Technical 3

Attitude: the Way Forward

Rowden Fullen (1990’s)

In almost all tournaments we see girls with attitude problems — crying as they play, irritated, angry, in a bad mood, shouting at parents. One gets the impression when watching that it is certainly not much fun to play and that it would perhaps be better to try another sport.

Yet when you sit down and talk calmly and logically to these girls, they in fact fully understand in many cases that they play worse when they allow emotion to take over. Certainly in no way does it allow them or help them to perform better. In most cases it is not mother or father who stresses them and the girls are even prepared to admit this, but parents are unfortunately often the only ones readily available to attack when things go wrong! In the vast majority of cases it’s the player who stresses herself or who allows the pressure to build too high.

Usually when emotion gets too high the level of play goes down and the player makes even more mistakes. Many girls fail to realise three important facts. Stress and concentration levels are closely connected, if you are stressed it’s that much harder to concentrate. Secondly to achieve a high level in table tennis is a slow process and takes time, girls should allow themselves the time to learn and develop, they don’t achieve perfection overnight! Thirdly they do not understand that to win it is often not necessary to play 100%, or even to play at one’s very best. Top players will tell you quite regularly that they played badly, perhaps only at about 60% level and yet actually won the tournament!

Many girls also allow themselves to be very negative when competing, they tell themselves they can’t play, they have no chance, they are playing badly, even that they are going to lose. The brain is very like a computer, if you feed in negative thoughts, it will do its very best to help you lose! If on the other hand you think positively and believe that if you work and fight you have a good chance to succeed, it will indeed be ‘on your side’ and help you do just this.

Girls should first understand that self-control will give them the opportunity to think — the mind is that much more clear and able to consider tactics, which serve to use, whether to use spin more, also the body is more relaxed and able to respond more effectively to different situations. Girls should try to work on the things they can control, trying to train hard and in the right way, having a good work-rate and attitude at all times, a strong fighting spirit, being calm and in control and above all being stubborn and never giving up.

Finally they should endeavour to think positively. Even defeats should be seen as part of the learning process, which indeed they are. Development is a process of change — if you just make excuses when you lose and look for someone or something else to blame then you have learned nothing and you don’t progress, there is no forward movement! If you look for the real reasons for your defeat and face facts — perhaps the other player was best on the day or you played the wrong tactics, or you have weaknesses in your own game that you must work on in training — then you have learned something and you move forward a little step in your development. It is only when you admit you have problems that you can set about solving them.

Topspin Myth and Coaching Women

Rowden Fullen 2009

Spin is of course one of the big myths and one which persists. It’s just like the myth of high-level players going into coaching. As our top university coach educators have stated – ‘These are the usual suspects when high-profile coaching jobs become vacant and so the uncritical acceptance of their suitability persists’. Yet few if any high-level athletes make top coaches.

It’s amazing how many coaches will tell you – ‘All my girls can topspin the ball, this is one of the first things I teach them’. However when you talk to a cross-section of knowledgeable coaches the answers you get are rather different. Most will tell you that boys spin much more naturally than girls and that on average 6/7 out of every 10 boys can create quite good spin. On the other hand with the girls you are lucky if 3/4 out of every 100 have the capability of achieving substantial spin. So why are we so fixated on spin with the girls? Surely with most girls there are easier paths for them to reach a higher level, rather than forcing them down a route where they will at best only ever be mediocre?

Secondly of course we now have the bigger ball and no glue. Do we therefore generate more or less topspin with the tools now at our disposal? We in fact initiate considerably less and this of course plays into the hands of the blockers and counter-hitters and militates against the topspin player who prefers to retreat and spin back from the table. This was plainly evident in the Tokyo 2009 Worlds, where it was demonstrated for all to see that consistent European topspin players like Toth were totally outplayed as soon as they drew back from the table. So yet again 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?

Thirdly how is topspin produced and what are the salient features inherent in the ability to produce several strong spin shots in a row? The two main factors are upper body strength and dynamic speed and in both areas men are much superior to women. You need to be in the right position to spin well, men have the speed to get there and the power input to create the spin. Quite simply men hit the ball harder. Even strong women who topspin can’t be compared to the men. A big woman just doesn’t hit the ball anywhere near as hard as a small man. Yet again 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 because of their physical makeup?

Fourthly in what context is spin used in the women’s game? Is it used to win points, to power through the opponent and is it used successively to produce several strong topspin shots in a row? Rarely if ever! It’s the men who give themselves more time and room to use their strength and play from further back and with much more topspin. Power and spin are important in the men’s game and they win points in this way, with these tactics. Women on the other hand play closer to the table and block and counter much more.

In the women’s game rather than power, placement and change of and control of speed are important. You rarely if ever see the loop-to-loop rallies of the men’s game in women’s play — almost always the return is a block, counter or defence stroke. Not only does the ability to loop several balls in a row against topspin require strength that most women don’t have (and in the long term often leads to injury) but also tactically it’s not a prime requirement in women’s play. Because women loop with less spin and power than men their topspin is much easier to control and contain and there are far more good blockers and counter-hitters in the ranks of the women than in those of the men. Why are we so fixated on spin with the girls? Especially as spin is not a prime tactical requirement? When women do use spin it is generally not to win the point as in the men’s game, but to create an opening, which is a completely different tactic.

Table tennis is very much like life itself. There are always new challenges and new things to learn and if we are to progress then we must keep our minds open and ready to accept new ideas. This applies even to those coaches who have been working in our sport for many decades. The moment we think we know it all then our development and effectiveness as an instructor are strictly limited.

Far too often in Europe with the girls we seem to be locked into coaching methods and ideas of development which are at best decades behind the times. We seem to be unaware that our sport is changing rapidly year by year, that there have been for example dramatic changes since the glue went out just over a year ago. Even worse we don’t seem to be watching the top women and learning from their current tactics and ways of playing. We even see cadets and young juniors among the best in Europe, who ably demonstrate by their style of play that they are instinctively aware of the route to success and the tactics to be used – yet six months to a year later their game has changed dramatically and they have been forced into a mould like all the others.

It would perhaps seem that with the women we are mostly content to produce players only as high as 70 to 300 on the World rankings and have no higher ambitions! If we did we would certainly approach our coaching and development of girls in a totally different manner.

Girls: Make Things Happen

Rowden Fullen

Unfortunately table tennis is a non-contact sport, you don’t get hurt if you make a mistake, so there is less pressure on you to learn quickly. In the case of martial arts for example bad technique incurs an immediate penalty. You block the opponent’s blow incorrectly and you suffer a broken arm! With our sport the penalty occurs years later and is often much delayed. Some more knowledgeable coach or national trainer will tell you that your future development is severely limited because of poor initial technique. Perhaps you have known this yourself for some time but have not felt any urgency to correct this. In our sport where the learning process is slower, the onus is on each individual to control his or her own destiny. This is even truer in the case of girl players. There are many more styles of play and a larger variety of paths to the top in the women’s game than there are in the men’s, but unfortunately far fewer coaches capable of taking girls to the higher levels.

What are you? A girl? Define this. Somewhere between a child and an adult. What is an adult, define this. Someone who is able to handle almost all situations? Many adults can’t do this either. Perhaps someone who has been taught to think for herself and to have self-confidence.

Many years ago I learned an important lesson from a young girl of 9/10 years old. She came to my club with her mother but it was she who did the talking. “I am going to be the national number one and I want you to get me there”. My first question was obviously why me. “You have all the best girls in your club and when I talk to them and their parents I find that you coached almost all of them from beginner level. You made them and you have already made 6 or 7 national number one girls. So you know how to do it. The best trainer to take me to the top is one who has already been there and done it before”.

The girl impressed me not only because of her obvious self-confidence and motivation, but because she had done her homework more efficiently than most adults. To achieve her objectives and arrive at the best solution for her situation she had used observation in the right way and had seen the salient aspects. She had also paid close attention to the facts and facts are predominantly important. Above all she had used her mind to solve the problem.

To get to the top you have to make things happen. Modern society doesn’t favour specialists or individualists. Indeed modern society doesn’t teach you to use your brain. Otherwise why do so many high-profile business executives have to go on special courses to help them do their jobs after years in schools, colleges and universities? Let me tell you another story of a young girl who made things happen. At the age of 13 she came to me – ‘Tournaments are costing too much and my parents are not that well off. You always say I should use my brain to solve problems but where do I start?’ As I said to her – ‘Isolate the main costs, travel and hotels and take it from there.’ She rang round all the local car firms and petrol stations and the hotels in the town where the tournament was to take place. Two or three days later we had free travel and accommodation. Two years later the same girl, then playing professionally in France, went round all the airlines and obtained free air travel anywhere in the world for a three year period.

There are few coaches of the women’s game in Europe now – I get two or three calls every season asking for women’s coaches. In the last six months I have had calls from top women’s clubs in such diverse areas as Spain and Norway. Above all what coaches should understand is that coaching women as opposed to men is ‘a completely different ballgame’ and requires a different approach. Not only are we talking about the many differing styles of play and the extensive use of material, but also of the different mental and physical attributes. If you can’t communicate with women, if you can’t comprehend why so many women play with material or understand how to play with and against such material, then it’s difficult to make a meaningful contribution to their development. Direction is important with all players, male and female, whether you as the coach can point them in the right direction for their individual playing style. However this aspect is much more demanding in the women’s game and a much broader ‘experience’ background is required. Coaching women is rather more difficult than men and more involved. If you are ‘blinkered’ and don’t appreciate that there are many more paths to the top level or indeed know what these paths are, again it’s hard to guide your player.

