Technical

Offensive Play and Spin

Rowden Fullen (2000)

When hitting the ball with an attacking shot the bat moves in a forward and/or upward direction. The forward motion projects the ball forward and the upward motion imparts topspin. The flatter the trajectory the faster the ball will leave the racket and the less topspin it will have. The ultimate is the flat hit which gives maximum speed and no spin. Topspin is the most important spin in table tennis because it gives a greater margin of error when hitting offensive strokes and without it we would not be able to hit the ball so hard when it is at or below net height. Due to the nature of the execution of the stroke in comparison with the drive (more lift) it is easy to use many more timing points and thus much more variation. What many players in the Western world especially women do not appreciate is the critical importance of timing in drive play. A flat hit will have very little margin for error and a slight miscalculation will cause the ball to go into the net or off the end of the table. However a topspin hit can be aimed well above the net and the topspin will cause the ball to dip down and still land on the table, thus giving a much greater margin for error.

Topspin is needed in attack because it gives the ball a downward-curving flight path while maintaining directional control. What is good about a downward-curving flight path? It is much more certain that the ball will hit the table because its final approach is nearer to the vertical instead of almost horizontal as in the flat drive. The gyroscopic effect of the spin gives strong directional control, thus more and more power can be fed into the stroke without greatly reducing the on-the-table accuracy.

An important point is that both backspin and topspin cause the ball to deviate in flight. Test this for yourself. In your own training hall loop the ball hard and long with much topspin — it will dip quickly to the floor during flight then after bouncing will spin forward and run on to the end of the hall. The backspin ball will veer upwards before dropping down, will run forward only a little, then will spin back towards you and can end up spinning back past you. Not only does the type of spin affect the ball in the air but it also affects the way the ball behaves after the bounce.

But why does spin cause the ball to deviate in flight and why do we sometimes have unusual, unpredictable effects after the bounce? This is in fact to do with the interaction of the spinning ball as it moves through the air against the flow of air molecules. (We have all felt air, when we stick our hand out of a car window moving at speed we can feel that air is rather more solid than we thought). As the ball moves through the air different areas of the surface are subject to lesser or greater resistance, the Magnus effect. With topspin the ball is forced down, with backspin conversely forced up. If we take a topspin ball for example, the fast moving area at the top of the ball opposes the air flow and we get resistance or high pressure. However at the bottom, the fast moving area of the surface moves with the air flow, the air molecules speed up and you get low pressure. As a result the ball is forced downwards. At the bounce the bottom of the heavily spinning ball is held by the table, topspin increases and the ball shoots forwards very quickly.

Once the ball has crossed the net some force is required to bring the ball down on to the table — gravity alone is not enough if the ball is travelling fast. This force is provided by topspin which causes the ball to dip. Therefore a hard hit must contain a lot of topspin to bring the ball down on to the table — the harder the hit the more topspin it must contain. Modern bats allow the ball to be hit very hard from below net height because they create sufficient topspin on the ball. This topspin also causes the ball to come off the table very quickly, shooting through fast and low after the bounce.

With the modern racket the characteristics of the sponge and rubber allow the bat to be swung in a different, flatter arc, giving more forward speed to the ball. Because of the spin produced, much more energy can be fed into the shot. In effect the ball sinks into the bat, is grabbed by it and as the bat is moving up and forward, the ball is projected upwards and forwards too. The surface of the rubber is very tacky so it grips the ball and imparts a great deal of topspin. It is this topspin which causes the ball to dip down on to the table. Another vital point is that for the same bat path, the faster the racket moves, the more spin it puts on the ball. A fast hit will contain more topspin than a slow hit. Most players, especially women, do not understand the importance of spin in hitting the ball hard. Very few women for example ever attempt to play with the same degree of closed racket angle as the men, so how can they hope to achieve the same level of spin as the men? It also means that the variety of topspin trajectories are often more limited in the women’s game. How much spin you produce is seen most readily when you play against long pimples and your hard hit comes back with very much more backspin than your slow hit.

Nowadays players have mentally absorbed the fact that topspin makes the ball shoot through fast after hitting the table. When they play against pimples they complain that the ball comes through much slower. Often players have problems coping with the flat hit with lesser topspin. The ball comes off the racket faster, therefore travels through the air faster, but comes off the table slower!

What many players fail to appreciate is that the ball will always come off the bat faster when it hits the bat at a perpendicular angle because the energy losses will be less. However fast and elastic, sponge cannot create energy, it can only minimize energy losses. With the sponge racket the grabbing and lifting effect enables the bat to be swung flatter to give more forward speed, but the flatter angle of attack means there are more energy losses due to a larger depression being made in the surface of the sponge. If the elasticity is increased, so that the ball springs off the racket more quickly, this will almost certainly reduce the lifting effect and the amount of topspin produced so there will be less ‘dip’ on to the other side of the table.

What players must understand too is that we should consider the relevance of speed over three different areas, speed off the racket, speed through the air and speed off the table. We should also consider how the different speeds are affected by how we play the stroke and then examine the trajectory of the ball. Will a loop ball which has a pronounced arc in trajectory reach the other end of the table more quickly than a flat hit which travels in a straight line? Obviously not unless there is a much greater difference in the power input.

We must also put a little thought into just how much effect the 40mm ball is going to have on our stroke play. Without accurate scientific testing (this would of course mean testing in the way in which table tennis strokes are played, where the racket contacts the ball usually at an angle and propels the ball forward) it remains to be seen what can be achieved practically, but it would appear that the big ball will travel at around 1 – 2% slower through the air. If you just drop a big and a small ball from the same height, they will both reach the ground at the same time but the big ball will not bounce up so high. Therefore it is in the reaction off the bat and off the table where any significant reduction in speed is likely to occur. Any specific reduction is not easy to assess because practically balls do not meet the table or the racket perpendicularly and even more importantly contain spin, which affects speed through the air and after the bounce. In some of the initial tests done in the research centre in Ottawa, they found that the harder the hit, the less difference there was between the speed of the big and small ball! Perhaps a really hard hit and the big ball will travel faster than the small one! Indications at the moment are that speed at the fast end of the game has not been affected very much but that speed at the slow end is rather slower.

It is in the area of spin rather than that of speed that most players are going to notice a difference with the big ball. The critical factor is air resistance which will slow the larger ball more quickly, accelerating the dissipation of spin and causing it to ‘dip’ more rapidly under topspin conditions. The speed of revolution (spin) will be in inverse proportion to the size of the ball. The larger ball will clearly spin slower and less and since any point on the surface will travel further to complete a revolution, the spin will reduce quicker due to air resistance. However there is also the possibility that because of the larger surface area it is feasible that more friction can be transmitted to the larger ball, so that in service, very thin contact or over-the-table shots the opponent who stays close may still face much spin! This is of course an equally valid argument with the hard hit ball but if the opponent takes this at a deeper position much of the spin will have dissipated.

A particularly important aspect is what happens after the ball hits the table. Spin is converted into forward or backward momentum. Topspin will add to the speed of the shot after the ball has bounced — the bottom of the ball stops but the top shoots forward increasing the topspin. With the larger ball where we have a larger surface area contact with the air this will tend to dissipate the spin, but at the same time the bottom of the ball should be gripped more on contact thus increasing the topspin effect after the bounce. Which will predominate? Players seem to agree that the big ball dips more both before hitting the table and after the bounce.

Do we really want to end up slugging it out, topspin to topspin, two and a half metres back from the table till one or other player tires? If the ball drops rather more quickly, especially with spin and if there’s more effect with slower shots, perhaps we should look into these aspects rather more — spin and variation rather than power! It is perhaps also of interest to think a little of the difference in the power element between the men’s and the women’s game. We must touch on science here again for a brief moment — we know that a modern ‘sandwich’ rubber racket can be swung in a much flatter plane than the old ‘hard’ bat, thus giving the ball more forward speed. The harder the ball is hit with this type of stroke, the more topspin it will contain. The sponge does much of the work in ‘lifting’ the ball over the net and the spin in bringing it down on the other side of the table. However as women don’t hit the ball as hard as men and usually play with a less closed bat angle, they will achieve proportionately less topspin effect than men on the power strokes such as the loop drive. Women will tend to suffer more with the big ball than men, those who do have a topspin game will be less effective because it will be more difficult for them to increase the spin element and thus some of the ‘on-the-table’ effect will be lost and with it a measure of control. At the very highest levels in the women’s game those players who use the power strokes are going to achieve less spin through the air, less ‘dip’ on to the table and less speed off the table after the bounce. It should therefore be rather easier for the closer-to-table women players to cope with those who like to back away and topspin from a deeper position.

European Table Tennis: Direction

Rowden Fullen (2003)

Throughout Europe coaches appear to be operating increasingly at a lower and lower level — in fact you can almost say the real coaches are rapidly disappearing. Nowadays too much emphasis and time are spent on aspects such as technique and power or topspin and little or no effort in making the individual player more effective. On training camps we spend hours doing on-the-table exercises that have little or no purpose behind them. We often seem to go through the motions without really understanding what we intend to achieve. Few players seem to ask the important questions – ‘Why are we doing this exercise? What is the purpose? How does this benefit me in my play with my particular style?’ In fact in the final analysis we seem to be getting fewer and fewer players with real potential coming through the system in Europe.

Even those who do come through to national level appear to be rather more stereotyped in their overall style than the top Europeans of 10 years ago, which almost immediately gives rise to the question – ‘Just what is happening with our coaching in Europe?’ Players such as Appelgren, Waldner, Gatien, Saive and Primorac were all successful with a variety of differing styles – the young players of today have a workmanlike style with good pace and power but relatively little real feeling in their game. As a result they tend to be rather more predictable. And this is happening in spite of all the increased funding and better facilities that we now have throughout Europe in a number of countries. We once produced world champions such as Stellan Bengtsson at 17 years of age. Surely in these modern times with more money than ever before in table tennis, better equipment, better organization and facilities, increased advanced scientific help and wider know-how, we have much more going for us. We should in fact do rather better, not worse!

Unfortunately many of our up-and-coming young players seem to lack real discipline and especially direction. They appear to have little or no idea as to how they should play to be most effective. Or indeed what their end style of play should be, which direction they should take and how in actual fact they are going to get there! We read comments in various magazines such as – ‘Gone are the days when one coach or parent can produce a European or World Champion. The game is just too technical, too complex and too demanding for the enthusiastic amateur approach’. Perhaps someone could explain just how putting a group of even quite promising young players together (numbering between 15/20) in one national centre with one or two coaches is going to produce a champion? You may have the environment and some of the talented players, but you don’t have the method! In fact in a number of countries in Europe the top young players refuse to attend their national centres — they obviously feel they can get a better ‘deal’ elsewhere.

The time for individual emphasis and development in national centres is extremely limited. Good sparring is of course important and has its place but it is by no means enough on its own in the total scheme of things. In fact what has been achieved in national centres over the last few years (especially in view of the total input in terms of finance and expertise), compared with the successes of private coaches working alone and with limited resources, or measured against individual training in one or two of the better clubs, has often been quite laughable and yet we continue to pour funds into such ventures. It is perhaps now time that we appreciated that both the staffing and expertise levels in any such centres are absolutely critical. Coaches must have the time, the expertise and also the motivation to want to help players.

The single most important factor in the progress of a player at national level is that he or she has access to the right influences and sources of information. So many players reach national standing and stagnate! They may get a little stronger and hit the ball harder, but in terms of individual personal development there are few signs of forward movement. At every stage in a player’s career they must be progress and change, but this is of prime importance at the highest levels. No player can stop developing and ‘tread water’ on the way to the top, he or she must continue to advance and in most cases this requires some monitoring and guidance.

