Articles

The Secrets of Chinese Table Tennis

Larry Hodges/Cheng Yinghua (2007)

The Secrets of Chinese Table Tennis-- Part One

and What the Rest of the World Needs to Do to Catch Up By Larry Hodges and Cheng Yinghua

At the recent World Championships, China made a clean sweep of all five events – men’s and women’s singles & doubles and mixed doubles. In fact, all but the men’s doubles were all-Chinese finals. And yet, a number of cracks were apparent, especially on the men’s side.

Denmark’s Michael Maze, after losing the first three games and falling behind 7-3 in the fourth against China’s Hao Shuai, came back to win. Maze earlier had defeated Wang Hao very easily, 4-0. Czech Republic’s Petr Korbel led Ma Lin 7-3 in the seventh before losing that final game 11-9. Wang Liqin had to go the full seven against Hong Kong’s Li Ching. Korea’s Moon Hyun Jung defeated Wang Nan, who had won the women’s singles at the last three Worlds.

Yet, all in all, the Worlds were a demonstration of Chinese supremacy in the sport.

So what are the secrets of Chinese table tennis … and how can the rest of the world catch up?

The Chinese National Team

The Chinese team has more depth than any other team in the world. The primary training centre is in Beijing. The team is made up of 96 players – 24 men, 24 women, 24 boys and 24 girls.

Players are given “tryouts” early on, usually with trips to major tournaments in Europe or elsewhere, to see how they will perform internationally. From this, the Chinese judge if the player has the potential to become a star.

A huge advantage China has comes from her strength in depth. If a player on the national team isn’t working hard, doesn’t do well internationally, or has technical flaws limiting his/her progress, then there is always another “hungry” player with potential on the outside waiting to get in.

National Team Selection

In many countries (including USA), the national team is selected at the Team Trials. This may be the fairest way of choosing a team, but it may not be the best way to develop a dominant team. According to Cheng, in most countries – including USA – 90% of the training and the team funding goes to “flawed players” who have no chance of ever winning medals.

This is a real problem as team trials fit in with most people’s notion of fairness. Yet the players who make the team in such trials usually are not the players with the greatest potential for winning medals. Often players in their 40s make the team over promising players under 22. Exhibit “A” is the current U.S. National Team at the recent Worlds, chosen by team trials. Their ages were 46, 41, 41, 38, 37, 36, 34, 30, 19 and 18. (This is not to disparage the accomplishments of those who made the team at the trials, who indeed earned their positions.) Many of the top youth players in the U.S. however just missed making the team. Ironically, the youngest player to make the team, Han Xiao, aged 18, finished fifth, and only the top four spots are funded – so he had to pay his own way, even though he was the top player of his age in the country. The funding went instead to older players, mostly in their 30s and 40s. Players such as Mark Hazinski (20, U.S. #1 under 22), Adam Hugh (17, U.S. #1 under 18 boy), and Judy Hugh (15, U.S. #1 under 18 girl), did not go.

Was this the fairest way of choosing a team? Yes. Was it the best way to choose a team with the potential to develop into medal contenders? Probably not. Unless they were top world-ranked players, Chinese coaches probably wouldn’t have selected anyone over the age of 22. One option is to have a separate “youth” team made up of players aged 22 or under who train as part of the national team. Many countries already have these squads, but these players, along with older players who can challenge the best players in the world, need to be at the heart of the national squad.

Training

The Chinese train long and hard. Typically they do seven hours of training each day – both table play and physical training away from the table. In the mornings, they normally do physical training away from the table, and serve practice. There is a morning and an afternoon training session, usually six days a week. (Training includes both regular practice with a partner, and multi-ball training with a coach. This is the same for most countries.) Some players play extra practice matches at night or on off days. Players generally get 12 days off per year, although they also get rest days after major tournaments (which are often travel days).

They normally focus on training from November to April and with more tournaments the rest of the year. During Cheng’s years on the team, this was more clear-cut, but now with the ITTF Pro Tour and various leagues, there is more and more year-round competition.

Specialized Practice Partners

One huge advantage China has over the rest of the world is their practice partners. Typically, in most countries, members of the national team train together. However, in China, much of the training is with “professional” practice partners. Instead of players always taking turns on drills, all the training focuses on the one player. (This is especially helpful for the women, who practice with male practice partners who are usually stronger then the women players.)

Even more important, practice partners mimic the styles of opposing players. The Chinese team includes practice partners who have developed their games to match those of the best foreign players – men like Schlager, Samsonov, Kreanga, Waldner, Saive, Chuan, Ryu and Oh, and women like Boros, Tie Yana, Li Jia Wei, Liu Jia, Kim Kyung Ah, and Pavlovich. These practice partners study videos of the player they are copying, and talk to players who have played them so as to better mimic them.

According to Duan Xiang, a member of the Chinese Technical Committee of the Chinese Table Tennis Association, “We have a lot of Chinese Samsonovs and Waldners. Our players play against them every day and that makes the real match easier.”

Cheng spent much of his time on the Chinese team as a practice partner. During his early years, he was told to copy Hungary’s Tibor Klampar. Later, when Klampar retired, he was told to mimic Jan-Ove Waldner. Cheng even travelled to Europe to watch these players live in tournaments and would speak with players who played against them to get an insight into their games and what made them so effective. Those who watch Cheng now can see the mixture of Klampar and Waldner in his game.

China’s Jiang Jialiang, a pips-out penholder, won the worlds in 1985. As the 1987 Worlds approached, it became apparent that his main rival would be Sweden’s Waldner. Therefore much of his training time was with Cheng, who could mimic everything Waldner did, from his serve and serve returns, to his forehand loops and drives, etc. As the ’87 Worlds approached, they began playing many practice matches, with the loser doing push-ups. Cheng won match after match, and after each match would stand over Jiang as he did his push-ups, asking how he’s going to win the Worlds if he can’t even beat him? The preparation worked; while Jiang didn’t do so well against Cheng before the Worlds, he became so used to the “Waldner” game that he was able to win the 1987 Worlds again.

Perhaps, if he’d practised with players who mimicked the best Chinese, at the recent Worlds, Maze wouldn’t have fallen behind 3-0 to Hao Shuai and would have been more comfortable with Ma Lin’s game. Perhaps he was just getting used to Ma as he did with Hao Shuai when the match ended. (He lost the match 11-7, 11-6, 11-9, 11-8, showing he was getting closer towards the end.)

Two-on-One Practice Partners

A common problem for the best players in the world is finding a strong enough practice partner. During his prime, Waldner once quipped to the Swedish coach, “When do I get to practise with someone stronger?”

China has more depth than any country, but even there, the best players are the best players. Players like Wang Liqin and Ma Lin can’t find anyone better to practise with than themselves. Or can they?

China has developed a way of doing this. Cheng was hesitant about even talking about this, as this training method has been relatively secret, even to this day. It is normally only used in closed training sessions as they prepare for major tournaments. Cheng hinted that at one time, if he’d told “outsiders” about this technique, he would have been in trouble.

The technique involves having two practice partners for one player. This is a luxury that other countries can’t afford, but that China, with their playing depth, can. Two practice partners are selected, one with a very strong forehand, one with a very strong backhand (but also a good forehand), and they learn to play together as a team. Together, they do drills against the best Chinese players. With one player only playing forehand from the forehand side, and the other only playing from the backhand side (favouring the backhand, but also playing forehands from the backhand as top players do), suddenly the two become a “stronger player” than even Wang Liqin! Thus even the best Chinese players are pushed to the limit, practising with these “stronger pairs.”

Mental and Tactical Training

The Chinese team meets at least weekly with sports psychologists. (This is common practice in other countries as well.) One aspect that is probably different is that these sessions are joint psychology and tactical meetings. This is linked together as it takes proper mental training to execute proper strategies under pressure.

