Like many other sports table tennis is constantly changing. We can think back to the longest rally in 1936, the first time limits imposed and finger-spin banned in 1937, introduction of the flat-hand service throw in 1947, the first all-sponge world champion in 1952 and the first all-sponge final in 1954. Then of course the thick sponge was eliminated in 1959 and the racket colour standardized in 1961; we experimented with yellow balls in 1972 and the definition of ‘sandwich rubber’ was agreed in 1977. In 1983 the two colour rule was introduced for racket coverings and restricted to black and red in ’86. Glue came into common use in the early 1980’s and table tennis became an Olympic sport. In 2000 we had the ‘big’ ball and in 2001 we started to play to eleven up. Often new things especially in the areas of technique, tactics, or equipment, have substantially affected the outcome of competitions even at the highest levels. Innovation is in fact the motive power upon which the development and direction of our sport relies.
Because table tennis is a very technical sport the basic law is adaptation and counter-adaptation. Each player tries to adapt to the technique, tactics and playing style of the opponent and to avoid being ‘controlled’ by the way the opponent plays. Table tennis is largely a sport of conditioned reflex patterns where players train to react automatically. This is why new techniques, tactics and unusual styles of play are difficult to cope with. The ‘automatic pilot’ doesn’t work so well any more and the player’s reactions are unstable, inaccurate, lacking smoothness and coordination. In fact the player who can keep one step ahead of the competitors in the innovation of technique, tactics or playing style, will have a big advantage (especially now we are playing to eleven up) because the opponent is unable to adapt in time. Remember the prime skill of table tennis is to read the game and to adapt in an ever-changing situation.
The innovation of technique can be looked at from two points of view — to create something totally new (like the loop of the 1960’s) or to develop an existing technique to the point of qualitative change. There is great potential for example for the further development of service techniques through training. The acrobat can attain pinpoint accuracy through hard training, why not the table tennis player? The answer lies in the fact that table tennis is an antagonistic competition, acrobatic performance isn’t. Every stroke you make is based on correct and split-second judgement of the incoming ball, which varies in a thousand and one ways. Service however is the one exception. Much remains to be exploited with service in terms of spin, speed and placement and different ways of striking the ball.
Compared to innovation in technique and style much less has been done with tactics and this is an area which deserves much greater attention and research. Technique is the basis of tactics and the development of technique generally precedes that of tactics. Only when the player has mastered all-round technique can he use various tactics to the fullest extent. But also the appropriate use of tactics can allow the player to use his 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.
Attack to the opponent’s forehand is for example a tactic seldom used in practice. Too many exercises and too much play in table tennis are from the backhand side of the table. With most players the forehand is the stronger wing and perhaps opponents fear to initiate attacks to this side of the table. However the forehand stroke is in fact often slower with a longer arm swing. If you play a fast left-handed blocker you may well find he can play 10 backhands in the time you can play only 6 forehands. Also many forehand strokes are not always played with power, especially those played for safety, transitional shots or when reaching. Players expect more play to the backhand and movement is much easier from this wing to the forehand rather than vice versa. For these reasons first attack to the forehand side followed by switch out to the backhand can be a particularly effective tactic and one well worth working at. If you train to attack the forehand corner only, from both sides of the table, then after a while you will find your ability to cope with the opponent’s forehand attacks is greatly enhanced.
We have always had very differing styles in table tennis often influenced by changes in materials and equipment and players and coaches in our sport are often innovative and inventive. Changes in technique, tactics or equipment will often in fact initiate new styles and methods of play — the thick sponge of the 1950’s, the loop of the 60’s, the pimple explosion and the high throw serve of the 70’s and the glue in the 80’s. However if you compare young players of today in Europe with those who have been at the top for many years and are now between 25 — 38, there seems to be much less individualism among the young and rather less flair and feeling in their game. Swedish players such as Waldner, Persson, Appelgren and Lindh all have very different styles of play as do Primorac, Gatien, Saive, Korbel and Kreanga. Most of the younger players are more robotic in their play and there appears to be developing in Europe a sameness of play, a universality of style, strong, efficient and workmanlike but without the personal, unique touches that differentiate the really special performers from the run of the mill players.
If our European style of play is changing, the first question to ask is why. What has changed over the last twenty years since the older players were in their formative period? Is it the coaches, the players or the system or some combination of all three? Or is it that with more interaction between European countries, more joint training ventures, more mass media, magazines and internet, there is now a standardization of coaching, less invention and fewer ideas? Is it perhaps that in many countries we now have more top players being involved in coaching, especially in the National centres, who as a result of their own background look at the development of style in a rather different light, or even consider certain styles of play more preferable to others? It would appear that whatever the reasons there are fewer ‘extreme’ styles coming through in Europe at the moment, and fewer trainers working with the more unusual type of game as played by Carl Prean or Ni Xialan for example. Perhaps now is the time to once again look at new and different styles and even adapting and rediscovering some old ones ( like stronger backhands and more use of backhand spin), especially in view of the shorter games and changes in the service rules. We now have less time to learn to cope with and to adapt to new things, therefore these will be more effective.
Training is now much more professional as our sport has advanced and the quality and direction of training have become the important things. The basic principle of training is repetition. However optimal nervous excitement (the right approach and motivation) is also an essential. Without the right mental approach progress is impossible. Achieving the optimal mental condition is something that players often don’t understand or work at enough. Training is repetition in the right environment. The following two questions are often asked — how do we train for a particular player’s style and what sort of training, the content? The content should obviously be geared to competitive needs and what the player will face in the future in both the short and long term. How the player should train is quite another matter. Many players don’t in fact train in the best way for their own individual style of play. Many don’t understand in the first place how they are most effective and they don’t have clearly defined aims, nor do they have any idea of how to get to where they may be going even if they have some end-goal. If a player does not achieve progress after much training the reason can be the content (not well chosen or appropriate), or the methods or direction of training, or indeed the player’s own approach and attitude.
Over the years changes in equipment have had significant consequences. The sponge revolution of the fifties, better and better ‘sandwich’ rubbers, anti-loop and pimples, glue and innovations in blade manufacture. We now have bigger blades, ones with different speeds either side, some using glass, carbon fibre or metal mesh such as titanium. There are some limitations with rackets in terms of weight, for example very few players want blades in excess of 100 grams — once the rubbers are added the whole thing becomes a little unwieldy. There are however indications that the most effect achievable with long pimples is with the use of heavier blades, so perhaps some compromise will be arrived at. It is of course by no means impossible that we are arriving near the limits of what we can do with the racket (some manufacturers are even experimenting with new revolutionary shapes) but this was also thought to be the case many times in the past! Also needed are more sophisticated training aids, better robots and serving machines, better net assemblies for multi-ball and upgraded ball-picking apparatus.
Innovation in theory is often overlooked and research in this area should really be upgraded. The prevailing system of table tennis theory was established in the 1950’s and 1960’s and there have only really been minor amendments and supplements since then. There is an urgent need to make a thorough examination of the whole theoretical system in the light of the way modern table tennis is played today.
If a country is to be successful in our 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 bodies but actual achievement!
In 1995 I retired and left England to coach in Sweden. I was ready to search out new fields to conquer and I was also looking to develop my own coaching skills — I felt then and still do that the lack of exposure to the highest levels of table tennis is an inhibiting factor in the development of coaches in England. Where better than the only country in the world which has succeeded in breaking the stranglehold the Chinese have had on the world men’s team championships since 1961? Sweden of course won in 1973, 1989 — 93 and again in 2000.
From 1995 to 2000 I was based in Bergkvara, a club with strong international connections and a long tradition in producing good girls. We succeeded in gaining promotion to the women’s elite division with one of the youngest teams ever, four girls seventeen or under and in 2000 – 2001 they were silver-medalists (two of the girls have also played in the National team). I coached too in Kalmar (where the legendary Waldner plays in the elite men’s team) and was able to contribute in taking their women’s team from division three to one in two successive seasons. In the summer of 2000 I moved to Långemåla, a club again with strong international connections especially in Eastern Europe. Because of its high level facilities the club is regularly host to national or international camps or European League matches. The club has the capability of training in two halls with twenty tables and of sleeping over forty players and coaches (and this in a small, quiet country village of some 300 persons.) This highlights one of the big differences between clubs in England and Sweden — the facilities. Kalmar for example have some 16 – 18 tables up all the time for practice and the club membership runs into several hundreds.
In fact I would say that Sweden has one of the best club systems anywhere in the world and a club environment that offers real opportunities for players to reach full potential. Where else can you study world class players in the practice hall and under match conditions in the elite series, European and Champions’ Leagues? Where else can a young player if he is good enough, join in his club’s ‘A’ team training alongside current or past world top-twenty players?
There have been two table tennis schools in Sweden where sport and education operate hand in hand and these are shortly to be combined into one National Centre which will operate in the same place as the current International Centre (there should be the availability of good sparring). However in a number of other centres educational establishments work with the big clubs in a progressive manner, organizing study schedules so that young players can train during the day, or for example extending two-year courses to three. The elite clubs usually have at least two training sessions daily, at times three.
Although training is extremely rigorous, often incorporating physically demanding multi-ball, I found it to be less rigid than in England and with an atmosphere of greater freedom. Players in Sweden are encouraged to be innovative and to try new things and there is much more dialogue between player and trainer, with a less formal structure.
The National League system is immensely strong in depth, 8 men’s elite teams, 16 division one teams in two areas, 32 division two in four areas, 64 division three in eight areas and 128 division four in sixteen areas. To gain promotion is very hard and often involves playing qualification matches even after winning the league. The tournament scene is equally thriving in Sweden with quite large entries in even under 9 and 11 events. In the junior boys classes both 17 and 20 the overall strength is so great that seeded players can struggle or go out in the early rounds. Because Sweden is such a large country and vast distances are involved, there is usually a good choice of tournaments most weekends in different areas. The very top events such as the Safirs International or the Swedish Open are very well attended with many of the world’s top players entering.
Of course things have changed much in Sweden since the halcyon days of the 80’s culminating in the world men’s team final of 1989 when they crushed China 5 – 0. But three of the original five man squad were still there in 2000 to win again! Few people appreciate just how good a national squad Sweden had in the eighties. Take away the household names, Waldner, Persson, Appelgren and Lindh and others such as Von Scheele, Peter Karlsson, Ulf Carlsson and Ulf Bengtsson could have represented any country in Europe had they been born elsewhere. But you had other factors involved, Waldner and Lindh going to China in the early eighties and bringing back multi-ball, the advent of glue which changed the game dramatically. Also a number of training initiatives from coaches such as Bo Persson and Glen Östh — strengthening the backhand, working more on serve, receive and block, emphasizing forehand topspin but from an earlier timing point and above all stressing individual style. It was particularly the ability to take the high serves and better blocking which neutralized the Chinese.
The training scene in Sweden as in other parts of Europe is now strongly club oriented. The older players in the national team have a deep understanding of the sport and how to plan and prepare for the season. It is these players who continue to play with imagination. Unfortunately there is no sign of younger players with their touch and innovative styles. The emphasis now appears to be all on strength and power.
There is also a considerable exodus of players and coaches to other countries in Europe both for financial and developmental reasons. Lack of funding and the difficulty of attracting good sponsorship tend to result in the priority being to reward the players rather than the coaches. This combined with poor coaching development has resulted in a lack of high-level coaches and trainers country-wide. In many of the smaller clubs there is very limited expertise, in the big clubs trainers have too many players and too little time and often other priorities rather than developing the young. As a result there is usually not enough individual help and technique is poor in the formative years. A considerable number of players develop with built-in defects which limit their ultimate level of achievement — this is particularly noticeable with girl players.
Other areas where coaching is deficient are in the knowledge and use of different rubbers and how to cope especially with combination bats or defenders. The single biggest weakness is in the development of individual style. Modern coaching in Sweden appears to be moving towards the stereotyped robot-like game — there is little understanding that each player is unique with differing reactions, talents and strengths and that style should be directed towards what he or she does best. This is not quite so much of a problem in the boys’ game — there are fewer styles here and the great role models are still playing (but for how much longer). In the girls’ game which relies so much more on being different to achieve success, this lack of direction in the coaching structure is serious.
If we draw a comparison between table tennis in Sweden and England, we can see that although Sweden has started on the downward cycle, it is by no means so far down the curve as England and there are still ways back to the top. The great players are still there, still winning titles at the highest level, but for how much longer, two years or three? It can be very important how their expertise is used when they retire. The extended club structure in Sweden, some 900 clubs with from only several players to several hundreds, gives immense depth in standard, which you see in the leagues and tournaments. This club system provides strong support to the players in terms of a social structure, older players, advice and corner-men; there is a wealth of experience and guidance to call on.
But time and tide wait for no man, or country — the world moves on. It is not enough to drift or to live on past achievements. Even a country with Sweden’s reputation and history of success must look to the future and organize and plan. Achievements in the European Junior Championships, especially in the girls, have hardly been encouraging for the future. The lack of coaching structure, the failure of younger players to emerge to assume the mantle of greatness and the stark realities of sponsorship (if you can’t attract sponsors after winning the World and European men’s team events, just when can you?) do not augur well for the future. However, back in the early ‘80’s a group of proud young men got together and laid a base for achievements that rocked the table tennis world. It’s been done before, perhaps it can be done again!
My article ‘La grande illusion’ brought an early if unconvincing reply from E.T.T.A. spokesman Brian Halliday, a 2 page insert, confirming the impression that T.T. news is little more now than the propaganda organ of the E.T.T.A. management committee and its chairman. My piece was originally written for T.T. news and Brian, to his credit, had no problems with it, but his management colleagues banned it. So much for freedom of speech in our sport and the astonishing claim that there is no censorship! What is permitted, indeed welcomed seems a mixture of blandness and boasting produced in the hope that readers are unable to think for themselves. Readership numbers continue to fall with the rise in self praise. It is doubly sad that the E.T.T.A. management committee, in what will probably be its last full year in office, should wish to suppress what was a mild and constructive effort by a former chairman of the E.T.T.A. to improve matters. It shows how they have lost touch, such basic rights as ‘freedom of expression for others’ sacrificed.
I related how vast sums of lottery money, granted to us by Sport England, were spent on a single, little residential training unit within what was otherwise a Watersports Centre, itself much criticized. The basic idea of taking very young children from the parental home to turn them into table tennis professionals with uncertain prospects seemed to me unsound in theory and in practice. One wonders what glittering promises and illusions were at work to commit to such a future. Already I have seen young players return home a few years later, broken and disillusioned, some lost to the sport forever. They had been stars in their local scene, their youthful skills celebrated in the local press in league and county. The resulting individual heartbreak may be imagined, the loss of such talent to local associations adding a further poignant dimension.
Some tell me that the price is worth paying, if the elusive English world champion emerges. I cannot agree either in human or sporting terms. I have yet to see a player of genuine international quality produced by the ‘academy’ at either junior or senior level. Our only junior medal in the recent ‘academy’ years was the bronze won by Andrew Baggaley in the European Youth Championships, but he is not a resident of the Academy. I can recall 12 medals in the same event won by just one player over six years. He lived at home and the academy concept had not even been thought about. There were plenty of others who won medals in this definitive junior event. They were coached by free lance coaches and parents and attended occasional England training camps. All this was achieved on a relative shoestring. The results of our senior teams are frightening. Where once, on much less money, we regarded anything less than a top 4 place as failure, today we are in the second category of European nations outside the top 12.
The teams Chairman Ransome inherited were of the highest class. By 1994 both teams were still in semi-final places. In 1997 we got the Ransome Plan with the title ‘Being the Best’ which now seems deeply ironic. From then on it was downhill all the way. Leading players, able to win at the highest level, seemed to disappear almost overnight, as did good English coaches like Don Parker and Kevin Satchell. ‘Designer Label’ foreign coaches appeared. No one bothered to ask the vanishing players why they were retiring. The simple question ‘Why?’ remained unanswered. They all left of their own volition, Brian tells us. This was certainly not the case with my own son. Life was just made impossible for him until he saw no choice. He was still winning plenty of matches, which today we don’t often manage. Others must speak for themselves.
The relentless march towards rock bottom continued. It saw our teams relegated in the European Championships of 2000. In the World Championships of 2002 our men finished 20th and our women 34th. The official view now is that our teams will not meet the modest target of 24th place in either the Europeans this year or the World Championships of 2003. The Ransome plan will then be in its 6th year. The vast sums poured into the single academy project, which is so expensive, have deprived the sport of the seed-corn for growth and success. What is spent on the single academy could have financed ten centres of excellence where professionals and volunteers could have worked side by side, where a real British league could have been created, where the mass exodus of British players to foreign clubs could have ended. Young players would have practised and learnt while living at home. Local associations would have benefited. A real renaissance could have begun; building on the solid base that existed. Instead we got the Ransome plan. Instead of the renaissance we got the academy, instead of the hundred flowers that should have bloomed we got just one wilting one. And still Chairman Ransome and his colleagues don’t get it. They just don’t get it. They tell us that all is wonderful and well, that soon even the Swedes will copy us by starting an academy just like ours. I hope so, because then THEY will be 20 years behind the times and we may be able to beat them. In the meantime we have thrown away our great opportunity on an anthill of dogma.
Let me be entirely constructive now. How do we get out of this mess? It was easy enough to describe it, as it is so obvious. We must go back to Sport England with a plan, which will benefit the whole table tennis family, grass roots and elite players. We must abandon the failed Ransome plan of 1997 and begin again under a new chairman. By 2003 Ransome will have been in power for 12 years and we shall never get back those 12 wasted years. We must resolve that we have gone backwards as far as we can and that now the only way to go is forward, that it is the Chairman’s duty to serve the members, not try out pet theories on them. Recent ministerial announcements indicate a belated recognition of the volunteer ethic, of the importance of the grass roots, that top sport needs, more than anything, the firm base we now so clearly lack. Our members will have the unique opportunity in 2003 of drawing a line under the culture of failure and to make a new start.
Published in SportBreak magazine April 2002.
I have been reading with some interest the debate started by Thomas Andersson and Göran Skogsberg concerning the problems in Swedish table tennis and especially the difficulty in keeping players in our sport past their mid-teens. What do we find however if we go back 12 –15 years in some of the old ‘Table Tennis’ magazines?
‘ Now in 1990 I am reading an article on women’s table tennis which makes me believe that time has stood still since I first began my coaching career in 1969. There have been no advances in the Swedish women’s game since those days’.
1986 ‘An aspect from the latest European Youth Championships which must worry and concern us is the lack of success with our cadet teams. We must quite simply intensify our coaching and leadership programmes so that we produce enough experienced people to work with and develop our up-and-coming players. We don’t have very much time left.’
The problems with leaders, coaches, girls’ and youth development in Sweden seem not to be recent in origin but to have been with us for a long number of years. A much more crucial question should be — ‘Why have the Swedish Association and the districts (because these are not problems that can be solved by the main association alone) sat back and done nothing about these problems for so many years?’
Thomas knows as well as I do that if players have the right development when they are young, in the formative years, then there is a bigger chance they will keep on playing. He got Frida Johansson to a high level at a young age, result, she is still playing. I did the same with four players in Berkvara, two are 19 years now, all are still playing — one professionally in France, one in the ex-‘Table Tennis Academy’ in Falkenberg and yet another has played in the junior National Team. Get players to a good level at a young age so that they can achieve some success and they will have the motivation at 15/17 to continue.
The biggest problem I see is that players just don’t have access to the right level of coaching at club level at the age when they need it, mainly due to the lack of experienced coaches. Even in the big clubs the trainers often have priorities other than developing the young players. The critical age group is in the 9 –13 area where solid foundations are essential if players are to progress to the higher levels. When players feel at the age of 15/17 that they are just not progressing any more then they lose interest and drift away. If we don’t have the coaches at club level, then the role of the district assumes a much greater importance in developing both coaches and players.
Looking at the wider picture, the problem of declining standards in table tennis and the inability to take players to the higher levels is not common to Sweden. Where are the younger players in numbers to take over the mantle of Waldner, Persson, Primorac, Gatien and Saive? Why is a forty year old winning the European Women’s Singles? Why does Poland win so many boys events in the junior E.M but do so poorly in the seniors? Ten years ago Europe was strong, now it’s still the older players who carry her along.
In 1999 Linda Nordenberg lost in the semi-finals of the Junior E.M. to the Austrian girl Liu Jia in three sets — not that big a difference in playing levels. Now three 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! Could it just perhaps be that sound basic training in the player’s formative years is critical and continuing guidance at an older age to keep her progressing in the right direction for her style of play is also vital if she is to reach full potential? Do promising young players in Sweden have access to the right help?
Ulf Lönnqvist’s prophetic words of 1986 — ‘We don’t have very much time left’, were spoken from near the top of the mountain of success. Now Sweden is rapidly gathering speed downhill on the other side. To stop the slide action is required, inertia is no longer an option.
It is a priority one way or another that we take the coaching to the players, especially in those critical younger years. Also it is important that both parents and clubs realize that you don’t develop by just competing all the time — opportunity must be found for training. 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. Do we really think that we are going to produce the players of the future with methods of the past?
Swedish table tennis can be proud of its successes in past decades. This is proof that we are on solid ground with our activities. But nothing lasts for ever. New players are emerging with different expectations. Therefore we must look forward. This document which was adopted by the Swedish Association at the annual meeting in May 2000, shall act as a guide for all involved in Swedish table tennis. We must have objectives. At the same time we know that there are changes on the way. The most important point is that we have vision and that we do the right thing for Swedish table tennis. Read and be creative.
Table tennis is a sport open to all. Clubs give boys and girls equal opportunities and conditions to develop themselves and their table tennis. Our sport shall function in such a way that there will be a big interest in table tennis and so that knowledge and enthusiasm shall be found among large sections of the population. Table tennis shall demonstrate that it should be regarded as a high quality sport. To attract a big interest from the media not at least where television is concerned, it’s an important goal to write and report on table tennis as this gives further opportunities to spread interest and knowledge concerning our sport.
The year 2010 shall find 100,000 members in clubs under the umbrella of the Swedish Association. There will be at least 11,000 licensed players competing in our leagues. It has already been shown that clubs don’t have any big difficulty in attracting youngsters. It’s important that as many youngsters as possible who have begun playing are encouraged and given the opportunity to continue. To achieve this goal table tennis activities must be organized in such a way that players are stimulated and inspired to enjoy and remain in our sport for many years.
The number of active table tennis clubs must increase. By 2010 we shall have at least 900 clubs and in every district there will be organized activity in at least 10 clubs. The table tennis season shall be extended — our sport can and should function for an increasingly larger part of the year than up to now.
Elite level — At the close of 2010 the national men’s team shall be in the 4 best in the world and the women’s team among the 4 best in Europe. To reach this goal at least two of our men need to be ranked in the top 20 in the world and two of our women among the top 20 in Europe. The Association shall have such a standard in the elite divisions that at least 2 men’s teams will be among the best 10 club teams in Europe. On the women’s side at least one team shall be up among the best 10 in Europe. At the Junior Europeans our juniors shall be among the best three teams. The Association’s top divisions for men and women shall be of high quality, both in terms or playing standards and organization and shall have a good overall level country-wide.