Also at national level in many countries there seems to be a ‘stagnation’ in motivation — it’s almost as if players attain the status of a national team player and are then satisfied. Perhaps they feel that they have achieved their goals and just don’t have the incentive to keep going! One of the problems too in Europe is that the top stars are often ‘safe’ in their national team place, there are few really talented young players pushing for their position. Regardless of their results, win or lose, perform well or badly, they are still going to keep their place in the team. This is hardly the environment to encourage players to keep raising their levels. In many cases they become too complacent.

If we talk to players involved in elite teams throughout Europe we find that there is quite often a general level of dissatisfaction with the input and the expertise of coaches and trainers. Quite a number of up-and-coming top players have to ‘take over’ and to organize the direction of their own training because the coaches even in the bigger clubs either don’t have the time or specialized expertise to do this. Many elite players would prefer to see more players going into coaching at the end of their careers because they at least have some idea of what it’s all about at the top. Many others prefer to have coaches from Asia because even though there can often be communication problems, they at least know how to develop table tennis players and take them up to higher levels. Young players who train for long periods in Asia return to their home countries dissatisfied and understanding often for the first time that the training at home, even at national level, is woefully inadequate and in many cases leading them in the ‘wrong’ direction as a player. This is particularly noticeable in the women’s game.

Whatever the reasons there appears to be an increasing tendency in many countries in Europe for more players to go into coaching at the end of their career or when they are injured. 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 players being involved in coaching at national level.

Very few questions ever seem to be asked as to the qualifications or capabilities of ex-players taking up coaching duties. In addition very rarely do these ex-players take upgrading courses in theory or in areas where they may be lacking in knowledge. What for example qualifies a young male loop player of thirty years to take over as a junior girl’s coach? Does he know the theory of women’s play, the various styles and materials and the differing mental approach? Many parents and coaches would in fact be horrified if they knew just how little thought often goes into the selection of some of the trainers, helpers and sparring partners at national level! They would be more concerned if they knew just how much pressure national coaches come under and just how little time they often have left to get down to actual coaching.

In all of this we must bear in mind that the career path of a coach is rather different from that of a player. We are not only talking here of the level of expertise (there are for example many things which coaches know that they don’t necessarily pass on to players and which players don’t need to know, because their function is not to teach but to play). We should bear in mind too that coaching is about handling people and getting the best out of them, something a player is not necessarily good at and may have to work hard to develop. Players have often spent their whole career trying to make their own particular style of play as effective as possible. Suddenly they are asked to take on the responsibility for the guidance and development of a dozen completely different styles. It’s rather like taking the combat soldier from the front line and putting him in the general’s chair! One situation requires the intense localised focus, the other a much wider overview. Aspects such as this must always be considered when promoting players to coaching duties and especially at national level.

When we are examining the quality of coaching at the highest level we must also consider the level of funding available. I have known of several instances in various countries in Europe where coaches have been asked to take on national duties and have refused solely because such a move would have entailed a drop of some 30% in salary. It is next to impossible to attract the right people without having remuneration at least comparable with industry or other professions. Another avenue we think to use is to look for coaches from outside our own country, often without understanding that the culture gap may mean several years without a real level of improvement. Foreign trainers usually need to be in a country for some time and to understand the system before they can be completely effective. Coach development too varies very much from country to country over Europe and different areas of expertise are often highlighted in differing localities. I know of national coaches from European countries working abroad who are not even allowed to take coaching courses in their home country, because they have never passed the first grade coaching examination!

Without the right people in our national centres the players are going nowhere! Players starting in national centres at a younger age, say between 12—15 years are especially vulnerable and usually require fairly constant guidance, particularly as they have often been uprooted from their own coach and the stability of family life. They more often than not need to be handled by coaches who have considerable experience in individual style development.

Whatever we are doing in Europe it is obviously not good enough. We are not producing the top level world-class players we once did, we are not getting players to elite levels at 12/13 years or finals of the European men’s singles at 16 years of age. It’s not really a valid argument to say that we don’t have the talented players any more because we do! Perhaps now is the time to re-evaluate our coaching in Europe and particularly to look at the direction it should take over the next period of 4/5 years. With our sport reaching higher and higher levels all the time, it is more than ever necessary to be aware of our strengths and to be looking at ways to maximize these.

Above all, players of talent whether in or out of national centres should have equal opportunity to progress. We must face the fact that we cannot force players to attend national centres, top players are often strong characters and wish to go their own way and in a number of European countries do just this. Perhaps we must also face up to the possibility that it’s not just the top players who are being ‘difficult’, but our national centres which are just not good enough and need upgrading with newer methods and systems.

Whatever the background and reasons may be we seem to be producing less and less players of individual style. There is much less individualism among the young and rather less flair and feeling in their game. 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.

Whether we work individually or in groups but especially in national centres we must find a way to bring in a larger element of individual focus on the major prospects so that they have the best possible chance to reach their full potential. If at all possible a top player must have something different, some unique quality which opponents have difficulty in adapting to. It is up to the coach and the player, working together, to find this quality and to work to develop it and make it most effective. Table tennis is a game of adaptation and counter-adaptation and the player who has something different or unusual in his or her game will always cause problems to the opponent.

The Professional Approach

Rowden Fullen (1990’s)

  • Appraise your game.
  • The physical aspect.
  • Match play.
  • Confidence.
  • Anticipation.
  • The mental approach.
  • Be a winner.
  • The future - where to from here.

1. APPRAISE YOUR GAME

How many of you have given much thought to the social values of table tennis? It never ceases to amaze me that you can go to a strange town, ring up the local league secretary and immediately there is interest. People want to know your level, if you are interested in playing in a team, helping with coaching groups etc. Our sport serves as an instant passport to a circle of new friends.

Perhaps you are one who plays purely because you enjoy the game and have no great ambitions. You play primarily for the social aspects and find it relaxing to have a night out once or twice a week with like-minded mates. If this is your approach, good luck to you. You will probably usually play well because your game will be relaxed and natural and there will be no great pressures on you to break records or do anything out of the ordinary. However you will have to be prepared to accept that there will be levels you can’t reach, standards you cannot achieve and players who will beat you purely because they practise more often or are more fiercely competitive.

On the other hand you may fall into the category of a number of players who although they are quite competitive, tend to be rather rigid in the way they play and in the way they think. Many players achieve a level and are satisfied with this. They aren’t really prepared to put in the exertion and the effort to raise the standard of their game or to aim for new heights. Even many young players come under this classification. They become set in their ways, play in a fixed pattern which brings them limited success, but in reality they have stopped moving forward. Their game is stagnating and nothing new is taking place. There is no progress or development.

Table tennis is above all about adaptation. If you cannot change your game to cope with the opponent’s tactics then it’s difficult to be a winner. If you are not continuing to change then you are not developing. True we all play the game for different reasons and of course we cannot all be world champions. But there’s no reason why we should not reach our full potential or as nearly as possible. To accomplish this we must first have the right approach and the right mental attitude.

Whatever your reasons for playing and at whatever levels you play, there will also be days when you play badly and need to call on your reserves of experience. The ability to keep on going even through difficult patches singles out the player who has the more professional approach. The quality of professionalism is often emphasized by the degree of planning, preparation and on-going analysis that goes into your game. Many players find in fact that the keeping of statistics during the playing season helps them and is of long-term value. Common factors start to emerge. They often lose against a certain style of player or have problems against some types of racket. Just how scientific you are prepared to be in your approach is up to you. Like we all do, you play in part because you enjoy the game, but I am sure you will find that if anything a more professional approach will enhance rather than inhibit this enjoyment.

2. THE PHYSICAL ASPECT

If you want to be good you will quite simply make yourself fit enough to achieve the level you want to play at. There is little point here in detailing exercise programmes or spending much time on fitness aspects. Almost every book written on table tennis caters quite fully for the physical side of the game.

What we can do however is to stress some of the benefits of fitness. All coaches are agreed on the mobility factor - increase your mobility and you increase the level of your play. You get more shots back and you get them back more correctly because you have more time to get into the correct position to play them. You are better placed to feed in spin or power to your stroke. But mobility has long-term advantages too - you will for instance be able to play at a higher level longer and to continue playing later in life. Why give up playing at forty when you can continue getting enjoyment out of the game till sixty-five or over?

What too about the benefits of good fitness on the mental outlook, your level of alertness and the ability to cope with new challenges and stresses? Most top executives have come to appreciate in these modern times that a fit body allows them to do their daily paperwork, handle meetings and make decisions that much more efficiently. They are more alert, can think out problems more quickly, can stand longer hours and still function well, are more resistant to stress and illness and recover more rapidly. It is just so with the really fit table tennis player. He has time to think, to plan tactics, to work out his opponent’s weaknesses, to evaluate where he himself is winning and losing points. He has time simply because his body does not have to operate on overload all the time and he is able to allocate other tasks to his mental computer.

Then there are the psychological advantages of fitness. If you are in good shape you are much more liable to be at ease with yourself, to ‘like’ yourself. The perfectly functioning body tends to breed emotional serenity, a calmer outlook on life and as a result you often relate better to other people. The player who loses games because of his lack of fitness and is also inadequate in tactical areas because of this, is much more likely to be the one who throws his bat around after the match. He knows inside, if he is really prepared to admit it, that much of his failure is his own fault. He wants to play at a certain level, but is unwilling or unable to get his physical shape up to the standard where he can compete effectively. As a result we get internal conflict which grows as the player continues to lose.

On the other hand the player who has performed to the limits of his potential has no cause for self-recrimination. The other player was just better on the day and this is a situation we all have to face at one time or another. If we have played to our utmost and lost then we should accept defeat gracefully. Inventing excuses for failure is of no help to anyone. Rather than trying to find a scapegoat for our loss, we must weigh and evaluate the circumstances of the day and decide what changes we need to make in our own attitudes and training to continue to progress and to move forward.

This is one of the great things about table tennis. A defeat is not the end of the world, there are an infinite number of variables in our sport. From day to day and match to match conditions alter, sometimes in your favour sometimes against. Tables change, floors are different, space, height, balls and lighting vary. The mental approach of your opponent is never exactly the same, even the element of luck may play its part. With such a number of variables a rematch does not have to have the same result - only if you let it.

3. MATCHPLAY

The outcome of the really big top of the table clash can often be largely decided before it is played. In terms of playing skill, point for point, the players will probably be very close and half a dozen sets might well be decided 11 - 9 or deuce in the final game. Preparation becomes vital. You know the opposing team’s strengths and weaknesses, the types of bats they use, their temperaments and limitations. Work out how you and your team-mates can exploit this knowledge, how you should approach the game against each individual opponent, how you can take the most out of him and wear him down, even if it may be difficult to beat him. For this cumulative effect is often vital in the big match.

You may face one opponent who is expected to take his three singles against your team. But if you can make him struggle for every point and keep him under pressure all the time, his chances of beating each successive player become less and less. Gradually you wear him down so that by the time he plays his last match he is physically and mentally weakened.

If you have home advantage then most of your problems are solved - tables, floor, lighting, the amount of space and height, the run-back distance, all these conditions will be familiar to you and you will allow for them automatically without conscious thought. If your match is at an away venue then prepare as much as you can. Use what knowledge you have - if you know the table is slow practise on a similar type of surface and arrive early so you have a good chance to get acclimatized.

The order of play is of particular importance. Work out to the best of your ability the expected order of the opposition, try to put yourself into their minds, what are they trying to achieve? Endeavour to out-think and out- manoeuvre them right from the start. Do they have a regular order, does one of their players like to finish first or last? This last-second preparation might well tip the scales in your favour.

