I have been reading with much interest the different articles in the magazine giving various reasons for and against coaching at tournaments. Perhaps I have the advantage of many coaches and leaders in Sweden in that I have seen many such bans attempted in other countries over the last thirty years, but I am still a little surprised that no coach has gone straight to the heart of the problem. You cannot stop coaching at tournaments. You can bring in all the rules and regulations you like, it makes no difference whatsoever. This is a point I have discussed with top trainers in many countries all over the world (and trainers and coaches disagree on many aspects of our sport), but in this area they are all pretty much in agreement — as long as the player can see or hear the trainer, coaching can take place and there’s not much anyone can do about it! You can drive coaching underground, you can stop the public meeting of coach and player between games, but you can’t stop the coaching. By driving coaching underground you achieve only two things — you give the more experienced player or the player with the more experienced coach a much bigger advantage!
Let me give you an example. Two players are 9 –- 9 in the fifth. One of the coaches blows his nose, takes off his glasses or shouts some perfectly innocent encouragement such as — ‘Come on, fight now’. His player serves two fast serves and wins 11 – 9. An accident? Now the player has not done this before, he was serving short — so did he think of this himself or did the coach make some signal only understood by him and the player?
If you think about it there are in fact only a limited number of instructions which a coach may wish to get over to a player during a match. There are a multitude of innocent gestures that we all make when watching any spectator sport or an equal number of encouraging words that are shouted to players. It is quite a simple matter to sit down with your player and devise a system of communication to cover most eventualities in the game. Nor can you stop players looking at parents or coaches as they play — many do this as a habit or for reassurance, it is a point of contact between the coach/parent and the player. To expand this ‘point of contact’ into a cohesive system is relatively straightforward given that most trainers and coaches are by nature of their profession innovators.
And even if you suspect a parent/coach of illegally advising his player, proving this is quite another matter. Do you ban all parents/trainers who make seemingly innocent gestures or clap twice instead of four times? Or do you just select certain coaches on the grounds that their players are winning and ask them to leave the hall as you suspect they may be coaching? I’ve seen this attempted and I’ve seen top coaches refuse to leave the hall! Their answer has been quite simple — ‘Either prove what you’re suggesting or shut up’. From the administration’s point of view to ‘push’ it can also be a little dangerous, they may well have a lawsuit on their hands the next day!
Nor is it much good to appeal to coaches on the moral issues. The first loyalty of the coach is usually to his club and his players. If coaches feel that the development of their players is being stunted or technical or tactical advancement being crippled by certain (in their opinion stupid and unnecessary) restrictions imposed by the governing body of the sport, then they in most cases feel quite justified in stepping outside the rules of the sport.
If the Swedish Table Tennis Association intends for one reason or another that players be as equal as possible while they compete, then probably the best way (still not 100% effective I might add) to have an enforceable ban is to play all tournaments behind closed doors. No parents or coaches to be allowed anywhere near the playing area!
Ridiculous you may say. Is it? What is more ridiculous than having a system which is not effective or indeed used at some tournaments and not others? What is more confusing and undermining for young players to find they can be coached at the National Junior Championships but not at the National Top 12? The formative stages in a young player’s development are critical — and we are not just talking here about technique and the direction of style, we also need to look carefully at the slow, controlled growth of mental strength, tactical awareness and the gradual flowering of self-confidence. These characteristics are developed and reinforced by dialogue between the player and coach — you restrict dialogue, you restrict progress. A critical factor also is the timing of dialogue — that the player learns and evolves under pressure and in the course of play and not at some undetermined time in the future when he or she has calmed down and it’s all over.
As a player gets past the stage of reasonable competence in the basic strokes and is able to play them from all parts of the table and the movement patterns are becoming established — then is the time to look at style development. Many players will in fact have already shown indications before this of how they are going to develop and the experienced coach will have started to point them in the right direction.
Indeed an experienced coach will be able to look at a player of 11 to 13 years who has been playing for 2/3 years and have a good idea of how the player will play as an adult. It is just a matter of looking at the type of strokes, the type of person, strength, movement and reaction speed and assessing where the player is strongest. The famous English coach/player Jack Carrington used to say — ‘You will never make a player really good in areas where they are at best mediocre.’ He was of course emphasizing the point that players must play to their strengths — it is all very well taking some time working at eliminating weaknesses, but in the long run players will win by doing what they do best.
All players are different, many may be similar but no two players are identical. Some have very fast reactions and are able to handle extreme speed close to the table — they don’t need to move back and are most effective in an up-to-the-table situation. Others do not have the reaction speed to do this but are able to control the ball well back from the table and feel comfortable in this position. Some players can loop or hit the ball very hard and win points with power, yet others rely more on deception or spin or control.
It is important that the coach assess the up-and-coming young player and look at where his or her strengths lie, look at reactions, strength, movement, mental attitude and stroke play – how does the player execute the strokes, how does he or she win points. If there are possible problems in a player’s game, perhaps he or she is good close to the table on the backhand, but good away from the table on the forehand, then some compromise must be arrived at. Another area which must be examined is that of equipment — within the context of the player’s style which type and speed of blade and which rubbers and sponge thickness will be the most effective. (If for example you want good effect from a long pimple rubber then it’s of no use having it on a slow blade). You may not always be able to put a player straight on to the type of equipment they will use as a senior, often this will have to be done in two or three stages, but you should as a trainer be aware in which direction you are going!
Equally it’s very important that the young player be monitored constantly till the style is set. Young players are not stable in technique and the coach must be often in attendance, bringing points to the attention of the player till they start to think for themselves. ‘Look at the racket, should it finish there after the forehand loop?’ ‘Look to the movement pattern, are you moving in the right way and are you balanced when you play the strokes?’ ‘Stop, watch the timing, should you be taking the ball so late with your style?’ ‘Come in, you’re too far back, it’s not your best playing area.’
In addition the coach should have a long-term programme for the development of his player. He should know what he is working towards and should plan the steps to achieve this. It is not always necessary that the player be aware of every stage of the plan — coaches know many things that they rarely tell players, there is little point in cluttering up the player’s mind with a great deal of unnecessary and irrelevant information. The player’s job is to play, not to be involved in the technicalities and details. His or her mind should be focused totally on playing.
What players must know is how they win games at any particular stage in their programme of development. Do they win with forehand loop? Do they win with set pieces – serve and third ball? Do they win by others’ mistakes? And most important of all if a player stops them playing their own natural game, can they change and adapt? Have they a second type of game to fall back on? Players must be adaptable and trained to think for themselves when faced with problems.
Above all there must be progress, a steadily expanding programme of development, new aims and objectives. Life is a process of change, when change stops, stagnation sets in and achievement levels off or recedes. So many players reach a plateau, a level and stop! They become satisfied with what they are and are no longer prepared and motivated to put in the effort required to reach or to stay at the top. In sport as in life, the mind must be kept fresh, ready to listen to new ideas and to climb to new heights.
Just what do coaches say to players during the ‘magic’ minute between games at tournaments, what sort of advice, what aspects are they looking at, what are their main concerns and do they have priorities?