The Chinese team has a tactical support staff which develops these strategies. According to Zhou Zuyi of the Shanghai Daily (May 7, 2005), “Insiders give credit to the backroom staff who devote themselves to analyzing the opponents’ games and developing new techniques and strategies. The technicians work out a game pattern for each major foreign player, which is in turn followed by training partners whose only job is to emulate different stars from around the world.”

The Development of a Chinese Player

Chinese children are tested at a very early age for sports skills. Those who test well are often put into special sports schools. Cheng was tested at aged 5 and tested highly for racket sport skills, so was put into a special sports school. From age 5 to about 12, he was trained in both table tennis and badminton. From age 12 on, he was essentially a full-time table tennis player, dropping out of school to focus solely on table tennis. Most other top Chinese players have similar stories.

Others come from regular schools. Essentially every school in China has a table tennis team that trains regularly. In a country of 1.3 billion, that’s a huge number of teams! According to the Shanghai Daily (May 7, 2005), “10 million players play on a regular basis. These are players who are exposed regularly to high-level play, not the basement players that make up the masses in the U.S. and many other countries.”

Chinese Technique

Some say China is good at table tennis only because of sheer numbers. There is, of course, a degree of truth in this. However, as shown by Europe’s (especially Sweden’s) rise in the early 1990s and China’s decline, numbers cannot overcome poor technique. In the late 1980’s/early 1990s, China was slow to adjust to changing techniques, persevering too long with mostly pimples-out style play while the rest of the world was changing to looping with reverse rubber and especially with the shake-hands style. China has learned from that experience and now leads the world in this very style. Wang Liqin was recently re-crowned as world men’s champion (he also won in 2001). On the women’s side, Zhang Yining has just won the Worlds; she was preceded by Wang Nan, who won three straight Worlds. All three of these players are shake-hands loopers and are probably the most emulated players in the world.

What happens in China is that the players with the best technique, talent, and mental and physical skills tend to rise to the top. Where before some of these players might have been kept out because they didn’t play the “right” playing style (with many shake-hands loopers relegated to becoming practice partners who copied the European loopers, like Cheng), now they become regular Chinese team members. Because there are so many Chinese players, training squads are filled with skilled and hard-working players. The best Chinese players too tend to be the ones with the best technique.

New techniques are regularly appearing. Probably the most noticeable is the “reverse pen-hold backhand,” best exemplified by Olympic Silver Medallist Wang Hao and the World Men’s Singles Finalist (and recently ranked #1 in the world) Ma Lin. Historically, penholders use the same side of the racket for both forehand and backhand. In the 1990s, a number of Chinese players began using the reverse side of the racket to attack on the backhand, most prominently Liu Guoliang (1996 Olympic Gold Medallist, 1999 World Champion), who used it mostly as a variation. Ma Lin raised it to a new level, using it as a major shot. Wang Hao raised it to an even higher level, making it his primary backhand stroke.

While Europeans pioneered backhand looping, the Chinese have developed over-the-table backhand looping to a higher degree. Europeans like Klampar developed this technique in the 1970s, but few others developed this style. China did. Now Chinese players like Wang Liqin, Kong Linghui and Zhang Yining are among the best in the world at this (along with Austria’s Werner Schlager and Korea’s Oh Sang Eun).

Above all, Chinese players dominate with serve & receive techniques. Other countries have closed the gap in serve techniques, yet most consider Ma Lin’s serves the best among world-class players, and before him, Liu Guoliang’s – both Chinese players. But it is the return of serve where the Chinese really dominate. Where other countries learn to return to neutralize the serve, the Chinese return to throw opponents off and to take the initiative. Ma Lin is probably best at this, tying opponents up in knots with his returns, but all the Chinese players train many hours at this and so have few peers at receive. Outside China, Waldner may be the only one who can do this at the Chinese level.

There is another “secret” strength of Chinese technique, except it’s not really a secret: they have the best basics. They spend huge amounts of time on the “boring” basics, and so are nearly machine-like in their efficiency. You rarely see a Chinese player miss an easy shot. Cheng said of his winning the USA Nationals in 2004 at the age of 46 that most of his opponents simply didn’t have good enough basics. (This is relative, of course – good basics at world-class level are pretty advanced for most of us.)

The secrets of Chinese Table Tennis Part 2

... and What the Rest of the World Needs to Do to Catch Up

By Larry Hodges and Cheng Yinghua) Part Two (2007)

Challenging the Chinese: A Formidable Challenge

The result of all this training is that the Chinese tend to have the greatest fitness (along with the Koreans), the best basics, and the best serve & receive games. They often have the best techniques and strategy. And they have such depth that they always have a new player ready if one falters. How can the rest of the world challenge this?

There are basically two ways of attacking this problem. The first is simply to match the Chinese in as many of their strengths as possible. The second is to develop other strengths.

National Team

Other countries don’t have the depth the Chinese have. However, they can expand their national team to include more players, especially younger, up-and-coming players. One way is to allow the national team coaches to select promising players to join the team. This only makes sense, however, if the team trains together on a regular basis.

National Team Selection

This is problematic as it probably isn’t feasible to switch from team trials to the Chinese system of the coaches choosing the team. However, it is possible for countries to put age limits on their team members who don’t have minimal world rankings, or some version of this (perhaps only having the two top spots completely open). It’s also possible to have youth or junior teams that train with practice partners or national team members. Even this, however, would meet with huge opposition and may not be feasible.

Training

The Chinese train nearly year-round together as a team. Few other countries do this. Most European countries only get together a few times each year to train as a team, as the players instead play in leagues and train with their team in the league. Many European countries get together for “Super Camps” before major competitions, but again it’s only a few weeks per year. This can’t compete with the best Chinese players training together full-time all year.

The USA team gets together only a few weeks per year, if that. It’s simply not enough.

To match the Chinese, other countries need to focus on year-round training, not just periodic training, combined with league-type play and competing in the ITTF Pro Tour. One way of doing this is to simply have the teams train at the location of the leagues, even if that means training in another country. If countries combine their practice sessions, then the best players can train together and pool their resources for practice partners (see below) as well as training centre expenses. Otherwise, the best players in, say Europe won’t get to train with the best players, as the Chinese do (since many of the best players are on the Chinese team).

1989 & 1997 World Champion Jan-Ove Waldner of Sweden attributes much of his success to training in China. Those who wish to challenge the Chinese should consider doing the same.

Practice Partners

Most countries don’t have the resources to have as many practice partners as the Chinese. However, this is a must if they wish to challenge the Chinese.

Teams that are not among the best in the world need world-class practice partners to help them raise their level. It’s nearly impossible for 2600 and 2700 players to become 2900 players unless they train with 2900 players.

Teams that are among the best in the world need world-class practice partners which emulate players like Wang Liqin and Ma Lin. When Wang Liqin or Ma Lin play, say, Samsonov, they’ve been practicing with Samsonov-like players regularly, and so they’re ready. Meanwhile, Samsonov has been practicing with whoever he can get, meaning mostly weaker players and none who really play like Wang Liqin or Ma Lin. Anyone watching Michael Maze against Ma Lin in the semi-finals of the recent Worlds could see how uncomfortable he was against Ma’s game. Most likely, two years from now he’ll be equally uncomfortable as he won’t get to train against this style. Meanwhile, in China, there are players whose main job is to play like Maze and so Ma will be even more prepared.

It’s unlikely that other countries can regularly train with two practice partners in the way the Chinese do, at least in the foreseeable future, but the first step is just getting these practice partners. Surprisingly, the answer is to go right to the source: China itself. China has a huge number of top players who are not on the Chinese team, players who, if given the chance, would be among the top 50 in the world or even better. Since costs in China are cheap compared to most other countries (which is why USA was able to hire former Chinese team members Cheng Yinghua, Huang Tong “Jack” Huang and Huazhang Xu as practice partners in the late 1990s), they are affordable, if this becomes a priority. Countries can pool their resources and hire practice partners – and they can do so right from China!

