Cadet Girls’ Development Sweden

Rowden Fullen (2000)

If we in Sweden are to win medals in the cadet girls’ events in the Junior European Championships, then we should be examining carefully and assessing the quality of play now to be seen in girls’ 11 – 13 classes. In Växjö in Girls’ 13 we had an entry of some 40 players, many of the best in Sweden, what did we observe that gave us cause for hope or fear for the future?

Serve — Some good long serving with the backhand (good to see backhand serves in view of possible rule changes), with good placement and angles, wide to backhand and next ball to the body or fast to the body and the next ball wide to the backhand. Even some fast serves down the line to the opponent’s forehand.

Short service was generally bad in both placement and spin, usually long enough to attack hard — only three players were able to serve with enough backspin to cause real problems to the opponent. It was also quite obvious that most players did not understand the technique involved in achieving backspin. About 20% of the girls were looking to use 3rd ball attack and had some idea of how their serves were returned.

Receive — This was usually a little too predictable — if the serve was short the usual response was to try and hit hard with the forehand or push long with late timing and often to the backhand side. When faced with the long serve to the backhand the response again was a hard hit (often with only 40 – 50% success) with little or no spin, or even at times an attempt to push!

There did not seem to be much thought to variation, to drop the short serve back short for example, or push long and fast with early timing to the body or out to the corners. Against the long serve no attempt was made to play the ball back slow or with topspin or to return it differently with for example an early-timed stop-block.

Opening up — Almost all the girls would open against backspin on the forehand side, but not always quickly enough. In Europe you are rarely allowed the luxury of pushing 2/3 balls especially to the opponent’s forehand! Only about 20% of players opened with some spin on the forehand but only two showed evidence of good slow topspin on this wing. No player opened with spin on the backhand and the vast majority were quite content to be involved in extended pushing rallies, backhand to backhand without any attempt to open al all!

Play and tactics — There was much play on the diagonal, especially the first opening ball with the forehand. We must be thinking much more of different placement — straight, to the body and out to the angles. Also there was too much use of power and too little change of speed or spin. It was rare for any player to open with a slow ball. Once into the rally not one single player tried to vary the pace and play long or short, moving the opponent in and out.

Movement with the majority of the girls was weak particularly to the wide ball and especially from the forehand corner back to the backhand. There appeared to be little awareness of what the Chinese call the ‘inside techniques’, the more advanced level of stroke-play – touching serves short, killing through topspin, using early ball back and sidespin pushes, even when and how to convert from spin to drive.

Conclusions — We should want our girls to play the right game which has a chance of success at the highest level. How many of the top women in Europe (except defence players) or even in Sweden push back a long backspin ball? The key-point must be that if someone pushes long, you open!

But even more important is the question of development, if you are stuck in a negative rut then your game is not progressing, not moving forward, instead it stagnates. If it stagnates too long then you fall behind and it becomes more and more difficult to catch up with the top players, who are being positive, are doing new things and are advancing.

Each of those 40 girls in Växjö should really sit down and ask herself a few questions.

* Do I want to be the best I can be?
* Am I negative in parts of my game? Do I for example win points, or do I wait for my opponent to make mistakes?
* If I am negative how long have I been so? Six months, one year?
* When am I going to do something about it?
* What new serves do I have in the last six months, one year?
* How have I changed my receives in the last six months, one year?
* What new strokes or tactics do I have in the last six months, one year?
* Am I prepared to listen to new ideas and to try different ways of doing things?
* Do I understand that without change there is no development?

One of the ways to reinforce positive play is to applaud young girls who drive or topspin a long push even if they lose the point. Players should also be encouraged to play their weak shots and new strokes and tactics in practice even if they miss, eventually they will have the confidence to use them in matches. Above all coaches must ensure that girls can attack and open safely and consistently as well as being able to play the power balls. I feel that one of the problems with the Swedish girls’ game is that the control element in their attack is too low. The safety shot and the power winner are two different strokes. For example if it’s 9 - 9 and the opponent pushes a long ball anywhere on your side, you should have a safe opening shot which you are absolutely certain will go back on the table.

If you know in the back of your mind that you can open with absolute safety on both backhand and forehand, then you will be that much more confident going into the big matches.

The way forward — One thing that I as a foreigner noticed immediately is that these 40 girls were from many different clubs, some 25 or more and no two in the top 8 were from the same club. Probably many of these are smaller clubs or clubs which have only a few girls training, almost certainly these girls are spread over a large area and have little opportunity to train on a regular basis together with other good girls of their own level. Equally important is the training of techniques and tactics applicable to women’s table tennis. What is therefore a matter of concern is the quality and consistency of the long-term development with particular reference to the frequency of access to the level of coaching needed to take them to international standard or above.

Many people would say in a big country such as Sweden we must face the fact that only a very small number perhaps less than 10% will have access to the type and frequency of training needed to reach the top. I don’t accept this type of negative approach. There is always a way — if we can’t bring the players to the coaching then we must take the coaching and sparring to the players. Other countries with fewer resources than Sweden and much less going for them have done it and continue to do it. I also hear the tired old phrase which comes out every time something new is suggested — ‘Good idea but we just can’t afford it’. Often when you talk to parents and leaders however they are prepared to find the money to fund any venture which will help develop their players!

Some would say that it’s the job of the Swedish Association to find solutions, which in part it is, especially in the case of the players they wish to groom for stardom. However it’s all too easy to sit back and wait for others to act. Surely there’s much that clubs could do themselves by cooperating and working more together with training programmes – as an outsider it appears to me rather than a spirit of cooperation and a willingness to work together there is more often than not an atmosphere of some distrust or even jealousy between clubs.

Equally I feel there is much that the districts could do by promoting girls’ table tennis, organizing training groups, having regular squads which train together on a monthly or six-weekly basis. Why not even take this a stage further to embrace the idea of different districts training together? I already hear the complaints — ‘But the calendar is so full, there are so many tournaments, we just don’t have time’. I have only one answer to this, you cannot train by competition alone, particularly at a young age. To parents and leaders I would ask which is of more importance, to win tournaments at twelve years of age or to develop the right kind of game which can succeed at senior level.

I leave you with one final thought — the bigger the pool of players the Association has to pick from, the more chance we have to achieve success in Europe and beyond.

The Vital Role of the District in Girls’ Training

Rowden Fullen (2003)

The few girls in Sweden who have had the opportunity to train overseas in high quality centres, especially in Asia, have had their eyes very much opened as to what proper training should be like. Working with high level female sparring, training against a wide spectrum of styles (defenders, short pimple players, penholders etc.), being advised and guided by world class women players or coaches who know immediately in which direction the player’s individual style should progress and which methods and training exercises need to be used to help them reach their end goal — all these are aspects very much lacking in Sweden and to the extent that national training for women often operates at a lower level than club training in Asian countries.

Training in Sweden operates at a low technical level and at low intensity. Many girls get so little help that they don’t really know how to play (they have no personal style projection, so they have no idea what they are aiming to be) and if they do have some idea of where they are going, they have little or no idea how to get there. Because they only ever work at 40 – 50% effort most of them have no conception of just what is involved in hard training or what it should be like.

Many parents, leaders and trainers too have little real understanding of what good training for girls actually consists of! There seems to be inertia in many districts and little initiative in making any attempt to provide the sort of training which could develop young girls and take them to international levels. Even with those few districts which are interested in working a little with training often this is a low budget, low priority approach, with poor facilities and perhaps one trainer to 19 players! How can we ever hope to achieve any progress with methods like this? This is just window-dressing!

Also at national level some trainers either do not understand what is required or are not prepared to work to change anything. They are content to run large camps and to operate at 40 – 50% efficiency because they take the attitude — ‘Whatever we do on camps won’t change anything, the girls will go back to their own clubs and will return next year with the same faults and problems, so why bother?’

In other words not only does training become totally unprofessional but it is really only a publicity exercise. The associations whether national, regional or district can sit back and say — ‘Yes we’ve had two or three camps for girls this season so we are actually doing something’. The girls can say –‘Yes I’m being noticed now, I’ve been to a couple of regional/national camps so I’m moving up in the system.’ So in fact it all looks very good. But what does it actually mean when it comes down to looking after and taking care of our up and coming talent. Absolutely nothing! Players in fact who play for Sweden in the European Juniors one year are totally ignored the following year and are not even invited to one national training camp. Does this show organization and progress, good enough to represent your country one year and thrown on the scrap-heap the next?

If a country is to be successful at any sport then the Administration must also be progressive and forward-looking. Methods of assessment, selection, ranking and national centres and training must be constantly monitored and up-graded. It is important that more and more countries throughout Europe demand not just some ‘movement’ from national, regional and district organizations, but real progress. If the people at the top can’t do the job then it’s quite simple, they shouldn’t be there!

In sport we unfortunately often tolerate much lower levels of efficiency than we would ever do in the top jobs in industry for example. It is also no excuse to say that we have many part-timers in our sport who have full time jobs and are only able to give a few hours to help in training or organizing. The majority of those who work in a semi-professional capacity in table tennis are after money, very few people in Sweden will do anything for free. We should therefore expect value for money and not just accept low levels and low quality.

In any large group with many players at varying levels, the chances of new innovative styles of play or new lines of thought emerging are extremely remote. With large training groups and few coaches, development becomes stereotyped and rigid, systems take over and the individual emphasis and personal touch are lost. There is neither the time nor the opportunity to focus on what is individual in style to each particular player. The group as a whole drifts without guidance into a general style of play and development of new and different aspects is slowed down or lost. Equally training itself, the process of training becomes devalued – players work within the group and often work very hard indeed but in many cases without ever knowing why! They train because they want to be better – how can they achieve any destination when they don’t know where they are going or how to get there?

What is required at district level is regular training (around once a month) for smaller groups of girls of a similar level (not a similar age). There should be no more than 10 – 12 in each training group so that there is time and opportunity to give more individual attention to the players. Ideally we should be looking at a staffing level of at least three coaches and two sparring.

In terms of method we should be looking at a number of differing aspects.

  • Theory — We should look first to upgrade the girls’ theoretical knowledge with seminars and lectures. Most of them don’t know how to play women’s table tennis or what is effective in the women’s game!
  • Individual attention – Not only is more personal attention required in the areas of the players’ technique and movement patterns but also advice and discussion on direction. Most girls have little or no idea how they should play, where they are going or how to get there. Each player is different and should develop in a different way.
  • Training — Most girls don’t understand how to train or what good training is! They must be educated so they have some idea of intensity levels, be able to work with various training methods and above all be aware of how they should train to get the best out of their own individual playing style.
  • Material — Girl players must have a complete game. They must be trained to play against pimples, defenders etc. and to know both the theory and the practice.

In terms of aims we should be looking to make a difference and to show the way so that other districts can follow. In Sweden you can’t develop girls to a high level in the clubs because in most you don’t have the necessary expertise. Also a few good girls are often spread over a large number of clubs with little opportunity to train against other good girl players. The initiative therefore needs to come more from district or regional level — there are some camps at regional and national levels but in most cases these are just social or publicity exercises. Usually the camps are too large with not enough trainers and these often have limited knowledge on women’s training or on how to develop girl players. There is little or no sparring and often of the wrong kind and the parents pay a premium price, with the extra money going to the Association to subsidise other activities. Most parents seem to be totally unaware that they are getting second rate coaching and development for their daughters and paying elite rate costs for this!

Often thinking in Sweden seems a little too traditional, too many administrators and organizers set in their ways and very reluctant to even consider new ideas. Do they really think that in these changing times they are going to produce the players of the future with the methods of the past?

My suggestion is that we establish a model in one or more districts, with high level aims — to have the best district girls’ squad in Sweden, with the top girls training together at least once a month in two differing quality groups. Girls, parents and clubs must be made aware that such ‘elite streaming’ will mean that they should plan their tournaments accordingly. They cannot develop by competition alone and they should understand that high level training and development must have priority if the players are to progress to the top.

Girls’ Table Tennis in Sweden

Rowden Fullen (2002)

In 1995 when I first came to Sweden I asked the obvious question — ‘Why is there so little success with women in Sweden when you achieve so very much in the men’s game?’ After some years here I now see many of the reasons and problems.

I see that at almost all levels you develop girls with built-in weaknesses or defects in their play which have a limiting effect on their ultimate level of achievement. You also in many cases produce girls who have very little understanding of what is effective in women’s table tennis. Many of the causes are to be found in the training during the formative years. It is certainly not a question of talent, you have players with remarkable potential. But pure talent without some framework of technique and tactics, and even more important without some direction as to how it should be focused into a particular style is largely wasted – even great talent becomes ineffectual if channelled into an area where it will only ever be 40/50% effective.