Many coaches and even national centres have a false perspective – they know or think they know how the top players play. This in itself is not a major problem, but it becomes a problem when they try to force their own players or those coming under their control into the same mould. There is not just one way of playing or indeed one route to the top and this is especially true in the women’s game.

What do top women in Europe say about practice, training against men for example? How do top women play and what exercises should we use in the case of girls’ training? Do coaches see what is actually happening or what they want to happen? When I talk to many top women, they don’t know how to play and are not satisfied with their training and development. Perhaps coaches working with women should spend more time evaluating just how the top women play, how they achieve results and what techniques and tactics they in fact use!

To girl players I would say this. Don’t take for granted what coaches tell you, even national coaches. Always be prepared to question. Ask how exercises benefit you specifically. Progress and development is not just blindly following others, listen to your own instincts and assess your own capabilities. You will soon come to understand how you should play. Above all watch the best women players in the world, examine their techniques and tactics and try to work out why they use them. At top level there is always a reason.

Lecture, Coaching Girls — a Different Ball Game

Rowden Fullen (2004)

INTRODUCTION

The instructor’s function

Women in Europe

Women’s coaches in Europe

Girls, isolation and development

Coaches and trainers

The more complicated sex

European coaching structure and women

Time, control of speed and TIMING

IMPLICATIONS OF TIME – Technique, movement patterns, stance (squareness), adaptation capability

Tactics – Square stance, BH from middle, fast topspin not so effective, development needs broader experience background including detailed knowledge of how to cope with material

Physical and mental chains

WOMEN AND MEN

Capabilities

Why women cannot create spin

Length of stroke and elastic energy

Why men have it easy

Predictability

Automation for women

Top men learning from top women?

CRITICAL – after the first opening ball

Over table play

WOMEN’S TACTICS

Control of speed

Converting

Movement patterns

Opening

Short play

Serve and receive

Variation, use of table

Equipment

Stronger BH

Winning weapon

Positive attitude

UNDERSTAND OWN STYLE

In relation to table

Movement patterns

What effective for you

Training camps for girls

Train in right way to accentuate own growth

DIRECTION

ADVANCE TECHNIQUES

Short play

Use of Angles

Change of speed

Slow loop

Killing through spin

Early ball strokes

Chop, sidespin blocks

Late timed variations

Loop into drive

FH block

MATERIAL

Method of controlling speed (spin)

Difference at top level

Short, long, Neubauer’s testing

Early ADAPTATION CAPABILIY

READY POSITION, SERVE AND RECEIVE TACTICS

Top women use tactics for a reason

Destroy the Flair and Spontaneity

Rowden Fullen (2004)

Some players more than others may like to be guided throughout their careers but coaches must always be aware that strong guidance can in fact be detrimental to the full realization of such players’ innate flair and spontaneity of play. Instead of thinking for themselves and understanding how they should perform in differing situations they come to rely on others and their ability to make their own assessments and react accordingly is reduced.

The potentially negative consequences of over-coaching must be more appreciated by those involved in developing our young stars and especially by those working with girl players. It is all too easy for the much older male senior coach to dominate young impressionable females so that they stop thinking for themselves. The difference in confidence and motivation levels in the case of players learning for themselves as opposed to being taught is often a significant factor in a player’s development and in the achievement of his or her ultimate potential. Coaches should understand that their role is to help players attain self-sufficiency at a relatively early stage in their career, not to hold their hand for the remainder of their lives.

Another danger is that many coaches and even national centres have a false perspective – they know or think they know how the top players should play. This in itself is not a major problem, but it becomes a problem when they try to force their own players or those coming under their control into the same mould. There is not just one way of playing or indeed one route to the top and this is especially true in the women’s game. Coaches should above all appreciate that no player is going to reach full potential unless his or her own natural capabilities are allowed to grow and flower.

There is a further dilemma in coaching girls. Often they lack confidence and can easily come to rely heavily upon their coach. In addition girls need more coaching and more coaching time than boys due to the fact that the girls’ game is more technically varied and they usually have more difficulty than boys in learning the technical practicalities. Finally girls have less time to play then boys (they play closer to the table) and as a result their technique needs to be better. These factors lead to them spending more individual time with their coach and it is therefore harder for the coach to keep a balance between coaching and over-coaching.

As a result it is imperative that even from a young age coaches foster this aspect of self-sufficiency with girl players, encourage them to question at all times, rather than just accepting. Help them to understand how they are effective and how they should train to reach their full potential. Above all show them where they are going, how they will ultimately play and how to get there.

Female Loopers: the Dilemma

Rowden Fullen (2003)

We already know that with the modern racket the harder we can strike the ball with a closed angle, the more spin we are able to achieve. Also we are aware that women cannot achieve the same amount of spin as the men basically because they have less strength than men and use this less effectively. Particularly now with the bigger ball this means that women who play well back from the table have little chance of good penetration, because the further they are away, the less spin the ball will have by the time it reaches the opponent. The bigger ball loses spin more quickly through the air.

This therefore plays into the hands of the female blockers and counter-hitters (and there are many more of these in women’s table tennis). Because of the ball size and the limitations in women’s power it is much easier for such players to control the play, long and short for example and use the angles. Conversely the further the loop player retreats, the harder it will be for her to actually win the point and usually she in fact won’t do this by the use of power. More often than not it will be through variation.

It therefore becomes particularly important for those women who want to play a topspin game, that they are able to play the right tactics against faster players. If they are not able to achieve mastery of the blocker’s/counter-hitter’s speed and variation then it’s going to be extremely difficult to win points.

One of the most critical considerations for them must therefore be ‘just how far back’. Too far will be ineffective, too close and their reactions are probably not fast enough against the early-ball players. It is therefore crucial that such players find the optimum ‘window’ position for their own personal playing style, the window that gives them the maximum chance of winning the point. It’s also equally important that they can play a containing game when they are forced to play outside of their best playing position, either closer to or farther away from the table. It is interesting to note that even in the men’s game most players who formerly played away from the table with the small ball have adjusted to a closer position to be more effective.

There are however other important factors to consider. A topspin loop played well back from the table will lose a substantial part of its spin by the time it reaches the opponent, a loop played from much closer to the table will still retain much of the spin. If such a loop is played much more slowly then the opponent will also face a rather different bounce characteristic on her side of the table and it will be more difficult to feed power and speed into the return. Bear in mind the importance of the time element in the women’s game and that control of speed is vital, if you allow the fast hitters to get into their stride and play their own game then it’s difficult to stop them. They like to play fast so you must try and deny them this option.

Usually the automatic reaction of most women when facing a faster player is to retreat from the table which is more often than not fatal. This is just what the faster player expects to happen and it plays right into their hands. From an early age girls must train to cope with speed and to use the various alternative methods of doing this.

Short play is a particularly useful tactic and one we do not work on enough with girls in Europe – most Asian players are strong in this area. Not only should girls have good spin variation in short and half-long serves and returns and be able to open in a short-play situation, but they should also have the capability of changing the pace and playing shorter/slower balls in the rallies. This of course means the player must stay closer to the table at least early in the rally – retreating immediately after the serve or receive only reduces the number of options available to her.

It is especially important too that girls can control the long serve in such a way that they are not disadvantaged. European women serve more long serves than their Asian counterparts and usually to the backhand side – in Asia women come round very quickly and attack this type of serve with the forehand. It’s important that girls in Europe train both to be positive and to retain control of this type of serve. Bear in mind too that the player who serves long and fast is usually just waiting to hit the next ball. The capability to do something different against this serve, stop-block or slow roll for example, is a useful asset, as it denies the opponent the speed she desires.

Another area where women are often lacking is in variation of placement – at the higher levels it is vital to be unpredictable. However fast the other player may be, if she doesn’t know where the ball is coming she will usually be reduced to playing at a slower pace. From an early age girls should train to play straight, to the body and to use the wide angles and not just play the long diagonal. A key element in controlling the opponent’s speed is also not to play two balls to the same place – play backhand/middle, middle/forehand, forehand/backhand etc. in quick succession.

Variation in length is also of crucial importance – long and short and hard and soft play a more significant role in the women’s game than in the men’s. Girls are often slow to move in to the ‘stop’ ball and many stand too close to the table so the long ball right on the white line often creates openings or forces them back. The key factor concerning length in women’s play is to avoid playing shorter to the middle of the table (this is the area where the opponent finds it easiest to smash or to angle you) and to have the capability in an open game, whether with topspin, drive or block, to place the ball very long or very short. This also of course applies to the first topspin opening against a backspin or push ball.

Too many coaches throughout Europe seem to look towards the men’s game to give answers as to how girls should train and play. One must first consider the tactic of looping in the women’s game and what happens next. The return ball to a fast topspin is radically different from the way men counter – a block, counter or chop but rarely if ever counter-loop. There are many more reaction players in the women’s game and much more use of material and as a result women who loop face more unpredictable balls, have less time to play their strokes and are almost always limited to one or two topspin stokes. It is much more usual in women’s play to loop one and to hit or block the next ball. There is little or no point in girls training to loop several balls in a row, women rarely if ever play like this.

What girls should be looking at right from the early stages in their career is the ability to convert (to change from spin into drive and vice versa) and to be able to vary topspin, from slow to faster (even with sidespin). These are the tactics which will open up the table and create attacking opportunities. A further point to bear in mind is that counter-play almost always requires a closer table position than topspin, it is necessary to come in if you want to hit the next ball after the loop. What we are looking at in other words in the women’s game is not looping to win the point, but looping to create openings to put the ball away! This is rather a different philosophy, the nuances and implications of which many women have not fully come to terms with, especially those who train mostly with male players.