Aim to get an early lead. Many key matches have been won by one side going 3 - 1 or 4 - 2 up, it gives the whole side confidence and disheartens the opposition. If you have one good player who will win all his games, let him finish first - games won are always worth more than games to play in the mental stakes. Equally if there is no star player but the opposing team has one weak link, a player who perhaps because of a clash of styles loses easily to one or more of your team, use this. Beat this player comprehensively early on, this may well affect him mentally for the rest of the match. It may also put pressure on his better or more experienced colleagues and give you an advantage against them.

Don’t let hostile supporters get you down, remain calm and in control of the play. Whatever your methods of ‘crowd control’, never at any time reveal a lack of confidence. The player who remains totally expressionless during matches often raises doubts in the opponent’s mind. As far as supporting your team members is concerned you should know their moods and attitudes. Some do better with a little encouragement, others are better left alone in a tight spot and constant support can distract them.

4. CONFIDENCE

Most of us have been in the situation where we have been well ahead, leading 8 - 1 and playing fluently. We are relaxed and confident, we have the game won and it is all over barring the entry on the scorecard. Then suddenly everything starts to go wrong. Our opponent starts to play better even though there’s no possibility that he can win and 8 - 1 becomes 8 - 4. We are still not too worried, all we need is a couple of good shots - but we miss and decide to tighten up our game but to no avail, 8 - 4 becomes 8 - 7. Now we are a little worried and try to shift into a higher gear, but our opponent seems to have a new lease of life and is playing better and better. We on the other hand start to tense up a little, as the feeling we can’t win becomes a certainty and surely enough this becomes fact and we lose 9 - 11!

We let the opponent off the hook, the big question is of course why, how did it happen? What was the intangible factor that changed the game? It is far too late at 8 - 7 to ask ourselves what is going wrong, probably too late at even 8 - 5. Something happened right back at 8 - 3 or 8 - 4 that we did not appreciate or a combination of things. Because we didn’t have our finger closely on the pulse of the game we missed it. Perhaps because we were playing so well and were in such a commanding position, we relaxed or started to play ‘impossible’ shots. Whatever the reason we started to miss and to lose points. At the same time something had happened at the other end of the table. Our opponent had decided he had lost and didn’t care any more or had changed his tactics or mental approach. Whatever it was, it happened that the upsurge in our opponent’s game coincided with the period of relaxation in our own.

Our opponent started to come back and each point he won increased his confidence and decreased ours. His run should have been broken when he got at most 1 or 2 points. But we allowed him to come back and probably didn’t fully appreciate the danger till about 8 - 6, by which time we were tensing up rather than continuing to play in such a relaxed fashion. Our game started to suffer just at the time our opponent was gaining in confidence and realised he had the chance to win.

To stop any comeback early is critical. Now we are only playing to eleven-up the game can change dramatically in a very few points and the player who has the last two serves often has a good chance to win. If you are for example leading 10 - 6 or 10 - 7 and serving it is important to make the serve count and finish the game.

In any one-to-one sport such as table tennis much is in the mind. If you ask top players what they are thinking about when they are playing ‘out of this world’, usually the answer is ‘nothing’. The mind is blank and they are just ‘playing’. As soon as you start to question and to doubt then in most cases your performance suffers and you play worse. This is because you allow the conscious, thinking part of the mind to interfere with the sub-conscious, automatic reactions. In our sport you train to react automatically, so that in fact you don’t need to think about things like technique and movement. It is when it is operating on autopilot that our body is most efficient, the interference of our conscious, thinking mind more often than not only causes problems.

The conscious part of the mind should be kept free for handling tactics and identifying how you are getting ahead and why you are winning. Try to keep mental track of just how you are winning points. It’s not easy to do this and to plan tactically while you play but if you can, it will pay big dividends. You can work at this in the training hall at first. Begin by trying to keep track of the first few points, then a few more, then gradually extend this to the whole game. By applying yourself to this type of exercise, you make yourself much more alert to any change of tactics that your opponent may bring in. At the same time you can monitor yourself and your own play so that you guard against overconfidence and the urge to ‘experiment’ rather than just winning the game.

5. ANTICIPATION

There is no quality of magic in knowing what your opponent is going to do, it’s largely a matter of a systematic approach to the game and an on-going analysis of his style of play. Bear in mind that a number of factors can contribute to you not reaching a particular ball. You may be unfit or wrong-footed, your reaction time may be slow or you may have bad movement patterns. He who anticipates correctly gets a start moving to the ball as does the player with the fastest reaction time, but the competitor with the best movement patterns will save a great deal of time and energy over a match.

The first step towards controlling the play and thus eliminating much of the need for anticipation is effective service receive. Obviously look at the angle of the racket and any last second changes in this angle. If you watch the bat arm elbow this will often indicate whether the opponent is serving topspin or backspin. Most in-swinging serves can be attacked and if you play without too much power you will return the spin to the server. The out-swinger is often a prelude to a third-ball loop or hit and you should try to return to unexpected areas of the table. Early ball receive will give the opponent less time to react.

Above all watch your opponent and his racket. After you have completed your own stroke, turn your attention to him, look at his stance and how he is moving in position to play the next shot. Just before he contacts the ball concentrate on the racket and his wrist, so that you are aware of any last-second changes in length or direction. You should then be in a position to start moving even before the opponent actually hits the ball - you will have enough clues to indicate where he is going to play.

You will often find that your opponent has certain set patterns of play and tends to use certain areas of the table regularly. If you can establish where and when then you simplify the whole process of anticipation. If you know where he is going to place the ball you can get there in good time and play a strong return. Your opponent may then be forced to alter his target area, which may well cause him problems - many players hit better to certain parts of the table than to others.

One of the factors critical to efficient anticipation is to get back to a covering position relatively central to the total angle of play after each stroke. By this we mean that after playing your stroke you automatically assess just how much of the table your opponent has available for use.

 Professional Approach

You then move to the centre (or a little to the left of centre for a right hander, position X) of the area the opponent can play to. In this way you are in the best position to cover the table. Even though this may be an effort at times this tactic enormously simplifies the whole area of anticipation; there are no easy gaps for the opponent to aim at.

6. THE MENTAL APPROACH

When you arrive at a strange venue there are a number of aspects with which you must familiarize yourself:

  • The size of the hall and conditions, height, run-back, lighting, type of floor and effect this will have on the ball. Whether the floor is good for movement.
  • The table, spin and speed characteristics. Is it old, new, shiny, chipped, clean?
  • The type of ball.
  • The bats and rubbers being used by the opponent.
  • The style of the opponent. What can you learn by watching him practise or in the knock-up?
  • The quality of the umpire. What you know or are able to observe.
  • After you have assessed the significance of these factors, the game itself will commence. Even in the knock-up however you should look for clues as to where the opponent is weak or strong - play one or two balls slower or faster, a little more spin or a little more to the middle instead of diagonal and see how the opponent reacts.

The main thing when the game commences is to have a plan even if you have to change it after a few points. If you win the serve then you should of course be looking to use your serve and third ball to best advantage. Many young players for example start off with very potent serves, but often as the game progresses their service power wilts, more so if the points are close and an element of caution creeps in. The top players on the other hand are usually more aggressive in a tight situation and rarely retire into their shell and become defensive.

If you have to receive initially you may well plan to attack the serve or to use the early-timed, short return and try to take advantage on the fourth ball. Some players even start by pressuring the opponent’s strength, then switch to the weaker areas midway through the game. In fact any change during the course of a game, whether this be table areas, change of pace or spin, or different tactics, is good policy and will usually pay dividends. Table tennis is all about adapting to the opponent’s playing style - if this is fluid rather than fixed then adjusting to the variations becomes more difficult.

Remember that a good early lead puts the mental pressure on the opponent, the onus is on him to start playing. It is never easy to play relaxed and fluent strokes from a tense situation. Often it is a good tactic to play ‘tight’ at the start of the game, attacking players usually try to begin positively and it can take a few points to get into their stride. Equally a steady start is important against the defender or the long pimple attacker - don’t be careless and let them have the advantage of an early lead.

As the game progresses try to analyse where you are winning and losing points, the aim being to capitalize on your strengths and to minimize your weaknesses. This should be a constant process, for as you work out which measures are winning you points, the opponent may well come up with a counter and you need to look for advantage elsewhere. Bear in mind that a good service or tactic used spasmodically will often win you more points than if you use it all the time. The opponent has difficulty in adapting because he doesn’t have time to get used to it.

You may find that running an on-going analysis while you are playing is difficult, some players are better at this than others. The first thing to do is to bring this into your training sessions and make a habit of keeping track of how you are winning and losing points. Start by dividing each game into sections of four points and work with a section at a time. You’ll find it’s easier to focus on a smaller slice of the action. Gradually you find that the process becomes automatic and you can take in and remember more and more of a game.

Obviously if you go 1 - 5 down at the start the priority is to isolate just where and why you are losing points. As a pattern emerges you must then tighten up on the areas in which are at fault. On the other hand if you get ahead 9 - 7 then the emphasis of your analysis must change. Just how did you turn the game around, what are you doing differently, what aspects of your game are causing problems to the opponent?

Try too to put yourself into the other player’s mind. He also has anxieties and apprehensions and some styles or tactics will worry him more than others. It’s just a matter of finding them. Successful table tennis is in essence the art of pitting your strengths against the opponent’s weaknesses. However often at top level you see competitors playing weakness to weakness rather than allowing the opponent to use his stronger weapons. If loop-attack is your strong point for instance and you are playing a defender who revels in this type of game, why play in the way he likes?

When the score is close at 8 - 8 or 9 - 8 against a top opponent and the pressure comes on, don’t freeze up and stop thinking. This is the one time you must stay alert and keep a tight rein on your mental control. There is often the temptation to play ‘safe’. You have however reached this stage in the game by playing in a certain way, by playing your game. Try to continue in the same way. Don’t change a winning game or tactic - trust in yourself.

Above all don’t let your mind wander and start doubting, or anticipating the win. As soon as you take your mind off the matter at hand your mental grip fades and loses potency. Stay completely focused, this is the time at the last hurdle, where you need all your concentration.

If you are having problems be prepared to experiment, change your game, the spin, speed, areas of the table, your service patterns. Don’t be afraid to ask your colleagues for advice between games. The man sitting watching usually sees more than the one playing and sees the overall picture. If nothing seems to go right try not to lose your temper. This will be one of the first signs to the opponent that he is making a breakthrough and that you are losing mental control. Indeed this is exactly what it is, losing mental control. How can you think and plan and stay relaxed if your emotions are boiling over? And what about the effect on your opponent? He will get renewed confidence from your display! You in fact lose on all counts!

On the occasion when you are well and truly beaten, do not brood over your defeat. Think back over the game, decide where you went wrong, and plan what to do next time you meet the same competitor. Once you have exhausted all the useful knowledge from this defeat, put it completely out of your mind. It is only if you learn from your setbacks that you can grow and move forward. If you come up against a player who always seems to beat you easily, take time off to watch him play opponents against whom he always loses. Study the way they play him, the tactics they use - often you will pick up a number of pointers for the next time you meet.

7. BE A WINNER

A great long-distance runner once said - ‘At the start of a big race there may be a dozen of the world’s greatest runners on the grid. They all want to win and some even expect to win. But somewhere among them is the one guy who knows he is going to win and there is no doubt in his mind about that. This is the difference between the winner and the near-winner.’

If you can adopt this attitude within yourself it is surprising how your confidence will show through and in some indefinable way be communicated to your opponent. Your attitude and what you show to the opponent, what he sees, is more important than you may think.

You may well think that if you are playing against a nationally ranked player that your chances are very slim indeed. If you believe however that you are going to lose then you most assuredly will. What you must bear in mind at all times is that our sport is one of many variables - of different conditions from match to match, space and height variations, different floors, tables, lighting arrangements and balls. Even your opponent’s mental approach differs from day to day, the man who crushes you one day may be but a tentative shadow of himself the next time you meet. It is these variables which must give you confidence - if the right factors fall into place for you on the day or if you can influence them to do so, then anything is possible.