The first thing of course is to assess the mental and emotional state of the player, training is physical but competing is emotional and often the feelings can take over to the detriment of performance. The player’s emotional state can be such that there is absolutely no point in even trying to get over information about tactics, the opponent’s weaknesses or which serves are most advantageous! His or her mind is closed to all incoming information, the only step you can take within the time you have is to try and get the player in something like the right mood to continue the match in a constructive way.
Usually when emotion gets too high the level of play goes down and the player makes even more mistakes. Many players fail to realise three important facts.
Many players allow themselves to be very negative when competing, they tell themselves they can’t play, they have no chance, they are playing badly, even that they are going to lose. The brain is very like a computer, if you feed in negative thoughts, it will do its very best to help you lose! If on the other hand you think positively and believe that if you work and fight you have a good chance to succeed, it will indeed be ‘on your side’ and help you to do just this.
Fear is another emotion which causes incredible problems to the smooth operation of the nerves and muscles. Suddenly the body doesn’t seem to work very well anymore. The legs are made of wood, the breathing is laboured, there is a sick feeling in the pit of the stomach, just how can you hope to perform under such handicaps? Even normal everyday activities suddenly become next to impossible to carry out. If you allow fear to take over and dominate then it’s very difficult to compete at any level.
What you must do is to control the fear, not allow it to control you. As people who have been in life-threatening situations for several days or weeks have found out you can only live with fear for so long, then you absorb it and it starts to lose its power! What you must do is face your fear and conquer it. Imagine the very worst that could happen, see it happening to you, face it, absorb it. To conquer fear you must first realize that there is no escape from what you fear most. You must take it inside yourself, live with it, taste it, understand it, overcome it. Does the world end, does the sun stop shining, does everyone you know walk away and leave you alone, does life itself end? Or is it after all not quite as bad as you thought it would be?
It is vital to impress on all your players that perhaps the single most important consideration about competition is to bring the right approach and attitude to every tournament. Without the optimal mental state, the right level of nervous excitement and a positive, balanced approach to competition, it is very difficult to be successful. When competing you must be in the right mood, feelings and emotions get in the way and even the smallest things can be a source of irritation if you allow them to be. The psychological adjustment of players so as to keep them in the optimal mental state should in fact be an obligatory theoretical course for all players and trainers.
Players should first understand that self-control will give them the opportunity to think — the mind is much clearer and able to consider tactics, which serve to use, whether to use spin more etc. Also the body is more relaxed and able to respond more effectively to different situations. All players should try to work on the things they can control, trying to train hard and in the right way, having a good work-rate and attitude at all times, a strong fighting spirit, being calm and in control and above all being stubborn and never giving up.
One thing that many top players do in fact agree on is that the prime sources of success, are the areas you have control over and are capable of influencing — the internal factors. What we are talking about here is basically attitude — the qualities and the approach you bring to competition. Above all however these are the areas where you can take charge and steer your own course. If you focus completely on working and fighting for every point, then you have very little time and energy for doubt and worry and being negative. If you remain calm and in control and do not allow the emotions, irritation, anger and fear to creep in, then you have the time to think how you should play, to consider different tactics and possibilities.
One area where I often see coaches making a mistake at tournaments is trying to advise players on technique. Starting to get involved thinking about how to play the strokes or how to move is the last thing the player needs under the pressure of competitive play! It is when the body does things on autopilot that it is most effective. When you start to think about the strokes and especially about technique, you introduce problems, the thinking part of the mind interferes with the subconscious execution of the shot or serve and performance is affected. For a start the automatic reaction is much faster, you only slow things down by introducing the conscious, thinking process. The things that you can think about when you play and think about profitably are where you are winning and losing points, which serves to use and not to use, free your conscious, thinking mind to concentrate more on tactical areas of the game and how to gain advantage here.
It is indeed into the tactical areas that much of your advice should be directed during the one minute coaching period between games, provided always that your player is receptive enough. The prime skill after all in table tennis is the ability to read and adapt to ever changing situations. Our sport can be considered somewhat in the light of a chess match with move and counter-move, but played at a rather faster pace! What you as a coach are trying to do is to help your player to match his strengths against the opponent’s weaknesses (though on occasions it can be better to play weakness against weakness). One of the first things to look at is the serve and receive situation, where and how does the opponent stand, where is your player winning or losing points? Are certain serves an asset, some even a liability? Should your player be thinking of returning in a different manner? Is he or she too safe or too aggressive after the serve/receive? Above all just where is your player winning and losing points and what can he or she do to change this?
Do not overlook tactical aspects such as short play, use of angles, varying length, speed or spin or even just playing slower balls. Often slow play pays dividends even against very high level players, because their usual pattern of training is with extreme tempo or power. Always remember the prime skill is to read and to adapt. If you give the opponent something they are not used to then in terms of sports training theory their automatic reactions, the conditioned reflexes, are not firmly established, because they have not trained in such a way as to counter the new stimulus. This is why new techniques, tactics and playing methods are so powerful.
As a coach try always to put yourself into the mind of opponents. What sort of game do they like to face? Do they prefer speed, have they good feeling against spin, are they good in short play, are they better at moving to one wing or to the other? Are they confident in the crossover area, are they strong on diagonal or straight play, what are their strengths and weaknesses in movement and are they predictable in placement? How do they win points, what are their winning weapons and how can your player neutralize these?
Also assess the mental capabilities of opponents. Are they strong and calm in the mind, ready to fight to the last point? Or are there weaknesses under pressure? What serves and receives do they use when the game is really close? Do they change their tactics at times of stress, play safe or more negative or do they perhaps go the other way and play ultra-positive? What advantage can we gain here?
Bear in mind too that as a coach it’s not only advice that you are dispensing to your own player but also support and confidence. Quite often your quiet support can make all the difference in a very close match. Your own attitude and your approach to advising your player are particularly important. You should above all be able to control yourself and not allow your emotions to get in the way, however badly your player may have performed. Another aspect that many coaches overlook is that the player too may have some thoughts that he or she wants to talk over. Coaching at most levels should be a two-way process and the coach should be as ready to listen as to talk. Coaching is after all a development of players’ self-confidence and self-sufficiency so that they can eventually cope on their own without you to hold their hand for the rest of their lives!
What you must cultivate and allow to flower with your player is this self-sufficiency, the ability to cope with any situation he or she will encounter in any table tennis environment. Teach your pupils to be as professional as possible and to adhere to the professional’s creed — ‘Where you lack skill you practise, where you lack knowledge you study. But above all you must believe. You must believe in your strength of will, of purpose, of heart and soul. Whatever you want to achieve, you can, if only you want it enough. Never doubt openly or speak badly of yourself for the champion that is inside you hears your words and is diminished, lessened by them.’
The most important thing is not to win but to win with the right attitude. To beat the opponent is not important, it never was and never will be. All competition is against yourself. To beat yourself is all that matters. To be a real champion you must try and rise above yourself and the world around you. Once you understand this then everything becomes possible.
We shall now play up to eleven points and each player will have only two serves. Just how many of us have taken the time to ponder how we should approach and adapt to the new game? Should we rethink attitudes, concentration levels, tactics, be more negative or positive, more unpredictable and inventive, play differently, have a quite other emphasis or direction in our style of play? Above all should we now think to train in a new manner so as to adjust better to the needs and challenges of the shorter game.