The Girls against the Women

Rowden Fullen (2005)

One could be excused for assuming that a woman would have far too much power for a young girl and would hit through the younger player quite easily. Women play more positively especially on the backhand side, are capable of creating much more spin and hit the ball harder — also they are more likely to think about their game and use a variety of differing tactics if they come under pressure.

In some areas this can be true. For example younger players are not usually so good at keeping the ball short either during service and receive or in the rallies. Older players will take the initiative and open at the first opportunity, often either very hard or with much spin. Older players will also be stronger in movement, quicker to get in to the short ball and quicker to get the forehand in over a bigger area of the table. They also have wider experience and more often than not the capability of changing their game to cope with differing playing styles and materials.

However it is not always one-way traffic. The girls quite often have quicker reflexes than the women players, stand closer to the table and take the ball earlier. If they are able to cope with the spin and the weight of the shot, then they have a good chance of putting older players under real pressure. Younger girl players in Europe, such as Pota from Hungary, have already shown that they are quite capable of beating top women players or of taking them very close.

What we must bear in mind above all is that the control of speed is one of the fundamental requirements for being able to compete well in the women’s game. If a girl player is able to control the speed and spin from a closer-to-table position then often it will be the older player who will have to change her tactics, as her power and spin will be of little use to her. There are two basic ways in which the girl can do this. One is by hitting though the woman’s attack both hard and at an early timing point so that the older player is denied the time to feed power and spin into the next ball. The other is to hold the ball short on the opponent’s side so that the woman is brought into the table, into a position where it’s much more difficult to use her power and spin – the girl is then often in a position to smash the next ball. In both cases it’s the response against the woman’s first opening ball which is crucial. If the girl can keep control of this ball then she has a good chance to control the game.

In this control scenario the importance of the blocking game and variety in blocking is rarely allocated enough importance. Girls more often than not only want to hit harder and harder and do not consider the value of the slower ball. Pace variation is in fact a potent weapon in controlling the opponent’s speed and power. The soft or ‘stop’ block returns a completely different ball to her adversary than does the forcing block.

Of course the serve and receive game is of vital importance when top girls meet women players. Women usually have superior serves, with more spin, more variety and better length and placement. They are better in the receive area, more efficient and more positive against service, have more alternatives in short play and are more confident at opening against short or half-long serves. If you talk with older women who are about to play against juniors, they will always stress one or two aspects– ‘Juniors are weak in short play and in taking the initiative from a short-play situation. Invariably they are one pace players and predictable both in tactics and placement. Often they are slow to open on the backhand’.

It is true that cadets and even juniors tend to play one pace and don’t think to change spin, length and placement or to use the angles. Often they are predictable in how they play and tend to use too much diagonal play or play only down the middle of the table. What they must constantly bear in mind is that at top level predictability is suicide. Play two balls to the same place and it’s the opponent who will take the initiative directly.

Younger players must also train to have a positive mental approach to our game – at top level there is little mileage in trying to play safe, you must win the points.

We should want our girls to play the right game which has a chance of success at the highest level. For example how many of the top women in Europe (except defence players) push back a long backspin ball? The key-point must be that if someone pushes long, you open! Even more important is the question of mental development, if you are stuck in a negative rut then your game is not progressing, not moving forward, rather 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.

Success at the top goes back to self-sufficiency development en route but primarily to sound basic training. We see players in many countries in Europe even well on their way to the top who will have difficulty in making the grade, due to weaknesses carried over from early training. You can compensate for a weak stroke or bad movement patterns at a lower level but at the highest levels there is no hiding place. Top players will find a weakness extraordinarily quickly!

Coaching the Female of the Species

Rowden Fullen (2005)

Summary

Introduction

The prime time difference

The time element and implications

Men’s and women’s game

The right direction

Girls – training needs

Seminar on girls’ play

Women and material

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

Women’s play – facts and observation

1. INTRODUCTION

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

Unfortunately in these modern times and in our up-to-the-minute throw away society there is no place for the specialist and this applies to sport too. Just as in our modern society we have many fitters but few engineers, we have very few coaches and many trainers. What is the difference between a coach and a trainer?

Most kinds of power require a substantial sacrifice on the part of the person who wants the power. There is an apprenticeship, a discipline lasting many years. It is totally immaterial what kind of power you seek - company director, black belt in Kung Fu, spiritual guru, table tennis coach. Whatever it is you seek to aspire to, you have to put in the time, the practice, the effort. You must give up many other things to achieve your goal. The goal must be very important to you. And once you have achieved the power, it is your power. It can’t be given away, it resides in you and is part of you. It is literally the result of your efforts and of your discipline.

The trainer on the other hand is often a player who has gone into coaching at the close of his career, or after injury or even because he knows nothing else. His experience is usually from his own past, from training camps, so he is good at sparring and setting exercises. He is often not so good at correcting technical problems or at understanding the differing styles of play, all his own experience has been in trying to make his own individual style as effective as possible. He has certainly not had the commitment, the discipline of a long apprenticeship to help others to find their way and to release their full potential. You also notice I say he – women will give up the luxury of having a life to be a top player but not to be a top coach, at least rarely in the West.

The main problem too with coaching women as opposed to men is that it’s ‘a completely different ballgame’ and requires a different approach. Not only are we talking about the many differing styles of play and the extensive use of material, but also of the different mental and physical attributes. If you can’t communicate with women, if you can’t comprehend why so many women play with material or understand how to play with and against such material, then it’s difficult to make a meaningful contribution to their development. Direction is important with all players, male and female, whether you as the coach can point them in the right direction for their individual playing style. However this aspect is much more demanding in the women’s game and a much broader ‘experience’ background is required. If you are ‘blinkered’ and don’t appreciate that there are many more paths to the top level in the women’s game or indeed know what these paths are, again it’s hard to guide your player.

A further point is that women’s styles are fluid and changing year by year as Deng Yaping and Ni Xialan have shown us over the last few years. As a women’s coach you must be prepared to be much more innovative, ready to look at new tactics, techniques and styles. The individual ‘specialty’ is rather more important in the women’s game. Equally to understand the women’s game you must watch the world’s best women and assimilate how they play. What techniques and tactics do they use and more importantly why? There is little point in watching women’s play in many countries in Europe as you are only watching second or third class players – their styles, techniques and tactics have not been able to get them to top level! A coach carrying out his work in the 5th division of the local league is never really going to understand how the elite players perform.

Deplorably when you examine the coaching structures throughout Europe little if any emphasis is placed on the coaching of women and the differences between coaching men and women. It is therefore understandable why it is difficult for coaches to progress in this field.

2. THE PRIME TIME DIFFERENCE

If you watch the world’s best men playing you will be struck by the extreme power and spin. Men hit the ball hard, create a great deal of spin and play almost always from a little further back so they have time to play the counter-spin strokes. But how much time? At the highest level we are still only talking about from 0.600 – 0.700 of a second. This means from the time the opponent makes contact with the ball you have around half a second to understand where the ball is coming, how hard and with what spin, to get into position to play your own stroke and to decide how and where you will play!

As we said the men stand a little further back and take the ball later – if we have two women counter-hitters standing at the end of the table and taking the ball just after the bounce just how much time do we have then? It can be as little as from 0.200 – 0.400 of a second! The women of course don’t hit the ball as hard as the men but they play more directly, with less topspin and take the ball earlier and hit flatter. The ball travels in a straighter line and from a closer table position.

The biggest single difference between the men’s and women’s game is TIME. Women have less time to play and if female players can’t cope with and control speed then it’s hard to achieve any measure of success in the women’s game. There is of course less spin, as women do not have the same strength as men. When women play in men’s events for example they have noticeably greater difficulty in coping with the extra power and spin.

Because women play closer to the table and with less spin TIMING is of crucial importance. TIMING and the understanding of timing is the major problem when coaching girls. They fail to understand that to hit hard when the ball is below table height is impossible without topspin! If they only want to hit or counter then ‘peak’ (or 2 – 3 centimetres before) is not just nice to use it’s an absolute necessity.

3. THE TIME ELEMENT AND IMPLICATIONS

Time element

The demands on mental strength are amongst the heaviest compared to all other sports because in table tennis there is just no time!

If you look at a typical rally in the men’s game where even though both participants may be standing well back, say two to two and a half metres from the table, they hit the ball so hard and with so much spin that each player has often only around half a second to respond.

Just what is entailed in this response?

  • The player must assess where the ball is coming to on his side of the table.
  • He must also judge the length, speed and spin.
  • He has to move into position to respond and get his body prepared for the action he will take.
  • At the same time he is deciding where to play the ball on the opponent’s side of the table, which stroke to use and what power and spin input is required.
  • Then he must play his own stroke.
  • Finally he will move into the best recovery position with reference to the new angle of play.

From the time the opponent hits the ball, or rather to be strictly and technically correct, from 4 – 6 centimetres BEFORE the ball contacts the opponent’s racket, you have only between 0.6 and 0.7 of a second to execute the first five steps in the above list! We can say 4 – 6 centimetres before contact because almost all players are committed to a definite racket path this late in the stroke preparation.

Bear in mind too that the above check–list may be further complicated by the consideration of just what alternative responses it may be possible to play in the time you have available. Perhaps one out of three possibilities may have to be discarded because there is no time to play this effectively.