Let us go back to the analogy of the long-distance runner for instance. Lap after lap the champion tries to shake you off, accelerating, changing the speed, trying differing tactics, but all to no avail — when he comes into the final straight you are still there, right on his shoulder, with only 50 metres to go. What do you think is passing through the champion’s mind now? Is he still sure of his invincibility or are some doubts starting to creep in? He is after all human just as you are.

Table tennis is very much the same. If you can stay with your opponent point for point, then you can beat anyone. It is the ranked player who is the one under pressure when you are leading 9 - 8 in the deciding game and as we have already learned tension and fluent stroke-play don’t go together. You on the other hand have nothing to lose - always the most dangerous type of opponent. In the vital stages in every match, watch the opponent's face closely. Often they will reveal their doubts and this will give you confidence. Remember only to focus totally on the last one or two points. The last yard to the tape, is the one time when you cannot afford to look round or to slacken off, you must keep going!

8. THE FUTURE — WHERE TO FROM HERE?

Already in the last 4/5 years we have seen from the top Asians and one or two Europeans new heights in skills and physical fitness, which prompt us to ask - ‘Just where can we go from here?’ The standard of mental readiness, tactical knowledge, mobility, the power and consistency of stroke-play reach new levels from year to year. I think we are entering a period where a change is taking place in the basic nature of the game itself and we have to recognize this and adjust our training methods accordingly. Older players will recall that when Jacobson first brought the loop from Japan in 1960, the game changed overnight. The change taking place now is I feel more widespread rather than localized in one specific technique and affects a number of different areas.

Service and the third ball is the set piece where extensive changes have taken place and much more emphasis and coaching time must be put in to developing skills here at quite an early age. Especially we should consider the value of good length short serving and forehand dominance on the third ball. Equal if not more consideration and training time must be given to service receive, using attacking strokes together with early-timed returns and touch to obtain early advantage.

The second prime area in which we must coach dominance, especially in the women’s game, is in over-the-table play. We should be working with aspects such as early-timed pushing, blocking and topspin and killing or looping over the table - all with variation in spin, speed and touch. This is the midfield area that the Asians have revolutionized in recent years, as a result commanding the close-in play and opening up time and time again easy attacking opportunities. We must work more to create openings and win points over the table not just merely to keep the ball in play or as a link between midfield and attack.

Thirdly perhaps in Europe it is now time to start working again to develop backhand strength. Strong backhand play with good topspin seems to be very much on the decline - true we have the odd player such as Kreanga however in general most of the up-and-coming young players demonstrate little flair or feeling on the backhand wing. If we are to have any chance too of competing on equal terms with Asian players then the development of a strong backhand is really a necessity.

The last focal point must be spin and power from a deeper position. At top level the counter-loop is a major weapon and it’s vital that players come to terms with the big ball and being able to play two-wing looping rallies with a high rate of power, consistency and accuracy. This power/spin area is one we must work on and be proficient in, to make real in-roads against the Asians countries.

What perhaps stands out overall is the completeness of most top players, the all-round ability and the total commitment. They are supremely fit and able to play shots from all areas of the table. Balance has always been one of the cornerstones of our sport but athletic movement with consummate balance is now reaching new heights. Players seem to be reaching a new level of awareness of how the different parts of the body function in harmony. The mental aspects are also reaching new heights and players are more responsive than ever before to the nuances of risk-taking. Are these factors pointers to the player of the future, more ‘complete’ and professional in every aspect of the game?

Analyse Technique

Rowden Fullen (2004)

 3rd Ball

If you are to be a successful coach then it is vital that you have some system of studying what is happening. Even more important is that you know what you are looking for and are able to identify it when you see it. Unfortunately in this modern computerized world we more often than not have too many fitters and too few engineers. The specialists are disappearing and we replace the whole rather than finding out what part was defective. After a while we lose the understanding of how the whole was constructed. This applies too to our great sport. The professional coaches are disappearing – the guys who know how things work are being lost. More often than not they are replaced by players, who at the close of their career or after injury, take up the occupation of trainer. The expertise is in most cases not the same and they look at coaching from a different standpoint.

The first step even before we start to analyse technique, whether it be a stroke, a movement or a serve, is to know what we are looking for. Do we know the critical features of the skill – the back-swing or recovery phases, the force producing movements, the critical impact instant and the follow-through? The movements performed during the approach and ball contact stages are examples of critical features. They must be performed correctly in order to achieve the best results. By best results we do not always necessarily mean winning the point. Coaches must determine too whether or not the skill was performed to best advantage.

Do we have a picture in our mind of what perfect execution looks like? Because without this we have no model, no standard against which to measure! We must also consider any other relevant factors, especially those which may affect our observation of the ability. Bear in mind too that although critical features are inflexible parts of a movement they are often modified by individual differences. These unique and individual adaptations are what make up style. Do we know the difference?

We must visually and mentally break down the skill before actually attempting to observe it. Many advanced coaches already have in their mind a sound concept of the basic components of a particular skill, built up over years of experience of coaching players, lecturing to coaches or preparing and writing coaching material. However the ability to analyse and provide effective feedback is dependent upon the accuracy and relevance of the coaches’ observations. Coaches cannot possibly examine technique if for example they are unaware of exactly which components determine effective performance and are unaware of how best to observe these.

Finally we are in a position to plan how we are going to observe our skill, what aids we are going to use and even from which position we are going to carry out our observation. The critical features are the components of the movement which are essential to the performance of a skill and when we talk about optimal technique we refer to the most efficient performance of a movement pattern within the constraints and requirements of the skill or activity. The identification of the critical features is a far from simple task. It requires a broad knowledge of basic mechanical and motor concepts and an ability to apply this information to different types of movement. The first step in the development of a model is to clearly identify the performance criterion — the exact purpose or goal of the skill and exactly what constitutes successful execution.

The second stage is to simplify analysis by breaking the movement down into parts or phases. Frequently technique may be divided into 4 phases and this break-down process allows the coach to examine the mechanics which affect specific components or parts of the skill.

  1. Back-swing or recovery.
  2. Force producing movements.
  3. The critical impact instant.
  4. The follow through.

It is only after the purpose of the skill has been identified and the skill sequence simplified into parts that the coach is ready to determine the mechanical factors affecting each component or phase of the skill. Technique is largely determined by mechanical factors. This stage of the process is the most difficult as it requires an overview of all the fundamental mechanical principles. This movement analysis stage should be considered as the homework phase of the whole analysis process — take time over it. Systematically determine the mechanical factors for each part of the skill. These mechanics do not change, so once you have them figured out, your work on this step is complete. Many experienced coaches have for instance a mental check-list of exactly what to look for at this stage in the analysis.

Once the mechanical factors have been examined and determined, then the critical features can be identified and compared with our model of perfection.

Observers who try to see everything, often end up perceiving nothing. Movement observation must be systematic in order to be effective. The development of an observation plan answers how, when and where to observe. Coaches who approach observation haphazardly will be unable to selectively attend to and record performance of the critical features. They must be able to methodically search for the relevant features of a performance. Each observation plan is designed to relate to a specific task such as a coaching session, which focuses specifically on actions involved during the force production phase or the follow-through phase of a stroke. What is most important is not how you plan but that you do plan.

There are 4 steps involved in the design of an observation plan.

  1. Identify the observation task and select the relevant critical features.
  2. Determine the appropriate observation strategies.
  3. Determine the number of observations required.
  4. Select the positioning strategies to gather the identified information.

Coaches need first to identify the goal of the observation session. It may be to improve the movements in a particular part of the skill, or it may be to refine the skill as a whole. Critical features previously identified in the movement analysis phase are re-examined and those features relevant to the observation session are selected.

Consider for example the critical features which we may identify in the case of the forehand topspin. If the focus of the particular coaching session is to improve the actions which occur solely with the racket arm, then we only need to select for observation the critical features which are relevant. These are the amount of back-swing, the speed of back-swing, the length and plane of the arm, the speeds and application of the various parts of the arm, the force producing movement, the contact point in terms of time and place, the angle of the racket at contact, the optimum area of contact on the racket and the follow-through of the arm. We need not concern ourselves with the critical features relevant to leg movement or rotation of the body. The selection in this way of a sub-routine of relevant critical features will greatly simplify the observation process.

Observation strategies are formulated after consideration of the following questions.

  • What is the best way to observe the critical features — focusing or scanning?
  • On which parts of the body or the environment should the coach focus or scan?
  • Are there some critical features which need to be observed simultaneously?

The number of observations needed to obtain all the necessary information is dependent on the skill. Each repeated observation should be used to view some particular aspect of the movement, so that by the final observation there is a clear record of exactly what has happened. Throughout coaches must look for consistent characteristics of the player’s performance. The absence/presence of one critical feature in one repetition is fine, but what’s important is if this characteristic is consistent.

If the vantage point is not considered, other observation techniques may be useless. The optimum position to view varies from skill to skill and from feature to feature. The position of both the performer and the observer determines what can and what cannot be seen. Many inexperienced coaches have no recollection of their positions or remain in one spot all the time. Determining how to observe from the right place and at the right time to be sure to collate the relevant information, requires serious thought and practice.

The purpose of the diagnostic stage is to identify primary errors, as this is a pre-requisite to making corrections and improving performance. A primary error is one which is the main problem and must be corrected before improvement in performance can take place. (Secondary errors are important too, as they may provide important information concerning the primary errors)

For example to spend time trying to speed up the racket arm when there is inadequate back-swing, is a waste of time. Too short or too slow a back-swing inhibits the quality and efficiency of movement and inhibits the full utilization of elastic energy — either is a primary error. An accurate identification of the primary errors must occur before making corrections to improve performance.

The starting point in identifying primary errors is to note the differences between the observed and desired performance of a critical feature. Next the coach needs to make informed decisions as to the causes of these differences. These decisions are based on a knowledge and understanding of the basic mechanical principles.

The actions which cause the differences between the observed and the desired performances are the primary errors and are what the coach needs to address. Once the primary error or errors have been identified a prescription for remedial action is decided upon — a method of correction. It may be necessary to design appropriate exercises, at appropriate speeds to improve the technique.

The diagnosis of primary errors.

  • Aspects involving movement, jumping or balance – examine the take-off phase for primary errors, most discrepancies afterwards are secondary errors. Similarly most problems observed at the instant of landing or ‘arriving’ in a position to play a stroke find their roots in the initial take-off.
  • Problems in the direction of movements — examine the direction of force applied for the primary error. If a stroke results in the ball going to the wrong place perhaps the contact was at the wrong timing and as a result the force was incorrectly applied.
  • Problems in developing power – examine the preparation for the particular stroke, insufficient flexion and extension of the leg joints are primary errors. Often the sequence of joint rotations or of flexion and extension are not in the right order. With rotational power be aware of the principles of Angular Momentum and of the value of ‘whole body’ movement (use of free arm etc) both from the view of increased efficiency and preventing injury. The effective use of elastic energy is also important as are the use of the hips and stomach in influencing power.

Introduce the Mental Side into Physical Training

Rowden Fullen (2004)

Let every training session have a mental theme. Players should try to be more aware of what they are doing, of their own actions and movements and what is happening both inside and outside. As a coach understand that your attitude will have an effect on the players and how they perform. The following can be some ideas to introduce into training or match-play sessions.

