Women's Game

Material

Long Pimple Stroke Play

Rowden Fullen (2005)

Technical Areas

Attacking with pimples v chop and block – hit one v backspin ball using spin (already topspin on the ball), block one v block. Block early or at top of the bounce, block return often almost float ball.

Sidespin hit at the top of the bounce, use wrist and forearm with slight elbow lift (or hit early with less pace). If the opponent chops he gets topspin back, if he blocks then he receives a float ball, if he topspins he will get a backspin return.

Hit at the top of the bounce (through) with a short stroke and quite hard. Short movement of the wrist and forearm v chop or block. If v chop the opponent gets topspin if v block he gets float.

Drawback block v topspin, with a little twisting of the racket. Try to use earlier timing, (but you can also take late) with a short, slower movement back. More spin reversal and shorter length return with this stroke. Very much backspin on the return.

Stop-block at early or peak timing. If v topspin, chop back – if v chop, topspin back.
Chop with a longer stroke v topspin, heavy chop back to the opponent.
Slow counter attack roll at an early timing v topspin. Return ball has backspin.
Punch (care with position of feet and technique) with upward and forward movement. If v topspin opponent gets backspin return, if v chop, topspin return.
Players using long pimples should practise twiddling and pushing /opening with the normal rubber.

N.B. The amount of effect achieved will vary from one long pimple rubber to another.

Generally speaking the most return spin will be achieved by long pimples without sponge and on a fast blade — because the ‘surface’ is hard, the ball rebounds very quickly and is not gripped by the rubber, therefore the spin already on it is returned without alteration or only little change. Where there is sponge, especially if this is a bit thicker 1.0mm. or above some of the return spin will be lost as there will be a slower rebound off the blade and the ball will be returned more often as ‘float’ (without spin). After the bounce on your side of the table of course, the ball will ‘acquire’ a little topspin.

Women Individual Development: Pimples on BH

Rowden Fullen (2003)

1) Flexible and adaptable, not rigid in play.

2) Ready to consider new ideas, methods, not rigid in thinking.

3)Understanding that development means change, no change means stagnation.

4) Women’s game requires expertise in the following areas –

  • Control of speed.
  • Opening.
  • Converting ( from spin to drive).
  • Short play.
  • Serve and receive.
  • Variation.
  • Use of table and equipment.
  • Backhand.
  • Positive attitude.
  • Winning weapon.
  • Not afraid to be different.

5) Understand your own style

  • Playing distance from the table.
  • F.H./B.H. split and table coverage.
  • Movement patterns.
  • How you win points, what is effective.
  • Train in the right way for your own style.

6) Be aware of the advanced techniques of the women’s game –

  • Short play.
  • Use of angles.
  • Change of speed.
  • Stance and movement patterns.
  • Killing through loop.
  • Early ball push.
  • Early ball smash.
  • Early ball topspin.
  • Slow loop (long/short).
  • Sidespin loop.
  • Dummy loop.
  • Chop/stop blocks.
  • Sidespin push/block.
  • Late timed push/block.
  • Loop to drive play.
  • Loop and block play.
  • Block play (especially on the forehand).
  • Short drop balls (especially v defence players).

Backhand pimple development

  1. Drive at the top of the bounce and push/block early v push and block.
  2. Push late (spin), push early (float or spin), push (sidespin?) Prioritize early timing. (Vital with pimples).
  3. Drive top of bounce (short stroke little back-swing) v drive or block or chop.
  4. Sidespin hit v chop or block. (Especially v little slower ball).
  5. Drawback block v topspin loop.
  6. Chop block – forward (float), down at an early timing point (chop) v drive.
  7. Chop (or float) v drive, topspin. (At times train a little back from the table, so that you can control and get back in when forced back).
  8. Slow roll early v spin or drive.
  9. Varied block, soft, stop, forced.
  10. Early ball shovel push (especially v serve).
  11. Twiddling (heavy push and loop with normal rubber).
  12. Train variation, hard and soft, short and long, angles and placement.

With pimples note particularly the value of the block (puts the spin back) and also of the push (variation in the spin on the return). If you only hit and usually play power with the pimples then you are much more predictable and you are not using the pimples to maximum effect or indeed for the purpose they were intended.

N.B. Very important v good players that you can hold the ball short on the table with the long pimples against long serves and topspin shots.

Forehand development (with pimples on the backhand)

  1. Can’t play deep on the F.H. and close on the B.H.
  2. Work at drive play closer to the table, especially in a moving situation.
  3. Train much block play v topspin (varied block, topspin, sidespin, soft, forcing).
  4. Important that you can hit through topspin.
  5. Early ball shovel push (especially v serve) and good short play.
  6. Early ball topspin v drive, block or topspin.
  7. Slow topspin against chop but care with length.
  8. Occasional sidespin especially v the slower ball. (Very effective against defenders or when played straight down the line to left-handed players).
  9. Much spin into drive (slow spin, hit hard).
  10. Care with crossover (F.H. generally but the pimples against some styles of play). Find the point of change.
  11. Twiddling (serve receive and hit/smash with pimples).
  12. Train a little at varied distances from the table, topspin and drive with reverse and chop with pimples.
  13. Train variation, hard and soft, short and long, angles and placement.

N.B. Particularly important that you start to use the F.H. more from the middle of the table and that you work to make it stronger and more reliable.

Theory

  1. Less effect and less possibilities back from the table (especially with the bigger ball because of the lesser spin).
  2. Less spin with the bigger ball means less control (less on-the-table control).
  3. Less spin with the bigger ball means it is easier to block and to open for the opponent.
  4. It is harder to win points from back.
  5. Use the unpredictability of the slower topspin ball (Magnus effect), especially when opening. Bear in mind that slow spin on one wing and flat hit on the other is very effective.
  6. More possibilities close to the table, varied block, spin, drive, sidespin etc.
  7. Timing is critical in drive play (narrow window).
  8. Long serves more effective in the women’s game, (especially side and float or side and topspin). Many opponents try to return with too much power and because they achieve less topspin with the bigger ball, they have less on–the-table control.
  9. Don’t return long serves with power. (Deny the server the chance to use the return speed).
  10. Focus on the serve/receive, the first 4/5 balls and active play over the table. Try to impose your game on the opponent but always remember that blocks and even pushes can be positive when used in the right way.
  11. There is a basic fallacy in the thinking that persists in trying to train more and more girls to play a man’s topspin game. Women just don’t get as much topspin as men. Because they don’t get as much topspin they have less on-the-table control (less topspin means the ball doesn’t dip down so much on the other side of the table). This problem is accentuated with the bigger ball. Very rarely do women have the same strength as men, therefore they are unable to play the same power input into the stroke with the same closed bat angle. The vast majority of women as a result have major problems in hitting the ball really hard from below table level.

Women Individual Development: Reverse Rubber on BH

Rowden Fullen (2003)

1) Flexible and adaptable, not rigid in play.

2) Ready to consider new ideas, methods, not rigid in thinking.

3) Understand that development means change, no change means stagnation.

4) Women’s game requires expertise in the following areas –

  • Control of speed.
  • Opening.
  • Converting ( from spin to drive).
  • Short play.
  • Serve and receive.
  • Variation.
  • Use of table and equipment.
  • Backhand.
  • Positive attitude.
  • Winning weapon.
  • Not afraid to be different.

5) Understand your own style –

  • Playing distance from the table.
  • F.H./B.H. split and table coverage.
  • Movement patterns.
  • How you win points, what is effective.
  • Train in the right way for your own style.

6) Be aware of the advanced techniques of the women’s game –

  • Short play.
  • Use of angles.
  • Change of speed.
  • Stance and movement patterns.
  • Killing through loop.
  • Early ball push.
  • Early ball smash.
  • Early ball topspin.
  • Slow loop (long/short).
  • Sidespin loop.
  • Dummy loop.
  • Chop/stop blocks.
  • Sidespin push/block.
  • Late timed push/block.
  • Loop to drive play.
  • Loop and block play.
  • Block play (especially on the forehand).
  • Short drop balls (especially v defence players).

Backhand reverse development

  1. Drive at the top of the bounce or just before but spin at differing timing points from early to later (depends on incoming ball).
  2. Drive (short stroke little backswing) v drive or block or chop.
  3. Train to accelerate from block/drive into spin.
  4. Train soft block and topspin block v loop.
  5. Chop block – forward (float), down at an early timing point (chop) v drive.
  6. Slow roll early v spin or drive.
  7. Varied block, soft, stop, forced, sidespin, topspin.
  8. Early ball shovel push (especially v serve) and good short play.
  9. Train a little back from the table so that you can control and get back in when forced back.
  10. Train variation in pace, hard and soft, short and long.
  11. Train angles and placement.

(Even with reverse rubber note particularly the value of the block (put the spin back) and also of the push, (variation in the spin on the return). If you only hit hard and usually play power then you are much more predictable. At a higher level you must think of variation in all its aspects, (spin, speed, placement, angles etc.)

Forehand development (with reverse on the backhand) –

  1. Can’t play deep on the F.H. and close on the B.H.
  2. Work at drive play closer to the table, especially in a moving situation.
  3. Train much block play v topspin (varied block, topspin, sidespin, soft, forcing).
  4. Important that you can hit through topspin.
  5. Early ball shovel push (especially v serve) and good short play.
  6. Slow topspin against chop but care with length.
  7. Occasional sidespin especially v the slower ball. (Very effective v defenders or when played straight down the line v left-handed players).
  8. Much spin into drive (slow spin, hit hard).
  9. Care with crossover (F.H. generally but the B.H. against some styles of play). Find the point of change.
  10. Train to change pace, loop or drive long, block short.
  11. Train angles and placement.

Theory

  1. Less effect and less possibilities back from the table (especially with the bigger ball because of the lesser spin).
  2. Less spin with the bigger ball means less control (less on-the-table control).
  3. Less spin with the bigger ball means it is easier to block and to open for the opponent.
  4. It is harder to win points from back.
  5. Use the unpredictability of the slower topspin ball (Magnus effect), especially when opening. Bear in mind that slow spin on one wing and flat hit on the other can be very effective.
  6. More possibilities close to the table, varied block, spin, drive, sidespin etc.
  7. Timing is critical in drive play (narrow window).
  8. Long serves more effective in the women’s game, (especially side and float or side and topspin). Many opponents try to return with too much power and because they achieve less topspin with the bigger ball, they have less on–the-table control.
  9. Don’t return long serves with power. (Deny the server the chance to use the return speed).
  10. Focus on the serve/receive, the first 4/5 balls and active play over the table. Try to impose your game on the opponent but always remember that blocks and even pushes can be positive when used in the right way.
  11. There is a basic fallacy in the thinking that persists in trying to train more and more girls to play a man’s topspin game. Women just don’t get as much topspin as men. Because they don’t get as much topspin they have less on-the-table control (less topspin means the ball doesn’t dip down so much on the other side of the table). This problem is accentuated with the bigger ball. Very rarely do women have the same strength as men, therefore they are unable to play the same power input into the stroke with the same closed bat angle. The vast majority of women as a result have major problems in hitting the ball really hard from below table level.

Rather than training women to loop 4 or 5 balls in succession it makes rather more sense to loop 1 or 2 then to come in and drive to win the point. Training to ‘convert’ from spin to drive or hit assumes rather more importance. Generally women don't spin to win, rather they spin to make openings.

Material and the Womens Game

Rowden Fullen (2004)

In Sweden I encounter immediate resistance from most clubs when I mention material and girls’ play. I know that there are clubs which develop pimple players, clubs such as Lyckeby, Tyresö and Lindome for example, but far too often when I am at tournaments I hear coaches and parents only complaining about material and condemning the clubs and coaches who promote such rubbers and playing styles. This is unfortunately an attitude which their players pick up and which will only hinder their future development.

Let’s look at a few facts. Just what is the prime skill of table tennis? It is to be able to adapt quickly in an ever changing situation. Table tennis is all about being able to adjust to and cope with different situations, situations such as players using different tactics, defence and material. And in fact in the women’s game there are many more different paths to the top level than there are in the men’s. Do we really think that any player can reach the heights if they can’t play against pimples, defenders or penholders for example?

I have even had National Coaches in Sweden tell me that some of our best women players do very well in Europe against normal rubbers but ‘have a major problem against material’. This is of course a problem that goes back to early training, to parental attitudes and to the trainers and clubs which introduce the young girl to our sport. There is nothing illegal or underhand about playing with material. We have just had a young girl reach the final of the SOC and knock out several top Chinese on the way, playing with pimples. Her racket was examined every step of the way by referees and umpires – perfectly legal.

Almost every country in Europe has material players in their girls’ and women’s teams right from cadet level, there are many material players amongst the top hundred ranked women in the world and we have even had women world champions playing with pimples. Some of the best young girls in the world, Fukuhara from Japan for instance, play with pimples. If we in Sweden deny our young girls the opportunity to train with and against material at an early age, we are in fact limiting and restricting their future development and placing them at a big disadvantage when competing at European and world level.

I leave you with some rather interesting statistics. In the National rankings for 12 and 13 year olds there are very few pimple players among the girls. This is of course an age where the players are under the control of parents and clubs and don’t have the chance to think for themselves. In the ranking for women’s 20 where the players have escaped from their restrictions and control their own development we have around 50% who play with pimples! The players themselves come to understand eventually what works for them in the women’s game. It’s just a pity they don’t have the opportunity to do this at an earlier age when the learning process would be much more effective.

Why use Pimples

Rowden Fullen (2004)

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 her 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.

Girls: Long Pimple Development (attack)

Rowden Fullen (2005)

The first hurdle for the player to get over is the amount of ill-feeling she will encounter from opponents, their parents and other coaches. ‘You wouldn’t win if you played with a normal racket’ is the standard accusation. What many of these accusers fail to appreciate is that a large number of the world’s best women have played and play now with material of one kind or another. Women play with material for a reason – ‘funny rubbers’ are a means of controlling speed and spin but particularly speed. If you can’t control speed then you can’t play women’s table tennis. Over the years women have found a number of differing methods of doing this – the use of material is only one.

There is another important aspect to consider too. Table tennis is all about being able to adjust to and cope with different situations, situations such as players using differing tactics, defence and material. And in fact in the women’s game there are many more different paths to the top level than there are in the men’s. Do we really think that any player can reach the heights if they can’t play against pimples, defenders or penholders for example?

Some national coaches say to me – ‘But the top six/seven Chinese women in the world at the moment don’t play with pimples’. True but these things go in cycles and if you talk to the top Chinese coaches they are as keen as ever to produce another Deng Yaping, and have many pimple players training both at National and Regional Levels. Look at the younger Asian players in world rankings for 18 and 21 — the top Chinese pimpled racket player (defensive) Fan Ying is currently ranked 3 in the world U21 rankings (after 2 other Chinese) and 2 in the U18 ranking (after Guo Yue). Ai Fukuhara the famous Japanese girl (medium pimples on BH) is ranked 5 in 18’s and 8 in 21’s. If you are thinking –no future in pimples – then perhaps you should think again!

It is true however that with pimples, as with normal rubbers, there must be a path of development and players must continue to grow and progress. You cannot just stick a long pimpled rubber on a young girl’s backhand side, tell her to block and push with it and stop there. The player must learn to use the rubber, do different things with it, know when to ‘twiddle’ and use the normal side, how to get the biggest advantage out of serve, receive and the third ball etc.

Let us first look at what one should look for when considering switching to long pimples, which is the most deceptive of the pimpled rubbers. The first aspect which the player must experiment with is effect versus control – this is always a major point for discussion with long pimple users. In most cases it is a question of whether to try sponge or not and if so how thick. In the final analysis it is often a matter of feeling and ‘what works for me’. Long pimple players all play differently even with the same rubbers and selection of the best playing materials is a highly individual matter and usually one for some experimentation.

When we consider control we must look at how the player is using the rubber. Long pimple without sponge may have good control when you go back and play defensively, but the same rubber can have control problems when you try and block close to the table. Against a fast loop the ball just springs off the racket too quickly. A layer of sponge will help with blocking control as the ball is held longer on the bat, but you will of course lose effect.

Most spin reversal occurs when you have a red, long pimpled rubber, with thin, hard, widely spaced, plastic type pimples and on a fast blade. The ball kicks off very quickly and there is no time for it to be affected by the rubber. The plastic type pimples have absolutely no grip and when thinner and widely spaced have minimum contact with the ball. Because they are hard they don’t bend as much as normal pimples and therefore the ball is not held on the surface.

Many players don’t understand that what is happening is that they are in effect getting their own spin back. If they for example put heavy backspin on the ball and the opponent pushes the ball back with the pimples, the return will not have backspin (even though his or her stroke is down and forward) but an element of topspin. The most important consideration when playing against long pimples is not what the opponent is doing with his or her racket, but what you did with your last stroke. The majority of players don’t in fact think what they are doing when they meet pimpled rubber opponents. Instead of trying to understand what is happening and working to combat this, they take the easy option and just complain.

Let us now look at the techniques and tactics of using long pimples. Good players who understand the principles of playing against long pimples will more often than not hit one ball and push the next. They understand that if they loop hard they get a lot of spin back and that it’s difficult to loop two or three balls in a row with any power (in fact the more power you put in the more spin you get back). As a result the ‘bread and butter’ tactics of the long pimpled attacker/blocker must be to control the hit and to hold the ball as short as possible on the opponent’s side of the table. The push ball should then be taken very early and either dropped short or pushed very long and very fast. This gives the opponent only limited time to react against a fast push which can have considerable topspin.

But the long pimpled player should not stop here. The next step is to train on a variety of ‘stop’ and sidespin actions together with changes of timing to confuse the opponent. Don’t think either that these just have a ‘confusion’ value, they can have real effect too. For example a ‘stop-block’ where the racket is pulled back at the contact can return a very short ball to the opponent with very much backspin. Or a fast sidespin action played to the alternate corner against heavy backspin can return a fast topspin ball with a sidespin kick. Even a push taken at a late timing point can be effective – it gives the opponent too much time to think and she sees the ball moving in the air and becomes hesitant.

Pimpled players should of course also train to ‘twiddle’ so that they can push and open with both sides. It’s very easy for example to open hard against the backspin ball, even with the pimples, when the opponent is in the hit and push mode. It’s equally easy to train to take the short balls/serves with the pimples on the forehand side so that you are not pulled too far out of position by trying to use the backhand over the whole table. And if you are able to ‘twiddle’ and smash the high balls with the pimples, they will rarely if ever come back.

One must also consider the other side of the racket which usually has a normal reverse rubber. It’s a good idea if this is as ‘tacky’ as possible, for then there is a very big difference between the spins from either wing. Of course the girl using long pimples on the backhand must also work to develop the forehand side. Too many girls using pimples have weaknesses on the other wing which let them down. It is expedient that girls with long pimples on the backhand have good topspin on the forehand, can vary this, either slow or fast and can kill at the first opportunity. It is also important that they can block with good control and variation on this wing so that they can contain the women loop players and then pick the right ball to hit and win the point.

Serve and receive is another vital area for the long pimpled player and efficiency here is crucial. Good players may well just serve long and fast to the pimples and then kill the next ball. It is vital that the pimpled player has alternatives to the block receive – slow spin roll with the reverse rubber or step back and chop with the pimples for example. Many players however, even very good players, don’t think to change their game and serve their usual heavy spin serves which get them into all sorts of trouble.

Long pimple players can get a great deal of advantage from their service if they go about it in the right way. Sidespin is of particular use to the long pimple player as it allows them to give their opponent difficult fourth ball returns. For example a vicious sidespin serve (with the 'tacky' rubber), which is also very short, will encourage most female opponents to push the second ball. A fast early ball push with the long pimples will give the adversary a topspin ball with a sidespin kick (the ball still retains the sidespin from the service). As players and coaches will appreciate there are a number of different possibilities based on this same theme. The fast flat serve with the long pimples also causes problems to many players as does the long fast backspin (without any spin).

Of course the ideal eventually is if the long pimple player can play with both rubbers as and when she chooses. This can take a little time as she will have twice the number of alternatives as the normal player and to be effective will require both training and application. The one aspect that is of some importance is the timing when she twiddles the racket. A bad ‘twiddler’ will often get caught out and have to play with the side of the racket she doesn’t want to use at that particular time. The experienced ‘twiddler’ plays with intention and only turns the racket after her opponent has contacted the ball and is always playing with the ‘right’ rubber to suit the occasion.

Girls in the World’s Elite and their Playing Styles

Lars Borg (2008)

How do the top women in the world play today? We have examined a little more closely the women players who were at the Swedish Open Championships and also looked at the Protour results in the European tournaments in the autumn.

Approximately half of the players who reached the quarter-finals or further either had a different playing style or a different type of rubber and didn’t attack with topspin on BH or FH. The two most common styles other than topspin attack with reverse rubbers were attacking drive-play with short pimples on the BH or defensive play with long pimples on the same wing. Additionally we had attacking players with short pimples on the FH and defenders with short or half-long pimples on the BH. An interesting point is the distinct lack of pen-hold players among the top placed contenders. They are there but they are not reaching the final stages.