Mental and Tactical Training

Many countries already have meetings with sports psychologists. It might be a good idea to combine this with tactical meetings, as the Chinese do.

Most countries have one or two coaches who develop most or all of the strategies for their team (along with the players themselves). There are many top coaches or former top players who can be brought in, often as volunteers, to help develop tactics. For teams that can’t yet challenge the top players, they should focus on the tactical and style development of their players. If they are at the level where they can challenge the best teams, moving toward specific strategies against specific players becomes a higher priority.

Developing Players

Again, other countries don’t have the depth the Chinese have. They can, however, close the gap with more grass-roots development. Germany, for example, has a huge number of players due to their league system.

Where other countries can outdo the Chinese is in match practice, especially in competitive situations. A Chinese strength is their actual training. However, many Europeans players have more effective match practice, due to the many European leagues. This makes them “match tough” and allows them to be at their best in big matches as they become used to developing flexible tactics for their matches. If they are able to combine this with playing practice partners who emulate top Chinese players, they can be even better prepared for the match than the Chinese player, who may have more and better training, but not as much match play in competitive situations against different players (since much of their match play is in practice sessions against other Chinese players).

To get this match practice, players can play in various leagues, such as the German Leagues, considered by many the best in the world, as well as the ITTF Pro Tour. This, combined with matching the Chinese in other aspects of their development, can make them competitive with the Chinese.

Technique

Technique is an open thing, as you can learn the most modern technique by just watching the best players. However, if you do it this way, you are always years behind those who develop these techniques.

This is where the careful planning of coaching methods becomes important. Teams need to emulate the best techniques of the best players (both Chinese and non-Chinese), and add their own techniques.

When Hungary defeated China to win the 1979 World Team Championships, they dominated mostly on the strength of their flick return of serves and backhand loops. When Sweden dominated China in the early 1990s, they did so with their shake-hands reverse rubber game with the addition of speed glue. In both cases, the Chinese were caught off guard and lost due to the new techniques.

USA is also a good example here. In the modern sponge era, roughly the past 40 years, only two players have reached the top twenty level in the world – Dan Seemiller (now the USA Men’s Coach) and Eric Boggan. Both copied the most advanced techniques in the world, and added them to their own new techniques. Both of these players played with the “Seemiller” grip, first developed at a high level by Seemiller himself, whereby one side of the racket was used for both forehand and backhand (a sort of windshield-wiper grip), with anti-spin rubber on the other side as a variation. At the 1985 Worlds, four of the five USA team members used this grip! (Dan & Rick Seemiller, Eric Boggan and Brian Masters, with Sean O’Neill the sole shake-hands player.) The new technique helped bring USA to its highest level in four decades, where they could actually challenge all but perhaps the top four countries in the world.

This doesn’t mean USA or other countries should start switching to the Seemiller grip. It means that to really challenge the Chinese, other countries need not only to copy their technique, but to develop new ones, as the Hungarians and Swedes did. Or doing as the Chinese did by copying Klampar’s technique and improving on it, other countries can improve or develop current techniques. Somewhere out there are players using new techniques that few have noticed, but which may be the next big break-through.

Europe already has one possible advantage over China and that is their rallying techniques. China may dominate at the start of the rally, but the Europeans, who spend more time training their rallying techniques (primarily counter-looping), and tend to use softer sponges (better for counter-looping) often have an advantage here. This is something they can develop, if combined with tactics to get into these types of rallies.

Conclusion

Challenging the Chinese in table tennis is a formidable task, similar to the rest of the world challenging USA in basketball. A few years ago, USA basketball seemed invincible and now they are not. The Chinese are much more challengeable now than USA basketball was, but it won’t be an easy task. Basically, it’ll take a combination of matching Chinese strengths, while developing other strengths. Can it be done? Yes. Will it be done? That remains to be seen.

The Authors

Cheng Yinghua, who is sponsored by Butterfly, is the current and four-time U.S. Men’s Singles Champion. He was a member of the Chinese National Team from 1977-87. He was the 1985 and 1993 U.S. Open Men’s Singles Champion, along with many other national and international titles. When he won the Men’s Singles at the 2004 USA Nationals at aged 46, he became the oldest ever to do so. He is certified as a National Coach by USATT, the highest level. He was named USATT Coach of the Year in 1996. He is a member of the USATT Hall of Fame and a full-time coach at the Maryland Table Tennis Centre.

Larry Hodges is editor of USA Table Tennis Magazine, a long-time coach and player, and author of over 300 table tennis coaching articles and the book, Table Tennis: Steps to Success. He is certified as a National Coach by USATT, and was named USATT Developmental Coach of the Year in 2003. He is a member of the USATT Hall of Fame and a coach at the Maryland Table Tennis Centre.

How to Win

Clive Woodward (2002)

When combating a diseased organisational culture – be it in business or in sport – you need either strength of numbers or absolute authority to effect any real change. Over the years we’ve encountered many different versions of inherited thinking, or tradition as some call it, in business, sport and government. The symptoms are always the same: blind faith in the ‘way’, nepotism to protect the institution and a culture that heavily discourages, even punishes, any questioning of authority and where change is an anathema. Often the establishment can’t take in the ideas of the visionaries because such an approach would shake up many of their own top coaches – the ideas are too far ahead of what these coaches practise, know and believe in and introducing substantially different ideas would expose their real lack of knowledge.

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 is so 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 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 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.

Elite squad management ground rules

  • Be open and encourage openness in others.
  • No clichés or mumbo jumbo.
  • Have your say.
  • Be honest.
  • Ensure you spend time on self-analysis.
  • Have and show respect for other team members.
  • Keep it in the team (confidentiality).
  • Agree to disagree in a non-confrontational way.
  • Have loyalty for each other.
  • Encourage a no-blame culture.
  • No excuses.
  • Be up front and to the point.
  • No gossip.
  • Don’t apologise for actions, get it right and be professional.

We are in the business of inspiration. Our job is not only to inspire one another but also all those we work with and those who watch us and support us. Our goal is to inspire the whole country. There are no excuses anymore. Remember we never work in an ‘if only’ culture.

National Associations : the way forward

Rowden Fullen (2007)

If any association is to have world class teams and players, then the foundations of table tennis in that country have to be good and solid. There must be for example a stream of good cadets and juniors coming through all the time. Sweden dominated table tennis in Europe and the world and challenged China in the 1980’s and 90’s but the Association was still relying on the old men to win yet another team championship in 2000. Now Sweden is fading away as a force in our sport precisely because the crop of new younger players hasn’t come through.

The more the general public has an interest in table tennis and the bigger the ‘grass roots’ player base, the larger will be the pool of talent coming through to national level. More players increase the odds of uncovering ‘the exceptional talent’. It is important to nurture the ‘grass roots’, the local leagues and their players and to encourage new ventures at the broad base of the pyramid.

However uncovering and identifying talent is of little value unless the Administration is competent enough to have a far-reaching junior development programme, employing the right people to turn the good juniors into the next crop of senior players. We should also have enough top seniors still in the system to pass on their experience and knowledge to the next generation.

Unfortunately in a number of countries in Europe the tendency is to isolate top young players from their own coaches, presumably on the premise that only the National Team Trainers have the required knowledge for further development. Yet strangely enough when you talk to top coaches in Europe and discuss the way forward in terms of developing top talent and trying to compete with the Asians, more often than not the coaches stress the vital importance of individual development and that players should come to select high level training camps in Europe not with their National Trainers but in fact with their own personal coaches. They stress the importance of having the coaches on hand who are actually working on a day to day basis with the players.