At a young age, say up to 11 - 13 years, technique is usually quite bad and there is no indication of any trained pattern of movement. There is little sign of any guidance towards an individual style of play and almost all girls play an incomplete game. By this I mean that they have only one way to play and are predictable. They have limited capability to do anything different, little understanding of how to cope with anything new or unusual, the short game, pimples, defence, the slow ball and often they are reluctant to open on the backhand. As to serve the vast majority have absolutely no idea of the theory of service, how to achieve spin, the differing grips and contact points on the racket.

If we move on what has happened by the age of 15 to 16 years? The girls are stronger and faster and hit the ball harder but are there signs of real development? Unfortunately not. There are still problems in movement, especially wide to the wings and in technique - often strokes are only partially developed and in such a way that further growth is restricted. The fast counter-hitting game is crystallizing and the player’s progress is starting to stagnate. Is there really any way forward from here? Just what do you do next for instance, in order to grow and advance - increase the power even more, hit the ball yet harder, play still faster? The options are really quite limited. In fact many girls have manoeuvred themselves into a dead end, from where there is no easy way out!

Even if we cast an eye at the very top level, at the small band of girls who represent Sweden in Europe, we don’t see great cause for much celebration. Yes there is more power, spin and some development in service and third ball - however no attempt has been made to correct or change the original direction in technique or movement patterns, there are still problems here. If anything the style and the way of playing is becoming more rigid, rather than flexible and adaptable. Many of these girls still have major difficulties in coping with different types of women’s play.

Sadly too at this highest level there is little awareness of advanced techniques - short touch play, use of angles, killing through topspin, using early ball block and sidespin pushes, varied stop-blocks, or even a real understanding of timing, when to drive and when to spin. It is also obvious that many top girls in Sweden are training with men (and indeed the wrong men in terms of playing style), and are training to play a man’s game. They train to serve like men, play a man’s third ball, go back from the table like men and try to cope with men’s power and spin. Most of them don’t have the strength, speed of movement, spin or precision of placement to do this. Against the best girls in Europe and certainly in Asia they will be destroyed.

Many readers of this may accuse me of being negative. My answer is quite simple. If you don’t face facts, face reality, don’t recognize and admit that you have a problem, then you can’t set out to find ways to correct it. Even in the ‘Pingis’ magazine as far back as the 70’s and 80’s well known Swedish players and coaches have been writing articles showing concern over the lack of development in the women’s game in this country. It is now 2002, so just when are we going to actually do something? People who argue positively that our girls are really capable of competing at top level in the light of our placings in the European Junior Championships or our performance in the Swedish Open are not helping the cause of girls’ development in Sweden! Now is really the time to start laying new foundations and to prepare for the future - the further we drop down the harder it will be to get back to the top again.

We have seen some of the problems, what now of the solutions? Just what do we have to do in Sweden to build a base, what are the initial steps in our plan to produce world class girls? First we must understand the importance of early technical development. Table tennis is a fast, automatic response sport, we teach players to react without thought. We can think about tactics when we play but not technique or our whole performance grinds to a halt. Wrong or incorrect programming when young is almost always carried forward into an adult game and is not easily changed. The message must be - get the technique right from the start, let us try to avoid the necessity of having to backtrack or waste time and effort trying to change things at a later stage. This is not always as easy as it sounds - a young player’s technique is not stable and requires constant monitoring to keep it on the right path.

Tactics must be taught from an early age. The young girl should be able to play against different types of game and trained to recognize what tactics to use against varied rubber combinations right from the start. The earlier this is done the easier the information is absorbed and the quicker she will become the complete player, at ease in and able to cope with any situation.

The steering of a young girl towards the style most suitable for her and the equipment most effective for her game, is at the same time one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of the coach’s work, and the single most important part of her development. Compared with the men’s, the women’s game has a much greater variety of styles and greater use of differing material combinations. Each player has areas where they are naturally more gifted and their end style should be guided towards these. It is pointless to model oneself on others who are different, have differing talents, are quicker, have better reactions or more feeling. Style is an individual thing and each player is unique.

It should go without saying that girls should train in the correct manner for their style and above all train to play against women and not men. Competing against men is often a matter of coping with spin and power, against women, coping with speed and usually a flatter ball with less spin. Ideally girls should train to be unpredictable, changing speed, spin, timing, angles and length and using the slow ball. Early in their career time should be spent on short play and encouraging touch, opening up from a push with both backhand and forehand and above all getting movement patterns right. Spin can be very effective in the girls’ game but usually only if your player shows an aptitude for this and even those who spin naturally often need guidance as to technique, when to use the wrist and which parts of the arm are most effective in the various loop strokes. Bear in mind that women tend to use spin as a means to an end not as an end in itself.

If our girls in Sweden are to make a real impact at European level and higher, then they need access to informed guidance in the areas we have highlighted. From my own experience and conversation with top coaches such help is rarely available at club level in Sweden. Also unfortunately the coach education system does not cover such areas in enough detail or in a scientific enough manner. It would therefore be necessary in any programme of development that groups or centres be set up at either regional or national level, where girl players could have access to guidance on technique, tactics, style and training for the women’s game on a regular basis, at least once a month. It would also of course be a good idea to involve theirown coaches in any such programme.

Finally attitude and the cultivation of the correct approach to her end goal are most important in training a female player. Girls usually have less self-confidence than boys, accept instruction more readily (and usually new ideas too) and are more quickly realistic as to their chances of attaining their goals. However they are also social animals and require support from those around them, family, partner, coach, club and friends - strong support, encouragement from and trust in those around them is often a recipe for success.

It is of the utmost importance that girls have an open mind at all times, keep looking forward and do not become satisfied with the way they play. Be ready to listen, be receptive to new ideas, be prepared to question coaches and trainers. Unless you as a player continue to change and evolve, you stay as you are. The progress may be slow but progress there should be. Look closely at yourself, your game, six months ago, one year ago. Do you still play the same? Are there new things in your game? Are you developing, working to a programme? Or are you just a bit faster and stronger, but otherwise the same? It’s your life, take control of it!

In ending let us return to the beginning - ‘Why is there so little success with women in Sweden ….?’ - and move a little further afield. Let us examine briefly why the Asian women are so dominant.

From a very young age there is much emphasis on good technique and especially on the small details, use of the wrist, even the fingers, position of the feet, free arm and shoulders. Movement is considered a high priority and a great deal of time is spent on establishing good patterns suitable to the style of the player and moving in a strong, athletic manner. Much attention is focused on a good variety of serves and being able to take positive advantage of the third ball. The mind is directed to always seek the first attack, to be aggressive, to open hard with a strong ball at the very first opportunity.

But above all players are encouraged to be different, to develop their own individual style, indeed in an environment surrounded by so many outstanding players, to be unusual is often the only way to succeed. There is strong pressure to be flexible, unpredictable, to change tactics to cope with other styles of play, to think to make better use of the table, not just to play one way all the time.

Finally the Asians train harder, longer and more professionally. We in Sweden may not be able to devote so much time to training but there is certainly no excuse for lack of professionalism or failing to use our resources effectively. Perhaps instead of looking for funding to send our young girls abroad for tournaments or training, we should look more to put our house in order at home. We have assets here in Sweden, we have good level Asian women players who could be invited for sparring, we have former National Trainers for girls and women from many countries including China, we have good venues for camps. Above all we here at home have the motivation and the interest to make things work. Let us just be prepared to make the effort and get things moving!

Sweden, Girls’ Play: the Big Ball

Rowden Fullen (2001)

The bigger ball means a number of changes must be made when considering girls’ style development and it must be appreciated that certain styles are going to be less effective.

Less spin and less speed will affect all players who play at a distance from the table — it is in fact harder to win points from back, whether you chop or topspin and many players are going to need more power. Reaction players who stay close will be less affected and may actually benefit, by having fractionally more time to play their game. Serve specialists should perhaps be affected but there appear to be two different schools of thought on this. Some players think they get rather more ‘purchase’ on the bigger ball (because of the larger surface area they get good contact on the racket, good grip when spinning) and some find the bounce a little more unpredictable. Certainly many of the world’s best servers can still win points on their own service and still have an advantage here. Others especially the women think there is rather less spin on the serve.

Here in Sweden where we are somewhat lacking in the niceties of style development and where many of the girls train with men and try to play a man’s topspin game, we are going to have to rethink our ideas on women’s development. It would appear more than ever necessary to look at the closer to table styles, to increase the focus on close safety and mastering speed and aggressive attack play over the table, now that the balance of power has shifted. There have always been more options available in taking the ball earlier, but now the control of speed and differing methods of achieving this assume greater importance — not only drive play but the full range of blocking strokes, sidespin, chop and soft block and of course early ball topspin.

Variation in all aspects becomes more vital when you can’t win so easily with power. We must not only think of strokes but variety in angles, length, speed, spin, balls straight and to the body, differing serves and receives and changes in tactics and unpredictability in play. To be able to play with and against the spin or return it to the server and to know what spin remains on the second, third and fourth ball is not just nice to know, it’s necessary information! Of course power will still have its place but perhaps now in a slightly different context — if players are closer to the table then how you open and counter is vital. The first counter assumes higher importance whether the opponent opens hard or with slow spin, you must be able to put pressure on her directly with your return. Equally the next shot after your first loop or drive must do the same. You should look at ways to move beyond the strategy of control to actually winning the point and preferably earlier in the rally.

What is happening with the big ball in the men’s game at the very highest level for example is that the first hard attack often wins the point. The opponent more often than not returns into the net. Either the bigger ball does not come quite so far as expected or drops lower than expected (it is certainly heavier), with the result that you need to lift the ball more than you think. Under pressure and with limited time to react this is hard to do. Many players also complain about unpredictable bounces with the bigger ball and different trajectories through the air.

The whole service and receive scenario and second, third and fourth ball is now upgraded to a higher level in the women’s game too. If the first hard attack has a very good chance to win the point outright then the first opening shot or the first strong counter is the one that matters and the sooner the better. It is vital to have a good variety of serves, to know how they are returned and to be able to take the initiative on the third ball. Equally initiative and variation on the second ball are critical. It is for example necessary to attack long backspin, side or topspin serves to the backhand wing and to get the serve back on the table — quite a large percentage of long serves in girls’ table tennis are not even returned! Variation in service spin is a priority from a tactical viewpoint — sidespin is often effective against players who want to return short, chop and float against those who like to open or push long and reverse against girls who want to play predominantly forehand returns.

Variation within the rallies is equally of value. If the first hard attack has a good chance to win the point then being predictable is a very sure way to commit suicide! It is interesting to note for example that even at the very highest level, when one player goes back from the table and lobs the other now plays a slower ball with less power input — it is often this change of speed that wins the point. In practical terms most girls have little or no thought to change speed and length within the rally and even less to change the spin input or timing dramatically. Not only should we be thinking more now of changes of speed and spin on the ball — variation from slow loop to fast, from hard drive to stop-block, but also changes in the length and speed of the stroke. Is the arm moving fast enough, should we play with a longer, slower movement in some situations?

With the bigger ball the control element should be heightened, it should be possible to play at a high tempo with more safety and less mistakes. It will be easier to open against backspin or from a pushing situation, easier to hit through topspin or to use the various blocking options. As a result one of the prime training areas within the rally must be the capability to accelerate from a control situation into full attack, using spin or speed, from block into spin or drive and especially on the backhand side. Girl players must look to actively win points, not to get locked into a control situation. They must also look to break out from the control type of game earlier in the rally, too many girls lack the aggressive instinct, the ultra positive attitude to get on the attack at the earliest possible moment. With the big ball it is of less advantage to be negative, less use to wait and hope.

As well as being positive and breaking out of the control situation, one must not underestimate the value of the slower or more spinny shot with the bigger ball. It behaves differently in the air and perhaps because of the aerodynamics or the increased weight, drops lower quite quickly and doesn’t always come through as far as you expect. Even at the very highest level players are making errors against the slower or shorter ball — some of the world’s best players are even using change of pace/spin as a weapon, hard hit drive, followed by slower spin at a later timing point and in quick succession.

Girls should be training for and looking at how to take advantage of the new conditions. Will increased control benefit you with your particular style or will there be problems? How can you upset the control game and get into a more positive position – with the slow roll, spinny ball, chop or sidespin block? Are you practising to break out from the control situation and attack? Are you looking at different methods to attack, spin, hard hit, forcing-block? Are you aware that the whole serve and receive scenario is now a much higher priority? When the opponent opens whether hard or spinny can you pressure them on the next ball? Many of your best hits are going to come back more often — are you prepared for this and can you do something different with the next ball?

Our sport of table tennis is changing. If you want to keep progressing yourself then you too must be prepared to change with it, or indeed you may be left behind!