Let us look at a few varied examples –

  • Guo Yan (China) topspin attack with reverse rubber – 2nd in the SOC. A strong topspin player. The advantages with this playing style are strong speed and spin. Because the ball comes over the net with a pronounced arc it’s even possible to play hard against low balls. Other exponents of this style are Zhang Yining, Li Xiaoxia, Guo Yue (reigning world champion) all China, Aya Umemura and Sayaka Hirano (Japan) and Liu Jia (Austria).
  • Li Jia Wei (Singapore) attacking player with short pimple on the FH – Olympic Semi-finalist in Athens and 3rd in the SOC. An unusual playing style which as her coach Anthony Lee says gives her a number of plus points and is hard for opponents to adjust to. The advantages with short pimple are in quick attack and also that the FH is less susceptible against spin. It’s also easy to hit hard against heavy topspin or loop balls and the hits come through to the opponent with a fast, flat trajectory and often a good amount of backspin. Other exponents of this style are Wu Jiaduo (Germany) and Shen Yanfei (Spain).
  • Amelia Solja (Germany) attacking player with frictionless long pimples on the BH – second in European Youths, 2007. A style which has recently developed from attacking play with long pimples with friction. The difference is that it’s even easier to control spin and to block back very short over-the-table returns. The spin reversal is also very powerful and – this means that opponents get back almost all the spin they, themselves created. The disadvantages are the inability to create one’s own spin (unless one twiddles) and a measure of predictability in play with the pimples.
  • Li Jiao (Holland) Pen-hold topspin attack with reverse rubber – 14 in the world ranking. Strengths are play over the table and the possibilities of achieving good spin. The disadvantage is the lack of a strong BH. There has not been the same development among the women as with the men (such as Wang Hao) who use the reverse side of the pen-hold racket to loop against backspin.
  • Cao Zhen (China) Attacking play with short pimples on the BH – lost against world No. 2 Guo Yue in the quarters at the SOC but was runner-up in the German Protour. Quite many women players use short pimples on the BH for quick, early-ball attack either with block or counter-hit. This type of player relies more on speed and placement rather than on spin. Other examples are Ai Fujinuma (Japan), Zhang Xue Ling and Wang Yue Gu (Singapore) and Jiang Huajun (Hongkong).
  • Gao Jun (USA) pen-hold short pimple attack – 17 in the world and the highest ranked with this playing style. The greatest strengths are tempo, the ease of hitting, blocking and forcing against spin. The main weakness is the lack of a ‘dangerous’ attack from the BH side.
  • Daniela Dodean (Romania) Topspin attack with reverse rubbers and an imposing BH loop. Europe’s future hope with power on the BH side. Quarter-finalist in the French Protour. The advantage of a good BH loop is that you can win the point directly or create an opening as soon as the opponent blocks or gives you a weaker ball. Often for example you will have a high return which is easy to attack as the amount of spin on the BH loop stroke is more difficult to read. The main disadvantage is that against the really quick players who take the ball early on the rise you may not have sufficient time to play the stroke. This is often the case when European women meet Asian opponents. Another example of this playing style is Tamara Boros (Croatia).
  • Haruna Fukuoka (Japan) attacking play with long/half-long pimples on the BH – finalist in the doubles in the SOC. Here the player uses the pimples primarily to control the speed of the rallies and to create openings for the FH attack. Of course a classic example of this is the 4 times world and Olympic Champion, Deng Yaping from China. Other advantages are the ease of controlling spin serves and the ability to create spin variations which cause problems to the opponent. Ai Fukuharu the Japanese wonder-girl plays with half-long pimples on the BH.
  • Li Qian (Poland) defensive player with short/half-long pimples on the BH. She has half-long pimples on the BH and uses these primarily to chop but can also attack very effectively. She made her international breakthrough by winning the Polish Protour last year and came second in the SOC in the U21 event. One of the world’s best women defenders, Fan Ying (China) uses short pimples on the BH. With this style and these rubbers it can be more difficult to chop but the possibility is increased of varying one’s own spin (or lack of spin) and also of attacking effectively.
  • Kim Kyung Ah and Park Mi Young (South Korea) defensive players with long pimples on the BH – winners in doubles in the SOC. Classic defence players where the pimples primarily throw back the spin. Easier to defend with than short or half-long pimples but also less attacking power and possibilities. In the women’s game there are a great many players with this style. The FH side can vary from almost complete defensive chop to occasional smashing, to quite frequent topspin opening. Kim Kyung Ah is the prime exponent with bronze in the Olympics in Athens. Others are Viktoria Pavlovich (White Russia), Irina Kotikhina (Russia), Xian Yi Fang (France) and Tetyana Sorochinskaya (Ukraine).
  • Chen Qing (China) pen-hold, short pimple attack and long pimple block/defence – quarter-finalist in Russian Open. With this playing method it’s possible to practise two completely different styles of play, defence and control with the long pimples and hard attack with the short pimples. Often she is defensive on the receive and very positive on her own serves but also she is prepared to twiddle during the rallies (even though this is harder than with the ‘shake-hands’ grip). The former European Top 12 winner Ni Xialan (Luxembourg) had great success with this style of play.

Women’s Playing Styles: the Theory

Rowden Fullen (2008)

If we follow up on Lars’ article (previous page) two aspects will strike us immediately –

    Why so many varied styles in the women’s game?
    Why don’t the women just play more like the men with more topspin and power? It seems obvious they could be much more effective like this.

Let me first acquaint you with what I observed at the Top 10 in Sheffield where we were able to examine both the top juniors and cadets and gain some insight into just what techniques and tactics other countries in Europe (especially those from the Eastern bloc) are developing in their young girl players.

  • The ready position is generally very square (in a number of cases over-square). By this we mean square or over-square to the table – this of course is significant in that a shot played on the FH diagonal would be played in some cases from a completely square position and the power input would depend solely on the arm speed and the rotational value. Strokes played down the line would therefore be and are executed with the right foot forward (for a right-hander). This is more noticeable with the Eastern Europeans. (Szocs, Kusinska, Kolodyaznaya, Noskova, Matelova, Xiao.)
  • Many girls stand close to the table to receive, some even over the table. (P. Solja, Szocs, Kolodyaznaya, Xiao.)
  • Not only is the ready position square but the stance often quite central to cover both wings. (P. Solja, Szocs, Madarasz, Noskova, Xiao.) More of the Western Europeans play more like the boys off the BH corner. (M. Pettersson.)
  • The square (or near-square or even over-square) stance is used on close to table FH strokes and a squarer stance is retained even when the girls back away to play from a deeper position. (Szocs, Madarasz, Noskova, Hirici,
  • The BH receive of serve from the middle is a common tactic. (P. Solja, Noskova, Kolodyaznaya, Stahr.)
  • The BH serve is a common tactic. (Pettersson, Stahr, Kolodyaznaya.)
  • Almost all the girls on show, even the blockers and defenders played very positively all the time and most moved well – there were few if any weak shots.

Many of the countries competing and ending up among the top places with the girls (Romania, Hungary, Russia, Germany) have a great tradition in producing top women players. One area however that have in common, is that they train girls to play a women’s game. Unless girls are extremely fast, strong and athletic it is usually counter-productive to try and make them play like the boys, receive all the time with the FH and to have a ready position somewhere outside the BH corner. Certainly when I talk to Chinese coaches who have been involved with their National Junior Girls’ Teams and ask what they think of the European women who play a topspin game and back away from the table, their reply is as follows – ‘We love it and long may it continue. The last time you won a World title in women’s singles was in 1955, while you train like this you’ll never win another!’ So let us look at the reasoning behind these factors.

Men are stronger than women and play with much more spin and power. The men’s game is about control of spin – the topspin ball dips on to the table at the end of its flight and shoots forward very fast after the bounce. Almost all men tend therefore to take the ball later and the common tactic is counter-topspin against topspin. This never happens in the women’s game. The women stand closer and take the ball earlier, which is easier to do as there is less incoming spin and power. There are also many more top-level blockers and counter-hitters among the women which factor makes the traditional hard topspin male-oriented game rather less effective, particularly in an environment where there is less power input.

Women hit the ball flatter and with less spin (due to the lesser power input). Even in the case of high-level topspin players mentioned by Lars, such as Zhang Yining and Liu Jia, there is absolutely no comparison in terms of spin and power with a male player such as Kreanga. This means that the women’s game is much more a question of control of speed. The counter to the topspin is varied depending on the style of the player and can be a block, counter-hit or chop. In the case of top women playing against top men it is noticeable that they have major problems controlling the spin element.

Because the women’s game is about controlling speed, women have over the years devised differing means of doing this. If there weren’t different styles in women’s play, then the faster players would always win. Pimples are a means of controlling spin and speed and returning different balls to the opponent. This then gives the pimpled player more time to play her strokes. Generally the men play with so much more spin and power that pimples are less effective. They are used more often in the veteran’s game when the older men start to lose their speed and power.

Women play closer to the table and have less time to play their shots. As a result aspects such as square-ness of stance, shorter strokes and the relevant movement patterns are of critical importance. By relevant patterns we mean those which apply to the individual style of the player – a block player will not move in the same way as a loop player. Because men play further back, have more time and are faster in movement, these aspects are not so crucial. What is also of critical importance is what happens after the service and during the receive. As women often have less time on the 3rd and 4th ball it’s vital that they use women’s serve and receive tactics and not those of the men. Almost all top women for example use 2nd ball backhand on a fairly regular basis, even those with extremely strong forehands. The men on the other hand more often receive with the forehand as they want to play forehand on the next ball and are quick enough to do this.

Looking at the better girls (who are in some cases at a very young age) in the European Top 10, it is obvious that a number of countries are already grooming their players to develop a woman’s style of play. Such countries are not looking to male techniques and tactics to provide long-term answers to girls’ development. Perhaps in Western Europe we need to assess and evaluate a little more closely the aspects which make Asian women so much more effective and dominant if we are at any foreseeable time in the future to compete with them. European coaches certainly need to look more critically at how the top women in the world are playing and why, to evaluate the current tactics and to understand why a significant number of the world’s top female players use similar tactics.

If coaches are going to insist on developing girls in the same way as boys then they must equally focus on the right technical and tactical areas. Occupying the mid-ground (and a mid-ground which is suitable to the individual player) assumes vital importance as players back away from the table. Also in the case of women topspin players they will usually require the ‘assist’ of elastic energy in their attacking stroke play to achieve real power which denotes directly that they must complete the whole stroke sequence as rapidly as possible. These aspects should of course be worked on during the formative years before the style becomes ‘set’.

A young girl might ask her coach the 64 million dollar question – ‘How am I individually going to play and what is my development path?’ As we have hinted earlier there are many more ways to the top in the women’s game and women world champions over the years have had widely differing styles. Any young female player starting her career has a wide variety of choices – attacking with or without spin, block and hit, defence and any of these combined with material of one sort or another on backhand or forehand or both.

When looking at girls’ style development however two factors perhaps above all are relevant. How do I with my style, best control the speed factor which is inherent in the women’s game? What is my strongest weapon and how am I going to build on this?

Clubs and Material

Rowden Fullen (2005)

One or two clubs in Sweden have a number of players especially girls playing with material combinations. Clubs which have coaches ‘sympathetic’ to the pimple cause and which have had considerable success with material combinations are for example Lyckeby, Lindome and Tyresö. Unfortunately a great many other clubs are strongly resistant to any form of material especially for their younger players and appear too in many cases even strongly resistant to new ideas. This unfortunately often means that young players, especially girls do not have the advantage of having the opportunity to become proficient with and against such rubbers from an early age when they would pick up the relative techniques and tactics rather easily. Even National trainers complain that established junior and senior players often struggle in Europe against material combinations while performing more than adequately against normal rubbers.

This restrictive attitude at club level also means that quite often girl players only start using pimples when in their late teens, in other words when they are old enough to think for themselves and have cast off the shackles of the club environment. It is somewhat strange when you look at the National rankings in women’s 20 even in Sweden to find that over 50% play with pimples of one kind or another – they know what works for them and what works in the women’s game. The percentages however in girls’ 13 or 15 playing with material are almost negligible and this appears to be in almost every case due to lack of opportunity or informed guidance.

When you talk to coaches you understand immediately that there is little in-depth understanding of how players are effective with varying types of material and of how to play effectively against them. There appears too to be the attitude that to play with pimples is somehow a weakness, that the player is not good enough to use normal rubbers, or even that playing with such rubbers is a form of cheating (however within the rules). Such coaches seem to ignore the fact that some of the best women World Champions of all time have played with material (Deng Yaping).

Such thinking also begs the question as to why so many women players use pimples of one kind or another – many more for example than we have in the men’s game. A survey less than ten years ago showed that at that time around 60% of the world’s top women used a different rubber on one side of their racket. Even though at the moment the current crop of top Chinese women use reverse rubber there are still many high profile players in Asia who use pimples – Fukuhara from Japan and Fan Ying from China for example, plus many of the older Chinese women playing in Asia, Europe or elsewhere. The top Chinese coaches openly admit that they have many pimple players in the top provincial centres and that the next phase in the development of the women’s game may well be another material explosion.

Women use pimples quite simple for one main reason — because they complement the women’s game and tactics. 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 and even those women who topspin can’t be compared with 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 pattern.

Return of the Defender

Ian Marshall (2010)

It is now almost 30 years since the last defensively minded player won a singles title at a World Championships; in 1981 in Novi Sad, China’s Tong Ling was crowned Women’s Singles Champion. In the intervening years the attacking player has dominated the scene but, more athletic than ever, it would now seem that the age of the defensive player is alive and well! Certainly that would seem to be the message with regards to the current state of female table tennis at the highest level. It is a fact which will delight many with spectacular table tennis increasingly on the menu.

China’s Wu Yang was secure, safe and impassable at the Volkswagen World Junior Championships in the Columbian city of Cartagena de Indias in December 2009 as she progressed to win the Girls’ Singles Final. Meanwhile at the recently completed Youth Olympic Games in Singapore, no less than four of the eight quarter finalists in the Girls’ Singles event were backspin players. Japan’s Ayuka Tanioka, North Korean Kim Song I, Moldovan Olga Bliznet and the host nation’s Isabelle Li were the young ladies in question with Isabelle Li exceeding all expectations to reach the final where Gu Yuting ended golden aspirations.

Similarly on the senior scene, the female defender is alive and well. The Korean duo of Kim Kyung Ah and Park Mi Young both appear in the top 10 of the ITTF Women’s World Rankings and both will be on duty at the forthcoming Volkswagen Women’s World Cup in Kuala Lumpur and at the UAE World Team Cup Classic in Dubai. Both are defenders but as opposed to the new teenage generation, they are much more in the traditional mode.

Notably the young Asian defensive players possess a forehand topspin. None are as dynamic as China’s Fan Ying at the art of service and the first forehand attack but all tend to be able to play forehand topspin in a controlled manner. It is an art that Kim Kyung Ah and Park Mi Young have tried to develop late in their careers; however they tend to employ more a forehand drive rather than a topspin, the amount of rotation imparted on the ball being somewhat less and they are not over dynamic with the first attack.

Nevertheless they are both prodigious adversaries, both own ITTF Protour Women’s Singles titles and in Kuala Lumpur and Dubai they will delight the crowds. Three decades after Tong Ling thrilled the world, the defender returns!

Women's Play and the Plastic Ball

Rowden December 2015

There have been and are many ways of winning points in our sport; speed, power, placement, spin, control, feeling and technical/tactical areas, such as serve and 3rd ball or receive and 4th ball. In the women’s game speed and control of speed have always been a priority, along with the ability to use the table and place the ball in different areas. Power and spin more the mainstays of the men’s game have always assumed less importance. But with the introduction of the plastic ball the priorities and methods in women’s play are changing.

When evaluating the women’s game we must always bear in mind that, at the highest levels we are looking at Asian or more specifically Chinese players. The last European woman to reach a world singles final was in 1973 and the last European winner was even further back in 1955. Over the decades European women have consistently tried to work with spin and a little more off the table than their Asian counterparts, but with consistently little or no success. They have lost out because there are many more good blockers, counter-hitters and material exponents in the women’s game than in the men’s. If European women try to continue with their ‘traditional’ type of game with the plastic ball their chances to dominate at world level will fade from extremely remote to totally impossible.
The plastic ball has less speed and considerably less spin so any form of play off the table will be less effective. The over-the-table play so long neglected by European women will assume more importance as will receive and the subsequent strokes, due to the lesser impact and advantage gained from the service. But above all with the plastic ball control will be a deciding factor. The ability to ‘hold’, to contain and keep the ball on the table, while probing for weaknesses and to select the right moment and the right stroke to change the form of the rally, will be key. Change of course can be effected in a variety of ways, by the use of power, speed or lack of speed, placement, timing or spin: but the use of any of these from too far away from the table will be counter-productive.
Points can still be won quickly as in serve and third ball, receive and 4th ball, but generally rallies will be longer and players will need to work their way from containment to measures aimed at creating openings. For example if every time you flick the shorter or half-long serve, the opponent responds with a hard counter, then it will be necessary to drop short or even push long, so that you get the opportunity yourself to get in the hard counter first. Equally if on every occasion the opponent serves long and you block or attack only to be outhit immediately, then it will be necessary for you to be able to return a long serve with a slow or shorter ball.
Players who like to back away from the table will not only face the usual problems of wider movement and bigger angles but also the differing plastic problems. Slower balls are effective with plastic as the ball tends to slow down or stop over the table or drop very sharply off the end causing difficulty for opponents.
The problem with making the transition from the celluloid to plastic is that we have been conditioned to using power or spin in certain situations and also pushed into the habit of winning points early. It therefore becomes difficult to force ourselves to wait longer for opportunities while controlling the play. This however is a mindset that we will almost certainly have to get used to and a tactical approach we will need to adopt. What must also be understood is the difference between the men’s and women’s games. The men will continue to use power with the plastic ball but for women this will be more difficult for two reasons; most women lack the upper body strength of men and the extreme power; there are many more good blockers, defenders and counter-hitters among the ranks of the women and much wider use of material of one kind or another.
Speed will still be important but speed with control while waiting for the moment or opportunity to change something. Equally shot selection will be of prime importance, which shot, when, how and where. And if the change is not successful then back to control and start again. It also goes without saying that it’s harder than ever to win points back from the table as not only do we have less spin and speed but a lesser number of alternatives to use from this position against the determined control player. The odds are stacked in favour of the control players, the only problem for them being shot selection or over enthusiasm, should they try to play with too much power before maneuvering the situation to their advantage.
In the case of two close-to-table players the one who can force the ball earlier, or spin off the bounce first, or has better placement will usually come out on top.

Asia/Europe

European and Asian Women’s Game

Rowden Fullen (1990’s)

With one or two rare exceptions European women are rather far below the level of the Asian female players. The last European country to win a women’s team event in the Worlds was Russia in 1969 with Z. Rudnova and S. Grinberg, who also won the women’s doubles. The last European woman in a singles final was Alicia Grofova from Czechoslovakia in 1973. Since this date there have been no Europeans in any singles finals or any team finals.

Over the last 20 years women’s table tennis has developed with many various styles and techniques, much more than the men’s game. We have in fact styles that exist in the women’s game which are not seen in men’s play or only rarely, we have styles that can be successful at top level with the women which would in no way have the same success in the men’s elite, (Ni Xialan). There are many more defence and pimple players even at the highest levels.

The Asian players generally have an active game and will open at the earliest opportunity. The hard attack ball is important in their table tennis philosophy. Over the years speed has been the dominant factor in their play and even now when direct attack with a strong spin ball is their usual method of opening, if they have to choose between speed and spin it will almost always be the former. They open as early as possible, directly after the serve for example and if they are compelled to play an intermediate stroke, they try to control the play so as to play positively on the next ball. Serve and the third ball hit are fundamental in their armoury and they spend much training time on this. They tend to take the ball at an earlier timing point than the European players.

The European game tends to consist of a variety of styles from defenders to fast attackers, players who prefer to open with spin and primarily on the forehand and fast tempo two wing attack players. The majority tend to fall nowadays into the latter category and it’s quite important in Europe to have enough strength on the backhand wing to keep pressure on the opponent. In the 60’s and 70’s the Asian fast attack overwhelmed the European spin game but in the 1980’s the men reversed this, culminating in team wins for Sweden 1989 — 93 and all-European men’s singles finals in the same years. If the men were successful with the two wing topspin type of game, why weren’t the European women?

To find the answer to this question perhaps we must look at the variety of different styles used in the women’s game and the various uses of techniques to create different specialties. The Asian coaches but especially the Chinese are always on the lookout for unusual even extraordinary techniques and styles of play. Trainers, coaches and administrators are always open in the mind to new ideas and possibilities. Players are also encouraged from an early age to be flexible in the mind and totally aggressive in play — ‘do it to the opponent before she does it to you’ is the usual maxim, in other words get in and attack first. The Asians are always aware that European players have great difficulty in getting to grips with their stop/start fast tempo game, especially as they take the ball at such an early timing point. If it’s absolutely impossible to open directly, they will control the play with an intermediate stroke to create the opening and then attack hard. The Asians also consider footwork training of high importance so they have a better opportunity to reach the ball with time to play a strong shot. They train much more intensively too on serve and the third ball and on receive and fourth ball — this and match play form a major part of every training session.

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

Even if you watch top level matches between the best European women it’s often a matter of flowing, ‘nice-to-look-at’ rallies, the game looks like it’s being played at a high level. Examine the strokes in a little more detail however and you see it’s all so one pace and predictable, pre-planned and leisurely. By the way they play it looks as if many Europeans train far too much control play, loop to loop or loop to block, they don’t train to win the point! The result is that against the top Asians they just don’t have the time or the opportunity to utilize the stronger technical aspects of their game. Instead of playing further back from the table, perhaps the European women’s development should be directed more towards the importance of serve, receive and the first four balls and also towards methods of more effective and active play over the table. In this way they will have rather more opportunities to create attacking positions and earlier in the rally.

The European men in the 80’s were as good as the Chinese over the table and better at a distance, they were also able to play hard spin balls from both wings. As a result it was the Chinese men who weren’t able to play to their strengths in the first four balls and were then forced back from the table. The obvious question arises: why don’t European women play in the same way. If however you have ever watched top women competing against top men they have problems coping with the power but more especially with the spin, they lack the strength, speed and balance to play the same measure of hard spin.

Also most women don’t go back and loop to loop like the men, they return in a variety of different ways, blocking, drive, topspin or defence and often using differing materials. They also play closer to the table and are therefore able to play the angles or vary length and speed more easily, especially as they almost always face less power. If the European women want to play a strong spin game from further back with the bigger 40mm. ball which of course takes less spin, then it would logically appear that their chances of defeating the Asians become even more remote. They give their oriental counterparts more time to play and they give up the chance to control the over-the-table and short play.

European women must come to terms too with all the possibilities in the women’s game, with the many differing playing styles, work out which is best for them and develop their own character within the style. There are available to women players many more possibilities for success, many more different paths to the top levels, than there are for men. They only have to be open-minded about this, ready to accept that they need not be limited in their choice. They must also of course train in the right direction for their way of playing. Too often players, coaches and selectors are ‘blinkered’ when they look at women’s styles in Europe. They only really want to see one or two styles of play, it’s almost as if they think that only these styles have a chance to succeed at world level. Perhaps in Europe we should take a closer look at just how the top women in the world have played over the last 10 years, think about the variety of styles and why these players have been successful. Perhaps also we should stop trying to force women to conform to men’s styles of play, even those which have been successful!

European women must also appreciate that it’s not enough only to be able to play well one way, often you must alter your style to beat others. You must have the capacity to have other ways of play and to be able to cope with all styles. Above all the player and trainer should get together and think of a specialty which can make the player unique.

In China players have the opportunity all the time to compete against all differing styles of play; from the national and provincial squads down, all training groups have all techniques, defenders, short-pimple pen-hold attackers, long-pimple blockers, left-handers etc. Where the women don’t have a style to spar against they will ‘borrow’ a man player or even create a player with this style. In comparison in Europe often players meet only one or two styles in training and don’t know how to cope with many others. It is very noticeable in the World Championships that often a good European player may win over one or two Asians but then comes up against a style she doesn’t understand, such as long pimple defence or pen-hold attack and then loses easily. If the Europeans are to compete on a level playing-field then it’s probably going to be necessary for the women from various countries to have joint training camps together and to be provided with different sparring styles. There are just not enough good women of a high enough level in most countries in Europe.

There is also a rather different mental attitude in Asia and Europe. Many Europeans seem to lack the real competitive edge when playing against oriental players, often give up and appear to be resigned to losing. In China there are always reserves waiting. It’s very hard to get into the team and very easy to lose your place, never to return. It’s absolutely vital to a Chinese player that she takes the one and only chance she may ever have and makes the best possible use of it. Too often in Europe there are only one or two good women in the team and they are going to stay there win or lose. As a result there is no real incentive to keep raising their levels, they are already the best in their country and they are going to stay in the team because there is nobody pushing for their place, no competition! In such circumstances it’s very easy for players to let their game stagnate and to cease working at continued growth and development.