Coaches such as Mikola Ulyanchich and Tatyana Kokunina (Ukraine), Dirk Schimmelpfennig (Germany), Dusan Mihalka (Slovak Republic), Hans Thalin (Sweden), Jarek Kolodjejczyk (Austria), Leszek Kucharsky (Poland) and Joze Urh (Italy) are all in favour of much higher involvement by the players’ own coaches in any European development programme.

This perhaps underscores the importance of teamwork in any administration. Unless the majority of your association, players, coaches, organisers etc. are working together and pulling in the same direction, you will indeed struggle to progress and to move forward. Unfortunately many associations are bad in communication and neglect to keep, even in the case of their top youngsters, parents and personal coaches ‘in the loop’. This only gives rise to a considerable amount of ill-feeling and discontent.

A major problem all over Europe is of course an obvious, structured career path for top young players. Parents will not encourage their offspring to devote themselves full-time to a sport which offers little or no career security. Players themselves usually realise around the age of 18 to 19 years that there are few ways of making a good living when the playing days are over. With no career path in table tennis a young player has to be somewhat brave to try to ‘tread the professional road’, especially as it is often plainly apparent that other more senior players have tried the same route without marked success.

As far as the future is concerned in any sport it’s not enough just to do what has always worked in the past. We will not win medals in the future with methods of the past – table tennis is changing constantly and to progress we must change too, must be alert to new opportunities and new ideas. Every association should be looking to improve on last year’s results, not just to do the same old things rather better than before.

If a country is to be successful in our sport then the Administration must also be progressive and forward-looking. Methods of assessment, selection, ranking and national centres and training must be constantly monitored and up-graded. It is important that more and more countries throughout Europe demand not just some ‘movement’ from national bodies but actual achievement and at all levels across the board!

Styles through the Ages

Dr. Zhang Xiaopeng, Chinese Technical Paper (2008)

YANGZHOU, China, Sept. 19 (Xinhua)

Dr. Zhang Xiaopeng, a leading researcher in world table tennis and deputy general secretary of the Chinese Table Tennis Association, explains the sport’s playing styles during the ongoing Asian championships.

When people talk about the playing styles, it is recommended to first of all categorize the types of players, and then study and understand their playing techniques. This suggests that there are many different playing techniques for both choppers and attackers (offensive players). Zhang summarizes those as follows:

Choppers

Chopping was the mainstream technique from 1920-1950. Players dominantly used it to compete in international table tennis tournaments. During the 1960s, choppers started to develop the technique of “wide-angle long chop followed by counter attacks” in addition to straight defensive chops.

Zoltan Berczik of Hungary was a master chopper who produced extreme backspin on his shots; Chinese players even exaggerated that they would need a crane to lift the balls over the net. Ferenc Sido of Hungary, former men’s singles world champion, was the prototype of the attacker after a long, wide-angle chop.

During the 1970s, players developed variations of chopping with spin and no spin. Players even used rubber sheets with different characteristics on the other side of their racket and flipped racket sides as they played to induce errors from opponents who were unable to make proper adjustments to return the shots. Most Chinese choppers were playing with this style.

During the 1980s, choppers further added the techniques of attacking after serves, topspin loops, and counter-attacks that augmented the chopping game. Chen Xinhua is a typical example.

During the 1990s, we saw the new attack-chopping style requiring choppers to attack more to win points, as opposed to relying on straight defence. Ding Song, for example, had a scoring ratio of attacking after serves that frequently exceeded that of some offensive players. He was able to counter-attack and counter-loop with good power, in addition to chopping with great variations. Liang Geliang is an outstanding example.

Penhold Attacker

During the 1950s, the Japanese represented the backcourt topspin playing technique that was then the mainstream style.

During the 1960s, Chinese players developed close-to-table offensive techniques:

Attack from both sides (backhand and forehand), and backhand block/forehand attack. This type of players ruled the world; Zhuang Zedong was the master of the first method and Ron Guotuan, Xu Yinsheng, and Li Furong brilliantly performed the second method. Meanwhile, mid-court attacking from both sides and backcourt forehand topspin styles still remained popular and effective; Wang Chuanyao played with the former style, and most Japanese players performed the latter style.

Chinese players needed to enhance their counter abilities against topspin loops in the 1970s. The backhand block/forehand attack style for pimple-out penholders became the mainstream style. Typical examples were Xu Shaofa, Li Jingguang, and Li Zhenshi.

However, as Chinese produced fewer elite players who attacked from both sides, the Japanese stayed with this technique and produced Mitsuru Kohno, who won the men’s singles title at the 34th World Championships in 1977.

Meanwhile, penholders with inverted rubber also performed well, as demonstrated by Xi Enting of China and Seiji Ono of Japan, who won the world singles championship in 1973 and 1979, respectively.

During the 1980s, pimples-out penholders further improved their skills against topspin loops, i.e. forehand counter smashing and backhand blocking. Xie Saike, Jiang Jialiang, and Chen Longcan were masters. Inverted rubber penholders, such as Guo Yuehua and Cao Yanhua, were also pretty dominant and the best in the world.

In the 1990s, penholder close-to-table attackers had revolutionary improvements:

  1. Pimples-out attackers maintained the traditional excellent forehand attacks, were capable of performing step-around forehand attacks, and had high-quality attacks from serves;
  2. Players were capable of blocking topspin loops, looping with inverted rubber on the backhand side, and improved offensive abilities;
  3. Players became good at flipping their racket after they served, and looped or attacked. A typical example was Liu Guoliang.

There were more great inverted rubber penholders whose forehand topspin loops were excellent and powerful, were very capable of backhand looping from the backside of their rackets, and blocking topspins, such as Ma Lin and Yan Sen etc..

Another type of penholder, such as Wang Hao, did not use blocking techniques on the backhand side, but looped with the backside of his racket.

On the other hand, South Korean penholders had playing styles that were very different from the Chinese. They had very powerful forehand strokes but did not adopt the same backhand looping techniques.

Instead, they strengthened the traditional backhand blocks and smash attacks to solidify the backhand side, but ultimately relied on their powerful forehand strokes for winning shots. They proved that this style was equally effective. The elites of this type are Kim Taek Soo and Ryu Seung Min.

Shakehand Offensive Style

The shakehand offensive style consists of

  1. Looping -Fast Attack, and
  2. Fast Attack -looping.

Looping -Fast Attack
This playing style was commonly used in the 1960s in particular in European countries. During the 1970s Istavan Jonyer of Hungary, Anton Stipencic and Drugutin Surbek of former Yugoslavia were the masters; Andrzej Grubba of Poland and Mikael Appelgren of Sweden were examples of the 1980s. This technique, however, became dated, but we still see Zoran Primorac playing with it competitively.

Fast Attack -Looping This style is the most popular in modern table tennis. The first time we saw this was in the early 1970s, performed by Swede Stellan Bengtsson and Czech Milan Orlowski, and then Jan-Ove Waldner, Erik Lindh, and Jorgen Persson of Sweden in the 1980s.

In the 1990s, this playing style was further developed:

  • Techniques focused on faster and more powerful games, e.g.: Jean-Philippe Gatien of France, Jorg Rosskopf of Germany, Jean Michel Saive of Belgium, and Wang Tao of China, and
  • Techniques focused on an all-around game, e.g.: Jan-Ove Waldner of Sweden, Kong Linghui of China, and Vladimir Samsonov of Belarus.

It is also notable that in the 1980s some players who utilized different characteristic rubber sheets (i.e.: long-pips or anti) on their backhands were troublesome to most elite players and won world championships; these players included Liang Geliang, Cai Zhenghua, and Deng Yaping of China.