The evolution of players through training so that they reach a high level is in the province of the clubs. From 13 – 14 years the development shall take place in close cooperation with the Association’s district and national trainers. Table tennis has been organized for the most part in tournaments as an individual sport. The starting point for training and development must be (without going into any details as to how we are going to achieve this) that table tennis is a team sport. One plays, trains and has fun together and has many matches.
For some 13 – 14 year olds there will be a stronger focus on high quality in their game. The goal for Swedish table tennis must therefore be that at the same time that they have quality development in their sport, they have the opportunity to have a thorough school education. The Association has the responsibility for the continuation of high level table tennis development even through the summer months.
Seen from this perspective the clubs which have promising and ambitious young players must cultivate a close and dependable working relationship with the high school in their area. These youngsters must have good opportunities to have a high standard of education in their home town operating parallel with top level development in their sport at their club.
For young ambitious players with initiative who don’t have the training opportunities in their own club, their sporting development and school education can be combined at the so-called table tennis academy. There our youngsters both boys and girls will have access to the most advantageous training, development and education facilities. This means not only the highest levels in the case of training and coaches but solid educational progress. Obviously the Association manager and national trainers will be connected to this activity and naturally the manager will have the primary responsibility. Also too the manager will have responsibility for closer links with the research and developmental activities which are operated within the framework of the academy.
It is obvious that all the instructional and educational input that is needed for leader and coach development within Swedish table tennis, will come from the resources which are available in our clubs as well as the academy and the high schools. The collective resources and experience which we have within Swedish table tennis which can benefit our sport will be coordinated by the Association’s manager.
For Sweden to reach her elite goals, described under 1) Primary goal, it is necessary to strengthen the national team. A strong national team creates the conditions for exploiting television coverage, which is significant to promote and spread our sport. A strong national team needs clubs with high-level elite activity and well educated leaders and trainers at club level. The clubs which have teams in the top divisions in the national league ought to have permanent trainers. It must be a goal for the Association together with the clubs in the top divisions, the elite clubs, to create the proper environment so that there are well-experienced trainers who can be employed full-time in our sport.
Within the Association we must find a manager responsible for the development of Swedish table tennis at all levels. To work with this person in national team activities, we should find national trainers for men, women and junior teams. At the disposal of the national teams we shall set up sports doctors and masseurs. The Association’s manager and the national trainers shall have a close working relationship with the clubs where we have national team or promising players. The national trainers shall arrange training camps at these clubs and national trainers can also be used as trainers in the elite clubs.
The Association’s manager and the national coaches shall regularly confer with trainers and leaders on current questions concerning the development of table tennis. The sort of aspects which will be dealt with are training development, the training and competition programme for the season, new training methods, initiatives from abroad, monitoring of players and more.
The goal of the international activity is to –
Tournament play shall be a positive experience and attractive for players, leaders, officials, parents, the public and the organizers. Different tournaments have different goals. Sometimes the emphasis is on the players, for example in pool-play, on other occasions the most important thing is to sell the event to the public, as with the Swedish Open.
The goal is going to be to –
Swedish table tennis is well known to be of high quality in all that we do. Quality should not be an empty word. Year by year, in a world where all sports fight tooth and nail to increase their membership, their sponsors and have more media time, all this puts higher demands on quality. We must learn from others, be modest so as to produce a positive picture of our activity. Apart from a well-developed tournament programme, table tennis should project such social and equality advantages that all will want to choose our sport. The goal before 2010 is that we attain quality in all aspects with a well thought-out programme of education. This goes for players, club leaders, coaches, training, education, series organizers, tournament organizers or national association office staff.
Players shall respect opponents and umpires and set an example in both national and international events.
Umpires have an important function and have the right to expect education. Without knowledgeable and professional umpires our sport will generally lose credence.
National League (but particularly the highest divisions) grows in status if we keep to the arranged programme. We also have a bigger chance to get media coverage.
Tournaments shall be concerned to demonstrate quality, regardless of the level. In the case of the biggest events the arena shall be appropriately and tastefully arranged and the times suitable to the general public. In this case the speaker has an important role in giving out information and maintaining the interest. The Association shall market and look after the biggest event the Swedish Open so that it will be the focal point in the calendar with live television broadcasts.
According to statistics, a total of 13 inventions and 24 innovations have been made in the world of table tennis since 1902. Of these, China has accounted for 7 inventions and 11 innovations, or 53% and 47% respectively. Impressive as these figures may be, they all date back to the period from 1959 to 1980. During the ‘80’s to date only the Swedes and the South Koreans it is commonly believed, have come up with anything new, while China has fallen away into oblivion (except for the reverse penhold BH ‘discovered’ by Shi in Harbin)
Such a belief may however in fact be erroneous. Since no world champion in the history of table tennis has ever played an all out attacking game with the kind of combination racket used by Deng Yaping, we may well consider her ingenious style as a Chinese innovation.
The sport of table tennis, which has continuously improved throughout long decades of evolution, now leaves less and less room for innovation. However Deng Yaping’s successes convince us that the possibilities are by no means completely exhausted. We only have to look at the results in Europe of players like Herbert Neubauer, beating ex-world champions, to see that there are still new avenues to be explored in the areas of both equipment and style development.
In a sense, Deng Yaping as a world champion was forced into being by the new international situation, by the pressure brought to bear on the Chinese players by foreign competition. Without the growing threat of foreign table tennis powers, Zhang Xielin and Li Chaofeng would not have felt such a strong need to devise a new type of game, nor would Yao Guozhi have so eagerly sought help from the Tianjin Rubber Research Institute.
We can see this more clearly if we briefly review the history of world table tennis. It was the powerful strength of Europe and Japan that forced China to emerge as a newly rising force in the 1950’s. The Chinese contingent dominated the world for a quarter of a century, thus forcing the Europeans to change their way of playing and research new methods, primarily based on spin, to beat them. In this sense we can say that the powerful European teams of the last 15 years were forced into being by the dominance of the Chinese, although the major research as it were was carried out by two countries, Hungary and Sweden. Both of these countries worked single-mindedly over a number of years to secure victories over China and are directly responsible for much of the development in European table tennis over the last 15 – 20 years.
Over the last few years table tennis has been in decline but perhaps we are now reaching a stage where it has stabilized and is ready for an upsurge.
Unfortunately in many clubs there are not enough coaches of a good enough level to help the players develop and parents and leaders working with the children do not have enough basic education in table tennis. As a result players do not get the right basic grounding and do not develop in the right way from the start. Future progress and quality is then strictly limited and we are developing a generation of players who will never reach their full potential. Talent on its own is rarely enough.
It is really up to the Association and the districts to have more coaching and leader education and to disseminate coaching information more in depth throughout the club system.
The basics are important in table tennis, it is not an easy sport to learn and it takes quite a long time to be proficient. But above all if players develop with technical flaws, then their ultimate level of play is limited and they quite simply just never reach their full potential. Hopefully more and better basic coaching education will help to get the right type of training to players who are starting out and will set them on the right road from the outset. It’s also important that from quite an early age players learn to question and to think for themselves, but to do this they must have some framework of knowledge on which they can build and progress.
It is equally important once players reach a little higher level, that they have access to advanced coaching and particularly that they have guidance as to ‘direction’. By this we mean how their own individual game should be developed and how they should play so as to be most effective. Each individual player should be encouraged to draw as near as possible to his or her maximum potential and to know not only where he or she is going but also how to get there.
Throughout the district we have many differing levels and situations in the clubs. Often even bigger clubs have too large groups and not enough individual attention, while smaller clubs have no or only poor technical input. Motivation can also be a problem at club level where the same players train together all the time and gradually lose interest.
There is too often a spirit of competition between the clubs rather than a willingness to work together to improve table tennis as a whole. This is why any development project is best initiated and supported by the district. If the best players from different clubs in the district train together once a month, then not only will the dissemination of knowledge be improved but also the motivational and unifying aspects will be enhanced. When you have only few coaches it is much more effective to bring the players to one central point, though it doesn’t have to be the same central point every month.
To help to motivate trainers, leaders, parents and young players it would also be useful to hold seminars and lectures on table tennis subjects or to have these available in booklet form or even on the internet. It is always valuable to have exhibitions and demonstration visits from top players or coaches but in the long run nothing is able to replace the labour of steady and regular technical development. It is only regular training, guidance and monitoring which will bring top class results.
Most people are frozen in the mind and fixed in their way of thinking. To be innovative you must be prepared to let the mind flow like a mountain stream, this way and that. Above all you cannot be traditional, you must be ready to ‘think round corners’.
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?
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 player’s own mind which will prompt him in the direction of his own personal style. The player’s own instincts will tell him if he is most comfortable playing fast or slow, close to the table or away, attack or defence, loop or drive, (if only the player will heed his/her own instincts).
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!
The problem of more individual attention is by no means without solution, there are a number of alternatives, especially if you are prepared to ‘think around corners’. However the main problem would be whether solutions would be politically acceptable to the clubs. In the majority of cases an acceptable level of technical and tactical guidance along with individual style development cannot be provided at club level, especially if you are talking about European top twenty standards. Times are changing and we will almost certainly not produce the players of the future, with the methods of the past.
Traditions are important, however there is one inescapable fact of life, everything changes. Progress, development mean change. Resist change and try and stay as you are and stagnation sets in.
Of course if you think in traditional ways and you remain isolated in your own club, then there is perhaps less flexibility of thought and less willingness to consider new ideas. That things happen is in fact largely a matter of ideas and the ability and energy to translate ideas into reality.
It is all too easy to drift, to procrastinate, to accept lesser levels of achievement. It’s very human to take the easy road. Many players don’t seem to question where they are going — they just drift. After a while the mind becomes frozen and they don’t even think any more. It’s also all too easy to be limited by those around you, both coaches and players. How often do I hear the phrase — ‘But you must face up to reality!’ But what is reality? Ten players in your club will tell you it’s impossible to become a world champion. But if you talk to one or two world champions, they won’t laugh at you for thinking and aiming big, because they have already done it!
It’s all a matter of perception — if you set limits in your own mind on what you expect to achieve, then you will indeed never exceed these limits. Just what is your reality!
There appears to be developing in Europe a sameness of play, a universality of style, strong, efficient and workmanlike but without the personal, unique touches that differentiate the really special performers from the run of the mill players. If our European style of play is changing, the first question to ask is why. What has changed over the last twenty years since the older players were in their formative period? Is it the coaches, the players or the system or some combination of all three? Or is it with more interaction between European countries, more joint training ventures, more mass media, magazines, internet, that there is now a standardization of coaching, less invention and fewer ideas? Is it perhaps that in many countries we now have more top players being involved in coaching, especially in the national centres, who as a result of their own background look at the development of style in a rather different light, or even consider certain styles of play more preferable to others?
It becomes perhaps even more essential to devote much more training time to receive, to controlling the opponent’s serve so that he or she is not able to open hard and pressure you on the third ball. If you are able to neutralize the serve you then have the opportunity yourself to try and take advantage of the fourth ball. You should look of course to variation in all its forms, spin, speed, length, timing, angles and tactics and to advanced techniques – very early timed push long and short, with and without spin, flicking at both peak and very late timing, stop and sidespin blocks, dummy loops, playing with and against the spin.
Consciousness – what is the degree of awareness of oneself, one’s own feelings and what is happening around?
Total concentration — table tennis is a switch-on/switch-off game, 100% focus when the ball is in play, relax and switch off when out of play. There is no room for feelings, especially anger. A relaxed calmness will pave the way to being in control, clear-headed and able to think at all times. This does not mean that there is no place for controlled aggression – there is always a time to fight and many of the great players have total unshakeable determination.
Feel one’s strokes, feel the ball at impact — flat and brush strokes are the essence of table tennis.
A player’s consciousness is more important than his technical proficiency. Skills can be learned but the quality of consciousness is difficult to improve. The cultivation of table tennis consciousness should be an obligatory theoretical course for all players.
Cultivate consciousness in seeking the optimal point of impact when striking the ball or in combining ‘drive’ and ‘brush’ strokes during play (such a combination constitutes the very essence of table tennis skills), even in getting the feel of the movement of one’s racket during each stroke (being mindful of each stroke you play so that you are aware of the why and wherefore of its success or failure).
To produce good spin it is vital that the racket accelerates just before the moment of impact with the ball. To control the speed of the swing the player must fully relax the muscles before hitting the ball. Only at the moment of impact should he suddenly contract his arm muscles to produce an explosive force.
A drive or even a topspin drive becomes a loop 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. Intention is also a useful criterion for another reason. 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. If these accidental effects can be made intentional, then the loop practice has indeed been worthwhile.
As well as intention one must remember purpose. Many players continue spinning long after they have achieved the goal of getting the ball up high enough to kill. Surely the idea when playing table tennis is to win the point – the loop should not necessarily be regarded as a point-winner, but rather as another weapon in your arsenal, another tool to create openings.
Other effective winners are produced by unpredictability, by irregular changes of direction. On the whole the more pronounced the directional change, the more careful the player must be with the power input.
The gyroscopic effect of the spin in loop gives strong directional control and as a result more on-the-table accuracy. This is nothing to do with specific placement accuracy! The two are very different.
Due to the nature of the execution of the loop stroke in comparison with the drive (more lift) it is easy to use many more timing points and thus much more variation.
How many players really know how to get the best out of their own game, what is effective with their own personal style of play? If you ask players how they win points, what is their winning weapon, they may well know this. But if you go into their style in more detail you get fewer and fewer answers and often little understanding of several important areas. Many players do not seem to be aware of their most effective playing distance from the table or how much of the table they would cover with the forehand or the backhand for example. If you start to explore in depth, which serve and receive is most effective with their style of play against designated opponents, how they change against defence or pimples, ask if they can take advantage knowledgeably of return spin on the third or fourth ball and use elastic energy or the Magnus effect against defence players, often you only get blank looks in reply. Even if you become involved with 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 (especially women players). 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.
How many players even know how to train properly and to train in the right way for their type of game? How many have the right attitude and the optimal level of nervous excitement in the training hall to get the best out of the session? So often training operates at a lower and less intense level than it should because the players bring the wrong attitude to the hall. At a personal level how many players actually know that they are training in the right way for them, with the right content and the right methods? How many even know where they are going and more important, how to get there!
The marriage of block and fast backhand loop drive is innovative. It becomes even more effective when you target the opponent’s backhand immediately after a hard attack to his forehand side. But just what strokes do you include in this backhand arsenal (stop-block, drive, topspin, loop) and how is the change from one to the other to be executed and which switches are most effective? What is your finishing stroke, a fast drive or a topspin?
Deng Dasong (Deng Yaping’s father) — ‘There are 3 things required of an accomplished table tennis player in China, strong fortés, all-round skills and no obvious chinks in his or her armour. But how are these to be applied to a child? I reckon that of all the three requirements, the first one is primary while the other two are only secondary. If a child is able to develop very strong fortés at an early age, he or she can easily cultivate all-round skills and overcome his or her weak points at a later stage. But if you start out trying to be good all around so that you become something like a jack of all trades, you can hardly expect to develop any strong fortés later on’.
Explore the writing out of a programme to introduce mental development within your usual training syllabus, so that mental and physical and on-the-table exercises all take place and progress at the same time.
• If you are to be the best there must be variation, speed of movement, the will to fight to the end, flexibility of thought, an enduring sense of adventure and above all a calmness of self.
• Stress is difficult but stress is also good – it gives you determination to fight!
• Miracles occur when players believe.
• People who have been abused need specialist help not just safeguarding policies: it’s exactly the same with the development of young athletes; they don’t need systems but guidance pointing them in the right direction for them as individuals.
• The mastery and understanding of timing must be relevant to the individual’s style of play.
• Each player must be aware of his/her comfort position, relative to the table and also the most auspicious timing and best stroke length to maximize effect.
• Winning is simply a habit and an attitude of mind.
• Motivation and passion matter the most in the long run
• Create an optimal motivational climate that empowers the athlete and matches the player’s personality. Everybody is different and differing personalities react differently to the same situations. This is driven by personal history, temperament and cultural differences.
• ‘Good disagreement’ is vital to progress. Understand why you disagree, the reasons for the other’s point of view and if any of his/her ideas are of value.
• For progress the individual segments/players must be robust, imaginative, flexible and capable of dealing with rapidly changing concepts.
• The way forward is for everyone to be involved in their local community/area but looking outwards. If each area, however small, did this, the benefit to the whole would be immense.
• There is a need for National Bodies not to control and lead, but to gather together the threads of the individual segments, to isolate why some areas are on the path to success and then to assume the role of guiding/advising/aiding. This doesn’t need a vast infrastructure, just one or two individuals who are ‘switched on’.
• A move towards more collective responsibility, even leading from the ‘shop floor’, involves more individuals, leads to new ideas and creativity/innovation. Control and regulation from the top often stifles imagination.
• The road to leadership is beset by many pitfalls, not least of which is the perception of the nature and importance of the position itself!
• Every great leader will ultimately fall from within unless they have the good of their subjects at the centre of their plans.
No two players play the same — there is a product however for every variation of style and this makes the choice of the right combination just for you an extremely difficult decision. Of all racket sports table tennis is the one which has by far the biggest variety of racket coverings. This of course creates a bigger variety of playing styles and tactics, especially amongst the women, who in most cases lack the power of the men. In tennis for example one may have over-sized racket heads or higher and lower tension in the strings, but basically one racket does not vary radically from the next — the same applies to badminton and to squash.
However it is not only the racket which is very different in table tennis with its many permutations of spin, speed, control and effect, but also the ball which makes the game rather more difficult to master. This is because the ball is so light, takes much more spin than the balls used in other racket sports and slows so much more rapidly in the air. Not only must the developing player be aware of what his own weapon can do, but also of the characteristics of the opponent’s weapon and what his opponent is likely to be able to achieve with it. But equally, to be effective the player must be aware of what the ball will do after contact with the racket, both in the air and after the bounce. In other words to be proficient at our sport the player requires to be rather more aware of the mechanics and science of table tennis and especially as we have the least time of all ball sports to react, recover and play our next shot.
What we also have to bear in mind is that to reach full potential we have to select the weapon which most suits our style of play and which will enable us to develop in the right way. It would be of little use for a strong topspin player to use 1.0mm sponge as the ball would not be held long enough on the racket. But such a thickness might well benefit a defender who wishes to initiate heavy backspin. The beauty of table tennis is that you can tailor the equipment you use to be of maximum benefit to your long term development – the main stumbling block however is that there are such an immense number of sponges and rubbers on the market, that it can be difficult if not impossible to find the right combination to suit you. However if you are a player who is always looking to develop and to move on, then more often than not such evolution will involve experimentation with differing materials. We must also bear in mind that there will be changes in players’ styles and tactics over the years which will require research into different playing materials.
Above all what we must be able to do before we select ‘the weapon’ is to analyse our own game in detail and decide just what characteristics the racket of our choice should possess and what we should be able to do with it. Do we need speed, spin, control, feeling or effect and in what quantities and combinations? If we ourselves are not capable of doing this then we will need to call in outside help in the form of trainers or coaches who know how we play and how we win points.
Once we have our style analysis the first step is to research the blade. The choosing of a blade is a rather more personal matter than the rest of the equipment and it should feel right both in terms of speed and especially of weight. Blades usually vary from about 65 grams up to about 100 grams – very few players would want to use a blade heavier than this. Tests in a number of countries appear to indicate that there is an ideal racket weight for the player at differing stages in his or her development and variation by even a few grams can cause a drastic loss of form. We must also bear in mind that the thicker sponge and rubber sheets (2.2 and maximum) and particularly those with harder sponges can add considerably to the overall racket weight (Both Western and Chinese reverse can weigh around 40 – 45 grams, pimples out between 28 – 38 grams and long pimples without sponge as low as 14 – 20 grams). Handles are also important and players often have a preference for one shape or another. In the case of ‘twiddlers’ the type of handle and the width of the blade shoulder too may assume more importance.
The second stage is to decide on the sponge, both thickness and softness/hardness. Thicker sponges are more effective for topspin play and have better control and feeling for blocking. Medium sponges (1.7 – 2.0) are good for close-to-the-table play and drive/counter-hitting, while the thin sponges are best for defence, especially where heavy backspin is needed. The softness of the sponge is of particular importance in the areas of control and effect – soft sponges are better for blocking, attacking from an early timing point and for achieving different effects when using pimples. Harder sponges give more speed and a faster and lower ball after the bounce when combined with topspin.
Finally we come to the selection of the rubber topsheet. Here we are concerned with softness, thickness and the ‘tackiness’, the friction of the rubber. Softness and thickness are important because these characteristics allow the full influence of the blade and the sponge to come into play. For example the combined thickness of ‘sandwich’ rubber (the rubber and sponge layers) must legally be no more than 4.0 millimetres and the rubber itself is not allowed to be more than 2.0mm. There is however no legal requirement as to the thickness of the sponge. What has happened over the last 5 – 8 years is that with modern manufacturing techniques, the rubber layer can be produced in much thinner sheets (as low as 1.1 – 1.2mm) and as a result sponge layers have been able to grow in thickness up to around 2.8mm. This obviously is very good for the loop players.
‘Tackiness’ is also important to many players, both in the service game and in the rallies. Under certain conditions however and with certain techniques some super high friction rubbers can give less spin/speed than ones with much lower friction characteristics. Sometimes super-grippy rubbers have less spin at high speed — there is a critical level above which little or nothing is gained. Some very tacky rubbers have the characteristic of slowing the ball dramatically at low impact speeds, a function which is very useful in certain strokes. A low friction rubber will have difficulty generating speed at closed racket angles. Remember too that the friction of many rubbers is impact dependent, they are more effective when the ball is coming at speed.
Games to 11 up. Will table tennis ever be the same again?
From the point of view of the men’s team event, the ‘blue riband’ event of the world championships, there has been a strong domination by different areas of the world at different times. (Worlds suspended for war years 1940 - 1947).
Up to the early 50’s table tennis was totally dominated by Europe and especially in the early years by Hungary. (Hungary is in fact second only to China in the all-time gold medal table with a total of 73).
During this period apart from the odd exceptions (Sweden in ‘73 and Hungary ‘79), the men’s team was almost completely dominated by Asia with China starting to have a strong effect from 1961 onwards.
In most recent times the title has been monopolized by these two countries, China and Sweden, with the ‘old men’ of Sweden once again using their experience to win against the odds in 2000. However it would seem that for the future there will be little competition for China from Europe, looking at the age of most of the top players in Europe and the lack of new talent coming through at top level.
The dominant racket covering in the early years from 1902 till the 1950’s was the hard-bat pimpled rubber. It was the celluloid ball and the rubber faced racket that changed the game of table tennis and allowed a new range of shots and variety of spins. The hard-bat rubber meant a rather different stance and method of play than we have today. The path of the strokes was largely up or down and not forward and balance was not the priority it is now. The ball kicked off the racket quite quickly and was not held a long time by the rubber (the surface was not so elastic as it is now), but it did not necessarily reach the other end of the table quicker because there was less topspin through the air. It was not impossible but it was difficult and not effective to try and reverse the spin on the ball. Because of the hard surface the ball wasn’t held long enough and if you hit too hard it would just float off the other end of the table when you played against the spin. Usually if one player attacked the other chopped and waited for the drop shot to come in and attack. You could hit hard when playing with the spin and many players did, taking the ball at quite an early timing point. There was also often good blocking play as with this type of racket it is very easy to play good angles and some players used strokes sometimes thought to be only recently ‘discovered’ like the chop-block! (M. Mednyanszky) (R. Bergmann : half-volley play).
