then we are always coming from behind in the race for the finishing line. We never create the flexibility and vision to focus on and recognise the individual characteristics of the player, which could, if developed in the right the way, project him/her to much higher levels on the world scene.

Innovation and vision in coaching is required throughout Europe, but more than ever when the players reach the higher echelons of national development. The fine tuning here is critical to the player ever achieving full potential and being the best he/she can be. To start back-tracking at this stage and altering aspects which don’t need changing or to introduce variations in style which are not relevant to how the player performs best, are totally destructive and beyond comprehension.

A considerable number of the older coaches in Europe with many years of experience are very much of the opinion, that there must be a great deal more individual emphasis on player development if we are ever to match the Asians at world level. Of course and this goes without saying, we should also be aware of which styles of play and which strategies and tactics are most successful at top levels in world play (but are we even precise and knowledgeable enough in these aspects? The last time for example that a European woman won the Worlds was in 1955!)

But it is critical to develop our players in the West in a way which allows their natural strengths to blossom and flower. From the start as young players are evolving, coaches should look for strengths and build on these; particularly coaches should look for areas where players are different and perform differently, where they have a specialty. Differences and specialties should not be eradicated rather they should be built on, for it is these very aspects which opponents will find most difficult to play against and which will give our players in the West an ‘edge’ in their journey to the top levels.

Summer offers that rare moment of respite

Rowden August 2017

Summer offers time to contemplate, to prepare, to recalibrate the system, in the quiet time away from the frantic rush of competitions of all types and levels. It also offers especially to those still moving forward and wanting to progress, an appreciation that a quiet time is profoundly important!

It follows then that you have to understand the whole cycle of seasons and the part each plays in the overall picture. You have to know where you are going, your final destination and how you propose to get there. Summer should not be regarded as the doldrums, for some it has a bad reputation, the season when the wild world calms and stops, but rather it should be seen as a vital opportunity.
Summer can be looked at as an interval in the action of play, but equally it can be seen as a quiet time crucial for self-assessment in a number of areas, technical, physical, tactical and mental. Where are you going, are you still on track to get there, can you take any shortcuts, what needs to be altered in differing areas, is the science changing and do you need to change to keep up?
Above all this is a time for personal re-assessment. Just what do I need to bring into my game to be more effective? And this of course covers not just the strokes, but the table positions and placement, the angles and length, the change of speed and spin, the use of the opponent’s power, the crucial understanding of depth and the area from which you, the individual, achieves maximum efficiency.
But also it covers what the opponents do too. Am I equally confident against all styles of play, defenders, attackers, spin and drive players, blockers, pimple players and even left-handers? Are there types of player against whom I struggle much more than others and if so what am I going to do about it?

Will Sweden become another Chinese Satellite?

Rowden Fullen (2001)

There are a great many Chinese involved overall in European table tennis both as players and as coaches/trainers. In some countries almost the whole national team consists of Chinese-born players, the German women’s team for example in recent years. A disturbing trend in Sweden is the increasing number of foreign players not only in both the men’s and women’s elite divisions (over 50% in the women’s and over 40% in the men’s) but in the lower divisions too. It would appear that in a few years time in line with other countries in Europe, Sweden may well come to rely on foreign players in the national side, especially with the continuing erosion of our playing levels.One aspect that may well speed up our reliance on foreign players is that quite a number of our good younger players both men and women appear to be of the opinion that opportunities to develop and earn good money are rather limited in Sweden. As a result they are now playing in other countries in Europe and are consequently lost to our own national series. It is also sad to see a number of players still in their mid to late teens giving up or drifting down to lower divisions. In general the standards of our table tennis in Sweden appear to be drifting downhill at in increasingly faster rate year by year. The possibility that we are well on the way to becoming a mere ‘social or fun’ sport becomes nearer to reality day by day.

The Swedish Association makes positive noises generally and particularly talks about the Swedish women making an impact on the world scene. Their document for the future is ambitious and forward looking. However Köping is only one small cog in the total development plan. And without massive help from the clubs and districts real progress is going to be very limited. Where are the top players supposed to come from if not from the clubs and districts?