Since we moved to 40mm balls in 2001, these two styles have been mixed together. Players focus more on the quality and strength of each stroke in order to be dominant in the early stages of the game to win points effectively. Players tend to be fierce in attacking (as long as they have position) in order to have a powerful game. This trend can be seen in the games of Wang Liqin and Liu Guozheng of China, and Werner Schlager of Austria.

Where has all the Info Gone?

Rowden Fullen 2009

What has happened with our great sport over the last few years? I have been involved at all levels for sixty-odd years and coached on three continents for over fifty years and in numerous national set-ups. I have developed national-team players even at an advanced age and continue to do so. At all times I strive to progress, to learn new things and to improve myself and my methods. At all times I have sought out new knowledge. I liaise with many national or ex-national coaches in Europe and Asia – I talk to numerous top players. From the 1940’s I have been an avid reader of the table tennis magazines, in later years of items such as the ‘Coach’ bulletin and when they started various publications from the National Coaching Foundation – ‘Coaching Focus’. ‘Coaching Update’, ‘Super Coach’, ‘Coaching Edge’ etc. We used to have a great deal of ‘sports specific’ information available, but where has it all gone?

Nowadays we have glossy magazines and equally glossy web-sites but the paucity of real information and information relevant to our sport is glaringly obvious. Why for example are coaching courses increasingly going into the non-specific aspects, diet, nutrition, sports injuries, psychology, kinesiology and often at the expense of the specifics of the sport concerned? Just how many National Coaches and other top coaches don’t have access to all the experts they need? Probably very few if any. And are all the ‘experts’ involved in these non-specific aspects as knowledgeable as they claim? If so why do we so often have different information from different experts?

The potential danger of courses is of being overly theoretical and producing coaches strong in the ‘why’ but relatively weak in the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ relating to practical application. Similarly the generalised study of sports coaching often does not transfer well to sports specific settings. Governing body awards do not necessarily produce highly effective, knowledgeable or adaptable practitioners. While coach learning becomes more complex, a mature model of coach education is still lacking.

Coaches too require guidance to become the best. If coaches are to translate theory into practice their communication must be effective. What about the coach educators and assessors, is their development and knowledge up-to-date and who checks them? Do they do their job often enough to be efficient and to progress? Remember the half-life of training is the time it takes for half the total effectiveness of training to dissipate. Are even our National Coaches and High-Performance Directors as knowledgeable as they should be? Are these guys up to the job? Do such high-fliers get better each year they are in the job or do they start to cut corners? And who is to know? Is their performance ever checked?

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

Straightforward athletic success as a competitor may result in a lack of empathic understanding towards the problems experienced by others, which is critical within coaching and some qualities associated with a number of elite or high-performance athletes can be a major drawback in trying to selflessly help others to reach full potential. Principal lecturers in sports coaching at a number of our top universities have recently been querying in some depth whether or not top athletes in fact make the best coaches. In general their findings have not been positive.

Where are all the sports specific workshops and seminars to help broaden the knowledge base of existing coaches and help take them to higher levels? Many coaches, especially those more recently qualified, feel that they are working in a vacuum and are expected largely to make their own way forward (hopefully in the right direction). Even our regional and county coaches seem only able to provide very low-level courses and these more to do with the peripherals, such as club development, child protection etc. There appears to be a real need for sports specific information which is not being catered for by the governing body.

So just what can we do to address the situation? First we have to ask where we can access such information – unfortunately the coaching education programme in many European countries is moving away from sports specific fields into the peripheral aspects of our sport rather than focusing on the more scientific and technical areas. However in most European countries we still have a number of older, very experienced coaches working ouside the National Centres. Why not use their experience? Establish a register of senior coaches and list their preferred subjects for lectures, workshops and seminars. Then of course give them the power to run courses for clubs and interested groups.

Let our National Coaches and High Performance Directors run high-level seminars or forums at major events. Not only does this help with the dissemination of information, keeps players and coaches up to date with current developments in the game and lets us know what the Association is planning and aiming for but it allows for a better relationship between the Association and personal coaches and parents. They feel they are being kept in the loop.

In a number of cases we have foreign coaches and players working in clubs throughout the country who may well be able to make a meaningful contribution. Some of these have occupied positions high in the world ranking and have played in World Championships, others have worked in a number of other countries or National Centres throughout Europe.

Equally the main Association will often have access to specialists from other sports who are prepared to run workshops or seminars which may well be applicable to us. Aspects such as winning, the psychological preparation, diet or sports injuries in related racket sports. The possibilities are endless. However we may think to tackle the development of coaches and coaching one thing is certain. Recent surveys among older world-class players clearly show that in their opinion the main key to the future when looking at the table tennis of today and the current players is an in-depth programme to develop high-level knowledgeable coaches. Without this first stage any further evolution becomes highly problematical.

Asia and Europe

Rowden Fullen 2010

At one time Europe dominated our sport of table tennis. Over a period of 18 World Championships 1926 up till 1952 (H. Satoh, Japan) no Asian player featured in a World final and it was only eventually in 1956, on the women’s side, that an Asian woman won the singles (T. Okawa, Japan)(and bear in mind too that the Worlds was held yearly at this time, except for a gap of seven years during World War Two). However from 1954 to date only a handful of Europeans have won the men’s singles (1971 Bengtsson, 1975 Jonyer, 1989 and 1997 Waldner, 1991 Persson, 1993 Gatien, 2003 Schlager) and no women after 1955. A damning indictment of European table tennis and especially of the women’s game.

The golden years of modern European table tennis (for the men) were limited to 10 or 12 years from around 1983 to 1995. During this time the Swedish men’s team were in every World Team final (’83 – ’95 played every two years) and won in 1989, 1991 and 1993. In addition from 1989 to 1993 we had all-European men’s singles finals for the first time since 1953. There were a number of strong European men players at this time such as Primorac, Saive, Douglas, Gatien, Samsonov and the Swedish contingent of Waldner, Persson, Lindh, Apelgren and Karlsson. Most of these players continued (or still do) till late 30’s or even 40’s but there seems to be very few younger players coming through in Europe (with the exception of Boll and Maze) to assume the mantle of greatness.

So just what happened with our sport of table tennis and especially over the period from 1995 to date? A sport like table tennis is unfortunately difficult to assess and evaluate. With sprinting for example one can readily see that world records are falling year by year and that the times of Usain Bolt are far quicker than anything over the last five decades. With table tennis we know that Bengtsson won the Worlds at 19 years of age and that Waldner played Elite Men’s in Sweden at 12 and was in the final of the European Men’s Championships at the age of 16. But would they be able to do the same today? What circumstances were different at that time and what are things like now?

I think it’s fair to say that at the time Bengtsson won in 1971 the Asians were not so well developed nor so strong in depth as they are now. In the case of Waldner we should probably be prepared to concede that his is a truly exceptional talent and that he would be a winner in whichever decade he played. However looking at the broader picture it is obvious that while Asia has forged ahead and risen to new heights, with probably less resources than the West, Europe unfortunately has if anything gone into decline. Over the last 10 – 12 years Europe has just not produced the ‘goods’. Table tennis is now quite a high-profile sport in Asia but not in most countries in the West. What do the top coaches in Europe have to say?

  • Mario Amizic

    : 'In Europe I think especially in the field of training there is a lot to do. I also believe that within Europe there is not enough professionalism and the particular associations do not cooperate enough. Many things must change. Some people say the present situation in European table tennis is a catastrophe, for me it is the reality we could have expected! Older people can say, they know that for very long we are not trying to educate our coaches properly. As long as young coaches in Europe cannot see any real future in their job it will be almost impossible to set in motion European table tennis! Last 3 years table tennis in Europe has rapidly gone down - I believed that the young generation will be able to step into the shoes of the previous generation, but now I cannot see that they made any progress. Without good coaches in the base it is not possible to make progress, but good coaches see no future in this job and are leaving table tennis!'