What springs first to mind is that there is no place for unforced errors and against the defenders or long pimple blockers for example you cannot afford to throw easy points away. (There may even be many more radical rubber combinations around as coaches appreciate this is a way to pick up cheap points, with less chance of the opponent having time to understand what is happening).
It is vital now that you can focus and concentrate completely from the very first ball. There is little time or place for the ‘slow starter’, who gives the opponent a big lead and then comes back to win. In fact there is we find now little or no continuity of play, the game instead of flowing is much more ‘stop and start’ all the time, with less rhythm or predictability. It is harder to plan and organize your own service game with only two serves at a time. Equally it’s even more difficult to read and adapt to your opponent’s service when he or she serves in series of two instead of five. You see less serves before the game is over — you may for example lose 3 – 11 and only see six serves, the opponent may not even use his or her full repertoire.
In fact the whole serve and receive scenario is upgraded to a much higher priority, as are the second, third and fourth balls. If you watch elite players in matches now they take more time and care in the serve and receive area of the game, there is a heightened concentration level. The training of serve must now have a rather different emphasis — it is of vital importance that you can serve radically different balls one after the other, that you are confident to change spin, speed, angles, placement and length dramatically and without mistake. Once you know a serve well, don’t train 20 / 30 times on the same serve, train randomly, without a pattern and in series of two or three very different serves. Most important of all train to play a positive third ball, to gain an early advantage even to win the point direct if you can; make this third ball play an integral part of all serve training until it becomes second nature and completely automatic. By starting every exercise whatever it may be with a serve you also turn the serve/receive situation into a conditioned response, it just becomes another natural part of the rally and not something you train on in isolation.
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.
With some styles of play, such as defence and control play games to eleven may well require a change in emphasis. It is not just enough to play safely and predictably all the time – some points must be won. Such players should cultivate a readiness to be more aggressive and earlier in the rally (after their own serve for example), and also a willingness to break up the game more and play less predictably. (Not only chop but come in and block or hit from back using pimples or reverse, more twiddling in the rallies, not only control but variation in all its aspects).
Above all attitude is going to be a key factor — it is going to be far too easy to fall into the trap of thinking and playing safe, of protecting a lead instead of going on to win and young players, especially girls, may well be tempted into negative habits. In shorter games to eleven it’s also all too simple to prioritize winning and overlook developing. Younger players should always be looking to the longer term — the most important thing is to be moving in the right direction. The bottom line is that you should be playing your own game all the time and in every situation whether to 11, 15, or 21. Think positively, use your strengths, your winning weapons and never lose sight of how you should be playing.
In fact with eleven up many players may well feel less stress, there is a general levelling of talent and ability. The lesser player has a greater chance of winning — even a little luck can change the game dramatically. But it goes rather further than that. When you perform before a large audience your gestures must be gross, larger than life, because subtlety is invisible to half a million eyes. Equally games to eleven are a crystallization of our game of table tennis, a highlighting of the core elements, a boiling down to the raw essentials — the strong winning weapon, the skilful serve and receive, the aggressive second and third ball, the totally positive approach, the readiness to take quick advantage of the very first opportunity, even half-chance, the quick–silver change of plan and tactics, the lightning conversion of ideas into action.
One thing is for sure – our leisurely game of table tennis enjoyed in so many different environments, over all social strata and for so many years, has disappeared. We are indeed rudely uprooted into a new age where for many it will take both time and thought to readjust.
In the words of Deng Yaping’s father — ‘There are 3 things required of an accomplished table tennis player, strong fortés, all-round skills and no obvious chinks in his or her armour. But how are these to be applied to a child? Of all the three requirements, it seems obvious that 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.’
Den Dasong put his ideas into practice when coaching his daughter in the early years. She started at the age of five and learned in the first year to play with the ‘shakehands’ grip. Because she was so small her father had her change to a tennis grip to increase her reach and bat-swing. Every day Yaping played one or two exercises, forehand attack against block or forehand to forehand duels with her father. For a period of two years or more Deng Yaping confined her training to only forehand attacking strokes and never practised backhand play. In later years all her opponents were afraid of her fearsome forehand. She developed one strong forté as a young player which stood her in good stead throughout the rest of her career. When a little later she started to work much on serve and third ball too, then this forté came very much into its own.
The early work done on her forehand also made it quite an easy task for her coach Zhang Xielin when it came to the time to decide what to do with her backhand wing. It was a simple choice to give her a long pimple rubber which was both slower and a little tricky, but which above all gave her time to use her strong forehand side and bring her forté into play. This is an ideal example of marrying equipment and playing style in a profitable way. In Dortmund in 1989, when she was only 16 and in her debut in the World Championships, Deng Yaping took her first gold medal in the women’s doubles.
Deng’s success provides much food for thought concerning the methods to be used for training young players. Perhaps the conventional route of all-round technical development is out-dated, certainly a new trail has been blazed by Den Dasong who started his player out by specializing in a particular department before building an all-round game at a more advanced stage.
Of course Den Dasong had the right idea — a player will only ever reach full potential by cultivating his or her strengths and developing what he/she does best, not by working on his/her weak areas, until these are passable or adequate! That is why with young players it is important to isolate their strengths in the early years and to put in a fair amount of training time to make these as formidable as possible. Strengths should above all be used and used to win games. The player even at a relatively young age should know how to get his or her strengths in during the match. This is why too it is very important to work on serve and receive with young players. Unless they develop an understanding of these areas of the game they are often restricted with what they can do with the next one, two or three balls and they never get the chance to play their winning strokes.
Even when a young player has a very good winning weapon it is vital that he or she knows how to use it in the right way. To be predictable at the highest level for example is not a winning tactic. You must have the tactics to be able to impose your game on the opponent and to get your strengths in and use them to full effect. To be able to think tactics while you play also requires you to be calm enough mentally and to have the right ‘arousal’ level and attitude.
In fact this is an aspect which it is important to emphasize in the case of all promising young players and especially with girls — their own approach and attitude to the game. Stress and concentration levels are very closely connected and it is difficult to retain focus if emotions take over. The ability to relax and to be calm enough to extract profit from one’s own mental resources is a priority.
Also central to a player’s development are self-confidence and the capacity to be positive. It is rarely if ever at the higher levels that players win by containing or waiting for the opponents to ‘do their thing’ first. At the top you need to think and play positively, you need to win the points and it is exceptional to get a second chance, if you don’t take advantage of the first when it is offered.
Young players must be encouraged to be positive in their play but also in their mind. They should take the attitude that to let an attacking opportunity go by is in fact failure! At times you may lose games by being over-positive but what both player and coach should be looking at is the overall, long-term development. Playing in ‘the right way’ is vital to the growth of the player. Many players have limitations in technique, they develop strokes in such a way that further progress is restricted. But many more are limited in the mind and develop the wrong attitudes — often winning or playing safe take priority over development and instead in the long run we get stagnation. The player’s game stops progressing and becomes set in a pattern.
