Danger of Boxes

Rowden May 2016

Not only our sport of table tennis but life itself and our progress through it, is to do with change. Nothing stands still and if we try to stand still we stagnate: we stop developing and progressing and lose and/or resist the ability to adapt. Developing, improving, growing, evolving are all about moving forward and adapting to new situations and challenges. As soon as you put players into ‘style boxes’ you restrict their ability to both adapt to different opponents and situations and indeed to themselves develop to higher levels and reach full potential.

Table tennis is above all a sport which requires adaptive intelligence. Even though we play on autopilot and much of what we do is automated and has to be because we have such a limited time to react, we need, to reach the higher levels to have the capability to adjust to rapidly changing situations. In fact it is essential that the player's mind is freed up to spend more time assessing tactical needs during the match and working out which weapons to use to best cope with differing styles/opponents.
It's all too easy to do the 'safe' things at times and not to take risks. Sometimes the player has to force herself/himself into trying different things and here 'self-talk' or 'self-thought' can play a big part: 'If I play 'safe' I will lose therefore this isn't an option.' Training can also be geared to speed up the process -- play games in training with only short or only long serves. or one long to the corners and one short to the middle alternately, so that variation and adjusting to the third ball become automatic. Bear in mind too that it does take anything from 3 to 6 months to bring out what you do in training into matches.
Reaching full potential is all about continuing progress, about not being satisfied with yourself and about being ready to try new things all the time. It’s a matter too of assessing and evaluating what works for you and bringing in new techniques which complement your style of play and give you a bigger advantage. But it’s also a question of having alternatives to cope with differing situations and opponents. No two opponents play the same and nor can you or your players play an identical game against all other competitors. At times you will need to modify what you do, on occasions you won’t be able to play your usual tactics at all and may well have to change your game plan completely if you are to have any chance of winning.
Forcing young players into a ‘style box’ limits their ability to adapt and modify their game to cope with the ever changing scenario of modern table tennis. This is even more critical when a player is constrained to play in a manner which does not permit his/her natural strengths to flower and develop. Such performers will never achieve full potential because quite simply they are not doing what they are best at! They are not harnessing their own natural talents to maximum effect and are in fact spending time developing their second or third level game to the detriment of the innate, instinctive skills they possess.
To reach the highest levels in sport any athlete must be aware of how he/she performs and indeed performs best. In addition the athlete must be in tune and comfortable with the manner in which he/she performs. The coach/athlete relationship should never be one of dictating to the player, but rather one of working together to isolate and develop the inherent skills which will unlock full potential.