Developing the Talent of our Girls

Rowden Fullen (2002)

You are a twelve to thirteen year old girl and you want to be a top table tennis star – just how do you go about it and where do you go? You could choose to go to one of our big clubs or even to the table tennis academy. But results over the past few years have shown this is the hard way to the top. Our top girls have tried Lycksele, Falkenberg, Helsingborg and now the new centre at Köpings, but to no avail – we still have no girls say in the top 50 in the world senior rankings. Compared to the top 15 year olds Fukuhara and Guo Yue we are nowhere. Trying to reach the top after and in combination with several years’ schooling becomes more and more hopeless every year.

With a few exceptions the production of young, promising, female talents has virtually stopped in Sweden. Every so often we see one or two girls between 9 – 11 of real talent but in almost all cases they just drift away into oblivion after a couple of years, they just don’t develop to anywhere near their full potential. As an idea table tennis schools are good but unfortunately the results are bad.

The number of top women’s trainers in Europe and even coaches who understand how women play and what they need to do to get to the top, is now at an all time low. Too often girls train in the wrong way and against the wrong type of sparring for their game. Often when our best young prospects go abroad to China or Japan in their mid-teens they come into contact with top women’s coaches and suddenly it is brought home to them that their development in Sweden has in fact been in the wrong direction for them for a number of years, in spite of the fact that they have been to the so-called top table tennis schools.

The reality too is that in a harsh world where money steers the sport, there is seldom much space for talent to flower to senior level. It’s far easier instead to fill teams with foreign players and as a result many of our girls drop out well before they are 20, tired, disillusioned or burned out by our sport’s heavy demands. In many clubs there is unfortunately lack of competence and direction — many youngsters too are so spoiled by our easy modern-day life that they are not ready to make sacrifices, to give their all or go all the way to reach top levels. Talent on its own is nowhere near enough to scale the real heights – there must be intelligence, the right attitude and a considerable core of hard steel. Do you really think you can create such qualities in a semi-academic environment where those of your own age and experience surround you? When development is over, the step up to the grown-up world is often just too tough. If you’re 16 – 17 and you are not in the national troop then it’s far too late.

It’s far better for many 12 — 14 year olds to play in senior teams and to compete in senior tournaments from as early an age as possible. Here you build up a different toughness and different qualities. Maturity comes much more quickly. The change from junior to senior or elite is that much easier when it is time to take the step. If you have the opportunity play and compete abroad, travel abroad to training camps with older players, such experiences are character building and are never wasted.

It’s a simple fact that in Sweden it’s next to impossible to develop to world-class level in one club even a relatively big club – you reach the limits of what that club can do for you. You have to grow and to move on. Unfortunately too often clubs and parents hold young talents back because they don’t want to let go. Instead they end up destroying the player’s future.

The more precocious the talent the earlier it should be exposed to higher levels of competition. Waldner played elite men’s series at a little over 12 years and trained in China at 14, we all know the results. Some 7/8 years ago there was a fantastic young 12 year old from Iceland, hailed by many of Europe’s top trainers as an even better prospect than Waldner. Could he have been even more successful than the maestro? We will never know because he was kept at home and was never exposed to the higher levels necessary to develop his game.

Women’s Development in Sweden

Rowden Fullen (2004)

Marie Olsson is certainly the most promising female talent that Sweden has had over the last 5 or 6 years, the only player who has been right at the top in her age group from the age of 9 years and one of the few to reach the highest levels of the European elite as a junior.

She was recently interviewed in the Swedish table tennis news magazine and made a number of statements, which should send shock waves through the Swedish table tennis hierarchy. She would for example ‘like to have access to a trainer who works with her every day and is regularly with her at tournaments’. Isn’t this totally ludicrous? A player of her level and capabilities without organized and supervised development! In almost any other country in Europe coaches would be queuing up to get the chance to help her.

Marie also indicated that those who were her junior contemporaries such as Vaida and Pota are now somewhat ahead of her due to stronger competition and better coaching and sparring in Europe. Certainly Marie’s results over the last year or so cannot be compared with those of Pota for example even though Marie is probably potentially a much better player. Surely this is a damning indictment of women’s table tennis in Sweden.

Finally Marie thought it would be nice for the women to have their own regular team captain who was there for them at all times! Sweden, one of the top table tennis nations in the world and no women’s team captain. Again totally ludicrous! Why should the top girls and young women in Sweden even want to play internationally for a country which shows so little interest in their welfare or development? Indeed one of our top young players has already said no to the national team and this is quite understandable.

It seems to be obvious that Sweden just does not have the commitment, the coaching expertise or sufficient depth of quality in the women to provide the right sparring and direction for talented girl players. It would make more sense for Marie to pull out of the National Team, to leave Sweden for the next 4 or 5 years and to work abroad at developing her game to its full potential. She will certainly not do this playing in Sweden.

One can to some extent understand the attitude of the Swedish Association. There are for instance so few of our top girl players who have the right motivation and are prepared to commit their lives totally to table tennis (one can almost count them on the fingers of one hand) that we can appreciate the reluctance of the Association to spend time or money on the women. But this is a two-edged sword – if the Association is not interested then it’s all too easy for the players to lose motivation and to give up on their ambitions to play at the highest level and to represent their country. It’s not as if there is any serious money in women’s table tennis so why bother? Better surely just to play abroad for money and develop your game as best as you can rather than to join the rat race at home.

There is also a further fundamental point to consider. Have we the trainers even at national level who are capable of developing our girl players to the highest levels? Results and an overview of the development of female players in Sweden would appear to indicate that we in fact do not! A number of our best teenagers have returned disillusioned from training in China or Japan where they have been asked almost from the first day why they don’t play a woman’s game. It is immediately obvious to top Asian coaches that the direction in which our girls are evolving is not going to bring results at top level in women’s table tennis. Some of these girls have had very high level coaching in Sweden!

It would appear too that even our top clubs in Sweden which are involved with girls are not in favour of allowing the National Association to take over women’s coaching. When it was suggested that all the best women/girls should train in the new National Centre one of the top women’s clubs threatened to cease all activity with female training and to withdraw their women’s teams from the league. The Association backed down.

Why too do we not make the best use of the resources we do have in Sweden? We have Chinese women playing in the leagues in Sweden, many of them of high level and with different playing styles, penholders or defenders for example. Why are they not used on training camps? This is a problem which has been with us for many years. Back in the ‘90s when Bergkvara were briefly in the elite their number one player Tong Fei Ming was a top twenty world ranked player. It took Lars Borg some 6 months and a lot of arm twisting before she was allowed to spar with Swedish players on training camps! We have trainers in Sweden who have trained girls and women at national level in other countries, even a former junior girls’ trainer in the Chinese National Team. Why are our own National Trainers so afraid to use outside expertise? Are they afraid that their own flaws and shortcomings will be exposed?

Possibly in all of this we should bear one fact in mind. Whatever the great successes of Swedish table tennis on the men’s side over the years, we have never, ever, had a Swedish woman in a world final, in either singles, doubles or mixed. And this is going right back to 1926. Now perhaps is the time that we should finally understand that men’s and women’s table tennis are two completely different animals. Success in one gives absolutely no basis for assumptions or performance in the case of the other.

Lecture on Girls’ Development

Rowden Fullen (2004)

Training programme

Women – key issues

Girls’ seminar

Girls groups – key aspects

Practical exercises for girls

Ready position, serve and receive tactics. Are these changing?


Programme Development

  1. Regular work on theory.
  2. Individual attention — direction, each girl should know how she individually will develop and how she is most effective.
  3. Each girl should know how to train and what constitutes good training.
  4. Mental training — develop and work on this in every session.
  5. Materials — develop understanding on how girls should cope with differing rubbers and playing styles.
  6. Each individual player should start to take responsibility for her own development, not just to rely on coaches/trainers/ psychologists etc.

Areas to work in.

  1. Eliminating or minimizing existing technical and tactical problems - in basics, with technique and movement patterns, against materials and certain playing styles.
  2. Eliminating or minimizing existing mental problems — rigidity of play, rigidity of thought (prepared to consider new ideas, new methods).
  3. Understanding of the women’s game.
  4. Understanding that any development means change (if she is not prepared to change, then she cannot progress).
  5. Understanding of own personal style and how each girl is effective and wins points.
  6. Understanding of best playing distance from the table.
  7. Understanding of F.H. and B.H split.
  8. Ensuring that movement patterns are appropriate to girl’s own playing style.
  9. Understanding the right way to train for her style and how to keep progressing in the right direction.
  10. Understanding that training in mental techniques is particularly important if she is to reach the higher levels in her sport.
  11. Understanding that to reach the higher levels she must be prepared to train in the more advanced techniques used by the world’s top women.

Typical session layout

  1. Regular exercises (trying to minimize problem areas) — 15%.
  2. Developing girls’ strength areas and aspects where they are already proficient — 20%.
  3. Working in new areas and developing new skills — 15%.
  4. Working in mental areas – 15/20%.
  5. Working on theory – 5 /10%.
  6. Working on serve/receive and 2nd/3rd/4th ball and/or match play — 25%.
  7. After session – evaluating and assessing performance (How she performed and how she felt during training).

Ground rules.

  1. No negative talking (or thinking) during group training — if a player is negative this has an effect on the others in the group and brings down the level of confidence in the whole group.
  2. Have your notebook with you at the table so you can take notes in the session and evaluate your performance afterwards.
  3. Be ready at start time, racket glued and water bottle with you, don’t let others in the group down.
  4. If you can’t be at training for one reason or another, ring as early as possible.
  5. Bring the ‘right’ attitude to the training hall, if you don’t want to train this affects the whole group and brings down the quality of training. It also slows down and hinders your own development.
  6. Be ready to control your own development. ‘Educate’ your coaches and trainers, think about your training, always be ready to question. If coaches can’t explain why a particular exercise is good for you and how it benefits your game, then perhaps they are not that knowledgeable and you shouldn’t listen to them. It’s your life, your development, value these — others may not.


Quite simply women cannot hit the ball as hard as men so they will achieve less topspin

With less topspin women have less on-the-table control

It is crucial in the women’s game that the loop is either very short or very long. good length is critical

In the women’s game the behaviour of the ball after the bounce is more unpredictable

It is expedient in the women’s game that the players’ attention is directed towards the value of the shorter stroke

Timing is vital in the women’s game. The timing ‘window’ in drive-play is extremely narrow, between ‘peak’ and 1 – 2 centimetres before.

It is essential too that women can convert – change from topspin to drive and vice versa at will. The ability to loop several balls in a row is not a prime requirement in the women’s game.

In the women’s game the vital importance of spin on the first opening ball (and good length) cannot be over-estimated. This creates openings.

The ability to open hard against the first backspin ball and not just spin all the time is a vital asset in the women’s game.

Never stop girl/women players receiving with the BH from the middle (or even the FH) it’s done at the very highest level.

From an early age girls should learn to open and play positively on the BH side

In the early years girls should train till they are at ease in the short play situation, aware of the various possibilities and able to gain advantage in this area.

Strong serve and 3rd ball are essential elements if women are to reach the highest levels.

Receive tactics are of prime importance in the women’s game.


  • Men play well back from the table with power and strong topspin. Women play closer to the table and counter more with speed than topspin. This means that very different timing points are used in male and female table tennis. Women too generally have less time.
  • Men hit the ball harder and are capable of achieving more topspin than women do. The harder you hit the ball with a closed racket, the more topspin you create and the more on-the-table control you have.
  • As a result the men have more control and face a more predictable ball. Many women play with lesser power and differing materials, which also adds to the unpredictability after the bounce in the women’s game.
  • The unpredictability in the women’s game directly affects the stroke technique especially on the forehand side.
  • Because of the lesser spin and power in the women’s game length becomes much more significant.
  • Women generally have a much squarer stance than men do (60% to around 25 – 30%).
  • Women receive much less with the forehand than the men do (53% to around 80%).
  • Women receive much more with the backhand (47% to 19%). Many receive with the backhand from the middle.
  • Women in general serve more with the backhand (20% to around 5%).
  • Women use more long serves than men do (16/17% as opposed to about 10%, but European women serve long much more than Asian women, 30% to around 13%).
  • Asian women serve more short serves than European women do (65% to 50%).
  • Counter-play is still the main tactic in the women’s game and timing is vital. The ‘timing window’ in drive-play is extremely narrow, between ‘peak’ and 1 – 2 centimetres before. It is just not possible to ‘hit’ the ball hard from a late timing point WITHOUT TOPSPIN.
  • The ability to open hard against the first backspin ball and not just spin all the time is a vital asset in the woman’s game.
  • From an early age it’s vital that girls learn to open and to play positively on the backhand side.
  • It’s also important that girls are at ease in the ‘short play’ situation and able to gain advantage in this area.
  • Strong serve and third ball and good receive tactics are of prime importance if girls are to reach high level.