Finally Asian women train much longer and more professionally than their European counterparts. Six hours or so is a normal daily minimum with coaches in constant attendance to monitor performance and keep training in the right direction for the player’s individual style. (Many top players fit in extra sessions over and above this!) In the case of the Olympics or the Worlds, for the Chinese players we are talking about training camps in the country away from family and friends, a Spartan environment free from all distractions, to which the players willingly submit in order to achieve success. In fact the European women with a lesser number of good players, a lesser variety of sparring styles to train against, generally less extensive advice and information on the direction of their individual style and how to achieve their goals and much less daily training time, face a long, uphill battle if they are ever to dominate and take over from the Asians.

European Girls

Rowden Fullen 2009

Many European girls need to be much more multi-dimensional. They tend to try to play positively but predictably and often too hard and without understanding the values of the incoming ball. The ball which bounces long on your side can be hit with power and spin, the ball bouncing mid-table can only be hit hard if you drive/kill flat and early; if you leave this ball late you must use much more spin.

They need to train multi-ball against a variety of lengths and spins till the reading of the incoming ball and the response are fully automated. Unfortunately we have very few feeders who can do this effectively. Another exercise which is very good for building automated responses and speeding up ‘reading time’ (developing adaptive intelligence) is to train v players who can play fast hard drive-play and also stop-block off the bounce with both heavy backspin and float. Again even in our National Academies we have few if any coaches/sparring players who can do this.

Further areas where girl players must develop dramatically to match the top Europeans and the Asians are in serve and 3rd ball and in short play. With serve I would suggest working much more with the high throw and trying to develop differing spins, speed and direction. Another multi-ball exercise to help with short play is as follows; one or two long push balls to BH, one or two short chop balls to middle or FH. Then change to one or two long to FH and again short etc. In the short ball situation players must try to do different things, short drop balls, flicks and long pushes with and without spin.

In all of this you have to bear in mind that in Western Europe we only aim to produce women in the top 80 to 300 in the world rankings and we don’t have any higher ambitions. We will never produce players in the top 30 in the world until we focus on the types of style which can get there and the requisite training methods. We also need to ensure that the appropriate sparring is available.

It is not possible to produce world class players in a vacuum but unfortunately few of our coaches are prepared to spend 100’s of hours studying the top women in the world and working out how and why they are successful. Instead many are locked into outdated methods which will only ever have limited success. Only one or two countries over the whole of Europe (mainly the Eastern bloc) are having any real measure of success with girls/women — Romania, Czech Republic, Russia and former satellites and Hungary. Some of their technical areas of development are quite radical and of course Western coaches in their wisdom refuse to accept that these can ever produce success.

The ‘proof of the pudding is however in the eating’ and over the last four or five years the only top youngsters (European born) to have gone on to world success in rankings are Pota (Hungary) and Dodean and Samara (Romania). More recently the Czech girls Vacenovska and Strbikova have had great success playing a more Asian close-to-table style. Interesting what?

Girls in UK 2009

Rowden Fullen 2009

Many girls give up with table tennis in their early years. Clearly many more boys continue rather longer with the sport. Internationally, especially with the women, England has slipped dramatically in recent years since the halcyon days of the late ‘40s and ‘50s when we were world champions in team and doubles and in finals in the singles events. Even in the ‘70s and 80’s we were a force to be reckoned with and one of the best 3 to 4 teams in Europe. Now we are nowhere.

So just how do we set about changing the position and getting back to the situation where we can at least be a force in Europe? Times are different now – we must first start by creating the situation where our girls have opportunities to progress. If we don’t have the economy to collect national training groups together, we must be creative and find other methods to evolve.

One method used by Donald Parker in 1988/89 and detailed under his Junior Training Policy document was as follows: ‘We have had some excellent training sessions at Grove, these will now continue but will be organised by the Grove Club and will operate on a self-financing basis. Clearly this sort of training is excellent preparation for players hoping to make the England Training Camps and the England Team’. Are we saying that now in 2009 we don’t have big clubs which could help in this type of venture?

The Association should also be prepared to look at training opportunities abroad and be prepared to support more of our girls in private training initiatives in Europe. We have a number of coaches and top players both in and out of the system in UK, who have good connections with National Associations and big clubs in Europe and in Asia. It is time that we should start to use such connections to help in organising training and exchanges abroad. But in most cases where possible players need to take advantage of such opportunities alone or in small groups – in this way they are faced with new ideas and learn to evaluate and understand for themselves when and where the training and development is suitable to them as individuals. If they are to grow as players they must learn to work things out for themselves.

Many things are changing in our sport and we must change too. That things happen is in most cases a matter of ideas and the ability and energy to translate ideas into reality. This applies to associations even at district and national levels. We cannot afford to be too traditional or parochial in our outlook. At the moment unfortunately it’s quite obvious that the top English girls are not getting the same advantages/input as the top junior boys. If the Association doesn’t have the finance or the know-how to develop our girls then it should be ready to let others have a go. Ignoring the situation and doing nothing is hardly an option.

One of the first areas to look at is the possibility of competing more abroad in both leagues and tournaments. Many of the top players in England have done this for a number of years. The more our young girls can compete outside of England the better for them and for the development of our table tennis. They will have much more varied opposition and their game will quickly gain in strength and maturity. Even if the Association cannot afford too many trips abroad it can certainly encourage players to compete privately in Europe or even further afield and support them with accreditation where necessary.

We must place a great deal more emphasis on setting up individual training programmes. Every player must without exception have their own personal trainer – even if this means daily contact on MSN or by e-mail. We must work much more with outside specialists, chiropractors, physiotherapists and sports injuries experts. It’s very important too that we have continuity in the National Teams and that we have a policy of working together with all who are involved with top players. The willingness to cooperate must always come from the top. We should think along the lines of the officials in the Football Association, who admit quite openly that they have major difficulties and problems trying to work with certain top managers, but that this is something they have to deal with if they are to get their cooperation and the access they require to the best club players.

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

Rowden Fullen 2002

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 can keep control of the table with the forehand on the subsequent ball. The men used to take over 80% of the opponent’s serves with the forehand wing (however now there is an increasing tendency at top level to use the backhand receive). If top men can’t open against the serve, the main receive is the short push return with the forehand or nowadays more and more with the backhand even well over on to the forehand side.

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.

Win over Asian Women

Rowden Fullen 2003

A number of top coaches and top women players in Europe seem to be of the opinion that if you can topspin the ball powerfully from both wings and get in the first attack, then the road to victory against the Asian players is open. The idea is often to develop the player’s style towards a two-winged topspin game similar to the men. It is also important of course to have the capability of attacking first and of using the serve to set up a third ball attack. These are keys to winning at top level. However is the concept of a consistent, strong topspin attack sufficient in itself in the women’s game? Perhaps it is necessary to examine the whole approach to this type of style in more detail! It can also be necessary to point out that we should see clearly what is happening and not what we would like to happen!

There is for example 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 5 in the women’s rankings at 15 years, serves around 97% short or half-long serves. The Asian women excel and are much more confident in the ‘short’ game and at opening against a backspin ball even over the table. They are superior in short play and Europeans must analyse the possibilities in this area and upgrade their technique and tactics.

It’s vital to have the advantage on the serve/receive and the ‘next two balls’. If we let this advantage slip away then we are on level terms or even a little behind with handling the 2nd and 3rd ball and this lack of dominance can lead to us losing the point. It’s also important to reinforce control and counter-control measures over the 4th, 5th and 6th balls so we maintain an offensive initiative and do not let the play drift into a stalemate situation.

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

Indeed it is of some importance that the point be won after one or two topspin balls. In longer rallies top European women often lose the point. This in fact emphasizes the difference between the men’s and the women’s game. In the men’s game with the longer rally the Europeans have an equal or better than equal chance of winning the point, as the Asians are a little behind in counter-looping techniques and are often weaker back from the table, especially on the backhand side. Therefore when the rally degenerates into a control situation they are at a disadvantage.

The reverse is the case with women’s play – women don’t counter-loop, they drive, block, hit or even chop and as a result it is the player who loops, who is at a disadvantage as the rally progresses. In the women’s game the longer a looping rally goes on usually the less chance the Europeans have to win as the Asians initiate speed or variation. There is just too much pace or variation on the return ball and it is difficult to maintain consistent pressure with topspin tactics. In the women’s game therefore it is the first one or two loops which are of prime importance and it is vital that the loop player makes the opening to ‘kill’ and wins the point as early as possible in the rally.

European women should bear in mind too that there are other alternatives when opening up against a backspin ball. The Asians often demonstrate the hard first-ball hit against backspin, which we would do well to work at more often. As women usually play closer to the table this is a viable alternative to the loop. It is feasible to either use the incoming spin or to create your own, but the most important factor is to take the ball at an early timing point to pressure the opponent.

Another aspect that strong women topspin players could work profitably with is counter-looping techniques. Give the opponent the half-chance to spin the 2nd ball for example and then pressure her directly with an aggressive topspin counter. This tactic is common in the men’s game but is rarely if ever used in women’s table tennis.

Often if you assess the European woman’s game plan she uses something like 60% drive or flick play and only 35% topspin. Does she fully understand how she should play? True short play may be the key but she must use the right tactics to get her spin in from a short play situation! If she puts the emphasis on speed and power she usually gets a faster ball back and it’s then more difficult to create good spin! As a result flicking and drive play over the table often work against what she is hoping to achieve – good spin on the first one or two balls so that she creates the opportunity to win the point. In other words spin one or two then hit!

If we also often use a fairly high ratio of long serves (over 30%) the result is again that we get a hard return and have problems in creating enough spin on the third ball. When we assess the backhand too in Europe we often see that women have not really such good spin capability or don’t try to use much spin – more often than not they drive the ball. Again as a result they get drawn into the counter-hitting type of game.

Not only must we work at developing better serves, but must use them to best effect. The priority (and here length is of particular importance) is to get the opponent to push so that we can loop strongly and with good spin on the third ball. We then have the initiative in the rally. The same applies on receiving. Subtle use of the push or of techniques such as the stop-block against the Asians will pay more dividends than trying to flick or open all the time, especially when our first opening ball is weak or has insufficient spin.

Often the tendency in Europe with a woman is to harness the strength element and to encourage her to play more like a man. This strategy ignores both the theory of the creation of spin and the differences between the men’s and women’s game. Top European women are often made to look very ordinary when they meet players who can control their hard loops and who pick the right ball to counter.

The theory of the creation of spin tells us that the harder you hit the ball with a closed racket, the more spin you will create. Women are not as strong as men and will never achieve as much spin as men. It’s of little use taking the view that a strong woman can hit harder than a man – compare Boros with Wang Liqin or Kreanga and there is little or no similarity in the power development.

Equally the return ball is completely different in the women’s game. Rarely if ever do women run back and counter-loop, they block, hit or defend. More often than not the loop player just has no time to loop more than one ball, as her loop comes back with so much speed – and in many cases the harder she topspins, the faster the ball comes back. Such players as Steff for example (top 10 world ranking) have the capability to topspin the first ball then come in and counter the next ball from a very early timing point. It is often in fact a better tactic in the women’s game to topspin slower and with more spin rather than faster and with more power.

The other critical point about the women’s game is that both because of the lesser topspin and the greater use of differing rubbers, players face a much more unpredictable reaction from the ball after the bounce than they do in the men’s game. This tends even to influence the technical development of the female topspin stroke. There is little point in developing the habit of starting the loop stroke too far back if you’re uncertain just what the ball will do after the bounce.

Overall in fact there seems to be very little point in women training to loop several balls in succession. Rather they should be training to loop one (or two) then smash. Spin rather than speed is of the utmost importance so they create the opening to hit hard on the next ball. In fact the single most important loop is the first opening against a backspin ball.

If you look at the top European women such as Boros and Steff you in fact perceive quite quickly that they do not run away from the table and loop several balls in a row. Indeed much of the play, over 50%, consists of flick or drive strokes. But they are capable of flicking the 2nd ball for example and looping the 4th. They are also accomplished in looping the 3rd ball if they have the slightest opening and they both have good serves and good variety in the service area.

One final aspect that we must of course stress is the importance of competing in Asia. It is necessary to play against Asian players and often, in order to learn what we need to work on to defeat them.

A Stepping Stone

Ian Marshall (2003)

‘Four Chinese again’, is the comment I hear in the background. Once again a major international competition sees four female players from China contesting the latter stages, all three medals on offer will go to the same country.

It’s no good moaning, grumbling, complaining or feeling sorry for yourself; they deserve their success, they’ve worked hard and they’ve won; that’s why we compete, to try and win! So, if you can’t beat them then join them, or at least learn from them, they must be doing something right, they keep winning and the results from the World Junior Championships suggest that the dynasty is set to continue.

It was clear from their performances that nothing had been left to chance, attention had been paid to every detail of their game and they could expose weaknesses in their opponents that against other adversaries did not appear to exist. The European girls were impressive when the ball was long and they could topspin aggressively, the Asian girls, especially the Japanese were quicker close to the table; the Chinese were simply cruelly efficient in every aspect of their game. They were professional in the best meaning of the word, each player had her own style, her own strengths, but all were extremely consistent and when it came to the vital areas of serve, strong first attack and good receive of serve they were supreme.

Defeat for a Chinese female player against anyone from outside the country’s borders is a comparative rarity but it does happen. Kristin Silbereisen of Germany defeated Niu Jianfeng in the ITTF Pro Tour Danish Open whilst Midori Ito of Japan overcame Li Qian in the Girls’ Team Final at the World Junior Championships in Santiago. Splendid performances that no doubt gave the victors great confidence; however from defeat you should learn and it would seem that both Chinese girls learnt and learnt very quickly! A few weeks later Niu Jianfeng won the ITTF Pro Tour Grand Finals and four days after her reverse Li Qian was the Junior Girls’ Singles World Champion.

However, there is an adage that if you can do something once, you can do it again. The problem for many is believing that they can win, simply treating the opposition as a player and not someone from an extra-terrestrial planet, who has a range of skills not bestowed on earth’s mortals. Perhaps that’s why the Chinese girls win, they believe they can win and with some justification, they know that their technique will withstand the most intense pressure whilst their counterparts from foreign lands might well show signs of cracking as the intensity of the situation mounts.

Equally, they have their eyes focussed on the highest goals. I heard the comment in Santiago from some players and coaches: ‘That’s it, that’s her last match’. A strange comment perhaps but one that is heard all too often; the comment refers to the fact that it’s the player’s last match as a junior, the aim for too many girls seems to be to be selected for the national team as a junior and that is their ultimate goal. I can think of one country in particular where more girls have retired from table tennis after playing in their last European Youth Championships than have continued to play in the seniors, let alone progress to greater international heights.

However, the attitude expressed by Li Xiaoxia, Peng Luyang, Cao Zhen and Li Qian, the four members of the Chinese girls’ team in Santiago, was totally different. ‘It’s only the World Junior Championships’, explained Peng Luyang and Li Qian, the finalists in the Girls’ Singles. They showed a great deal of respect for the event and were modest when congratulated on their achievements but they saw their success merely as a stepping stone, they had climbed another rung on the ladder towards a golden goal at the very highest levels.

No doubt they will achieve success on the senior circuit, Cao Zhen has already an ITTF Pro Tour title to her name, the 2003 Malaysian Open; an achievement in itself but no doubt just a stepping stone towards a medal on the World and Olympic stage. The Chinese girls are a credit to the sport, well mannered, polite, gracious but determined and in every department of the game they are comfortable, competent and when necessary courageous.

They win and they deserve to win.

China: National Women’s Team and Pimples

Rowden Fullen 2005

At the SOC there were no Chinese women playing with pimples, even though the female players of almost every other Asian country and many European and Americans used material. This could give rise to the thinking that perhaps Chinese women have moved past the pimples stage and no longer need the help of material. This is in fact far from the truth.

There are many pimple players within the National and the Provincial teams and in China it’s still popular and effective to play with pimples. In fact the national coaches are eager to develop another long pimple champion along the lines of Deng Yaping.

However the reason that the pimple players are not representing China internationally is that only very few players are selected to play in the big tournaments and selection is very much dependent on performance. Many pimple players have lost their advantage as they train against normal players every day and the normal players are very familiar with material techniques and tactics. The current results of the top 7 Chinese women (all in the top 10 in the world ranking and all playing with reverse rubbers) are at the moment very satisfactory and therefore the national coaches won’t take the risk of making changes just now.

As far as the youth policy is concerned China is still keen to develop the full range of women’s styles and pimple players of all types are welcome in the National Team. If such players are good enough, strong enough mentally and get good results nationally and internationally there is no way they will be overlooked.

It is interesting to note that the top Chinese pimpled racket player (defensive) Fan Ying is currently ranked 3 in the world U21 rankings (after 2 other Chinese) and 2 in the U17 ranking (after Guo Yue).

These things of course tend to go in cycles. China have very good reverse rubber women players at the moment, this could well change dramatically over the next 2 years. One factor that China must certainly take into account is the success of Song Ah Sim from Hongkong (only ranked 5 in her country and 46 in the world before the event) against the Chinese women in the SOC. Their coaches must pay close attention to how these results were achieved and evaluate whether they were the results of the rubber, the tactics, or the individual strengths of the player. Whatever, Hongkong has a very strong women’s team at the moment and presents a distinct threat to China’s overall supremacy.

Asian Women: can Europe ever compete?

Rowden Fullen(2010)

The history
The reasons
Facts as they stand now
What can we do?
The women’s game
Understanding the women’s game
Style evaluation and which styles are more successful at world level
To produce top women players, the right system is needed into which to feed our young girls

The history

The last European woman to win a World Singles Final was the legendary Angelica Roseanu in 1955, 55 years ago! The last European country to win a women’s team event in the Worlds was Russia in 1969 with Z. Rudnova and S. Grinberg, who also won the women’s doubles. The last European woman in a singles final was Alicia Grofova from Czechoslovakia in 1973. It is now 2010 and since 1973 there have been no European women in any singles finals or in any team finals.

Since Pak Yun Sung (PR Korea and the first left-hander to win a singles final) won her second singles in 1977 only Chinese women have won the singles event, with the sole exception of 1993 (Hyun Jung Hwa, Korea). In fact two players from China, Deng Yaping and Wang Nan have both won the title 3 times.

Why can’t we in Europe produce players to match the Asians? Is it that we don’t have girls with talent, that we don’t work hard enough, that life in the West is too easy and comfortable? Many millions are poured into sport over the whole of Europe and the Swedes for example have shown in the men’s game from the mid 1980’s up to 2000 that it is possible to match the Chinese and to beat them. So why not the women? Why is it that not over just a few years but over decades Europe has allowed the Asian countries to forge ahead in the women’s game until they are just about out of sight?

The reasons

To my way of thinking there are a number of reasons:
• On the women’s side in the Western world, table tennis is largely a second-class sport and there is not enough funding overall, nor is there enough earning capability for those few women in Europe who reach the higher levels. Women’s table tennis has a low profile
• Many countries are quite backward in the coaching of girls and not much thought goes into their development. Over the whole of Europe coaches do not have enough technical knowledge and expertise in the women’s game. They don’t know how women play and far too often their coaching rationale is based on the men’s game. Even when they see that certain aspects may be important, such as the capability to produce spin, they don’t ask the right questions – such as what type of spin, how should this be produced technically and from where
• Women have many more different paths to top level than the men do and use much more material in their play. Coaches must be more fully informed as to the why, the how and the what. This also means that girls need to have much more individual development and their weapons have to be closely matched to their style and tactics. In the final analysis they must play in a way that is in complete harmony with their mind and body. Girls must have a training programme which allows them to ‘get closest to their full potential’
• We have to recognize that there are certain styles of play which can be more successful at world level than others in the women’s game and where possible (and if it suits the individual) these should be developed
• We do not from the start have a plan to develop our young players for the senior game. Instead we waste time trying to win cadet and junior events and developing techniques and tactics which will not help us at all to survive at senior level. Whatever we do then is too late and too little

Facts as they stand now:

Over the last 15 to 20 years just how close have the European women got to matching the Asians in depth? To be brutally honest – nowhere! Tamara Boros and Mihaela Steff came nearest, were both in the Top 10 in the World Rankings in the late 1990’s and Boros remained there till 2006. She actually attained No 2 at one stage, but Europe has never been anywhere near the Asians in large numbers.

Even now with our top ‘young’ players such as Samara and Dodean they are around 22 years of age and not in the top 30 in the world. The highest ranked European women on the October 2010 ITTF list are Toth at No 32 and Pavlovich at 34. Neither of these are exactly youngsters. China on the other hand has 15 year old girls, such as Zhu Yuling, who are beating women in the top 10 in the world!

The top young players in Europe are just not making any inroads against the Asian domination, in fact it’s the older women in Europe who are maintaining their world positions. On the other hand just look at what the Asians are able to achieve in the senior world rankings:
• Kasumi Ishikawa (Japan, 17 years of age) 420 on the world ranking in March 2006, No 18 in October 2010!
• Zhu Yuling (China, 15 years of age) 105 in July 2010, No 26 in October 2010.
• Gu Yuting (China, 15 in January 2010) 194 in June 2010, 93 in July, 68 in August and 38 in October 2010!

What can we do?

Is there actually anything at all we can do to produce players who have a chance to compete with the Asians? First we have to clean up our approach to coaching and producing our players. Let’s look at what the top coaches and high-performance directors in Europe have to say
Dusan Osmanagic: We all see that the situation in European table tennis is not very good. For me one of the most important reasons for such a situation is the problem with coaches - speaking of course generally as there are for sure exceptions to the rule - most of our coaches are not capable to meet the required standards.
Michel Gadal: We in Europe are much behind, we usually start later, we think in age categories and try to make from young players champions in their age category, not to follow from the beginning only the goal to make a top senior player - in that way we lose a lot of time.
Dirk Schimmelpfennig: All together in Yokohama it became obvious that the gap between Europe and Asia, especially of course China has become even greater. For this I see several reasons - one very important reason is that Asian players have a longer and better table tennis education.
Peter Sartz: Regarding women we do not have training programmes and methods only for women yet; that’s why European women mostly can’t play at top international level. Also in Europe many countries have done nothing to improve their women.
Mario Amizic: The Asian countries have adapted to modern table tennis, Europe has gone backwards. The last three years have seen a particularly rapid decline in Europe; at one time I believed that the younger generation would be able to step into the shoes of the older, but this is no longer a possibility. The present situation in Europe is a catastrophe but if we really think about it, it is in fact the reality we should have expected. The methods we had in place some years ago produced a superb generation of players but these are not working any more. We have lost our way, we are not adapting to new trends and our model is no longer up-to-date. We are trying to produce players of the future with the methods of the past.
The older coaches in Europe will tell you we are not educating our coaches and trainers properly or indeed in the right way. Young, talented, intelligent coaches see no future in table tennis, the money is poor and there is no acknowledgement of their work and achievements. As long as coaches see no real future in their job it will be almost impossible to drive table tennis forward. Instead we get a rapid turnover and little motivation.