From the early 1950’s till it was banned in 1959 the thick sponge (especially wielded by the Japanese players) was a major factor in changing the game and in introducing new tactics. Players would topspin with a high trajectory particularly when playing from back and there were many requests for higher light fittings! Conventional defence went out of the window and if pushed back players would lob with such strong topspin that it was not easy to put the ball away and win the point (especially with a hard bat). In the counter hitting rallies the ball was gripped by the sponge surface, creating topspin, and travelled much faster. With a strong element of topspin the speed build-up off the opponent’s side of the table was much faster and the ball bounced much lower after the bounce than the hard bat players were used to (the Magnus effect). But above all for the first time in table tennis history players found they had the possibility to easily reverse existing spin on the ball. They could topspin a topspin ball back, they didn’t need to chop!
In 1960 Stan Jacobson discovered a ‘new’ stroke, the loop, which was to revolutionize table tennis. By this time we were using the ‘sandwich’ rubber rackets which had good speed and spin and were tailor-made for the loop. The original concept of the loop was as a high trajectory, very spinny ball (often taken quite late), to be used mainly for prying open the defences of the good choppers. Because the ball dropped very low, very quickly after the bounce, it was difficult for the defender to keep it down and the attacker was always ready to smash at the first opportunity. During the 1960’s and 70’s the loop developed in many different directions as players experimented with using it in differing situations and against differing balls. It was found that it was possible at top level to feed in a very high amount of power and still keep the ball on the table because of the topspin element. However because the path of the stroke now was very much more forward particularly in fast play, balance became much more important. Probably the culmination of looping with spin was the win by a margin of 5 - 1 by Hungary over China in Pyongyang in 1979, (using spin on both forehand and backhand).
In the early 1960’s also a new style of service play had emerged. Gone was the slow tactical build-up and the eventual kill, because the lightning fast drive play of the Asians, especially the Chinese, gave no time for this. The structure of the rally was altered completely and whereas previously the serve more or less put the ball into play, now it was employed so that a definite advantage was gained. The pattern was therefore a short, backspin serve inviting a push return, which was immediately looped, then killed. Rallies were a thing of the past, sudden death had taken over.
In the early 1970’s we had the ‘funny rubbers’ explosion, the combination rackets, led by China (both long-pimple and anti-loop). These were to enjoy a considerable measure of success even against the world’s best players right through the 70’s and into the 80’s ( J.Hilton Europeans 1980) until the ‘black and red’ rule of 1986. Because rubbers were the same colour during this period it was most difficult to read the spin and no-spin ball and one could not always rely on sound in a noisy hall. It was for example only in 1983 that ‘foot stamping’ during service was banned. Also in the 70’s we had the high throw serve again introduced by the Chinese, with the downward speed being converted to spin or speed and often with a different bounce characteristic. This caused problems for many players.
Around about 1982 the use of glue became commonplace and loop speed and spin were further accentuated. The young Swedish players were in the forefront of the glue revolution but also there had been going on quietly behind the scenes in Sweden a number of developmental and coaching changes, which were to rock the table tennis world. As long ago as 1980 M. Appelgren had been in Sweden’s European gold medal winning team but even before that he had been influencing the establishment away from the hard-hitting K. (the hammer) Johansson’s type of game and towards topspin – topspin, the on -the-table ball. Other important factors had occurred — Waldner and Lindh being invited to China in the summer of 1980 and bringing back the multi-ball method of training — coaches such as G. Östh and Bo Persson working to produce a Swedish model to counter the Chinese. But above all talent, Sweden had perhaps the most incredibly talented group of players ever gathered together in one country, at one time. Throughout the 80’s the Swedish model slowly took shape and emerged, moving away from the traditional kill and counter — topspin was to succeed hit as a means to achieve victory. But a topspin somewhere between the long-arm spin strokes of the Hungarians and the short-arm speed strokes of the Chinese players. A topspin which would utilize a shorter stroke and from an earlier timing point, nearer to the peak with more emphasis on speed and spin rather than pure spin. A topspin which because of the glue would have even more speed and penetration and would give the Chinese less time to use their speed. A topspin which would take away their speed advantage and reduce them to a more passive containing game.
Much time was also spent in building up the backhand strength so that a two winged attack could be maintained at all times. There were other aspects also to the Swedish model, much emphasis on serve and receive in practice, much block training under pressure and many irregular exercises. There was too an emphasis on individual development, the players were encouraged to do what they did best and to build on their own strengths. Indeed if you examine the styles of Appelgren, Waldner, Persson, Lindh and Karlsson they are all very different.
Throughout the 80’s the work continued with the players developing and becoming more experienced and confident (and training much in China too). From 1983 - 1987 they took silver in the world team event, from 1989 - 1993 the gold and again in 1995 silver. Seven years in a row they were in the final and in 2000 still strong enough to win again with two of their players in the mid-thirties! What had beaten the Chinese was glue, the strong topspin, better backhands, better blocking and the ability to take the high-throw serve. When the Chinese had lost to the Hungarians in 1979 they had immediately come back with even greater speed, mixed with short, well-placed blocks – the Hungarians needed both room and time for their long strokes, the Chinese denied them these aspects. With the Swedes at their best the Chinese never really found the antidote! What must also be remembered is that some of the great Chinese players were coming to the end of their careers by the mid-80’s, Guo Yuehua for example who was in 4 single finals from 1977 - 83.
During the 1990’s we see that table tennis at world level is much more integrated and athletic with differing styles and techniques flowing one into the other. The serve assumes great importance and the ability to serve well and cope with the opponent’s serve is critical. We have the big ball now too which means a little less spin especially back from the table and the flight path and bounce characteristics are different too — the ball drops more quickly after coming off the table, especially if there is less power input. We have moved into the 2000’s with the shorter game up to 11, which means higher concentration levels and little room for error and soon we will have new service limitations. What does the future hold for our sport? One thing we can guarantee is that however the administrators try to limit how we play, they will never stop new innovative equipment, techniques and tactics coming into our sport. Coaches and players are as we have found over the years inventive and always ready to adapt to new situations.
Right up to the 1950’s table tennis was dominated by the ‘hard’ bat with the main tactics being drive against chop and drop short. There would often be good blocking play too (R Bergmann half-volley) as the ‘defender’ got in to change the game. The main ‘path’ of the strokes was vertical as the bat didn’t grip the ball so well and not so much spin was imparted. As a result balance was not so important as it is today, nor was it so essential to ‘face’ the angle of play. In fact many players executed strokes often with their back to the table. The backhand was often quite strong (the Barna flick) and many players used the backhand wing from the centre of the table.
In the 1950’s and early 60’s we had topspin with the sponge bats and the early ‘sandwich’ rackets. For the first time it was easy to reverse existing spin on the ball and to counter or topspin against topspin. Balance and good athletic movement became rather more important. The game also became much more forehand oriented especially with the Japanese in the 50’s, their main tactic being to roll and smash with forehand (Ogimura 51% theory).
From the 1960’s loop play developed in the Western world and gradually reached higher and higher levels (and many different types of loop), culminating in the long-arm spin of the Hungarians in the 70’s (both backhand and forehand.) At the same time blocking play and counter-hitting developed to cope with the loop. However China was able to keep the rest of the world at bay basically with speed play in the 1960’s, fast, close to table short strokes and some backhand development. They often pressured the Western players with tactical switches, hard hit to backhand, hard hit to forehand and then back to the backhand. They were very good to run round on the backhand and open with a strong forehand, so that often Western players were reduced to blocking almost from the word go! Chinese players also worked very much on serve and the third ball and often were able to get the early advantage. In the 1970’s China was the first to dominate with the long pimple and anti-loop rubbers (plus the high-throw serve) and many of the West’s best players suffered defeat (Surbek 1975 team final Lu Yuan-sheng), due to the new equipment, techniques and tactics.
From around the mid 1980’s we can say that the modern game was born. Earlier timed hard loop-drive (rather than loop where the main emphasis is on spin), using glue and also equally strong backhand play. Good blocking developed with a variety of permutations — forced, stop or chop blocks and especially, high level serve and receive play. Much training time is spent for example on serve and 3rd ball and on receive and 2nd and 4th ball. Development has also continued in different alternatives to handle topspin, such as loop to loop play and much more attention to placement, angles and balls to the body or straight. At top level unpredictability is now the norm.
Over the last three or four years table tennis has become noticeably faster and many of the top men stay closer to the table and hit the ball much harder. It would appear too that the ready position in the men’s game is changing to cope with this increase in speed. 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, Chen Qi 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.
These younger players are just as liable to use the backhand from the middle of the table to create an advantage as the forehand and their squarer stance gives them more options playing at speed closer to the table.
Chinese junior players are more consistent, more powerful, more professional, more motivated and much stronger mentally in practice and competition than players in the West. Much of this is to do with the system and methods of training and development in China and the fact that there is such a tremendous level of competition to get into the national teams, even to get noticed by the top coaches. Results are everything. In Europe the top players often know they are ‘safe’ in their position and are not going to be replaced regardless of their performance — in this sort of situation it’s hard to maintain strong motivation to keep on developing and players too often become complacent. In China there is always a pack of players snapping at your heels and if you don’t take your opportunity when it comes, then there are quite simply just no second chances.
Each province has its own professional centre, which selects the best players from different cities throughout the province. Those selected live and train together and are paid by the government as professionals. These players receive a good monthly wage and the amount they receive is performance-based and depends on their results. It’s a simple system — if you win you get paid more, if you lose you get paid less. The coaches’ pay is based on the same principle, if their players do better they get more. Often when the players compete against each other in practice they compete for money. Each individual puts money into the kitty and all players compete for the total. As the players are not very wealthy there is immense incentive to put everything into trying to win. The economic situation is used as a motivating tool for success quite often. Each player knows that if they make it to the top they can expect to earn a very good wage and be highly respected as an international sports star.
In these professional clubs there is an internal tournament almost every weekend and players come from miles around to participate. Matches are played in large groups, as many as 15 – 16 and on a basis of all play all. There may be as many as a dozen groups from elite to medium level. The two best players in each group go up to the higher group next time and the two bottom players go down. As a result the competition is very fierce and the players have the advantage of having many hard matches.
Training is based on simplicity and logic. Everything that is done in the training hall is done for a specific reason no matter how simple or obvious it may appear. Under 12’s for example are often allowed only one practice ball, which teaches the player to respect each point as if it were in a match. As they are required to fetch the ball each time it misses the table they soon understand that it’s better not to make mistakes! Coaches seldom give positive feedback to their players on performance. The feedback is always on how they can improve, never in the form of congratulation on what they have achieved. This is done to keep the players striving for perfection. Exercises are rarely demonstrated, the players are simply told what they are to do throughout the entire training session. The players are given a great deal of freedom to choose their own exercises — this is done so that they feel they are more in control and have responsibility for their learning.
Players are also encouraged to write down how they play and feel and to monitor their performance at all times. They also write down their goals and aspirations and often on the monthly training camps each player’s list will be put up on the wall in the training hall so other players and coaches can study these and comment.
All players learn how to feed multi-ball to each other. This aids overall productivity as all can train against multi-ball at the same time. Often the Chinese use this as a tool for long periods of time and often instead of the more normal training. In fact it’s not unusual to have up to two hours at a time. Other benefits are that this aids the group cohesion, as everyone has to help one another. Multi-ball is used as a tool to improve stamina and to enhance concentration.
However even in China players have problems with certain aspects of the modern game. The decisive power of the forehand loop-drive is a major factor in today’s game. However over the past three decades, fast attack has been the theme in Chinese table tennis and has governed all the training systems and the principles of training. These have required stroke movements to be short, compact and quick (with unfortunately little attention being paid to use of the waist and the legs and the coordination between the two). As a result Chinese players are usually more suited to close-to-table combat and better against the first one or two loop-drives. Once the rally has progressed to a medium or long-range control situation, then their players lack the required power!
Basically the Chinese need to bring the training for counter-loop into the spotlight at all levels throughout their playing system. The most important is the counter-loop against the opponent’s first loop-drive initiated from a backspin ball. This specific technique holds the key to all counter-looping techniques. The mastery and awareness of counter-loop techniques have to be brought to the attention of and fostered among young players from an early age.
Because of the heightened levels of receive amongst the top Europeans the need for stronger backhand play also assumes a higher priority. Backhand block and push will only offer the opponent direct attacking opportunities to obtain the upper hand immediately. Most Europeans now adopt the step around forehand receive, which makes it easier for them to control the table with the forehand side of the racket and makes variation of placement simpler. Often the server is restricted and it’s hard to follow up with a forehand attack or with a strong enough forehand attack on the third ball.
In terms of ‘shakehands’ versus penhold grip, penhold players are on the decrease and the ratio is now around 75 – 80% to 25 – 20%. Most penholders in the national team have adopted the reverse side of racket play. However this reverse side topspin cannot be played with much force by many players and because of the grip restriction it’s difficult to loop-drive to the centre line. Though European players are inconvenienced the threat is not as dangerous as it might appear, for blocking or strokes without power are after all passive tactics and during a tight rally, it’s hard to switch on to a real offensive unless the player actually steps around.
Chinese players, even those who use ‘shakehands’ grip, have difficulty in coping on the backhand side with rallies at medium to long range. Due to their lack of strength and power players find it very hard to switch on to the offensive when they have been forced back into a defensive position on this wing. This has to do in fact with their own training methods in China, where the coaches and players often spend a great deal of time strengthening the forehand rally play back from the table and have tended to neglect the backhand area at a similar depth. This is probably a ‘relic’ of the days when pen-hold players predominated in China and the main emphasis of training was on forehand strength. Chinese players and trainers must now re-think their training priorities.
In boys’ training sessions in China the better boys tend to train with each other but in the girls’ sessions there is no discrimination in terms of practice partners, everyone plays with each other. This mirrors to some extent the difference in the attitude to training between the sexes. Training generally starts with 45 minutes consistency exercises and most of these are irregular. All players train very hard but the atmosphere is always relaxed and even with humour at times. The coaches tend to sit and observe and make notes and give little direct feedback to players on technique during training. The attitude is that if a player is aware of a problem with technique, then he or she needs to find the answer to that problem. Learning becomes more effective than simply being told to change.
However there are exceptions in two areas.
All players keep a diary in which they review their training each day. The coaches review the diaries weekly and establish what the players should focus on in the next week’s training.
In many countries in the West we put a great deal of emphasis on ‘performance’ rather than on winning and losing. We delve much into the psychological aspects and feel that players should not be obsessed with winning but should focus more on ‘how to win’. In China the reverse is true and the complete emphasis is on winning – the coaches pressure players to win even from a very young age. As one coach stated – ‘We find out where each player’s breaking point is and we take them to that breaking point as often as possible. It is only in this way that the player learns to live with pressure.’ If you look at training from this perspective then players do not try and avoid pressure, but instead regard it as a perfectly natural part of the game.
To develop concentration the Chinese use many practical techniques in training, such as introducing distractions while playing. When having practice matches no lets are allowed — if a ball bounces into the court, or between your legs or another player crawls under your table to fetch a ball, you are expected to carry on playing regardless. The philosophy is that if you can keep focused in the face of such distractions in practice then at a normal tournament you will have no problem in concentrating.
Physical training involves a number of fun games, indoor and outdoor football for example. Fun and competition are the key components of much of the physical training, both to increase motivation and keep the players enthusiastic. Weight training is also a major factor in boys’ training, and many exercises involve bounding (plyometrics) whilst carrying weights.
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There is a strong pyramidal system in the country from the schools and clubs through the cities to the Provincial Centres and finally into the National Team and current policy in China is both to examine the development of players from other countries and to allow their own players every chance to play outside China. Exchange of players is quite commonplace and the Chinese are obviously keen to keep their fingers on the pulse of table tennis development outside their borders so that they themselves continue to progress and keep up to date with new methods and advances in our sport. The government invests more money than ever before in table tennis in China and players have an enhanced status.
In respect of style several penhold players continue to hold their own at the top levels in the world rankings and when one considers the results of players such as Liu Guoliang and Ma Lin they have had good success against top Western grip players. Statistics also show that their reverse backhand stroke is in fact not comparatively weaker and they do not lose out on this wing in the backhand rallies.
Many of the Chinese players of course give up rather sooner than their European counterparts. This however is not so surprising when you consider that they start their professional careers much earlier. Usually coaches meet with the parents of talented prospects at no later than 9 — 10 years old to discuss whether the child shall give up school in order to concentrate full-time on table tennis. If this is agreed then it is straight up to eight hours training daily. This means of course that there is immense competition for places in the National team and new players are coming through the ranks all the time. It is extremely hard even for world stars to keep their place for a long period of time. Many players look to go into coaching instead once they reach the age of the early twenties or even before and the job of trainer is now quite a high-profile position in China. Others join the ‘overseas corps’ and make a new playing career for themselves in another country. There are Chinese players representing national teams on every continent in the world and many continue to maintain their levels even up to the age of 40 years!
The contact angles of the racket (as distinct from the path of the stroke) are a complex minefield. The good coach of course observes angles at other stages of the stroke even at the end of the follow-through as there are often clues here as to faults and inefficiency. I am solely concerned in this article with the ‘facing’ angle upon the instant of contact with the ball – this controls the lateral (left/right) direction of flight and has much more influence on where the ball ends up rather than the swing itself.
In the case of advanced players some strong FH hitters adopt a slightly trailing approach with the racket held back a little behind the main movement of the hand. This allows the option of trailing on contact or closing on contact with the resultant alteration to the ‘facing’ angle. If this is a controlled adjustment to angle rather than uncontrolled ‘wrist-work’ it is a perfectly legitimate addition to the player’s armoury. The beauty of this is that the ‘catching up’ movement of the racket can be executed with a slow or more rapid movement, even if the arm swing itself is fast, resulting in an increased element of deception.
This ‘catching up’ motion is achieved by flexion of the wrist, by the operation primarily of the flexor carpi radialis and the flexor carpi ulnaris, a further muscle the palmaris longus being an assistant mover in the total movement. This latter muscle is missing in some 2.8 to 24% of individuals, depending on the race and/or ethnic backgrounds; Caucasians have a relatively high prevalence of absence while those of Chinese origin extremely low ; could this be a contributory factor to the success of the Chinese at table tennis?
It would be interesting to know what percentage of the ‘assist’ this particular muscle provides 5, 10 or even 15% and also if there are any recent large scale tests to show in what category of individuals the muscle is absent, for instance male/female statistics. The muscle can be unilaterally or bilaterally absent. Numerous studies seem to indicate that the absence of the PL is more common in women and more often on the left side – also women will tend to be more prone to bilateral agenesis.
It does occur to me that the absence of the palmaris longus may adversely affect if only marginally the development of a good drive player (perhaps in stability and/or touch) and is something which could be picked up relatively early in a player’s career. If we have any surgeons or physiotherapists among our ranks I would be interested in their comments and opinions.
It would also appear that the palmaris longus is a very diverse muscle and can be stronger in some people and even duplicated in others. There is some indication in test results that with a number of racket sports’ players, the tendon development in the wrist area is very pronounced (especially in table tennis where many strokes are produced with use of the wrist rather than the full arm). Does this mean that this muscle can be developed and play a larger part in stroke-play?
It would also be interesting to know if a well developed PL can lead to problems such as ‘Carpal Tunnel’ and ‘Tennis Elbow’. I am interested in any ideas on developing this article or in a follow-up if I receive new information.
In life as in table tennis you can grow and develop or you can stagnate. You are not the same at five, twelve, eighteen, thirty and fifty years of age, you don’t think or act the same. The same applies to your table tennis, there should be growth, a progression. However just how many players can honestly say that their game is developing and that there is a definite upward trend? How many ask themselves regularly — ‘What is new or different in my game over the last six months, one year? How is my game growing? What changes do I have in serve and receive, strokes, placement or tactics? What development can I see in spin, speed, variation, timing or mental approach? Even, do I actually know where I am going, what is my ultimate goal?’
It is all too easy to drift, to procrastinate, to accept lesser levels of achievement. It’s very human to take the easy road. Many players don’t seem to question where they are going — they just drift. After a while the mind becomes frozen and they don’t even question any more. It’s also all too easy to be limited by those around you, both coaches and players. How often do I hear the phrase — ‘But you must face up to reality!’ But what is reality? Ten players in your club will tell you it’s impossible to become a world champion. But if you talk to one or two world champions, they won’t laugh at you for thinking and aiming big, because they have already done it! It’s all a matter of perception — if you set limits in your own mind on what you expect to achieve, then you will indeed never exceed these limits. Just what is your reality!
How many players also know how to get the best out of their own game, what is effective with their own personal style of play? If you ask players how they win points, what is their winning weapon, they may well know this. But if you go into their style in more detail you get fewer and fewer answers and often little understanding of several important areas. Many players do not seem to be aware of their most effective playing distance from the table or how much of the table they would cover with the forehand or the backhand for example. If you start to explore in depth, which serve and receive is most effective with their style of play against designated opponents, how they change against defence or pimples, ask if they can take advantage knowledgeably of return spin on the third or fourth ball and use elastic energy or the Magnus effect against defence players, often you only get blank looks in reply.
In fact if you compare the young players of today in Europe with those who have been at the top for many years and are now between 25 — 38, there seems to be much less individualism among the young and rather less flair and feeling in their game. Swedish players such as Waldner, Persson, Appelgren and Lindh all have very different styles of play as do Primorac, Gatien, Saive, Korbel and Kreanga. Most of the younger players are more robotic in their play and there appears to be developing in Europe a sameness of play, a universality of style, strong, efficient and workmanlike but without the personal, unique touches that differentiate the really special performers from the run-of-the-mill players.
If our European style of play is changing, the first question to ask is why. What has changed over the last twenty years since the older players were in their formative period? Is it the coaches, the players or the system or some combination of all three? Or is it that with more interaction between European countries, more joint training ventures, more mass media, magazines, internet, there is now a standardization of coaching, less invention and fewer ideas? Is it perhaps that in many countries we now have more top players being involved in coaching, especially in the National centres, who as a result of their own background, look at the development of style in a rather different light, or even consider certain styles of play more preferable to others? It would appear that whatever the reasons that there are fewer ‘extreme’ styles coming through in Europe at the moment and fewer trainers working with the more unusual type of game as played by Carl Prean or Ni Xialan for example.
The other vital question we must ask ourselves is — ‘Are we going in the right direction?’ Is our modern, efficient, workmanlike style going to dominate world play for the next I0 — 20 years and sweep aside the Asian block countries? How many of our up-and-coming players in Europe between say I7 – 20 have really made the transition from top juniors to top senior level and are in a position to positively challenge the older stars? The young Swedish players of the ‘80’s were in every team final from I983 to I995 winning 3 gold and 4 silver. Before that Stellan Bengtsson was world champion at the tender age of I7 years! There would appear to be little or no evidence that the current youth of Europe is reaching world level at a similar sort of age.