If we also consider in some detail how men and women play we can see that there is a significant disparity in the time for consideration between the sexes because of the differences in style and tactics. The 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.

On the other hand the women use much more fast-reaction drive and counter play and from a closer position, either over or at the end of the table. The ball comes through much flatter and because they play with less spin there is less speed acceleration after the bounce. Bear in mind however that in the final analysis the racket contact points in the men’s game can be as far apart as eight to nine metres, while in the women’s game they can be as close as two and a half metres. The total response time can therefore sink from approximately 0.5 seconds to as low as 0.2 or less.

Implications

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 for instance they loop from a much squarer position so as to retain the initiative on the next ball. The position of the feet for topspin is 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, all the top women both Asian and European utilize them and many women so doing, such as Boros and Gue Yue, have in fact extremely strong FH strokes. These tactics are used because they work and because they save time.

Even a stroke which may have a high level of success in the men’s game (such as the fast topspin) is rather limited in its use and effect in the women’s. This is of course because women with much lesser power achieve nowhere near the same pace and spin and as a result the ball is easier to control. The return ball is therefore radically different - a block, counter or chop but rarely if ever counter-loop. There are many more reaction players in the women’s game and as a result women who loop have less time to play their strokes and are almost always limited to one or two topspin stokes. It is much more usual in women’s play to loop one and hit the next ball.

Above all what coaches should understand is that coaching women as opposed to men is ‘a completely different ballgame’ and requires a different approach. Not only are we talking about the many differing styles of play and the extensive use of material, but also of the different mental and physical attributes. If you can’t communicate with women, if you can’t comprehend why so many women play with material or understand how to play with and against such material, then it’s difficult to make a meaningful contribution to their development. Direction is important with all players, male and female, whether you as the coach can point them in the right direction for their individual playing style. However this aspect is much more demanding in the women’s game and a much broader ‘experience’ background is required. If you are ‘blinkered’ and don’t appreciate that there are many more paths to the top level or indeed know what these paths are, again it’s hard to guide your player.

But just why do we have so many different styles of play, so many differing paths to the top, so many girls using material among the ranks of the women players? Again this is all down to the lack of time. As a result over the years women have devised diverse methods of controlling the faster speed which is inherent in and an integral part of the way they play. If girls are unable to control speed then their chances of reaching the highest levels are strictly limited.

4. MEN’S AND WOMEN’S GAME

Unfortunately in a large number of European countries we are not really professional enough, from a coaching point of view, in isolating the important areas in technique and movement when our girl players are at a young and formative age. Many coaches too do not really seem to grasp the essential differences between the men’s and the women’s game. If you examine the basic topspin techniques for example you find that in the case of the men the racket usually starts further back and has a much more ‘closed’ bat angle. Quite simply the men have a longer stroke. Are there reasons for this and surely women can play the same?

It is not quite as simple as it may first appear. Men are generally much stronger than women and are able to feed considerable power into the stroke by starting with the racket well back and even holding this position prior to initiating the stroke. Women however usually need the ‘assist’ of elastic energy in stroke play to achieve real power which denotes directly that they must complete the whole stroke sequence as rapidly as possible.

In addition men and women face totally different incoming balls with very different bounce factors. Men almost always face a much higher level of topspin and power than the women do. If you have ever watched women playing in men’s tournaments at the higher levels, they have great difficulty in coping with the increased degree of spin and power on the ball. This higher degree of rotation means that men almost always face a significantly more predictable ball than women do in their play against other women. Because they face a more predictable ball it is of course understandable that men use their strength and start the stroke from rather further back. If they were to face a much bigger variation in ball movement after the bounce as occurs in the women’s game, men would find it rather more difficult to play in this fashion.

If you think about this at some length the potential problems become quite obvious. The further back you start the stroke, the more difficult it is to change the trajectory if you have a bad bounce. You are fully committed from the moment you commence the forward swing. If you use a shorter stroke and start nearer to the bounce it’s then much easier to change direction and to do different things.

In the women’s game you face less topspin, more drive and block play and a much larger proliferation of ‘funny’ rubbers. The element of strong topspin, which gives control and predictability to the returns, is often no longer present. As a result because your own spin is often returned in unexpected ways and also because the ball is being returned from a variety of pimpled rubbers, women players more often than not face more unpredictable returns. You often have balls stopping short, bouncing low and kicking up or even sideways after the bounce. It thus becomes rather less appropriate to use the man’s long loop stroke with a very ‘closed’ racket even if you have a woman player who has the strength to do this.

We must also of course consider the time element and what happens after the serve and 2nd ball. In the case of the world’s top men we usually see power with spin from a deeper position, two to three metres back from the table — the men give themselves more time to play and to use their superior power. In contrast in the women’s game the first opening ball is returned from a much closer position. It can be blocked, forced, countered or even smashed from an early timing point. The women have little or no time to topspin two or three balls in a row. What happens more often than not at top level is that after looping the first ball, the woman comes in and blocks or drives the next one. She tries to keep the initiative with a closer-to-table position.

All these aspects are of course ones which should be considered in the formative period of the player’s evolution, when you are looking at the stroke development and planning for the future. In a sport such as ours where the aim is to automate actions as quickly as possible, it is difficult if not impossible to make major changes at a later date. Too many trainers look at the boys’ or the men’s style as giving the ultimate answers to growth in the women’s game.

Coaches too encourage girls for example to have the same ready position as the men and to take the serve as the men do with the forehand wing wherever possible. Many men of course do this so that they can control the table with the forehand on the next ball. They also often stand with the right foot a little further back so that they can get in with the forehand right from the word go.

However this is changing even with some of the top men, especially the younger players. Players such as Kreanga, Boll and Chuan Chih-Yuan stand much squarer than was usual three to four years ago. In addition they are just as liable to open with the backhand from the middle as they are with the forehand. If you have a strong backhand then of course you should play to your own strengths. But perhaps there are other reasons too. Opening with the backhand adds a measure of variety and unpredictability to the play. Often too it is a little more difficult for the opponent to tell exactly where you are going to play the ball.

If you examine top-level women’s play in some detail, the women quite simply play more backhands than the men do in the receive situation. They push receive more than the men with the backhand and they open more than the men with the backhand from the middle. They stand more square than the men but with less wide a stance and are in a better position to move in to the centre of the table to play backhands from the middle. Top European players such as Steff and Struse and the junior Pota all fall into this category. You see exactly the same with the Chinese players Zhang Yining, Niu Jianfeng and their top junior Peng Luyang, Lin Ling from Hongkong and Li Jia Wei and Jing Jun Hong from Singapore. The men on the other hand both push receive and open more than the women do with the forehand wing from the middle area.

The female players use the long serve more than the men, but there is not such a great difference in the short and half-long serves at the very top level in the men’s and women’s game. 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. At senior level the service game becomes noticeably tighter.

There is a considerable difference between the European and Asian women in the percentage of long serves. Generally the Asian players serve a much higher proportion of short and half-long serves and are rather better in the short game and at getting in on the attack from this position. European players use more long serves and particularly to the backhand side. Asian players on the other hand are very quick to come round and kill this type of serve with the forehand from their backhand corner. It would appear that there is much to be said for working quite extensively in the area of ’short play’ with our European girls and from an early age.

5. THE RIGHT DIRECTION

TIMING and the understanding of timing is the major problem when coaching girls. They fail to understand that to hit hard when the ball is below table height is impossible without topspin! If they only want to hit or counter then ‘peak’ (or 2 - 3 centimetres before) is not just nice to use it’s an absolute necessity.

1) Physical chains

To get to the top you first need to get rid of the physical chains which hold you back, until you unlock them you are going nowhere. Aspects for example such as –

  • Problems with basics.
  • Poor technique.
  • Inadequate movement patterns.
  • Little understanding of materials.
  • Poor tactics against certain styles of play.

2) Mental chains

Many girls also have mental chains which limit their development. Chains such as –

  • Rigidity of play, rather than flexible and adaptable.
  • Rigidity of thought, not prepared to consider new ideas, new methods.
  • The understanding that development means change! To play the same means stagnation — you don’t move forward. Becoming bigger and stronger and hitting the ball harder and moving faster is not development.

The understanding of how to play the women’s game. Aspects such as

  • Control of speed
  • Opening.
  • Converting.
  • Short play.
  • Serve and receive.
  • Variation.
  • Use of table.
  • Equipment.
  • Stronger BH.
  • Positive attitude.
  • Winning weapon.
  • Not being afraid to be different.

3) Understanding own style

Each individual is unique and should develop their own unique style and do what they ‘do best’. It’s of vital importance that players –

  • Understand their own style.
  • Know their best playing distance from the table.
  • Are aware of their backhand and forehand split.
  • Have movement patterns appropriate to their style.
  • Know what is effective for them and how and where they win points.
  • Train in the right way to accentuate the growth of their own personal style.

4) Advanced techniques

It is of particular importance that in Europe women have access to the advanced techniques of the world’s best women players, such as –

  • Short play.
  • Use of angles.
  • Change of speed.
  • Killing through loop.
  • Slow loop (short and long)
  • Sidespin loop.
  • Dummy loop.
  • Early ball topspin.
  • Early ball push.
  • Early ball smash.
  • Various chop and stop-blocks.
  • Sidespin push/block.
  • Late timed push/block/flick strokes and their application.
  • Short drop balls (against defenders).
  • Loop and drive play (alternating).
  • Loop and block play (alternating).
  • Block play (especially on the forehand side).