Many clubs are unfortunately quite narrow-minded and very parochial in outlook, are not in favour of cooperating with other clubs in training ventures or working to improve levels in their area. Many districts are equally backward, tournaments are seen to be more important than training and keeping the clubs happy more important than developing players to their full potential. If we are to develop it is paramount that leaders and administrators are the first to be inspired and imaginative, not the last.

It is quite obvious that in many areas it is impossible to develop high level players in the clubs — there is just not the expertise and sparring available. It becomes therefore a real priority that the districts become involved in running training for players (and not just in summer time) and also development courses for coaches and parents. This is especially vital in the case of girl players who are lesser in number, are more spread out over the clubs and almost always require more specialized and individual handling.

Fortunately in Sweden we find one of the best club systems in the world, unfortunately almost all are traditionally insular. It seems that tradition is more important than ideas. Often it seems club priorities are more important than the development of players or even national considerations. Traditions are important, however, there is one inescapable fact of life, everything changes. Progress and development mean change. Resist change and try and stay as you are and stagnation sets in. Times are changing and we will almost certainly not produce the players of the future, with the methods of the past! Perhaps now is the time for the leaders and organizers in clubs and districts to move away from traditional avenues of thinking, be more flexible in attitude and less conventional in their approach to our sport.

Breakthrough at National Level

Rowden Fullen (2008) Intro Clive Woodward

Usually it’s the establishment environment which is lacking. It doesn’t challenge the players. It doesn’t give the players the preparation they need; it doesn’t give them every chance. The selection system is inconsistent. The coaches insist on styles of play and training methods which are inadequate and behind the times. Players prepare for games at a level of intensity which indicates they are not doing everything possible, everything that needs to be done to win.

Often England coaches, working as volunteers or part-timers, can’t provide a competitive enough environment to keep the players interested. Often too they focus on what the top players in other countries are doing, which drills in the real message that we are of course inferior. The myth of the superiority of other countries seems to be firmly entrenched in the hearts and minds of the ‘chosen few’ in the coaching hierarchy and they seem only too keen to pass on this myth to the current players. Then they wonder why the players continue to lose.

In the English sports environment the central theme too is often a spirit of participation and there is little professionalism or cross-collaboration. What we need is the basic fundamentals of sport managed with a strong business ethic. To win we have to create the right competitive environment and engage the best specialists in each fundamental area of our sport. The myth of sporting superiority is just that – a myth. The strength of the top sporting nations lies in their competitive culture and their high level of preparation, not in some magic gene.

It’s no good having roughly the same tools as the other international team; you must be able to apply them differently. Success can be attributed to how the coaching and backup team work together under pressure, how they understand the importance of teamwork and loyalty and how they are willing to do a hundred things just one percent better. As a coach or manager you normally have in sport a workforce over which you have no control. If you want more from your players you have to give them good reasons why they would want to put in the extra effort.

First 4 paragraphs quote from Clive Woodward – England, World Cup Rugby 2003


Being in charge of English Table tennis is not an impossible job, but it’s certainly a difficult one. For example with any National League Club the manager can head-hunt any number of top players from Europe or even further afield. In the case of the National Team we are restricted to the players we have. There will always be problems for the man in charge (too much administration work, lack of time with the squad etc.) These problems are then compounded in that he needs top-level help on which he can rely absolutely to carry out his themes and these people too must be monitored. Too often in addition the man at the top is criticised for being innovative and bringing in younger players who no-one else thinks should play for the National Team. But this is in fact the way to keep moving forward as a team, never to stand still.

But surely the major problem is that we do not produce enough players of quality for the manager to choose from. If we are to qualify for and to win major events then the country has to establish a much better development programme which works. This is not just a problem for the ETTA but for the Manager of the National side too. He has the responsibility to make good players and to take players who are already good and to make them great. And he should be ready to use all our resources in this endeavour. Do we think that only the National Centre can produce and develop players of quality? Perhaps we think that coaches such as Dennis Neale, Brian Burn, Ken McLeod, Nicky Jarvis, Hans Souva, Alan Ransome and Pete Garvey are not able to ‘hack it’ anymore just because they aren’t in the National Centre. Strange as some of these have already been head-hunted for the top England position and turned down the job!