The women’s game

We must also take steps in the first place to understand the women’s game, that it is completely different from the men’s and that training and development must be approached accordingly.

Too often the men’s and women’s games are not seen as ‘two completely different sports’ and this is the main reason why women’s play is currently at such a low level throughout Europe. In the women’s game it is almost always speed which wins over spin, which is exactly the opposite of what happens with the men. There are also many more material players among the ranks of the women and coaches must be more fully informed as to the why, the how and the what. Until we have top coaches (not ex-players who have been pushed into coaching roles), who understand how women really play, we are never going to produce top women players in Europe.

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

Understanding the women’s game

What do top European coaches such as Eva Jeler (involved in coaching at National level in Germany for many years) have to say about how women should play?

In my opinion it is a mistake to think that it is enough to adapt the men’s style of practice to the women’s game and assume that this will do. The result of such training methods can only be men’s table tennis at a lesser level. As I see it we need to find different solutions to the method of how to win points - normally with girls you cannot rely on power to win the point, so you have to accentuate placement, speed and safety in the rallies. In comparison, boys try to win points with powerful forehand topspins and everything in the rally is subordinated to the attempt of coming into the right position to use this main weapon.

Such a pattern does not work in women’s table tennis, points have to be won with adequate placement, speed, rotation and change of rotation. An ability to play a fast and secure backhand and to have an adequate answer when the opponent is changing from backhand into forehand is essential. This means that when working with girls we must spend most of the time playing different strokes and combinations near the table. Another problem in Europe is the lack of good foot-work techniques. The foot-work needs to complement all the other elements of play instead of being an obstacle to perfecting the different strokes.

I would like to see us develop a fast game on both wings but with a dominant forehand and the ability to use rotation. When we speak about rotation I don’t have the rotation produced by strokes which begin with a very low racket position in mind, but I’m talking about the rotation produced with fast strokes near the table. When you look back over the last decade you see that the only European women who were able to endanger the Asian dominance did not play "the Romanian style" of fast counterattack without spin, but played a powerful topspin attack fast and near the table.

Style evaluation and which styles are more successful at world level:

• Back from table topspin player: Most women don’t go back and loop to loop like the men, they return in a variety of different ways, blocking, drive, topspin or defence and often using differing materials. They also play closer to the table and are therefore able to play the angles or vary length and speed more easily, especially as they almost always face less power. If the European women want to play a strong topspin game from further back with the bigger 40mm. ball which of course takes less spin, then it would logically appear that their chances of defeating the Asians become even more remote. They give their oriental counterparts more time to play and they give up the chance to control the over-the-table and short play. When coaching girls even at a very young age we must be very aware of the real dangers of allowing them to habitually drift away from the table
• Defenders: Defenders, even the old style ones were always able to get into the top 15 in the world even into the top 10 (Kim Kjung Ah is currently at No 4). However what all defensive players have now come to understand with the big ball and games to eleven-up is the necessity for attack. Often the older-style players will attack with drive play but nearly all the younger defenders have the capability to topspin the ball and to change the form of the rally quite dramatically
• Blockers and counter-hitters: This has always been a style which has been effective at the highest levels in world play, especially as many women play with different varieties of pimples. The Asian players generally have an active game and will open at the earliest opportunity. The hard attack ball is important in their table tennis philosophy. Over the years speed has been the dominant factor in their play and even now if they have to choose between speed and spin it will almost always be the former. They open as early as possible, directly after the serve for example and if they are compelled to play an intermediate stroke, they try to control the play so as to play positively on the next ball. Serve and the third ball hit are fundamental in their armoury and they spend much training time on this. They tend to take the ball at an earlier timing point than the European players. (Ai Fukuhara from Japan is a prime example of this style of play).
• Close-to-table attackers with spin capability: What we are looking at here, where players have the requisite reactions and feeling, is the ability to take the ball early and both spin and drive close to or even over the table. Many of the top Chinese in the last couple of years, Zhang Yining and Guo Yue and some of the young Japanese such as Kasumi Ishikawa have this capability. This is again a style which can reach the highest levels in the women’s game.

What we must also have in our mind is that within the above methods of playing there will be many sub-styles and players who may be generally categorised within a particular style, will of course develop to their own individual strengths. All players are individuals and will impose their own character on a style of play.

To produce top women players, the right system is needed into which to feed our young girls

As Jeler has said too we need a system where girls know where they are going and do not have to face too many conflicting ideas. They should be able to work hard and profitably in an environment where there is no stress and where the developmental pathway is clear and without complication. Above all they must be able to feel that the way they are progressing is in harmony with their physical and mental capabilities. In view of the lack over the whole of Europe of coaches who can help them reach their full potential, girls must also be ready to take more responsibility for their own progress.

In women’s sport it is especially difficult to predict the development of a young player. Mentality and the psyche in general are even more important with regard to girls than to boys. Girls are more sensitive, much more self-critical and can in that way often be self-destroying. Equally working with girls is much more challenging and demanding for the coach and requires rather higher levels of background knowledge and expertise.

European women must from the start come to terms with all the possibilities in the women’s game, with the many differing playing styles, work out which is best for them and develop their own character within the style. There are available to women players many more possibilities for success, many more different paths to the top levels, than there are for men. They only have to be open-minded about this, ready to accept that they need not be limited in their choice. They must also of course train in the right direction for their way of playing. Too often players, coaches and selectors are ‘blinkered’ when they look at women’s styles in Europe. They only really want to see one or two styles of play; it’s almost as if they think that only these styles have a chance to succeed at world level.

Basically we simply start too late to work seriously with girls in Europe. In reality we should start to work with them even earlier than with boys, they mature faster than boys and should be ready to start their journey to the top sooner! It is very important for girls to develop their technical abilities fully before puberty - after that it is quite difficult to change many things. The problem is that the girls start too late to practise properly and are not educated in the right training ethics from the beginning. As a result they then have to backtrack and correct their techniques and concepts of the game first. They are by this stage 16 or 17 and instead of being at the top they are only at the beginning! We are here coming back once again to the "prime reason" - the girls start to have adequate training too late.

I am also of the opinion that most Associations in Europe need the rethink their systems and policies concerning the development of women in their countries. Make it a major priority to find more funding for the women’s game and get the right people involved in the development of girls at a young age. It is obvious that many of the real top coaches and high-performance directors throughout Europe are very much dissatisfied with the way coaching and player education as a whole is progressing and they feel that we are falling further and further behind Asia. However their thoughts and criticisms seem to carry little or no weight with European Associations and those responsible for running them. Nothing happens and most Associations seem to meander along as they have done for years if not for decades. Nothing new or innovative occurs.

We need movement and ideas from the top and we need these now; we are not going to produce players of the future with methods of the past. The one thing we have proved without any doubt over the last 20 to 25 years is that whatever we have been doing with women’s development is just not working or even producing satisfactory results. There is little or no point in continuing in the same vein, we must make changes.

As a matter of interest what has Martin Sorӧs, the Chief Executive of the new Werner Schlager Academy have to say about women’s development in Europe at the 3rd European Coaching Seminar in Vienna, November 2010: ‘In Europe nearly all we could do wrong in conjunction with women’s table tennis, we did wrong.’

Perhaps now is the time for the top-level private centre such as the Werner Schlager Academy in Vienna. With this type of venture we can collect a team of top coaches from all over the world and the Associations in Europe can leave the development of their top players to the real experts!

Let us finish with a quote from the man who put England’s rugby on the world map:
Clive Woodward (England Rugby Supremo):
Over the years we’ve encountered many different versions of inherited thinking, or tradition as some call it, in business, sport and government. The symptoms are always the same: blind faith in the ‘way’, nepotism to protect the institution and a culture that heavily discourages, even punishes, any questioning of authority and where change is an anathema. Often the establishment can’t take in the ideas of the visionaries because such an approach would shake up many of their own top coaches – the ideas are too far ahead of what these coaches practise, know and believe in and introducing substantially different ideas would expose their real lack of knowledge.

Usually it’s the establishment environment which is lacking. It doesn’t challenge the players. It doesn’t give the players the preparation they need, it doesn’t give them every chance. The selection system is inconsistent. The coaches insist on styles of play and training methods which are inadequate and behind the times. Players prepare for games at a level of intensity which indicates they are not doing everything possible, everything that needs to be done to win.

In the sports environment what we need is the basic fundamentals of sport managed with a strong business ethic. To win we have to create the right competitive environment and engage the best specialists in each fundamental area of our sport. The myth of sporting superiority is just that – a myth. The strength of the top sporting nations lies in their competitive culture and their high level of preparation, not in some magic gene. It’s no good having roughly the same tools as the other international team; you must be able to apply them differently and effectively.

Comments on the European Girls’ Game

Rowden Fullen (2010)

• The result of adapting the men’s style of play and their training methods to the women’s game can only be men’s table tennis at a lesser level, without the obvious advantages, such as the power, spin and speed of movement, which men bring to the game of table tennis.

• European women need to find different solutions to the methods of how to win points - normally girls cannot rely on power to win the point, so they have to accentuate other aspects such as placement, speed, spin and safety within the rallies.
• When working with girls they must spend most of the time playing different strokes and combinations near the table.
• Instead of playing further back from the table, the European women’s development should be directed more towards the importance of serve, receive and the first four balls and also towards methods of more effective and active play over the table. In this way they will have rather more opportunities to create attacking positions and earlier in the rally.
• Boys win points with powerful forehand topspins and everything in the rally is secondary to the prime aim of being correctly placed to use this main weapon (plus the fact they have the speed to get to the right position). Such a pattern does not work in women’s table tennis; points have to be won with appropriate placement, speed, rotation and changes in these aspects.
• The ability to play a fast and secure backhand is essential (it’s important to have enough strength on the BH wing to keep pressure on the opponent) and to have an adequate answer when the opponent is switching from your backhand into your forehand side and vice versa.
• Another and major problem in Europe is the lack of good foot-work techniques, appropriate to the individual style of play. The foot-work needs to be right for the player's personal style and complement all the other elements of play, instead of being an obstacle to perfecting the different strokes.
• Women should try and develop a fast game on both wings but with a dominant forehand and the ability to use rotation on both sides.
• When we consider rotation this should be rotation produced with fast strokes near the table. When we look back over the last decade we see that the only European women who were able to put the Asians under real pressure did not play fast counterattack without spin, but played a powerful topspin attack fast and close to the table.
• Not enough European women are able to impose their game on the Asians. Rarely if ever are the Asians afraid of the European women’s serves and follow-up ball. They consider that the Europeans have too few serves, are predictable in the way they use them and therefore usually limited with what they can do with the first attack ball (this usually contains too little spin or is not strong enough). Often at the highest level against the Asians, European players aren’t allowed the opportunity to get their strengths in and are not able to use their strong spin early enough in the rally. With their serve and third ball and receive and fourth, the Asians deny them the time.
• It looks as if many Europeans train far too much control play, loop to loop or loop to block, they don’t train to win the point! The result is that against the top Asians they just don’t have the time or the opportunity to utilize the stronger technical aspects of their game.
• European women must also appreciate that it’s not enough only to be able to play well one way, often they must alter their style to beat others. They must have the capacity to have other ways of playing and to be able to cope with all styles.
• Above all the player and trainer should get together and think of a specialty which can make the player unique.
• Too often in Europe there are only one or two good women in the National team and they are going to stay there whether they win or lose. As a result there is no real incentive to keep raising their levels, they are already the best in their country and they are going to stay in the team because there is nobody pushing for their place, no competition! Under such circumstances it’s very easy for players to let their game stagnate and to cease working at continued growth and development.

Rise of the Japanese Girls

Rowden April 2017

It is interesting looking at current female World rankings that Japan is very much in the ascendency.

In the Women’s list the top 10 are all of Asian origin, with China having the 1 and 2 in Ding Ning and Zhu Yuling, with Chen Meng at 5 and Wu Yang at 10. Japan has only 3 in the top 10, Kasumi Ishikawa at 4, Mima Ito at 8 and Satoh Hitomi at 9 but Miu Hirano is at 11. However the Chinese players are collectively older with an average age of almost 25 (Ding is 27) while the Japanese girls average just over 19 with Mima only 16 and Miu just 17.
In fact Miu Hirano has only just won the Asian Championships beating Ding Ning 3 – 2 in the quarters (on her 17th birthday), Zhu Yuling 3 – 0 in the semis and Chen Meng 3 – 0 in the final, to become the first Japanese girl to win in 20 years.
What is also conclusive are the Under 21 Rankings where Japan has 8 out of the top 10, numbers 1, 2 and 3, 5, 6 and 7 and 9 and 10. China has no women in this category, the other two places are filled by Hong Kong at 4 and Singapore at 8. Japan is the number 1 ranked team in the World in Juniors (under 18), with 6 girls, ranked 1 to 4, plus the 6 and 10; China has 2 players at 5 and 7, Romania 1 and Puerto Rico 1. Even in the Under 15 Rankings, Japan out of 5 Asian players has 3 at 1, 2 and 8 with 1 from Hongkong at 4 and another from Korea at 9; there are 2 players from the USA and 1 each from Russia, Romania and France. China has no players in this category.
So just what is it that the younger Japanese players are doing that is making the difference? The clues are in Miu Hirano’s victories over the World 1, 2 and 5 in the current Asian Championships. She lost the first two ends against Ding Ning, the first 3 and the second only on deuce, but was already showing that she was faster and was capable of using the plastic ball better. From 0 – 2 down Miu won the 3rd to 9 and the 4th 16 – 14. In the 4th Ding was 9 – 5 and 10 – 8 up. Miu was not only faster taking the ball at times very early, but she was extremely strong on the BH and excellent at placement and variation; not only was she capable of playing very wide off the side of the table but also targeted the body well and played the line to perfection especially straight to Ding’s FH. Once in the rally she never gave Ding time to settle, kept moving her and was always prepared to improvise from time to time. In the 5th Ding was 6 – 4 and 7 -- 6 up but never lead after that and lost 10 – 12.
In the semis and final, against the World 2 and 5, Miu never looked like losing and won both 3 – 0.
Just what can we take from these results. On the Chinese side there were a number of obvious points.
● All their players drifted away from the table at times and as soon as they did this they were open to the wider angled ball and being moved from one side to the other
● All their players were outplayed and outmaneuvered by Miu’s BH which was invariably taken very early and close to the table
● They underestimated her serves and 3rd ball and how well she could use them
● They couldn’t cope with her speed and total unpredictability in placement
● They couldn’t cope with the wide angles
● They tried to use their FH from the BH corner and often got out of position
There were also areas in which Miu could have performed better and been much more dominant. This is understandable as she is still young, finding her own feet and learning what she can and can’t do. She could have:
● Handled short serves and receives better at times and used a bigger range of alternatives and more precision in placement early in the rally
● Changed the pace more often especially when the opponent retreated
● Considered her strategies more when forced back herself. She is relatively weak from a deeper position
● Thought more to use the block on the FH side to create openings and pull players in and out
Overall I felt that the Chinese players are still trying to play celluloid ball strategies with the plastic. Around 2009 to 2010 they had some of the fastest players in the world and the priority was speed (Zhang Yining and Liu Shiwen) but over the last 5 years or so they’ve moved away to more spin and often a little deeper positions. As a result they are still lifting and not playing through the ball enough. The Chinese players often looked slow and ungainly against Miu’s extreme speed and wide placement, but of course over the years they have played much longer with celluloid.
On the other hand the Japanese being younger (Ito’s another example) have adapted quicker to plastic techniques. They understand that spin is of much less value, especially off the table and they are prioritizing speed from very early in the rally. I am just surprised that the Chinese have not caught up especially in the younger age groups and are not producing players of this type and working more at closer-to-table play. However when you’ve been so successful for decades perhaps it takes time to understand that when the science changes, the techniques and strategies may need to change also.
It is also quite ironic that the Chinese women after decades of speed and closer-to-table stop/start play have more recently been prepared to develop a little more like the men, only to have the game change with the introduction of the plastic ball.

The Science of Women's Table Tennis

Rowden April 2017

● The last European woman to win a World Singles Championship was Angelica Roseanu in 1955. This was over 60 years ago and should indicate to coaches in Europe that we are not working in the right way with women’s development in our sport.

● Over many decades speed has been the dominant factor in the Asian women’s game and if they have to choose between speed and spin the choice is almost always speed.
● Asian women conventionally take the ball at a much earlier timing point than their European counterparts and control the rally with speed or pace variation until they can win the point.
● Asian women open as early as possible and the serve and 3rd ball are fundamental to their tactics.
● European women have always played further from the table and have prioritised spin which has worked in the European men’s game. To compete on a level playing field the European women need to be better closer and use more alternatives over the table.
● Women have never been capable of achieving as much topspin as men off the table due to lesser power, slower dynamic movement and around one third to one half less upper body strength.
● With the new plastic ball the maximum spin revolutions per second have almost halved in comparison with the small celluloid ball, therefore scientifically there is less point in women working at spin off the table.
● Asian women also consider footwork training of high importance as this gives them a better opportunity to get to the ball with more time for alternatives: to select the best stroke and play with power when they can.
● Asian and especially Chinese coaches are well aware of the multiplicity of styles (and the use of materials) in the women’s game and that many of these can be highly successful at international level. They focus much more on individual development and the use of differing techniques to strengthen unusual specialties peculiar to specific players.
● Coaches in Asia firmly believe in development for the senior game and many of their young girls never compete in the cadet or junior game. In Europe far too often we chase medals in mini events and develop strategies which we then need to change so the player can compete against senior players.
● Asian coaches see the Europeans’ service game as inadequate. They are viewed as having too few serves, being predictable in the way they use them and therefore limited in alternatives for the next two or three balls.
● When analysing matches between top Asians and Europeans it appears that the Europeans train far too much control play, too many rallies with drive to drive or spin to block, but too little emphasis on winning the point and if there is, too late in the rally. Against top Asians the Europeans have neither the time nor the opportunity to utilise the stronger technical aspects of their own game.
● European women need to be much stronger over the table with more alternatives in short play. Particularly important is the receive of short serve and the ability to flick, drop short or push mid-table from a very early timing point (with or without spin).
● To be successful European women must understand the key strategy with the new plastic ball, which is CHANGE. And this is change in all its aspects; change of speed, placement, length and spin; use of angles, straight shots down the lines, balls to the body or crossover; touch play and slow roll balls; use of sidespin (most advantageous spin with the plastic). The new creed has to be total unpredictability in play and the use of one’s own strengths at every opportunity.
● European women must compete hard against Asians and not just assume they will lose if the opponent merely looks Chinese.
● Japanese girls are already showing the way with the plastic, currently 8 of the Top 10 under 21 women are Japanese and none from China. Japanese girls are also holding the number one position in the World Junior Girls’ Team ranking with 6 players in the top 10 (including 1 to 4) compared to China’s 2.

Women Asian Superiority

Ian Marshall (2004)

During December 2003, at the World Junior Championships, China and Japan were in the girls’ Team Finals and China in the last 4 places in the girls’ singles.

Hui Jun, captain of the Hong Kong’s women’s team, commented as follows – ‘In Asian countries we have a better training system and a more advanced training system. We place a greater emphasis on developing good technique early in a player’s career, it’s like building a pyramid.’

‘We concentrate much more on the high level players. Also we have specific periods in the calendar that we devote specifically to training and other times where we concentrate on competition.’ In Asia the training schedule is given a high priority when determining the calendar, in other parts of the world it has to often fit around what is at best a chaotic schedule of matches and tournaments.

European players are strong when topspinning but Asian players are stronger when playing over the table – also they have better touch and feel in returning service and are aggressive on the serve and third ball. Countries like China organize their National League to have time for training and preparation for major tournaments – this is a definite advantage. They prepare better and bring a larger number of support people with them to take videos etc. of the opponents. Their approach is thorough and completely professional at all times. Often top coaches in Europe are hampered in their work by the domestic calendar.

The problem in Europe is that in many instances the emphasis is on accruing ranking points and in competing in as many events as possible to achieve this goal. The end result is that in the later teenage years too many players retire from the sport, their technique not good enough to enable them to progress further and they fall victims of a congested calendar that affords minimal time for training and development. Competing with Asia will always be tough but early emphasis on good technique, professional training methods and radical changes to the calendar would certainly be steps in narrowing the gap.

Women’s Statistics: World Championships

Rowden Fullen(2001)

Women’s Singles 1926 - 1955 = 22

(One year, 1937, both finalists disqualified)

HUNGARY CZECHOSLOVAKIA U.S.A. AUSTRIA ROMANIA TOTAL
10 3 1 1 6 21

Women’s Singles 1956 — 2001 =24

CHINA JAPAN KOREA TOTAL
14 7 3 24

Women’s Team 1933 — 1956 =16

GERMANY CZECHOSLOVAKIA U.S.A. ENGLAND ROMANIA JAPAN TOTAL
2 3 2 2 5 2 16

Women’s Team 1957 — 2001 = 23

CHINA JAPAN KOREA RUSSIA TOTAL
14 6 2 1 23

How do we produce girls who can compete in Asia?

(2008)

Clive Woodward (England rugby coach – World Cup 2003)

Over the years I’ve encountered many different versions of inherited thinking, or tradition as some call it, in business, sport and government. The symptoms are always the same: blind faith in ‘the way’, nepotism to protect the institution and a culture that heavily discourages, even punishes, any questioning of authority and where change is an anathema. My unspoken thought is always – Why is our sport so far behind? Why are we so ridiculously amateur?

Mario Amižic (Croatia, one of most prominent European coaches)

Some people say the present situation in European table tennis is a catastrophe, for me it is the reality we could have expected. Last 3 years table tennis in Europe has rapidly gone down - I believed that the young generation will be able to step into the shoes of the previous generation, but now I cannot see that they made any progress.

Michel Gadal (French Director of Sports)

Concerning the women I am not very optimistic, we have really a very difficult situation in Europe.

Li Yan Yun (National coach Austria, women’s team)

In past some young European players came very fast to the top in Europe, like for example in their time Olga Nemes, but then they did not develop further. We never analysed why it happened to several European talented girls and if we do not start now to make it better the same will happen to the present young generation.

Peter Sartz (National coach, Denmark)

Our juniors are too long playing only in the juniors; we do not put them into senior teams where the competition is much stronger.

Neven Cegnar (National coach Croatia, women’s team)

In my opinion table tennis situation in Europe regarding women is bad. I think that Europe is wrong in letting numerous young and old Chinese women play in European national teams.

Comment

I think Clive Woodward hit the nail on the head. We live and think too much in the past. If we are to succeed in today’s world we need to be totally professional in everything we do – the Associations need to be professionally run, coaching and selection need to be professional and above all we need to have the right people in the top jobs. Many Associations in Europe are unfortunately quite backward in girls’ development. Because of poor salaries we do not get top coaches in the girls’ game. Girls are often treated as ‘second class’ and if there is any shortage of funding they are the first to suffer.