Women should of course also be aware of how these techniques should be carried out and of the finer points of execution (whether the wrist should be used and when, exact timing to get the best results etc).

Many trainers in Europe at the moment seem to be of the opinion that the girls are getting nearer the boys and playing a more similar game. However more often than not this is talked about in general terms and we seem to get very little detailed information. If you in fact go to the ‘experts’ on girls’ training, the top European coaches who have players winning individual and team events in the European Junior Championships and ask them why girls can’t be successful playing strong topspin like the boys, the answer is quick and to the point — strength, speed and balance, (especially under pressure). To these I would add one more quality, the ability to understand technical matters fully and quickly and to translate these readily into physical actions. Many girls do not easily grasp mechanical and practical aspects and need much guidance on technique, much more than boys.

If you also go to the other ‘experts’, the small group of women in Europe who are ranked in the top dozen in the world and ask them how often they train with men, you also get a pointed answer – ‘ Men, only if I have to, the one or two times I’ve had to train with men, my results against women have gone down quickly.’

On a purely practical level if you ask the best junior girls to loop for loop against the best boys, or the top table elite women against the bottom table elite men, just what percentage of the points do you think the female of the species is going to win? And to take practicalities a stage further when girls play against girls and one topspins just how is the ball returned? With topspin all the time? Very rarely in fact. Rather with flat counter, blocking of one kind or another, defence or with some combination of material. There would therefore appear to be little or no logical reason for girls to train against topspin. Playing men is largely a matter of coping with spin, playing women of coping with speed.

Over the last 15 - 20 years in Europe we have had some very strong, athletic women topspin players. None of them have succeeded in winning the worlds or have ever been in the number one ranking spot. I also hear the argument that because our women in Europe are much bigger, they are too slow to compete in terms of speed with the smaller Asian girls and must play power from further back to create more time! Since when did big mean slow! I thought the American football stars and the New Zealand rugby players had demolished that theory when they produced guys of 120 kilos who could run the 100 metres in 10.1 or 10.2 seconds. Do we really think that now playing with the big ball which takes less spin, the predictable fast, hard topspin game is suddenly going to come into its own and topple the Asian players?

6. GIRLS — TRAINING NEEDS

Let us take a close look into the training of the female player and which areas of technique, tactics and development are of vital importance in producing players who can make a real impact. Particularly let us always bear in mind the value of early programming which is so significant in a fast reaction sport such as ours.

MOVEMENT

The establishing of sound movement patterns is one of the single most important factors in determining just how far a young girl can go in her career. Generally the top women move in four different ways (depending on how you categorize these), the men often have additional patterns. What you must appreciate however is that in a match situation there is often a combination of one or more patterns at the same time. That is why it is so important to train movement in a multi-choice manner and at advanced level in a random fashion. But what is most vital of all is that you the coach are aware that you are laying the right ground patterns — that you establish the patterns that are appropriate to the player’s end style and which can grow with the player.

Diagonal play for instance wide to the backhand followed by switches to middle or forehand results in one-step short or one-step long in the case of a block/drive player or one-step and cross-step in the case of a looper (or a very small player). Variation between the short and long Falkenberg will involve the pivot step followed by one-step long or the cross-step (preceded perhaps by the jump-step small, the most common of all movements). Strong attacking play especially if combined with spin is usually characterized by the cross-step, jump-step and the pivot step, while control/block players more commonly use the one-step short, long or back.

One other aspect well worth looking at for young girls is the knee angle of top women in play – ready position 110 degrees, one-step long to forehand 104 degrees, left leg braking after long cross-step 91 degrees. Playing with straight legs and being a top player are just not compatible!

CONTROL OF SPEED

Many women play fast and flat – it is not essential that girls play fast, what is essential is that they are able to control speed, without this it’s hard to progress in a women’s table tennis world. Each girl must find her own method and work in areas most suited to her own individual style – drive play, blocking of one kind or another, topspin, defence, rolling ‘nothing’ balls, using different rubbers, variation in placement, speed or angles.

But above all it’s important to look at the psychology of speed and power. Women who play ultra fast like to have speed back right from their own long serve. Often their effectiveness is greatly reduced if they are faced with a return of little pace. Also they are often less comfortable against short play or slow spin.

OPENING

It is of particular importance that girls learn to open from a pushing situation as early as possible in their development. It is all too easy to win at a young age by being negative but the long-term development is slowed down. Focusing on winning in the 9 - 11 age groups should not really be an over-riding priority. The earlier the young player becomes confident in opening the quicker the next stages in development can proceed.

Coaches will be aware that there are a varying number of ways to open — drive, punch, sidespin, fast topspin or slow loop or even the roll ball. However they and their players should be alert to the fact that with women power is rarely the answer. Female opponents usually respond more easily to the fast ball, it is the slower one that more often than not causes problems. It is vital that girls learn to open with a slower ball, slow loop or roll, the main thing being that this first opening ball be to a good length, either very short or very long (and of course girls should be able to open on both wings).

CONVERTING

Just as important as opening is the ability to do something with the next ball. After the first opening spin it is vital that girls can be positive and if at all possible put the next ball away and win the point. Not spin and spin again till the rally degenerates into a control situation, but spin and drive or kill. Regard spin as a means to create openings, not as an end in itself. In this way the opponent receives two very different balls in quick succession and is unable to find a rhythm.

SHORT PLAY

At a higher level girls must be able to cope with short play, both the serve and the next ball. It is therefore important that they become comfortable in this area at an early age, and explore methods of being positive and creating advantage from this situation. We are not only talking about flicking or top-spinning over the table, but pushing also in a positive manner so as to make openings to create attacking opportunities, using very early timing and playing back a short, dead ball, or even long and fast to the corners or body with heavy backspin or no spin. This early-timed, deep ball especially with spin gives the opponent very little time to act positively. (To open with spin or power the centre of gravity starts from a lower position, so this entails moving, turning and lowering the body all at the same time, before playing the return ball.)

However it is not enough just to be able to deal with short play, the next stage is to cope with the opponent’s first opening ball. Again at high level it is not sufficient only to control the first drive or topspin — against the top players just being safe is inadequate. Girls should train to force the return with either power or spin or even to kill through the topspin from a close position, a technique not worked on enough in Europe. Other alternatives would be to return a different ball, stop-block or slow roll.

SERVICE

Girls with good serves invariably go far and the time to work on the different grips and actions is at a young age. Usually they have a little more difficulty than boys in achieving spin, especially good back and sidespin so it is important that they persevere. Girls also often need more help and individual training time before they fully understand the techniques involved, the stance, body action, grips, where they hit the ball on the racket, where the racket starts and stops, the contact angle, which part of the ball they hit and at what height they should make contact. It is important that they achieve a variety of different spins and speeds with the same or very similar actions. Also the young player should fully understand the differing ways in which her service may be returned and should always look to be positive on the third ball.

RECEIVE

Return of the short serve has largely been covered under ‘short play’ but of course variation in all aspects is vital, in spin, speed, placement and angles. The long serve often causes problems in the girls’ game usually because they return with too much power. It is well worthwhile looking at a variety of receives — drives, blocks, (soft, forcing, sidespin, stop and chop), spin, punch, slow roll and even chop and float. A different method of return may well prove effective against differing players.

VARIATION

Too many girls are predictable in the way they play. To be effective at top level requires much more thought to variation — change of spin and speed, length and placement, not just to hit harder and harder. Girls should be encouraged to be unpredictable in the way they play, often straight or to the body instead of diagonal, with regular change of pace and use of the slower ball.

USE OF THE TABLE

There are a number of things we can combine under this heading — better length, (too many girls play mid-table balls instead of up to the white line), more short and long play, more angled balls off the side of the table, more straight shots and balls directed at the body or between 15 - 20 centimetres either side of the racket. Force the opponent to move to play the return.

USE OF EQUIPMENT

Girls should seek advice on and explore the possibilities of the many differing rubbers on the market. It is not a coincidence that around 60% or more of top women players use something different on one side of the racket or the other. They are successful because they are different and unusual — nothing wrong in this!

STRONGER/ DIFFERENT BACKHAND

With many girls the backhand is used in a supporting role to the forehand and as a control stroke rather than a point-winner. At top level it must be remembered that any weakness will be very quickly exploited. It is important that even from an early age girls work at strengthening this wing, so they have the capability to accelerate from mere blocking into drive play or spin. The other path is to use a different rubber to achieve a different effect, making it difficult for the opponent to win points here.

POSITIVE ATTITUDE

Girls are always much more negative than their male counterparts. Throughout early development strong support should be given by parents and coaches and every effort made to strengthen positive aspects. Indeed girl players should be urged to attack at the earliest opportunity, to be alert for that first opening, to try to develop a sense of aggression, to cultivate the attitude that to let an attacking opportunity go by is failure.

A WINNING WEAPON

Every player must have a strength, a way to win points. It is up to the coach and player to find this strength and to build on it. Sometimes it may be a combination, loop and kill, serve and third ball. Whatever it may be the player should be aware of her strength and how to use it to best effect.

BE DIFFERENT

Above all girls should look to be different in style. Throughout Europe there are thousands who play the fast, flat, ‘typical women’s game’ - only the very best one or two will get anywhere. Even these are unlikely to succeed against the Asian players who play this type of game even better and put much more practice time in at it!

Not only should girls be encouraged to develop their own personal strengths and characteristics so that a unique individual style emerges, but also they should be prepared to be flexible in thinking. The effects of mass media and the many cultural and sporting interactions in Europe tend if anything to standardize training methods and style and to inhibit forward thinking.