  • Take and create 3rd ball opportunities — to push 2 or 3 then to open is not so effective, it gives the opponent time to think, to plan and to open first.
  • Work out how your own serves are returned and how to move into position to attack the 3rd ball and which type of attack to use.
  • Use the F.H. from the B.H. corner especially after the serve and on the diagonal. Often you will win the point direct.
  • If you can’t open on the B.H. side get round with the F.H.
  • The ball after the first topspin is of vital importance – be ready to get in and drive attack but judge the power input carefully.
  • You can often even win by thinking differently, blocking short for instance.
  • Training to block v topspin and to even hit through loop is vital in the women’s game.
  • Control with feeling is important against topspin and if you can force the opponent’s loop then you give them no time to loop again.
  • The slower ball and change of pace often win points in women’s play.
  • Are you able to return a fast serve with a slow ball?
  • Can you create real backspin when pushing on the B.H. and hit hard on the return ball?
  • The hard push ball is more often than not returned with a float or slight topspin and is therefore easy to hit hard.


I sometimes wonder if coaches really give a great deal of thought to the nature of the exercises they will use when they have girls’ training camps and just how they will use these exercises. I have seen a number of camps where the prime emphasis has been on continuous topspin even though less than 13 – 14% of the players had anything like a topspin weapon. I have seen girls instructed to loop on the backhand when more than 20% had pimples and some even long pimples! And to make it even more confusing players are often told to play hard on the backhand diagonal and switch with power into their partner’s forehand – the partner is of course expected to loop. This obviously gives the poor partner rather limited time to play anything like a loop stroke but she is criticized if she counters or smashes! Indeed she is criticized for playing a woman’s game!

It is obvious if coaches watch the top women in competition that counter-play is still the basic norm in the women’s game. We rarely if ever see the loop-to-loop rallies that we see in men’s play with both players well back from the table. Instead the first opening spin ball is blocked or hit and there is little or no time for the looper to spin again. Rather the top women come in after their first topspin so that they are in a better position to counter fast, over or close to the table. After the first opening spin ball, the next is usually taken at an earlier timing point to pressure the opponent. It is essential in fact that women can convert — change from topspin to drive and vice-versa at will — rather than loop three or four balls in succession. THE ABILITY TO LOOP SEVERAL BALLS IN A ROW IS NOT A PRIME REQUIREMENT IN THE WOMEN’S GAME.

It should be obvious too that it’s very easy to encounter and even cause major problems especially with girls at a younger age when trying to combine spin and speed exercises. What happens more often than not is that they will retreat on the wing where they are expected to topspin to give themselves time thus causing an imbalance in their own game – good close with speed on one wing good back with spin on the other! (To play at top level imbalances have to be strictly controlled or when they exist, utilized by the player, who must understand precisely how this is achieved). One of the prime aspects of the women’s game is the ability to control speed. Surely it makes more sense to research methods of doing this closer to the table on both wings or deeper on both wings depending on the individual characteristics of the player.

And here we have the crux of the matter – players are individuals and different. In the women’s game with many more different styles and differing paths to the top, coaches should not be looking to create a uniform playing style and then try to ‘squeeze’ the girls into this framework! Rather they should be looking at what characteristics are natural to the player and how to develop these.

Where we have large groups of girls it makes rather more sense to explain an exercise – e.g. ‘between 2 to 4 fast drives on the backhand diagonal then fast straight to the forehand, one player controlling, one working’ – then to add the proviso that the ‘working’ player make her own decision as to how she should play the fast ball to the forehand, depending on her style of play. She then has the choice of using her own strongest stroke, loop, drive, smash, chop, stop-block etc.

Of course from an early age girls should learn to open from a pushing situation and especially on the backhand side – it is indeed important that they can create spin or speed on this first opening ball as this will open up further attacking opportunities. Although at a lower standard and at a younger age girls/women are less positive than men are on the backhand side, at the very highest levels you rarely see women pushing more than one ball. They have the capability to flick over the table or to open from further back on this wing.

It is what happens after the first opening ball that is radically different in the women’s game to the men’s and something that coaches must understand and develop in their training exercises with girl players.


If we look at the top men, women and juniors in the world do we notice any changes in the ready position and in the serve and receive tactics? Obviously there are individual style factors which affect the issue — some top stars such as Kreanga and Steff use the backhand side to open much more from the middle of the table and especially against the serve or on the third ball. What we are looking for however are more general trends either in the men’s, women’s or the junior game.

It would appear that the ready position in the men’s game is changing. Many of the top junior boys and the younger top men stand more square now so that they have more options in short play (the rear leg is not so far back as it used to be). Players such as Boll, Maze and Chuan Chih-Yuan fall into this category. If you look at the world’s best junior boys many have a relatively square stance – Zwickl, Süss and Asian players too such as Yang Xiaofu and Sakamoto. The main exception is with the Asian penhold players who want to play more forehands and receive with the right foot (for a right-hander) well back.

Even in the case of many players who do stand with the right foot back, often they come in with the right foot against the serve to use the forehand from the middle of the table. In this way they keep control of the table with the forehand on the subsequent ball. The men take over 80% of the opponent’s serves with the forehand wing. If top men can’t open against the serve, the main receive is the short push return with the forehand.

In comparison with the top men over twice as many of the top women stand quite square – almost 60% as opposed to 25 – 30%. The women too use the backhand much more from the middle of the table on the service receives, both to push and to open. They in fact use the backhand receive almost 50% of the time. European players such as Steff and Struse and the junior Pota fall into this category and even Asian players use the tactic. Players such as Guo Yue, Zhang Yining, Niu Jianfeng (Ch), Lin Ling (H.K.), Jing Jun Hong , Li Jia Wei (Sin) and top world juniors such as Peng Luyang (Ch) and Fukuhara (J) all use the backhand from the middle.

In the service area we note a number of differences between the men’s and women’s game. The female players use the long serve more than the men, in a ratio of around 16 – 17% as opposed to 10%, but there is not such a great difference in the short and half-long serves at the very top level. Perhaps the most informative factor is in the difference between the junior and senior players of both sexes. Both the boys and girls use the half-long serve more than the senior players do and the girls use the long serve more than the women. At senior level the service game becomes noticeably tighter. The men almost exclusively use the forehand to serve, with one or two noticeable exceptions such as Primorac. Backhand service is however generally lower than 5% as opposed to nearly 20% in the case of the top women.

There is a noticeable difference in service tactics between the top Asian and the top European women. The Asian women serve more short serves, around 65% in comparison with 50% and significantly less long serves, 13% as opposed to almost 30%. The best girl in the world Guo Yue, number 15 in the women’s rankings at 14 years, serves around 97% short or half-long serves. The Asian women are generally better and much more confident in the ‘short’ game and at opening against a backspin ball even over the table.

The European women usually serve longer as they wish to get their topspin game in at the earliest opportunity. However in many cases it is obvious that the Europeans have neither good enough serves nor a good enough first opening ball to obtain a real advantage. If we look at statistics of rallies between top Asian and European women, the Europeans are struggling to hold their own in drive or counter-play but also they are not really dominant in spin play either. Unless their first opening topspin ball is of exceptionally high quality they almost always lose out when the game accelerates into fast counter-play.

It is obvious too that counter-play is still the basic norm in the women’s game. We rarely if ever see the loop to loop rallies that we see in men’s play with both players well back from the table. Instead the first opening spin ball is blocked or hit and there is no time to spin again. Rather the top women come in so that they are in a better position to counter fast over or close to the table. After the first opening spin ball, the next is usually taken at an earlier timing point to pressure the opponent.

There seems to be little thought at top level to bring in any changes in the forehand service action or position to create a more positive advantage in respect of the new service law. Most top players just try to remove the free arm and serve as they did before. Few have thought to increase the rotation speed of the upper body so that the free arm automatically swings away, or to use a higher throw so as to have more time to rotate the body. Players don’t really seem to appreciate that without rotation the service action is often quite stiff and it can take up to three separate movements to get the body and feet in the right position to play the next ball. Few players too have thought to serve from a squarer stance so as to be more adaptable against the return ball. It is noticeable that the women particularly are sometimes a little slow now to get in the right place for the third ball, especially if this is played hard into the corners.

Europe: Are we aiming to produce only 2nd class women players?

Rowden Fullen (2009)

Generally what are our aims in Europe in terms of women’s style development? Is it really our intention to produce world-beaters, women who can match the Asian players or are we content to aim at a lower level, content to be 2nd class? It is obvious that there are fewer styles of play in the women’s game in Europe; even in National Centres women have less variety and our girls who train in Asia almost always return with enthusiastic tales of the vast variety of sparring partners, both penhold and shakehands grip. Is it however also perhaps obvious that many European countries have given up on the possibility of trying to match the Asians and that their input in the case of girl players is ‘token’ at the very best?

When one talks for instance to the top Asian coaches regarding our penchant in a number of European countries for producing women who play a man’s game and topspin back from the table, their reply is always the same – ‘Long may you continue to do this, with the bigger ball the superiority of the Asian players will be even more pronounced. If you continue in the West to work with this style of play you will only ever produce top 100 players at best, you will never succeed in getting women in the top 25 in the world.’ Does this mean that certain styles in the women’s game are perhaps more effective at ‘world’ level?

I think in general we can say that this does apply and that almost certainly the traditional European girls’ topspin game is never going to be a worldbeater in the current climate. Good women defenders on the other hand for example are often very high in the world rankings and have been for a number of years — it doesn’t matter whether they are Asian or European. Also material players figure highly in the top ranks of the women. There are many more ways of playing in the women’s game — we only need to look at world champions over the last twenty years to see the variety of styles. It is also noticeable much more than in the men’s game that the top women have their own ‘specialties’ in playing styles, materials and tactics.

Coaches should examine in some detail the sort of strokes that European and Asian women produce. Asian women will for example often drive through the opponent’s topspin on the bounce at an early timing point. European women use this stroke very rarely as in most cases they have the bat-arm foot too far back and can’t get in quickly enough.

So what is the most popular style among the world’s best women, those winning Olympics and World Class events or even those at the top in the younger age groups? Many of these players stay much closer to the table than the Europeans, cope with the speed inherent in the women’s game rather better and always aim to reduce the time available to the opponent. Zhang Yining, Wang Nan and Ai Fukuhara are prime examples as is Liu Jia now in Austria. Rather than backing away all these players move in to take the ball earlier on the FH side and use close-to-table footwork and BH techniques. They play square or even over-square and are able to execute early-ball strokes more easily because of their stance and movement patterns. They also of course retain a larger range of alternatives, which are lost to players who back away from the table. Two European-born seniors who understand these principles and have used them effectively are Mihaela Steff and Georgina Pota.

It is however noticeable in the case of the younger girls from Europe (and especially from the Eastern-bloc countries) that squareness is the in thing and that some coaches in Europe understand what is successful at present in the top level women’s game. Players such as Szocs, Kusinska, Kolodyazhnaya, Noskova, Matelova, Xiao all play very square and in some cases pronouncedly over-square. This is obviously not accidental as countries such as Romania and Russia have a long history of producing high-level female players and their top coaches would not countenance obsolete or ineffective techniques. It seems obvious they have been looking at the world’s best women players and have decided that traditional European ‘direction’ is perhaps outdated. Of course rather than playing ‘catch-up’ it is better to initiate new ideas, but certainly anything is better than clinging on desperately to the past.

Unfortunately however in Europe there seems to be little thought and fewer ideas as to where we are going with our women and indeed how to get there. Many coaches even seem to ignore the fact that there are many more playing styles in the women’s game than in the men’s and that it can be a very useful exercise to explore the varied alternatives. Any top-level training group of women players should normally consist of many more varied styles than you would find in an equivalent men’s group. If European women only spar against one or two styles of play how are they expected to progress into the higher echelons of women’s table tennis?

Techniques are and should be different too with players who are closer to the table, but again in Europe we don’t seem to set much credence in aspects such as this. A number of top coaches stress the point that table tennis is faster and faster every year but we don’t seem to take this to the logical conclusion – if our sport is faster then it follows logically that better close-to-table technique is crucial simply because we have less time!

It is however not only the increasing speed factor which we must evaluate but another element which, although of crucial importance, is often overlooked. This is the fact, that of all the racket sports, table tennis is the one where the ball slows most dramatically through the air and where spin most affects the trajectory of the ball.

We must therefore consider time and the implications of the time element in men’s and women’s table tennis. Men more often than not play from further back, with more spin and a more pronounced arc. Because of these factors although they hit the ball harder it takes fractionally longer to reach the opponent on the other side of the table. Women take the ball earlier and play flatter with less spin. There is a big time difference between attacking close to the table and executing similar strokes say three metres back.

Just what are the implications of this difference in the time element? It has for a start a direct influence on technique. When you have less time technical considerations such as stroke length and playing the FH across the face assume rather more importance – or for example playing the BH with the right foot or right shoulder a little forward. If the technique is sloppy you deny yourself recovery time for the next ball.