  • Aware of what is happening with your own body and everything around you.
  • Relaxed in all your strokes and actions (racket grip too). Relaxed as you play.
  • Aware of the use of the 3 areas in the FH strokes, the legs, body and arms.
  • Aware of change of pace and length and angles – where are you playing on the opponent’s side of the table.
  • ‘Inner concentration’ (How you feel, feel how you move, feel the ball etc.)
  • Psyche yourself up at all times.
  • Focus on length.
  • Concentration, inner and outer focus.
  • Think of ready position between strokes.
  • Think how you are moving, feel the movement.
  • Aware or yourself, feel how you are playing.
  • Understand where you are winning and losing points as you play.
  • Aware of the difference between the power and spin strokes.
  • Aware of where you hit the ball on your racket.
  • Consciously making the effort to evaluate the tactics necessary to overcome a particular opponent.
  • Aware of finger pressure and the varied grips on the racket during service.
  • Aware of which serves and receives are most effective as you play.
  • Aware of the opponent’s frame of mind as you play.

The Last Gladiator

Rowden Fullen (2002)

Table tennis is very like life. If you wish to progress and develop then you must really stand outside it, distance yourself from what is going on and make some decisions as to where you are going and how you are going to get there. A good coach can point you in the right direction but there must be a positive input from you. People who just drift rarely achieve anything.

First you must understand that the one constant in table tennis as in life is change, if you try to stop still and stay as you are then you will stagnate. Whether you progress or not depends on whether you are receptive to and ready to accept change. Have you the right mental approach?

One important factor that you must understand is that in our modern society it’s harder than ever to be an individual. Modern society destroys the individual and the specialist. Modern society renders everything uniform, mass media, the speed of communication and the internet for example, all tend to influence us and bring us down to a common level whether we understand this or not. For the human species evolution occurs mostly through behaviour — we innovate new behaviour to adapt and change. The effect of large groups, of mass media, is to stop behavioural change. Mass media swamps diversity, all differences vanish, even humanity’s most necessary resource, intellectual diversity, disappears. We stop thinking for ourselves and follow the herd.

Modern society does not even prepare people to cope with life. Educational establishments unfortunately do not get past the stage of schooling people to use their minds to store information instead of progressing to the level of actually solving problems! Modern education does not teach people to think for themselves – why for example do so many top managers go on leadership courses to help them to do their jobs? The reason is quite simple — in spite of all their time in school and college and university they have never been taught how to use their minds. To progress and develop you must first switch on the mind and then put it into gear. After a while you’ll learn how to drive!

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

The player must of course be aware of his or her strengths and how to use these to win. Each competitor should in essence play his or her own game. If a player is to reach near-maximum potential, it is vital that he or she is aware of how to achieve this. It is the responsibility of the coach to show his player where he or she is going and how to get there! But in the final analysis it’s up to the player to do it!

Training Methods for the World Champions of the 2020’s

Rowden Fullen (2000)

It is interesting that in many ways we in Europe continue to ape the training methods of the Chinese without really understanding how and why they achieve success.

The Chinese have many top players going into coaching; we in the West use many young players/ex-players on our National camps. The Chinese use many simple regular exercises; we use mainly blocked or constant exercises on many of our National camps. What fails to register at top level in the Associations’ hierarchy is that players will use exercises with which they are familiar, ones from their training regime some 5 – 10 years in the past. Has our sport not changed at all over this period? Regular programmed exercises will of course produce predictable thinking and lack of innovation. Is this the sort of player we really want to produce in the West?

Neither is it of any great advantage to say that what works for the Chinese will work for us. The cultures and circumstances are radically different. Grooving and developing a stroke when you train 7 to 8 hours per day is rather different from a training regime of say 6 hours per week. What may also be overlooked is that the Chinese train much serve and receive and competition play – all this is random work which expands adaptive intelligence. This is the ability to evaluate a scenario in an instant, take in all the immediately available solutions and then take the best action.

What is perhaps also not fully understood is that the Chinese are masters of individual development. The talented junior will very quickly be taken out of the group and moved on and up, often into the hands of the specialist coach. The Asian coaches but especially the Chinese are always on the lookout for unusual even extraordinary techniques and styles of play. Trainers, coaches and administrators are always open in the mind to new ideas and possibilities. Players are also encouraged from an early age to be flexible in the mind and totally aggressive in play — ‘do it to the opponent before he/she does it to you’ is the usual law, in other words get in and attack first. The Asians are always aware that European players have great difficulty in getting to grips with their stop/start fast tempo game, especially as they take the ball at such an early timing point.

If we examine the last three decades of table tennis history the only European to make major inroads into the Chinese domination and the only one universally feared and respected by them has been J.O. Waldner. And what is the hallmark of Waldner’s play? It is the very fact that he is an innovator, always changing, always unpredictable. Even the Chinese admit that when he is playing well, it is quite impossible to plan how to play against him.

Waldner didn’t beat the Chinese by training harder than them, or by using their techniques and tactics against them, he destroyed them by being different, by the novelty and unpredictability of his game. Even as he has aged, he has never changed. In fact he demonstrates innovation better than anyone — in his third decade of play at the highest level he is still looking for new things, to do the 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.

Do we really think we are going to match the Chinese by training with their approach and methods, when they spend almost three times as long at it as we do, have many more players to choose from and many more specialist coaches and advisors? 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. We cannot afford to be too traditional or parochial in our outlook. Do we really think that we are going to produce the players of the future with the methods of the past?

How Coaches Analyse Skill

Rowden Fullen (2002)

Introduction

  • Systematic approach to skill analysis
  • A. Pre-observation phase
  • 1. Factors affecting the ability to observe movement
  • 2. Development of an observation plan
  • B. Practising observation skills
  • C. Diagnosis
  • D. Remedial action

INTRODUCTION

Advanced technology has provided the means for the coach to gather very accurate information on the performance of his players. Video-cameras are now used extensively both in training and competition to record exactly how the player is functioning, so that the coach can assess areas such as technique and tactics, with the purpose of improving overall performance. While such tools do much to improve understanding of exactly how movements are executed, the analytical tasks faced by the coach are still predominantly qualitative in nature and he is still faced with an incredibly complex task.

Equipped primarily with his knowledge of the skill and his own qualities of perception, the coach is expected to observe and analyse his player executing many complex and extremely rapid movements. Using these observations he is then expected to make instantaneous decisions in respect of skill techniques and provide effective feedback to his player. All this ‘action’ happens frequently in time periods of as little as a fraction of a second up to one to two seconds! While there is no doubt that the experienced coach is able to do this extremely well, there is also no doubt that many others in our sport identify performance deficiencies using a trial and error approach.

To expose errors and correct these are the ultimate goals of skill analysis. Qualitative analysis offers a systematic approach to achieving such goals. While the approach is based on the knowledge of mechanical principles, it also requires acute and organized observation and diagnostic skills. The coach must also be aware not only of constraints on his player’s performance but also of limitations in his own processes of perception and observation.

Systematic approach to skill analysis

Accurate error detection and ensuing correction require an ability to systematically observe and analyse performances. A systematic approach involves 4 major stages — pre-observation, observation, diagnosis and remedial steps. Figure 1 represents a model of a systematic approach to skill analysis.

The pre-observation phase includes two stages which must be tackled first, prior to observing and analyzing the skill performance. The first, movement analysis, focuses on the identification of the critical features. This is followed by the development of an observation plan.

The observation phase is concerned with the actual study of the skill, the attention to visual stimuli.

Table Tennis Skill Analysis

In the diagnosis phase differences between the desired and the actual (observed) performance are identified. The coach reviews these differences to determine the primary and secondary errors.

During the remedial stage the coach will reflect on the performance errors, then formulate a remedy — a correction. His feedback and suggestions to the player will be based on this formula.

A) PRE-OBSERVATION PHASE

Basically this involves visually and mentally breaking down a skill before actually attempting to observe it. Many advanced coaches already have in their mind a sound concept of the basic components of a particular skill, built up over years of experience of coaching players, lecturing to coaches or preparing and writing coaching material. However the ability to analyse and provide effective feedback is dependent upon the accuracy and relevance of the coaches’ observations. Coaches cannot possibly examine technique if they are unaware specifically which components determine effective performance and how best to observe them.

Pre-observation preparation may require a little time and effort, however it is a precursor to accurate observations and analyses and does become much easier with practice. It is also noticeable that coaches originating from countries which are strong in ‘formal’ coaching development, often have a rather better base for assessing what makes up technique as this forms part of their early development. Coaches from countries where training development is more informal or players who have been transplanted into coaching often find much more difficulty in this area.

The pre-observation phase is divided into two steps — the movement analysis and the observation planning stages. The movement analysis stage culminates in the identification of the critical features, while the purpose of the observation planning stage is to design observation plans and decide how to record these. A diagram of the movement analysis stage is shown in Figure 2.

PRE-OBSERVATION

Figure 2 The movement analysis stage

Step 1 Determine performance criteria
Step 2 Simplify performance criteria
Step 3 Determine mechanical components

Target Goal : Identify critical features.

The critical features are the components of the movement that are essential to the performance of a skill. Coaches interested in improving the technique of their players must focus on these critical features during their observations. For example a back-swing is required in a topspin stroke in order to develop maximum racket speed. This component of the movement is critical and its absence or malfunction will prevent effective performance. Critical features are observable, mechanical quantities such as impetus and momentum are not. However where you have movements such as long arm action or fast rotation of the body during a stroke, although these may indicate that impetus or momentum has been produced, they are also patently discernible – therefore they are critical features.

Adaptations within a given technique.

Although critical features are inflexible parts of a movement they are often modified by individual differences. Within a given technique a performer may use individual modifications such as unique timing or sequence of movements. These unique and individual adaptations are called style. The use of a circular wind-up for a forehand stroke is an example of an individual adaptation. This is not a component of the sequence of movements that is critical to the outcome of the skill. Conversely, the movements performed during the approach and ball contact stages are examples of critical features. They must be performed correctly in order to achieve the best results. Optimal technique refers to the most efficient performance of a movement pattern within the constraints and requirements of the skill or activity.

Identifying critical features.

The identification of the critical features is a far from simple task. It requires a broad knowledge of basic mechanical and motor concepts and an ability to apply this information to different types of movements. The following process can assist in pinpointing the critical features for differing skills. The 4 steps serve to channel and focus the coach’s analysis in a logical and systematic manner, by developing a mechanical model for each skill.

  1. Determine the performance criterion.
  2. Break the skill into smaller parts.
  3. Determine the mechanical factors affecting performance.
  4. Identify the critical features.

The first step in the development of a mechanical model is to clearly identify the performance criterion — the exact purpose or goal of the skill. In other words what is the intended result of a successful performance of the skill? How is it measured or evaluated in a competitive situation? Is it measured objectively or subjectively?

Often subjective skills can be evaluated on the basis of their contribution to the point or game. Coaches must determine whether or not the skill was performed to best advantage. The purpose is then expressed as an advantage and this purpose is dependent perhaps on spin, speed or placement, or some combination of these.

The second stage is to simplify the skill for analysis by breaking the movement down into parts or phases. Frequently skills may be divided into 5 phases and this break-down process allows the coach to examine the mechanics which affect specific components or parts of the skill.

  1. Preliminary movements.
  2. Back-swing or recovery.
  3. Force producing movements.
  4. The critical impact instant.
  5. The follow-through.

Once the purpose of the skill has been identified and the skill sequence simplified into parts, the coach is ready to determine the mechanical factors affecting each component or phase of the skill. Remember that technique is largely determined by mechanical factors. This stage of the process is the most difficult as it requires the synthesis of all fundamental mechanical principles. This movement analysis stage should be considered as the homework phase of the whole analysis process — take time over it. Systematically determine the mechanical factors for each part of the skill. These mechanics do not change, so once you have them figured out, your work on this step is complete. Many experienced coaches have for instance a mental check-list of exactly what to look for at this stage in the analysis.