  • Peter Sartz

    : 'Of course quite probably we must give the very best cadets earlier opportunity to play in seniors so as not to lose too much time in junior table tennis. It is better for these young players not to play too many junior tournaments, maybe only the big ones and instead pay more attention to the development of their game for senior competition. Junior titles cannot be the target, the target must be to develop the game which will enable the player to compete successfully in senior competitions.'

  • Michel Gadal

    : 'European Youth Championships 2009 – ‘My credo is that you do not make a player on training camps, you make a player on the basis of daily work. That is the weak point of European table tennis. In Europe only a few players have an opportunity for good coaching on a daily basis. The ETTU should focus on giving the player the best possible conditions.’

These coaches mention a number of different aspects: the importance of coaches and coach education, that training is not of the level required, the importance of a good club structure and good development in the clubs and the importance of players playing to their level and not in their age category.

The reality in Europe is that we don’t have great players at a young age anymore. The fact that players well into their 30’s or even 40’s can get to the final stages of the Olympics is indicative of the serious shortcomings in our youth development within Europe. On the other hand Asian players in their late teens (or in the case of the girls in their mid-teens) are achieving more than creditable results in major table tennis events. Perhaps we need in Europe to have not only higher goals, but a different focus in both development and our training methods.

  • Peter Sartz

    : 'We have to think how we in Europe shall play to be able to beat the Asian competitors - it is not enough to be European champion, we must try again to produce a World champion, an Olympic gold medallist! The target must be not to prepare our players for medals at European Championships but for competition with world’s best players in men and in women events.'

  • Slobodan Grujic

    : 'The danger is that the coaches try to prepare their young players to win cadet or even mini cadet championships and do not think about the most important long term goal - how to form the player, his/her technique, tactics, fitness for his/her future as senior player. The coaches must be aware of it, they must plan the long term development of their players, form their playing style.'

One thing that is noticeable is that we appear to be able to develop good juniors but few countries within Europe appear to be able to keep these same players moving forward to become high-level seniors. Rather we seem content for seniors to end up in that 75 to 250 placing in the world rankings, we don’t seem to have the know-how and expertise to take them into the top 20 in the world. Interesting that now Maze has a Chinese coach he has won the European Championships and is talking about how he has strengthened the backhand and, because he has worked a great deal on building up the legs, is now coming to the ball quicker on the forehand and is in a better position to play higher quality strokes. Surely this could have been picked up rather earlier by European coaches?

Over the last several years in Europe we have had many complaints from top players that the coaches are inadequate to take them up to higher levels. This is why many players prefer ex-players to help them as at least they have ‘been there and done it’ and know what it’s all about at the top. Or alternatively they prefer Chinese coaches for although there may be communication problems at least they know how to get players to higher levels. The girls in particular return from training camps in Asia requiring answers to the burning question: ‘Why do I train and play like a boy, adopting male tactics, movement and playing styles and ignoring my own natural strengths.’

  • Dirk Schimmelpfennig

    : 'Training programmes must be more intense, more complex and more individualised.'

  • Dr. Miran Kondrič

    : 'When we compare the training of top players in Europe and Asia we must come to conclusion that Asian players spend significantly more time having top quality training than it is the case with European players. Length of training maybe the same but intensity and quality of the training are not, as they are generally better in Asia. How this problem can be solved is a task not only for coaches, but to European players as well.'

Top coaches in Europe advocate that players should find and play to their own strengths, that there should be more cooperation between European Associations and that the coaches involved in the players’ development should be the personal coaches, who see and work with the players every day. They also advocate that physical and technical training must be significantly more intense. There may however need to be a ‘pooling’ of resources so that European players get the best opportunity to train in the right way and with the right methods to get into the top 20 in the world. Also in any cooperative undertaking between countries in Europe, it is the players who must be in focus and their development which should be prioritised.

Another area we must investigate is the commitment of the players. In this modern age where life is so easy and comfortable in the West and where it takes a great deal of hard work and effort to get near the top in our sport and where unfortunately the rewards are very mediocre, just how many youngsters are prepared to make a career out of table tennis? In European countries if we look back over the last 5 – 10 years, how many cadets who were ranked in the top 3 nationally every year even continue to play as seniors? Very few indeed, the drop out rate is appalling!

A major problem all over Europe is of course an obvious, structured career path for top young players. Parents will not encourage their offspring to devote themselves full-time to a sport which offers little or no career security. Players themselves usually realise around the age of 18 to 19 years that there are few ways of making a good living when the playing days are over. With no career path in table tennis a young player has to be somewhat brave to try to ‘tread the professional road’, especially as it is often plainly apparent that other more senior players have tried the same route without marked success.

If we are therefore to retain the few players who are prepared to try to make it at top level in table tennis and if any country is to be successful in our sport, then the Administration must also be progressive and forward-looking and alert to new opportunities and new ideas. In any sport it’s not enough just to do what has always worked in the past. Methods of assessment, selection, ranking and national centres and training must be constantly monitored and up-graded. There must be some sort of quality assessment programme in place.

  • Clive Woodward

    : ‘What we need is the basic fundamentals of sport managed with a strong business ethic. To win you have to create the right competitive environment and engage the best specialists in each fundamental area of your 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 is important that more and more countries throughout Europe demand not just some ‘movement’ from national bodies but actual achievement and at all levels across the board! Every association should be looking to improve on last year’s results, not just to do the same old things rather better than before.

Blueprint for Champions: Ideas from Clive Woodward (2008)

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

The fundamental principles of managing winning elite teams:

1. You cannot hope to be the best in the world at anything you do unless you have full control of all facets that go into creating that success. The job of running an England team is akin to running a business with no employees – the players are contracted to, have loyalty to and in many cases are developed by their clubs. Winning in most cases will therefore be in spite of, not because of the system. As a result it is necessary to find ways to motivate the players long-term, in such a way that they have the incentive to represent their country and want to continue to do so.
2. No business would want to lose its best people when they are clearly good enough to carry on at the highest level. No team in the world can afford to lose its best players early, or to have systems in place which do not allow players to reach full potential as seniors. We should fully understand the immense importance of retaining and looking after the talent we have.
3. It’s too easy to be complacent when you think you’re doing everything right or when you are the very best: the quest to ‘go beyond number one’ in everything you do has to be paramount and if you wish to continue to be successful has to be ongoing.
4. It’s what we do with skills coaching and the understanding and development of technique which will determine the world level of our top athletes. If we don’t set the right standards early we will fall way behind the rest of the world. The prime coaching emphasis must be on the individual qualities of the player: each performer is different and will only achieve his/her maximum potential if the developmental emphasis is on the harnessing and blossoming of the individual strengths.
5. Unless we have ‘everyone’s nose pointing in the same direction’ the chances of success are very much diminished. Any success is a massive team effort. Even the top people behind the scenes cannot do their jobs and deliver for the athletes, unless the whole organisation is behind them and the relevant systems and methods underpin and support what they are aiming to achieve.
6. Set yourselves apart from the traditional, established methods of coaching and development and endeavour to ‘look and work outside the box’. We will never produce world champions by slavishly following what has gone on before and trying to ‘ape’ the systems set up in other countries where traditions and cultures are different. We have to find the vital edge for winning, the critical essentials which tip the scales in our favour, the crucial strengths within each performer – above all however there is little point in finding these unless we have the time with the player to work on them!
7. It is all too easy to end up with compromise in sport; politics are involved, officials have the remit of having so many to try and please, there is a juggling to retain the balance between the interests and priorities of different sections and aspects. This is a concept which is acceptable and keeps the majority happy. However this is not a concept which can apply to the elite team: if the goal is really to be the best then there can be no compromise in standards. Re-evaluating the working structure to improve the possibility of future success is a proven and essential method for successful organisational development.
8. The most important job of any elite coach is to provide his players with every chance of being successful – nothing else! You don’t win once in a while, you don’t do things right once in a while – you do them right all the time. At an elite level it is also the coach’s job to refuse to compromise, the player must be completely ‘in focus’, only he or she matters.