Perhaps one of the biggest dangers of being encouraged to play a certain type of game, whether the influence is from coaches, media, other players or role models, is that there is a lessening of the individual input. What should always be remembered is that all players are unique and they should be urged to accentuate and develop their own personal style and to do what they do best. To imitate others often means that you try to develop areas of your game where at best you will only ever be mediocre. Some coaches even seem to think along the lines, ‘we’ in our country have ‘our own National style’. This too is a rather dangerous assumption as there is then a tendency to ignore potential which doesn’t fit in with the ‘National Plan’!
If we are to look at technical areas where we have some reasonable chance to dominate the Asian players, then surely we must examine their training programmes and methods and isolate aspects where they fear the strengths of the European game. The conventional fast attack game has been common for many years in Asia and as a result training programmes and exercises are traditionally aimed more at speed with shorter, more compact movements. Many coaches have not laid so much emphasis on the lower centre of gravity and the use of the body and legs. It is only relatively recently that Asian coaches have started to allocate much more time to looping and especially to counter–looping techniques and to raising the level of their players’ understanding of the use of arm and body and the required movement patterns. Many coaches from the Far East feel that once the rally has progressed to a longer range loop to loop battle that their players are at a disadvantage against the Europeans. The power of the European backhand causes further problems to Asian players, many are weak against repeated attacks to this wing or even to take a strong enough initiative themselves here. In fact many Asian players even those who use the normal shakehands grip often don’t develop their backhand wing to the same extent as the forehand side.
In fact if you look at the victories over China, I979 Hungary and I989 – 93 and 2000 Sweden, these wins were achieved by the use of topspin, strong backhands and an emphasis on individual style development. In view of the advantage that Europe already has in the two-winged topspin game, there would seem to be much to be said for continuing to consolidate our position with this playing style. Perhaps however we should emphasize the topspin element a little more than many of our young players do in Europe at the moment – the larger ball dips quite quickly and can cause problems for many opponents. Also in many countries in Europe backhand development with good spin appears to be stagnating — perhaps now is the time to strengthen the backhand again and the ability to accelerate from block to drive and from drive to spin at will.
But above all if we are to make real inroads at world level I feel that the single most important aspect is to develop the individual strengths of our players, and to adapt selected techniques to give maximum effect to their individual styles of play. Although table tennis at world level is now in fact much more integrated with differing styles and techniques flowing one into the other, the basic principle still applies that it is only by building on and allowing players’ personal specialties to flower that they will eventually reach full potential.
In almost every country in the world including China table tennis is on the decline. If we look at the top players in Europe, most of the big names are over thirty, many well over thirty and there seems to be little indication that there are many younger players of exceptional talent coming through to fill their shoes. One of the main reasons is the ranking system which makes it extremely difficult for the up-and-coming younger players to break into the top ranking positions and which tends to preserve the positions of the top professionals. It is very hard to get into the top few ranking positions but once there you are reasonably safe and the chances of suddenly dropping down are equally quite remote.
The top professionals have access to regular international matches and to the major big money tournaments and invitation events from which the lesser players are excluded. In fact the younger players are often in a catch-22 situation, if they work full-time then they don’t have enough practice time to get into the top ranking positions, if they play full-time then what are they supposed to live on? The situation has altered from some 10/15 years ago when players in a number of European countries including England were paid at not too much below the rate in industry. They were paid for matches even if they didn’t actually play but just sat on the bench as a reserve and they were also paid to attend training camps. This of course meant that it was much easier to aim for the top without the added pressure of having to earn a living.
Nowadays the system controls the opportunities and therefore controls which players are allowed through to challenge the professionals. The system controls the national centres where many of the top players train, it controls entry to these centres, it controls selection for training camps and for national events. Therefore the opportunities available to the up-and-coming youngster to make a breakthrough on his own without being in the system are few and far between. He will certainly need private resources or considerable financial backing (it is increasingly difficult for even the talented youngsters of working-class families to reach their full potential) and in addition access to top level coaching and sparring.
He will certainly need access to rather better coaching and development than that available in many national centres throughout Europe. There is little pressure on them to actually produce the results! In fact in many countries in Europe there is little indication that national centres are really producing the goods – where are the younger players to take over the mantle of Waldner, Persson, Gatien, Primorac or Saive? Why is it that we have a 40 year old winning the European women’s championships? In a number of countries there appear to be many promises and few results. It is also strange that in a number of countries the very top players don’t attend the national centres even in the face of threats of expulsion from their own national teams – are they perhaps trying to tell us something? And just what are the National Associations indicating to us when they actually have to threaten top players to attend their centres? Somewhere along the line a drastic re-think is needed!
It is also quite commonplace for top players to gravitate into coaching at the end of their careers or if they are injured and very few questions ever seem to be asked as to their qualifications or capabilities for such duties. Such ex-players of course continue to support and preserve the system they have been brought up with, so the chances of anything new or innovative happening are very remote! Unfortunately the career path of a player is often very different from that of a coach. In many cases players have a background of knowledge primarily from training camps, are not as flexible as coaches and have an inflated idea of the value of their own personal playing style. They will on many occasions influence their protégés to play in the same way as they themselves did and have limited understanding of the value of other methods of play. Coaches on the other hand are rather more aware of just what can be achieved by varying styles of play and have had much closer contact with the development of a variety of players. One of the reasons why playing styles are becoming more and more stereotyped throughout Europe and why we have less and less unusual or extreme styles such as Carl Prean or Ni Xialan is probably because of more ex-players being involved in coaching at national level.
Often also ex-players are moved sideways into a coaching position at the close of their careers, where their total experience is of quite limited value. Take the male player who in his mid-thirties is expected to take over junior girls’ training. Very little he has done in his own training is applicable to this new situation. Is he fully conversant with the theory of table tennis and especially relating to the women’s game? Does he know how to coach and develop the much larger variety of styles in the female game, is he fully conversant with the greater number of various rubber surfaces used by the girls and the varying techniques and tactics to be used here? Does he have any idea of the completely different mental problems he will encounter in coaching the female of the species? It would appear that if we are going to continue to use players in this fashion, then it is really necessary to have a system of upgrading courses available so that ex-players can be more immediately effective.
One of the few ways left to bypass the system and still make it to the top is through the major European clubs. The big clubs pay well to have talented players in their teams. They are like mini-associations in their own right with top level administrators, coaches and sparring and they have access to opportunities at the highest levels. Obviously if a young player is playing and working in the club then the leaders are usually prepared to put themselves out to help. The top clubs usually have a sound financial structure, good sponsorship opportunities and access to sports foundation and European Union grant aid.
Of course once you have reached a good level or even if you have an unusual style there are opportunities to practise in the big clubs in Europe or even to train in a number of national centres. Top coaches everywhere are on the lookout to improve and develop their own players – if players from elsewhere are good enough or have different or unusual styles and want to train in their club or national centre then they are usually welcome. Many of the top women and young girls throughout Europe train on a regular basis at Statisztika in Hungary which has a well-deserved reputation as the top club on the Continent for women players. Croatia and also Poland for example which have had so many successes in Europe with their players in the junior events are welcome to train in almost any national centre. This can also be another avenue to the top for the aspiring young player who finds in general that the level of sparring and coaching in his own country is of poor or inadequate quality.
It would seem that if we are to produce young players of real quality in Europe and certainly if we have any aims to try and match the Asian players and wrest world titles from the hands of the Chinese, then we must really have a total rethink about our approach and methods. As a priority we should look to support all our talented players whether in the system or not and to try to make sure that all players have equal levels of opportunity regardless of background, class or personal wealth. Secondly we must look to upgrade our national centres throughout Europe particularly from the viewpoint of the level of individual and personal attention and guidance, which allows us to unlock the real talent of the player and gives him or her the opportunity to achieve full potential. In both cases it all comes down to opportunity, without the basic opportunities players are going nowhere!
After many years of trial and error and a certain amount of exploration, European players have gradually established their own techniques and styles and have arrived at a plateau where they combine speed and spin in the same stroke. Their technical areas of superiority are a powerful forehand loop drive with fast speed and strong spin, an extensive and sustainable range of successive topspin drives which it is difficult to find any defence against, the capability to play quality loop drives from both wings and a noticeable improvement in the speed of the backhand wing which adds further to their weaponry.
The top Europeans have good fast flick attack over the table, fast switch between defence and attack and excellent rallying capabilities. Most also have an instinctive counter-loop which allows them to shift into direct attack at the slightest trace of hesitancy in the opponent’s play, whether this be a little lesser speed or spin or just bad placement. Usually they are in favour of the short or half-long serve with sidespin, no-spin or topspin so that they pressure the opponent into a touch or push return, which is vulnerable to their fast flick attack.
If the Europeans have weaknesses these are more in positional play. Often they use the long channels to the corners with the occasional centre line stroke and usually there is not enough variation in length. Many balls land in the same areas between 12 – 20 centimetres from the table edge and even top players seem to pay little attention to opening very short or very long. With the forehand topspin as their main stroke in opening against a long backspin ball, they are much more likely to be counter-looped hard by the opponent if their length is too predictable.
With the fast technical development in world table tennis the weak points of our classical fast penhold attack game have become more apparent. However there is no reason why we shouldn’t produce outstanding shakehands grip players too, provided only that we think of innovative approaches and tailor specialist techniques to suit each player — our work with players such as Kong Linghui and Wang Liqin indicate that we are moving in the right direction.
The decisive power of the forehand loop drive is a major factor in today’s game. However over the past three decades, fast attack has been the theme in our table tennis and has governed all the training systems and the principles of training, which require stroke movements to be short, compact and quick (with unfortunately little attention being paid to use of the waist and the legs and coordination between these). As a result our players are more suited to close-to-table combat and better against the first one or two loop drives. Once the rally has progressed to a medium or long-range control situation, then our players lack the required power!
What we must look to first is to raise the level of awareness of smooth movement and coordination of arms, waist and legs in all our training programmes. Also as the key to power release we must stress forearm speed and fast forearm fold. Above all as with any system of movement we must avoid the extremes, relying too much on the arm without the coordination of waist and legs or too much on the coordination without the fast arm movement which leads to poor or uncontrolled power release.
The counter-loop technique plays a decisive role in matches. It has a major effect on the first three balls and in the switch from defence to attack. If at any time you open with a marginally weaker ball, you are liable to find this counter-looped past you! Yet even though it is in fact a key technique in today’s play, it is by no means an easy technique to master. Except for a few of our top players many of our provincial and regional level performers have not really mastered this and are limited to close or medium range counter-play. We also tend to lack the confidence and ability in our service play to encourage the opponent to loop the 2nd ball by serving the half long serve (second bounce on the white line), then counter-looping his opening ball. Even in the first few balls (2nd, 3rd and 4th) we often lack the awareness and ability to counter-loop after playing one or two control strokes. These deficiencies tend to lead us more into serving short and safe and have restricted our long serving.
Basically we have to bring the training for counter-loop into the spotlight at all levels throughout our playing system. The most important is the counter-loop against the opponent’s first loop drive initiated from a backspin ball. This specific technique holds the key to all counter-looping techniques. The mastery and awareness of counter-loop techniques have to be brought to the attention of and fostered among young players from an early age.
Because of the heightened levels of receive among the top Europeans the need for stronger backhand play becomes imperative. Backhand block and push will only offer the opponent direct attacking opportunities to obtain the upper hand immediately. Most Europeans now adopt the step around forehand receive, which makes it easier for them to control the table with the forehand side of the racket and makes variation of placement simpler. Often the server is restricted and it’s hard to follow up with a forehand attack or with a strong enough forehand attack.
Most penholders in the national team have adopted the reverse side of racket play. However this reverse side loop cannot be played with much force and because of grip restriction it’s difficult to loop drive to the centre line. Though European players are inconvenienced the threat is not as dangerous as it might appear, for block is after all a passive play and during a tight rally, it’s hard to switch on to a real offensive unless the player actually steps around.
The marriage of block and fast backhand loop drive is innovative. It becomes even more effective when you target the opponent’s backhand immediately after a hard attack to his forehand side. But just what strokes do you include in this backhand arsenal (stop-block, drive, topspin, loop) and how is the change from one to the other to be executed and which switches are most effective? What is your finishing stroke, a fast drive or a topspin?
Our shakehands players have difficulty in coping on the backhand side with rallies at medium to long range. Due to the lack of strength and power players find it very hard to switch on to the offensive when they have been forced back into a defensive position on this wing. This has to do in fact with our own training where we often spend a great deal of time on strengthening the forehand rally play back from the table and have tended to neglect the backhand area at a similar depth. We must re-think out training priorities.
In the case of development of ‘shakehands’ techniques we must not be afraid to learn from the European players. They have in fact developed in a number of individual ways and we should admire them for this. The Swedish players with Waldner as the spearhead have successfully combined speed and spin in loop play from a rather closer-to-table position with a variety of strong backhand strokes. Gatien has close-to-table attacking techniques with a very fast forehand similar to our own play, only he is much stronger with his counter-loop initiatives against topspin balls. Saive specializes in fast loop forehand initiative over almost the whole table and is particularly skilful at topspinning ‘second-bounce’ balls or the half-long service. It’s not difficult to come to an understanding that the Europeans are not only working rather more to develop individual styles of play but that they are also prepared to ‘borrow’ techniques from other styles and integrate these into their own game where applicable. What we must also realize in China is that world table tennis has now advanced to a new era where all styles and techniques tend to mix with and inter-relate one with another.
First and foremost we must work to restore our traditional advantage in the ‘first three balls’. We have let this slip away so that now we are on level terms or even a little behind with the serve and handling the 2nd and 3rd balls. Also we have to reinforce control and counter-control measures in the 4th, 5th and 6th balls so we maintain an offensive initiative and do not let the play drift into a stalemate situation. We must give rather more thought to being flexible, positive and aggressive in the mind with the first 5/6 balls, to achieve mastery in the three decisive areas, quick transition to attack, quick tactical switches and our traditional fast speed on the opening ball. Also of course we must overcome our weaknesses in loop and counter-loop play so that we are not at a disadvantage against the Europeans.
Above all however the principle for our shakehands development, the theme if you like for the future, must be one that emphasizes ‘all-round skills with no apparent weaknesses’ and a personalized specialty. We should of course be self-reliant and confident in our own methods and strong enough in our own play that we can dominate and impose our game on the opponent. However we should not ignore that other styles and cultures have techniques to offer and we should never be afraid to ‘borrow’ and build on the ideas and concepts of others.
One of the main themes of Chinese coaching tradition over the years has been to try and make each player different, to develop the individual strengths, to give players an unusual specialty. It is then of course much harder for the opponent to adapt to a new and different technique. Perhaps we have the Europeans and particularly the Swedish players with their innovative styles, to thank for redirecting our attention to the fact that the individual emphasis is of paramount importance when developing players
Some time ago I read an article in the ‘Table Tennis’ which asked – ‘What is the secret of China’s dominance in world table tennis.’ I don’t think there is any big secret. They work more in areas that matter at a younger age, concentrate ruthlessly on even the smallest aspects of technique and movement and also train against all styles of play. In comparison in many countries in Europe we are just ‘amateurs’, we only ‘play’ at coaching and development. In Sweden for example we produce players who reach the National team with quite major faults in their game, both in technique and tactics — unfortunately at international level there is absolutely no hiding place if you have weaknesses. The lack of individual attention is understandable given the number of coaches in Sweden (those in full-time employment can probably be numbered almost on the fingers of one hand!) and the ratio of players per coach. Unfortunately it means we are bringing up a generation of new players whose ultimate level of play is limited. In most cases they don’t have access to the right kind of guidance at the time when they need it. It’s rather like putting a teenager in a car and saying — ‘Here are the keys, get on with it, learn to drive.’ Yes, they learn to drive after a while, but just how many good drivers do we get?
If I look back in the old magazines even in the mid-eighties we had headlines such as - ‘We must solve our youth development problems!’ Sixteen or seventeen years ago we were looking for more leaders and coaches, we were not satisfied with results from the Junior Europeans and we were complaining about lack of success in the women’s game. So just what has changed? It seems to me essentially nothing! Successive administrations have sat back and done nothing — the men’s team was successful and that was enough, no need to actually do anything to solve the real problems! Now we still have the problems but we are rapidly running out of old men to keep our men’s team at the top. So, just when are we going to do something? It’s also not enough to do a few isolated things at top level, like the new centre at Köping, we must get things moving over a much larger area. Regions and districts must be involved a great deal more to improve levels at the base of the pyramid, otherwise we shall have fewer and fewer players and also players of lesser quality to actually attend in Köping! One way or another we must get over the inertia that seems to be holding everyone back.
Since the 1960’s when I first worked with Chinese coaches I have been a strong advocate of individual attention. When I established my own club in England in the 1970’s we operated on a ratio of four to eight players per coach — we produced seven number one ranked players over ten years and in the early 1990’s had 5 players, 3 girls and 2 boys in the England teams. The problem of more individual attention in Sweden is by no means without solutions, there are a number of alternatives, especially if you are prepared to ‘think around corners’. However the main problem would be whether the solutions would be politically acceptable to the clubs. In the majority of cases an acceptable level of technical and tactical guidance along with individual style development cannot be provided at club level, especially if you are talking about European top twenty standards. Times are changing and we will almost certainly not produce the players of the future, with the methods of the past!
Fortunately you have one of the best club systems in the world, unfortunately almost all are traditionally insular. In Sweden it seems tradition is more important than ideas. If I were to point out that it’s next to impossible to achieve the highest levels in isolation, the bigger the pool, the more chance you have to produce top players, you would probably agree with me. But if in the next breath I were to suggest that Malmö and Eslöv, Helsingborg and Falkenberg, Kalmar and Enig, Ängby and Spårvägens should cooperate and work together to raise the overall level, I would probably be told — ‘You’re not Swedish, you don’t understand, that’s traditionally unacceptable.’ In other words club priorities are more important than the development of players or even national considerations. Traditions are important, however there is one inescapable fact of life, everything changes. Progress, development mean change. Resist change and try to stay as you are and stagnation sets in. Does anyone really think that the great household names of Swedish table tennis, the Waldners, Appelgrens, Perssons and Lindhs just grew and developed by playing all their lives in one or two clubs in Sweden, even big clubs? They went out into the big pool of world play and their development was shaped by their experiences in many different lands.
Even in little Långemåla they succeeded in getting money for their ‘Girls’ Table Tennis in Focus’ project, to develop girls’ table tennis in Småland and had players and coaches from England, Sweden, Wales and Poland supported by E.U. funding. They have facilities to run camps for up to 40 players and coaches with accommodation and this in a very small club set in a very small village community of only some 300 persons. That so much has happened here is largely due to the ideas and energy of one man, Stig-Olof Holm. It is just a little surprising perhaps that more is not happening in other areas of Sweden where there are much bigger clubs and communities, with more resources and many more people working for table tennis. However it is not the size of the club that is significant in making things happen, it is in fact often largely a matter of one or two people with the ideas and the ability and energy to translate ideas into reality.
Quite many of our young players are now moving out of Sweden to play and in some cases to live in other countries in Europe. One or two have come to realize an important fact of life — if you only travel to play matches, European clubs will use you but they are not too interested in helping you develop your game, however if you stay and work in the club then they are prepared to invest some time in you. And just how do these clubs finance their foreign players? Do they use their hard-earned sponsorship money? Of course not. The first question they ask is — ‘How do we get a player or a coach free? What grants, assistance, are available in our country, in their country, from the local community, the National Sports Foundation, what European Union schemes fit our particular case?’ Quite often the clubs will get a free coach or player, just as in fact many clubs in Sweden could. But of course if you think in traditional ways and you remain isolated in your own club, then there is perhaps less flexibility of thought and less willingness to consider new ideas. When I had my own club I took players all over Europe to camps and tournaments but always with other people’s money!
Of course soon we shall have our own centre in Köping — here we seem to have a community which is very supportive and people who can turn ideas into reality. But is one centre enough for a country the size of Sweden? And will it attract the top players? Experience in several countries in Europe has shown that the best players often choose not to go to the national centres and even in those countries where many of the top players do attend, results at world level have hardly been encouraging. Also in most countries players are only selected for these centres at an older age when their style is already set. Perhaps again we should be ‘thinking around corners’ and be considering other approaches, not I would emphasize instead of, but in addition to the new centre. One or two countries have been experimenting with taking the coach or sparring partner to the players instead of bringing the players to one centre. One of the main themes for instance of the ‘Girls’ table tennis in focus’ project in Småland was that the coach and sparring players should go out into the clubs to follow up on players who had been on the camps. Just think what we could achieve for starters, if every district in Sweden were to set up coaching groups on a regular basis at the younger age levels, 11 and 13 both boys and girls — not only is guidance important at a young age but also some continuity.
Let me finish by saying that I have nothing but admiration for what little Sweden has achieved in men’s table tennis over the last twenty years. But no-one can live on past glories. Change is the essence of life, if you don’t change, you stagnate. Change is the essential element of progress, of development. Traditionally Swedish players are thought (in other countries) to be innovative and colourful in their play. Perhaps now is the time for the leaders and organizers in clubs and districts to move away from traditional avenues of thinking, be more flexible in attitudes and less conventional in their approach to our sport.
If we compare the advantages we have today in our sport of table tennis to the situation 25 years ago, then we should be producing far better players than we do. Players have access to better equipment and training facilities, to comprehensive methods of handling mental and physical training, to more coaching expertise, to a much more unified approach to European development through the strengths of the ETTU and the ITTF. We should certainly not be producing much worse results than we did 20 years ago - in other sports such as athletics, records are being broken month after month and there is just no comparison with a couple of decades ago.
Yet as far as the development of top young players in Europe is concerned we appear to be on the slippery downhill slope and indeed a large number of the top coaches are concerned as to the lack of strength in depth. Instead many of the famous names are still there, playing well into their thirties (even the forties in the case of one Chinese-born player at the Worlds and still doing well). Many of these older players are still high in the rankings. But where are the young players in any numbers (of course there is the odd one like M. Maze or M. Steff) to take over the mantle of greatness? In the 1971 we had European players like S. Bengtsson winning the Worlds at the tender age of 17, in 1982 we had Waldner in the final of the men’s in Europe at 16 years. Looking at the players we are producing now it seems most unlikely we will have anyone to challenge the Asian players in the foreseeable future. Perhaps now is the time to have a closer look at what has been happening in Europe over the last 10 years and to have a rethink as to just how to reshape our policies and methods.
The salient point is that we appear to be drifting away from the real essentials of producing players. We could even query if our priority is to produce top players in any sort of numbers or if we have some other form of agenda. In a number of European countries it seems that some of the best people are not used in the system or are left sitting on the sidelines and certain ‘favourites’ are handpicked instead. Top ex-players are often ‘fast-tracked’ into coaching without the need to take coaching exams and it appears to be assumed that they will have both the experience and the communication skills to adapt overnight. Unfortunately over the whole of Europe the ‘old boy system’ prevails and it’s not a question of what you know but rather who you know. Also as far as rewards are concerned table tennis is very much a ‘Mickey Mouse’ sport with only ‘breadline’ payments even at National levels. As a result the best coaches aren’t really interested, go into other jobs outside table tennis or to U.S.A or the Middle East where they can earn enough in 5 years to set them up for life.