Always bear in mind too that the concept of the player having his or her own idiosyncrasies, the idea of individual techniques but within the underlying principles is vital if the player is to cultivate his or her own personal style of play. Six players executing a forehand topspin will do so in six differing ways, with varied pace, varied spin, varied placement, a little element of sidespin etc. None of these is ‘wrong’. What we are looking at here is the concept of individual ‘flair’, but within the underlying principles, the critical features of the stroke.
What the coach should be looking at is how such unique characteristics can be turned to advantage. Does the player have a ‘specialty’, something a little different which causes problems to opponents — or are there aspects of his or her game which can be accentuated to fashion such a specialty.
The prime skill of table tennis is to be able to adapt to 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. Table tennis is largely a sport of conditioned reflex patterns where players train to react automatically. This is why new techniques, tactics and ‘specialties’ or unusual styles of play are difficult to cope with. The ‘automatic pilot’ doesn’t work as 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 will have difficulty in adapting in time.
Often quoted on television. Just where do these figures come from? They would certainly not seem to bear any relationship to reality!
Many if not most table tennis players are good at playing the first shot in the sequence, even more so if they read where the ball is going and are able to get there.
It is often later in the rally or against much better players (who play more unpredictably) where they fail to read what is happening and don’t get to the ball in time. However in other cases it is readily apparent that a particular player’s sequential movement is inadequate – by this we mean that the movement to a number of balls in succession breaks down quickly. This may be general (where the player for example stops and straightens up between shots) or may be evident in the case of certain sequences – from BH to FH, or back to BH again, from middle to BH or to more than one ball on the FH. It may also be evident in the length of the stroke or in bad balance, which does not permit adequate recovery to the next ball.
What the coach has to decide is where the problem really lies. Not getting to a ball in time can be for a number of reasons. Is the player not reading where the ball is going? Is the player using inadequate or the wrong footwork patterns? Does the player have poor sequential movement? This latter reason is more common than coaches may think.
Of course the most important aspect of our sport is adaptability – no player is going to reach a high level unless he or she can cope with and play against all styles. This is why from a very early age it is important to train against all types of players, lefthanders, penholders, defenders, pimpled players etc. Coaches have to bear in mind that adaptability doesn’t just happen, in most cases it needs to be cultivated and developed. If the development of adaptive intelligence is left till too late then players will have great difficulty in coping with new styles and methods of play later in their careers. Their career development will be severely restricted.
It is interesting to note that in some countries in Europe, France and Germany for example, there is strong evidence in players as young as 9 – 10 years of age of a highly developed adaptive capability and their coaches are to be commended. On the other hand in countries which one may consider to be highly progressive, such as UK or Sweden, the same capability is severely lacking even among players in their late teens or those at senior level.
The GB cycling team has been enormously successful at the London Olympics, 2012. So successful in fact that there have been complaints from other teams claiming that GB cycles are in some way ‘fixed’ to provide superior performance! Or that perhaps our athletes have some super- energy drink which is not available to other countries!
The truth of the matter is that the cycling and the backup teams are totally professional and pay enormous attention to the smallest detail. This is the secret of their success and is something that many other sports could learn from, including ours.
For example all cycling athletes are treated as individuals and every machine is ‘tailored’ to its rider. Each bike and rider is tested in the wind tunnel, so that the bikes, helmets and clothes etc have the least possible drag coefficient and so that the rider too adopts the perfect stance for him or her to lessen resistance. Nothing is left to chance and just think how much confidence this gives to the athletes: they know that everything possible is being done behind the scenes to ensure that they are successful.
The athlete is in total focus all the time and the first aspect to research right from the initial stages is how to help the athlete achieve the absolute maximum at all times. All the members of the backup teams are totally committed to just this sole objective.
Just think what results we could achieve if we applied the same attention to detail to our sport of table tennis! Each player treated as an individual, exercises corresponding to the exact requirements of the player on each and every training camp, liaison on a regular basis with the player’s own coach, listening to the player and what he/she wants to do and how he/she wants to train!
National Coaches seem to forget that most of the player’s development is in his/her own club and not on a few training camps. Any National Coach who does not control the player’s development and does not have control over all the aspects that go into creating success cannot hope to produce world-class performers. Winning against other countries will therefore be, not because of the system, but in spite of the system.
In this environment if players are required to represent their country, it will be necessary for them to have some incentive to do so. It is also crucial that methods are in place, which allow players to reach full potential as seniors and which allow players to attain a high level of self-sufficiency: this is long-term the final objective of the whole developmental exercise. That players are given full responsibility for their own development is crucial to their long-term evolution.
In the final analysis it’s what we do in the areas of skills coaching and in the understanding and development of techniques, which will determine the world level of our top athletes: these aspects differ of course from one performer to another as each is an individual. If the right standards are not set early we will fall way behind the rest of the world. If we do not ‘tailor’ the training and development to the athlete then we will fail and he/she will under-perform. Only by focusing in on personal strengths and qualities and by allowing these to blossom to the full, will our players ever reach their maximum potential.
At National level many of the coaches just don’t have the input time with the player to play a large part in the evolution of style and in the tactical/technical areas. In many cases too they don’t have the right background; recent ex-players rarely have great experience in the development of a variety of styles. Equally due to lack of funding the back-up teams don’t exist to focus on the small details that matter. This means that in the long run our players will underperform and will fail to attain the levels they should if they try to stay within the system.
Logically this therefore leads to the conclusion that searching for perfection and endeavouring to be the best you can be, is often not unfortunately compatible with playing for your country.
If we are to get anywhere at all we must adhere to the fundamental concept, that at an elite level it is the coach’s duty to refuse to compromise, the player must be completely ‘in focus’, only he or she matters – nothing else!
It was more than a little interesting that during the 2012 Olympics UK Sport was asked for meetings by a number of other competing countries. What these Olympics have done is to establish GB as the market leader. Our system is working and other countries want to know what we are doing. From 4 Olympics ago in Atlanta, where GB left the Games with one gold and was regarded as a joke, there has been an amazing turnaround. There are even signs that Rio in 2016 could be way better! Is this possible you might ask? It is, because the GB system is young, raw and unrefined, the potential is huge but other nations haven’t yet seen the half of it. As Peter Keen, who did most of the strategic thinking at UK Sport has said: ‘These are no shock results, it is where we are. This is what we worked towards and planned for’.
So just why have many of our sports been so successful? At any home Games the sports and the medal hopefuls get more money and there is a direct relationship between money and medals: at least if the money is well spent by an effective organisation with top quality leadership. However the seeds of success were sown much earlier by UK Sport around 2006 when a youngster from Hampshire was selected for stardom by the Bolshoi Academy in Moscow and questions were asked: ‘How was he selected and why? How was he going to be trained?’
The Bolshoi selects tiny numbers in the expectation that almost all will make it. They are brilliant at finding the talent and equally brilliant at developing it. This is in direct contrast to the football academies in GB that take in thousands and throw most of them away! This elitist channel to success is the ‘pathway’ which UK Sport is continually trying to perfect.
This is the path which UK Sport is encouraging other sports to emulate and which all sports in the UK would do well to follow: find the talent, polish it and turn it into gold. Don’t waste time, energy and money on the mass participation and mass failure pathway!