HAVE THE RIGHT ATTITUDE TOWARDS CHANGE — Progress and development entails change. If your game remains the same or your mind refuses to accept change then you don’t go forward, you remain as you are. This is the one great lesson that every player must absorb at as early an age as possible. Be receptive to new ideas, prepared to test new theories and methods, alert to new techniques and tactics, ready to keep your game fresh and alive and moving forward.

7. SEMINAR ON GIRLS’ PLAY

  • 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.
  • 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 levels.

8. WOMEN AND MATERIAL

Many coaches and players seem to think that it’s some form of legalized cheating to use pimples or at best that that it’s only to win matches cheaply or to cover a weakness. Of course at top-level pimples are rarely used in the men’s game but are quite normal in the women’s game even at the very highest levels. Many coaches unfortunately have little understanding of the real differences between men’s and women’s play and why pimples are a necessary tool in the women’s game. The players themselves however begin to understand when they get a little older.

For example in girls’ 13 classes in Sweden you have hardly any girls playing with material, not because they don’t want to or wouldn’t benefit by using pimples, but solely because their clubs or trainers totally reject this alternative. If however you look at the National Swedish Rankings for girls’ 20 a large number of our girls are by this age using material - from nothing the percentage has leapt to around 50%. Why? Either because the players have come into contact with more enlightened coaching or because as they have become older and more experienced they have also become aware that without material they are not going to reach the higher levels in women’s table tennis. Women begin to understand that there are many more paths to the top level in the women’s game than there are in the men’s. By not allowing our younger girls to explore the various alternatives in the women’s game at an early age we often deny them the opportunity of reaching their full potential.

Take a look at the SOC in Malmö — at the very best women in the world rankings — players from Asian countries with material, from Europe and the Americas with pimples. Most countries competing had pimpled players in their teams. A girl from Hongkong only ranked 5 in her country and 46 in the world, reaching the final - pimples. Shouldn’t we perhaps be learning something from this? Many top women play with material for a good reason - quite simply because such rubbers complement the women’s game and tactics. And over the years we have had a considerable number of female world champions playing with pimples. All this makes the total rejection of material by many coaches in Swedish clubs rather ludicrous.

What do we mean by ‘complement the women’s game and tactics’? Just what is the difference between the sexes in the way they play? If we compare top men and women we immediately notice the contrast in power. Quite simply men hit the ball harder. Usually too they give themselves more time and room to use their strength and play from further back and with much more topspin. Women on the other hand play closer to the table and block and counter much more. Even those women who topspin can’t be compared to the men. A strong woman such as Boros just doesn’t hit the ball anywhere near as hard as a man.

Power and spin are important in the men’s game, placement and change of and control of speed in the women’s. You rarely if ever see the loop-to-loop rallies of the men’s game in women’s play — almost always the return is a block, counter or defence stroke. Not only does the ability to loop several balls in a row against topspin require strength that most women don’t have (and in the long term often leads to injury) but also tactically it’s not a prime requirement in women’s play. Because women loop with less spin and power than men their topspin is much easier to control and contain and there are far more good blockers and counter-hitters in the ranks of the women than in those of the men.

Pimples are ideal for changing spin and speed and for returning unpredictable balls to the opponent. They are particularly good for controlling topspin, especially the lesser level of spin and power you get in the women’s game. With pimples you also have the capability of taking the ball very early and denying the opponent time to play their next stroke so this material is in fact ideal for controlling the opponent’s speed and allowing you to be on level terms with much faster players. The higher level of unpredictability in ball behaviour especially after the bounce means that it is very difficult for topspin players (and particularly those with a long stroke) to adapt. They are often committed too early to a certain stroke path and are unable to change this. When you compare Asian loop players they usually have a much shorter stroke and don’t therefore suffer so much against material (also of course they train against all different playing styles and from an early age).

Of course there are so many different pimples on the market that the whole area is now something of a minefield - should you play with short pimples with no friction, a little or much friction or should you play with medium or long? Which would suit your style of play? Don’t despair if you don’t know. Up to a couple of years ago the rubber manufacturers didn’t know either. Generations of Asian women players have used a variety of sponges under the rubber for the last 30 years because they knew something the manufacturers didn’t. That the softness of the sponge is of vital importance in getting maximum effect particularly in the case of short and medium pimples - there’s little point in using 45 or 50, you really want at least a 35 or even a 30. It’s only recently in Sweden that we have started to get the full range of sponge sheets in different thicknesses and hardness and have had access to the same advantages as the Asians (for further information contact Lars Borg at Japsko).

Neubauer of course has done his own exhaustive testing on long pimpled rubbers and the effect of rubber colour and blade weight and speed on return spin. As a result his long pimpled rubbers were originally only manufactured in red because the same rubber in black produces considerably less effect. He has also proved that pimples have most effect when used on a fast and even heavier blade. Of course it is now possible to have double-sided blades, fast on one side and slower on the other to suit the style of the individual player, so having just one fast side is no longer a problem.

From a young age it is vital that girl players learn to cope with all types of playing styles. There is little point in getting up to the level of the National team at 18 - 20 years only for the trainers to discover that you can’t play against defence players or pimples. Your further development is going to be severely restricted. However if you have played with and against material at a young age your long-term development is liable to be much more comprehensive.

And let us remember too that playing with pimples can be a stage in the development of a young player, it doesn’t have to be permanent. Using material can even be a way of refining technique as with many pimples, short and medium for example, you have to play the ball rather than just placing the racket in the way. Quite a number of players turn to pimples in their early teens only to go back to normal rubbers later, but almost always with a much better understanding of how to play against material.

As we said earlier in this article in the women’s game there are many more ways to the top than there are in the men’s. I would appeal to coaches and trainers at club level to understand this and to give their girl players a fair chance of success from the start. You have a big responsibility to do the very best for your players and to put them on the right road for them.

The Chinese have a saying - ‘When a fool sees himself as he is, he is a fool no longer. When the wise man becomes sure of his wisdom, then he is a fool.’ — If you as a coach have stopped listening, then you are no longer prepared to look at other possibilities. Perhaps it is true to say — only in absolute certainty is there danger. Certainty is the enemy of progress, we stop thinking and further development is not possible.

9. READY POSITION, SERVE AND RECEIVE TACTICS — ARE THESE CHANGING?

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.

10. WOMEN’S PLAY — FACTS AND OBSERVATIONS

Part One - do coaches see what is happening?

Table tennis is very much like life itself. There are always new challenges and new things to learn and if you are to progress then you must keep your mind open and ready to accept new ideas. This applies even to those of us coaches who have been working in our sport for many decades. The moment you think you know it all then your development and effectiveness as an instructor are strictly limited.

Many years ago I learned an important lesson from a young girl of 9/10 years old. She came to my club with her mother but it was she who did the talking. “I am going to be the national number one and I want you to get me there”. My first question was obviously why me. “You have all the best girls in your club and when I talk to them and their parents I find that you coached almost all of them from beginner level. You made them and you have already made 6 or 7 national number one girls. So you know how to do it. The best trainer to take me to the top is one who has already been there and done it before”.

The girl impressed me not only because of her obvious self-confidence and motivation, but because she had done her homework more efficiently than most adults. To achieve her objectives and arrive at the best solution for her situation she had used observation in the right way and had seen the salient aspects. She had also paid close attention to the facts and facts are above all important.

Observation is of course an essential part of our work as coaches but I sometimes think that we do not approach this in a scientific enough manner. We gloss over things, we see the general over-view without seeing the individual details which are often of prime importance. And above all we do not take enough account of the facts — facts are always important. On many occasions for example when I watch a big match and talk to coaches after, I wonder if they have been watching the same match as I have. They have been watching but they don’t seem to have seen what has actually happened!

Coaches cannot possibly examine technique and tactics if they are unaware specifically which components determine effective performance and how best to observe them. Any assessment is about scientific observation in such a way that you SEE what is actually happening. I spend a fair amount of time videoing the world’s best players. But if I wish to assess performance then I must break this down into its component parts to see what is actually happening and to see how they achieve results. Observers who try to see everything, often end up perceiving nothing. I may start for example with the 2nd ball, playing back all the receives of serve perhaps 20 times and looking at the different aspects - for example was the receive with B.H. or F.H., what was the stroke and the state of readiness for the 4th ball, which timing was used, was the shot negative or positive, which tactics were used against the short serve and what was the percentage of short serves, tactics against the long serve and percentage of these, where was placement on the opponent’s side of the table and why? I will then do the same with the 4th and 6th ball before going on to the serve and 3rd and 5th ball tactics and looking at playing and tactical plans in general. Overall I can examine the same series of video clips a couple of hundred times before I isolate the various individual aspects.

Equally if coaches are going to be involved in women’s training at any level then they have to be aware of the differences between the men’s and women’s game and of which tactics are successful. Yet I see little indication in many countries in Europe that coaches have much understanding of how women actually play! They often seem to have in their mind an ideal of how they would like their female players to play but this differs in most cases quite considerably from how women in reality do play. It seems to me that coaches watch women play but they don’t actually SEE what is happening!

When I talk to coaches about women’s play I hear a lot of generalities but few specifics. I hear comments such as - ‘Well the girls are getting closer to the boys and playing a more masculine type of game with more use of spin’. I would really like to see some of these female players because they seem to be conspicuously absent when I go to tournaments! Nor do I necessarily think that it’s a valid deduction to conclude because something works well for the men that it is going to be equally effective in the women’s game.