Once the mechanical factors have been determined, the critical features may be identified. Critical features describe specific body movements — we are looking for an indication of whether or not the mechanical factors have been executed ideally. Force is not observable but we can watch for specific body movements, quick straightening of the legs, strong body rotation, fast arm movement, all of which indicate that force is being generated.

1. Factors affecting the ability to observe movement

Coaches should be aware of possible external and internal distractions and try to recognize, eliminate and/or minimize these. The ability to observe and selectively attend to the most important parts of a skill is fundamental to effective coaching. The observer’s needs and interests, as well as the competitive and/or coaching environment, will affect what attracts their attention — possibly resulting in a reduced focus on the critical features of the performance — and subsequently how they interpret their observations. The factors affecting the quality of observations made can be divided into three groups — internal distractions, external distractions, other physical or environmental constraints.

Internal distractions — Different sources include motivation, fear, excitement, observer bias and expectancies and lack of an observation plan. Coaches must be careful to remain objective and not to ‘see things that aren’t there’. It’s also important not to jump to conclusions, what is present in one skill execution may not be there consistently — examine the consistent traits.

External distractions — The more intense the colour and the larger the size, the more an object will attract attention, as will sharp contrasts. Extraneous movement attracts attention and a certain amount of ‘visual discipline’ is required to focus on specific movements, when other activity is in view. It is more difficult to observe very fast or very complex movements, often it is better to scan the whole movement from afar and then move in to focus on specific parts. Our eyes also tend to scan best from left to right and rapid movements are best observed from a vantage point which allows left to right viewing. The type of surroundings, lighting etc. may affect our ability to concentrate on specific body movements.

Other physical or environmental constraints — Coaches need to consider their own influence on their player’s performance during their analysis. Other constraints may be physical, body structure, limb length, vision - physiological, power and endurance, flexibility or cardio-vascular conditioning — mental, not motivated — or characteristic of the event, equipment conditions, playing surface, or temperature.

2. Development of an observation plan

Observers who try to see everything often end up perceiving nothing. Movement observation must be systematic in order to be effective. The development of an observation plan answers how, when and where to observe. Coaches who approach observation haphazardly will be unable to selectively attend to and record performance of the critical features. They must be able to methodically search for the relevant features of a performance. Each observation plan is designed to relate to a specific task such as a coaching session, which focuses specifically on actions involved during the force production phase or the follow-through phase of a stroke. What is most important is not how you plan but that you do plan.

Developing the plan.

There are 4 steps involved in the design of an observation plan.

  1. Identify the observation task and select the relevant critical features.
  2. Determine the appropriate observation strategies.
  3. Determine the number of observations required.
  4. Select the positioning strategies to gather the identified information.

1) There is a limit to our ability to observe and accurately record the movements of the human body. Coaches need therefore first to identify the goal of the observation session. It may be to improve the movements in a particular part of the skill, or it may be to refine the skill as a whole. Critical features previously identified in the movement analysis phase are re-examined and those features relevant to the observation session are selected.

Consider for example the critical features which we may identify in the case of the forehand topspin. If the focus of the particular coaching session is to improve the actions which occur solely with the racket arm, then we only need to select for observation the critical features which are relevant – the amount of back-swing, the speed of back-swing, the length and plane of the arm, the speeds and application of the various parts of the arm, the force producing movement, the contact point in terms of time and place, the angle of the racket at contact, the optimum area of contact on the racket and the follow-through of the arm. We need not concern ourselves with the critical features relevant to leg movement or rotation of the body. The selection in this way of a sub-routine of relevant critical features will greatly simplify the observation process.

2) Observation strategies are formulated after consideration of the following questions.

  • What is the best way to observe the critical features — focusing or scanning?
  • On which parts of the body or the environment should the coach focus or scan?
  • Are there some critical features which need to be observed simultaneously?

3) The number of observations needed to obtain all the necessary information is dependent on the skill. Each repeated observation should be used to view some particular aspect of the movement, so that by the final observation there is a clear record of exactly what has happened. Throughout coaches must look for consistent characteristics of the player’s performance — the absence/presence of one critical feature in one repetition is fine, but what’s important is if this characteristic is consistent. The effects of fatigue on performance may also need to be considered if observation lasts for some time. The pre-observation phase helps prepare the coach to capture the essential elements of performance as efficiently as possible.

4) If the vantage point is not considered, other observation techniques may be useless. The optimum position to view varies from skill to skill and from feature to feature. The position of both the performer and the observer determine what can and what cannot be seen. Many inexperienced coaches have no recollection of their positions or remain in one spot all the time. Determining how to observe from the right place and at the right time to be sure to collate the relevant information requires serious thought and practice.

B. PRACTISING OBSERVATION SKILLS

Practice is needed to perfect observation skills and to obtain an accurate record of what was actually observed. Initially it is better to record observations manually. One method is the use of a checklist which can be ticked off as you observe. Some coaches even bring with them a complete movement break-down and observation plan, which clearly indicates how, why and when they will observe each of the selected critical features. With practice and as different components of the analysis become absorbed mentally, coaches can develop and apply a plan in which the observation of the critical features is mentally recorded.

Observation strategies – hints.

  • It is often best to scan first to get a general impression of the performance before focusing on the critical features. It should be noted however, that if a coach attempts to get a complete over-view of the whole movement sequence, it is unlikely that he will get a detailed picture of any individual part of the movement.
  • The speed of the movement often increases from the centre of the body out to the extremities. It is difficult to see rapidly moving extremities or striking implements such as rackets. Movement observation can be simplified by looking at slower moving parts first.
  • Focus on a given movement or combination of movements long enough to visually capture it and later describe it.
  • Scanning for a range of motion in various body parts may help to assess skills in which speed or impetus is important. Move round during the observation process. Different positions provide differing information regarding the critical features.
  • In general the best vantage point is one that is at right angles to the plane of motion.
  • Move far enough away to overcome problems associated with the speed of the performer moving across the observer’s field of sight.
  • When movements extend over some distance, the best vantage point is opposite the midpoint of this distance. The observer must be far enough away to see the entire sequence. However when focusing on the smaller components of the movement, the observer should be quite close to the performer.
  • When attempting to observe at tournaments or in large busy areas, try to select the best vantage point in terms of minimizing external distractions, while still having the best possible view of the performance.

C. DIAGNOSIS

The purpose of the diagnostic stage is to identify primary errors, as this is a pre-requisite to making corrections and improving performance. A primary error is one which is the main problem and must be corrected before improvement in performance can take place. (Secondary errors too are important, as they may provide important information concerning the primary errors.) For example to spend time trying to speed up the racket arm when there is inadequate back-swing, is a waste of time. Too short or too slow a back-swing inhibits the quality and efficiency of movement and inhibits the full utilization of elastic energy — either is a primary error. An accurate identification of the primary errors must occur before making corrections to improve performance.

The starting point in identifying primary errors is to note the differences between the observed and desired performance of a critical feature. Next the coach needs to make informed decisions as to the causes of these differences. These decisions are based on a knowledge and understanding of the basic mechanical principles.

  1. Recognize difference between observed & desired performance
  2. Identify errors
  3. Identify primary and secondary errors

The actions which cause the differences between the observed and the desired performances are the primary errors and are what the coach needs to address.

D. REMEDIAL ACTION

Once the primary error or errors have been identified a prescription is decided upon — a method of correction. It may be necessary to design appropriate exercises, at appropriate speeds to improve the technique.

Suggestions which may assist in the diagnosis of primary errors.

  • Aspects involving movement, jumping or balance — look to the take-off phase for primary errors, most discrepancies afterwards are secondary errors. Similarly most problems observed at the instant of landing or ‘arriving’ in a position to play a stroke find their roots in the initial take-off.
  • Problems in the direction of movements — look to the direction of force applied for the primary error. If a stroke results in the ball going to the wrong place perhaps the contact was at the wrong timing and as a result the force was incorrectly applied.
  • Problems in developing power — look to the preparation for the particular stroke, insufficient flexion and extension of the leg joints are primary errors. Often the sequence of joint rotations or flexions and extensions are not in the right order. With rotational power be aware of the principles of Angular Momentum and of the value of ‘whole body’ movement (use of free arm etc) both from the view of increased efficiency and preventing injury. The effective use of elastic energy is also important as are the use of the hips and stomach in influencing power.

Danger of Boxes

Rowden May 2016

Not only our sport of table tennis but life itself and our progress through it, is to do with change. Nothing stands still and if we try to stand still we stagnate: we stop developing and progressing and lose and/or resist the ability to adapt. Developing, improving, growing, evolving are all about moving forward and adapting to new situations and challenges. As soon as you put players into ‘style boxes’ you restrict their ability to both adapt to different opponents and situations and indeed to themselves develop to higher levels and reach full potential.

Table tennis is above all a sport which requires adaptive intelligence. Even though we play on autopilot and much of what we do is automated and has to be because we have such a limited time to react, we need, to reach the higher levels to have the capability to adjust to rapidly changing situations. In fact it is essential that the player's mind is freed up to spend more time assessing tactical needs during the match and working out which weapons to use to best cope with differing styles/opponents.
It's all too easy to do the 'safe' things at times and not to take risks. Sometimes the player has to force herself/himself into trying different things and here 'self-talk' or 'self-thought' can play a big part: 'If I play 'safe' I will lose therefore this isn't an option.' Training can also be geared to speed up the process -- play games in training with only short or only long serves. or one long to the corners and one short to the middle alternately, so that variation and adjusting to the third ball become automatic. Bear in mind too that it does take anything from 3 to 6 months to bring out what you do in training into matches.
Reaching full potential is all about continuing progress, about not being satisfied with yourself and about being ready to try new things all the time. It’s a matter too of assessing and evaluating what works for you and bringing in new techniques which complement your style of play and give you a bigger advantage. But it’s also a question of having alternatives to cope with differing situations and opponents. No two opponents play the same and nor can you or your players play an identical game against all other competitors. At times you will need to modify what you do, on occasions you won’t be able to play your usual tactics at all and may well have to change your game plan completely if you are to have any chance of winning.
Forcing young players into a ‘style box’ limits their ability to adapt and modify their game to cope with the ever changing scenario of modern table tennis. This is even more critical when a player is constrained to play in a manner which does not permit his/her natural strengths to flower and develop. Such performers will never achieve full potential because quite simply they are not doing what they are best at! They are not harnessing their own natural talents to maximum effect and are in fact spending time developing their second or third level game to the detriment of the innate, instinctive skills they possess.
To reach the highest levels in sport any athlete must be aware of how he/she performs and indeed performs best. In addition the athlete must be in tune and comfortable with the manner in which he/she performs. The coach/athlete relationship should never be one of dictating to the player, but rather one of working together to isolate and develop the inherent skills which will unlock full potential.

Nice to look at or efficient?

Rowden 2012

Unfortunately in UK much of our training tends to influence our players into playing and thinking in a predictable manner and does not help in the development of adaptive intelligence. Why do so many players from the UK have extremely good technique compared to the Europeans, yet in no way achieve comparable results? We have nice strokes but we can’t win games!

Is this perhaps due to our training methods and to the lack of intensity in our training? Or is it more because we don’t focus enough on the individual aspects of player development? Could it be that our coaches lack the real vision to understand that all players are individuals and will only reach their full potential if they harness their own strengths?

Too often our players seem to be sidetracked into styles of play which will not succeed at world level and there seems to be a lack of comprehension that all players must keep progressing and moving forward. As soon as the top player stagnates and stops developing he/she is finished at top level.

Tactics are based on techniques and each player must have the right weapons to execute the tactics suitable to his/her way of playing. If for example you have an exceptionally good topspin there is little point in serving short and becoming embroiled in the short game scenario! You must develop the service techniques which most complement your own strengths. Players must be more aware (even from a relatively early stage in their career) how they play best and how they win.