Speed and power are now the basic elements, spin is dramatically reduced and is no longer a prime component, rather it enhances the other elements. If you watch two men both hitting at a distance off the table, even though they are initiating topspin, the ball does not have the same forward momentum after the bounce as the celluloid ball did, instead it tends to kick up and comes through higher. As rallies are longer, consistency and accuracy are also important in the total equation: power without control is largely wasted and shot selection is vital.
The plastic game requires a more intense level of physical conditioning and this is going to be essential if players wish to reach the higher levels of our sport. However the key ingredient in winning is CHANGE, when, where and how. Control plays its part and an important part, but at the higher levels change will distinguish the winner.
Speed – It must be considered that normal human reaction time is 0.22 of a second and many of the shots we respond to will be close to or even outside usual limits. That is why we need to be able to play on autopilot and why experience is vital as this gives us clues to ‘read’ the play, indicating what is going to happen.
Speed must be considered over 3 areas:
● Preparation, pre-stroke speed and timing.
● Speed of travel and trajectory of the ball.
● Speed after the bounce and the bounce factor.
The force fed into the stroke is only part of the picture and it is necessary to study and evaluate the effectiveness of the other areas. Also assess the value of other aspects, using the opponent’s speed to your advantage, using lack of speed and slower balls and the uses of variation in timing.
Power – This, the input into the stroke determines speed and this can pressure and damage your opponent’s game. Power comes in two forms:
● Brute force, innate and natural.
● Explosiveness, use of timing (more emphasis on consistency in this form).
Consider the total combination: use of the body, centre of gravity shift, the legs, rotation, the shoulder, arm, forearm and wrist, even fingers. In addition power with the plastic ball must be much more FORWARD, and not up. Play through the ball on almost all occasions.
Spin – of itself has little dynamic or force producing momentum. Rather it is reliant on speed and/or power. However it does enrich a variety of strokes and increases consistency.
Spin also has 2 main elements:
● The shifting of weight or centre of gravity.
● The use of the forearm and wrist to help achieve a finer contact (brush strokes).
With the plastic the strokes are changing with less brushing and more hitting, playing through the ball. The whole dynamic is the focus on forward momentum.
Although spin is of less value in the rallies it is still important in some areas:
● The serve, whatever spin but especially combined with sidespin.
● The first opening ball particularly when taken at early timing.
● Sidespin is the most effective with the plastic, but more so when combined with other spins.
Consistency and Accuracy – Aggression without control is of little value. Our sport of table tennis requires attention to a number of aspects:
● It needs constant adjustment as players deal with differing shots and situations.
● It requires alterations in both power and speed to progress and develop.
● It benefits from adjustment to trajectory, the higher arc is slower and safer, the flatter arc is faster and carries more risk.
Top players aim in the majority of their strokes, to clear the net by only millimetres. Top players also, though they may play extremely quickly, operate within a framework of control and select the right ball to win the point.
Change/Variation – This is the KEY component in winning and comes in more and more at the higher levels. Top players are not predictable, they don’t play several balls to the same place, at the same speed with the same spin, they use all the table and variation in all its aspects: change in pace, rhythm, spin, placement, arc and trajectory, angles etc. They try continually to pressure and confuse the opposition.
Focus on the Initiation of Change – There are occasions in the game when it’s more important to focus on change:
● When you start to fall behind or are losing impetus.
● When you’re well ahead and the opponent starts to come back strongly.
● When the match deteriorates into a stalemate.
● When the game is close.
● In the crucial/final points.
Also study the different times in the game, the beginning period, the middle and the endgames to come to a decision when, how and where change is needed.
Study the mental/tactical aspects too, the opponent’s habits, actions, gestures, facial expressions and evaluate his/her level of confidence.
Changes Required with Plastic –
● More basic technical training and combinations.
● More hitting, less brushing.
● More physical training to raise power levels and prevent injury.
● More footwork training.
● Stand and play closer to the table.
● Ball slows and drops faster.
● Travel/trajectory and especially behaviour after the bounce is different.
● More variation in service.
● More aggression and touch in receive.
● Higher focus on 2nd/4th and 3rd/5th balls.
● Longer rallies and as a result:
1. More focus on change to win points.
2. More training on mental aspects.
3. More training on handling/coping with pressure.
The Modern Player and the Plastic
Bear in mind that all players are different and must come to terms in their own way with the plastic, though it may benefit some players more than others.
● It is the combination and mix of the elements and the way the player uses these which will determine his/her style and effectiveness.
● The combination improves the whole stroke and improves shot quality.
● There may be conflicts between aggression/speed/power and control/consistency/accuracy.
● If you play harder and earlier you have time to anticipate, also the opponent is under more pressure and less able to react strongly.
Bear in mind the following:
● Think to be ready to be creative.
● Enhance your judgment, identify early where and how the ball will come to you, at the POINT OF CONTACT on the opponent’s racket (especially the 3rd ball).
An important aspect which many players even at a high level overlook or do not fully understand is the principle of connected areas of strength.
Basically there are up to three interconnecting areas in which players will generally operate:
● Close-to-table, where serve and receive is so important with the plastic ball. Most serves are short and the most common receive is the flick over the table, followed by the short drop shot. All players, male and female and regardless of style need to be efficient in this close area and within a distance of two feet or sixty centimetres from the playing surface. Many girls and women, especially the blockers and counter-hitters are most comfortable in this area.
● Medium distance, between say two and five feet or up to a hundred and fifty centimetres from the table. This is a good position from which to use strong counters with power and is an area used by both male and female players. Defensive players will also operate towards the rear of this zone as they will be able to return a faster, flatter ball which gives less time for the opponent to think and plan.
● The deep area from around a metre and a half up to three metres or more from the table. Usually this zone is the prerogative of the male players, as they have the upper body strength and the dynamic movement to both lob and counter-smash from this position and still even win the point. Very few women players have the power to do this against a dropping ball and bear in mind that the plastic ball can drop below table height very quickly when less force is fed into the stroke. In the women’s game too those who choose to retreat too far, face many more good blockers and counter-hitters.
What is crucial for players to fully understand is that all of us have a comfort zone within which we operate most effectively. Not only have we to identify exactly what this is, but we also have to be efficient in the adjoining zones and training time has to be spent here too. In other words there are overlapping areas of strength and each of us needs to evaluate not only where we are most effective but indeed how we are effective. Are the strokes and strategies we use at maximum efficiency, in relation to the areas and distances from which we operate? Or do we need to change things or work with new ideas regarding stroke usage and development?
The plastic ball has brought differing scientific factors into our game and we need to come to terms with these: a little less speed and much less spin, longer rallies, less advantage on the serve and more on the receive and rapidly slowing balls when there is less power input. It is easy to get more balls back when you retreat but much harder to win points from back due to less penetration with spin. When players are forced back the stronger, more athletic performers can more easily gain the upper hand. It is therefore much harder for the women with less upper body strength and less dynamic movement, to play an effective off-the-table style. For many players the physical side is going to require a rather increased emphasis.