Why for example do we have women in the training hall working at looping 6 or seven balls in a row and even doing this back from the table? Look at the best 30 women in the world - do any actually play like this? Why are we pressuring girls to take the 2nd ball with the F.H. from the middle of the table? All the top European women, Boros, Steff and Struse (and most Chinese too) use the B.H. from the middle and even from the F.H. side. So do the world’s best juniors Guo Yue and Fukuhara and Pota. Even some of the world’s top men, Boll, Kreanga and Chuan are now using this tactic so they must consider it’s advantageous to do so.

Why too do we require female players to work more with F.H. serve and 3rd ball follow-up like the men do? In the women’s game the B.H. serve is used much more often and to good effect. And finally why do we have girls training against boys and often the wrong boys in terms of playing style? Do we really think it’s a good idea for girls to train against a style of play and a level of spin which they rarely if ever meet in the women’s game?

It would seem to be obvious that if the world’s best women use certain tactics then they do so for a reason - that THESE TACTICS WORK. I would also draw the conclusion that coaches, if they really want to produce top girl players, would do better to concentrate on what tactics the top women are using and WHY they in fact use them!

Part Two - the Reality

The characteristics of the modern sponge and rubber allow the bat to be swung in a flat arc, giving more forward speed to the ball with topspin. This increased spin element has the major advantage of allowing much more energy to be fed into the shot while still maintaining control. With topspin you can hit the ball harder and harder because it is the topspin, which causes the ball to dip down on to the other side of the table. A fundamental point which many coaches fail to appreciate is that for the same bat path, the faster the racket moves, the more spin it puts on the ball. A fast hit with a flat, forward arc will contain more topspin than a slow hit. How much spin you produce is seen most readily when you play against long pimples and your hard hit comes back with very much more backspin than your slow hit. This means quite simply that POWER IS A VITAL FACTOR IN PRODUCING MORE TOPSPIN.

Most players, especially women, do not understand the importance of the initial power input and the path of the stroke in achieving spin. Very few women for example are as powerful as men or use the body as effectively as men in the stroke. Few too ever attempt to play with the same degree of closed racket angle as the men do. How then can they hope to achieve the same level of spin as the men? It is the gyroscopic effect of the spin, which gives strong directional control and allows more and more power to be fed into the stroke without greatly reducing on-the-table accuracy. Because women achieve less topspin, mainly due to having less power than men, THEY HAVE LESS ON-THE-TABLE CONTROL THAN MEN DO. With less topspin the ball has a less downward curving flight path and less directional control.

With less topspin on the ball it’s also easier to block or to hit through the spin. Therefore it becomes immediately apparent that length becomes much more important in the women’s game. In the case of the men who are playing much further back and hitting the ball with that much more spin and power, whether the ball contacts the opponent’s side of the table in the middle or at the end is relatively unimportant. Because women play closer to the table any topspin ball that bounces in the middle is liable to be smashed back and because women achieve less topspin it’s easier for the opponent to control their loops even if they produce good length balls.

Top women are of course aware that constant topspin is not a viable weapon in the women’s game and they don’t use it. Instead they spin one ball and then drive the next often from an earlier timing point. It’s not spin and power that win points in the women’s game but speed, variation and placement.

Part Three - the Facts

It is obvious 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 loop player 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 several balls in a row.

Another extremely important consideration is predictability. In the women’s game the behaviour of the ball after the bounce is more unpredictable. For two reasons men face a ball that behaves as anticipated. Firstly the higher level of power and spin means that the ball bounces off the table as expected - it dips sharply downwards before the bounce and shoots forwards after hitting the table. Also the men do not face the vast array of differing material surfaces, which are common in the women’s game. A loop played against a long-pimple blocker will for instance usually be returned with backspin and sidespin. These two factors, a lesser level of spin and much more use of varying materials, mean that women face many more ‘unpredictable’ balls than the men do.

This factor tends to have a direct effect on the technical development of the two sexes. The men for example often have a long stroke, especially on the forehand wing, with the racket starting well behind the body. This is of course quite permissible when facing a stable trajectory and a predictable bounce. When facing an unpredictable ball however such a long stroke means that the player is ‘committed’ too early to a particular racket ‘path’. It is then next to impossible to change the stroke if the ball behaves in a totally unexpected way. In addition most women need the ‘assist’ of elastic energy in stroke-play and this is rather easier to achieve with a shorter back swing and a shorter stroke action.

Perhaps now we begin to see why it can be tactical suicide to loop hard and without too much spin (and especially from back) in the women’s game, where most players stand close to the table, have good reactions, are used to coping with speed and block and counter supremely well. But just why do so many top women use the B.H. from the middle of the table and especially on the 2nd ball? And remember here we are talking not just about a few good players but about the majority of women in the top 30 world rankings. Also in many cases, Boros and Guo Yue for example, we are talking too of players who have extremely strong forehands - such players are not using the B.H. because of a weakness on the F.H. side, they are using it as a tactic, as a means to control the play or to create an advantage.

Quite simply table tennis is much faster than it was even five years ago, players are allowed less and less time to play their game. The top men use the F.H. receive over the table because they want to keep control of the table and to play the F.H. on the next ball if they can. However the men are fast enough round the table to be able to maintain a good position for the next ball - in most cases the women aren’t. And even some of the top younger men and the juniors are standing squarer and using the B.H. on the 2nd ball (Boll, Chuan and Kreanga for example). It is obvious they perceive a tactical advantage too in doing this.

Women have always played closer to the table, generally have a squarer ready position and are not as fast as the men round the table. Also many players, not only women, have better control of the opponent’s serve with their B.H. wing. Because of their closer table position and because they face less power and spin, women are often better placed to handle the 4th ball if they control the serve from the B.H. side. This requires less movement. Often too they can create a favourable position for the 4th ball as the B.H. is a shorter stroke and more difficult for the opponent to read in terms of length, spin and placement.

The same principle applies when using B.H. serves. The B.H. is a quick-recovery serve and saves time when recovering to the next ball. It is easier to hold a sound position for the next stroke and less movement is required. This is rather more important now that players can no longer hide the ball in service as the opponent can see the spin and play more aggressively on the 2nd ball. The server then has less time to recover and to prepare for the 3rd ball.

The top women use these tactics in a planned way which indicates that they do so for a good reason and that they know what they are doing and why. It is also interesting to note that almost all the top women in the world both from Asia and from Europe use the same tactics to a greater or lesser extent. Perhaps it is time that coaches everywhere, but particularly in Europe, play closer attention to just what is happening in the women’s game, how women in fact are playing and just what tactics they do use to win matches.

Girls' Game: Be Professional

Rowden December 2012

Do not allow emotion to interfere with you game, your plans and how you intend to play. Try to keep an external not an internal focus – what is the opponent doing, what tactics is she employing, what emotion is she showing? NOT how am I feeling, are my strokes working, am I making too many mistakes? In this way your mind is not distracted nor engaged in looking at negative aspects,it is in fact free to assess the situation, however fluid it may be and to decide what needs to be done.

By taking emotion out of the equation you allow yourself to see much more clearly and you are less stressed and more relaxed in the decision-making process. Being calm and clearing the mind are essential to successful high-level performance.

You shou ld bear in mind too that many girls/women have weaknesses in certain general areas. Many are weak against short serves and in short play and have difficulty in gaining an advantage from this situation. Being able to serve short and keep the returns short are useful skills and should be practised regularly. You should be able to play the full range of short play strokes and from the relevant timing points:
• Short drop shots from a very early timing point
• Flicks from ‘peak’ of the bounce or just before (to anywhere on the table) using BH over much of the table to gain an advantage
• Long pushes from ‘peak’ of the bounce or just before with either heavy backspin or float
• Late-timed pushes or rolls/flicks (to anywhere on the table)
• Against slightly longer serves (half-long) the Schlager flick should often be used from all parts of the table, even the FH side

Also think to use all the table not just the diagonals. Often a major advantage can be gained by playing even a slower (less powerful) ball down the lines or into the crossover. If you stay closer to the table you have more options in terms of placement and angles.

Many women play really well against fast/hard play but not nearly so well against the slower roll ball or the slow loop with heavy spin. It seems that when they have too much time to think then they make a number of unforced errors. In a fast game much of what they do is automatic and requires little consideration or thought. Many girls/women lack the feeling to soft block against this slower type of ball or end up in the wrong position to do this effectively. Alternatively they try to play far too hard a shot, from too late a timing point.

Opening is another area where female players are often less effective than their male counterparts. They don’t open as readily as the boys or as quickly, especially on the half-long balls or those over the table. Also they often push one ball too many or push too long, which allows the opposition to plan and regroup and of course puts the initiative firmly in their hands too.

A very important consideration also is what happens after the girl/woman opens with that first opening ball. Many European female players want to back away and then play topspin to topspin from off the table. This had some success with the 38mm ball, less with the 40mm ball and should the proposed plastic ball make its appearance in July 2013 such a tactic would appear to be rather futile. The reason is of course the lesser level of spin involved.

The Asian women on the other hand use spin as a tool to create the opportunity to win the point, usually with drive or smash. Because they stay closer to the table they are in a good position to do this and also to use angles and pace variation to more effect.

Remember that the first stage of your development is often where the coach, after a while, is able to get the best out of you, the player. However the second and most important stage and one which all coaches work towards, is where you understand how you play and also know how to get the best out of yourself!