Obviously from what a number of the European players still competing at top level have said recently this has not happened over the last 20 years or so. 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 these top players saying that coaching has been below par or in the wrong direction in Europe? Such comments certainly seem to indicate that many of our European stars have not been taught to think for themselves from an early age and that possibly if they had, their results could have been even more impressive or achieved at a much earlier age!

To develop full potential the prime criterion is that the player has an in-depth understanding of his/her own style of play as early as possible in his/her career. Bear in mind the crucial factor that tactical development is based on technical abilities. If a player doesn’t have the technical weapons to play his/her own game most effectively then he/she will never reach full potential. Throughout Europe there has to be a great deal more attention from coaches to the individual qualities of the player and an understanding from the player how to utilize these most effectively in his/her own personal development. Too often coaches seem reluctant to hand over responsibility to the player.

There are a number or areas in which you the player should be the prime decision maker. Only you know how you feel when you play, how positive you are prepared to be when the game is close and even whether or not you are comfortable with the way you play! Many performers throughout their careers will have a variety of coaches and mentors, some good and some bad, some knowledgeable and some not. Their purpose is not to dictate how you should play and to hold your hand for the rest of your life. Their function should be to show you how to get the best out of yourself, so that in effect after a while you don’t need them anymore. Any player who remains coach ‘reliant’ is extremely unlikely ever to become a real champion!

As Thomas von Scheele (ex-World Champion and 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.’

This of course will happen much more quickly if the young evolving players associate and train with older more experienced exponents from a young age. One of the factors limiting development is the inclination for training large groups of young players of similar low-level experience together. It helps enormously to be able to look up to and learn from role models who have already been there and done it! Having young adolescents of similar ages and experience levels training together often only both undermines and solidifies crucial aspects of the learning situation.

In Asia for example extremely talented young players rarely or at times never play cadet or junior events. They are introduced from an early age into senior training where they gain experience rapidly and from there proceed directly into senior tournaments. It seems completely counterproductive to expect groups of young stars however competent, to enjoy major success at senior level when they are not mentally developed enough to assess and profit from relatively simple tactical and strategic situations.

Another area where we in the West appear to fall down is in our gearing of training to the match situation. A great deal of our training is concerned for example with ‘nice-to-look-at’ flowing rally play. This looks good but what happens when we come into competition with the top Asians? We can’t get past the serve/receive and 3rd or 4th ball or the stop/start type of game. So of course as a result we never get into the flowing rally situation where we can use our carefully constructed strokes which we have spent countless hours developing! This means that although we may appear technically more ‘perfect’ we have not learned how to win games!

We must be rather more professional in our whole approach to the sport of table tennis: work much more on serve/receive and the first few balls, start every exercise with a serve, utilize more situational exercises where we rapidly introduce random changes in direction, pace, spin and angles. Above all we should ensure that exercises and training relate to and are suitable for the player’s individual style and eventual evolution: we should too encourage players to work at higher levels of intensity than are common in the Western world. It goes without saying that physical and mental attributes should be developed alongside technical and tactical capabilities.

As many top coaches throughout Europe are coming to understand, there needs to be a much stronger individual emphasis throughout our sport. Every player is different and has different strengths and weaknesses. From basic beginner levels coaches must be aware how even in the very early stages of growth certain factors can have a direct bearing on the ultimate style development: aspects such as grip, ready position, rotation and the correct movement patterns for the eventual style of play all have a critical impact on the ultimate degree of success achieved by the player and indeed whether or not he/she ever realises full potential!

Responsibility for Yourself

Rowden Sept 2013

The single most important element in the development of a table tennis player is that he/she understands his/her own game and understands how to achieve the absolute best performance. The duty of the coach is to help the player reach this supreme level.

Unfortunately far too often the coach wants to have his/her own input and tries to make the player conform to his/her own ideas of how the top player performs. This approach takes away the players' own responsibility to evolve in the way they feel is best for them as individuals. The coach is basically asking players to 'buy into' someone else's model of how they should perform.

Usually really talented performers have a good idea of what works for them and how they should play. There have been a number of occasions on National Training Camps where the top players (in some cases World Champions) have walked out, simply because they felt so strongly that the training was not of benefit to them with their style of play and was pushing them in a direction they didn’t want to go. Such incidents only serve to reinforce the principle that the coach/player relationship should be a dialogue, even from quite an early stage in development.

What the coach must bear in mind from the start is that each player is different, a unique individual, with differing strengths, reactions and skills - at no time can you force him or her into a pattern of your choosing; or you can but the player will almost certainly never achieve his/her full potential. Rather you must help players to develop and flower in their own way. In the areas of technique, tactics and physical exercises the coach can show the way, in mental areas and in the choosing of a style, with which they feel comfortable, the players should have a large say in their development. It is only the players who know what risks they are prepared to take, whether they are more at ease playing close or back, fast or slow, spin or drive, it is only the players who in the final analysis know what feels right for them.

As Thomas von Scheele (ex-World Champion and Swedish Junior Team Captain) has stated: Two key areas must be fostered with 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 guide 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.’

In their dialogue with players, coaches must try to help players to assume more responsibility for themselves and their development; ask questions which provoke thoughts on how they play, what tactics they will use against different players, how they will serve to get in their strengths, what are their strengths and weaknesses etc. Encourage players to try new things and to always be progressing and moving forward. To stop and be satisfied is to stagnate; you will not get any better.

Unfortunately throughout Europe much of the training tends to influence players into playing and thinking in a predictable manner and does not help in the development of adaptive intelligence. Why do so many players in Europe have extremely good technique compared to the Asians, yet in no way achieve comparable results? We have nice strokes and can play long flowing rallies but we can’t win points! We have weapons but don’t know how and when to use them!

Tactics are based on techniques and each player must have the right weapons to execute the tactics suitable to his/her way of playing. If for example you have an exceptionally good topspin there is little point in serving short and becoming embroiled in the short game scenario! You must develop the service techniques which most complement your own strengths. Players must be more aware (even from a relatively early stage in their career) how they play best and how they win; especially they must be aware how their particular serve and receive tactics are most efficient and in what way they can bring their strongest weapons into play most quickly and to best effect.

Also whatever the style of play every player must realise that there are certain aspects of the modern game which have to be mastered. Short play and ‘over the table’ tactics are critical and each performer must find his/her own system of handling these most effectively and in a way which complements his/her own individual style of play. Players should also be aware of the science of our sport, how this is changing and how changes affect them personally and either limit or aid their game. For example the maximum revolutions with the 38mm ball were around 150 per second but these diminished to 132 with the 40mm ball and will be reduced even further when the plastic ball is introduced. Each reduction makes it more difficult to be effective away from the table and therefore restricts some styles of play.
When you talk with the world’s best players they feel that they must try to play most of the time in the best position for them relative to distance from the table. Most players feel that they should be focused on moving in and staying that bit closer. With the bigger ball moving slightly slower through the air and with the spin dying more rapidly, retreating too much means that you quickly reach the position from which you can no longer win the point: you are too far away and can only control but not dominate.

This is of course particularly vital in the women’s game. Women are less powerful, play with less spin and there are far too many good blockers and counter-hitters among their ranks. Running away rapidly becomes a recipe for disaster. It is too easy for the closer player to play long and short and out to the angles.

But of course it’s at the top level that the early development of adaptive intelligence in the players’ game comes into its own. Not only do the world’s best adapt and cope with whatever is thrown at them by the opponents, but their own way of play is unpredictable. They don’t play two to three balls to the same place, they don’t open on the diagonal all the time, they are always thinking to do different things: play to the body, then wide, play short and long, use the angles and the line balls, change the speed and spin, don’t give opponents time to be comfortable and get their own strengths in. At the highest levels being unpredictable and innovative become a way of life!

Speed in Context

Rowden April 2019

• A component of physical fitness
• The inner structure of speed is significantly different from other components of physical fitness such as strength and endurance

• Speed has moved closer to the concept of well-timed movement sequences
• Is FH speed in 'shadow play' and multi-ball different?
• In multi-ball the arm speed acceleration is much higher than in shadow play
• Seems as if the athlete needs the 'feeding' of the incoming ball and the arm movement of the coach doing the feeding
• Both stimuli function as points of orientation
• Technically the shadow version of the stroke is executed very differently from the multi-ball version
• Multi-ball is both a functional and efficient practice instrument as it is difficult for technical mistakes to occur
• To maintain and increase speed use 6 to 8 shots explosively then rest
• To increase leg speed the best instrument is quick footwork drills with multi-ball
• Even weighted bats or leg/arm weights do not give any lasting gain, certainly not higher than conventioal speed training without extra loading
• There is a relationship between maximum power and motor speed
• Power training does improve one's velocity
• Must however incorporate strength enhancement accurately into dynamics of arm/leg movement at the table
• There is a close connection between speed and power -- work with higher intensity and fewer repetitions
• To increase power use 10 to 12 repetitions at a time
• Multi-ball practice plus power = the ideal for motor speed

To reach the top

Rowden Fullen (2010)

Training 4/5 hours a day for 10 years and still not in the top 100 in the world! Why not? The reasons can embrace one or a number of areas:
• The training time is insufficient
• The training methodology is totally incorrect
• The direction of the growth of style is flawed
• The support aspects of physical and mental preparation are equally inadequate.
You do not get to reach the heights unless you work and prepare in the right way.

In too many European Associations we have indeed lost track of the ideal of producing world ranked players of real top level. We are unfortunately content with lower aspirations, especially with the women and are satisfied to achieve rankings between say at the highest 70 and 200 in the world. The level of our ambitions is mirrored in lesser levels of training, lesser quality and lesser commitment – after a while even the best young up-and-coming players understand that they are not being developed in the right direction for them and lose their drive and enthusiasm. Many never even know or if they did, forget how to train at the level required to reach the top and lose the real hunger to want to get there, particularly when they understand that even at National level, helping them as individuals to reach their full potential is not and never was the top priority.

Funding for minor sports is always a problem and more so in these times of economic recession. Also earnings for table tennis players in times like these are liable to be more and more limited. Therefore if players are attending National Centres for a number of years and especially in the case of the women only ending up somewhere between 150 and 400 on the world ranking, then they are largely wasting their time. Their opportunities to make substantial earnings in Europe or Asia with such a ranking level are virtually none existent. The system as such is of little or no benefit to the players and only keeps a small number of lesser coaches in a job. To a large extent the players are conned by promises of continued involvement in National Teams but at no time is it explained to them that their chances of realising their full potential and making it to the real top levels are extremely limited if they exist at all.

In most cases players should at first ask and then answer the question: ‘What is my ultimate goal? Do I just want to represent my country or do I want to be one of the best players in the world, at least in the top 50?’ In many countries in Europe these two aims are unfortunately not compatible. For many other players it would make far more sense for them to work and then play only part-time in the lower divisions in Europe. In this way they could still enjoy their table tennis and earn an income at the same time. They would however have to give up the dream of ever becoming a real top player.

As Ogimura said: ‘What matters isn’t extraordinary ability but extraordinary effort.’ Far too often in Europe we play at our sport of table tennis and the training is neither professional nor intense enough. We just don’t work hard enough or long enough or in the right way when it matters, to achieve the results we dream about. So that’s what our hopes become, just dreams – we are not now and unlikely ever to be, capable of turning the dreams into reality.

The time to put in the effort is when players are young, in the learning stages of development, so that they are brought up in the right environment, with the right work ethic, the appropriate methodology, expert guidance on the most suitable individual direction for them and the most relevant physical and mental training. It’s during the early developmental stages in the player’s career that he/she needs the 1,000 hours of the right training per year for at least five years to put him/her on the right road to success. Without total professionalism early in the developmental phase we will only ever continue to produce second-class players.