If for example we are not producing numbers of top girls and girls who can achieve real results outside of Europe, do we really think that this situation is going to change dramatically if we keep the same old coaching and development staff, doing the same old jobs, in the same old way? In Brazilian football you are National Coach only for the 4 years from one world cup to the next and then you step aside for the next management team. Brazil is always in search of new ideas and fresh impetus to keep things moving forward, no matter how good they are or what they have just won.

What we really need with the girls in Europe in the case of many Associations is a completely fresh start. No-one can tell me that we don’t have girls with talent because we do, neither do I subscribe to the view that our girls are not committed and are not prepared to work hard enough. With the right guidance and handling we can have a dozen top girls in most European countries within one year. It is not the basic ‘clay’ that is the problem; unfortunately it’s the way the clay is moulded and developed over the years which results in substandard pottery. We need the professional approach; we need to produce winners, as one or two countries in Europe such as Romania and Germany succeed in doing.

So what do we need to do? ‘First of all, the players must be in focus and not the coaches. We need to look at every player as an individual and understand that two players cannot be coached in the same way depending on their different needs’. These are the words of Emanuel Christiansson (Sweden) and no truer words can be spoken in the case of girls’ development. In the women’s game there are many more ways of playing and many more paths to the top than there are in the men’s game. Training top women demands a great deal more from the coach than working with men. This is not only in communication,attention/favouritism, the physical and mental aspects of training, but also the detailed knowledge of the varying materials and techniques/tactics used in the women’s game. Your role too as a women’s coach is often just as supportive as it is tactical.

Far too often in the development of young girl players we are just not professional enough. We ‘play’ at it and wonder why we then don’t get top level players! The first question we must ask of our coaches is not even to do with table tennis – it is this: ‘Have you had teenage children of your own, are you able to get on the same wavelength as young ‘adults’, can you get the best out of them without just wielding the ‘big stick?’ Because if you can’t, you will find it next to impossible to help your players to attain their full potential.

The next aspect too is of major importance – coaching is a two-way process, with coach and player working together to move forward. This is where one of the prime qualities of the coach comes into its own – that of being a good listener. The world’s best players, whether young or old, are often strong characters, who have instinctive ideas as to just how they should play. The last thing they need as a coach is a dictator or someone who insists on forcing them into a mould of his/her own choosing. This is not the way to develop potential but too often unfortunately it is hard for experts to withhold their expertise sufficiently to coach well!

On the same lines at national level just how many coaches work with ‘the inner game’? The awareness of bodily sensations is crucial to the development of skills. Unfortunately the majority of coaches persist in imposing their technique from the outside. The coach should instead try to identify a new way forward with players working from their own experience and perceptions rather than his own. How can the coach decide how positive the player will be at 8 – 10 down or 15 all? Does the coach know just when and where the player is comfortable playing backhands or forehands and exactly where the ‘cut-off’ point is at the crossover? A number of conclusions have to come from inside the player – the coach can prompt, stimulate and inspire but an attempt to dictate will lessen the player’s input and usually water down the long-term potential.

One of the single most vital factors in maximising potential with the young girl’s development and rather more important than with the male is ‘direction’. Girls need to know where they are going and how to get there. It is important to them to understand how they play now and will play in the future. Winning is often not the overriding priority but continual progress and a clearly defined career path are fundamental to their development. Far too often even in National Centres the girls do not get the required individual attention.

At least once a fortnight the coach and player should have an assessment meeting to talk about direction and to ensure the player is satisfied with progress. If a number of coaches are involved with the same player (as unfortunately occurs in many national setups) then each should update information daily on the computer so that other coaches and the player are all equally aware of progress and changes. It goes without saying that the player should have complete access to the information at all times and be allowed to add her own updates as often as she wants. The schedule should not only cover technique and tactics but also mental and physical programmes even if these are handled by outside experts.

It is particularly important that the physical and mental areas are focused on at an early age. Many girls are often less ready to work hard at physical aspects and need to learn good habits from the outset. Girls too usually need more support on the mental side as they often lack self-confidence and can lapse into negative attitudes more easily than their male counterparts.

We said earlier there are many more ways of playing in the women’s game — we only need to look at world champions over the last twenty years to see the variety of styles. The evaluation of, guidance towards and development of an individual playing style are particularly necessary in the case of young girls and should be introduced at an early stage in the player’s career. In many cases this will require from the coach specialist knowledge of rubbers, sponges and techniques/tactics and often some experimentation from the player. After all in the final analysis it is the player herself who must feel comfortable with her ‘weapons’ and with the tactics these weapons will facilitate.

As Li Yan Yun has said, in the past good European girls quickly reached a level, but then did not develop further, a problem which must be analysed and resolved. If we look back over the last several years out of all the top (European –born) juniors probably only G. Pota (Hungary) has continued to progress after attaining top junior status in Europe to reach the top 30 women in the world. Dodean and Samara are now getting there, both in U21 and Women’s rankings, but unfortunately as far as competing with the Asians and as far as numbers are concerned we have just too few top girl players.

What then should be the first step to redressing the situation and getting our training for girls on the right lines? Obviously as a start go to the ‘fountainhead’ of knowledge! Romania produces top girls who continue to develop to the next level in the women’s game. Send our coaches to study the approach and the methods, send our girl players too, to train and learn. If one country is able to produce the goods let’s swallow our national pride, ‘climb on to the bandwagon’ and find out how it is done!

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

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

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

Another vital factor too is size. The single most vital factor in terms of restricting innovative thinking is size — train players in large groups and nothing happens. Everyone thinks the same thing at the same time, there is a pressure to conform whether it is intended or not, a group uniformity. Put three people on a committee and something happens, ten and it gets harder, fifty and nothing gets done. Any biologist will tell you that small groups in isolation evolve fastest. Put 150 birds on an ocean island and they evolve fast, put 10 million on a big continent and evolution slows and stops.

For the human species evolution occurs mainly through behaviour — we innovate new behaviour to adapt and change. The effect of large groups, of mass media, is to restrict behavioural change. Mass media swamps diversity, all differences vanish, even humanity’s most necessary resource, intellectual diversity, disappears. If we accept that the way forward is to work together in Europe, then the way we do this and how we retain the individual focus are areas which must be addressed first.

So just what will Europe do to get the ball rolling in the case of our girls? Unfortunately, probably nothing! In many countries bureaucracy and politics continue to rule and the interests and needs of the individual athletes, the only ones who can produce the results, come a rather poor second or third. Associations are more often than not reluctant or even afraid to use the resources they do have and tragically this applies even at levels higher than National Associations.

Countries like Great Britain for example simply chose to ignore their former Olympic gold medallists in contributing to prepare for Beijing. Instead the real ‘greats’ of the past, like Daley Thompson and Seb Coe are helping to train rivals from other countries! As Thompson said in a recent interview – ‘It’s down to the British athletics regime. The country’s most under-utilised resource must be our experience.’

Development

Cadet Girls’ Development Sweden

Rowden Fullen (2000)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Vital Role of the District in Girls’ Training

Rowden Fullen (2003)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Girls’ Table Tennis in Sweden

Rowden Fullen (2002)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sweden, Girls’ Play: the Big Ball

Rowden Fullen (2001)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Developing the Talent of our Girls

Rowden Fullen (2002)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women’s Development in Sweden

Rowden Fullen (2004)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lecture on Girls’ Development

Rowden Fullen (2004)

Training programme

Women – key issues

Girls’ seminar

Girls groups – key aspects

Practical exercises for girls

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

1) TRAINING PROGRAMME

Programme Development

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

Areas to work in.

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

Typical session layout

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

Ground rules.

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

2) WOMEN: KEY ISSUES.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3) GIRLS’ SEMINAR

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

4) GIRLS’ GROUPS: KEY ASPECTS

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

5) PRACTICAL EXERCISES FOR GIRLS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6) 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.

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

Rowden Fullen (2009)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coaching women in Europe: ineffectual

Rowden Fullen 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Direction not Sparring

Rowden April 2017

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

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

Improving Women's Table Tennis in Europe

Rowden Fullen 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

Research into Women’s Table Tennis

Rowden 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rowden January 2015

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

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

Teaching

Girls’ Training in National Centres: Programme Layout

Rowden Fullen (2005)

Examples of weekly reading matter. (One theory article each week).

  1. Just how should women play. (plus Success Triangle).
  2. European and Asian women’s game.
  3. Achieving perfection in performance.
  4. Winning.
  5. The mechanics of the long serve and why women use it more.
  6. Girls’ training needs – a method.
  7. Loop attack and the women’s game.
  8. Swedish girls and the big ball.
  9. Offensive play and spin.
  10. The first four balls.
  11. Girls’ play and National Centres.
  12. Thoughts on training.
  13. ‘Funny rubbers’.
  14. The axis.

Individual training programme. (To be handed out at the first session). Women’s development series handouts depending on whether player uses normal reverse or pimples on the B.H. wing. Other programmes in the case of unusual players or players with existing ‘specialties’.

Practical mental development, players to read and digest so that they understand and are ready to cope with mental training during sessions.

Programme development.

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

Areas to work in.

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

Typical session layout.

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

Ground rules.

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

Girls and National Centres

Rowden Fullen (2007)

As a coach you have a large measure of responsibility for the direction of your player’s development and you should always be ready to answer questions. Not only parents and players but other trainers at varying levels will have queries as to where the player is going, why they are going along this path, which aspects you decide on and where you have discussion with the player, which equipment is best for him or her, what the short and long term goals are, what the end style will be. You should always be clear in your own mind as to where the player is going and how he or she is going to get there. Equally on regional and national camps and especially at national centres parents and trainers should want to know exactly what is going to happen to the young player and national coaches should be ready with their answers and prepared to justify their position. They are after all paid servants of the association. Far too often however (if we have any communication at all) we encounter too many fairy stories and too little professionalism.

* What plans are there for the player’s mental development?
* Will players be taught to be flexible in the mind?
* Is training in the centre the same for male and female players? Are there different training methods for girl players?
* How many table tennis theory sessions are there each week?
* Do the players have their own representative so that they can bring problems and complaints to the attention of the head coach?
* How often do players and coaches meet to evaluate technical problems or is this only done in the training sessions?
* How many times a month do coaches discuss with players how they personally are going to develop, where they are going and how they are going to get there?
* In which areas of style development does the coach have the final say and in which are the player’s views of more importance?
* How much time is spent on the cultivation of table tennis consciousness?
* How much time is spent training against differing materials or playing styles?
* How many and how often are outside sparring players available for training with centre players?
* Do seniors, juniors and cadets train together or are they segregated?
* How many hours multi-ball are there each day?
* Will there be coach supervised serve training?
* Are training sessions geared towards the individual needs of the player?
* Is physical training geared towards the player’s personal style requirements?
* Are there any political or traditional limitations to the player’s development? In other words at national level are certain styles more favoured than others because the coaches understand them better or feel these are more suited to our culture?
* Is it part of the coaches’ job at regional or national level to deliberately change the style of the player if they think this style will not be effective internationally? Do they liaise with the parents and the player’s own trainer if they are thinking along these lines? Do the coaches involved have the knowledge and the insight to do this?
* How many times a year do parents and the player’s own trainer get reports from national/regional centres?
* Will players be introduced to the advanced playing techniques suitable to their type of game?
* How much time is spent on serve/receive exercises during each training session?

Questions such as these should not pose the slightest threat to senior coaches who have worked with player development for many years. When you consider national training then the level at which such centres are run should be above reproach and open to examination at all times. Above all there should be an organized and in-depth programme and players and parents should know the direction and content of the course. Parents committing their children to such places for a number of years have every right from the outset to definitive answers on both education and training and there should be not the slightest difficulty in obtaining these.

Also at national centres there should of course be separate programmes for male and female players. Not only are the playing styles very different but the variety of paths to the top in the women’s game call for a rather different approach and differing training methods. European girls must come to terms with all the possibilities in the women’s game, with the many differing playing styles, work out which is best for them and develop their own character within the style. There are available to women players many more possibilities for success, many more different paths to the top levels, than there are for men. They only have to be open-minded about this, ready to accept that they need not be limited in their choice. They must also of course train in the right direction for their way of playing.

Too often players, coaches and selectors are ‘blinkered’ when they look at women’s styles in Europe. They only really want to see one or two styles of play, it’s almost as if they think that only these styles have a chance to succeed at world level. Perhaps in Europe we should take a closer look at just how the top women in the world have played over the last 10 years, think about the variety of styles and why these players have been successful. Perhaps also we should stop trying to influence women to conform to men’s playing styles, even where these have been successful!

European girls must also appreciate that it’s not enough only to be able to play well one way, often you must be prepared to alter your style to beat others. You must have the capacity to have other ways of play and to be able to cope with all styles. Above all the player and trainer should get together and think of a specialty which can make the player unique. In Asia players have the opportunity all the time to compete against all differing styles of play; from the national and provincial squads down, almost all training groups have all techniques, defenders, short-pimple pen-hold attackers, long-pimple blockers, left-handers etc. Where the women don’t have a style to spar against they will ‘borrow’ a man player or even create a player with this style. In comparison in Europe players often meet only one or two styles in training and don’t know how to cope with many others. The ultimate level of play is as a result strictly limited. Training methods must be devised to overcome this particular problem and where necessary appropriate sparring organized. The development of adaptive intelligence in the women’s game is of paramount importance.

A word about the opposition provided in training, your sparring partners and the level. Many players seem to think that you can only improve by training with much higher level sparring than yourself. If you always play only against much better performers than yourself, how do you ever learn to impose your game on others and to develop your own tactical ploys? The better player is always in control! You need in fact to practise at three levels.

* 1) With players better than yourself to learn new things and upgrade your skills.
* 2) With players of similar standard to work out new tactics and try to control the play.
* 3) With players of lesser ability where you can control the game and have more opportunities to use your more powerful strokes.

Often at national centres training is allowed to become too rigid and inflexible and there is a lack of innovation and ideas. With large training groups and few coaches, development becomes stereotyped with the same exercises and methods, systems take over and the individual emphasis and personal touch are lost. Coaches do not make or take the time and opportunity to focus on what is individual in style to each particular player. The group as a whole drifts without guidance into a general style of play and development of new and different aspects and personal style specialties is slowed down or lost. Equally training itself, the process of training becomes devalued - players work within the group and often work very hard indeed but in many cases without ever knowing exactly why! They train because they want to be better - how can they achieve any destination when they don’t know where they are going or how to get there? In this sort of situation it’s only the one or two very best players who benefit. It’s very easy for the rest of the group to drift and become merely a support element, expendable cannon-fodder!

On the other hand if the national group is too small you lose the stimulus of variety and it’s too easy for training to become boring and stereotyped, with the same players and sparring day in and day out. As in all things there must be a balance, a balance between individual attention and group training.

Above all parents and coaches should ask the right questions, especially in the case of younger girls starting in national centres and should keep on asking until they get the right answers. After this the next stage is to monitor development so that you are sure it is proceeding as planned. If you can’t get answers then be suspicious, if things don’t happen as planned be even more suspicious! Over the whole of Europe there are many of the best individual players who don’t go to their national centres and have refused to do so even in the face of threats of expulsion from their national team. These players and their coaches must have very good reasons for such a stand. In those countries where many top players do go to national centres results at world level have hardly been encouraging, especially in the case of the women.

What almost all parents and many trainers are totally unaware of is how national coaches for girls’ and women’s teams are selected throughout Europe. In most countries the women’s game is ‘second-class’, it is not a priority. Often the trainer for the men’s team will have ‘responsibility’ for the women too, or perhaps the job will fall on the shoulders of the trainer in charge of the juniors. Usually it’s a question of finance and the largest slice of the cake goes to the men – even in the big European tournaments a number of countries will send the men but not the women and the grounds will almost always be because they have a lower budget.

There is also an increasing tendency in Europe for girls’ coaches to come from the players’ ranks but not of the women, of the men! So you get a man who has been a player for twenty years who is suddenly responsible for the development of girls’ table tennis. Or you have a younger male player who has been injured and can’t continue his career so again he becomes a women’s trainer. Very few women players of course in the West would ever want to be a top coach — a woman may sacrifice having a life to be a top player but not to be a top trainer. In many countries in Europe there is also still strong discrimination against women trainers.

Nobody ever seems to raise the question whether a man who has been a player and who has been totally focused on playing and developing his skills in this area in the men’s game, is the one best qualified firstly to be a coach, secondly qualified at all to be a women’s coach! In too many countries it’s the ‘old boy system’ that operates, where top players and administrators stick together – it often appears that it’s not a priority to get the best people in the job or even to get the best possible results. The people at the top like the ‘status quo’, they don’t want newcomers with ideas, they don’t want things to change, above all they don’t want someone rocking the boat and upsetting their carefully preserved positions.

Let me give you an example that will perhaps demonstrate to many of you the difference between the men’s and women’s games. Not so long ago at a tournament I was sitting next to the coach of a man player who has held a top ten world ranking. The coach said to the player - ‘Be careful against your next opponent, he’s a long pimple blocker, plays like the women do and many good players have problems when they meet him’. The player wasn’t interested and his answer was - ‘However good he is, basically he’s only a local league player. He has no chance against the professionals’. He almost lost the first game! His comment when coming over to the coach - ‘ I was wrong, I’ve never met anyone who puts so much spin on the ball, but now I know how I have to play in the next game.’ The coach replied - ‘You know what you have to do only because you’re at a level where you’re able to adapt your game to almost any situation. However you really understand very little, the other guy is not putting any spin at all on the ball.’

The same can be true of men players trying to make a sudden transition to being women’s trainers, they often really understand very little. The career path of a top player is very different from that of a top coach, they may both start out by playing but go their separate ways very quickly. How many top players understand the theory of table tennis, how many understand the method of stroke correction techniques? Many can’t even organize their own game so that they play to near full potential all the time! How can they then do it for others, especially in an environment where different physical and mental approaches are required and where even the tactics can be totally different because of the much larger variety of playing styles?

It is interesting to note for example that out of all the good table tennis nations in Europe only Romania and Czechoslovakia have ever won World Championship gold in both women’s team and individual events and only Romania in relatively recent times. Countries such as Germany and Russia have never won the women’s singles, France, Italy, Holland, Poland even Sweden have never competed in a women’s team final! Perhaps it is just possible that in the not too distant future someone may make the connection that the achieving of success depends in no small measure on the right direction, the right training methods and informed guidance. If you don’t know where you’re going then it’s not easy to get there, in fact you may never arrive!

Coaching Summary: Women’s Development

Rowden Fullen (2002)

  • The prime skill of table tennis is to be able to adapt in an ever changing situation. Cultivate adaptive intelligence
  • Training is repetition in the right environment and with the right attitude.
  • To be a top player your development must be in the right direction for you.

THE IMPORTANCE OF T I M I N G!

Most women drive much more than the men and closer to the table. Timing is more critical than in men's play.

Care with the aspects that can restrict women's development

  1. PHYSICAL CHAINS – the right basics, techniques, tactics and movement. Materials. Play against other styles from an early age. Women’s play — speed control, opening and converting, serve and receive, use of table and equipment, stronger BH, a winning weapon.
  2. MENTAL CHAINS — rigidity in play and thinking. Innovation and feeling, positive attitude, be different. Development means always moving forward.
  3. OWN STYLE – understand this, best distance from the table, know BH and FH split, right movement patterns for your style, how to win points, right training for you.
  4. ADVANCED TECHNIQUES – short play, pace variation, slow loop both short and long, early ball push, chop/stop blocks, late-timed pushes, blocks and flicks, block play on the FH, use of angles, killing through loop, sidespin loop, dummy loop, early ball smash and hit v topspin, sidespin push and block, short drop balls, alternating topspin and drive, alternating topspin/block.

A theme for girls’ groups

Rowden Fullen (2002)

 Girls' Groups

Women: Key Issues

Rowden Fullen (2004)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Girls’ Seminar

Rowden Fullen (2004)

  • 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.

Girls’ Groups: Key Aspects

Rowden Fullen (2003)

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

Practical Exercises for Girls

Rowden Fullen (2005)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seminar on Girls’ Coaching

Rowden Fullen (2001)

GIRLS – KNOW HOW TO PLAY THE WOMEN’S GAME

KNOW HOW TO TRAIN IN THIS — plus ADAPTATION CAPABILITY

KNOW WHERE YOU ARE GOING IN TERMS OF OWN DEVELOPMENT

1. The coach’s job is to unlock the capabilities of his player so that she can reach her full potential.

  • Coaches and trainers.
  • Women a completely different ballgame.
  • More women’s styles and more often changing.
  • With less informed guidance women must control own direction more.
  • TIME in relation to depth and predictability.
  • SPIN Men face power and spin, women speed and flatter ball.
  • TIMING Almost always earlier in women's play.
  • WHAT HAPPENS AFTER THE FIRST OPENING BALL IS CRUCIAL.

2. Ready position and stance.

  • Backhand from middle.
  • CONTROL SPEED.
  • Movement patterns.
  • Opening and ‘converting’.
  • Short play.
  • Serve and receive.
  • Change of speed.
  • Use of table and equipment.
  • Winning weapon.
  • UNDERSTAND OWN STYLE. Direction and right training.

3. Top women's tactics.

  • Angles.
  • Kill loop, vary spin.
  • Early ball push and smash.
  • Sidespin push and block.
  • Block play.

4. Women and material.

  • Adaptation capability in early training
  • Pimples control spin and speed.
  • Pimples vary spin and speed.

5. Ready position and receive tactics changing. The modern game over the last four or five years is much faster.

Technical

The Big Ball: Girls, Thinking Points

Rowden Fullen (2001)

The big ball has now been with us for some time — however just how many girls have taken the time to consider how this will affect them personally? Whether it will be of benefit with their own particular style of play or if it will in fact cause them problems? How many have introduced changes into their training regime to focus more directly on the tactics required to win points with the big ball? And the sixty-four thousand dollar question — how many coaches have actively considered the implications of the big ball in the women’s game and how their approach to the style development of the young girl player should be restructured?

Science has given us certain undisputed facts about the big ball — it’s bigger and heavier and compared to the small ball slower through the air and takes less spin ( in a proportion of about 10 – 20 percent). However it doesn’t explain many other aspects — why so many net balls (top of the net and out), why world class players miss so many simple shots, especially when they try to play very early or very late. It appears that the big ball has a slightly different trajectory through the air, behaves differently after the bounce and drops more quickly as it comes off the table. Some problems in the initial stages have been due to poor ball quality, but this is not an aspect which will persist. Others have been due to the fact that the player has been in the wrong place. The player is in fact in the place where experience has led her to expect that the ball will be — but in fact experience can no longer be relied on in a situation where some factors have changed! This however is also a situation which will not persist, new experience will be formed. Our game of table tennis is changing, if we are to progress we must meet the challenge and change with it. Otherwise we may be left behind. To give us a little more basis for discussion let us listen to what some of the world’s best players say about the big ball.