China’s Dominance in the last 20 years

Rowden Fullen(2010)

China’s results over the last 20 years in table tennis give out a strong message to any country trying to topple them from their position at the top of the mountain:

• In Yokahama 2009 China won 17 out of a 20 possible medals
• In the last 10 Worlds (Individuals) China has won 44 out of 50 gold medals
• Had both players in 37 finals (out of 50)
• Taken 135 out of a grand total of 200 medals

The six gold missed were from Sweden, J. Persson 1991 and J-O Waldner 1997 (Men’s Singles) and P. Karlsson/T. von Scheele 1991 (Men’s Doubles), from France J-P Gatien 1993 (Men’s Singles), Hyun Jung Hwa 1993 (Korea, Women’s Singles) and W. Schlager 2003 (Austria, Men’s Singles).

• In 30 finals in all doubles and mixed over 10 World Championships only on one occasion has China failed to win gold in any doubles (1991)
• In the 2000’s the only gold (out of 25) not won by China was W. Schlager in 2003
• Since 1991 (Swedish win) China have won 9 gold medals in a row in men’s doubles
• China have taken 8 straight gold in the Women’s Singles in 14 years
• China has taken 15 gold out of 16 Championships over 30 years in the women’s doubles
• China has 10 straight gold in the mixed doubles
• In two worlds in a row only Chinese players have contested every final

Anyone like to bet against China in future World Championships?

Players of the Past : Their Contribution

Rowden Fullen 2009

We have many former international players in the country, some of whom have represented England over many years, in a few cases even decades. Should these older stars be sidelined and ignored and is their experience of little benefit to the current generation? There are no frames of reference as to how much coaches and players should copy or learn from the successes of former top players. Knowledge should be changing and developing all the time and each era will of course have differing advantages and opportunities as well as varying economic factors and styles of leadership.

Also, however previous generations have achieved their successes can be irrelevant in that we can always succeed in new ways and indeed should always be looking to innovate rather than to follow. Much depends on coaches and players having the confidence to try new methods and above all having total belief in what they are doing.

So are there areas in which the experience of these older players can be used and which are relevant and indeed well worth studying? And are there other areas in which their expertise is perhaps not as useful as we may think? Indeed there are.

1 As corner-men at tournaments and major events. These guys have been there and done it, they know what it takes to win at top level. The younger ex-internationals may well even have played against and beaten some of the current opponents of our young players.
2 As sparring partners. Top players don’t lose their skills (Ni Xialan came back after some 15 years without playing to get back in the Top 10 in the world): they can feel the strengths and weaknesses of the young stars and pass on tips and advice.
3 As role models. Those of our older players who are still playing at top level are of value in the team as their experience will ‘rub off’ on their younger team-mates quite quickly. Older players for example recognize immediately when opponents use different tactics and when the game changes – younger players, however good they are, often take time to adapt.
4 As coaches involved in the development of top young players. In this particular area the results of the latest research indicates that the high-level gifted athlete rarely makes a top coach, without extensive re-training and education. The top coach educators recommend care when fast-tracking high-level athletes into top coaching positions.
5 Information from the top players of how they got to the top level. How much they trained, what was relevant in their development. What qualities they had naturally, or needed to develop. And most importantly what they think of the current generation and what the younger players can and should do to get to the top.

Surveys of top players in Europe have turned up several interesting points (these surveys included a number of very successful players in terms of wins in the Worlds, Olympics and Europeans). Most top seniors for example over the last 30 years had success at cadet and/or junior level and most began playing between 5 – 11 years. On average they participated --

1 In Junior Teams at the age of 13.
2 In Senior Teams at the age of 16.

Their weekly training schedule on average at differing ages was as follows –

1 From 8 – 12 = 7 to 8 hours.
2 From 13 – 16 = 11 hours.
3 From 17 – 20 = 16 hours.

Physical training on average per week was as follows –

1 From 8 – 12 = 2 hours.
2 From 13 – 16 = 3 hours.
3 From 17 – 20 = 3 to 4 hours.

Why and how did these older players achieve their success and what did they feel were the main factors contributing towards their results?

1 25% Their own motivation and the will to win and be the best.
2 25% Good relationship with a knowledgeable coach especially in the early years.
3 22% Good work-rate and the willingness to put in the effort needed to reach the top.
4 15% To be a member of a good club with a variety of players and good sparring.
5 13% Good family support especially in the early years.

What do these older players feel are the keys to the future when looking at the table tennis of today and the current players?

1 25% A programme to develop high-level, knowledgeable coaches.
2 12% Better financial rewards for top players and coaches.
3 12% A higher profile for our sport.
4 10% A much closer relationship between the Association, the Regions and the Clubs and the willingness to work together.
5 10% Today’s players must increase training levels both in quantity and especially in intensity. Our game is more professional than it’s ever been and competition from the Asian countries is at a higher level.
6 10% Better possibilities in terms of economy to combine technical development and high-level commitment.
7 07% Develop the clubs to a higher level.
8 07% Create a good system of training camps at different levels.
9 07% Train more on condition, speed and flexibility.

It appears that most top players emphasize the importance not of raw talent but of willpower and the capability of working hard at all times. Opportunity is of course vital too and those players who have access to experienced coaches and good club training will have a big advantage.

It may be that this information provides useful guidelines as to what we should be researching with our top young players of today. It could also be relevant to investigate whether these findings tie in with the opinions and thoughts of our own top former internationals. The situation in other countries in Europe may well differ from the UK.

Table tennis: fastest ball sport?

Rowden Fullen 2010

Is table tennis the fastest ball sport there is? If we are talking about the actual speed of the ball then our sport is in fact nowhere near.

The 5 fastest in order of overall ball/shuttlecock speed are;
• Jai Alai (Pelota) 188mph. (Unofficially 200+).
• Golf ball at 170mph.
• Badminton (a jump smash) shuttlecock leaves the racket at 162mph.
• Tennis 153 mph (Andy Roddick’s recorded serve) probably this can be improved on in the case of a counter-smash.
• Squash 151 mph.

The maximum speed of a table tennis ball doesn’t reach anywhere near half these speeds. In various tests, either recorded with a laser gun or on camera (sound, racket to racket) it can almost certainly be concluded that a table tennis ball barely exceeds 75 mph and then we have to remember that it slows too very rapidly after leaving the racket.

But surely when we are talking about the fastest ball sport, if the results are to be considered anywhere near accurate, we must take into account reaction time and the time from racket contact to racket contact. In table tennis if we consider how close the players are and that a smash at one end of the table takes around 0.1 of a second to reach the other end, then this is in fact well below normal reaction time for almost all players.

In other sports as well although the ball may travel faster, the courts are bigger and participants will have more time – in addition sports like golf are not antagonistic and the sportsman is not hitting a moving ball or reacting to an opponent’s body action.

The bigger table tennis ball also loses spin rapidly through the air and gives the close-to-table attacker more advantages. The maximum revolutions with the 38mm ball as tested by the Chinese National Team were 150 revs per second. With the 40mm ball this drops to about 133 revs per second, but the bigger ball loses spin much more rapidly through the air because of its larger surface area.

As a result players who like to adopt a position back off the table, both because of the bigger ball and the lack of glue, have much less chance of winning points. This particularly affects the women who, because of their lower upper body strength and less dynamic movement, are not as quick to reach the ball and are less able to weight the stroke as heavily and play power and spin from a deeper position.