Equally movement patterns are vital – it is critical that women have the correct patterns for their style of play and can execute them with good balance. Above all retained squareness is vital – because they are closer to the table, women need to be ready at all times to play either FH or BH without a moment’s hesitation. If you watch female Asian players who topspin (Guo Yan and Wang Nan for example), they loop from a much squarer position so as to retain the initiative on the next ball. The position of the feet for topspin can be very different depending on whether you are initiating power or using the speed on the incoming ball. Sound technique is rather more vital in the women’s game than in the men’s.

Tactical considerations also become crucial. Not only do almost all women stand closer to the table, they also stand squarer, use more BH serves, receive more with the BH from the middle and play more BH shots from the middle. Nor are these tactics accidental as almost all the top women both Asian and European utilize them and many women so doing, such as Boros and Guo Yan, have in fact extremely strong FH strokes. These tactics are used because they work and because they save time.

Coaching women in Europe: ineffectual

Rowden Fullen 2010

For coaching to really work at any level we need to have the right people, in the right positions, at the right time. And above all we need to have the players in focus and not the coach. What do we mean by this? If the coach considers himself to be in charge and of importance or a top player himself, then a certain amount of his energy is directed into maintaining his position and feeding his ego. Therefore not all of his energy is centred only on the player and in giving the player the best of all possible opportunities to reach his/her full potential.

In too many countries in Europe coaches in National Centres are only interested in doing ‘their own thing’. They know best how to develop players, they don’t need to listen to either the players or their personal coaches and they don’t need to have contact with the big clubs who produce the players. But are most of these coaches operating from a position of strength or of weakness? Usually from one of weakness!

Often unfortunately most top coaches now come from the ranks of former players. As a result although they may understand what top players need and feel, they often have little insight into what is required in the development of differing playing styles and the use of materials, or in the case of the women’s game, of the many and varied paths to the top levels. In the majority of cases most of the in-depth development of these coaches comes only from the training camps they have attended as cadets or juniors and of course what they have learned is very much dependent on the expertise and methods of those in charge of such camps and also in the continuity of the training. How many coaches in National Centres have ever actually ‘produced’ top players themselves? Few if any!

To justify funding, sports authorities in Europe ask for results and medals from a young age. In China the best coaches work with cadets and juniors, but the only results that mean anything are those achieved in senior events. For young players to evolve we need more time for practice, not more and more competitions all the time. Looking for and producing girls who can immediately win medals in mini-cadet, cadet and junior events does not in most cases build a suitable grounding for senior competition. Already in cadets the prime goal of practice and selection becomes success as soon as possible.

Because our focus is on the short-term, selection is often biased in the wrong direction towards the sort of player who can achieve short-term success. Of course it is always easier to get results at mini-cadet, cadet and junior levels – the proof as it were of the competence and efficiency of the coaching and development in any association is whether or not they can bridge the gap between junior and senior success and produce world-ranked seniors. And what do we mean by world-ranked seniors? At least in the top 50 in the world.

If the emphasis is on success at a young age then the tendency is for a rapid turnover of players, who represent their country a few times and then disappear. The focus of the coaches immediately switches of course to the next even younger group of ‘hopefuls’, who are coming through behind. In this way we have a rapid turnover without ever really getting anywhere and in the process we demotivate a number of older players who perhaps do have the commitment to get somewhere given time and a little help.

This approach also means that the National Coaches have no need to liaise with the few big clubs, which are working hard long-term to produce top seniors and have good coaching and development on a daily basis. Such clubs and any contribution they may make are unnecessary because what they may achieve is in fact largely outside the parameters of what the top coaches require at national level.

Even on the coaching front there is no requirement for the development of top coaches to raise the overall levels throughout the country. In fact this could from the point of view of the main association be counterproductive as it would result in a cadre of top coaches, who long-term would produce better players than those being groomed nationally. The fact also that players were being developed outside the national framework to play a senior (and often different style of game) would also be directly against what the National Coaches need and require to win at the younger levels. Of course in all of this the wishes, aims and feelings of the individual players would be totally irrelevant.

Such a developmental pathway and a continued input by ‘player’ coaches also tend to ignore the individual assets of the player and far too often a ‘traditional’ style is favoured by the coaches in charge. It appears that the preferred playing style with the girls in Europe at the moment is two-winged topspin off the table. Players who don’t do this are ‘encouraged’ to change. In any group of ten girls they can be half a dozen differing styles and a fixation with one particular style will only benefit two or three players in the group at most. The rest are therefore expendable ‘cannon-fodder’ and are probably not going to be selected for international duty, despite any results they may achieve: they may in fact just as well not bother to attend development camps.

A focus on one particular style as being nationally more acceptable than others is always dangerous. As Jack Carrington said in UK 60 years ago and it’s even more relevant today: ‘You will not make top players by working in areas in which they will never be more than mediocre’. Many coaches in Europe for example say of the unusual players such as Carl Prean and Ni Xialan: ‘In quite a few countries in Europe players such as this would never get a place in the National Team because their style would be traditionally unacceptable’.

We need in order to produce world-class women, to work to long-term goals and to work with the styles of play and the advanced techniques necessary to enable them to compete at senior level. We also need to keep our research up to date in respect of what the top women are doing and how the women’s game is changing today. Unfortunately this long-term approach would probably deny us results and funding over a number of years and therefore we shall continue to produce women in Europe who are basically second-class in world terms.

In the case of the women it was plainly evident in the Tokyo 2009 Worlds that the two-winged topspin game for the women is something of a ‘dinosaur’, especially when played off the table. It was demonstrated for all to see, that consistent European topspin players like Toth (still dominant in Europe) were totally outplayed as soon as they drew back from the table.

The only European girls to get results were the Czechs, Vacenovska and Strbkova who at least tried to take the Asians on at their own close-to-table fast game. So why are we so fixated on spin with the girls? Why force girls down a route which is almost certainly going to be less successful in the future due to the equipment being used and their physical makeup?

With this type of coaching approach we are unfortunately only ever going to produce women in the top 70 to 300 in the world rankings and our ultimate aims are always going to be restricted. Coaching of women in Europe must move on to the next level. We must not only be aware of what the top women in the world are doing and of the styles that are most successful, but we must stop following and start innovating. It’s of little use watching the Asian players and especially the Chinese and waiting for them to come up with new techniques and tactics, then following blindly where they lead.

We in Europe and particularly the coaches (not the ex-players involved with table tennis, who will rarely if ever be able to break the mould of inherited thinking), must be ready to pioneer, to create, to originate, to initiate. And any innovation must be based on the natural strengths of the individual player. Only in this way are we ever going to make inroads against Asian dominance in our sport of table tennis.

Systems unfortunately breed predictability and limit creativity. Coaches are only going to produce the top players and the players are only going to attain their full potential, if they are resourceful, inventive and imaginative enough to bypass the regime and to ‘think outside the box’.

Finally of course, which few coaches seem to understand, is that producing a champion in any sport is not just about developing the technical and tactical skills, it’s about moulding and expanding the whole person. Coaching is not about dictating or coercing, but about pointing out the way and the alternatives. The player has to think for herself, act and be self-sufficient, in the final analysis only the player is going to ‘produce the goods’: many players however even throughout the whole length of their playing career, never actually come to terms with what is required for them personally to reach the goals they dream about.

Direction not Sparring

Rowden April 2017

Far too many players and coaches too, seem to ignore the purpose of the journey of table tennis or to become so heavily embroiled in the minutiae of the technique, tactics, strategies, the stresses of competition and the constant need to win and show results, that they overlook the importance of the final destination. Or perhaps they become so much involved and interested in the journey that the ultimate goal is forgotten or is no longer under constant scrutiny.

Table tennis is a long-term undertaking, a bit like building a house brick by brick over a period of time and it’s a process of slow learning and development. There are no quick and easy fixes. Equally it’s a process of developing the individual, we are all very different. So it’s a process of identifying the personal qualities and characteristics we have, which will best help us to achieve full potential and to eventually be the very best we can at this sport of ours! It is never a question as a large number of coaches in the Western world seem to think, of shoehorning the player into some form of ideal model, to which all great players must conform if they are ever to achieve perfection. In the final analysis this state is only ever achieved if the coach allows the player to grow and flourish in his/her own highly individual way. In fact in Asian countries coaches often look for a ‘specialty’ within the player’s style which they can build on to create success.
This is also why in Asia and especially in China (and particularly in the women’s game, where we have many more differing avenues to the top) we have so many specialist coaches, catering for men’s or women’s table tennis, for defence, short or long pimples etc: in this way whatever the gender or style of the individual players there are always experts available to take them forward.
In the West we need to spend more time on individual development bearing in mind that the style of any player is not just concerned with the technical requirements, but also the physical and mental aspects; does the player have the power, speed, reflexes, flexibility or other qualities needed to cope with the style he/she wishes to use and is he/she comfortable mentally with this way of playing?
With many young players it is often possible for the experienced coach to evaluate even at an early age which style they will adopt as a senior and to guide them towards this. However ‘direction’ is paramount and both player and coach must keep the end goal in sight and keep reviewing this on a regular basis. This means as well that players should train in the ‘right’ way for them as individuals, they should not be taking detours or venturing into cul-de-sacs which lead them nowhere; all their practice should be purposeful because the one thing about purposeful practice is that it is transformative!
In every training session therefore the player must ask the question: ‘Will this series of exercises be of benefit to me as an individual and do they fit in with where I am going as a player?’ In fact many of the top European players (even of the level of Boll and Schlager) have admitted in retrospect that much of their early training was wasted and was not precise enough. In other words they could have probably achieved what they did rather earlier or even better with the correct input!
Also bear in mind that even when the player is satisfied with the basic mental, physical and technical aspects of his/her game, there are many sub-routines and procedures which it is necessary to evaluate and fine-tune. For example what is the player’s most effective distance from the table and can he/she perform and maintain play in this area around a minimum of 70% of the time? How efficient is he/she in the areas either side of the prime distance? Does the player play most of the time at the right pace for him/her and more importantly is the player encoding in his/her subconscious the correct characteristics for the specific type of table tennis he/she intends to play? Is he/she precise enough in serve and receive placement and generally in the use of all areas of the table? What alternative techniques, strategies does the player have to cope with unusual situations? How adaptable is the player and how quickly does this occur? Even very simply, does the player have the correct and most economical footwork patterns for his/her particular style of play? Reaching full potential requires detailed assessment and research and of course there needs to be steady and progressive development.
In the final analysis the player may even prefer and be happy with a style which will never be successful at international level! If this is the path he or she wishes ardently to pursue, why should any coach feel he has the right to force the player down another route with which the player is not comfortable?
At the moment of writing this, Japan has 8 out of the top 10 under 21 female players in the World Rankings, with the other 2 being from Hong Kong and Singapore (China has none) and in fact Japan also occupies the number one Junior Team position in the world for girls. If we in Europe are ever going to close the gap on Asian women what we need most of all is ‘direction’, how they are going to play and what is most suitable for them as individuals. It goes without saying that we will never have any chance of matching the Asian women until we start working to our players’ strengths. We start later and train less than the Asians, have not so good technique and many fewer coaches who are adept in women’s table tennis. Only by having a constant dialogue with our players and by steering them into areas where they feel comfortable with the way they play and are able to use their individual characteristics and capabilities to the full, do we have any chance at all.

Improving Women's Table Tennis in Europe

Rowden Fullen 2009

Csilla Batorfi (HUN) Italian national women’s team coach, former European Champion in singles

We have big problems as Asia and China are very strong. Our greatest problem is that there are a very few women in Europe who are playing table tennis seriously. There are simply not enough players that we can make a good selection from.

In table tennis there is a huge difference in earnings between men and women as professionals. Today some top women players can earn good money but it is not much compared with men or other popular sports. A problem is that young players just as they are becoming good go to some clubs which can pay good money but do not have good daily training which is of course bad for the further development of young players. To make it simple - young players very often when choosing between good money and good training chose good money which is not good for their table tennis future.

Two Romanian girls Dodean and Samara are very good and they have good chances to become really good. I hope that our Stefanova will make good progress too. The problem is that they are still young but over 20 years of age, and have not reached the top yet - I won the European Championships when I was 17! As I see it now, they must really work hard, time is running out fast, soon it will be too late. We in Europe have to look after talented cadet girls and start with them from the beginning.

Andreja Ojstersek (SVN), Slovenian women’s national team coach

The gap between European and Chinese women table tennis is so deep that it seems almost impossible to overcome it. The existing big difference between Asia and Europe is the result of training - they practise more, they have better sparring partners, they have top coaches at all levels.

As I see it, the big problem in Europe is training in clubs - generally speaking even in best women’s clubs they do not have enough practice, I even have a feeling that today they practise less in the clubs than we did. It seems that many players become discouraged and simply do not believe that there is a chance to change the situation. Of course nowadays it is not easy with the young generation - they are offered in Europe so many new, interesting ways to have fun, table tennis has to rival for new girls with a lot of other competition.