  • slower tempo, less spin, harder for blockers and speed players to win points.
  • need to hit harder and develop more power.
  • must play the ball more rather than let it hit the racket — better technique and better footwork is required and slightly longer strokes to achieve the same effect.
  • it’s going to call for changes in playing style, nearer the table for example.
  • a little higher bounce, harder to serve and play short.
  • the quality of many balls is bad, because of this and the way the ball plays the level of top play is suffering – you need to be much more active and positive now.
  • it’s harder to win points from back, mainly because you have less spin, the difference in speed is not so much.
  • it’s harder to take the ball very early especially with a short stroke, slightly different bat angle needed on blocking.
  • reactions re serve and receive are very mixed, especially with the women. Some find it harder to take serve, others easier. Most find it harder to win on their own service. Men who generally serve with much more spin don’t stress any big differences.
  • players who hit hard and have power in reserve will benefit.

It is obvious in the future that there must be a different direction and emphasis in the coaching of young girls. Less speed and much less spin will affect all players who prefer to be at a distance from the table — it is harder to win points from back. Is there any way to dramatically increase the power? Unlikely. Women are already at a big disadvantage compared to men in the power department. We could look at faster blades and weight training to strengthen the body, but we must also be realistic. To achieve a power increase of at least 15%, which is what we need, is not easily or quickly achievable. Equally it is hard to envisage any new rubber or technique which would increase spin or deception in the same ratio. It would therefore appear that girls who prefer to play at a distance from the table will rarely win points through disguise of spin or with topspin — rather they will only win by getting the ball back so often that the opponent eventually misses, hardly a recipe for long-term success!

Conversely the blockers and counter-hitters who stay close and use their reactions, (and there are many of these in the women’s game), will benefit from facing less speed and especially less spin. They will have more control in the rallies and more time to select the ball to hit hard. The end result could well be that we shall see rather more control or negative play, especially among the younger girls and at the lower levels in women’s table tennis! If it’s actually harder to win points with the big ball, then there’s less incentive to be positive (many girls are a little negative in attitude anyway).

What exactly does this mean to the coach/trainer of the top young girl player, who is expected to make an impact at European or even world level? Certainly some training areas must now be accorded a much higher priority. One of the prime development areas must be to increase the player’s capability to break up the control game and to accelerate from a control situation into full attack and to look at different ways of doing this. In the majority of cases this is going to involve more emphasis on closer-to-the- table-options.

  • variation in all its aspects must assume more importance.
  • girls have always had more problems than boys in producing good serves, especially with spin and in receiving in a positive manner. If they wish to play at top level it is now rather more urgent that they achieve mastery of these areas and of the second, third and fourth balls.
  • the first hard attack or counter will often win the point – more than ever it is vital that girls have a positive attitude and look to attack early in the rally.
  • the need to play the stroke more and have a little longer action to get good effect (and the necessity to try and generate more power), imply directly that better technique and better footwork are significantly more important.

In view of the differences in both power and spin between men’s and women’s table tennis perhaps it would have been a rather wiser decision to have brought in the bigger ball just for the men’s game. However the powers that be rarely consider the ramifications or how in fact players will be affected, when they make such decisions.

What it means for the young girl who wishes to aim at the highest level, is that she is going to need rather more individual and specialized guidance and more often. From a young age technique, tactics, footwork patterns and the appropriate style development will need close monitoring. She will require specialist help on serve and receive and following up on the second, third and fourth balls, as well as guidance in the strategy of variation. Above all she must be able to take that step from mere control of the play to actually winning the point, always bearing in mind the vital importance of the first good hit or counter.

Such a level of individual emphasis coupled with the appropriate insight into the requirements to succeed at the top in the girl’s game, is rarely available outside Asia. Asia dominates women’s table tennis at world level — the last time a non-Asian team won the Worlds was in 1969 in Munich (U.S.S.R.), the last time a European won the women’s individual title was the legendary Angelica Roseanu back in 1955 in Utrecht. By adopting the big ball it is highly probable that the I.T.T.F. has in fact increased the gap in Asia’s favour and ensured their dominance for a further fifty years.

The Mechanics of the Long Serve and why Women use it more

Rowden Fullen(2003)

At top level in the men’s game the shorter, tight serve is used quite often. Usually it is not very short but rather half-long and delivered with a mixture of backspin, sidespin and float. Thus it is too long to flick and too short to loop and the deception in the spin element also causes problems in dealing positively with the serve. However all the top men are capable of initiating long serves and use them from time to time. In fact the shorter serves because they are increasingly familiar to players are no longer as effective as they were and there is a need to produce more long serves. Even those players who use the shorter serve as an integral part of their game are finding that better results can be achieved by mixing in the occasional long serve.

Certain technical requirements should be observed when executing long serves

  • The first bounce of the ball should be close to the end line in the server’s own court.
  • The contact of the racket with the ball should be just above the level of the playing surface.
  • At the instant of impact an explosive forward momentum should be applied not only with the action of the waist and the legs, but even more important, with the wrist and the fingers. The ‘shakehands’ grip player should emphasize the use of the forefinger in forehand serves and the coordinated action of the forefinger and especially the thumb in backhand serves (or alternatively the wrist alone can be used in the case of the fast sidespin serves). The pen-hold player must apply force with the middle finger behind the racket.
  • Never hit the ball downwards. This results in a larger angle between the line of flight and the table surface, causing the ball to bounce higher. The smaller the angle between the table surface and the flight path, the lower the trajectory. However high you throw up the ball in the service action, always try to have the actual point of contact as close to the table surface as possible and hit the ball forward. This has an additional advantage in that the opponent has less time to read the spin on the ball, because the distance between the ball hitting the racket and then the table may be as small as 4 – 5 centimetres. If you combine this with a fast racket action, then the service can be very deceptive.

In the women’s game the long serve is used much more often and for two main reasons.

  • Women don’t topspin with as much power and such a high spin element as the men. Therefore women can’t hit the ball as hard and on the table as easily as men and it’s easier for other women to control the power and spin that they do feed into the shot. If you remember your theory less power means less topspin and less on-the-table-control for your shots (the ball doesn’t dip down so much on the opponent’s side of the table). For the women who drive more than spin then timing is absolutely critical and to obtain maximum effect they have only a very narrow ‘window’. Basically women have less control against the long serve and especially if they try to return with power. Even at international level the top women do not always even return the long serve on the table!
  • Most women play closer to the table and counter better than the men from this position, it’s an integral part of their game. What better than to serve long, let the opponent open, then just kill the ball past them? Generally women counter extraordinarily well and in many cases from an extremely early timing point. If they use the short service too often they get ‘bogged down’ in a pushing game; many women in Europe are not good in the short game. Even in this situation they will on many occasions push long to tempt the opponent to open so that they can counter once again!

What women players should really be looking at is to return the long serve with something other than power. A ‘stop-block’ for example, which returns a different pace and spin and denies the server the opportunity to use the return speed which they normally expect. Or a slow ‘roll’ ball from a later timing point which gives the server neither much speed nor much spin to work with. Or even the occasional chop or float return. All these returns have the advantage of taking the speed away from the server so that she is not able to use it against you on the third ball. Why play into the server’s hands and do what she wants, why not do something different?

The serve/receive scenario is of particular importance in the modern game. By the way they play it looks as if most European women train far too much control play, loop to loop or loop to block, they don’t train to win the point! The result is that against the top Asians they don’t have the time or the opportunity to utilize the stronger technical aspects of their game. Instead of playing further back from the table, perhaps the European women’s development should be directed more towards the importance of serve, receive and the first four balls and also towards methods of more effective and active play over the table. In this way they will have rather more opportunities to create attacking positions and earlier in the rally.

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

Perhaps now at last is the time for a rather different method, the ‘soft approach’. Instead of thinking power and spin (and women must bear in mind that the big ball will have proportionally less spin and effect, especially if they play further back from the table) why not move in the opposite direction and consider the virtues of lack of power and particularly on the receive of the long serve!

Women Close-to-Table; Square or Not?

Rowden Fullen (2009)

Even in this day and age many coaches still insist on the right-handed player having the right foot back when playing forehands close to the table.

So just what is the reasoning behind this – do we think that we somehow create power by pushing off with the right foot from a position this close to the end of the table? And do we actually have time to do this? And does power come from the legs anyway when we are this close? Power comes primarily from the racket arm in the close-to-table exchanges – there is rotation but this is crucial not to the power input but to the recovery so that the player ends up facing the opponent and is ready for the next stroke.

Coaches then compound the misinformation by telling the player that the right foot which starts from a deeper position, should be brought forward during the stroke so that the player finishes square! Why not just play square in the first place and rotate from the waist into the shot? Another aspect which seems to escape the attention of many is that the ease of rotation becomes more and more difficult as you move round from square to off-square. The hips which are in the area of the centre of gravity rotate much more readily and efficiently from a square position.

There can be other problems too in adopting a side-to-square ready position in that as players move quickly wide to the FH they then tend to drift away from the table at the same time and end up taking the ball later. Technically there are few if any problems in playing the FH strokes square or even over-square, provided only that the player takes the ball early and in front of the body and that there is good recovery-rotation. A number of the top cadets and juniors are now playing like this in Europe, even in countries like Romania, which has a strong tradition in girls’/women’s table tennis – it would appear therefore that these square or over-square techniques cannot be too incorrect.

If one examines the world’s top women in action (at the last World Championships 2009 for example) we see that they stay very wide and square and move in to take the FH early. This is invariably a one-step movement with the right foot (for a right hander) or a jump-step as the top players fully appreciate that there is just no time for anything else. Too often in the West we are still talking about two-step systems (left then right) and a narrower stance – not only does the wider stance provide rather better stability but makes it easier to use the one-step or jump-step movements, which allow the player to come more quickly to the wider ball and give more efficient shot production.

The retained square-ness and width of the world’s top women within the rallies also mean that they not only economise on movement but also rotational requirements. As they move across to the FH they play the shot with limited rotation and a fast arm, so that they recover rapidly for the next ball. Whatever happens in the rally they are aware that the priority is to finish the present stroke in such a way that they are prepared to play the next.

Growth after Technique

Rowden Fullen (2003)

Just what happens when your player becomes reasonably proficient in technique and is able to get to most balls and play her strokes from all areas of the table? Obviously there must still be growth — technique on its own without the knowledge of how to use it effectively is an empty shell. Growth is also vital from the mental standpoint. The player will soon comprehend at least subconsciously that she has stopped progressing and this will lead to a general feeling of dissatisfaction.

It is however precisely at this stage of development where many coaches seem at a loss as to what to do next. They continue to concentrate on the minutiae of technique and work their players harder and harder physically and wonder why there is so often little improvement and diminishing motivation. Another aspect, which many coaches fail to fully appreciate, is that they are not starting afresh at a new stage in their player’s development. What happens next depends very much on whether the correct foundations have been laid in the formative years.

Of course before we even think of investigating how we are going to grow we must first identify exactly what we are going to grow into or in other words ‘destination’, where we are going. To do this we must first define the prime skill of table tennis. What qualities, abilities and capabilities should the prospective world champion possess in order to reach the very highest level? The prime skill of table tennis is quite simply to be able to adapt in an ever changing situation. Unless your player has the capacity to cope with all different styles of play it is extremely unlikely that she will ever reach the highest levels. Either she must be able to change and adjust quickly to the opponent’s game or her own game must be so different or unusual that other players have extreme difficulty in adapting to her style.

This is why too it is so vital for coaches to ensure that their players, right from the early formative years, have the opportunity to train and play against all styles of play and combinations of material. In this way the ‘automatic’ reflexes, the conditioned responses, that the player has to work so hard to build up, cover a much larger series of actions and it is rather easier for her to adapt to new situations. In other words the content and method of training of girl players assume rather more importance than we may have initially thought, especially in the formative years. Why ‘of girl players’? Quite simply because there are many more styles and many more ‘material’ players among the ranks of the women. To play at a high level in the women’s game requires a high ‘adaptation capability’.

Technique is the basis of tactics and the development of technique generally precedes that of tactics. When your player has mastered all-round technique successfully it is only then that she is able to use various tactics to real effect. But also the appropriate use of tactics can allow your player to use and develop her technique to the fullest extent. New techniques will inevitably give rise to new tactics. A thorough understanding of the interaction between technique and tactics will enable us to better understand the vital importance of innovation in tactics in our work with young players.

It is important to fully appreciate that a player will only ever reach full potential by cultivating her strengths and developing what she does best, not by working on her weak areas, until these are passable or adequate! That is why with young players it is important to isolate their strengths in the early years and to put in a fair amount of training time to make these as formidable as possible. Strengths should above all be used and used to win games. The player even at a relatively young age should know how to get her fortés in during the match. This is why too it is very important to work on serve and receive with your young players. Unless they develop an understanding of these areas of the game they are often restricted with what they can do with the next one, two or three balls and they never get the chance to play their winning strokes.

In the case of many of the more advanced areas you will now introduce, the groundwork will have been laid and the preparation made some years before. What will occur now is a refining of tactics and strategies in areas such as control of speed, different permutations of block, short play, early and late timing skills, use of the table, variation in spin, speed, placement and angles and methods of opening up. There will of course be much more serve and 3rd ball and receive and 2nd ball training and most of the exercises you use will be irregular or random.

There will be too a refinement in the mental approach, an understanding of the need to be flexible and positive, of the level of risk taking required if players are to reach the highest levels. Above all there will be an understanding that growth must continue however slow this may be. Whatever level the player may reach, the only alternative to progress is stagnation.

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

It’s important that the player knows how to get the best out of her own game and knows what is effective with her own personal style of play. She should be aware of her most effective playing distance from the table and how much of the table she would cover with the forehand or the backhand. She should understand which serves and receives are most effective with her style of play against different types of opponent, how she should change her game against defenders or pimples and know how to take advantage knowledgeably of return spin on the third or fourth ball. She should know how she plays best — is she most effective in fast counter-play, in a slower game, is she good at looping or drive play, does she know how she wins points, can she change her game against different styles of play?

However at a personal level just how many players actually comprehend that they are training in the right way for them, with the right content and the right methods? Even if you become involved with women players who have been in their national squads for some years and have played in European and World Championships, often they are still not aware how to get the best out of their own game or indeed where they are going. It would appear that a thorough understanding of the relationship of tactics to technique and the intricacies of personal style development are not considered necessary at national level in many countries.

If a player is to continue evolving, each individual should develop their own unique style and do what they ‘do best’. It’s of vital importance that girls understand how they play best and in which way they are most effective. It’s equally important that they train in the right way to accentuate the growth of their own personal style and that they keep developing.

Facts and Observations

Rowden Fullen (2007)

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 is 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.

The Time Element and Implications

Rowden Fullen (2007)

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 0.5 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 shots 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.

Differences in Men’s and Women’s Game

Rowden Fullen (2006)

Q. What are the main differences between the men’s and women’s game?

  • Men play with much more spin and power. The men’s game is about control of spin – the topspin ball dips on to the table at the end of its flight and shoots forward very fast after the bounce. Almost all men tend therefore to take the ball later and the common tactic is counter-loop against loop. This never happens in the women’s game. The women stand closer and take the ball earlier, which is easier to do as there is less incoming spin and power. Women hit the ball flatter and with less spin (due to the lesser power input). This means that the women’s game is much more a question of control of speed. The counter to the loop is varied depending on the style of the player and can be a block, counter-hit or chop. In the case of top women playing against men it is noticeable that they have problems controlling the topspin element.

    Q. Why do men have better serves?

  • Men are stronger in the wrist and forearm and usually have a better understanding of the practical elements involved.

    Q. Why can’t women play like men and beat the men? What are the limitations?

  • Women are capable of and are often able to beat the men but not by trying to play the men’s game and trading power against power. Women have to play to their own strengths, soft-blocking the topspin and flat-hitting the balls with lesser spin at an early timing point.

    Q. Why are there so many more styles of play in the women’s game?

  • Because the women’s game is about controlling speed, women have over the years devised differing means of doing this. If there weren’t different styles in women’s play, then the faster players would always win.

    Q. Are there differences in how and why men and women loop?

  • Not quite so much in Europe but much more in Asia. Asian women often use a slower loop, with much more spin, especially against defenders or when opening against backspin. The usual sequence is to loop slow and hit hard and early. There is a big difference between men and women when it comes to the purpose of topspin. Men tend to loop to win the point, women to make an opening to kill the next ball.

    Q. Why do so many top women use pimple rubbers and the men don’t?

  • Pimples are another means of controlling spin and speed and returning different balls to the opponent. This then gives the pimpled player more time to play her strokes. Generally the men play with so much more spin and power that pimples are less effective. They are used more often in the veteran’s game when the older men start to lose their speed and power.

    Q. Why is technique more important with girls and why can’t girls and boys play the same strokes and with the same stance?

  • Women play closer to the table and have less time to play their shots. As a result aspects such as square-ness of stance, shorter strokes and the relevant movement patterns are of critical importance. By relevant patterns we mean those which apply to the individual style of the player – a block player will not move in the same way as a loop player. Because men play further back, have more time and are faster in movement, these aspects are not so crucial.
  • What is also of critical importance is what happens after the service and during the receive. Because women have less time on the 3rd and 4th ball it’s vital that they use women’s service area tactics and not those of the men. All top women for example use 2nd ball backhand on a fairly regular basis, even those with extremely strong forehands. The men on the other hand usually receive with the forehand as they want to play forehand on the next ball and are quick enough to do this.

    Q. What differing tactics do the top players use and why?

  • Top players are universally positive in their play, particularly after their own serve. Almost all take the ball at an early timing point over the table so that the opponent has limited time to react. Top players are almost always unpredictable in the way they play, variation in placement, spin, speed, angles etc.

    Q. What differing tactics do the top women use and why?

  • Top women use the backhand more than the men both in serving and on the 2nd ball. They push at an early timing point over the table, are always good in short play and are aware of the various possibilities to gain advantage from this situation. Spin and pace is often more varied than in the men’s game.

    Q.How am I individually going to play and what is my development path?

  • The 64 million dollar question. As we said earlier there are many more ways to the top in the women’s game and women world champions over the years have had widely differing styles. Any young female player starting her career has a wide variety of choice – attacking with or without spin, block and hit, defence and any of these combined with material of one sort or another on backhand or forehand or both.

When looking at style development two factors perhaps above all are relevant. How do I best control the speed factor which is inherent in the women’s game? What is my strongest weapon and how am I going to build on this?

Women's Table Tennis - Singles Progress

Rowden April 2017

The first World Championships were held in London in 1926. In the early years up to 1955 Europe dominated with Hungary winning 10 singles (Maria Mednyanszky champion in the first 5 singles and runner-up in the next 2 to Anna Sipos).

Gizella Farkas won 3 finals from 1947 to 1949 and featured in the next 4, being also a finalist 7 years in a row. From 1950 to 1955 Angelica Rozeanu from Romania established a new record winning 6 singles in succession. In 1953 she won 4 gold medals, in singles, both doubles and the team event and was the last European woman to win a world singles.
From 1956 Asia swept the board, with Japan dominating up to 1969. The only exception was in 1961 when Qiu Zhonghui won in Beijing in front of her home crowd. From 1957 the Worlds were held biennially.
Starting in 1971 up to 2015 China has won every women’s singles event with the exception of 3 years. Pak Yung Sun, the famous lefthander from North Korea was the winner in 1975 and again in 1977 and in 1993 Hyun Jung-hwa this time from South Korea was the one to again slow the Chinese steamroller.
In the Brasil Olympics of 2016 China won all 4 gold medals in both team and singles and in fact also had the losing finalists in both men’s and women’s singles. It might therefore seem that China are and will continue to be totally dominant in the foreseeable future, but in fact cracks are already appearing in their awesome machine.
If we look at the World Rankings for U21, U18 and U15 girls, China are in fact trailing way behind Japan in all categories. Japan has 8 out of the top 10 in U21’s the other 2 being from Hong Kong and Singapore; China does not feature in this age group. In the U18’s Japan is the number one ranked country in the world; it has 6 players, 1 to 4, 6 and 10, whereas China has only 2 at 5 and 7. And in the younger girls U15, Japan leads again with the 1, 2 and 8; two other Asian players are from Hong Kong and Korea, again China does not feature in this category and other players are from Europe or USA.
So this does not appear to augur well for the future of Chinese women’s table tennis at the highest levels. They have at present the world 1 and 2 in Ding Ning and Zhu Yuling, Chen Meng is at 5 and Wu Yang at 10. The average age is around 24.5, Ding is 27 and Zhu the youngest at 22. The Japanese are however much younger, have a system for developing top girls and are already packing the rankings at all levels.
The ascendency of the Japanese girls has already been demonstrated in the current Asian Championships which have just taken place in China. Miu Hirano, just 17 during the Championships, beat Ding Ning 3 – 2 in the Quarters, Zhu Yuling 3 – 0 in the Semis and Chen Meng 3 – 0 in the Final. Looking ahead it seems that the Japanese will be in a very strong position with their women for the 2020 Olympics. Hirano wasn’t even in the top 10 women and there are 3 Japanese women ranked above her!
Interestingly enough Japan have even younger players such as Mima Ito ranked at number 8 in the women’s top 10; she will not be 17 till October 2017 and has already won a number of doubles with Hirano in Senior Protours. She even won the German Protour singles beating both Feng Tianwei and Petrissa Solja. At the Rio Olympics she won a bronze medal in the team event for Japan again beating Feng Tianwei in the vital match.
It is also interesting that these young Japanese stars are far quicker than the older Chinese players and are capable of using the plastic ball much more effectively. They take the ball very early over the table and are totally unpredictable in placement, using line and body balls and also extreme angles, but rarely playing two balls to the same place in the opponent’s half. Far too often the Chinese women are retreating too far which leaves them vulnerable and out of position. It seems as if they are still trying to use the older style spin game which worked with the old celluloid ball but which gives much less advantage with plastic. Surprisingly it would appear that the Chinese women have not caught up with the changing science of our sport.
On the other hand the Japanese girls are younger, less experienced and still learning. There are a number of aspects which they can improve on in their play which will make them even more formidable on the world stage.

Women: Is practice in Europe relevant?

Rowden 2011

If we want to compete against the best women in the world, then we need to study how they play and what tactics they use. What do we find when we carry out an in-depth evaluation of how points are won and lost in women’s play at top level?

The first thing we discover is that usually where we have 2 normal attacking players, over 80% of all points are over by the 5th ball. This means that the serve, the receive and the next two balls are of critical importance and if we wish to live at top level this aspect needs a great deal of practice in every session. It is obvious that the receive and the serve and 3rd ball are vital and as much time as possible should be spent in developing these. However other aspects are just as significant:
• Opening
• Effective Pushing over the Table
• Flicking
• Placement
• Specialty Strokes

Even at the very top levels it is noticeable that women play better in a fast game and encounter more problems in opening or in using the push to create opportunities to get into the fast game. Also many of the women have some difficulty ‘flicking’ the short ball. It is therefore critical that these areas are addressed in training and from a young age.