I know of very experienced coaches apparently not good enough to work with National setups in Europe (who have for example been rejected in favour of the local favourite, a twenty-year old ex-junior National player who is being fast-tracked into coaching) who have then gone straight into coaching overseas on considerable dollar salaries where their record and qualities were immediately recognized. I also know coaches who attract quite large salaries abroad working with National teams but who are not even allowed to supervise the stage one coaching courses in their own countries as they have no qualifications.
A system which insists on using juniors or young senior players who are either injured or not good enough to make it at European or world level does not seem to be drawing on a sound experience basis for developing future talent. Nor does this take account of the fact that the development path of a player is very different to that of a coach. Why for example employ young players on National training camps when in many European countries we have Grade 4 coaches who are apparently not allowed or considered good enough to participate? If these coaches have achieved such high qualifications why are they not used more often? Or is it that the younger player/coaches are more easily controlled!
Equally any system which uses older players/coaches who are out of touch with modern methods and techniques is not liable to get very far. You only have to watch world-wide coverage of major table tennis events to spot some of the amazing ‘gaffes’ made by ex-national coaches or top players who should know better.
In many table tennis setups we have too many players and few coaches, whose priority is often not the players. You can’t run groups of twenty players and develop individual potential to the full for the efforts of the coach are too diluted. In addition many National coaches and also those in major clubs have far too heavy an administrative work load so their time for ‘hands on’ coaching is again limited. This again is one of the necessary restrictions where you have only limited funding. Systems employ top coaches to do everything, so as a result their real talents (those of developing players to their full potential) are very much underutilised.
Some thirty to thirty five years ago when some of the greatest talents in Europe and the world were developing things were rather different. Coaching was less invasive and less organized and players played more matches and trained more match play often with a very competitive attitude, playing for drinks or a meal for example, but playing thousands of matches in training and often in the training hall seven days per week. Training was not always just table tennis - players thought up many fun ways to compete and switch off but like the gladiators of old there was always this intense element of contest.
In these modern times it is very different. Group interests are put before the individual. Players attend 2 - 4 sessions per week which are more organized with more exercises but less real competitive play. We spend far more time on the intricacies of the physical and mental sides than we ever did before. We have many more young ‘designer’ coaches at top level who seem to think that one of their main functions is to keep thinking up new ideas and new ways of doing things perhaps to keep the players’ interest. For the players to keep up with the new ideas can sometimes be a problem. Instead of producing fighters and competitors we tend to produce ‘designer’ players. But in all of this we are producing less good players and achieving poorer results at world level than ever before.
Many National setups even seem to feel the necessity to control their players, running down the players’ own coaches and trainers and restricting access to new ideas apparently on the grounds that only they know what they are doing. Yet in a number of countries over Europe very little is done to develop coaching experience - there are fewer courses, few workshops and seminars to bring existing coaches up to date. Even updating courses churn out the same old material from 30/40 years ago. At National level many coaches seem reluctant to liaise with ‘inferior’ coaches, who are the ones developing the players. It makes one wonder if the general reluctance to hold forums etc. and to meet the coaching public is due to a lack of confidence in the top trainers’ own knowledge and abilities! If they possess the knowledge, why the necessity to keep it such a secret?
It seems too that in many countries any form of criticism is no longer allowed - this seems to be seen as ‘rocking the boat’, generally being negative and therefore counterproductive. This even applies when there are obvious and major deficiencies to address. Yet if one tries to have a quiet word at top level then of course nothing happens. It would appear that it is necessary to shield those at the top from any sort of confrontation. Personally I have always held the opinion that if you can’t stand your corner, prove yourself and defend your methods and ideas, then you shouldn’t really be in the job! The same applies to results. Certainly those in top jobs in industry and even in other sports such as football, have to produce the goods otherwise they are on their way and looking for a new job very quickly.
Players are sent to train in other countries in Europe at some expense to their parents, many even at a very young age when they are still developing technically. Is this because we feel inadequate ourselves and not able to develop our own players or do we genuinely think that coaches in other countries have a real interest in helping our players to reach their full potential? The only valid reason is perhaps to get a little different and better sparring but even much of this is wasted when players are still at a fairly basic level.
It would seem that many coaches have lost sight of two vital facts –
If we want to get back to producing good players in numbers in Europe then we have to start making some changes. Just how many countries are in any sort of touch with their table tennis public? In most European countries for instance coaching policy is controlled by just one or two individuals - it should be obvious that no one or two individuals are experts over all areas of coaching, so to be effective they should have access to a panel of specialists. We have had some ten to fifteen years of operating pretty much in the same old way and nothing much has happened. Both the numbers and quality of cadet and junior players have gone down - the situation in the boys’ game is bad, in the case of the girls’ it’s a total disaster. So just what do we need to do?
Let’s take a look at the European Junior Championships, July 2005. Romania topped the medal table, taking 3 gold and 2 silver, with their girls (they have in fact 4 girls in the top 20 in junior rankings), but didn’t take any medals in the boys events. Russia took 3 gold and a silver, gold in cadet girls’ team, cadet mixed and cadet girls’ singles, silver in junior girls’ doubles (they have 5 girls in the European top 20 cadet rankings). Germany had 5 of the 8 quarter finalists in junior boys and both finalists, (the same 5 are in the top 20 in Europe including the top three) but also won the cadet girls doubles and took silver in the final of the cadet girls team (Germany have 4 girls ranked in the top 20 in cadets in Europe). England dominated the cadet boys winning 2 gold in team and singles and 2 silver in singles and cadet mixed (they have 3 boys in the top 14 in European cadets including the 1 and 2) but took no medals in the girls.
To summarize it would seem from this that England and Germany are successful with boys and Romania, Russia and Germany (and don’t forget Spain) are producing quality girls. However of all the countries in Europe only Germany can claim to have a good level of success with both. There would appear to be fewer countries participating in the top level successes. A measure of the dominance of countries such as Germany, England and Romania was that for the first time in many years they had both finalists in their best events, (the last time this happened was in 1980 in Poznan) which doesn’t really say too much for the many other countries taking part. In a number of cases it’s going to be a case of ‘back to the drawing board’ and with a vengeance.
But will anything actually happen or will it just be a case of plodding along in the same old way? Unfortunately in Europe as we stated earlier a number of associations are not at all in touch with the feelings of their table tennis public and to be honest don’t really seem to care much. Politics too often seem to take precedence over the needs of the players. There are always plenty of people prepared to ‘dabble’ in the player’s development (and often at the parents’ expense rather than their own) but few prepared to get down to the hard daily toil of shaping that player so that he or she eventually achieves his or her full potential.
It’s very easy to be an ‘exercise setter’, one or two coaches on a national training camp with 30 players for example changing the exercises every 10 - 15 minutes. “We will now all play FH loop against block”. “The next exercise is the Reverse Falkenberg controlling from the FH corner”. Yes good sparring and group interaction is important in a player’s development but it’s only one small part of the whole package.
Coaching in large groups with little individual input will produce clones which is what is tending to happen nowadays in Europe. If you look at the great players of the 1980’s, players such as Waldner, Persson, Appelgren, Gatien, Saive, Grubba, Secretin for example, they all had their own individual way of playing. Their individual strengths and style were allowed to develop and flower. They were not forced into a mould, they were guided or in a number of cases had the strength of mind to select the right style direction for them.
It is difficult if not impossible for a player to evolve completely in a group environment. Certain areas such as the mental side, serve and receive and style development require the ‘one to one’ situation to be really effective. This of course presupposes that you have the coaches available who recognize just where the player is going and how to get there. Coaches involved with style development must also be conversant with the large number of different paths which are available to players, especially for example in the women’s game, where you can have defenders, blockers or attackers and often with a large variety of different materials. If coaches do not have in depth knowledge of the various rubbers and how to play with and against them, then their effectiveness in the development phase or at National level is severely restricted. It is the prime function of the coach at whatever level he or she operates to unlock the full potential of the player.
What we need to do in Europe is to allow the top coaches to coach. Their time should be spent on ‘hands on’ work with the players, not in administration, office work or arranging sponsorship etc. Equally where we have coaches whose specialist fields are in style development, serve and receive, the women’s game, defence or pimple play, then their input must be used on training camps and on a one to one basis. We need more specialist individual emphasis even at National levels - rather than individual high-performance directors we need the team approach, a team of specialists working individually with players in their own areas of expertise. The player must have access to the differing specialists in order to reach their full potential.
Table tennis is a very technical sport and the basic law is adaptation and counter-adaptation. The player must have the capability to read what is happening and to adapt quickly in an ever-changing situation. Each player tries to adapt to the technique, tactics and playing style of the opponent and to avoid being ‘controlled’ by the way the opponent plays. The prime skill of table tennis is to read the game and to adapt in an ever-changing situation.
This is why it is so vital for coaches to ensure that their players, right from the 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, which the player has to work so hard to build up, cover a much larger series of actions and it is rather easier for him or her to adapt to new situations. In other words the content and method of training assume rather more importance than we may have initially thought, especially in the formative years.
Finally it’s important to develop the ‘complete package’ in the formative period. Many coaches feel that they can leave certain advanced techniques till a later stage when their player is stronger and more mature. It doesn’t work like this. Once the automated reactions are established it’s difficult if not impossible to start changing technical aspects. Many of the top coaches in Europe will agree (and they don’t agree on too many things) that the technical development of the player must be completed by the last year cadet or at the latest by the first year in the juniors.
Perhaps it is felt over most of Europe that image is important and we need to give the impression of a young virile sport. This may be the reason why we need to see young (ex)players developing the stars of the future. Sadly it means that a great amount of experience built up over many decades is then ignored and wasted. As Sheri Pittman of the U.S.A. Association said in her July/August report 2005 — ‘Experience creates the possibility of excellent preparation’. One of my coaching acquaintances (now in his eighties) told me recently - ‘ I was informed by a national official that I was a dinosaur and should give up coaching or at least bring myself up to date with modern methods. Strangely enough I did neither and yet my player still got to number 1 at national level within one year and is now ranked in Europe’.
In Asia knowledge is respected and you see many quite ancient coaches even at the World Championships along with young ex-world champions who have gone into coaching. However behind the scenes in the regional coaching centres you find a great many older coaches whose job it is to prepare the young player during his or her formative years. Their experience is used at the right time in the player’s development. Interestingly enough the latest innovation in China, the reverse pen-hold backhand, did not originate from one of the new player coaches but from a much older coach, well into his forties, working in one of the provincial centres.
As an English coach working in Sweden I was interested in the articles by Linus Mernsten and Sören Åhlen in issue 24 of the I.T.T.F. magazine. Both indicated the value of quality early technical development, a sentiment I would wholeheartedly endorse.
However if we in Europe are to compete on any sort of terms with the Asian players especially in the women’s game, I feel it of prime importance that we start much further back along the line of evolution than ‘the critical years after the junior ranks’. We have an appalling drop-out rate in the mid-teens, we have so much talent wasted, missed or self-destructing because of lack of access in the early years to informed guidance.
The key coaching emphasis must be in the 9 – 13 age group and the key aspects which should be carefully established, nurtured and monitored, are the structuring of sound technique (including movement patterns), the development of individual style and the cultivation of innovative attitudes. Get the players to a higher level at a younger age and they will achieve both more success and want to play longer.
Too many young players in Europe reach quite a high level with built-in weaknesses or problems either in stroke-play or movement, which restrict and limit further development and deny them the chance of ever achieving their full potential. Again this is particularly noticeable in the girls’ game. The problems of technique go back to early club training and not to the quality or the number of sparring partners, but to how you train and what guidance is available to you. In many small clubs there is little structured training and development is uncontrolled and unmonitored, in many big clubs groups are far too large and the main priority of the coach is not the young player, but the elite team or the European League. Even the National trainers can make little impact in the areas of technique — they don’t see the players often enough.
If technical development is to be effective it must be checked and monitored on a regular basis. There must be a continuity of training and the young player should have access to informed guidance at each stage of development. In our Western world it is more often than not socially unacceptable to remove young children from the home environment — in the case of the talented few it may be necessary to look at ways of taking the coaching to the player.
Too often it seems to be overlooked that all players are individuals with differing strengths and weaknesses and certainly differing natural gifts. You cannot force a player into a mould of your own choosing or indeed select a national style and expect players to conform to this and then be successful.
If a player is to reach full potential their style should of course be guided and channelled towards their own strengths and natural talents, even from a young age. Style however is not an area where the coach should dominate — rather it should be a continuing dialogue between coach and player. In the final analysis only the player knows whether he is comfortable with the way he plays, what level of risk-taking he is happy with and how positive and inventive he will be.
Many coaches will tell you that there are far more styles in the women’s game and style development is more vital here. Only partially true. Look at the Swedish men of the last fifteen years, Waldner, Lindh, Appelgren and Persson — they have achieved success with very different ways of playing. Far too rarely however do young players understand how they should play to make the best use of their own natural qualities and skills. Such understanding is only achieved after considerable experience but can often be stimulated and expedited by a close working relationship on a one-to-one basis with a coach of some considerable experience.
In many areas of Europe we seem to produce young players who are generally competent enough but without any real flair, too much rigidity of play with nothing different or unusual, power and pace but without feeling and variation. Equally we see many young players in the 10 – 13 age groups who promise great things, but fade away and by 15 – 17 are just run-of-the-mill performers, their game stagnating with no real way forward.
To make real inroads at world level you need something extra — world class players do the bread and butter things of table tennis extraordinarily well. But even more vital is the fact that only the player who continues to accept new ideas and who is prepared to bring change into his or her game will progress and develop. When you stop being receptive to change you stay where you are and stop moving forward. This is the one great lesson that every player must learn at as early an age as possible.
The great Swedish player J.O.Waldner demonstrates innovation better than anyone — in his third decade of play 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 progress. You can fault his over-inventive play at times — but you can never fault his innovative thinking.
Many countries and Associations in Europe have the desire and motivation to produce world class players, sadly a good proportion just don’t have the right systems in place or the methods to realise their ambitions. Just what do we mean by this?
First there has to be the understanding of what is required to actually reach top level. Far too often there is the emphasis on large groups of young players of similar experience levels, styles and abilities who are expected to train together and somehow magically improve to reach the top 30 or so in the world! This of course will never happen. Why not? Quite simply because the right ingredients are not in place. Far too often players in Europe reach between 100 to 300 on the world ranking but never get any higher.
Above all we need to develop winners, players who know how to play table tennis at a high level. Too often in training sessions we spend an inordinate amount of time in developing ‘nice to look at’ flowing strokes. But what happens when these players play games? They never get the chance to use their flowing strokes because they can’t get past the serve/receive and short game scenario. To get players to higher levels we need to train in the right areas from the early days.
We don’t only need to examine the top players of today and look at what they do and how they play, we need to forecast how the game will develop and progress and to innovate for the future. Many of the ‘signs’ showing what will happen in the future are already visible today if only we look hard enough.
For example serve/receive and effective short play are more and more important at top level and must be introduced in the early stages of the player’s career. Equally the first 5 or 6 balls must be worked on in the developing phases at the time when the young player is most receptive. Many players also have little understanding of the efficient use of power and of the value of the differing responses.
There are too, signs in the movement patterns being used at top level (especially with the women) that the game will become more symmetrical and that the stance will remain more central. Economy in movement will be crucial, in and out movement with balance vital and it will be more and more important to sustain offensive play at a level to keep the opponent off balance, until the player can win the point.
Most important of all however are the methods of and approach to training. Table tennis is a game of adaptation and from the earliest age we should be looking not only to develop the ‘whole’ player, but to help adaptive intelligence to grow and flower and to cultivate the ability to assess the quality of each ball. This should be done throughout training both during exercises and also with multi-ball.
To develop the whole player is vital from the start. This means technical, physical and mental strengths growing together. Too often we train players to win cadet and mini-cadet events and forget the bigger picture. All players should be guided towards the senior game, this is the end product! We don’t have time to backtrack with junior players to prepare them for play at senior level.
To cultivate adaptive intelligence and quality assessment we need to work with exercises and multi-ball, which offer multiple choices. Players must be able to recognise the quality of the incoming ball and make a value judgment as to the most efficient response. This kind of ‘situational’ training should form the major part of the young player’s development and should be brought in right from the first 5/6 balls. In addition all players should train against variety, topspin, backspin, drive players, plus lefthanders and pimpled players.
The ultimate aim of course with all players is that they fully understand themselves how they should play to be most effective. Many players unfortunately go through their whole playing career without ever realising this. If we are to produce players to match the Asians there has to be a much greater emphasis on individual development throughout Europe and of course there has to be time to train and to practise.
Far too often the competition calendar is so intense that the players have no time to develop and to understand how they should play! The job of the coach is to guide the player towards this understanding and to appreciate himself that there are areas, where it is the player who must decide whether he/she feels comfortable playing in a certain way or not. It is not always up to the coach to dictate.
Why is it that European table tennis players, apart from the few rare exceptions, are no match for the Asians? Why are even the real top players in Europe quite old, many 30 to 40 years or more (and still able to win major events in Europe) while many of the top Asians are early 20’s or even in their teens and dominate at world level? Why don’t we in Europe get our young players to the top levels earlier?
If you listen to the top European stars they don’t seem to have much confidence in their early training. Timo Boll: ‘It’s only now at 30 years of age that I fully understand how I should play’. Werner Schlager (last European to win the Worlds): ‘When I look back much of my early training was wasted’. Michael Maze: ‘Now I have a Chinese coach, I have strengthened my BH and my movement is better and more dynamic’. Are all these top players saying that coaching is below par or in the wrong direction in Europe? If players of this level are dissatisfied then surely there is little hope for the rest of us!
As a matter of interest just what do the current top coaches and High Performance Directors in Europe think of our progress?
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’.
Dusan Osmanagić: ‘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’.
Mario Amizić: ‘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. 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. The older coaches in Europe will tell you we are not educating our coaches and trainers properly or indeed in the right way’.
Even the coaches at the sharp end of training in Europe are concerned as to the direction and scope of our training and the fact that we are not developing our players to match the Asians in any numbers. In the case of women’s play we are indeed woefully behind and show no real signs of moving forward in the near future. The last European woman to win the World Singles was Angelica Roseanu and the last time she won it was in 1955! This is 56 years ago!
In Europe far too often we coach young players to win mini-cadet or cadet events. Because of funding limitations (get results or no funding!) we focus on the means to win at a younger age. The weapons used to win at a young age are very different to those needed at world level. As a result we often have to backtrack later to try and re-structure the player’s game to be effective at senior level.
Many of the Asian countries and especially China, place little value on cadet and junior successes and the only results that matter are those in the senior game. Players such as Zhu Yuling have beaten women in the top 10 in the world at 15 years of age: what’s the point of playing cadet and junior events? The emphasis and the methods are completely different from development in Europe. If a player wins a continental cadet championship everybody expects him/her to become at least a good continental senior champion, but titles in cadet categories are not a sure indicator of a future high level career - such results only indicate that the player has certain qualities which may enable him/her to become a very good player. In fact very few cadet stars become senior champions!
Aspects which are vital in the seniors but often not worked on much at a young age are as follows: short play and control of short play, use of angles and placement, high level serve and receive, the first 6 balls, spin and control of spin, control at speed and how to win the point, power and uses of power, individual specialties and shot selection. Most senior players also work more with the mental side of the game, recognise much earlier the quality or lack of quality in the opponent’s shot and how to take advantage of this, see immediately when the opponent changes tactics or when something else changes in the game.
It would seem that the methods we have in place in Europe are no longer producing top players (or very few) and need to be updated and refined.
We need to be more focused towards individual and senior development from the outset. We should take the shortest and most direct route to the senior game. Often we don’t train as much or as professionally as the Asians, so we need to make the maximum use of our time. We also need to make maximum use of our energy, usually the Asians train harder and more intensely. Above all we need to be focused on the right techniques/tactics for top-level play.
It is necessary to look at all our training sessions, even the High Performance and National ones to ascertain if we are progressing in the right direction. Have we enough coaches (and of enough quality) to individualise training? Do we have enough variety in styles to help the player develop adaptive intelligence? Or do we only have young players of the same styles and same experience levels in the group? To reach world level we need to develop the adaptive capabilities to deal with any type of opponent. We also need our youngsters to work with players of higher experience levels (as well as with top coaches) to understand how they should individually play and develop.
Crucially we need to look at methods of training and what we wish to achieve by differing methods. For example the Chinese train a great deal on the first 5 balls. We do the same in Europe but we train generally and without a real purpose, the Asians train specifically. By this we mean the Europeans train serve and 3rd ball, trying to win the point on the 3rd ball regardless of how the ball is returned. The Chinese will train serve and 3rd ball but valuing the return: if the return is poor the player may flick hard and try to win, if the return is first-class the player will drop the ball short and try from there to get an advantage.
What the Chinese are doing by playing in this way is to improve adaptive intelligence and to increase the ability to do different things with the ball. They in other words are not developing in rigid patterns, they are training to play flexibly and to adjust to varying situations. This is one method we should certainly adopt in Europe.
‘Situational training’ is another aspect we should explore and this describes a specific type of drill. The player’s objective is to find the best possible solution within a given exchange of shots. In the early stage of a rally the ball direction/placement will be pre-arranged. However at a certain point during the rally one of the players has to decide about changing the placement of the next shot. The essence of situational training is that this decision should be carefully weighed with reference to the quality of the incoming ball. Thus, one expects the player to weigh up very quickly what needs to be done, whatever the situation may be, advantageous or disadvantageous or almost even.
In this situation a player, who faces a good shot by his opponent, will choose to play say alternative A. But if there is an incoming ball of poor quality, the player will choose alternative B trying to profit from the weak stroke of his opponent. Both alternatives of course should be specified prior to the drill. Thus situational training is a specific type of drill with its very own intention and this is to improve the athlete’s self-reliance, judgment and adaptive intelligence.
The prime criterion is that players develop an understanding of their own style of play as early as possible in their career. This should be based on a detailed evaluation of top players at world level and what is effective here and also on an assessment of their own physical and mental attributes. Also the player should of course be comfortable with the way he/she is going to play. If we are going to rock the Chinese then there needs to be a much higher level of individual development throughout Europe. There is really no excuse for a player reaching 25 – 30 years of age and only then beginning to understand how he/she should play!
However we must also be aware that part of the problem is in the way and the length of time it takes for the adolescent human brain to mature. The brain normally only attains its full levels of ‘hard-wiring’ between 24 and 26 years of age, which explains many of the poor decisions taken by teenagers and young 20 years olds – often in their formative period they are just not ready to listen or to learn, they want to do things their way. Having young adolescents of similar ages and experience-levels training together often only both undermines and solidifies crucial aspects of the learning situation.
The countries in Europe which continue to produce world-level players and especially young players of quality (and by this we mean top 50 – 60 not 100 to 250!), are those which have older performers still competing on the world scene. Sweden, France and Germany are prime examples. At the recent European Championships in October 2011, Germany had 4 players in the last 8 in the men and both finalists: there were also 2 players in the last 8 in the women from Germany, one of whom reached the final. There is just no substitute for having ‘role models’ still active and competing on home soil!