It is very bad for Europe that clubs which have money simply buy good Chinese players as it is much easier to engage a top player for the team than to try to raise their own players. I have seen for example in Austrian national women’s league that practically all teams have Chinese players, some are even composed only from Chinese players! In my opinion this is a catastrophe. The new ITTF rule which was voted in at the Annual General Meeting during the World Championships in Guangzhou will help us - now at last no new Chinese women will come to play for European national teams and we will have to concentrate on our own players.

An additional problem is that European women stop playing seriously at the age of 22-25, examples like Tamara Boroš are rare. Most of the younger players train hard and fight only for a few years, and then they give up! In my generation in Slovenia we worked more and harder than the present generation. We practised 5-6 hours per day and all of us graduated from some schools. Our present generation is practising less.

Girls stop working hard when they realize that they can not make it to the top in Europe, they lose all their ambitions. We have some talented young girls, cooperation within Europe might help them to become really good. The problem has of course its roots in poor practice in clubs - as a national women’s coach I have already for 5 years tried to improve the footwork of our girls, but my efforts are in vain as we are as a national team not often together, and in the clubs they simply do not care to work on the same problem! We try to improve some technical details, when the girls come again we have to start all over again, as at home they did not work on it! The most important thing is to have clubs with motivated coaches and good practice - then you have a chance to really make some progress!

Dr Miran Kondric (SVN) Lecturer for racket sports at Sport University Ljubljana, special advisor for ITTF Science Committee

Science in table tennis is just as much needed as in any other modern sport. Without science in table tennis coaches would not have any source which would help them in planning better training, developing new methods for teaching technique, etc. A coach can gather useful information from different scientific fields, so he can develop adequate programs based on scientifically proved facts.

Table tennis is the fastest ball game in the world, movements of the player are short and fast and differ a lot. There is still a lot of playroom in this field, so we must try to develop reliable physical and biomechanical tests for table tennis. This would be a great help to coaches as it would enable them to program better training, make better selections. When changing the rules concerning balls, rackets and such equipment we should anticipate what will happen, science shall give the answers and then we will know how to react. Some research on table tennis injuries shows that we have had recently significantly more injuries due to always shorter movements in modern game.

There is yet another problem in Europe regarding scientists involved in table tennis scientific research, they have not enough contact among themselves and not enough contact with coaches. Besides there is no publication where they could publish the results of their research! This is something what is really needed, a publication on table tennis scientific research is absolutely necessary.

Zoltan Melnik (SRB) Serbian national women’s team coach

The best illustration of the present situation concerning women’s table tennis in Europe for me were the results from last European Championships in St. Petersburg, Russia. In team, single and double events most of the medal winners were old players who have no real possibilities to improve their game significantly. My impression is that in the last few years European women’s table tennis has made no progress, we are witnessing stagnation or even regression! At the moment I can mention only Dodean and Samara as young European players, but even for them the time is running out, they must work very hard and be dedicated to reach the goal, it all depends on them, their will for hard practice.

In China both of them at the age of 22 and 21 would be either on top of world rankings or out of selection, but of course in Europe situation is another - they are among the 40 best in the world and have the possibility to improve further. In their generation I do not see any other girls capable of becoming world class players, but hopefully new, young generations are coming.

It is very difficult to find realistic ways of how to improve the level of European women’s table tennis. Our women are playing as professionals or mostly as amateurs with some allowances from their clubs. In the clubs they seldom have adequate training which would give them the chance of becoming top-class players. Due to many obligations for club, national team, school, there is almost no time or money for additional training camps.

The big difficulty is that we have almost no really strong, well organized clubs to organize adequate daily training. At the moment in the clubs we succeed to educate cadets or even juniors of solid European level, but the clubs have not the means to enable those players to make the deciding step from good juniors to good seniors - the federation must help, we hope in future we will be able to do it.

I know that several other former top European countries in women’s table tennis have similar problems, take a look for example at Hungary - the situation there is generally the same as ours! We must admit that in our country the popularity of table tennis is decreasing - 10 years ago it was no problem for my club to get 70-80 children beginners for our table tennis school, now we have difficulties to find 20-30! This is quite a serious problem, we must fight to come back!

Tamara Boroš (HRV) Croatian player and European ranked n° 5

The problem with young girls in Europe nowadays is that they are not ready to practise as hard as it is necessary to reach the top world level. It is true that we now have a lot of Chinese players in European national teams, they are a sort of obstacle for young girls who strive to become national team members. But for me and the girls of my generation it was in some way a challenge to work harder and to become good enough to beat them. I thought that I have to learn to play against them, I thought it was good that I got a lot of opportunities to play against the Chinese in Europe and even to practise with them. The girls nowadays are not ready to dedicate themselves 100% to our sport, to sacrifice something to become better, the results of such an attitude are obvious. Today older women players are still at the top in Europe, Samara and Dodean are really the only younger players seriously threatening them. I can imagine that most of the older players would leave the international scene and national teams if they were seriously threatened by the new generation.

So they proceed to play as they are still at the top, even if they are not anymore as good as they used to be. If a player like Kristina Toth 34 years old wins 3 medals on European Championships she of course proceeds playing as long as she feels she can be successful - if there were many good young players beating her, she would probably soon give up! In my opinion the main reason why Europe is losing their position, why the gap with Asia becomes bigger and bigger is the lack of will among young European top players to dedicate a part of their lives to our sport - it is not possible to become a top world class player without really hard work and concentration on the job you are doing. When I was young even after training sessions I analysed table tennis videos, thought about my game and practice - it is obvious that not everybody is ready to do it in the same way, but it must be your decision - do you really want to reach the top and are you ready to do everything for it or you are just dreaming about being on the top?

A problem in Europe is that when a young girl makes some good results she immediately is taken by top clubs and has to play a lot in club competitions, matches for the national team, tournaments etc. Even in the best clubs they often have not the best training opportunities and besides, they often have not enough time for practice and recuperation. I am disappointed with the way training in most clubs I have recently visited is going on - most of the time you have the impression that the players and coaches are doing a dull job and are only waiting to finish it! If you really do not like table tennis then it is stupid to make out of it your profession, even if it is only temporary.

Neven Cegnar is one of the outstanding European women’s coaches. With the Croatian national team he already managed to win several team medals at European Championships; his best "product" Tamara Boros was for many years the only serious European threat to the best Chinese and Asian women and is still after a long pause due to an injury among the best in Europe

The situation in Women’s European table tennis does not look very good. Among the best 5 players on the official European women’s ranking list four are coming from China, the only one from Europe is already 35 years old! Among the best 20 women on the European ranking list more than 50% - 11 are coming from China(!!) , from 9 women born in Europe 5 are over 30 years old and only two are under 25.

Professional coaches working with young girls in Europe are forced to "produce" medals already in cadet and girls’ competitions, they prepare the girls to win medals in their age category and the target is at that moment not a long-term goal to enable the girl to compete at top level when she will play in women’s senior competitions. Due to this we are mostly not selecting the girls who will be able to climb to the top of the women’s ranking lists but we are looking for girls who can immediately win medals in cadet competitions and later in junior competitions.

In Europe we have a problem which does not exist in China. Our sport authorities spend normally 20-25% of the budget on bureaucracy and to justify it they ask for results and medals in all age categories. The result is of course that all federations try to win medals in all categories - in China their best coaches work with cadets and juniors, only results achieved in senior competitions count. Chinese cadets and juniors practise much more than they play in tournaments.


It’s obvious that many of the top coaches are concerned with the development of girls in Europe. A number of aspects are highlighted:

  • The numbers of serious women players are declining.
  • Financial rewards for women are poor.
  • The priority with many girls is to chase what money is available rather than going or staying where they can develop their own game.
  • The girls we do develop are not good enough, early enough.
  • There is too much emphasis in Europe on winning at a young level and too little preparation for the senior game. Much of this is because the funding bodies require results early.
  • Many girls reach a level as cadets/juniors but don’t make the transitional step into the seniors.
  • In most cases training in clubs in Europe is not good enough. It is vital to have good coaches and sparring in the clubs to make real progress.
  • Older players think the younger ones aren’t committed enough and don’t train hard enough.
  • Young players don’t stay in the game long enough. When they realise it’s too tough to make it to the highest levels, they become disillusioned and give up.
  • Older women are still playing and winning major events in Europe because they are not seriously challenged by younger players.
  • The young player’s table tennis life is too cluttered with club matches, tournaments, training camps and matches for her country that there is too little time for personal and individual development and recuperation


These comments also bring us perhaps to further conclusions. Do we have for example the expertise in many countries in Europe to produce women in the top 30 in the world or are our ambitions limited because we don’t have the infrastructure, the funding, or the coaching knowledge to do this? Are even our National Associations competent in this area? Or do we have too much traditionalism and inherited thinking in the way they approach player development?

There are many more paths to the top and many more styles of play in the women’s game, but far too often in Europe we seem to look only at the men’s game to provide answers to producing and developing good girl players.

Research into Women’s Table Tennis

Rowden 2011

Q. Is there really a big difference in coaching male/female players?

Until we fully understand that the men’s and women’s games are ‘two completely different sports’ we will never raise the level of women’s play throughout Europe. Women have many more differing styles of play which are effective at world level. The men don’t. In the women’s game it is almost always speed which wins over spin, which is exactly the opposite of what happens with the men. There are also many more material players among the ranks of the women and coaches must be more fully informed as to the why, the how and the what. The mental and physical capabilities are also radically different. To work with and develop girls/women demands a great deal more from the coach.

Unfortunately too many of those involved in training girls in Europe see the answers to female table tennis as originating in the men’s game and the way men play. This of course ignores the differences in body strength and speed and also ignores the scientific aspects such as less spin and speed due to the banning of glue and the bigger ball. We have visionaries in Europe, such as Eva Jeler in Germany, who understand how women play, but most of the Associations and the coaches involved in training girls/women don’t listen. They have their own agenda and because of the lack of finance in the women’s game, often the professional development of girls is a low priority.

Q. Why is it that coaches in Europe don’t understand about coaching girls/women?

It’s quite simple, most coaches aren’t coaches any more, they are trainers. Too many are pushed into coaching from a playing career which often wasn’t very successful in the first place. They just don’t have the years of background knowledge and experience which is necessary. The single most important ingredient in any expert system is significant, pertinent and ongoing experience. Good decision making is about compressing the information load by decoding the meaning of patterns derived from in many cases decades of experience.

Such experience is never transferable in its entirety to other areas or subjects, though some parts may be.

Some aspects are transferable from playing to coaching, others are not. A player may be a good corner-man and tactician but quite out of his/her depth when it comes to understanding many differing styles of play and how each is developed and refined. This of course is one of the main requirements in coaching girls/women.

What we can’t afford to overlook 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 a variety of 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.

In fact many of the top coach educators in Europe are at the present time somewhat concerned as to the efficacy of fast-tracking top athletes into top coaching posts without adequate in-depth training. They question whether even the real top athletes have acquired the right attitudes and abilities during their performing career to make a direct transition into the coaching field.

Q. You hint that it’s perhaps more difficult to coach girls. Do girls perhaps need a certain type of environment and a different approach from the coach?

Many countries are quite backward in the coaching of girls and not much thought goes into their development. Girls must have a training programme which allows them to ‘get closest to their full potential’.

We need an environment where girls know where they are going and do not have to face too many conflicting ideas. Generally they are not as focused as boys on winning all the time but it is important to them that they know where they are going and how to get there. They should be able to work hard and profitably in surroundings where there is no stress and where the developmental pathway is clear and without complication. Above all they must be able to feel that the way they are progressing is in harmony with their physical and mental capabilities. In view of the lack over the whole of Europe of coaches who can help them reach their full potential, girls must also be ready to take more responsibility for their own progress.

The mental side and issues of self-confidence in general are rather more important with girls than boys. Girls are more vulnerable and sensitive and much more self-critical. Sometimes they are even quite self-destructive. The coach needs to be rather more understanding, less autocratic and prepared to discuss more with the player. Listen and liaise rather than dictate. Equally working with girls is much more challenging and demanding and requires rather higher levels of background knowledge and expertise from all involved in their development.

Q. Generally are there radically different tactics in the men’s and women’s game?

Of course. Men win points primarily with spin and power. Their main strength is the powerful forehand topspin stroke and usually everything is secondary to reaching the right position to use this. Such a pattern does not apply to women’s table tennis.

The ability to control speed is primary to women’s table tennis. And not only to control the speed but to do this with safety until an opening presents itself. This is why so many women use material; this is an aid to controlling the opponent’s speed and returning a different type of ball, which breaks up the opponent’s rhythm.

There are many more styles of play with women and basically points are won with placement, speed and change of speed, rotation and change of rotation. To control the play securely and safely on the backhand is an essential ability and also to have a suitable response when the opponent switches from your backhand into your forehand. When working with girls most of the focus needs to be on playing different strokes and combinations near the table and not backing away especially when moving from one wing to the other.