Equally women are able to control the ball in the rally at quite high speed and from this situation manoeuvre to gain advantage. The control of speed and the ability to use placement to catch out the opponent are critical areas too. Any ‘specialty’ strokes which are unique to the player and different and unusual are obviously a bonus, as the opponent will not have trained against such shots and her ‘grooved’ automatic responses will often not be able to cope with new and unusual situations.

When we assess top women’s play we also quickly recognise that there are other relevant tactical aspects. For example:
• Serve is usually of some benefit and gives around a 2 to 3 point advantage every game
• Women still win points with the long serve and women even in the top 10 in the world still put the long serve off the table. This is also not just the odd point but as many as 3 to 4 points a game
• When the game is tight (9 – 9 or deuce) top women either play longer points or go for the 2nd or 3rd ball
• Many balls are played into the body

It would seem that far too often in Europe the women play nice-to-look-at, flowing, topspin rallies, but don’t try to win the point! Much of our training too seems based on rally play. When European women meet the Asians they are immediately at a disadvantage against the serve and receive and the early strokes and even more so against the Asian stop/start style of play.

Equally the Europeans are less effective in the ‘control of play’ situation and do not seem to understand the necessity for the control element prior to breaking out to win the point.

The true measure of a player’s level is in how she controls the safe play prior to making the opening.

In the women’s game much is about the control of speed (this is why so many women play with material which helps them to do this more effectively). Top women tend to play just fast enough and with enough variety to stop the opponent getting in a power shot, while at the same time sparring to make an opening to win the point themselves.

It would appear that if we are to make inroads into the Asian dominance in women’s play that many of the aspects we have highlighted need to be addressed in the training halls throughout Europe. This particularly applies to the serve/receive and first one/two strokes. If we cannot compete in this arena then we will never have the opportunity to utilize many of the tactics we work so hard on in training!

Loop Attack and the Women’s Game

Rowden Fullen (2003)

If you take a group of elite men and women, put them two to three metres away from the table and play loop to loop, who will win the rallies? Obviously the men almost every time. As far as fast loop with good speed and strong spin is concerned, how many women can produce a sustained and extensive range of successive topspin and loop strokes (say 10 – 15 shots) and have the capability of continuous offensive play from both wings? Very, very few, not only in Sweden, but even over the whole of Europe.

When considering loop play we must always bear in mind that not only are women different, but also that they usually face a different type of game to men. While men often loop to loop, women often loop to block or counter — the return ball is very different.

Women are not as strong as men, look at the world records for weight lifting (a big gap), they are not as fast as men, look at the world records in sprinting (getting closer though), but when it comes to reaction speed, the difference between the sexes is minimal. World class reaction players are few in the male table tennis world, yet in their time Lindh and Douglas were successful – take glue away and lessen the power in the men’s game and they would almost certainly have had even better results. But in the women’s game there are many more reaction players and they have less power to cope with — naturally they are much more effective, and it’s much harder for women loopers to make a real impact. Men also usually prefer to use their superior strength and loop their way to victory from further back, women facing less power and spin (especially Asian women) have the reaction speed and capability to smash decisively through the spin and often at a very early timing point.

If women loop from mid-distance (one to two metres off the table) and don’t win the point with the first two or three loops, do they really think they have more chance with five or even ten loops? The scenario has changed from a position with attacking possibilities where they were in the driving seat, with a good chance of winning the point, to a control situation where both players have a more equal chance. The blockers and counter-hitters are in fact much more likely to move them round, using the angles, until they miss or tire — from a distance it’s always the loop player who has much more ground to cover. Generally top women are so good at containing fast spin, that if you don’t win in the first two/three loops, you will lose — and if you do win, usually you will do so not because of the fast spin, but because of placement, angles or length or change of speed or spin, in other words you win with something different, not with power!

It would therefore appear to make sense that women look at the loop as a means to make an opening, so that they can finish the point in the next one or two strokes, not as a point winning stroke in itself. It would also appear logical to try and win the point earlier in the rally rather than later, as the longer they continue to loop, the more they lose the initiative and drift into a control situation from which they have less chance to actually win the point. For those women who loop as a main weapon it would perhaps be an interesting exercise for them to assess on a regular basis just what percentage of points they are winning when the rally progresses beyond the fifth and sixth ball!

Sustained looping requires good use of the waist and legs, good coordination, smoothness of movement with balance and rotation of the body and fast forearm fold. This last aspect is rather more important with women than men as it allows better balance and recovery with less strain on the body. Of course the loop can be played long-arm as the Hungarians did in the 70’s and 80’s, but this does require good strength in shoulder and back and often results in slow recovery to the next ball – it is often played a little further away from the table too.

Most women are more eminently suited to closer-to-table combat and more adept in the first and second round of looping — once they get forced back and the rally progresses, they usually lack the required power. This is therefore another compelling reason why women loop players should aim to achieve dominance in the first three to four balls, serve and the third ball, receive and the fourth ball. In these initial stages you are in the driver’s seat, you dictate, with a better than 50% chance to win the point — after that it’s not the same kind of game, the odds are more in the region of 50/50, with both players changing tactics, it becomes more a question of control and counter-control measures. But even then you should work to retain offensive initiative – you can do this by always looking to achieve quick changes in the first five to six balls in a number of areas, change of speed/spin, tactical switches, variation in angles, direction, length, quick transition from control to offence. From the receiver’s point of view it is vital to remember that control or counter of the first three loops is the priority, whether you loop to loop or kill through the spin. The single most important loop is the opponent’s first spin from a backspin ball, this is the one stroke women must be able to deal with.

The backhand side also of course has its role in the loop scenario. It is particularly important for example that players are able to maintain offensive speed/spin when switched fast from the forehand into the backhand side. There is little point in having a great forehand loop if the rally breaks down when the ball comes to the backhand or if a weak backhand stroke is then played. At anything above basic level women must be able to do more than just control and contain with the backhand wing, they should be able to put pressure on the opponent. This means the capability to accelerate action from mere return block, to forcing block, drive or spin and to be comfortable with more than one method of making openings on the backhand. It is important too in the women’s game that they can vary spin, speed and angles, on the backhand rather than just developing power. It is equally vital that even from a young age they can switch easily to the offensive from a neutral, control or defensive situation. Make variation the theme too in opening – slow roll, hard drive, spin both slow and fast.

Players and coaches reading this article may by now have arrived at certain conclusions – that sustained fast looping in the women’s game is a slow, laborious but reasonably certain way to commit suicide! Not necessarily so. There are almost always exceptions in every area of sport and we do occasionally see strong, athletic girls, coming through the system, who naturally play this sort of game. Don’t stop them, just encourage them to change their thinking a little. Sustained power and predictability are the problems. More power means less spin, predictability means the opponent knows where the ball is going and feeds off your speed and uses it against you.

The clue is in the loop the Chinese defenders use to change from defence to offence — slow, the main emphasis on spin, to a good length and sometimes even a little high! However many of the best attacking women in the world hit this loop off the table time and time again! As we said earlier in this article the first loop is the key, the first offensive topspin, where you initiate attack from a neutral or defensive position. Make this first loop a key to unlock the game, make it slow (no speed for the opponent to use), make it very long or very short and above all make it spinny and place it to difficult areas on the table, short to middle, long to backhand or body or wide to the angles. Then capitalize, follow up on the next ball, the priority should be a hard drive or smash – in this way you get a big difference between the two successive balls — slow, spinny, with a topspin arc — hard, fast and flat. Even the top women have problems with this type of variation.

Women's Techniques and the Implications of Time and Distance

Rowden Fullen (2009)

Women play closer to the table than men, this is a well known fact and few coaches would argue with this. Women create less spin than men, few coaches would argue with this either. Women are not as strong as men and not as fast as men; look at world records for weightlifting and sprinting and few people would argue with this assertion. However when we come to training and the development of women players, far too often coaches in Western Europe seem to look to male styles as a sound basis for the evolution of women.

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

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

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

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

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

If we feed in an initial speed of 15 m/second, a ball hit at the end of the table will reach the other end of the table in 0.2 of a second or slightly less and will then have a speed of 10 m/second as it crosses the end-line of the opponent’s half – on the other hand if the opponent contacts the ball from 3 metres back he/she will have around 0.5 of a second to react and the speed of the ball through the air will have dropped to 7.0 m/second. If both players are 3 metres back they will have a second or slightly more to play shots, which at top international level is a long time.

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 square-ness 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 can be very different depending on whether you are initiating power or using the speed on the incoming ball. Sound technique is rather more vital in the women’s game than in the men’s.

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

But the prime question we must ask is how do we produce power? Then, does the production of power vary from differing distances from the table? Men often execute forehands with the right foot back and further back from the table; this can involve transfer of weight from back to front foot. Usually however if you watch the top male players the rear foot comes through so that the player finishes the stroke square. Women play closer to the table and invariably stay squarer than the men and use elastic energy and rotation more effectively. Power close to the table is invariably produced by rotation and racket-arm speed and almost always from a square or over-square stance (bat-arm foot forward).

Starting with the right foot back when close to the table has several major drawbacks –

  • It limits strong rotation of the hips (centre of gravity) and ultimate power development.
  • It leaves weaknesses in the body and crossover areas.
  • If players bring the right foot through to square up this takes too long.
  • It encourages players to move back as they play wide forehands and militates against taking the ball early on the forehand side.

On the other hand using the square or over-square stance while close aids recovery and there is no lack in power input provided rotation is good. The most common fault is that players take the ball too late; if the square or over-square stance is to be used then early timing is vital and participants must be ready to contact the ball well in front of the body.

Coaches should examine in some detail the sort of strokes that European and Asian women produce. Asian women will for example often drive through the opponent’s topspin on the bounce at an early timing point. European women use this stroke very rarely as in most cases they have the bat-arm foot too far back and can’t get in quickly enough. Asian players such as Zhang Yining, Wang Nan, Ai Fukuhara, Liu Jia (Austria) and one or two Europeans such as Pota and Steff are able to execute such early-ball shots purely because of their stance and movement patterns. They play in most cases square or over-square and move in to take the wide ball on their forehand side.

It is also quite noticeable in the case of the younger girls from Europe (and especially from the Eastern-bloc countries) that square-ness is the in thing. Players such as Szocs, Kusinska, Kolodyazhnaya, Noskova, Matelova, Xiao all play very square and in some cases pronouncedly over-square. This is obviously not accidental as countries such as Romania and Russia have a long history of producing high-level female players and their top coaches would not countenance obsolete or ineffective techniques.

One thing to bear in mind too is that close-to-table techniques such as good one-step movement sideways and in to take the early ball, are not just the prerogative of the attacking player. It is important that defenders also can break up the game and put attackers under pressure; in these modern times and with games up to eleven points to purely defend all the time is hardly a viable proposition. So defenders too should be prepared to use close-to-table techniques to their advantage.

If a woman is to reach the highest levels in table tennis a second feature to consider carefully is that one of the single most important aspects is control of speed. Without the capability to control the opponent’s speed it is extremely difficult for women to survive at any level in the female game. This is one of the reasons why so many of them play with material of one kind or another. If women adopt the type of stance, ready position and close-to-table movement patterns which encourage them to back away or to play the ball from a deeper position, then a number of the possibilities available to change the form of the rally are in fact lost to them.

Unfortunately even in a number of national centres throughout Europe the coaching and development of girl players and the individual attention given to them in terms of both technical help and ‘direction’ are woefully inadequate and considerably less than professional. In addition far too often the variety of styles is strictly limited as are the sparring and training opportunities available to the top girl players.

One further aspect that merits consideration with girls and women is upper body strength, which generally speaking is about 35% when compared with their male counterparts. As a result it is even more important for girls to have good technique from an early stage in their development as this generates full use of the torso and guards against injuries (especially to the lower back) caused by partial rotation and one-sided use of the upper body.

It is important too that women use elastic energy to maximum effect as this will both improve the efficiency of the strokes and also help to reduce stress on the upper body. In the case of the strokes in table tennis it is important that these stretch-shorten cycle movements be performed with a minimal delay between the stretch and shorten phases. This is much less important in the development of male players as not only do they play further back but because of their higher body strength it is easier for them generate power from a static position without any additional aids.

Technical 2

Just how Should Women Play?

Rowden Fullen (2001)

How many times has Sweden been to World Championships finals in Women’s singles? Never!

How many times to Worlds final in Women’s Team? Never!

When did Sweden first play Worlds women’s team? 1947.

How many times has Sweden won Europeans Women’s singles? M. Svensson 1994

Silver A.C.Hellman. 1974

How many World Championship gold has Sweden won? 14

Country M Team W Team M S M D M D W D TOTAL
Sweden 5 4 5 14
Britain 1 2 6 1 0.5 4.5 15

In addition Britain have been in 4 singles finals for women over the years.

You may say that this is all very well, but that the last British woman to play in a world final was back in 1957 (Ann. Haydon). However we must also consider that the last European to win the Worlds was the legendary A. Roseanu in Utrecht, 1955. Since then we have had total Asian domination. Only 4 European players since Haydon have reached a World Singles final, 1961 E. Koczian (Hun), 1963 M. Alexandru (Rom), 1969 G. Geissler (Ger) and 1973 A. Grofova (Czech). None won!

Sweden develop good women players up to a level, Marita Carlsson (Neidert, Swedish Closed winner 8 times) July 1961 in the final of Junior Europeans lost to Zoya Rudnova (who also won doubles and team) the outstanding Russian penhold player, who played in the last European team to win the women’s team championships, in Munich 1969.

In 1999 Linda Nordenberg lost in the semi-finals of the Junior E.C. to the Austrian girl Liu Jia in three sets — not that big a difference in levels. Now two years later Liu Jia has been as high as 14 in the world rankings in women, she has continued to progress and with the right training and development her level keeps going up and up! Swedish girls do not seem to have access to the right type of guidance at top level!

The prime skill of table tennis is to be able to adapt in an ever changing situation. Training is repetition in the right environment and with the right attitude.

To be a top player your development must be in 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 in Sweden 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?

Debate on Girls’ Training

Rowden Fullen (2003)

Henry Ford was once accused of not being very well informed, his reply was – ‘ I use my brain for solving problems not storing facts, if I need information I go to the library or the expert.’

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 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.

It would be all too easy to go on at great length about the large variety of styles in women’s table tennis and the significance of this, the critical nature of guidance on style, the variety of rubbers, even how multi-ball should be different and why, but surely there are more pressing matters to discuss. If in Sweden you are to produce girl players who can make a real impact in Europe, there are three vital areas in which you must concentrate your resources.

Firstly the age group between 9 – 14 years, it is here that a sound basis must be laid down for future development. It is obvious that even from a young age there is not enough emphasis on good movement and technique. You develop players with built-in defects which will have a limiting effect on their ultimate level of play and in many cases you produce girls who have very little understanding of what is effective in women’s table tennis. It is certainly not a question of talent, you have players with remarkable potential but potential without guidance or direction is often a recipe for self-destruction. It is self-evident that the clubs in general are not able on their own to produce high quality girls. Any initiative must be at district or regional level.

The second area is in the dissemination and growth of knowledge among coaches and trainers, especially in the training of women, play against the various styles and tactics and uses of equipment. Every opportunity should be taken to hold lectures and seminars and above all to introduce these subjects on all coaching courses from stage one upwards.

The final area of concern and the most serious is in the age group from 15 –20 years. A number of girls in this group were very impressive 2/3 years ago but have never really developed their full potential. In comparison look at Liu Jia from Austria who beat Linda Nordenberg only in three sets in the semi-final of the Junior Europeans in 1999. She has shown just what she can do with good basic technique, the right tactics and continuing style development. A little over two years later she is among the top women in Europe and has been as high as 14 in the world’s ranking! In Sweden it would appear that after the age of 14/15 years girls do not have access to the sort of guidance necessary to take them to the next level. Instead of developing they stagnate.

So just what do these girls need to keep moving forward? First they need to throw off the physical chains that still partially hold them back — the chains of inadequate technical development, poor movement patterns, insufficient understanding of materials (both how to play with and against), inadequate grasp of which tactics to use against certain styles of play (defence and long pimple blockers/attackers for instance). Second they need to loose the mental chains that restrict their thinking — they must understand that without change, without new things in their game, there is no progress, no development, they are going nowhere. Third they must find direction in their own individual style, they must come to an understanding of how they play, how they cope with different situations and just what is effective in their style of play. Finally they must have access to the advanced techniques of the word’s best players — the short play, the use of angles, speed variation, killing through loop, sidespin loop, early ball push and early ball smash, chop-block, sidespin block, short drop against defence players. At the moment the older girls in Sweden are too rigid in their way of play in all aspects, to progress there must be flexibility in style, tactics and above all in thinking.

Many of you reading this may think I am too negative or paint too black a picture. The unfortunate reality is that when there is a problem, the powers that be often don’t admit it, act too late or do nothing or indeed take the wrong action. At best it is often too little, too late. If you read the old ‘Table Tennis’ magazines as far back as the 1980’s top coaches and players have been complaining about the lack of trainers and leaders, the need to build up the strength of our young players and above all to do something for the women’s game. But just what has actually happened over the last fifteen years? And are there for example real indications that we are really going somewhere with our top young girl players in terms of world class or even European level performance? I rest my case!

Making of a Great Woman Player

Rowden Fullen 2009

Sparring

Technique

Tactics

Physical

Mental

Direction

Is there one of these aspects which is of paramount importance and without which no player can ever reach the top? Or are all of these equally important and does there need to be a blend before a player can attain the heights?

1. Sparring

Many young players seem to think that this is the only important thing and that without high-level practice you are not going anywhere. Long years ago Peter Hirst, a former National Coach, who in a number of areas was decades ahead of his time used to say – ‘To advance you need to train at 3 levels: against worse players so that you can develop and learn how to use your tactics to win, against players of the same or a similar level so you can sharpen your weapons under pressure and try to come out on top and against players of a much higher level so that you can see just what is possible.’ If you only train against far superior players all the time, you never learn to win because they control the game. (Also this can lead to mental problems and loss of confidence).

2. Technique

This is particularly important in the modern women’s game. Due to the increased speed of our sport over the last few years and the fact that women almost always stay closer to the table and have less time, technique is much more critical than in the men’s game. It is vital for example that women have shorter stroke movements, stay squarer (especially on completion of the shot) and use women’s techniques such as BH serves and receives to retain control of the table. As women often have less time to play and are rarely as explosively fast as the men, recovery (preparation for the next ball) and reading of the game are much more critical.

3. Tactics

Technique is the basis for tactics, therefore it is vital that women have the right basic techniques to allow for the capability of executing the tactics that are appropriate to their individual style of play. It’s of little use for a woman to serve short all the time for example if she is poor in short play. Equally if she is a defender who needs to attack regularly she can’t afford to retrieve too far back from the table nor can she afford to push sideways on when close. In both cases she is not in a position to get in on the attack when she wants to.

4/5.Physical and Mental

It is particularly important that the physical and mental areas are focused on at an early age. Many girls are often less ready to work hard at physical aspects and need to learn good habits from the outset. Girls too usually need more support on the mental side as they often lack self-confidence and can lapse into negative attitudes more easily than their male counterparts. They also often need help in developing a coherent mental approach to the game.

6. Direction

However usually the single most vital factor in maximising potential with the young girl’s development and rather more important than with the male is ‘direction’. Girls need to know where they are going and how to get there. It is important to them to understand how they play now and will play in the future. Winning is often not the overriding priority but continual progress and a clearly defined career path are fundamental to their development. Far too often even in National Centres the girls do not get the required individual attention.

There are many more ways of playing in the women’s game — we only need to look at world champions over the last twenty years to see the variety of styles. The evaluation of, guidance towards and development of an individual playing style are particularly necessary in the case of young girls and should be introduced at an early stage in the player’s career. In many cases this will require from the coach, specialist knowledge of rubbers, sponges and techniques/tactics and a detailed and on-going analysis of how the top women are playing and also often some experimentation from the player. After all in the final analysis it is the player herself who must feel comfortable with her ‘weapons’ and with the tactics these weapons will facilitate.

At least once a fortnight the coach and player should have an assessment meeting to talk about direction and to ensure the player is satisfied with progress. If a number of coaches are involved with the same player (as unfortunately occurs in many national setups) then each should update information daily on the computer so that other coaches and the player are all equally aware of progress and changes. It goes without saying that the player should have complete access to the information at all times and be allowed to add her own updates as often as she wants. The schedule should not only cover technique and tactics but also mental and physical programmes even if these are handled by outside experts.

From the coaching point of view it’s vital that coaches appreciate that they are not important, it’s the player who is important. Coaches should be ready to listen to, not to dictate to players. Often even quite young players who have a big talent have strong ideas as to how they should play, where they want to go and how to get there.

Top 30 Women 2009

Rowden Fullen 2009

Personal or National Coach? There should be cooperation but who should be in charge of the player’s development and why? On the one hand being a top player and aiming to achieve your maximum potential or on the other hand playing for your country are not necessarily compatible.

  • Cooperation and a readiness to work together must come from the top.

Mario Amizic (His thoughts, Worlds 2009)

  • Training in Europe leaves much to be desired.
  • Most Associations are unprofessional.
  • Lack of cooperation between Euro countries.

Dirk Schimmelpfennig/Leszek Kucharsky (Their thoughts, Coaching Conference 2009)

  • Should be much higher involvement by personal coaches in any European development programme for top players. Training should be more intense, more complex and more individualised. (See Appendix 1)

Michel Gadal (His thoughts, European Youths 2009)

  • You do not make a top player on training camps, you create a player on the basis of day to day training. This is the weak point of European table tennis. Only very few players have the opportunity of good development on a daily basis.

Peter Sartz (His thoughts, Worlds 2009)

  • Even in women’s table tennis some younger players showed that with the right type of game and adequate fighting qualities it is possible to compete with the Asian women.’

The big picture

  • Are our ambitions limited/restricted? Are we aiming to produce top women players only between 70 and 200 on the world rankings in common with most Western European countries? If we adopt restrictive coaching methods this will happen. What do we mean by restrictive coaching methods? Attitudes such – ‘You shouldn’t use this shot, top players don’t’ or ‘Don’t do that, top players will take that easily.’
  • With the banning of glue at the end of 2008 have we assessed in detail the future development of our young girl players and decided which styles have benefited and which girls are now disadvantaged because of the way they play?
  • Do we have a document – ‘General Training Principles’ – detailing new developments in high-performance table tennis and our training principles for 2009 – 2010? If not, why not? Have we defined and formulated the top priorities for future national and regional training?

If we are to operate totally without limitation and aim as high as we can go then we need a different approach. To get players into the top 30 in the world requires different training methods/procedures.