Unfortunately throughout Europe getting the right coaches into the top jobs is becoming more and more difficult. If you talk to the top experts, those at the ‘cutting edge’ of player development throughout the continent, almost all are unhappy over coaching levels throughout the continent and at the direction coaching is taking. Most stress major weaknesses in the following areas:
• Coaching knowledge overall is declining.
• We prioritise winning in younger age categories to the detriment of senior player development.
• We need women in focus and much more understanding of women’s play and the specific training methods.

One of the toughest skills to teach any athlete is how to think, the toughest skill to teach any coach is to think more flexibly! It is often hard even for experts to withhold their expertise sufficiently to coach well. We have lots of systems throughout Europe but regrettably systems unfortunately breed predictability and limit creativity. There are coaches and coaches. We have coaches who see the pathways and designs that others don’t. We have coaches who understand the patterns unique to the individual player and the relevant designs and intentions which are crucial to him/her reaching full potential. Finally we have a few coaches who not only understand the theory appropriate to the individual but who can actually convert this into reality. How many of the latter do we have now in Europe?

As the great Mario Amizić has stated: ‘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; at one time I believed that the younger generation would be able to step into the shoes of the older, but this is no longer a possibility. 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.’ Basically Amizić is saying that we haven’t done our homework, we are not preparing in the right way and that it’s only our fault. In many ways he is right!

In our training for example it’s so easy to just practise the things we can do well – it’s enjoyable, looks good, doesn’t take much effort and is absolutely futile. Top performers on the other hand constantly take active steps to stretch their limits at every session. Purposeful practice may not be easy but it’s unbelievably effective! The key to excellence is not in the genes but in practice time, practice quality and direction. So just how long do you need to practise? Modern research has even come up with a specific answer to this question – a minimum of ten years to reach world-class status. 1991 Anders Ericsson (Florida State University): ‘What is vital in the achieving of excellence is the number of hours devoted to serious practice’. The right practice is the only factor distinguishing the best from the rest. 10 years is the magical number for the attainment of excellence. Practice not talent is what ultimately matters. Gladwell quotes around one thousand hours a year or the ten thousand hour rule.

Unfortunately in Europe we seem to have lost sight of the Ogimura principle of ‘extraordinary effort’. We are never going to produce champions by taking the easy road and far too many coaches still seem to adopt the ‘big talent’ theory: that the really good players are born with the talent and don’t need to work at their game. All players who get to National Centres have the basic skill levels, they wouldn’t be there otherwise and some may be a little more naturally gifted than others, but in the final analysis it will be the right amount and type of practice which turns them into world beaters. Sadly in many countries throughout Europe the players don’t get what they need.

One factor which even many top coaches tend to overlook is that it’s knowledge above all which determines excellence. Experience matters, good, long-term training matters, rarely does the young player identify quickly enough when factors change during a match, but the older player understands immediately and takes the appropriate corrective action. Exactly the same principle applies in the field of coaching, experience matters! In almost all cases there is no time to examine the evidence before making a decision, due to the large number of often swiftly changing variables in the sporting situation. Decisions would appear to be made by instinct but they are not. They are based not on what one sees, but on an in-depth understanding of at times obscure background movements: this ability of course comes solely from long experience. And if course it is not something which is inherited, but is an aptitude nurtured and matured in many cases over decades of living through similar experiences.

Speed in sport is not based on reactions but comes from highly specific practice over a long period of time. Top performers possess enhanced awareness and anticipation. If you can exploit advanced information this will result in the time anomaly where top players seem to have all the time in the world to play their shots.

This is why the quantity and quality of long-term, directed practice is so crucial: it builds up a background of knowledge which will enable the player to make the right decisions quickly and under pressure. It also cultivates and expands within the player the insight to handle situations which he/she may not have yet encountered.

If we are to produce players to match the Asians this will require from most National Associations in Europe a rather more professional and directed coaching approach than we have seen to date. It will also need us to move away from traditional areas of thought. 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. Perhaps now is the time for the leaders and organizers in clubs, districts and National Associations to move away from traditional avenues of thinking, be more flexible in attitude and less conventional in their approach to our sport. We are not going to produce the players of the future with methods of the past.

What we can’t afford to overlook too is that top coaches possess enhanced awareness and intuition and that the basis for this is the accumulated knowledge and experience they have built up over countless hours of being involved with players. The really experienced coach sees cues in the preparation, movement build-up and stroke execution as well as in the physical and mental attributes which enable him/her to make informed decisions as to which road the player should take to reach full potential. The less experienced coach or the ex-player does not yet have this ability (and may never have it). Also this is not something you can teach in a classroom over a few weekends, it is an understanding which grows and flowers in the individual over countless hours (sometimes decades) of meaningful participation in a particular activity and it is selective to that activity and not a skill which can be transferred to other areas.

Role of the Coach after Technique

Rowden Fullen (2003)

STYLE DEVELOPMENT
ADAPTABILITY
SPECIALTIES
GROWTH AND DIRECTION
THE BIG PICTURE

Just what is the function of the coach after fulfilling his basic duty of establishing a sound technical base for his player? The responsibility of the coach is to fully unlock the capabilities of his player, so that he or she plays as nearly as possible to the absolute limits of full potential.

1. STYLE DEVELOPMENT

What the coach must bear in mind from the start is that each player is a unique individual, with differing strengths, reactions and skills - at no time can you force him or her into a style of your choosing. Rather you must help players to develop and flower in their own way. In the areas of technique, tactics and physical exercises the coach can lead, in mental areas and in the choosing of a style, with which they feel comfortable, the players should have a large say. It is only the players who know what risks they are prepared to take, whether they are more at ease playing close or back, fast or slow, spin or drive.

With young players it is important to isolate their strengths in the early years and to put in a fair amount of training time to make these as formidable as possible. Strengths should be used and used to win games. The player even at a relatively young age should know how to get his or her strengths in during the match. This is why too it is very important to work on serve and receive with young players. Unless they develop an understanding of these areas of the game they are often restricted with what they can do with the next one, two or three balls and they never get the chance to play their winning strokes.

A player’s style should always be based on and directed towards his or her greatest strengths but always he or she should bear in mind that style is a living, growing organism, developing all the time however slowly. When it stops progressing you stop moving too and stagnation sets in!

2. ADAPTABILITY

Table tennis is a very technical sport and the basic law is adaptation and counter-adaptation. Your 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.

However table tennis is largely a sport of conditioned reflex patterns where players train to react automatically. Therefore their ability to react and adapt to new aspects is limited by their training! This is why new techniques, tactics and unusual styles of play are difficult to cope with. The ‘automatic pilot’ doesn’t work as well any more and players’ reactions are unstable, inaccurate, lacking smoothness and coordination. In fact the player who can keep one step ahead of the competitors in the innovation of technique, tactics or playing style, will have a big advantage (especially now we are playing to eleven up) because the opponent is unable to adapt in time. Remember the prime skill of table tennis is to read the game and to adapt in an ever-changing situation.

As a result it is 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, that 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.

3. SPECIALTIES

The coach should be continually researching new training methods and be on the look out for innovations in technique and style and individual fortés which may benefit his player. What the coach should be looking at is how unique characteristics can be turned to advantage. Does the player have a ‘specialty’, something a little different which causes problems for opponents — or are there aspects of his or her game which can be accentuated to fashion such a specialty?

4. GROWTH AND DIRECTION

The coach must never neglect the importance of growth. Often coaches take players up to a certain ‘plateau’ then the development stops and levels out. Growth must continue throughout the player’s career, at no time should it be allowed to come to a stop. There must always be progression, without this there can only be stagnation.

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

If a player is to reach near-maximum potential, it is vital that he or she is aware of how to achieve this. It is the responsibility of the coach to show his player where he or she is going and how to get there! Your player must be aware of his or her strengths and how to use these to win. Each competitor should in essence play his or her own game.

5. THE BIG PICTURE

The mental aspects of our sport are just as important if not more so than the technical and physical areas. How many players have the right attitude and the optimal level of nervous excitement in the training hall to get the best out of the session? So often training operates at a lower and less intense level than it should because players bring the wrong attitude to the training hall. It is one of the functions of the coach to set the atmosphere.

The player’s consciousness is more important than his or her technical proficiency. Skills can be learned but attitudes and the quality of consciousness are difficult to improve. Each player should be aware, should be able to ‘feel’ how he or she is contacting the ball, how he or she is moving, how his or her own body is performing during play. Many players are in fact quite insensitive and indeed ignorant as to just what is happening with the various parts of their own bodies when they play!

In many cases the ability to be totally aware of exactly how the player is performing, only evolves after some research or exploration into the mental side of the game. In fact many athletes in many differing sports are now becoming much more conscious of the value of the ‘mental side’ of performance.

If the player is to be more aware for example of how he or she functions and how the body operates in a playing situation, it is important that he or she studies relaxation techniques and is first able to relax. It is quite important also to understand that the ability to concentrate and the ability to handle stress are very closely connected. The ability to focus on the task in hand and not to let oneself be sidetracked is one of the most essential qualities in competition. Table tennis is one of the sports that will only tolerate a relatively low level of tension. Too much and it is extremely difficult to perform. Also different phases of an individual match will have differing levels of stress and pressures and players should understand this if they are to be effective.

If your players are to aim for the top levels it is critical that they start to analyse their performance and what is happening when they train and compete. This should become a regular part of their development and become a habit. What often distinguishes the elite from the ordinary athlete is the ability to make mental assessments more or less automatically. Any mental programme will only become fully automated if it is systematic and goal-oriented and indeed continuous and progressive.

Timing in the Men’s Game

Rowden Fullen (2007)

The vital importance of timing in the men’s game cannot be overestimated. Even though our game is faster than ever before, with the big ball top men have time to get into position and to play the return. In theory two top 20 world players at a distance of 3 to 3 and a half metres from the table should be able to keep the ball going for a very long time. What we have to bear in mind particularly is that a table tennis ball due to its light weight slows rapidly through the air and players have around a second to get to the ball at this distance from the table — this gives them more than ample time to recover and assume a good position for the next ball. If evenly matched, players should have difficulty in winning points with pure power from this sort of distance.

What is tending to happen at top level is that players are winning points from the mid-distance and the one who drops further back off the table will usually lose. Longer serves are coming back into use, especially the long serve to the BH side, as the server hopes to force opponents back from the table into a less advantageous position, or to force them to play a weaker return. The player who drops off the table is compelled to adopt a containing game and the player who dominates from the mid-distance is much more likely to win the points with power and pace, angles or even with use of the stop-ball. The player who retreats also has of course much more ground to cover and will suffer more pressure because of this aspect.

It is important that players observe their own movement patterns critically. Many players for example move diagonally backwards when they are switched from the wide FH to the wide BH – this obviously gives them more time but equally gives the initiative to the opponent and allows their adversary to move in and occupy the mid-distance. Players have to be aware of the position they will move to and take up when they are switched.

Players must also of course comprehend exactly what the ‘mid-distance’ signifies to them. This will vary dependent on the height, reactions and type of shot the player uses. What may suit Samsonov may well be completely different for Kreanga whose topspin strokes have a pronounced arc. Players should be looking at the position where they feel comfortable and where they are most effective. Mostly this will mean being in the best place to use the incoming pace to maximum effect – this will also of course usually minimise the time the opponent has to fashion a strong counter.

A common tactic in Europe is to make the first attack to the body or the crossover in the hope of unbalancing the adversary, so that a further attack to the wings will force the opponent to retreat from the table and adopt a less favourable position further back. All players must be alert to the purpose of such manoeuvres. It is tactically advantageous in the men’s game to occupy the mid-distance, to do this first and to hold this position whenever possible.