Change or Die

Rowden Fullen 1990s

Change is the very essence of life. Everything which exists is the result of and is subject to continuous change. Unless we ourselves change we remain in the same place, we stay as we were. If we are satisfied with what we are and what we have, then we will not evolve or develop, instead we stagnate.

The table tennis player who refuses to change or who is happy or satisfied with his or her play, will remain at the same level and will stop developing. Many players in fact do not even realize that their game has crystallized and is not progressing — they train in the same way with the same exercises, the same serves and do not understand the significance of the fact that nothing new is happening in their game. Many more unfortunate cases are sadly frozen in the mind and are not even prepared to consider that they should try anything new or different.

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 mostly through behaviour — we innovate new behaviour to adapt and change. The effect of large groups, of mass media, is to stop behavioural change. Mass media swamps diversity, all differences vanish, even humanity’s most necessary resource, intellectual diversity, disappears.

In the big clubs 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?

In the small clubs there is the time and the opportunity for the individual focus and often players who are different or unusual will emerge because training is less formal and there is more chance for personal talent to flower and reach maturity. However unfortunately because of the lack of knowledge and coaching expertise, often such players will develop with built-in limitations which restrict just how far they can go.

As we said at the start of this article, change is the very essence of life, but now we are coming to realize that change may not necessarily mean improvement or development. Change in itself can be a truly futile exercise if it doesn’t lead in a positive direction. An essential ingredient is often missing if change is to be really effective and to lead to major success – informed guidance. And even informed guidance is insufficient unless it is informed enough to allow the player’s own personal talent to flower.

Each player is a unique individual, with differing strengths, reactions and latent skills — you cannot force a player into a mould of your own choosing, rather you must coax the unborn style from the player, rather like delivering a new-born child. However the development of a player is a complex affair and the duties of a coach cover a number of areas. In some areas the player should be forced into a pattern — the experienced coach will be well aware that there are techniques that work and those which don’t, those that can be developed and those which can’t, just as the experienced sergeant-major knows there are only certain proven ways to train new recruits.

In the areas of technique, tactics and physical development, there should be a certain rigidity, certain patterns to which the player should adhere if he or she wants to reach the highest levels. There is little point in training hard for 8 or 9 years only to find that you have technical limitations to further development – it is difficult if not impossible to back-track and change long-established patterns and thinking.

It is in the areas of the mind, the mental approach and the development of style where the coach cannot force the player into a mould. In the final analysis it is only the player who can choose to play safe or to take risks, to assess the percentages, to judge the value of being positive or negative. Equally it is the players’ own minds which will prompt them in the direction of their own personal style. The players’ own instincts will tell them if they are most comfortable playing fast or slow, close to the table or away, attack or defence, loop or drive, (if only the players will heed their own instincts, many don’t). Each player is unique, no two players play the same even though styles may be similar. Each player is also unique in qualities and characteristics, reactions, physical strength, stamina, speed of movement, touch, flexibility, cardio-vascular intake – and it is these qualities which will guide the coach and player towards an end style. There is little point in pushing a player for example towards close play if he or she has slow reactions and can’t cope with speed. It should go without saying that a player’s style should be based on his or her greatest strengths. You do not achieve the highest levels by working hard in areas where you will never be more than mediocre.

As a coach advising a player on style you are rather like a detective solving a crime — it’s no good conceiving a theory and trying to fit everything into that theory, then throwing aside a few little facts that don’t fit. The facts that will not fit in are usually significant – as are the unique qualities of a player in determining style.

Many coaches will tell you for instance that there is a much bigger variety of styles in the women’s game but that basically most of the top men play the same. Not strictly true. Just look at the great Swedish players of modern times, Waldner, Persson, Karlsson, Lindh and Appelgren, all very different in style. It is of particular interest to note that it is in fact these older players and not the younger element in Sweden, who continue to be inventive and innovative. Waldner especially refuses to play a standard game, even in his third decade of competition at the highest level he is still looking for new things, to do old things differently. Whether consciously or not he understands that without change there is no development and he continues to resist the stagnation that comes with satisfaction and achievement and tries to keep his style alive. You can fault his over-inventive play at times but you cannot fault his thinking – he knows that style is a living growing organism.

Each of you at whatever level you play, will only progress and develop if you change and if you are prepared to accept in your own mind that such change is necessary. And by change we do not just mean getting bigger and stronger and faster! If all you are doing is moving faster and hitting the ball harder than you did 2/3 years ago, then there is a good chance your game is starting to stagnate and progress has stopped.

It is up to each one of you, if you wish to reach full potential, to monitor your own progress and to question what is happening with your own game. You should be asking yourself — ‘How has my game changed in the last 6 months or one year and what things are new?’ Do you for example have any new serves, have you developed existing serves, are you thinking of ways to make your receive more effective? Are any of your strokes changing, earlier timing, more use of sidespin, slower spin, change of speed? Have you considered the value of different equipment, slower, faster rubbers, or pimples or change of blade? Are you happy in your own mind with the way you play, your own style — is it effective or do you have problems against certain types of player? If you have problems, what can you do about them?

And of course if you have areas where you are not happy and have doubts as to which way to go, you should seek advice, informed advice. Be prepared to listen to others, as many as is necessary, it’s your future in the balance! But remember in the final analysis, though others may point the way, the final decision is yours alone. Remember also that the one person who has stopped progressing is the one who says — ‘Now I know it all and there’s nothing I need to change.’