Girls/Women Players -- Development in Own Hands

Rowden October 2017

Change is the one certainty in life and table tennis. But although change is happening all the time we humans like to resist and keep our immediate environment ‘steady’! Not only people resist change but institutions and governing bodies are exactly the same.
However as far as development in sport is concerned resistance to change is the one thing which is guaranteed to limit potential. For you to progress and develop you must be embracing new things constantly, the alternative is quite simple – stagnation!

Early in our sporting career we develop habits, but what is crucial is that we develop the ‘right’ habits. Equally important is that we regularly re-evaluate where we are going and how we are going to get there, that we are aware at all times that we are on track, proceeding in the right direction for us as individuals and able to cope with differing situations and scenarios. This process of evolution also requires that from as early an age as possible we, the player, assume responsibility for our own progress. If we continue to rely on the instruction of others, whether parents, coaches or trainers, we do not then take control of our destiny. We do not develop the insight and instinct to sift through all the conflicting information that is thrown at us and decide on what is relevant.
Always bear in mind that the great players are great because they have over the years come to an understanding of exactly what works for them and what they need to change to cope with differing challenges. They are flexible in their approach to opponents and reliant on their own store of experience. The earlier one assumes personal responsibility, the quicker one can move forward.
Waldner and Lindh from Sweden went to China at around fourteen years of age to grow and develop; such early exposure was important later on in their careers. Ni Xialan first played for China in 1979 and won Gold Medals in Individual and Team in the Worlds 1983. After years out of table tennis she represented Luxembourg and returned very quickly to a Top 10 World Ranking and even now at 54 is a force on the world stage. Such a comeback was only possible because of the solid grounding of her early technical training. But also she recognized that the game had changed in her time away from the sport and was able to completely restructure her style to be effective in the modern era.
Every player is an individual and must in the long run rely on herself: the sooner this happens the better the player will be. It is of little use to rely solely on parents, trainers and coaches. You must be able to sift out the ‘wheat from the chaff’ and make your own decisions. After all you, the player, are the one on court, you are the only one who can feel the speed, power and spin of the opponent’s strokes and are in a position to be the first to identify changes in the opponent’s tactics. The ability to think and evaluate the alternatives and select the most effective response is one which should be nurtured and developed, not repressed by over-coaching.
As well as being self-reliant and responsible for our actions, there must be a regular re-assessment of our progress. We must constantly question where we win and lose points, which opponents cause us problems, when we play well and why. If there is not progress, there will be stagnation! The great players are always changing and bringing new things into their game.
If change is crucial to progress exactly what do we need, in order to be able to make successful and effective changes in our game? Quite simply we need to be flexible and we need alternatives. We need alternatives in receive and service, alternatives in the strokes and alternatives in our strategies to cope with the differing opponents and situations we meet. However good we are, one response will not cater for all the various styles we will meet.
Receive of serve is probably the single most important stroke in the game; if serve is short we require several alternatives:
● Short touch return, early timed to give the opponent limited opportunity
● Flick from just before peak timing, hard and slower
● Flick from later timing, this can look deceptive if you start with an open racket
● Push half-long or long and fast, with both float and heavy backspin
If the serves are long and fast again we require alternatives:
● Drive return to varying table areas
● Topspin to varying areas
● The varying blocks, forcing, soft, sidespin and stop balls. Many opponents serve fast to get a fast return. The ability to return a fast serve short or slow will change the dynamic
● Chop, backspin return; even once or twice in a game this can make a big difference and change the dynamic
The service is also important giving you the chance to control the play. Short or half-long serves will still play a part even though it’s easier for the receiver to attack against the plastic ball:
● Use BH serves short and wide to the right hander’s FH (more from the middle) with sidespin/backspin or sidespin/topspin. A higher throw with good sidespin can give a pronounced outward ‘kick’.
● FH service from your BH corner with sidespin/backspin or sidespin/topspin can kick away short and wide to the right hander’s BH wing
● Some short serves to the middle, more with sidespin/backspin, but beware opponent attacking with BH over the table
● Half-long backspin serves to BH or FH wings. Backspin slows quite rapidly with the plastic and can catch opponents out
Variation is also needed with the long serves:
● Long, fast float can be effective, baseline to baseline, to wings or at opponent’s body; the same type of serve can be executed long and fast with slight backspin
● Long fast sidespin/backspin serves bouncing deep can be very effective, either with the FH or BH wing
● Long fast sidespin/topspin serves can equally give rise to an advantage. Bear in mind that the same serve can spin away from the opponent if directed on the diagonal but into the opponent down the line or vice versa
● Do not neglect the tomahawk serve (this achieves the most spin with the plastic ball) or the reverse serves
● Always be on the lookout for new and different serves. Anything unusual will be effective as opponents will not have trained against this
Equally you must have alternatives in the rally in stroke-play:
● Speed is crucial in the women’s game and priority should be given to drive play and especially at an earlier timing. Women have never been able to create as much spin as men and with the plastic ball trying to create more spin is counter productive
● When you do try to spin with plastic the ball does not come through low and fast after the bounce, rather it tends to kick up and is easy to drive or smash
● Topspin or even slow roll should be used on the first opening ball against backspin (slower balls tend to stop rapidly with the plastic) but equally the next stroke is vital and it is important to be able to convert from spin into drive
● It’s also critical to have a solid ‘middle’ game, to be able to push (with heavy backspin and float) and to be able to use good varied blocking to create openings and attacking opportunities. Change of pace is vital in women’s table tennis
● Baseline length is crucial at the higher levels in women’s play
● Sidespin is the most important spin with the plastic ball and extremely effective, do not neglect experimenting with the hooked and inside out strokes
● Change is of course the single most important aspect of the modern game whether this is in speed, spin, placement, direction or angles. To be predictable is to give the advantage to the opponent, avoid playing successive shots to the same place
Alternatives are of course also required in the areas of tactics and strategies:
● Speed and table position are important. Few women have the real power to be successful off the table and there have always been many good blockers and control players in female table tennis
● Change of length and pace are vital, short and long, slow and fast
● Variation in placement, together with use of straight balls, shots to the body and angles are all point winners or create opportunities
● Do not neglect slow play, the slow ball is effective with plastic
● Use the opponent’s speed and power, this saves creating your own and is energy efficient
● Sidespin can be particularly effective with plastic and ‘hooked’ shots or inside out strokes should not be neglected. Bear in mind that sidespin can be used in both push and block strokes too
Finally three other aspects are important and must not be overlooked:
● Playing distance from the table is of consequence to each individual. We all have our own best distance at which we are most effective. It’s up to us to identify this early and build on it (although as we grow taller and stronger distances may be modified). It’s also important that we can perform in the two areas either side of our comfort zone, so that when we are forced out of position we can still keep the ball in play till we can get back. Equally all players must be competent close to table especially in service/receive areas
● With speed being a priority in modern table tennis, it’s of real importance to have the correct footwork patterns which suit our style of play. Topspin attackers, drive players, blockers and defenders will all have differing patterns and it’s up to us to research what is most suitable and efficient for our particular style of play. In general terms in modern table tennis, a wider stance and one big step rather than many small ones are more prevalent
● The final area is of course the mental side. We will react differently to pressure situations depending on our style of play. Some of us will be ultra-positive, others less positive, some even negative. However we face these situations, the most important aspect is that we get to know our capabilities and trust our responses and training. To know ourselves, our capabilities and to know how to adapt to very different opponents are essential if we are to reach top levels. In a world of constant change we too have to adapt. What we must also take on board is that such adaptation entails risk – in our fast moving sport only one person can decide when and how much to take.