If the coach doesn’t believe in the player, then he/ she will find it difficult to win. Players sense very quickly whether the coach is fully behind them and supportive or if he/she is just going through the motions and is really quite certain they have little or no chance. It often happens in Europe for example when Europeans meet Asian opponents that the lack of belief from the coach impacts on his/her player’s performance.
Too many coaches blame the players, when what is needed is support and guidance and not some form of blame culture. Whose fault is it if the player is inadequately prepared, not good enough or even several levels below the opposition? This is a situation for the coach to address in training or in an upgrade of coaching methods and is a subject for research from his/her side, not from the player’s perspective! It doesn’t help at all to come down hard on the player and destroy his/her confidence by ‘rubbishing’ the level of performance or dwelling on the gap between him/her and the opponents.
Too many National Coaches in Europe try to rule by fear and/or to insist on all the better players attending the National Academy, which is supposed to be the last word in top coaching, but quite often isn’t! As we become more civilised and try to respect the rights of children and teenagers in the West, the rule of fear no longer gets results and far too often only covers the inadequacies of the coaches and the coaching systems. As far as Academies are concerned it becomes rather difficult to explain just how putting a group of young, relatively inexperienced players of similar ages together in the same training group will produce world champions! Much more is required than this.
The one course of action which could and would work but which unfortunately is usually too little explored (and often for other reasons doesn’t happen), is to spend much more time on the individual characteristics of each player, working with him/her so that the player reaches maximum potential and is comfortable with the way in which he/she plays. Unfortunately for a coach to have a high level of understanding and success in this area more often than not requires decades of coaching experience and years of working with players of many diverse playing styles. This kind of development is not going to occur in Academies or High Performance Groups where large groups are involved and the coaches don't have enough time with the players, nor will it happen where the coaches are young ex-players, whose understanding of this aspect of player evolution is severely limited.
Too often in the West the coaches working at a high level with players just starting to get into National Teams, want to change things from the word go. It seems strange that a player who has done so well nationally that he/she is suddenly brought to the attention of the ‘top’ coaches, is immediately found to have so many areas in his/her game that need complete restructuring! It is perhaps even more surprising that such players are then not allowed to develop their own individual strengths and to play in the way which suits them and with which they feel most comfortable: instead they are pressurised into playing in a way which will be successful at international level (but which often isn’t, because everyone else is doing this and most others are better at it!).
It really is very simple. Too many coaches have an idea in their own mind of just how the successful player should perform, so they then try to force their players into this style of play. This method ignores certain very important principles:
• You will never make a player into a world-beater by spending time developing areas where he/she is at best only mediocre.
• Players perform best when they adopt a style of play which suits them and with which they are comfortable.
• If we are always looking to others (the top players of the moment) as role models to show us the way forward, then we are always coming from behind in the race for the finishing line. We never create the flexibility and vision to focus on and recognise the individual characteristics of the player, which could, if developed in the right the way, project him/her to much higher levels on the world scene.
Innovation and vision in coaching is required throughout Europe, but more than ever when the players reach the higher echelons of national development. The fine tuning here is critical to the player ever achieving full potential and being the best he/she can be. To start back-tracking at this stage and altering aspects which don’t need changing or to introduce variations in style which are not relevant to how the player performs best, are totally destructive and beyond comprehension.
A considerable number of the older coaches in Europe with many years of experience are very much of the opinion, that there must be a great deal more individual emphasis on player development if we are ever to match the Asians at world level. Of course and this goes without saying, we should also be aware of which styles of play and which strategies and tactics are most successful at top levels in world play (but are we even precise and knowledgeable enough in these aspects? The last time for example that a European woman won the Worlds was in 1955!)
But it is critical to develop our players in the West in a way which allows their natural strengths to blossom and flower. From the start as young players are evolving, coaches should look for strengths and build on these; particularly coaches should look for areas where players are different and perform differently, where they have a specialty. Differences and specialties should not be eradicated rather they should be built on, for it is these very aspects which opponents will find most difficult to play against and which will give our players in the West an ‘edge’ in their journey to the top levels.
There are a great many Chinese involved overall in European table tennis both as players and as coaches/trainers. In some countries almost the whole national team consists of Chinese-born players, the German women’s team for example in recent years. A disturbing trend in Sweden is the increasing number of foreign players not only in both the men’s and women’s elite divisions (over 50% in the women’s and over 40% in the men’s) but in the lower divisions too. It would appear that in a few years time in line with other countries in Europe, Sweden may well come to rely on foreign players in the national side, especially with the continuing erosion of our playing levels.One aspect that may well speed up our reliance on foreign players is that quite a number of our good younger players both men and women appear to be of the opinion that opportunities to develop and earn good money are rather limited in Sweden. As a result they are now playing in other countries in Europe and are consequently lost to our own national series. It is also sad to see a number of players still in their mid to late teens giving up or drifting down to lower divisions. In general the standards of our table tennis in Sweden appear to be drifting downhill at in increasingly faster rate year by year. The possibility that we are well on the way to becoming a mere ‘social or fun’ sport becomes nearer to reality day by day.
The Swedish Association makes positive noises generally and particularly talks about the Swedish women making an impact on the world scene. Their document for the future is ambitious and forward looking. However Köping is only one small cog in the total development plan. And without massive help from the clubs and districts real progress is going to be very limited. Where are the top players supposed to come from if not from the clubs and districts?
Many clubs are unfortunately quite narrow-minded and very parochial in outlook, are not in favour of cooperating with other clubs in training ventures or working to improve levels in their area. Many districts are equally backward, tournaments are seen to be more important than training and keeping the clubs happy more important than developing players to their full potential. If we are to develop it is paramount that leaders and administrators are the first to be inspired and imaginative, not the last.
It is quite obvious that in many areas it is impossible to develop high level players in the clubs — there is just not the expertise and sparring available. It becomes therefore a real priority that the districts become involved in running training for players (and not just in summer time) and also development courses for coaches and parents. This is especially vital in the case of girl players who are lesser in number, are more spread out over the clubs and almost always require more specialized and individual handling.
Fortunately in Sweden we find one of the best club systems in the world, unfortunately almost all are traditionally insular. It seems that tradition is more important than ideas. Often it seems club priorities are more important than the development of players or even national considerations. Traditions are important, however, there is one inescapable fact of life, everything changes. Progress and development mean change. Resist change and try and stay as you are and stagnation sets in. Times are changing and we will almost certainly not produce the players of the future, with the methods of the past! Perhaps now is the time for the leaders and organizers in clubs and districts to move away from traditional avenues of thinking, be more flexible in attitude and less conventional in their approach to our sport.
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.
Often England coaches, working as volunteers or part-timers, can’t provide a competitive enough environment to keep the players interested. Often too they focus on what the top players in other countries are doing, which drills in the real message that we are of course inferior. The myth of the superiority of other countries seems to be firmly entrenched in the hearts and minds of the ‘chosen few’ in the coaching hierarchy and they seem only too keen to pass on this myth to the current players. Then they wonder why the players continue to lose.
In the English sports environment the central theme too is often a spirit of participation and there is little professionalism or cross-collaboration. 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. Success can be attributed to how the coaching and backup team work together under pressure, how they understand the importance of teamwork and loyalty and how they are willing to do a hundred things just one percent better. As a coach or manager you normally have in sport a workforce over which you have no control. If you want more from your players you have to give them good reasons why they would want to put in the extra effort.
Being in charge of English Table tennis is not an impossible job, but it’s certainly a difficult one. For example with any National League Club the manager can head-hunt any number of top players from Europe or even further afield. In the case of the National Team we are restricted to the players we have. There will always be problems for the man in charge (too much administration work, lack of time with the squad etc.) These problems are then compounded in that he needs top-level help on which he can rely absolutely to carry out his themes and these people too must be monitored. Too often in addition the man at the top is criticised for being innovative and bringing in younger players who no-one else thinks should play for the National Team. But this is in fact the way to keep moving forward as a team, never to stand still.
But surely the major problem is that we do not produce enough players of quality for the manager to choose from. If we are to qualify for and to win major events then the country has to establish a much better development programme which works. This is not just a problem for the ETTA but for the Manager of the National side too. He has the responsibility to make good players and to take players who are already good and to make them great. And he should be ready to use all our resources in this endeavour. Do we think that only the National Centre can produce and develop players of quality? Perhaps we think that coaches such as Dennis Neale, Brian Burn, Ken McLeod, Nicky Jarvis, Hans Souva, Alan Ransome and Pete Garvey are not able to ‘hack it’ anymore just because they aren’t in the National Centre. Strange as some of these have already been head-hunted for the top England position and turned down the job!
When we do not have enough quality players or enough variety of players then it also follows that even the resources in the National Academy are limited in respect of player development. What do we mean by this? Waldner in his book stresses the vital importance of training against all different playing styles if you eventually wish to be a top player. Private clubs are able either due to the number and diversity of their playing members or by simply buying in appropriate sparring, to solve the problem of training against penholders, defenders, ‘funny’ bat players, pimples, left-handers etc. Most National Centres due to financial restrictions, especially in the case of the ‘minorities’ such as the girls, are reluctant to pay for high-level sparring or consider it unnecessary. This does not only apply in UK but is prevalent in many national centres over the whole of Europe. The result of course is incomplete players who can only perform well against a limited number of styles.
For years we have whinged about Centres of Excellence and National Centres – but surely the main issues are much deeper and the solutions much simpler. It’s the way the competition and training calendar is set up which is wrong – the best young players in the country must train with the best opposition every week under the guidance of the best coaches. And it is obvious that all of the best coaches are not in the National Centre as are not all of the best players. Solutions must therefore be found which are acceptable to the players, for it is they after all who must be the ones in focus. Too often it would appear that the coaches come first and are in focus and not the players. Is this because far too often we seem to employ top ex-players in charge of our coaching? What does modern research say about this?
‘Straightforward athletic success as a competitor may result in a lack of compassion and empathic understanding towards the problems experienced by others, which is critical within coaching. Some qualities associated with a number of elite or high-performance athletes, such as selfishness or egotism, can be a major drawback in trying to selflessly help others to reach full potential. We certainly need a more sophisticated talent identification process for prospective coaches other than athletic achievement alone; it takes a good coach educator to keep you at the top.’ (D. Turner, lecturer in Sports Coaching)
The way to have a good National Side is for the best to train against the best, but the responsibility doesn’t just lie with the English Manager, it rests with the boss of every club in UK. If we are to advance we must use all our resources and we must think beyond the small areas, the towns and even the counties and regions. Many of the players and coaches working in the clubs may not even be English, but this is besides the point, when you are working in someone else’s country you have a responsibility to improve the way things work there. We have good clubs up and down the country such as Ormesby and Progress. What we need however is a common, cohesive philosophy that we can pass down the chain of command to the most junior helpers and coaches, so that the system benefits the whole country.
We cannot for example afford to have small, isolated pockets of good players spread around the country, especially in the case of the girls, who are both fewer and require more individual attention anyway. If players can’t get to the nearest big club, where there is good coaching then other arrangements must be made to take coaches to the players. Again we will hear the well-worn cliché ‘no way can we afford that’. I think we would find in many cases that family would help with funding if their child were really benefiting.
But it’s not only the coaching and development side which must be catered for – we must also look at upgrading tournaments and making these more exciting for the players and especially at a younger age when they are starting out. We have for example some excellent competition formats on the continent where young players play out both team and individual events for places. Players can play as many as 17 – 20 games in a weekend and end up finding their level in the tournament. Interestingly enough the overall costs, including flights and ferries are somewhat cheaper than in the UK!
We should of course also have a level playing field for all English players competing abroad. Parents and coaches should be encouraged to send their children/players to train and to compete abroad and ranking points should be awarded to all players whether they are representing their country or not. The more our youngsters meet foreign competition the more they will benefit and the more England will benefit. Competing in Europe, Asia or elsewhere should not just be the province of the National Team Players. If parents/coaches need the support of the Association to be entered into some major events overseas and there are spaces available, then this should be readily forthcoming.
Equally why don’t we seek to attract more foreign competitors into our tournaments in UK? Why not waive the single tournament licence fee for overseas players and make it a little cheaper for them to compete here? The more we can do to broaden our horizons the more English Table Tennis will benefit and the more the base of our pyramid will increase.
It is a priority one way or another that we take the coaching to the players, especially in those critical younger years. Also it is important that both parents and clubs realize that you don’t develop by just competing all the time — opportunity must be found for training. As Niels de Vos, the chief executive of UK Athletics said very recently of the new head coach – ‘What we have here is not a sacking it’s an evolution. The previous guy did a very good job in putting systems in place, but systems do not win medals. We felt we needed a higher level of coaching.’
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.
The sport needs the very best coaching knowledge at the top level. Let’s finish with the great catch-phrase of the celebrated athletics coach Jesse Mortenson –‘The orthodox is just another word for the obsolete’.
At the recent World Championships, China made a clean sweep of all five events – men’s and women’s singles & doubles and mixed doubles. In fact, all but the men’s doubles were all-Chinese finals. And yet, a number of cracks were apparent, especially on the men’s side.
Denmark’s Michael Maze, after losing the first three games and falling behind 7-3 in the fourth against China’s Hao Shuai, came back to win. Maze earlier had defeated Wang Hao very easily, 4-0. Czech Republic’s Petr Korbel led Ma Lin 7-3 in the seventh before losing that final game 11-9. Wang Liqin had to go the full seven against Hong Kong’s Li Ching. Korea’s Moon Hyun Jung defeated Wang Nan, who had won the women’s singles at the last three Worlds.
Yet, all in all, the Worlds were a demonstration of Chinese supremacy in the sport.
So what are the secrets of Chinese table tennis … and how can the rest of the world catch up?
The Chinese team has more depth than any other team in the world. The primary training centre is in Beijing. The team is made up of 96 players – 24 men, 24 women, 24 boys and 24 girls.
Players are given “tryouts” early on, usually with trips to major tournaments in Europe or elsewhere, to see how they will perform internationally. From this, the Chinese judge if the player has the potential to become a star.
A huge advantage China has comes from her strength in depth. If a player on the national team isn’t working hard, doesn’t do well internationally, or has technical flaws limiting his/her progress, then there is always another “hungry” player with potential on the outside waiting to get in.
In many countries (including USA), the national team is selected at the Team Trials. This may be the fairest way of choosing a team, but it may not be the best way to develop a dominant team. According to Cheng, in most countries – including USA – 90% of the training and the team funding goes to “flawed players” who have no chance of ever winning medals.
This is a real problem as team trials fit in with most people’s notion of fairness. Yet the players who make the team in such trials usually are not the players with the greatest potential for winning medals. Often players in their 40s make the team over promising players under 22. Exhibit “A” is the current U.S. National Team at the recent Worlds, chosen by team trials. Their ages were 46, 41, 41, 38, 37, 36, 34, 30, 19 and 18. (This is not to disparage the accomplishments of those who made the team at the trials, who indeed earned their positions.) Many of the top youth players in the U.S. however just missed making the team. Ironically, the youngest player to make the team, Han Xiao, aged 18, finished fifth, and only the top four spots are funded – so he had to pay his own way, even though he was the top player of his age in the country. The funding went instead to older players, mostly in their 30s and 40s. Players such as Mark Hazinski (20, U.S. #1 under 22), Adam Hugh (17, U.S. #1 under 18 boy), and Judy Hugh (15, U.S. #1 under 18 girl), did not go.
Was this the fairest way of choosing a team? Yes. Was it the best way to choose a team with the potential to develop into medal contenders? Probably not. Unless they were top world-ranked players, Chinese coaches probably wouldn’t have selected anyone over the age of 22. One option is to have a separate “youth” team made up of players aged 22 or under who train as part of the national team. Many countries already have these squads, but these players, along with older players who can challenge the best players in the world, need to be at the heart of the national squad.
The Chinese train long and hard. Typically they do seven hours of training each day – both table play and physical training away from the table. In the mornings, they normally do physical training away from the table, and serve practice. There is a morning and an afternoon training session, usually six days a week. (Training includes both regular practice with a partner, and multi-ball training with a coach. This is the same for most countries.) Some players play extra practice matches at night or on off days. Players generally get 12 days off per year, although they also get rest days after major tournaments (which are often travel days).
They normally focus on training from November to April and with more tournaments the rest of the year. During Cheng’s years on the team, this was more clear-cut, but now with the ITTF Pro Tour and various leagues, there is more and more year-round competition.
One huge advantage China has over the rest of the world is their practice partners. Typically, in most countries, members of the national team train together. However, in China, much of the training is with “professional” practice partners. Instead of players always taking turns on drills, all the training focuses on the one player. (This is especially helpful for the women, who practice with male practice partners who are usually stronger then the women players.)
Even more important, practice partners mimic the styles of opposing players. The Chinese team includes practice partners who have developed their games to match those of the best foreign players – men like Schlager, Samsonov, Kreanga, Waldner, Saive, Chuan, Ryu and Oh, and women like Boros, Tie Yana, Li Jia Wei, Liu Jia, Kim Kyung Ah, and Pavlovich. These practice partners study videos of the player they are copying, and talk to players who have played them so as to better mimic them.
According to Duan Xiang, a member of the Chinese Technical Committee of the Chinese Table Tennis Association, “We have a lot of Chinese Samsonovs and Waldners. Our players play against them every day and that makes the real match easier.”
Cheng spent much of his time on the Chinese team as a practice partner. During his early years, he was told to copy Hungary’s Tibor Klampar. Later, when Klampar retired, he was told to mimic Jan-Ove Waldner. Cheng even travelled to Europe to watch these players live in tournaments and would speak with players who played against them to get an insight into their games and what made them so effective. Those who watch Cheng now can see the mixture of Klampar and Waldner in his game.
China’s Jiang Jialiang, a pips-out penholder, won the worlds in 1985. As the 1987 Worlds approached, it became apparent that his main rival would be Sweden’s Waldner. Therefore much of his training time was with Cheng, who could mimic everything Waldner did, from his serve and serve returns, to his forehand loops and drives, etc. As the ’87 Worlds approached, they began playing many practice matches, with the loser doing push-ups. Cheng won match after match, and after each match would stand over Jiang as he did his push-ups, asking how he’s going to win the Worlds if he can’t even beat him? The preparation worked; while Jiang didn’t do so well against Cheng before the Worlds, he became so used to the “Waldner” game that he was able to win the 1987 Worlds again.
Perhaps, if he’d practised with players who mimicked the best Chinese, at the recent Worlds, Maze wouldn’t have fallen behind 3-0 to Hao Shuai and would have been more comfortable with Ma Lin’s game. Perhaps he was just getting used to Ma as he did with Hao Shuai when the match ended. (He lost the match 11-7, 11-6, 11-9, 11-8, showing he was getting closer towards the end.)
A common problem for the best players in the world is finding a strong enough practice partner. During his prime, Waldner once quipped to the Swedish coach, “When do I get to practise with someone stronger?”
China has more depth than any country, but even there, the best players are the best players. Players like Wang Liqin and Ma Lin can’t find anyone better to practise with than themselves. Or can they?
China has developed a way of doing this. Cheng was hesitant about even talking about this, as this training method has been relatively secret, even to this day. It is normally only used in closed training sessions as they prepare for major tournaments. Cheng hinted that at one time, if he’d told “outsiders” about this technique, he would have been in trouble.
The technique involves having two practice partners for one player. This is a luxury that other countries can’t afford, but that China, with their playing depth, can. Two practice partners are selected, one with a very strong forehand, one with a very strong backhand (but also a good forehand), and they learn to play together as a team. Together, they do drills against the best Chinese players. With one player only playing forehand from the forehand side, and the other only playing from the backhand side (favouring the backhand, but also playing forehands from the backhand as top players do), suddenly the two become a “stronger player” than even Wang Liqin! Thus even the best Chinese players are pushed to the limit, practising with these “stronger pairs.”
The Chinese team meets at least weekly with sports psychologists. (This is common practice in other countries as well.) One aspect that is probably different is that these sessions are joint psychology and tactical meetings. This is linked together as it takes proper mental training to execute proper strategies under pressure.
The Chinese team has a tactical support staff which develops these strategies. According to Zhou Zuyi of the Shanghai Daily (May 7, 2005), “Insiders give credit to the backroom staff who devote themselves to analyzing the opponents’ games and developing new techniques and strategies. The technicians work out a game pattern for each major foreign player, which is in turn followed by training partners whose only job is to emulate different stars from around the world.”
Chinese children are tested at a very early age for sports skills. Those who test well are often put into special sports schools. Cheng was tested at aged 5 and tested highly for racket sport skills, so was put into a special sports school. From age 5 to about 12, he was trained in both table tennis and badminton. From age 12 on, he was essentially a full-time table tennis player, dropping out of school to focus solely on table tennis. Most other top Chinese players have similar stories.
Others come from regular schools. Essentially every school in China has a table tennis team that trains regularly. In a country of 1.3 billion, that’s a huge number of teams! According to the Shanghai Daily (May 7, 2005), “10 million players play on a regular basis. These are players who are exposed regularly to high-level play, not the basement players that make up the masses in the U.S. and many other countries.”
Some say China is good at table tennis only because of sheer numbers. There is, of course, a degree of truth in this. However, as shown by Europe’s (especially Sweden’s) rise in the early 1990s and China’s decline, numbers cannot overcome poor technique. In the late 1980’s/early 1990s, China was slow to adjust to changing techniques, persevering too long with mostly pimples-out style play while the rest of the world was changing to looping with reverse rubber and especially with the shake-hands style. China has learned from that experience and now leads the world in this very style. Wang Liqin was recently re-crowned as world men’s champion (he also won in 2001). On the women’s side, Zhang Yining has just won the Worlds; she was preceded by Wang Nan, who won three straight Worlds. All three of these players are shake-hands loopers and are probably the most emulated players in the world.
What happens in China is that the players with the best technique, talent, and mental and physical skills tend to rise to the top. Where before some of these players might have been kept out because they didn’t play the “right” playing style (with many shake-hands loopers relegated to becoming practice partners who copied the European loopers, like Cheng), now they become regular Chinese team members. Because there are so many Chinese players, training squads are filled with skilled and hard-working players. The best Chinese players too tend to be the ones with the best technique.
New techniques are regularly appearing. Probably the most noticeable is the “reverse pen-hold backhand,” best exemplified by Olympic Silver Medallist Wang Hao and the World Men’s Singles Finalist (and recently ranked #1 in the world) Ma Lin. Historically, penholders use the same side of the racket for both forehand and backhand. In the 1990s, a number of Chinese players began using the reverse side of the racket to attack on the backhand, most prominently Liu Guoliang (1996 Olympic Gold Medallist, 1999 World Champion), who used it mostly as a variation. Ma Lin raised it to a new level, using it as a major shot. Wang Hao raised it to an even higher level, making it his primary backhand stroke.
While Europeans pioneered backhand looping, the Chinese have developed over-the-table backhand looping to a higher degree. Europeans like Klampar developed this technique in the 1970s, but few others developed this style. China did. Now Chinese players like Wang Liqin, Kong Linghui and Zhang Yining are among the best in the world at this (along with Austria’s Werner Schlager and Korea’s Oh Sang Eun).
