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?