Becoming a top player is not about winning, it’s about attitude. How you conduct yourself in all circumstances, whether you win or lose. Having respect for other players, whether they are better or worse than you. Being calm enough to assess and evaluate the situation. Preparing in the right way for matches, being professional at all times.
And above all learning from every situation, from wins and from losses. Only in this way will you move forward, progress to higher levels and get near to achieving full potential. The single most important area of control is the controlling of you in competition. Only by doing this effectively can you hope to rise to the higher levels.

Modern Women Defenders: The Way Forward

Rowden Fullen(2010)

Over the last few years it has been obvious to most coaches that, with the bigger ball and games to only eleven-up, the pure defender is not just a dying breed but no longer a force in the modern game. Good women defenders will still be in the lower world ranking positions but it will be harder and harder for them to reach the top 15 to 20 in the world. Many of the older choppers are still around, the Koreans and Russians for example, but as they age they will drop down through the rankings and they will find it difficult if not impossible to upgrade their game to cope with today’s play. Most younger defenders now attack more.

The bigger ball loses spin rapidly through the air and gives the attacker more advantages. The maximum revolutions with the 38mm ball as tested by the Chinese National Team were 150 revs per second. With the 40mm ball this drops to about 133 revs per second, but the bigger ball loses spin much more rapidly through the air because of its larger surface area. If the chopper stays back her opponent has time and a more predictable ball to deal with: it is also very easy to hit one and drop one and wear down even the really fit defender over a period of time. In the old days up to twenty-one and with the small ball, it was in fact often the other way round and the stubborn defender who wore down the attacker. But now we have come full circle.

We must also bear in mind the differences between the men’s and women’s defence game. Because male attackers hit the ball much harder, there is much more return spin on the ball, especially off a long pimple rubber and even with the big ball. Choppers like Chen Weixing have so much spin off the long-pimple backhand, that it’s difficult for even the top men to maintain a topspin attack. Also the men chop with much better length on the ball and usually in the last six inches of the table. As a result there are more long balls in attack versus defence in the men’s game and less short play.

Women choppers on the other hand face less power and less spin and most top women, especially the Asians, adopt a different tactical approach to playing defenders. They will often play not with power but with a high, slow loop to the backhand side, interspersed with short drop-shots, until they get a ball they can flat hit. Because of the lesser power and spin and the slower balls, short play comes much more into the women’s defensive game and close-to-table tactics are therefore much more important to the female defender.

In the final analysis of course women defenders now have to attack, but when, from where and how are the crucial questions. Basically it is necessary to be able to ‘change the form of the rally’ both close to the table and at a distance and to be able to assess the various possibilities and ways of doing this, then to evaluate which are the best alternatives for your individual game. What you are aiming to do by ‘changing the form of the rally’ is to give the opponent an unpredictable and different ball, something she doesn’t expect and doesn’t train against. This will often turn the rally round and create an advantage or an attacking opportunity for the defender.

So just what alternatives are available close-to-table as the defensive player comes in to deal with the shorter ball? If you are late and meet a falling ball then obviously topspin or slow roll would be viable possibilities, at the top of the bounce drive/topspin with pimples or reverse could be easily executed, while an early ball position would bring in all the block or push options with either rubber but from an early timing point.

From a deeper position (which would not entail much movement) the defender should also look at which alternatives are available. Many defenders do counter-hit, especially on the forehand side and this is particularly effective when changing defence into attack. What you should be looking at is taking a step in to take the ball at an earlier timing point and try to drive flat and hard. This gives the opponent a return, which is fast and flat through the air and slower after the bounce, very different from the chop and float balls. Players using a slightly thicker sponge under the pimples (1.2 to 1.5) should look to hitting hard from back with the pimples too as this is usually a winning stroke.

The fast topspin is not such a viable alternative as this is something most attackers face every day and are quite used to handling. They will probably block you soft and short and this may well place you at a disadvantage. Slower topspin and slow roll shots as well as ‘fishing’ strokes are all useful options when back from the table. Players should really work at least with two alternatives most suitable to their style (say hard drive and ‘fishing’), until they are quite proficient with both.

This of course does not mean that you should neglect your chopping skills. It is important that defenders can both chop heavy and ‘float’ to confuse the opponent. Players should really work more at float with the reverse on the forehand, most don’t use this enough. ‘Twiddling’ is also another crucial skill: if defenders chop with reverse against the fast topspin shots and then use the pimples against the really heavy, slower spin balls, they will more often than not cause real problems for the opposition.

It is essential too that the defensive player is consistent and safe and does not make too many ‘unforced’ errors. This particularly applies when pushing over the table even with the pimples and even when varying the timing and spin to try and catch out the opponent. Many choppers in fact use the reverse rubber when pushing over the table, thus keeping more control in the rally and by creating more backspin making it harder for the opponent to attack.

It is crucial too for the defensive player to have differing options to deal with the serve, especially the longer, faster serves which will often be a prelude to the ‘big attack’. The defender should not only be able to step back and chop or float but also have the capability to take the fast serve early and play it back slow, with either a soft, short return or chop-block. This will give the server the type of return she would not normally expect, particularly from what she sees as a back-from-the-table player.

Serve and third ball attack is of course nowadays a vital weapon in any defender’s armoury and one which should be used at vital points in the game, when the opponent least expects a change of tactics. I consider most defenders’ serves inadequate and ineffective and think they can do much more in this area. I would like to see them work much more on long, very fast serves, with heavy chop/sidespin and topspin/sidespin (with both backhand and forehand). Recent research at the Worlds shows that even the top women miss or make mistakes against 20 to 25% of long serves. Defensive players often tend to serve short or half-long most of the time and don’t really get much advantage from this.

Women -- Modern Footwork

Rowden 2012

It would appear that only few coaches throughout Europe understand how the top women in the world move and especially the patterns they most often use when close to the table. First we have to understand that women in general will play most of the time closer to the action than the men: this is mainly because they don’t have the same upper body power as men or the same dynamic movement. The bigger ball takes less spin and playing off the table becomes counter-productive for women players. At a younger age, for example the level of mini-cadet, cadet or young junior, playing off the table can be effective, but not once the girl reaches the ranks of the top women. Higher level women players are just too good at using the ‘whole’ table, playing short and long and out to the angles: the further the opponent retreats the more ground she has to cover.

When we look at the top 30 women in the world (on the ITTF ranking list) we find that in recent years at any one time the percentage of women from outside Asia has been only between 3.0% and 7.0%. The Asians and especially the Chinese dominate the World Rankings in the women at the higher levels and the rest of the world hardly has a ‘look in’! If we are going to examine which methods of footwork and which tactics work at top level in the women’s game, then we have no better option than to look at what the Chinese are doing at the moment and to try and build on this. We should also of course look to innovate and to examine the possibilities to diverge into new areas as yet not thought of by the Asian players and coaches!

It is obvious that currently one of the most important aspects of the Chinese women’s strength is in symmetrical play. By this we mean the capability to control the speed and power of the opponent by being equally solid on both BH and FH sides. But the Chinese take this one step further, not only do they control, they have the ability to pick out the ‘right’ ball and to accelerate the play to win the point. They keep the opponent under enough pressure so that she has difficulty creating openings, then create their own opportunities. Control of speed has always been a pivotal area in women’s table tennis but the Chinese have raised this aspect to even higher levels.

The basic ingredients of this control are twofold, a modified ready position and upgraded footwork patterns. Let us look at these in detail.

For a start many of the top Chinese women have an extremely wide and very square and stable stance during the rallies. As many coaches will be aware the most common footwork movement in table tennis is the small ‘jump’ step and its use is in fact very widespread with the top Asian women. This type of stance also enables top women players to use the BH more when close to the table. At speed this keeps pressure on the opponent as the BH is the shorter stroke and the faster wing (top women can play around 10 BH shots in the same time as the opposing player can execute 6 FH’s).

However this central position is not only crucial for movement but also for the advantage it confers in symmetrical play. What the Chinese women do if necessary, is to extend the left leg for the wider ball to the BH which enables them to get the left hip (for a right-hander) behind the ball to play a good controlled stroke. Equally they extend the right foot towards the FH corner for the wider ball which gives good coverage without reaching. At all times the Chinese women stay essentially square to the table. In addition and this is critical too, the top close-to-table players don’t retreat when moving to the FH corner, they move in and take the ball earlier keeping the pressure on their opponent.

This contrasts very much with the European players who tend to drop back off the table when moving to the FH and try to play topspin often from a side-to-square stance, which loses them time. This also of course immediately removes a number of alternatives from their armoury. They lose the ability to hit through the spin against a rising topspin ball and they lose the advantages of the angles and the short and long possibilities. The off-square stance also introduces more problems in quick recovery and moving from one wing to another.

All these problems are of course accentuated by the fact that the 40mm ball has less revolutions per second, loses spin more rapidly through the air and overall (without boosting the rubbers) has less speed. This means unfortunately that the back from the table player loses out all round and has less and less advantage in the current table tennis climate. Nor is this a situation that is likely to change. Many top women are just too good close to the table, control the speed and spin too well or use material. Pimples or anti often slow the ball down or create differing effects which cause problems for opponents who like to play at speed.

It therefore becomes inevitable that most European countries are content to produce women players ranked from around 80 to 200 in the World Rankings. To reach the higher levels women need not only to train in the right way but to play the right sort of game. Over the last couple of years only 2 European-born women players have been any threat to the Asians, Vacenovska and Strbikova both from the Czech Republic. Why have they been a threat? Because they work at playing a very similar game to the top Chinese players!