So just how do we marry up the new techniques and strategies with the overlapping/connecting areas of strength. There are a number of questions the player has to now ask him/herself:
● Do I fully understand my most effective comfort zone in relation to the table and do I play the most appropriate strokes from here?
● Am I limited with what I can do or have I alternative strokes and strategies from this area?
● Do I spend between 60 – 80% of playing time in this area where I am most effective?
● If I have to move outside my comfort zone do I get back within one or two shots?
● Am I effective in the close-to-table zone which is so crucial in the modern game?
● Am I fit enough to cope with the increased physical demands of today’s game?
● Do I train not only in my comfort zone but in the areas either side so that I can cope with all situations and be as complete a player as I can?
One final aspect of importance to consider and bear in mind is symmetrical play. By this we mean the equal use of the Forehand and Backhand strokes in the fast modern game so as not to leave gaps which the opponent can exploit. The majority of players understand this fully in the close-to-table situation where time is at a premium and where it can be unwise to come round and play the Forehand from the Backhand corner, unless you are certain you can play a winner.
What must be understood now with the plastic ball is that less powerful players and especially girls and women, will not be capable of generating enough penetration with the ball from the deeper areas. This means that if they retreat too far, coming round to play forehands will still leave them at risk from a strong counter and particularly if the opponent adopts earlier timing and a closer position.
Practice makes perfect! This is a phrase we hear quite often, especially in sport and in various learning processes. But is it true? Surely it is more accurate to say ‘Practice makes Predictable’! Practice in fact usually makes us more rigid and inflexible in our thinking. We perform the same action time and time again, until we no longer need to think about it, until it becomes completely ‘automated’. This is exactly what we do when we are learning table tennis; we train until we don’t need to think about what we are doing and react automatically.
But surely this is good? Table tennis is an extremely fast sport and to respond in the ‘right’ way we cannot afford to take time to think about what we are doing; responses must of necessity be instinctive. For a start the automatic reaction is much faster, we only slow things down by introducing the conscious, thinking process. When we start to think about the strokes and especially about technique, we introduce problems, the thinking part of the mind interferes with the subconscious execution of the shot or serve and performance is affected.
The problem of course is that instinctive reactions are inflexible and predictable! What happens when we encounter the situation when we have to adapt? Unfortunately we can’t. We start to use the conscious part of the brain and to try to change instinctive reactions we have ‘automated’ over the years. The result is usually total disaster!
So what is the answer? Quite simply the solution is to change our methods of training so that the automatic reactions we need, cover a much wider range of possibilities. Also we have to work with procedures and systems which enhance the development of adaptive intelligence and render our styles of play more flexible and responsive.
How do we do this? 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, that 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 early years.
Methods of training must change to be much more professional if we in Europe are to make any inroads into matching the Asian and especially the Chinese players. We should particularly target exercises which help our players value and assess the incoming ball and which look at alternatives and variations in responses. We must as a matter of course use more random and irregular exercises. Only in this way will we develop adaptive intelligence and broaden the ‘automatic reflex’ base. At all costs we should avoid patterns of training which reinforce primarily rigid and inflexible evolution.
‘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. Bear in mind that tactical development is based crucially on technical abilities. If the player doesn’t have the technical weapons to play his/her own game most effectively then the performer never reaches full potential. Throughout Europe there has to be a great deal more attention payed by coaches to the individual development of the player and to maximising his/her own personal strengths.
The judicious and directed development of automatic responses together with the individual focus on personal strengths, will in the long run produce players of real quality.
However we must be aware that part of the problem in the production of young performers 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.
To become champions at an early age young people need to be working, sparring and training with older players who have more experience. It helps enormously to be able to look up to role models who have already been there and done it! Having young adolescents of similar ages and experience levels training together often only both undermines and solidifies crucial aspects of the learning situation.
This is highlighted by the fact that the countries in Europe which still have older stars currently involved at world level (countries such as Germany, Sweden and France) continue to develop young players of real quality, players currently in or capable of reaching the top 50 – 60 in the world. Most other Associations in Europe only aim to produce players in the top 100 to 250. The value and impact of the national ‘role models’ and their vast experience cannot be underestimated.
Speed is the essential component of the game. There are 4 types of speed required at international level:
1. Ball speed (or power). At the higher levels it is vital that the player can weight the shot and play with real penetration, whether with spin or not is irrelevant. Against some players the flat shot will win points, against others a measure of spin will pay dividends. With the new plastic ball, power and ball speed will assume more importance and power is always more important in the men’s game. The most effective spin with the plastic ball is off-the-bounce fast topspin as this allows the lesser spin to be most pronounced over the shortest distance.
2. Speed of foot. Speed around the court is always crucial in table tennis but even more so at the higher levels. Arriving at the ball early enables players both to choose what they will do and to do it better (play stronger strokes), which allows them to dictate the game. Players must also of course have the right systems of footwork for their individual style of play otherwise their speed may be wasted and their reactions ineffective.
3. Rapidity of play. Top players have the ability to play quickly and give opponents very little opportunity to play their own game (time pressure). Keeping up the momentum of the rally until you can finish off the point with placement or power is particularly prevalent in women’s table tennis.
4. Speed of adaptive intelligence (the capability to react to new and different situations). At the highest levels this of course is the prime speed. If you think how a table tennis player reacts to what the opponent does and the time involved, the number of decisions which take place is phenomenal:
● What has the opponent just done, where is the ball going to impact on my side and how (with what speed, power and spin)?
● What alternatives do I have in terms of shot selection?
● Do I have time to reach the ball and to utilize all of the alternatives or will some be better (more effective) due to the time pressure?
● Of the suitable alternatives which will be the best to use?
● Having decided on the best, where and how do I play the ball to gain the biggest advantage both in respect of my shot and the recovery?
To attain international standard, speed of adaptive intelligence is essential and world-class players will be highly effective in at least two other categories of speed. In addition all top athletes will have weapons and/or tactics they can depend on to win the big points.
It is crucial to bear in mind too that speed can be variable and it is beneficial to use it in this way. However fast you are able to play being predictable at the highest levels (and playing at the same speed too often) will usually play into your opponent’s hands. It is also noticeable that the plastic ball can be used very effectively at a slower pace as the speed dies rapidly with a lesser power input and the ball tends to drop down quickly below table level.
A weakness of the way we play in the Western world is often the changing between the backhand and forehand sides during match play, owing to players being slightly/considerably stronger on one side because of the grip. Another weak area is often the backhand when we are pressured hard on this wing.
Against players who want to play forehand over the whole table and are particularly positive on the third ball after their own serve, the obvious place to avoid is long to the middle area of the table. This is the ball they are waiting for so that they can loop/kill it past you. You must try and play long and fast (give them as little time as possible to move to and prepare for the next ball) out to the corners or even to the angles, off the side of the table. The other alternative is where possible to return short to the forehand or the middle of the table, (to flick from the middle is often difficult.) On your own serve of course also think to serve short or wide out to the backhand. Always be alert to the opportunity, especially if the opponent has a tendency to run round on the backhand corner, for the long fast serve down the line to his forehand.