The Modern Game: Recent Changes

Rowden 2012

The modern game is changing dramatically at the moment. For a number of years now, men’s table tennis has focused on the short game and the player who has had the best control in the short play situation has almost always been the winner.

The player who has been able to take the most advantage from the short play and who has been able to get on the attack first has been the one who has come out on top. But the majority of the short play has been a ‘jockeying’ for position and has usually involved opening eventually with the FH flick or sometimes a topspin over the table if the ball drifted long. This scenario no longer applies!

What is happening now is that the whole receive strategy has been revolutionised by BH over-the-table attack. A great many of the world’s top players use the BH attack against most short serves which has revolutionised short receive. Positive short receive is now the norm and gives the receiver a big advantage in that it increases the alternatives and creates the opportunity for the receiver to get in immediately rather than just returning short on most occasions. Instead of dropping the ball back short the receiver attacks the serve and is into the topspin rally without any delay. This puts much more pressure on the server.

The problem for the server is that not only does the receiver attack with the BH from both the FH and the BH side of the table, but that he/she opens with spin, both sidespin and topspin. The ‘Schlager’ flick where the player comes round the side of the ball against a backspin serve means that the ball is returned with topspin and a sidespin kick. With the BH over-the-table stroke it is much more difficult to detect what the wrist is doing and where ball will go. It is rather easier to pick up the ball over the table with this BH shot and the wrist can be used to full effect. The wrist action which can be created over the table on the backhand side is greater than the wrist action that can be created on the forehand side.

The second aspect of development in the modern game is in the highly professional use of the reverse serve. The basic ‘pendulum’ serve has been used for years but the reverse variation is now used much more often and top players are able to switch from one to the other at will. As the wrist action is so late the receiver has little time to read top or backspin, or length or direction. The reverse short serve to the FH for example is often effective as many players have more problems with the ball spinning away from them.

As a result the variation in this serve now gives the receiver much more to think about and therefore gives him/her less time to react. The more alternatives the mind has to process when ‘reading’ the play the longer this will take! Following on from this there is also the possibility that other serves which swing away from the opponent’s FH may well become more popular; ones such as the BH or the ‘axe’ serve.

The third area of evolution is in powerful symmetrical play and strong topspin pressure from both wings. In the men’s game now on the BH side, there is very little drive play. The flat shots are used less and less. The main feature of male play is more and more topspin from this wing: this of course means that the opponent has little or no respite from the pressure. In the past it was always possible to switch into the BH and get a weaker return – not any more. We even get the situation where a switch wide to the BH results in a power BH topspin return, which can be an outright winner!

We can say that the biggest changes in the development of the game over the last 5 years or so have been in the improvement in the service and receive scenario and on the BH side. It is rare that you see men players flat hit any more, spin is nearly always the shot of choice on both BH and FH.

What is being seen too on the FH side is deception with shoulder rotation and this is something which may well develop further. By this we mean that when the player lines up the shoulders to play the FH, the opponent instinctively starts to move to react to the direction of the shot. If at the last second before starting the forward swing, you rotate back a little more then it’s possible to engineer a complete change of direction. This deception in rotation can be used with the FH from both the FH and BH sides of the table and can be very effective. With a little practice it is also possible to fake in both directions, to look as if you are playing in one direction, then to hit in the other!

The Rise and Fall of Swedish Table Tennis

Rowden Fullen(2009)

• 1989 Chinese dominance shattered. Sweden win World Team Final by an incredible 5 – 0! Waldner beats Persson in the singles final
• 1990 Swedish men win the European Men’s Team Final. Appelgren wins singles and beats Polish legend Grubba
• 1991 Sweden beats China again in the World Team Final. Persson beats Waldner in the singles final. P. Karlsson/T von Scheele take gold in the doubles
• 1992 Waldner Olympic Champion 3 – 0 over Gatien. Sweden wins European Men’s Team Final. Marie Svensson finishes 2nd in the European Top 12
• 1993 Sweden beat China again in the World Team Final
• 1994 Marie Svensson is European Women’s Singles Champion. Magnus Molin wins the cadet event in the European Youths
• 1995 David Gustavsson is unofficial World Junior Champion in Tokyo
• 1996 After 14 years Waldner wins his first European Men’s Singles title. He also wins the European Top 12 for the 7th time
• 1997 Waldner wins the World Singles title for the second time, 7 – 0 in matches and 21 – 0 in games! Jens Lundqvist wins Junior European Top 12
• 1998 P. Karlsson wins the European Top 12. Marie Svensson wins 2 medals in the Europeans
• 1999 Waldner reaches semis in the World Singles
• 2000 Sweden beats China 3 – 2 in an epic Team Final: Persson unbeaten. Waldner takes silver in the Olympics and Persson also reaches the semis. Sweden takes gold in European Team and P. Karlsson wins the singles
• 2001 F. Hakansson reaches semi-finals in the Swedish Open
• 2004 Waldner (almost 39) reaches semi-finals of the Olympics. Sweden in 4th place in World Team Championships
• 2008 At 42 Persson reaches the semi-finals of the Olympics. Robert Svensson/Jon Persson reach the semis of the European doubles

Sweden has had unprecedented success in table tennis over a period of 20 odd years. The men’s team was in every World Team Final from 1983 through to 1995 against China. From 1989 to 2000 Sweden won no fewer than 30 championship medals and 10 more over the last 10 years. Much of this was due to the fact that Waldner and Persson have both had an unbelievably long life among the top few players in the world (Waldner was in fact in the top 10 men in the world for an incredible 18 years in a row). Even now the top young Swedes have not really made the breakthrough and in 2010, who was the Swedish Closed Champion, yes Waldner again for the 9th time!

Waldner: ‘To be the best in Europe is not too difficult, Europe is weak now, especially as many of the older players, who have been very good, are stopping. But to match China is just not realistic. The older players in Europe did it but we were rather special. The older players for example in Sweden had a tough baptism. If you lost to another Swede you never heard the end of it. The competition in Sweden was murderous but this really pushed us to the limit.’
Appelgren: ‘At times we had in Sweden 5 to 6 players in the top 10 in the world.’ (Only a few months ago Appelgren at 48 beat Otcharov from Germany, ranked 14 in the world).

Persson: ‘Our generation was just too good for the younger players. We kept on developing and growing. Even in the early years we had Kjell, Tickan and Stellan in front of us as role models.’

Persson is the only player in Sweden still in the top 20 in the world. Jens Lundqvist (No 19 in 2003) is currently 49. Sweden now sees its best hope for the future in its young players; Mattias and Kristian Karlsson (18 years), Anthony Tran (15 years) and Hampus Sȍderlund (14 years). All these are among the top in Europe in their age groups. As Thomas von Scheele (Swedish Junior Team Captain) has stated: Two key areas must be fostered with our players –
• the willingness to take responsibility for their own development
• total self motivation

He states: ‘Too often in Europe the coaches help the young players too much, they must draw back and help the players to assume responsibility for themselves and for their own future. In this way it will be easier for them to take the step from the junior to the senior game. They will develop more quickly and be able to think for themselves.’

What advice does Werner Schlager, the last European to win a world title, have to give to the players of the future?
• Train with the same intensity, concentration, focus and attention as you do in matches
• Always think to be creative and innovative and work in combinations, so that you flow from one sequence into another
• Table tennis is too quick for you to control everything, but you should try to be so well prepared that you can cope with any situation
• Go your own way and create a playing style which you know suits your technique, body and character 100%

In comparison with the Asian players the best in Europe are considerably older and there seems to be little sign of an in-depth development throughout Europe which would produce players in quantity to match the Asians. Perhaps it was the case that in the 1980’s and 1990’s we had not only in Sweden but throughout Europe a group of players (Gatien, Primorac and Saive for example) who were a product of their times and whose achievements and the way they evolved cannot be duplicated today.