A big problem too in Europe with almost all girls is the lack of good foot-work patterns and techniques. The foot-work needs to complement all the other elements of play and should of course be the correct type for the individual player’s style. Too many coaches are unaware that differing styles require and will lead to different movement patterns. As a result far too often the wrong patterns for a particular individual in fact become an obstacle to perfecting strong and stable stroke-play.

Q. Why can’t women just play like the men? Swedish men for example were very successful right through the 1980’s and 1990’s against China.

Basically because women lack the power and dynamic speed of movement and the further they move away from the table, the more noticeable this becomes. The men back off the table and use their speed of foot and upper body strength to feed power and spin into the ball. However even the men complain now, that with the bigger ball and no glue the stresses on the body are much greater. A number of the top men in Europe were injured as soon as glue was banned and they had to adapt their game. For women to play in this way requires strength and speed they don’t have.

(At the time of the glue ban everyone was in agreement, both the coaches and the players, that the game without glue demanded much higher strength and fitness levels and that specific programmes had to be developed to prepare players to cope with these new demands. Players also emphasised the importance of better technique and better footwork, the days of reaching for the ball and letting the bat do the work were over.)

In addition there are many more good blockers and counter-hitters in the women’s game which means that an off-the-table topspin game is tactically much less effective. Close-to-table players just play short/long or out to the angles and the topspin player cannot create either enough pace or spin to win points.

Q. Does this mean that there are certain styles of play in the women’s game which are more effective at world level?

This is definitely the case. There are basically 3 styles which are most effective at top level. However there are many sub-styles within these 3 areas because of the variety of materials women use, from long to short pimples (with differing friction, speeds and sponge thicknesses) to use of material on the FH or BH sides.

1. Good defenders, even the old style ones have always been able to get into the top 15 in the world even into the top 10 (Kim Kjung Ah is currently at No 4). However what all defensive players have now come to understand with the big ball and games to eleven-up is the necessity for attack. Often the older-style players will attack with drive play but nearly all younger defenders have the capability to topspin the ball and to change the form of the rally quite dramatically
2. Blocking and counter-hitting has always been a style which has been effective at the highest levels in world play, especially as many women play with differing varieties of pimples. The Asian players, who occupy almost all the leading positions in the rankings, generally have a very active game and will open at the earliest opportunity. The hard attack ball is important to their table tennis philosophy. Over the years speed has been the dominant factor in their play and even now if they have to choose between speed and spin it will almost always be the former. They open as early as possible, directly after the serve for example and if they are compelled to play an intermediate stroke, they try to control the play so as to play positively on the next ball. Serve and the third ball hit are fundamental in their armoury and they spend much training time on this. They tend to take the ball at an earlier timing point than the European players. (Ai Fukuhara from Japan is a prime example of this style of play).
3. The close-to-table attacker with spin capability is also a highly effective style at world level. What we are looking at here, where players have the requisite reactions and feeling, is the ability to take the ball early and both spin and drive close to or even over the table. Many of the top Chinese in the last couple of years, Zhang Yining and Guo Yue and some of the young Japanese such as Kasumi Ishikawa have this capability. This is a style which can reach the highest levels in the women’s game.

The one style that has never been efficient at world level and has even less chance now with the bigger ball and no glue is the back-from-table topspin player. If the European women want to play a strong topspin game from further back with the bigger 40mm ball which of course takes less spin, then it would appear logically that their chances of defeating the Asians become even more remote. They give their oriental counterparts more time to play and they give up the chance to control the over-the-table and short play.

We must never overlook the scientific aspects of our sport. The smaller 38mm ball achieved maximum revolutions of 150 per second according to tests done by the Chinese National Team. The 40mm ball we now use has an absolute maximum of 132.8 per second, but in addition because of the larger surface area loses spin much more rapidly through the air. This obviously affects the development of the women’s topspin game. Now speed glue is no longer allowed women will need to increase their power and strength considerably to be effective with this sort of game. With most women this is not really a viable option.

Q. Does this mean really that we should focus on certain styles from a very early age with the girls?

No coach will ever make players really good in areas where they are at best only mediocre. Every player has her strengths and should be coached to reach her full potential according to her individual characteristics. It is certainly never the job of the coach to force a player into a way of playing with which she feels uncomfortable.

If however a player shows capabilities which fit her into one of the categories which are more successful at top level then this is obviously a bonus. Coaches must also be aware that our sport is not static, but is evolving all the time. New styles may well emerge which will make a breakthrough at world level or old ones may be refined to be much more effective. The coach is expected to be an innovator and should be ready to accept this role.

Q. Are there certain areas in the early stages of girls’ development which are vital to their long-term development?

Top coaches understand that certain factors, even in the very early stages of growth, have a direct bearing on style development:
• The grip influences from the start just what you can do with the ball, which strokes are more effective and from what distance
• The ready position is closely connected to the player’s style and influences balance, reach, the movement patterns which can be used and which type of strokes can be effectively played
• Rotation is particularly vital and should be developed prior to the stroke. Good body use not only gives better strokes but limits injury as the player develops. Rotation is often less pronounced in the women’s game, as they stand closer, stay more square, react to speed rather then initiating and the velocity of the arm is the prime source of power
• Movement and the correct movement patterns (for your particular style) are crucial as these allow you to ‘come right to the ball’ and play stronger shots. Even at the beginner stage, players should not play strokes from a static position but should learn to move and hit the ball

It is interesting to note that both the Swedish and Chinese coaching systems are in agreement with the importance of these factors in the early stages of development. But of course they must also be understood when the player moves on to various coaching groups at higher levels.

All coaches must be aware that a forehand ready position leads to certain playing styles as a square ready position leads to very different styles. Also the movement patterns from differing ready positions will often be radically different. A very simple change, such as moving a foot back a few inches can dramatically alter just how efficient the player will be as she is no longer operating from the most effective position for her game. This type of awareness is often less prevalent in Europe nowadays as many top trainers increasingly come from the ranks of the players and do not have an in-depth coaching background. Often too their understanding of a variety of playing styles and what is required to make each effective is limited.

What must be appreciated is that the early training more often than not colours everything that follows. This is why many top coaches say that only the best coaches should be involved with beginners as only they have the experience to understand the relevance and significance of what they see. Often girls are forced early on into male ways of playing. Take the example of the ready position on the BH corner, with the right foot well back (right-handed player). The objective of course is to use the FH more, but unfortunately this leads to other technical developments: using the FH more in serve and receive in the middle of the table, playing too many FH’s from the BH corner and retreating at the same time as moving to the FH corner or wide. This system can work well and be successful in the younger years from 10 to about 14, but then the girl meets better and better players and finds that her carefully constructed game can’t be adapted to senior play. She is just too one-sided and not fast enough to cover the table and starts to understand that the best Asians don’t play like this at all.

One of the big steps forward in table tennis over the last ten years has been in the development of symmetrical play. This is of course why the pen-hold style is less and less popular and why even pen-holders have developed the reverse BH to render their style of play less asymmetrical. Even the very top men like Wang Hao use the reverse pen-hold BH from well into the FH half at times to preserve the balance in their game and to economise on movement. With the top ranked women in the world symmetry in their game has always been of vital importance. To therefore deliberately create an unbalanced style in the case of a young girl would seem from a coaching point of view to be the height of incompetence.

There is a further problem in the early stages of coaching girls and this is in the development of spin. Around 6 or 7 out of every 10 young boys develop spin quite naturally with the right training – the ratio for girls is much less, only around 1 or 2 out of every 10 have a natural spin capability. Why is this? Spin for a start needs upper body strength and dynamic movement which young girls possess rather less than boys. Topspin is of course the one stroke more than any other, which requires you to be in the right place to execute a proper shot or in other words to ‘come right to the ball’. Also girls, although maturing at a younger age than the boys, usually have less good balance in a moving situation and less ‘fine tuning’ than boys in the practical areas and use of motor skills.

Many trainers too do not understand the inter-connectivity involved in many areas of table tennis. Nor do they fully comprehend, especially those who are less experienced, the value of the physical and scientific factors (such as upper body strength, ball speed and spin). European coaches must more fully understand the close relationship between the evolution of techniques and tactics and that the appropriate techniques must be cultivated and refined so that the player is more easily able to execute the tactics
suitable to her end-style. It is interesting to note that even a world champion such as Werner Schlager now admits that probably two thirds of his early training was wasted or irrelevant.

The primary priority, right from the first tentative steps in table tennis, is to identify the player’s end style. To do this we assess the factors we have already isolated which have a direct bearing on the development of style and from there hone the techniques. In this way the player will have the weapons she needs to execute the required tactics. We must of course never forget that each player is a separate individual. If certain individual characteristics or ‘specialties’ can be segregated and refined to bring something different and unusual into her game, then the player can be even more effective.

Q. Are there certain specialist areas which require attention if we are to develop world-class players in Europe?

We are unbelievably weak in the serve/receive area and in short play. There is little or no point in being good in rally play if you never get the chance to use this! Most of our top young players serve too long, are always the underdog in short play and are forced back too easily on the switch. We have to work a great deal more at this aspect of the game right from club level and on a daily basis! We have to be much better at serve/receive and much better at controlling short play, understanding what is happening and being effective in this situation.

Many of the top European and most of the Asian players attack anything even a little long; for example balls bouncing in the last 4 or 5 inches of the table. What is required nowadays is not a two bounce serve (where the second bounce is near to the end line) but a three bounce serve. Touch play must also be much better as play overall is much tighter at top level.

Serve and receive needs to be approached differently for the women. There are many more long serves and more BH serves in the women’s game and the reverse serve is used increasingly at top level. We also have to be much more ready to be inventive and innovative, both in serve and receive and the first few balls. We are never going to make inroads against the world’s top players unless we do things differently; they’ve seen all the old stuff before.

Serve is one of the few areas where we can train alone. Why aren’t more players not training high throw serves, backspin balls coming back into the net etc at home in their own clubs? The girls especially have little variation and less spin and yet the service area is one where there is great potential for improvement.

The importance of the serve cannot be underestimated against the Asians. The European women usually serve longer as they wish to get their topspin game in at the earliest opportunity. However in many cases it is obvious that the Europeans have neither good enough serves nor a good enough first opening ball to obtain a real advantage. If we look at statistics of the rallies between top Asian and European women, the Europeans are struggling to hold their own in drive or counter-play but also they are not really dominant in spin play either. Unless their first opening topspin ball is of exceptionally high quality they almost always lose out when the game accelerates into fast counter-play.

However rarely if ever are the Asians afraid of the European serves and follow up ball. They consider that the Europeans have too few serves, are predictable in the way they use them and therefore usually limited with what they can do with the first attack ball. Often at the highest level against the Asians, European players aren’t allowed the opportunity to get their strengths in and are not able to use their strong spin early enough in the rally. With their serve and third ball and receive and fourth, the Asians deny them the time. Not enough European women are able to impose their game on the Asians and much of this goes back to the serve/receive and the first 4 balls.

Q. Are we anywhere near the Asians and what is needed in Europe to make our girls/women more competitive?

It is a well known fact that our girls in Europe are far behind the Asians and have shown no signs at all over the last 15 to 20 years of narrowing the gap. If anything we are falling further behind.

We start too late with serious training, are less good physically and technically and have few coaches who understand the women’s game. In addition we have the wrong focus, aiming too much at winning cadet and junior events, instead of preparing and developing our young players from the very outset for the senior game. We also train too little, too unprofessionally and with little or no individual focus and at too low an intensity. Finally there is too little money and limited financial support in women’s table tennis. These are the first aspects to be addressed if we are to be competitive with Asia.

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 capable of turning the dreams into reality.

If we want to make any inroads into the Asian superiority the first thing we have to do is to listen to the players. There has to be a great deal more individual emphasis. It’s the player who must be in focus and who has to take responsibility for her own development. Too many coaches in Europe, even at National Level, are too controlling and not up-to-date with what is happening in the women’s game at this moment in time. The one single thing we have proved without any shadow of doubt over the last 20 to 25 years is that whatever we have been doing with women’s development, this is just not working or even producing satisfactory results at world level.

Q. Are we perhaps a little behind the times? Do we need to focus more on the modern game with women and what the top women are doing now?

The techniques we use have to be modern and up-to-date. This means good short play, techniques nearer to the table (except defenders and even these closer than before), quicker footwork and spin capability on both BH and FH. We must look at what is important in modern table tennis. Far too often in the Europe of today we are not doing this.

We train too many long rallies and play nice to look at table tennis in Europe. It’s good to look at in training and even in matches, but the question we should be asking is, is this effective, is it a winning tactic? Of course this doesn’t help at all if you can’t take the opponent’s serve. You never then reach the sort of rally you work so hard to perfect, so much of your training is in fact completely wasted. The very first step must be to train more on serve, receive and 2nd and 3rd ball and short play. In our training it must be the primary aim to improve these areas.