Above all, Chinese players dominate with serve & receive techniques. Other countries have closed the gap in serve techniques, yet most consider Ma Lin’s serves the best among world-class players, and before him, Liu Guoliang’s – both Chinese players. But it is the return of serve where the Chinese really dominate. Where other countries learn to return to neutralize the serve, the Chinese return to throw opponents off and to take the initiative. Ma Lin is probably best at this, tying opponents up in knots with his returns, but all the Chinese players train many hours at this and so have few peers at receive. Outside China, Waldner may be the only one who can do this at the Chinese level.
There is another “secret” strength of Chinese technique, except it’s not really a secret: they have the best basics. They spend huge amounts of time on the “boring” basics, and so are nearly machine-like in their efficiency. You rarely see a Chinese player miss an easy shot. Cheng said of his winning the USA Nationals in 2004 at the age of 46 that most of his opponents simply didn’t have good enough basics. (This is relative, of course – good basics at world-class level are pretty advanced for most of us.)
The result of all this training is that the Chinese tend to have the greatest fitness (along with the Koreans), the best basics, and the best serve & receive games. They often have the best techniques and strategy. And they have such depth that they always have a new player ready if one falters. How can the rest of the world challenge this?
There are basically two ways of attacking this problem. The first is simply to match the Chinese in as many of their strengths as possible. The second is to develop other strengths.
Other countries don’t have the depth the Chinese have. However, they can expand their national team to include more players, especially younger, up-and-coming players. One way is to allow the national team coaches to select promising players to join the team. This only makes sense, however, if the team trains together on a regular basis.
National Team Selection
This is problematic as it probably isn’t feasible to switch from team trials to the Chinese system of the coaches choosing the team. However, it is possible for countries to put age limits on their team members who don’t have minimal world rankings, or some version of this (perhaps only having the two top spots completely open). It’s also possible to have youth or junior teams that train with practice partners or national team members. Even this, however, would meet with huge opposition and may not be feasible.
The Chinese train nearly year-round together as a team. Few other countries do this. Most European countries only get together a few times each year to train as a team, as the players instead play in leagues and train with their team in the league. Many European countries get together for “Super Camps” before major competitions, but again it’s only a few weeks per year. This can’t compete with the best Chinese players training together full-time all year.
The USA team gets together only a few weeks per year, if that. It’s simply not enough.
To match the Chinese, other countries need to focus on year-round training, not just periodic training, combined with league-type play and competing in the ITTF Pro Tour. One way of doing this is to simply have the teams train at the location of the leagues, even if that means training in another country. If countries combine their practice sessions, then the best players can train together and pool their resources for practice partners (see below) as well as training centre expenses. Otherwise, the best players in, say Europe won’t get to train with the best players, as the Chinese do (since many of the best players are on the Chinese team).
1989 & 1997 World Champion Jan-Ove Waldner of Sweden attributes much of his success to training in China. Those who wish to challenge the Chinese should consider doing the same.
Most countries don’t have the resources to have as many practice partners as the Chinese. However, this is a must if they wish to challenge the Chinese.
Teams that are not among the best in the world need world-class practice partners to help them raise their level. It’s nearly impossible for 2600 and 2700 players to become 2900 players unless they train with 2900 players.
Teams that are among the best in the world need world-class practice partners which emulate players like Wang Liqin and Ma Lin. When Wang Liqin or Ma Lin play, say, Samsonov, they’ve been practicing with Samsonov-like players regularly, and so they’re ready. Meanwhile, Samsonov has been practicing with whoever he can get, meaning mostly weaker players and none who really play like Wang Liqin or Ma Lin. Anyone watching Michael Maze against Ma Lin in the semi-finals of the recent Worlds could see how uncomfortable he was against Ma’s game. Most likely, two years from now he’ll be equally uncomfortable as he won’t get to train against this style. Meanwhile, in China, there are players whose main job is to play like Maze and so Ma will be even more prepared.
It’s unlikely that other countries can regularly train with two practice partners in the way the Chinese do, at least in the foreseeable future, but the first step is just getting these practice partners. Surprisingly, the answer is to go right to the source: China itself. China has a huge number of top players who are not on the Chinese team, players who, if given the chance, would be among the top 50 in the world or even better. Since costs in China are cheap compared to most other countries (which is why USA was able to hire former Chinese team members Cheng Yinghua, Huang Tong “Jack” Huang and Huazhang Xu as practice partners in the late 1990s), they are affordable, if this becomes a priority. Countries can pool their resources and hire practice partners – and they can do so right from China!
Many countries already have meetings with sports psychologists. It might be a good idea to combine this with tactical meetings, as the Chinese do.
Most countries have one or two coaches who develop most or all of the strategies for their team (along with the players themselves). There are many top coaches or former top players who can be brought in, often as volunteers, to help develop tactics. For teams that can’t yet challenge the top players, they should focus on the tactical and style development of their players. If they are at the level where they can challenge the best teams, moving toward specific strategies against specific players becomes a higher priority.
Again, other countries don’t have the depth the Chinese have. They can, however, close the gap with more grass-roots development. Germany, for example, has a huge number of players due to their league system.
Where other countries can outdo the Chinese is in match practice, especially in competitive situations. A Chinese strength is their actual training. However, many Europeans players have more effective match practice, due to the many European leagues. This makes them “match tough” and allows them to be at their best in big matches as they become used to developing flexible tactics for their matches. If they are able to combine this with playing practice partners who emulate top Chinese players, they can be even better prepared for the match than the Chinese player, who may have more and better training, but not as much match play in competitive situations against different players (since much of their match play is in practice sessions against other Chinese players).
To get this match practice, players can play in various leagues, such as the German Leagues, considered by many the best in the world, as well as the ITTF Pro Tour. This, combined with matching the Chinese in other aspects of their development, can make them competitive with the Chinese.
Technique is an open thing, as you can learn the most modern technique by just watching the best players. However, if you do it this way, you are always years behind those who develop these techniques.
This is where the careful planning of coaching methods becomes important. Teams need to emulate the best techniques of the best players (both Chinese and non-Chinese), and add their own techniques.
When Hungary defeated China to win the 1979 World Team Championships, they dominated mostly on the strength of their flick return of serves and backhand loops. When Sweden dominated China in the early 1990s, they did so with their shake-hands reverse rubber game with the addition of speed glue. In both cases, the Chinese were caught off guard and lost due to the new techniques.
USA is also a good example here. In the modern sponge era, roughly the past 40 years, only two players have reached the top twenty level in the world – Dan Seemiller (now the USA Men’s Coach) and Eric Boggan. Both copied the most advanced techniques in the world, and added them to their own new techniques. Both of these players played with the “Seemiller” grip, first developed at a high level by Seemiller himself, whereby one side of the racket was used for both forehand and backhand (a sort of windshield-wiper grip), with anti-spin rubber on the other side as a variation. At the 1985 Worlds, four of the five USA team members used this grip! (Dan & Rick Seemiller, Eric Boggan and Brian Masters, with Sean O’Neill the sole shake-hands player.) The new technique helped bring USA to its highest level in four decades, where they could actually challenge all but perhaps the top four countries in the world.
This doesn’t mean USA or other countries should start switching to the Seemiller grip. It means that to really challenge the Chinese, other countries need not only to copy their technique, but to develop new ones, as the Hungarians and Swedes did. Or doing as the Chinese did by copying Klampar’s technique and improving on it, other countries can improve or develop current techniques. Somewhere out there are players using new techniques that few have noticed, but which may be the next big break-through.
Europe already has one possible advantage over China and that is their rallying techniques. China may dominate at the start of the rally, but the Europeans, who spend more time training their rallying techniques (primarily counter-looping), and tend to use softer sponges (better for counter-looping) often have an advantage here. This is something they can develop, if combined with tactics to get into these types of rallies.
Challenging the Chinese in table tennis is a formidable task, similar to the rest of the world challenging USA in basketball. A few years ago, USA basketball seemed invincible and now they are not. The Chinese are much more challengeable now than USA basketball was, but it won’t be an easy task. Basically, it’ll take a combination of matching Chinese strengths, while developing other strengths. Can it be done? Yes. Will it be done? That remains to be seen.
Cheng Yinghua, who is sponsored by Butterfly, is the current and four-time U.S. Men’s Singles Champion. He was a member of the Chinese National Team from 1977-87. He was the 1985 and 1993 U.S. Open Men’s Singles Champion, along with many other national and international titles. When he won the Men’s Singles at the 2004 USA Nationals at aged 46, he became the oldest ever to do so. He is certified as a National Coach by USATT, the highest level. He was named USATT Coach of the Year in 1996. He is a member of the USATT Hall of Fame and a full-time coach at the Maryland Table Tennis Centre.
Larry Hodges is editor of USA Table Tennis Magazine, a long-time coach and player, and author of over 300 table tennis coaching articles and the book, Table Tennis: Steps to Success. He is certified as a National Coach by USATT, and was named USATT Developmental Coach of the Year in 2003. He is a member of the USATT Hall of Fame and a coach at the Maryland Table Tennis Centre.
When combating a diseased organisational culture – be it in business or in sport – you need either strength of numbers or absolute authority to effect any real change. 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.
Often England coaches, working as volunteers or part-timers, can’t provide a competitive enough environment to keep the players interested. Often too they focus on what the top players in other countries are doing, which drills in the real message that we are of course inferior. The myth of the superiority of other countries is so firmly entrenched in the hearts and minds of the ‘chosen few’ in the coaching hierarchy and they seem only too keen to pass on this myth to the current players. Then they wonder why the players continue to lose.
In the English sports environment the central theme is often a spirit of participation and there is little professionalism or cross-collaboration. 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.
Success can be attributed to how the coaching and backup team work together under pressure, how they understand the importance of teamwork and loyalty and how they are willing to do a hundred things just one percent better. As a coach or manager you have in sport a workforce over which you have no control. If you want more from your players you have to give them good reasons why they would want to put in the extra effort.
Elite squad management ground rules
We are in the business of inspiration. Our job is not only to inspire one another but also all those we work with and those who watch us and support us. Our goal is to inspire the whole country. There are no excuses anymore. Remember we never work in an ‘if only’ culture.
If any association is to have world class teams and players, then the foundations of table tennis in that country have to be good and solid. There must be for example a stream of good cadets and juniors coming through all the time. Sweden dominated table tennis in Europe and the world and challenged China in the 1980’s and 90’s but the Association was still relying on the old men to win yet another team championship in 2000. Now Sweden is fading away as a force in our sport precisely because the crop of new younger players hasn’t come through.
The more the general public has an interest in table tennis and the bigger the ‘grass roots’ player base, the larger will be the pool of talent coming through to national level. More players increase the odds of uncovering ‘the exceptional talent’. It is important to nurture the ‘grass roots’, the local leagues and their players and to encourage new ventures at the broad base of the pyramid.
However uncovering and identifying talent is of little value unless the Administration is competent enough to have a far-reaching junior development programme, employing the right people to turn the good juniors into the next crop of senior players. We should also have enough top seniors still in the system to pass on their experience and knowledge to the next generation.
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.
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 European development programme.
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.
A major problem all over Europe is of course an obvious, structured career path for top young players. Parents will not encourage their offspring to devote themselves full-time to a sport which offers little or no career security. Players themselves usually realise around the age of 18 to 19 years that there are few ways of making a good living when the playing days are over. With no career path in table tennis a young player has to be somewhat brave to try to ‘tread the professional road’, especially as it is often plainly apparent that other more senior players have tried the same route without marked success.
As far as the future is concerned in any sport it’s not enough just to do what has always worked in the past. We will not win medals in the future with methods of the past – table tennis is changing constantly and to progress we must change too, must be alert to new opportunities and new ideas. Every association should be looking to improve on last year’s results, not just to do the same old things rather better than before.
If a country is to be successful in our 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 bodies but actual achievement and at all levels across the board!
Dr. Zhang Xiaopeng, a leading researcher in world table tennis and deputy general secretary of the Chinese Table Tennis Association, explains the sport’s playing styles during the ongoing Asian championships.
When people talk about the playing styles, it is recommended to first of all categorize the types of players, and then study and understand their playing techniques. This suggests that there are many different playing techniques for both choppers and attackers (offensive players). Zhang summarizes those as follows:
Chopping was the mainstream technique from 1920-1950. Players dominantly used it to compete in international table tennis tournaments. During the 1960s, choppers started to develop the technique of “wide-angle long chop followed by counter attacks” in addition to straight defensive chops.
Zoltan Berczik of Hungary was a master chopper who produced extreme backspin on his shots; Chinese players even exaggerated that they would need a crane to lift the balls over the net. Ferenc Sido of Hungary, former men’s singles world champion, was the prototype of the attacker after a long, wide-angle chop.
During the 1970s, players developed variations of chopping with spin and no spin. Players even used rubber sheets with different characteristics on the other side of their racket and flipped racket sides as they played to induce errors from opponents who were unable to make proper adjustments to return the shots. Most Chinese choppers were playing with this style.
During the 1980s, choppers further added the techniques of attacking after serves, topspin loops, and counter-attacks that augmented the chopping game. Chen Xinhua is a typical example.
During the 1990s, we saw the new attack-chopping style requiring choppers to attack more to win points, as opposed to relying on straight defence. Ding Song, for example, had a scoring ratio of attacking after serves that frequently exceeded that of some offensive players. He was able to counter-attack and counter-loop with good power, in addition to chopping with great variations. Liang Geliang is an outstanding example.
During the 1950s, the Japanese represented the backcourt topspin playing technique that was then the mainstream style.
During the 1960s, Chinese players developed close-to-table offensive techniques:
Attack from both sides (backhand and forehand), and backhand block/forehand attack. This type of players ruled the world; Zhuang Zedong was the master of the first method and Ron Guotuan, Xu Yinsheng, and Li Furong brilliantly performed the second method. Meanwhile, mid-court attacking from both sides and backcourt forehand topspin styles still remained popular and effective; Wang Chuanyao played with the former style, and most Japanese players performed the latter style.
Chinese players needed to enhance their counter abilities against topspin loops in the 1970s. The backhand block/forehand attack style for pimple-out penholders became the mainstream style. Typical examples were Xu Shaofa, Li Jingguang, and Li Zhenshi.
However, as Chinese produced fewer elite players who attacked from both sides, the Japanese stayed with this technique and produced Mitsuru Kohno, who won the men’s singles title at the 34th World Championships in 1977.
Meanwhile, penholders with inverted rubber also performed well, as demonstrated by Xi Enting of China and Seiji Ono of Japan, who won the world singles championship in 1973 and 1979, respectively.
During the 1980s, pimples-out penholders further improved their skills against topspin loops, i.e. forehand counter smashing and backhand blocking. Xie Saike, Jiang Jialiang, and Chen Longcan were masters. Inverted rubber penholders, such as Guo Yuehua and Cao Yanhua, were also pretty dominant and the best in the world.
In the 1990s, penholder close-to-table attackers had revolutionary improvements:
There were more great inverted rubber penholders whose forehand topspin loops were excellent and powerful, were very capable of backhand looping from the backside of their rackets, and blocking topspins, such as Ma Lin and Yan Sen etc..
Another type of penholder, such as Wang Hao, did not use blocking techniques on the backhand side, but looped with the backside of his racket.
On the other hand, South Korean penholders had playing styles that were very different from the Chinese. They had very powerful forehand strokes but did not adopt the same backhand looping techniques.
Instead, they strengthened the traditional backhand blocks and smash attacks to solidify the backhand side, but ultimately relied on their powerful forehand strokes for winning shots. They proved that this style was equally effective. The elites of this type are Kim Taek Soo and Ryu Seung Min.
The shakehand offensive style consists of
Looping -Fast Attack
This playing style was commonly used in the 1960s in particular in European countries. During the 1970s Istavan Jonyer of Hungary, Anton Stipencic and Drugutin Surbek of former Yugoslavia were the masters; Andrzej Grubba of Poland and Mikael Appelgren of Sweden were examples of the 1980s. This technique, however, became dated, but we still see Zoran Primorac playing with it competitively.
Fast Attack -Looping This style is the most popular in modern table tennis. The first time we saw this was in the early 1970s, performed by Swede Stellan Bengtsson and Czech Milan Orlowski, and then Jan-Ove Waldner, Erik Lindh, and Jorgen Persson of Sweden in the 1980s.
In the 1990s, this playing style was further developed:
It is also notable that in the 1980s some players who utilized different characteristic rubber sheets (i.e.: long-pips or anti) on their backhands were troublesome to most elite players and won world championships; these players included Liang Geliang, Cai Zhenghua, and Deng Yaping of China.
Since we moved to 40mm balls in 2001, these two styles have been mixed together. Players focus more on the quality and strength of each stroke in order to be dominant in the early stages of the game to win points effectively. Players tend to be fierce in attacking (as long as they have position) in order to have a powerful game. This trend can be seen in the games of Wang Liqin and Liu Guozheng of China, and Werner Schlager of Austria.
What has happened with our great sport over the last few years? I have been involved at all levels for sixty-odd years and coached on three continents for over fifty years and in numerous national set-ups. I have developed national-team players even at an advanced age and continue to do so. At all times I strive to progress, to learn new things and to improve myself and my methods. At all times I have sought out new knowledge. I liaise with many national or ex-national coaches in Europe and Asia – I talk to numerous top players. From the 1940’s I have been an avid reader of the table tennis magazines, in later years of items such as the ‘Coach’ bulletin and when they started various publications from the National Coaching Foundation – ‘Coaching Focus’. ‘Coaching Update’, ‘Super Coach’, ‘Coaching Edge’ etc. We used to have a great deal of ‘sports specific’ information available, but where has it all gone?
Nowadays we have glossy magazines and equally glossy web-sites but the paucity of real information and information relevant to our sport is glaringly obvious. Why for example are coaching courses increasingly going into the non-specific aspects, diet, nutrition, sports injuries, psychology, kinesiology and often at the expense of the specifics of the sport concerned? Just how many National Coaches and other top coaches don’t have access to all the experts they need? Probably very few if any. And are all the ‘experts’ involved in these non-specific aspects as knowledgeable as they claim? If so why do we so often have different information from different experts?
The potential danger of courses is of being overly theoretical and producing coaches strong in the ‘why’ but relatively weak in the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ relating to practical application. Similarly the generalised study of sports coaching often does not transfer well to sports specific settings. Governing body awards do not necessarily produce highly effective, knowledgeable or adaptable practitioners. While coach learning becomes more complex, a mature model of coach education is still lacking.
Coaches too require guidance to become the best. If coaches are to translate theory into practice their communication must be effective. What about the coach educators and assessors, is their development and knowledge up-to-date and who checks them? Do they do their job often enough to be efficient and to progress? Remember the half-life of training is the time it takes for half the total effectiveness of training to dissipate. Are even our National Coaches and High-Performance Directors as knowledgeable as they should be? Are these guys up to the job? Do such high-fliers get better each year they are in the job or do they start to cut corners? And who is to know? Is their performance ever checked?
Do we have too many top ex-players taking up coaching and being involved in national training? Rather than exceptional athletes being regarded as having potential for coaching roles – being effectively fast-tracked through coach education programmes and swiftly elevated to high profile positions – perhaps they should be recognised as requiring extra support in making the transition to thinking like a coach, with more comprehensive input from coach education and the accumulation of coaching experience in minor coaching roles. We certainly need a more sophisticated talent identification process for prospective coaches than athletic achievement alone; it takes a good coach educator to keep the player at the top.
Straightforward athletic success as a competitor may result in a lack of empathic understanding towards the problems experienced by others, which is critical within coaching and some qualities associated with a number of elite or high-performance athletes can be a major drawback in trying to selflessly help others to reach full potential. Principal lecturers in sports coaching at a number of our top universities have recently been querying in some depth whether or not top athletes in fact make the best coaches. In general their findings have not been positive.
Where are all the sports specific workshops and seminars to help broaden the knowledge base of existing coaches and help take them to higher levels? Many coaches, especially those more recently qualified, feel that they are working in a vacuum and are expected largely to make their own way forward (hopefully in the right direction). Even our regional and county coaches seem only able to provide very low-level courses and these more to do with the peripherals, such as club development, child protection etc. There appears to be a real need for sports specific information which is not being catered for by the governing body.
So just what can we do to address the situation? First we have to ask where we can access such information – unfortunately the coaching education programme in many European countries is moving away from sports specific fields into the peripheral aspects of our sport rather than focusing on the more scientific and technical areas. However in most European countries we still have a number of older, very experienced coaches working ouside the National Centres. Why not use their experience? Establish a register of senior coaches and list their preferred subjects for lectures, workshops and seminars. Then of course give them the power to run courses for clubs and interested groups.
Let our National Coaches and High Performance Directors run high-level seminars or forums at major events. Not only does this help with the dissemination of information, keeps players and coaches up to date with current developments in the game and lets us know what the Association is planning and aiming for but it allows for a better relationship between the Association and personal coaches and parents. They feel they are being kept in the loop.
In a number of cases we have foreign coaches and players working in clubs throughout the country who may well be able to make a meaningful contribution. Some of these have occupied positions high in the world ranking and have played in World Championships, others have worked in a number of other countries or National Centres throughout Europe.
Equally the main Association will often have access to specialists from other sports who are prepared to run workshops or seminars which may well be applicable to us. Aspects such as winning, the psychological preparation, diet or sports injuries in related racket sports. The possibilities are endless. However we may think to tackle the development of coaches and coaching one thing is certain. Recent surveys among older world-class players clearly show that in their opinion the main key to the future when looking at the table tennis of today and the current players is an in-depth programme to develop high-level knowledgeable coaches. Without this first stage any further evolution becomes highly problematical.
At one time Europe dominated our sport of table tennis. Over a period of 18 World Championships 1926 up till 1952 (H. Satoh, Japan) no Asian player featured in a World final and it was only eventually in 1956, on the women’s side, that an Asian woman won the singles (T. Okawa, Japan)(and bear in mind too that the Worlds was held yearly at this time, except for a gap of seven years during World War Two). However from 1954 to date only a handful of Europeans have won the men’s singles (1971 Bengtsson, 1975 Jonyer, 1989 and 1997 Waldner, 1991 Persson, 1993 Gatien, 2003 Schlager) and no women after 1955. A damning indictment of European table tennis and especially of the women’s game.
The golden years of modern European table tennis (for the men) were limited to 10 or 12 years from around 1983 to 1995. During this time the Swedish men’s team were in every World Team final (’83 – ’95 played every two years) and won in 1989, 1991 and 1993. In addition from 1989 to 1993 we had all-European men’s singles finals for the first time since 1953. There were a number of strong European men players at this time such as Primorac, Saive, Douglas, Gatien, Samsonov and the Swedish contingent of Waldner, Persson, Lindh, Apelgren and Karlsson. Most of these players continued (or still do) till late 30’s or even 40’s but there seems to be very few younger players coming through in Europe (with the exception of Boll and Maze) to assume the mantle of greatness.
So just what happened with our sport of table tennis and especially over the period from 1995 to date? A sport like table tennis is unfortunately difficult to assess and evaluate. With sprinting for example one can readily see that world records are falling year by year and that the times of Usain Bolt are far quicker than anything over the last five decades. With table tennis we know that Bengtsson won the Worlds at 17 years of age and that Waldner played Elite Men’s in Sweden at 12 and was in the final of the European Men’s Championships at the age of 16. But would they be able to do the same today? What circumstances were different at that time and what are things like now?