  1. Style research and evaluation. Some styles have a chance of getting into the top 30 but others have little or no chance – defenders, block/counter-hitters, material players, but not back from the table topspinners (especially with the big ball and no glue).
  2. Top women’s techniques – wide stance, square recovery at all times, good early ball play, competent short and half-long play, one-step movement to the FH corner, capability to deliver long, deep balls to the BH corner (to stop Penholders getting FH in from here), strong Serve and Receive with use of high throw, using BH from middle and from FH, especially on receive of serve etc.
  3. Top women’s tactics – the control of speed and the capability to control the rally, before winning the point with change of pace, spin, direction and the use of angles. Use of spin where applicable. Strong serve and 3rd ball, positive receive tactics. More in-depth use of material to control speed.
  4. Individual development (each player is different and needs to use their own strengths) – best handled by players’ personal coaches as per thoughts of Schimmelpfennig, Kucharsky and a number of other top coaches in Europe.
  5. Intensity of training and variety of sparring needs to be much higher. Exercises on the table need to be more ‘complex’ (not one player and one passive feeder, but both players involved).

Method of achieving 1 – 4 = more player opportunities

  • All coaches must be more innovative and forward-looking, ready to accept new ideas.
  • Let the player bloom and develop. More cooperation with individual coaches, more individualisation and working with players individually or in small groups (3 to 5) especially in the early stages.
  • Allowing really talented players to compete at their ability level, NOT at their age level.
  • More cooperation among clubs in the UK and more common camps.
  • Working more too with clubs and National Associations abroad and initiating exchanges. Using all our contacts within the UK.
  • Teaching players to think for themselves and take responsibility from a young age. Listening to the players.
  • Using all our facilities, the expertise of overseas coaches and top players working in the UK etc.
  • Bringing the sparring to the players or the players to the sparring.
  • Avoiding the situation where we have several 'top' setups chasing the same young player -- National Centre, High-Performance Centres, Regional High-Level Sessions. Once the player is representing her country training should progress only with input from the National Centre and the player's own coach.

Appendix 1 Coaches such as Mikola Ulyanchich and Tatyana Kokunina (Ukraine), Dirk Schimmelpfennig (Germany), Dusan Mihalka (Slovak Republic), Hans Thalin (Sweden), Jarek Kolodjejczyk (Austria), Leszek Kucharsky (Poland) and Joze Urh (Italy) are all in favour of much higher involvement by the players’ own coaches in any common European development programme.

Multi-ball and Women’s Training

Rowden Fullen(2000)

When working with girls/women in a multi-ball situation it is vital that the exercises are relevant to the women’s game. There is little value in feeding primarily heavy topspin when your player will more often than not face a faster, flatter ball in competition. Even when women do face spin there is usually a higher level of speed than rotation. The difference is quite evident when some of the top women play against the men in competition – they have great difficulty in controlling the topspin element.

Women must be able to cope with speed even if they don’t use it themselves, so a fair amount of multi-ball time should be spent on fast play. It is also wise to structure exercises so that they aid development in other areas, especially movement, as girls are often weak in this aspect. For instance if you work in series of five balls, backhand corner, middle, backhand corner, middle or forehand corner, backhand corner, you develop a number of different areas –

  • You improve and develop the handling of balls to the crossover area (one-step short or trunk movement), movement long to the forehand (one-step long, two step or cross-step) and long back to the backhand (again one-step long, two step or cross-step).
  • You help to eliminate future problems in the crossover, the body area.
  • By encouraging your player to use the forehand from the middle, you develop better overall control of the table and a better position for the next stroke (in most styles of play).
  • Whether the player moves with attacking or control footwork and also the type of stroke she plays, will give some indications as to how her style should develop.

Once your player has progressed beyond and mastered the basics some topspin multi-ball can be introduced. At a more advanced level she will have to deal with topspin, and this is a good time to start girls on another important aspect of the women’s game, variation. If they are to reach a high level girls must look at different ways to handle spin :

  • Hitting through topspin at an early timing point, or forcing the ball on the block, the object being to return the ball with more speed than it came and a flatter trajectory.
  • Returning with a later timed topspin or roll, the intention being to pressure the opponent with a long, low, kicking and often slower ball.
  • Using the full range of blocking strokes, sidespin, soft block, chop block, the aim being to return the opponent’s spin or change it, often incorporating also a change of pace and length.

Of course it is also vital that girls learn to be positive and to open up early in their table tennis career — to this end backspin multi-ball should be introduced even in the early stages. One difficulty here is that girls especially at a younger age seem to have more problems than boys in assessing length. Backspin multi-ball will usually work much better initially if you play to one spot, rather than changing length. It is also best to start with relatively light spin to allow your pupil to feel the ball.

As your player’s competence level grows you can vary spin and length much more, introducing more advanced balls, the short drop-shot or the half-long ball with the second bounce on the end line or just off the table. The player will of course be looking to use different options —

  • Dropping the ball back short (using early timing), flicking or pushing long and fast.
  • Looping slow or fast depending on the incoming length or spin.
  • Driving back hard.
  • Rolling back a ‘nothing’ ball, long and low.
  • Pushing back fast and long, early-timed with or without spin.
  • Pushing late with extreme spin.
  • This type of varied response multi-ball will help to develop girls’ tactical play to deal with defence players, hit hard, drop short and loop slow, especially if you make it more difficult by using a racket with different rubbers such as long pimple and a tacky surface so that you can play with much spin and completely without spin.

It is also of value with women players that you work with mixed speed/spin multi-ball — two or three backspin balls, one or two flat or topspin. This becomes very like a game situation where the opponent counters sometimes hard and sometimes with spin.

A logical step forward from the basic multi-ball is to extend the exercise to the next one or two balls played. An obvious example would be for the coach to feed backspin — the girl opens, the coach blocks or counters, the player then drives or spins. This puts the multi-ball into an exact game scenario — the girl opens up, ball driven or blocked back, girl counter-hits. This type of multi-ball has a number of important advantages-

  • It helps the player to understand the differing stance and technique requirements to be used against alternating backspin or drive/block strokes – lower centre of gravity, use legs, drop racket, play up and forward : come in, keep racket up, play through the ball.
  • It helps the player to understand the difference between the drive return, faster but more predictable and not so spinny, and the block, often slower with at times much return spin and unpredictable bounce.

The next stage is to return your pupil’s opening ball to different table areas – she opens with the backhand, you counter to body or forehand or even back to backhand, she opens with the forehand, you counter to body, backhand or even back to the forehand. This sort of exercise has the value of opening up other areas to assess your player. If she opens with the backhand, where is she weakest/strongest against the fast return, backhand, forehand or body? Equally you must look at the same when she opens with the forehand.

When working with opening at a more advanced level, the trainer should be concentrating more on change of spin and length — push with heavy spin, float, drop short in a variety of sequences. In this way your player will learn to watch the racket and the ball and to recognize spin and lack of spin. She will also come to an understanding of when it is best to roll, spin slow or fast and when to flat hit or drive and to develop an appreciation of the importance of a lower centre of gravity in spin play, especially when she opens against chop.

Equally there should be exercises involving quick changes of length and speed/spin at higher levels — short push to forehand, player drops back short or flicks, long push to backhand with heavy spin, player opens, fast drive to forehand, player counters or loops. As you work more individually with your player you should look to devise your own exercises, based on her needs and her personal style.

Another area where it is of value to use many balls is in the serve and receive training and the development of third and fourth ball. For example your player serves short, or half-long backspin, you push fast and long to the corners (early timed), sometimes backspin, sometimes float, she opens. Variations in your return can be short drop back, early timed or late timed heavy spin push short or long. Another example could involve you serving short and the player pushing long — you loop, she kills through the spin on an early timing point (a technique we could work more on in Europe), or soft blocks taking the pace off the ball.

Working one to one in this manner is ideal for teaching and understanding which spin remains on the third and fourth ball, why this is so and how you can take advantage of it. From the start of course you should be aware when your opponent serves which way the ball is spinning, without knowing this it’s hard to be positive! A number of alternatives are open to you, play with the spin or against it, add to it, take away from it, use it (let the ball just kick back from your racket) or play to the axis, the dead spot on the ball and return the spin to the server. The end result and how many strokes the spin remains on the ball can be very different if one or both players use pimples or antiloop rubbers.

If you work in a scientific manner with multi-ball it can be a very potent weapon in the development of your player. It will indeed have an impact in many diverse areas – footwork, easier recognition of spin and float, development of touch and better assessment of which stroke is appropriate to a particular situation.

Diversity in Technique and Tactics, Men’s and Women’s Game

Rowden Fullen (2003)

Many trainers in Europe seem to be of the opinion that girls at the moment are getting nearer to 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 in fact you 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.

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.

Women: the Simple Facts

Rowden Fullen (2003)

With the modern racket the characteristics of the sponge and rubber allow the bat to be swung in a different, flatter arc, giving more forward speed to the ball and because of the spin this produces, permitting much more energy to be fed into the shot. In effect the ball sinks into the bat, is grabbed by it and as the bat is moving up and forward, the ball is projected upwards and forwards too. The surface of the rubber is very tacky so it grips the ball and imparts a great deal of topspin. It is this topspin which causes the ball to dip down on to the table. Another fundamental point 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.

Quite simply men can hit the ball harder than women so they will achieve more topspin

Most players, especially women, do not understand the importance of the initial power input in achieving spin. Very few women for example are as powerful as men and few ever attempt to play with the same degree of closed racket angle as the men do, so how 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, 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 women have less on-the-table 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 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. With the women any topspin ball which bounces in the middle of the table is liable to be smashed back.

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

Another extremely important consideration is predictability. For two reasons the men face a ball which 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 often be returned with backspin and sidespin.

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

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 shorter stroke action.

It is expedient in the women’s game that the players’ attention is directed towards the value of the shorter stroke. Timing is vital in the women’s game. The timing ‘window’ in drive-play is extremely narrow, between ‘peak’ and 1 – 2 centimetres before

It is 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 looper to spin again. Rather the top women come in after their first topspin so that they are in a better position to counter fast, over or close to the table. After the first opening spin ball, the next is usually taken at an earlier timing point to pressure the opponent. It is essential in fact that women can convert — change from topspin to drive and vice-versa at will.

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

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.

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

European women should bear in mind that there are other alternatives when opening up against a backspin ball. The Asians often demonstrate the hard first-ball hit against backspin, which we would do well to work with more often. As women usually play closer to the table this is a viable alternative to the loop. It is feasible to either use the incoming spin or to create your own, but the most important factor is to take the ball at an early timing point.

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

In the men’s game over 80% of receives are with the forehand so that they control the table with the forehand on the next ball. Many women players push or open with the backhand from the middle of the table on the 2nd ball. This is easier for them and involves less movement. Most of them stand closer to the table too so this is a viable option.

Never stop girl/women players receiving with the BH from the middle (or even the FH) it’s done at the very highest level. From an early age girls should learn to open and play positively on the BH side

Although at a lower standard and at a younger age girls/women are less positive than men are on the backhand side, at the very highest levels you rarely see women pushing more than one ball. They have the capability to flick over the table or to open from further back on this wing.

Early in their career girls should train till they are at ease in the short play situation, aware of the various possibilities and able to gain advantage in this area

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 5 in the women’s rankings at 15 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. Europeans must analyse the possibilities in this area and upgrade their technique and tactics.

Strong serve and 3rd ball are essential elements if women are to reach the highest levels. Receive tactics are of prime importance in the women’s game

Examine top-level matches between the best European women and you see the play is often one pace and predictable, pre-planned and leisurely. By the way they play it looks as if many Europeans train far too much control play, loop-to-loop or loop-to-block, they don’t train to win the point! The result is that against the top Asians they just don’t have the time or the opportunity to utilize the stronger technical aspects of their game. Instead of playing further back from the table, perhaps the European women’s development should be directed more towards the importance of serve, receive and the first four balls and also towards methods of more effective and active play over the table. In this way they would have rather more opportunities to create attacking positions and earlier in the rally.

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

The importance of the receive cannot be underestimated in the women’s game. It is important that they are able to control the short serve, drop short, push long, flick and deceive and from differing timing points and with differing spins. It is of particular importance that they master the early-timed return. In the case of the long serve it’s vital that women are both safe and positive on receive. There are just too many mistakes against this serve even at the highest levels.

If European women are to match the Asian players and to make the same sort of breakthrough as the men have made over the last 15 – 20 years then we need to be much stronger in depth. Players such as Boros and Steff have already demonstrated that it is possible to challenge the Asians and get up into the top few places in the world rankings. But we just don’t have enough players doing this. Often the top women in Europe don’t even have a suitable level of sparring or coaching in their own country and must travel abroad to train and develop.

To play at top level in the women's game requires a 'high adaptation' capability. It is vital that girls train in the right way to develop this in the formative years.

Generally the European women have a lesser number of good players to train against and a lesser variety of sparring styles. This latter is more vital than many coaches appreciate. It’s necessary that their girl players, right from the early years, have the opportunity to train and play against all styles of play and combinations of material. In this way the ‘automatic’ reflexes, the conditioned responses, that the player has to work so hard to build up, cover a much larger series of actions and it is rather easier for her to adapt to new situations. In other words the content and method of training of girl players assume rather more importance than we may initially have thought, especially in the formative years. Why ‘of girl players’? Quite simply because there are many more playing styles and a much larger variety of differing ‘materials’ in the women’s game.

European women’s table tennis

Eva JELER (2010) All about Women’s TT in Europe

Eva Jeler, German National Coach, won the bronze medal at the European Championships in 1976. In 1983 she became German national coach, from 1989 up to 1996 she was German head coach and after that became coordinator for cadet and youth teams. She is currently also coaching the girls’ national team.

Q: How good are European women, what can Europe look forward to in the future?

We have to compare Europe with the best and the best are Asian women, in particular the Chinese. It is not difficult to detect why European women are behind the Chinese and Asians in general. We have the same problems in all categories – cadet girls, junior girls and women. We in Europe do not practise enough. Concerning technique Asian women are significantly better than our girls. It is my experience that we in Europe have a special problem when we talk about women. In Europe, as soon as a really talented young girl appears somewhere there are suddenly many people around her. Instead of practising hard and focusing on their athletic development such girls have to deal with too many conflicting opinions regarding how they should progress. So despite having very good training and competitive conditions in some federations within Europe, such as Germany, we still have many obstacles to overcome on our way to the top, which to the same extent do not exist in Asia.

But even disregarding this issue, there still remain the factors of not having enough practice and not as good a technique as we should have and last but not least that we start to work seriously much too late. We also have a more basic problem with women’s table tennis in Europe. There is significantly less money in women’s than in men’s table tennis and today money is essential to top sport.

Women’s table tennis in Europe appears to be less attractive – the spectators want to see emotions in top sport and it seems that in Europe the only emotions women are supposed to show without being unfeminine are negative ones. So our girls show that they are not satisfied with their performance instead of showing fighting spirit and so making their game more attractive to spectators by offering more of a show. Our women will not try to produce such a show and so they must not be surprised that spectators are not watching their matches. At big tournaments spectators often go out to have a rest or a drink when the women’s rounds start - the women must do more to interest the spectators so they stay and watch! The girls must see that society is not always in tune with what is feminine and what is not. In sport a girl can show positive emotions without appearing unfeminine. Some people will always think that women do not belong in sport, but all girls have to accept that these people’s opinions do not have to concern a successful female athlete.

Q: In Europe Romania is at the top in cadet girls, in junior girls, in women. Still Romania has no chance in all in these age groups when playing against the best Asian players in their respective categories. Why not?

Despite being undisputedly the best in Europe, I think the Romanians still make too many errors in their play compared to Asian players. Because of these errors they are unable to develop their play to a level matching that of the top Asian players, even though they are dominating the rest of the non-Asian world. I have never seen them train, so I cannot sufficiently comment on their particular ‘school and style’, but they probably have to deal with the same issue as the rest of Europe: a decisively smaller amount of training than the Asian women that begins much too late in their development.

Q: Considering this, what would be your recommendation in dealing with the issues of European women?

There are several ideas about the ideal solutions to these problems and I can only hope that my idea will turn out to be the right one in the long run. In my opinion it is a mistake to think that it is enough to adapt the men’s style of practice to the women’s and assume that this will do. The result of such training methods can only be men’s table tennis on a lesser level. As I see it we need to find different solutions to the method of how to win points - normally with girls you cannot rely on power to win the point, so you have to accentuate placement, speed and safety in the rallies. In comparison, boys try to win points with powerful forehand topspins and everything in the rally is subordinated to the attempt of coming into the right position to use this main weapon.

Such a pattern does not work in women’s table tennis, points have to be won with adequate placement, speed, rotation and change of rotation. An ability to play a fast and secure backhand and to have an adequate answer when the opponent is changing from backhand into forehand is essential. This means that when working with girls we must spend most of the time playing different strokes and combinations near the table. Another problem in Europe is the lack of good foot-work techniques. The foot-work needs to complement all the other elements of play instead of being an obstacle to perfecting the different strokes.

Q: You have explained the problems with European women but your recommendations are going in the direction of Romanian table tennis – fast counterattack near the table - and Romanian girls are not good enough to compete on even terms with Asian opponents. What is your answer to this?

There is an important difference - I am not talking about the fast counterattack and blocking over the table without spin that the Romanians are mostly doing. I would like to see us develop a fast game on both wings but with a dominating forehand and with rotation. When we speak about this rotation I don’t have the rotation produced by strokes which begin with a very low racket position in mind, but I’m talking about the rotation produced with fast strokes near the table. When you look back on the last decade you see that the only European women who were able to endanger the Asian dominance did not play "the Romanian style" of fast counterattack without spin, but played a powerful topspin attack fast and near the table.

When you watch the girls beginning to learn, for example, a backhand topspin, then you mostly see them being taught to play a backhand topspin with a starting racket position at knee height instead of trying to begin to rotate the ball with a short stroke produced from the forearm and the wrist, whilst hitting the ball not much later then when blocking!

Q: Today we have in Europe quite a different situation than we had one or two generations ago when young girls came fast to the top in Europe, like Nemes, Steff and others. Now our young talents are for example Dodean and Samara who are already 22 years of age - in China they would be almost veterans! What is the reason?

We simply start too late to work seriously with girls. In reality we should start to work with them even earlier than with boys, they mature faster than boys and should be ready to climb to the top sooner! It is very important for girls to develop their technical abilities fully before puberty - after that it is quite difficult to change anything. The problem is that the girls start late to practise hard, and then they mostly have to correct their technique and conception of the game first. They are 16 or 17 then and instead of being at the top they are at the beginning! We are here again and again coming to the "mother of all reasons" - the girls start to have adequate training too late.

Another problem is that we at first begin to prepare girls for winning cadet championships, then to win junior championships and only then do we begin to think how to survive in senior competition. Instead of such an approach we should have the aim of forming a successful adult player in mind from the beginning.

Q: Can you please comment on the European cadet and youth championships and World team championships. What about European women, are there any who we could expect to see in due time at the top in the world?

In women’s sport it is especially difficult to predict the development of young players. There are so many elements that could direct their development in quite different directions. Mentality and the psyche in general are even more important with regard to girls than to boys. Girls are more sensitive, much more self-critical and can in that way often be self-destroying. If I had to judge the European girls’ potential, without knowing them and without judging their mental strengths, I would rate the Polish teams very highly. Also Szocs from Romania has in my opinion a chance to become good, even though there might be a thing or two to change in her game. Madarasz and Ambrus from Hungary also have potential. Samara, Dodean from Romania and Pesocka from Ukraine were very successful young players, but at the moment it looks as if they are not living up to their potential. We in Germany have two very promising talents, Sabine Winter and Petrissa Sӧlja - they are talented and we have all the possibilities to provide them with the best conditions for their development; it is only up to their own will and to the people supporting them to determine if they will become top world-class players.

Q: What do you think about Chinese women players playing in European teams - is it positive or negative for the development of European women’s table tennis?

It depends on how you treat them - if you use them to learn and to have stronger competition for our women, then it can be very positive, but if you take them only to win a medal, then it is of no use to us. In Germany we often had former Chinese players playing for the national team, but we learned from them. Our girls had to try to win against them and not complain about tough competition. It would be of course completely wrong to take several Chinese players and then neglect to work with the native players. China is world champion, we have to learn from them and when their players play in Europe we have to use this for our benefit. In the future they will be able to play only for clubs, no new Chinese will be eligible for European national teams, but we can continue to learn from them, we can even learn how to beat them! It is so simple - they are better then we are, we have to measure up to them, we have to learn from them, we have to try to reach their level and to beat them one day.

Prime areas in the Development of Women

Rowden October 2012

Speed

Speed, which is the most important of the 5 basic elements (speed, power, spin, flight trajectory, change) covers all aspects and is the central core and the prime factor of development; it doesn’t just cover the ability to play fast and to control speed, but to think and to react swiftly, to adapt quickly, to move rapidly and with the right footwork patterns. It also covers the aspect of combining the other four elements at differing speeds.

Quickness is speed. It is always the most important factor of any style. Pure speed however and simple spin are things of the past. The combination of speed and spin is how this sport is going to develop. In the case of the women, spin is used to open up the game and to create an opportunity to win the point with drive or smash. Spin over the table is a more controversial point, some women do this well and it can be beneficial, most don’t and the drive is preferable. Also speed must again come into the equation, speed will always give the opponent less time than spin.

Individualisation

Long Term Athlete Development is a sports framework that is based on human growth and development. At all times it should be appreciated that LTAD is an approach to athlete development that puts the athlete, rather than the system, at its centre. The individual strengths of the athlete should be promoted and her game ‘tailored’ to these. The athlete should do what she does best and all training should be aimed at this. The athlete should NEVER be forced into a mould where she has to develop aspects of the game in which she has no natural inclination or capability. This is not only counterproductive but wastes time and energy best used elsewhere. This even applies if the athlete plays a game which will never succeed at the highest level. To move the athlete away from what she does best and into an area where she will only ever be mediocre will never ensure success.

Looking Forward with Women

If the plastic ball is introduced the importance of spin will diminish and speed will be prioritised. In any case because of the lesser spin in the women’s game speed will always be the crucial factor. Spin in the women’s game is used to create openings to win the point with drive or smash NOT to carry on spinning. The men win like this, with spin supported by power, the women don’t.
Why not? Basically because women lack the power and dynamic speed of movement and the further they move away from the table, the more noticeable this becomes. The men back off the table and use their speed of foot and upper body strength to feed power and spin into the ball. However even the men have complained, that with the bigger ball and no glue the stresses on the body are much greater. A number of the top men in Europe were injured as soon as glue was banned and they had to adapt their game. For women to play in this way requires strength and speed they don’t have.
In addition there are many more good blockers and counter-hitters in the women’s game which means that an off-the-table topspin game is tactically much less effective. Close-to-table players just play short/long or out to the angles and the topspin player cannot create either enough pace or spin to win points.
The back-from-table topspin player has never been really effective at world level in the women’s game and is less so with the bigger ball and no glue. If the European women want to play a strong topspin game from further back with the bigger 40mm ball which of course takes less spin, then it would appear logical that their chances of defeating the Asians become even more remote. They give their oriental counterparts more time to play and they give up the chance to control the over-the-table and short play and to gain advantage in this area.

Girls Training Needs: a Method

Rowden Fullen (2000)

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.

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!