During the rallies remember that hitting down the middle of the table or to the opponent’s body will cut down the return angles that he is capable of using. Particularly try not to get involved in forehand to forehand duels, play one to the forehand and the next to the crossover or down the line to the backhand. Another possibility which many players don’t think to use is the slower roll ball — cut out the power and spin and give the opponent a ‘nothing’ ball return. Many players return very well and confidently when they face power and spin and don’t need to think, they just let the reactions take over. When they have a rather slower ball, which drops downwards much more quickly and which doesn’t come at them half so fast, then they often don’t play well at all! Try not to give the opponent the sort of game he likes to play!
Strong backhand oriented players often want to play the backhand up to the middle of the table or sometimes even into the forehand half. Because they often adopt a little more central stance they are weaker against the shorter balls to both wings and against good angled play. If this type of player attacks with the backhand (especially from the middle) try to play the return ball to the crossover or wide to the forehand. A good tactic too is often to play the first ball into the body and the next wide out to the backhand or vice versa and also to use many straight balls on both wings. When you have the service watch particularly where they stand, if a little central you have the option to serve either way and even the fast ball to their strength, the backhand, can often be successful. The slower spinny ball can also be a good tactic against this type of opponent as it’s harder to kill through topspin with the backhand and many such players will be reduced to blocking. With the over-the-table balls try to adopt a very early or very late timing point so that the opponent has difficulty knowing exactly where you will play the ball.
Against backspin defence players, variation over a number of aspects is important. Too often in Sweden players topspin and keep on topspinning, hoping they can hit through the defender if they just continue with the same tactic! Choppers can of course be beaten by this method but this is probably the hardest way to win, by feeding them predictable long, topspin balls! Defence players find the flat hit or even the slow, high loop much harder to cope with than fast topspin attack. But often the short ball is not used anywhere near often enough. What is wrong with hitting hard to one corner, then dropping short to the other wing? Or for example serving short and hitting to the body? Far too often players serve the wrong ball to the defender’s pimples ( usually heavy spin) then have little idea what spin they have back or indeed how to take advantage of it! Pimple bat players usually find no-spin serves much more difficult to deal with and also find it harder to gain a positive advantage from this type of service. Another tactic which very few players think to employ against choppers is the slow roll with little or no spin or the ‘dummy’ loop. This slow game without spin or pace often causes real problems to defenders.
Against the long pimple attackers you face rather different problems more associated with lack of speed. Often you get a very low return but one which slows very rapidly. What you should always remember against long pimples is that your opponent can only use what you give to him or her and the capability to initiate is limited. Playing against such players is more often a question of tactics and not of the problems posed by the rubber. If you play the wrong tactics, yes, you will make life extremely difficult for yourself!
Invariably in Sweden players try to use power and spin and usually continuous power and spin against such rubbers. With long pimples you get back what you put in. If you feed in very much power and spin you get back very much effect and encounter problems with unusual spins and bounces on your own side. On the other hand if you give the long pimple player nothing, then they have nothing to use and nothing to send back to you. Why not play a slow roll game with little pace or spin and wait for the ball to hit hard, or change the pace more often, hit one, push one for example? In this way you avoid the build-up of spin and effect which is what causes the problems. More often than not it is lack of spin or speed that makes life more difficult for the long pimple player.
Doubles play is also an area where players tend not to think about tactics at all but because options are limited tactics are in fact even more important if you are to have a good chance of winning. First and foremost in doubles you don’t play to your strength (to get the sort of ball back that you like), you play to your partner’s strength (so that he gets back a ball that suits his style of play and from which he can gain an advantage). Never forget this distinction when you are involved in doubles play. Service is of course especially vital as you are restricted to one area, the forehand side. But remember this is still a large area and you should use it to the full! If your partner is a left-hander for example serve wide to the forehand angle, if a right-hander serve down the centre line. Also look where the opponent is standing and which wing they will use to take the serve, sometimes you can gain an advantage by serving fast to the middle or to the corner. Serves are usually short in doubles but variation is important especially in spin, sidespin can give rise to mistakes when trying to flick for instance. Tactics can vary depending on the opponents, sometimes hard down the middle (restricting the angle of return) then out to the wings, or hard out to the forehand, then to the middle or the backhand. Quite often in doubles it pays dividends to use more straight play down the sidelines.
In the early 1960’s the Chinese first introduced and developed the tactics of the ‘attack after the serve’, with which they gained a distinct advantage for almost the next twenty years. Now the 2nd, 3rd and 4th ball are of vital importance in the modern game. We should not only be thinking about winning directly from or almost directly after the service, but for example by controlling the 2nd or 3rd ball in such a way that we can smash the next ball. We have in other words still succeeded with an attack after serve or an attack after receive by using a transitional ball to gain a definite advantage. To do this it is vital that you know what spin is on the serve, to be able to play with and against it or return the spin to the server. It is equally vital to know what spin remains on the 3rd, 4th or 5th ball and why. In other words is your opponent by the way he plays or because of the equipment he or she is using, adding to the spin on the ball, taking away the spin, leaving it as it is or changing it in one way or another?
It is particularly important for instance to consider serve tactics in the light of the style of opponent you are facing. Where is he or she strong and what type of game does he or she like to play? If you want to stop an opponent hitting the second ball hard then obviously you can serve short or half long (with the second bounce on the white line). Equally you could serve very fast and long or short float serves as many players find it harder to initiate spin from a no-spin serve. Should the opponent be good at flicking then your short serve must be both low and with enough backspin so that he or she cannot open hard (it is also a good tactic to serve more to the middle, it’s more difficult to flick well from this area). If however they want to topspin, often short or half long serves with a mixture of much backspin, a little backspin or float are effective — it’s harder to keep the ball short if they push and it’s not easy to judge the amount of spin if they loop. With those players who like to push return, sidespin with varied chop is often very effective as they find this type of service difficult to keep short.
With all the different serves under your command bear in mind that at top level the more time the opponent has to study you service action, the easier it is for him or her to read the spin. If the action is very short and fast they have less time to see what is happening, if there is a very short distance between the bat contacting the ball and the ball contacting the table even the very best players can have problems reading the spin!
Pay also particular care to your receive position. You should be in a position to take any serve with a minimum number of movements. A large number of players have too many movements, some even jump in to take the serve and then get caught out by the long, fast serve to the corners. Always keep your bat up and pointing towards the line of play so that you are in a position to drive/hit if the chance arises – many players have the racket too low and because they start from this position, often put the ball out when they have the opportunity to hit hard. The one tactical receive that very few players think to use against the long serve and one which is of particular advantage in the women’s game is the slower return. The slow roll receive, long, low and bouncing on the end line can be very effective. It is difficult to hit this ball hard and many servers are reduced to playing a passive, control third ball. Equally the stop-block short or half-long can put the server under pressure.
With many players the backhand is the weaker side and it is a good tactic to apply pressure to this wing. If working to this area try to mix strong spin, flat hit or slower balls so that you reduce the opponent to a passive game with your variation in spin and speed. Do not forget also to play the angles, often a slower, wider ball will win the point direct. Tactics in placement are also especially important, many players have problems in the body and crossover areas and it often pays dividends to direct one ball to the backhand and the next to the body or vice versa. When serving always be ready to move round and use the forehand to apply pressure to the corners, angles or body, either with third ball loop or direct kill.