Variation in sparring is also vital. As Waldner said in his book: ‘In order to win big titles, you must master play against all styles. Therefore, you must regularly practise and compete against players of different styles. The most important styles to embrace are loopers (maximum topspin), attackers (maximum speed) and choppers (maximum backspin). Another important aspect is play against left-handed players. I would like to remind you that both right and left-handed players spend 85% of their time playing against right-handed players. To be successful against both right and left-handed players requires well-developed technique and very good balance.’

We need in order to produce world-class women, to work to long-term goals and to work with the styles of play and the advanced techniques necessary to enable them to compete at senior level. We also need to keep our research up to date in respect of what the top women are doing and how the women’s game is changing today.

European girls must early on in their career come to terms with all the possibilities in the women’s game, with the many differing playing styles, work out which is best for them and develop their own character within the style. There are available to women players many more possibilities for success, many more different paths to the top levels, than there are for men. They must also of course train in the right direction for their way of playing. Too often players, coaches and selectors are ‘blinkered’ when they look at women’s styles in Europe. They only really want to see one or two styles of play; it’s almost as if they think that only these styles have a chance to succeed at world level.

Q. Do you feel that in many cases it is the National Associations in Europe who restrict the players’ development?

While being respectful of the situation and perspective of many Associations in Europe, we must also be mindful of the inadequacies in finance, structure and competence which lead in many cases to limited development in the women’s game.

Too often the Associations are not professional enough and have the wrong people in the coaching and development positions. The women’s teams are often treated as second-class. I know of many cases where players have to choose between playing for the National Team or reaching their full potential and being a top player. In many countries the two are not compatible. I am also aware of cases where players have left National Academies and the National Team because they were not allowed to develop in what they felt was the right way for them, nor were the so-called top coaches prepared to listen.

Too many coaches even at the top have a traditional idea of how women should play and what is effective at world level and because of this then try to force the players into a mould of their (the coaches’) own choosing. As a result the individual talents of the player are often ignored or suppressed and she never reaches full potential.

Another area in Europe where we psychologically inhibit our women is by dwelling on the awesome strengths of the Asian and especially the Chinese players. If most of our coaches feel we have no chance of ever competing in the world arena and that it’s pretty much a waste of time trying, what message do our top girls and women players take from this?

I quote from Clive Woodward, the English Rugby Supremo, who puts it better than I ever could: ‘Usually it’s the establishment environment which is lacking. It doesn’t challenge the players. It doesn’t give the players the preparation they need, it doesn’t give them every chance. The selection system is inconsistent. The coaches insist on styles of play and training methods which are inadequate and behind the times. Players prepare for games at a level of intensity which indicates they are not doing everything possible, everything that needs to be done to win.’

Q. Do you think the ITTF and ETTU are doing enough to help with women’s development?

It is obvious that many of the top coaches and high-performance directors throughout Europe are very much dissatisfied with the way coaching and player education as a whole is progressing and they feel that we are falling further and further behind Asia. You only have to read the comments of Amizić, Cegnar, Gadal, Sartz and Schimmelpfennig on the websites. However the thoughts and criticisms of the top gurus in Europe seem to carry little or no weight with European Associations and those responsible for running them. Nothing happens and most Associations seem to meander along as they have done for years if not for decades. Nothing new or innovative occurs.
So let’s just consider what the ITTF and the ETTU could do to help correct the situation.

First and foremost education is needed. If the National Coaches in many countries are reluctant to bring their knowledge up to date then it will be necessary to bypass them and go down one or two levels below. This will not be easy. To refer again to Clive Woodward: ‘Often the establishment can’t take in the ideas of the visionaries because such an approach would shake up many of their own top coaches – the ideas are too far ahead of what these coaches practise, know and believe in and introducing substantially different ideas would expose their real lack of knowledge.’

We need to aim at the players’ own personal coaches (many are older, senior or even ex-National coaches, most of whom have worked in the Associations at one time or another). It should be the priority to provide educational programmes so that the young players they are developing have their style well and truly set before they reach the stage of representing their country. Then of course their game is rather more difficult to change.

What is needed more than anything is a detailed presentation of how women play (this of course needs to be very specific, not in general terms) and which playing styles have a better chance of being most effective at world level. Seminars and lectures need to be held in a number of countries over the whole of Europe and a team needs to be set up to first research exactly what will be presented and then to execute the ideas. Any European conferences dealing with this subject need also to be thrown open to all personal coaches throughout Europe and not restricted only to a limited number of National Coaches who may sometimes not be really interested.

A number of the smaller Associations in Europe may well need help and guidance, as often they will not have the resources to implement the required measures. Nor may their coaches and leaders fully understand what we are trying to do or indeed the relevance of some aspects.

There is a vast wealth of experience and knowledge outside the National Centres and National Coaches in Europe which we should make an effort to tap into. If we are to make any inroads into improving the levels of our women then no avenue should remain unexplored. Over the whole of Europe the girls' game is declining and will continue to do so. An increasing number of top young girls will continue to leave the game simply because they are not happy with the way they are being developed. Girls need to be content and to be able to work in a stress-free environment to progress. If they know they are going in the wrong direction for them, then sooner or later the dissatisfaction outweighs the advantages of representing their country etc.

It is also an excellent idea to have more common European training initiatives at various levels. In many countries the numbers of top girls are too small and the variety of sparring styles too few. One very important point here however, is which coaches are we going to send? Unfortunately in a number of countries in Europe the tendency is to isolate top young players from their own coaches, presumably on the premise that only the National Team Trainers have the required knowledge for further development.

Yet strangely enough when you talk to top coaches in Europe and discuss the way forward in terms of developing top talent and trying to compete with the Asians, more often than not the coaches stress the vital importance of individual development and that players should come to select high-level training camps in Europe not with their National Trainers but in fact with their own personal coaches. They stress the importance of having the coaches on hand who are actually working on a day to day basis with the players. A considerable number of coaches from differing countries in Europe are in favour of much higher involvement by the players’ own coaches in any common European development programme.

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

One other aspect which requires some deep thought is the logistics of a number of European countries working together to beat the Chinese. We cannot allow any power struggle, which country will be in charge, which coaches will oversee the programme etc., to get in the way of the development and the progress of the players. It is the players who must be in focus!

Q. If you had a free hand and an unlimited budget how would you tackle women’s development in Europe?

The first thing is to realise the realities of the situation. At the moment much in Europe is about image and presentation, in many countries it’s not the players who are in focus, other agendas are in operation behind the scenes. Often this is not completely the fault of the Associations, they have to jump through hoops to get the funding they require. This is one of the reasons why we waste so much time working at winning mini-cadet and cadet events when we should be focusing only towards the aim of making young players effective at senior level. But this takes too much time and the funding bodies are only interested in results.

Look too at the situation with many top coaches in Europe. How can they give much time and energy to coaching and research when many of their duties are administrative and organisational? How many of the real top players even want to take up a coaching career at the end of their playing days? Usually instead we end up with ex-players of a rather lesser playing standard who end their career in a coaching role. This contrasts very much with China where many of the world’s best players go into coaching, but not without extensive re-education in the theory and the various aspects of their new trade.

There are Associations in Europe which continue to progress despite all the current problems: Germany, France and Romania come readily to mind. Unfortunately however there are many more which are on a downward spiral and where there would seem to be little hope of innovative thinking in the immediate future.

The first step for me in upgrading women’s development in Europe would be a twin-pronged attack: directed both at the coaches and the players. Without coaches who know what they are doing, we achieve nothing. But I also believe that this should be a private initiative outside the control and influence of the European Associations. I think too that we already have the perfect location in place with the Werner Schlager Academy in Vienna.

I would suggest that we use the Academy to develop women’s play within Europe and as a training ground for the players’ personal coaches. The centre already has the infrastructure and a number of top coaches in position and if necessary we could bring in other coaching experts in the field of women’s development to support this venture.

I would envisage beginning with 3 groups and each group would consist of a minimum of 12 players: the first group would be mini-cadets or cadets around 13 years or younger, the second girls between 13 and 17 to 18 years and the third senior players. The aim for all would be the same: preparation, development or refining of play for success in the senior game. I would hope the groups could train at least 6 to 7 times a year, sometimes individually and sometimes together. Of course there could well be some over-lapping between the groups as it’s never age which is important but ability and the level of development. Life should never be easy; the way forward is always for the player to test and to keep testing her limits.

At the same time however we would expect the players to come with their own personal coaches, not with the National Coaches from their respective countries. In my view it is essential to have the coaches there who are working on a day to day basis with the players.

What girls in Europe need most of all is ‘direction’, how they are going to play and what is most suitable for them as individuals. Of course it goes without saying that we will never have any chance of matching the Asian women until we start working to our players’ strengths. We start later and train less than the Asians, have not so good technique and many fewer coaches who are adept in women’s table tennis. Only by having a constant dialogue with our players and by steering them into areas where they feel comfortable with the way they play and are able to use their individual characteristics and capabilities to the full, do we have any chance at all.

This is the area in which the Schlager Academy could be an invaluable base for European women’s table tennis: in an advisory capacity to both players and coaches at the same time. What could be better than players coming with their own coaches, in whom they trust and working in a highly professional environment with the best coaches in Europe? And even the best in Europe may find themselves developing and learning some new things too! Of course it would also be important to have other supporting factors such as good and varied sparring of differing styles and courses/seminars on the women’s game run by the ETTU and ITTF. These naturally should be open and not restricted to only a few National Coaches.

I also feel that in a number of cases (due to politics or reasons of favouritism) we would not always get the most suitable players put forward by National Associations. Equally the coaches in some Associations feel that their country has a traditional, national style of play to which their players should conform. As a result those who do not fit in with their ideas are ‘overlooked’ in the selection process. A number of top coaches in Europe say for example that Carl Prean and Ni Xialan would not have played internationally for several European countries as their unusual styles would have been traditionally unacceptable.

We must therefore have some way of bypassing the system so we have access to as many players as possible who could be developed to make a real impact against the Asian players. In the beginning too there could well be resistance from some Associations, but I am sure that after some months, when they saw the level of progress, those who were against such joint ventures would rapidly become converts.

The plastic ball, will the world's top women spin?

Rowden January 2015

Thousands of Asian women players have been using the fast drive stroke for decades. The hard attack ball is important to their table tennis philosophy. Over the years speed has been the dominant factor in their play and even now if they have to choose between speed and spin it will almost always be the former. It is the European women who try to topspin more and the last one to win a World Singles was Angelica Roseanu 60 years ago in 1955 (and she wasn’t a topspin player).

Let’s look at the science. A drive becomes a topspin when the spin content is intended to have more effect than the forward speed content. This concept of intention is useful when analysing many strokes in the game. Five players starting off with the same intention will probably end up with five different types of performance. The effort to impart extra spin may well result in an important element of sidespin or an increased degree of forward speed or even equalizing the proportions so that we end up with merely a very strong and sure drive. You may not agree but we should also however bear in mind that for many female attacking players, spin skills can only be acquired at such high cost in effort, time for practice and loss of other skills, that there are better ways of creating openings and winning points.
Let’s look at the top female Chinese players who are invariably the best in the world. I have spent years analysing their techniques and actions in detail and still do; I watch their preparation to open against a backspin ball in slow motion, I see where the bat starts, the bat angle, length of stroke and most importantly the result and the intention. Are they intending primarily to achieve spin or speed? I would affirm that the answer is obvious. Liu Shiwen, Li Xiaoxia (and the master of them all Zhang Yining) all prioritise speed: the bat rarely starts below the table, the angle is closed, the racket starts above table level and travels through the ball. There is the odd exception: Ding Ning’s bat often starts well below the table and she often plays slower with spin as a priority as did Guo Yue. But if a player’s racket starts below table level in no way can she attain the same forward speed and penetration as when the bat starts above the level of the playing surface. The problem of lack of spin and penetration will only become more acute with the new plastic ball.
Throughout table tennis history few women have had the power and dynamic movement to play a strong topspin game off the table and to be successful with this style of play. There will be even fewer with the plastic ball. If women come late to the ball many coaches think they would have to spin and spin hard, a slow roll ball would be killed by the opponent. In this scenario there has to be an alternative to topspin. There is always a way round problems, we cannot be too fixed in our thinking. Coaches are if nothing else inventive and creative. Also we cannot compare the men’s and women’s game, few women end up in the position of taking the ball late, therefore this situation will only rarely occur.
When we watch the top men perform with the plastic ball, although we see a deal of power play off the table and even though power will be of vital importance in the future, the slower shorter ball still wins points or opens up attacking opportunities. This is because the new ball does not 'come through' to the opponent, it stops short and drops quickly below table level often causing problems to the incoming player. The tactic of hitting hard on several balls then dropping short could well pay dividends with the plastic ball.