When we do not have enough quality players or enough variety of players then it also follows that even the resources in the National Academy are limited in respect of player development. What do we mean by this? Waldner in his book stresses the vital importance of training against all different playing styles if you eventually wish to be a top player. Private clubs are able either due to the number and diversity of their playing members or by simply buying in appropriate sparring, to solve the problem of training against penholders, defenders, ‘funny’ bat players, pimples, left-handers etc. Most National Centres due to financial restrictions, especially in the case of the ‘minorities’ such as the girls, are reluctant to pay for high-level sparring or consider it unnecessary. This does not only apply in UK but is prevalent in many national centres over the whole of Europe. The result of course is incomplete players who can only perform well against a limited number of styles.

For years we have whinged about Centres of Excellence and National Centres – but surely the main issues are much deeper and the solutions much simpler. It’s the way the competition and training calendar is set up which is wrong – the best young players in the country must train with the best opposition every week under the guidance of the best coaches. And it is obvious that all of the best coaches are not in the National Centre as are not all of the best players. Solutions must therefore be found which are acceptable to the players, for it is they after all who must be the ones in focus. Too often it would appear that the coaches come first and are in focus and not the players. Is this because far too often we seem to employ top ex-players in charge of our coaching? What does modern research say about this?

‘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. We certainly need a more sophisticated talent identification process for prospective coaches other than athletic achievement alone; it takes a good coach educator to keep you at the top.’ (D. Turner, lecturer in Sports Coaching)

The way to have a good National Side is for the best to train against the best, but the responsibility doesn’t just lie with the English Manager, it rests with the boss of every club in UK. If we are to advance we must use all our resources and we must think beyond the small areas, the towns and even the counties and regions. Many of the players and coaches working in the clubs may not even be English, but this is besides the point, when you are working in someone else’s country you have a responsibility to improve the way things work there. We have good clubs up and down the country such as Ormesby and Progress. What we need however is a common, cohesive philosophy that we can pass down the chain of command to the most junior helpers and coaches, so that the system benefits the whole country.

We cannot for example afford to have small, isolated pockets of good players spread around the country, especially in the case of the girls, who are both fewer and require more individual attention anyway. If players can’t get to the nearest big club, where there is good coaching then other arrangements must be made to take coaches to the players. Again we will hear the well-worn cliché ‘no way can we afford that’. I think we would find in many cases that family would help with funding if their child were really benefiting.

But it’s not only the coaching and development side which must be catered for – we must also look at upgrading tournaments and making these more exciting for the players and especially at a younger age when they are starting out. We have for example some excellent competition formats on the continent where young players play out both team and individual events for places. Players can play as many as 17 – 20 games in a weekend and end up finding their level in the tournament. Interestingly enough the overall costs, including flights and ferries are somewhat cheaper than in the UK!

We should of course also have a level playing field for all English players competing abroad. Parents and coaches should be encouraged to send their children/players to train and to compete abroad and ranking points should be awarded to all players whether they are representing their country or not. The more our youngsters meet foreign competition the more they will benefit and the more England will benefit. Competing in Europe, Asia or elsewhere should not just be the province of the National Team Players. If parents/coaches need the support of the Association to be entered into some major events overseas and there are spaces available, then this should be readily forthcoming.

Equally why don’t we seek to attract more foreign competitors into our tournaments in UK? Why not waive the single tournament licence fee for overseas players and make it a little cheaper for them to compete here? The more we can do to broaden our horizons the more English Table Tennis will benefit and the more the base of our pyramid will increase.

It is a priority one way or another that we take the coaching to the players, especially in those critical younger years. Also it is important that both parents and clubs realize that you don’t develop by just competing all the time — opportunity must be found for training. As Niels de Vos, the chief executive of UK Athletics said very recently of the new head coach – ‘What we have here is not a sacking it’s an evolution. The previous guy did a very good job in putting systems in place, but systems do not win medals. We felt we needed a higher level of coaching.’

Many things are changing in our sport and we must change too. That things happen is in most cases a matter of ideas and the ability and energy to translate ideas into reality. This applies to associations even at district and national levels.

The sport needs the very best coaching knowledge at the top level. Let’s finish with the great catch-phrase of the celebrated athletics coach Jesse Mortenson –‘The orthodox is just another word for the obsolete’.