I think it’s fair to say that at the time Bengtsson won in 1971 the Asians were not so well developed nor so strong in depth as they are now. In the case of Waldner we should probably be prepared to concede that his is a truly exceptional talent and that he would be a winner in whichever decade he played. However looking at the broader picture it is obvious that while Asia has forged ahead and risen to new heights, with probably less resources than the West, Europe unfortunately has if anything gone into decline. Over the last 10 – 12 years Europe has just not produced the ‘goods’. Table tennis is now quite a high-profile sport in Asia but not in most countries in the West. What do the top coaches in Europe have to say?
: 'In Europe I think especially in the field of training there is a lot to do. I also believe that within Europe there is not enough professionalism and the particular associations do not cooperate enough. Many things must change. Some people say the present situation in European table tennis is a catastrophe, for me it is the reality we could have expected! Older people can say, they know that for very long we are not trying to educate our coaches properly. As long as young coaches in Europe cannot see any real future in their job it will be almost impossible to set in motion European table tennis! 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. Without good coaches in the base it is not possible to make progress, but good coaches see no future in this job and are leaving table tennis!'
: 'Of course quite probably we must give the very best cadets earlier opportunity to play in seniors so as not to lose too much time in junior table tennis. It is better for these young players not to play too many junior tournaments, maybe only the big ones and instead pay more attention to the development of their game for senior competition. Junior titles cannot be the target, the target must be to develop the game which will enable the player to compete successfully in senior competitions.'
: 'European Youth Championships 2009 – ‘My credo is that you do not make a player on training camps, you make a player on the basis of daily work. That is the weak point of European table tennis. In Europe only a few players have an opportunity for good coaching on a daily basis. The ETTU should focus on giving the player the best possible conditions.’
These coaches mention a number of different aspects: the importance of coaches and coach education, that training is not of the level required, the importance of a good club structure and good development in the clubs and the importance of players playing to their level and not in their age category.
The reality in Europe is that we don’t have great players at a young age anymore. The fact that players well into their 30’s or even 40’s can get to the final stages of the Olympics is indicative of the serious shortcomings in our youth development within Europe. On the other hand Asian players in their late teens (or in the case of the girls in their mid-teens) are achieving more than creditable results in major table tennis events. Perhaps we need in Europe to have not only higher goals, but a different focus in both development and our training methods.
: 'We have to think how we in Europe shall play to be able to beat the Asian competitors - it is not enough to be European champion, we must try again to produce a World champion, an Olympic gold medallist! The target must be not to prepare our players for medals at European Championships but for competition with world’s best players in men and in women events.'
: 'The danger is that the coaches try to prepare their young players to win cadet or even mini cadet championships and do not think about the most important long term goal - how to form the player, his/her technique, tactics, fitness for his/her future as senior player. The coaches must be aware of it, they must plan the long term development of their players, form their playing style.'
One thing that is noticeable is that we appear to be able to develop good juniors but few countries within Europe appear to be able to keep these same players moving forward to become high-level seniors. Rather we seem content for seniors to end up in that 75 to 250 placing in the world rankings, we don’t seem to have the know-how and expertise to take them into the top 20 in the world. Interesting that now Maze has a Chinese coach he has won the European Championships and is talking about how he has strengthened the backhand and, because he has worked a great deal on building up the legs, is now coming to the ball quicker on the forehand and is in a better position to play higher quality strokes. Surely this could have been picked up rather earlier by European coaches?
Over the last several years in Europe we have had many complaints from top players that the coaches are inadequate to take them up to higher levels. This is why many players prefer ex-players to help them as at least they have ‘been there and done it’ and know what it’s all about at the top. Or alternatively they prefer Chinese coaches for although there may be communication problems at least they know how to get players to higher levels. The girls in particular return from training camps in Asia requiring answers to the burning question: ‘Why do I train and play like a boy, adopting male tactics, movement and playing styles and ignoring my own natural strengths.’
: 'Training programmes must be more intense, more complex and more individualised.'
: 'When we compare the training of top players in Europe and Asia we must come to conclusion that Asian players spend significantly more time having top quality training than it is the case with European players. Length of training maybe the same but intensity and quality of the training are not, as they are generally better in Asia. How this problem can be solved is a task not only for coaches, but to European players as well.'
Top coaches in Europe advocate that players should find and play to their own strengths, that there should be more cooperation between European Associations and that the coaches involved in the players’ development should be the personal coaches, who see and work with the players every day. They also advocate that physical and technical training must be significantly more intense. There may however need to be a ‘pooling’ of resources so that European players get the best opportunity to train in the right way and with the right methods to get into the top 20 in the world. Also in any cooperative undertaking between countries in Europe, it is the players who must be in focus and their development which should be prioritised.
Another area we must investigate is the commitment of the players. In this modern age where life is so easy and comfortable in the West and where it takes a great deal of hard work and effort to get near the top in our sport and where unfortunately the rewards are very mediocre, just how many youngsters are prepared to make a career out of table tennis? In European countries if we look back over the last 5 – 10 years, how many cadets who were ranked in the top 3 nationally every year even continue to play as seniors? Very few indeed, the drop out rate is appalling!
A major problem all over Europe is of course an obvious, structured career path for top young players. Parents will not encourage their offspring to devote themselves full-time to a sport which offers little or no career security. Players themselves usually realise around the age of 18 to 19 years that there are few ways of making a good living when the playing days are over. With no career path in table tennis a young player has to be somewhat brave to try to ‘tread the professional road’, especially as it is often plainly apparent that other more senior players have tried the same route without marked success.
If we are therefore to retain the few players who are prepared to try to make it at top level in table tennis and if any country is to be successful in our sport, then the Administration must also be progressive and forward-looking and alert to new opportunities and new ideas. In any sport it’s not enough just to do what has always worked in the past. Methods of assessment, selection, ranking and national centres and training must be constantly monitored and up-graded. There must be some sort of quality assessment programme in place.
: ‘What we need is the basic fundamentals of sport managed with a strong business ethic. To win you have to create the right competitive environment and engage the best specialists in each fundamental area of your 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 is important that more and more countries throughout Europe demand not just some ‘movement’ from national bodies but actual achievement and at all levels across the board! Every association should be looking to improve on last year’s results, not just to do the same old things rather better than before.
Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them – a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have the skill and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill. Muhammad Ali
The fundamental principles of managing winning elite teams:
1. You cannot hope to be the best in the world at anything you do unless you have full control of all facets that go into creating that success. The job of running an England team is akin to running a business with no employees – the players are contracted to, have loyalty to and in many cases are developed by their clubs. Winning in most cases will therefore be in spite of, not because of the system. As a result it is necessary to find ways to motivate the players long-term, in such a way that they have the incentive to represent their country and want to continue to do so.
2. No business would want to lose its best people when they are clearly good enough to carry on at the highest level. No team in the world can afford to lose its best players early, or to have systems in place which do not allow players to reach full potential as seniors. We should fully understand the immense importance of retaining and looking after the talent we have.
3. It’s too easy to be complacent when you think you’re doing everything right or when you are the very best: the quest to ‘go beyond number one’ in everything you do has to be paramount and if you wish to continue to be successful has to be ongoing.
4. It’s what we do with skills coaching and the understanding and development of technique which will determine the world level of our top athletes. If we don’t set the right standards early we will fall way behind the rest of the world. The prime coaching emphasis must be on the individual qualities of the player: each performer is different and will only achieve his/her maximum potential if the developmental emphasis is on the harnessing and blossoming of the individual strengths.
5. Unless we have ‘everyone’s nose pointing in the same direction’ the chances of success are very much diminished. Any success is a massive team effort. Even the top people behind the scenes cannot do their jobs and deliver for the athletes, unless the whole organisation is behind them and the relevant systems and methods underpin and support what they are aiming to achieve.
6. Set yourselves apart from the traditional, established methods of coaching and development and endeavour to ‘look and work outside the box’. We will never produce world champions by slavishly following what has gone on before and trying to ‘ape’ the systems set up in other countries where traditions and cultures are different. We have to find the vital edge for winning, the critical essentials which tip the scales in our favour, the crucial strengths within each performer – above all however there is little point in finding these unless we have the time with the player to work on them!
7. It is all too easy to end up with compromise in sport; politics are involved, officials have the remit of having so many to try and please, there is a juggling to retain the balance between the interests and priorities of different sections and aspects. This is a concept which is acceptable and keeps the majority happy. However this is not a concept which can apply to the elite team: if the goal is really to be the best then there can be no compromise in standards. Re-evaluating the working structure to improve the possibility of future success is a proven and essential method for successful organisational development.
8. The most important job of any elite coach is to provide his players with every chance of being successful – nothing else! You don’t win once in a while, you don’t do things right once in a while – you do them right all the time. At an elite level it is also the coach’s job to refuse to compromise, the player must be completely ‘in focus’, only he or she matters.
China’s results over the last 20 years in table tennis give out a strong message to any country trying to topple them from their position at the top of the mountain:
• In Yokahama 2009 China won 17 out of a 20 possible medals
• In the last 10 Worlds (Individuals) China has won 44 out of 50 gold medals
• Had both players in 37 finals (out of 50)
• Taken 135 out of a grand total of 200 medals
The six gold missed were from Sweden, J. Persson 1991 and J-O Waldner 1997 (Men’s Singles) and P. Karlsson/T. von Scheele 1991 (Men’s Doubles), from France J-P Gatien 1993 (Men’s Singles), Hyun Jung Hwa 1993 (Korea, Women’s Singles) and W. Schlager 2003 (Austria, Men’s Singles).
• In 30 finals in all doubles and mixed over 10 World Championships only on one occasion has China failed to win gold in any doubles (1991)
• In the 2000’s the only gold (out of 25) not won by China was W. Schlager in 2003
• Since 1991 (Swedish win) China have won 9 gold medals in a row in men’s doubles
• China have taken 8 straight gold in the Women’s Singles in 14 years
• China has taken 15 gold out of 16 Championships over 30 years in the women’s doubles
• China has 10 straight gold in the mixed doubles
• In two worlds in a row only Chinese players have contested every final
Anyone like to bet against China in future World Championships?
We have many former international players in the country, some of whom have represented England over many years, in a few cases even decades. Should these older stars be sidelined and ignored and is their experience of little benefit to the current generation? There are no frames of reference as to how much coaches and players should copy or learn from the successes of former top players. Knowledge should be changing and developing all the time and each era will of course have differing advantages and opportunities as well as varying economic factors and styles of leadership.
Also, however previous generations have achieved their successes can be irrelevant in that we can always succeed in new ways and indeed should always be looking to innovate rather than to follow. Much depends on coaches and players having the confidence to try new methods and above all having total belief in what they are doing.
So are there areas in which the experience of these older players can be used and which are relevant and indeed well worth studying? And are there other areas in which their expertise is perhaps not as useful as we may think? Indeed there are.
1 As corner-men at tournaments and major events. These guys have been there and done it, they know what it takes to win at top level. The younger ex-internationals may well even have played against and beaten some of the current opponents of our young players.
2 As sparring partners. Top players don’t lose their skills (Ni Xialan came back after some 15 years without playing to get back in the Top 10 in the world): they can feel the strengths and weaknesses of the young stars and pass on tips and advice.
3 As role models. Those of our older players who are still playing at top level are of value in the team as their experience will ‘rub off’ on their younger team-mates quite quickly. Older players for example recognize immediately when opponents use different tactics and when the game changes – younger players, however good they are, often take time to adapt.
4 As coaches involved in the development of top young players. In this particular area the results of the latest research indicates that the high-level gifted athlete rarely makes a top coach, without extensive re-training and education. The top coach educators recommend care when fast-tracking high-level athletes into top coaching positions.
5 Information from the top players of how they got to the top level. How much they trained, what was relevant in their development. What qualities they had naturally, or needed to develop. And most importantly what they think of the current generation and what the younger players can and should do to get to the top.
Surveys of top players in Europe have turned up several interesting points (these surveys included a number of very successful players in terms of wins in the Worlds, Olympics and Europeans). Most top seniors for example over the last 30 years had success at cadet and/or junior level and most began playing between 5 – 11 years. On average they participated --
1 In Junior Teams at the age of 13.
2 In Senior Teams at the age of 16.
Their weekly training schedule on average at differing ages was as follows –
1 From 8 – 12 = 7 to 8 hours.
2 From 13 – 16 = 11 hours.
3 From 17 – 20 = 16 hours.
Physical training on average per week was as follows –
1 From 8 – 12 = 2 hours.
2 From 13 – 16 = 3 hours.
3 From 17 – 20 = 3 to 4 hours.
Why and how did these older players achieve their success and what did they feel were the main factors contributing towards their results?
1 25% Their own motivation and the will to win and be the best.
2 25% Good relationship with a knowledgeable coach especially in the early years.
3 22% Good work-rate and the willingness to put in the effort needed to reach the top.
4 15% To be a member of a good club with a variety of players and good sparring.
5 13% Good family support especially in the early years.
What do these older players feel are the keys to the future when looking at the table tennis of today and the current players?
1 25% A programme to develop high-level, knowledgeable coaches.
2 12% Better financial rewards for top players and coaches.
3 12% A higher profile for our sport.
4 10% A much closer relationship between the Association, the Regions and the Clubs and the willingness to work together.
5 10% Today’s players must increase training levels both in quantity and especially in intensity. Our game is more professional than it’s ever been and competition from the Asian countries is at a higher level.
6 10% Better possibilities in terms of economy to combine technical development and high-level commitment.
7 07% Develop the clubs to a higher level.
8 07% Create a good system of training camps at different levels.
9 07% Train more on condition, speed and flexibility.
It appears that most top players emphasize the importance not of raw talent but of willpower and the capability of working hard at all times. Opportunity is of course vital too and those players who have access to experienced coaches and good club training will have a big advantage.
It may be that this information provides useful guidelines as to what we should be researching with our top young players of today. It could also be relevant to investigate whether these findings tie in with the opinions and thoughts of our own top former internationals. The situation in other countries in Europe may well differ from the UK.
Is table tennis the fastest ball sport there is? If we are talking about the actual speed of the ball then our sport is in fact nowhere near.
The 5 fastest in order of overall ball/shuttlecock speed are;
• Jai Alai (Pelota) 188mph. (Unofficially 200+).
• Golf ball at 170mph.
• Badminton (a jump smash) shuttlecock leaves the racket at 162mph.
• Tennis 153 mph (Andy Roddick’s recorded serve) probably this can be improved on in the case of a counter-smash.
• Squash 151 mph.
The maximum speed of a table tennis ball doesn’t reach anywhere near half these speeds. In various tests, either recorded with a laser gun or on camera (sound, racket to racket) it can almost certainly be concluded that a table tennis ball barely exceeds 75 mph and then we have to remember that it slows too very rapidly after leaving the racket.
But surely when we are talking about the fastest ball sport, if the results are to be considered anywhere near accurate, we must take into account reaction time and the time from racket contact to racket contact. In table tennis if we consider how close the players are and that a smash at one end of the table takes around 0.1 of a second to reach the other end, then this is in fact well below normal reaction time for almost all players.
In other sports as well although the ball may travel faster, the courts are bigger and participants will have more time – in addition sports like golf are not antagonistic and the sportsman is not hitting a moving ball or reacting to an opponent’s body action.
The bigger table tennis ball also loses spin rapidly through the air and gives the close-to-table 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.
As a result players who like to adopt a position back off the table, both because of the bigger ball and the lack of glue, have much less chance of winning points. This particularly affects the women who, because of their lower upper body strength and less dynamic movement, are not as quick to reach the ball and are less able to weight the stroke as heavily and play power and spin from a deeper position.
The modern game is changing dramatically at the moment. For a number of years now, men’s table tennis has focused on the short game and the player who has had the best control in the short play situation has almost always been the winner.
The player who has been able to take the most advantage from the short play and who has been able to get on the attack first has been the one who has come out on top. But the majority of the short play has been a ‘jockeying’ for position and has usually involved opening eventually with the FH flick or sometimes a topspin over the table if the ball drifted long. This scenario no longer applies!
What is happening now is that the whole receive strategy has been revolutionised by BH over-the-table attack. A great many of the world’s top players use the BH attack against most short serves which has revolutionised short receive. Positive short receive is now the norm and gives the receiver a big advantage in that it increases the alternatives and creates the opportunity for the receiver to get in immediately rather than just returning short on most occasions. Instead of dropping the ball back short the receiver attacks the serve and is into the topspin rally without any delay. This puts much more pressure on the server.
The problem for the server is that not only does the receiver attack with the BH from both the FH and the BH side of the table, but that he/she opens with spin, both sidespin and topspin. The ‘Schlager’ flick where the player comes round the side of the ball against a backspin serve means that the ball is returned with topspin and a sidespin kick. With the BH over-the-table stroke it is much more difficult to detect what the wrist is doing and where ball will go. It is rather easier to pick up the ball over the table with this BH shot and the wrist can be used to full effect. The wrist action which can be created over the table on the backhand side is greater than the wrist action that can be created on the forehand side.
The second aspect of development in the modern game is in the highly professional use of the reverse serve. The basic ‘pendulum’ serve has been used for years but the reverse variation is now used much more often and top players are able to switch from one to the other at will. As the wrist action is so late the receiver has little time to read top or backspin, or length or direction. The reverse short serve to the FH for example is often effective as many players have more problems with the ball spinning away from them.
As a result the variation in this serve now gives the receiver much more to think about and therefore gives him/her less time to react. The more alternatives the mind has to process when ‘reading’ the play the longer this will take! Following on from this there is also the possibility that other serves which swing away from the opponent’s FH may well become more popular; ones such as the BH or the ‘axe’ serve.
The third area of evolution is in powerful symmetrical play and strong topspin pressure from both wings. In the men’s game now on the BH side, there is very little drive play. The flat shots are used less and less. The main feature of male play is more and more topspin from this wing: this of course means that the opponent has little or no respite from the pressure. In the past it was always possible to switch into the BH and get a weaker return – not any more. We even get the situation where a switch wide to the BH results in a power BH topspin return, which can be an outright winner!
We can say that the biggest changes in the development of the game over the last 5 years or so have been in the improvement in the service and receive scenario and on the BH side. It is rare that you see men players flat hit any more, spin is nearly always the shot of choice on both BH and FH.
What is being seen too on the FH side is deception with shoulder rotation and this is something which may well develop further. By this we mean that when the player lines up the shoulders to play the FH, the opponent instinctively starts to move to react to the direction of the shot. If at the last second before starting the forward swing, you rotate back a little more then it’s possible to engineer a complete change of direction. This deception in rotation can be used with the FH from both the FH and BH sides of the table and can be very effective. With a little practice it is also possible to fake in both directions, to look as if you are playing in one direction, then to hit in the other!
• 1989 Chinese dominance shattered. Sweden win World Team Final by an incredible 5 – 0! Waldner beats Persson in the singles final
• 1990 Swedish men win the European Men’s Team Final. Appelgren wins singles and beats Polish legend Grubba
• 1991 Sweden beats China again in the World Team Final. Persson beats Waldner in the singles final. P. Karlsson/T von Scheele take gold in the doubles
• 1992 Waldner Olympic Champion 3 – 0 over Gatien. Sweden wins European Men’s Team Final. Marie Svensson finishes 2nd in the European Top 12
• 1993 Sweden beat China again in the World Team Final
• 1994 Marie Svensson is European Women’s Singles Champion. Magnus Molin wins the cadet event in the European Youths
• 1995 David Gustavsson is unofficial World Junior Champion in Tokyo
• 1996 After 14 years Waldner wins his first European Men’s Singles title. He also wins the European Top 12 for the 7th time
• 1997 Waldner wins the World Singles title for the second time, 7 – 0 in matches and 21 – 0 in games! Jens Lundqvist wins Junior European Top 12
• 1998 P. Karlsson wins the European Top 12. Marie Svensson wins 2 medals in the Europeans
• 1999 Waldner reaches semis in the World Singles
• 2000 Sweden beats China 3 – 2 in an epic Team Final: Persson unbeaten. Waldner takes silver in the Olympics and Persson also reaches the semis. Sweden takes gold in European Team and P. Karlsson wins the singles
• 2001 F. Hakansson reaches semi-finals in the Swedish Open
• 2004 Waldner (almost 39) reaches semi-finals of the Olympics. Sweden in 4th place in World Team Championships
• 2008 At 42 Persson reaches the semi-finals of the Olympics. Robert Svensson/Jon Persson reach the semis of the European doubles
Sweden has had unprecedented success in table tennis over a period of 20 odd years. The men’s team was in every World Team Final from 1983 through to 1995 against China. From 1989 to 2000 Sweden won no fewer than 30 championship medals and 10 more over the last 10 years. Much of this was due to the fact that Waldner and Persson have both had an unbelievably long life among the top few players in the world (Waldner was in fact in the top 10 men in the world for an incredible 18 years in a row). Even now the top young Swedes have not really made the breakthrough and in 2010, who was the Swedish Closed Champion, yes Waldner again for the 9th time!
Waldner: ‘To be the best in Europe is not too difficult, Europe is weak now, especially as many of the older players, who have been very good, are stopping. But to match China is just not realistic. The older players in Europe did it but we were rather special. The older players for example in Sweden had a tough baptism. If you lost to another Swede you never heard the end of it. The competition in Sweden was murderous but this really pushed us to the limit.’
Appelgren: ‘At times we had in Sweden 5 to 6 players in the top 10 in the world.’ (Only a few months ago Appelgren at 48 beat Otcharov from Germany, ranked 14 in the world).
Persson: ‘Our generation was just too good for the younger players. We kept on developing and growing. Even in the early years we had Kjell, Tickan and Stellan in front of us as role models.’
Persson is the only player in Sweden still in the top 20 in the world. Jens Lundqvist (No 19 in 2003) is currently 49. Sweden now sees its best hope for the future in its young players; Mattias and Kristian Karlsson (18 years), Anthony Tran (15 years) and Hampus Sȍderlund (14 years). All these are among the top in Europe in their age groups. As Thomas von Scheele (Swedish Junior Team Captain) has stated: Two key areas must be fostered with our players –
• the willingness to take responsibility for their own development
• total self motivation
He states: ‘Too often in Europe the coaches help the young players too much, they must draw back and help the players to assume responsibility for themselves and for their own future. In this way it will be easier for them to take the step from the junior to the senior game. They will develop more quickly and be able to think for themselves.’
What advice does Werner Schlager, the last European to win a world title, have to give to the players of the future?
• Train with the same intensity, concentration, focus and attention as you do in matches
• Always think to be creative and innovative and work in combinations, so that you flow from one sequence into another
• Table tennis is too quick for you to control everything, but you should try to be so well prepared that you can cope with any situation
• Go your own way and create a playing style which you know suits your technique, body and character 100%
In comparison with the Asian players the best in Europe are considerably older and there seems to be little sign of an in-depth development throughout Europe which would produce players in quantity to match the Asians. Perhaps it was the case that in the 1980’s and 1990’s we had not only in Sweden but throughout Europe a group of players (Gatien, Primorac and Saive for example) who were a product of their times and whose achievements and the way they evolved cannot be duplicated today.