Attack to the opponent’s forehand is a tactic seldom used in matches. 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-hand blocker you may well find he can play 10 backhands in the time you can play only 6 forehands. Also many forehand strokes, for example 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, (it can be even more effective if you train to play the angles wide to the forehand on the first attack). If you train to attack the forehand corner only, from both sides of the table, after a while your ability to cope with the opponent’s forehand attacks will be greatly enhanced.
Techniques form the basis of tactics while tactics help the development of techniques. The more advanced your techniques, the better you can execute tactical requirements and only with all-round efficient techniques can flexible, variable tactical ploys be initiated. Nowadays three technical requirements have to be fulfilled by the player who wants to aim for the highest levels — firstly he or she must have strong fortés in order to put pressure on opponents and win points, secondly he or she must be technically proficient all-round so as to be able to handle adversaries of all styles as well as adapting to differing game situations, thirdly he or she must be free of obvious weaknesses in order to avoid being taken advantage of by the opponent.
Your aim in applying tactics is to pit your own strong points against your opponent’s weak points. In order to do so, you must not only give full rein to your own advantages but also study your opponent’s strong points and weaknesses and draw up your plan of action accordingly. To utilize your own strengths to the best advantage, in addition to having a good attitude and fighting hard at all times, you must try your best to bring out the characteristic features of your own game. As game situations keep changing all the time, it’s not always possible for you to pit your own strengths against your opponent’s weaknesses. Often you can only pit your strong points against your opponent’s strong points or even in some cases, the situation is such that each side tries to prevent the other from having the opportunity to use his strong points, so that both parties have to resort to their minor skills. In such a situation one must play flexibly and vary one’s tactics according to the changing circumstances so as to gain the initiative as rapidly as possible.
Directed training always produces better results — this is why the top Asians all have their own coaches. Players who do not have access to the right help, especially in the formative years, unfortunately often develop with in-built faults and their future development is then in most cases limited and they don’t have the opportunity to reach full potential. Bad or ineffective coaching also limits potential as the player is often influenced to develop in the wrong direction. The first 2 – 3 years of training, the formative years are vital, this is when the base is laid and major changes in technique are difficult if not impossible to initiate at a later date.
Why is it next to impossible to change things at a later date? Table tennis is a fast reaction sport similar to the martial arts or boxing — you train by repetition day in and day out until a reaction becomes automatic, until you don’t need to think about it any more. It is when the body does things on autopilot that it is most effective. When you start to think about the strokes and especially about technique, you introduce problems, the thinking part of the mind interferes with the subconscious execution of the shot or serve and performance is affected. For a start the automatic reaction is much faster, you only slow things down by introducing the conscious, thinking process. This is why with players who have trained for many years and whose habits are firmly ingrained, you can often only change small aspects. You can only restructure the player’s technique by destroying his/her game and starting again. The things that you can think about when you play and think about profitably are where you are winning and losing points, which serves to use and not to use, free your conscious, thinking mind to concentrate more on the tactical areas of the game and how to gain advantage here.
So how should you train to do things right from the initial stages as a beginner if you wish to be a top player?
A word about the opposition you play against in training, your sparring partners and the level. Many players seem to think that you can only improve by training with much higher level sparring than yourself. If you always play only against much better performers than yourself, how do you ever learn to impose your game on others and to develop your own tactical ploys? The better player is always in control! You need in fact to practise at three levels.
Be aware at all times what is happening as you train. Be aware of your own body, what it is doing and how you are using it. Be aware of your feet, the movement and your balance and recovery. Be aware of the differing contact and timing points and how to use these. Be aware of spin and no-spin shots, the flat and brush strokes which are the essence of table tennis. Be aware of variation in spin, speed and length and of force and lack of force. Be aware above all of how and where you play best, of how you win points and in what circumstances, of your own fortés and strengths.
Perhaps the single most important thought however about training is to bring the right approach and attitude to every session. Without the optimal mental state, the right level of nervous excitement and a positive, balanced approach to training, it is very difficult to progress — instead we keep taking half a step backwards. There is little point in training if you’re just not in the mood, if you bring outside problems from your personal life into the hall – feelings and emotions get in the way and even the smallest things will be a source of irritation. The psychological adjustment of players so as to keep them in the optimal mental state should in fact be an obligatory theoretical course for all players and trainers.
Look at the skater spinning on the point of one skate. The original momentum continues to spin him, if he holds his arms outstretched, until friction gradually slows him down. However if the arms are drawn in and folded across the chest the speed of rotation (angular velocity) is markedly increased.
What concerns us here is the centre of gravity of the arm in relation to the speed of rotation. At the original angular velocity the centre of gravity of the arm will traverse a certain circular distance in a given time period. However when the arm’s centre of gravity is drawn in towards the centre of rotation, it follows a circular path of smaller radius and shorter circumference. Therefore if the body were to rotate at the same angular velocity, the distance traversed by the arm’s centre of gravity would be much smaller in the given time period — which is not possible under the law of conservation of angular momentum.
Discounting the outside forces such as air resistance and friction between the base and the surface of the ice, angular momentum must remain constant. When one component such as the distance from the centre of gravity of the arm to the centre of rotation of the body is decreased, then there must be a corresponding increase in another component, the angular velocity and vice versa. Therefore when the arm’s centre of gravity is drawn in, the angular velocity is increased sufficiently so that the arm’s new centre of gravity traverses in the same given time period, a distance equal to that which it would have done along the wider original circle.
Coaches can easily work out for themselves the advantages in the rotational value of the short-arm loops and the desirability of working on these in preference to the long-arm strokes, unless the physique of their player is particularly suited to this latter area. The principle is of especial interest when working in the girls’ and women’s game where our subjects have much less body strength and need to use this as effectively as possible. Obviously a faster and shorter arm movement with good rotation will put much less stress on the back area while producing a very effective stroke.
A table tennis ball has no fixed axis in itself. But once it spins, an axis will naturally come into being.
A table tennis ball can produce three kinds of basic axes, topspin, backspin or sidespin to left or right. Rarely however do you get pure spin on just one axis, almost always there is a combination of spins, topspin and sidespin, sidespin and backspin. Quite often one spin will predominate but there will be more than one present. This is because very few of us play ‘pure’ strokes, we loop for example but not just with topspin, our stroke incorporates an element of sidespin, sometimes more sometimes less. Occasionally we get ‘float’ balls almost completely without spin, where you can clearly see the ‘trademark’ on the ball in flight, (if you watch the ball at the right time, not after the bounce when the ball will ‘acquire’ topspin).
The fact that the ball has an axis also means that there are two places on the ball, the two ‘poles’, where there is no spin even on the most viciously spinning ball. This is particularly useful information, because if you are able to make use of the ‘poles’ in your stroke play, you can in fact bypass the spin. If you can play a short sidespin serve at the pole underneath, then you can return all the server’s spin. Or if for example you have just killed a ball wide out to the opponent’s backhand and he chops it back to the middle with extreme backspin, you can bypass the spin by driving the ball with your forehand to the opponent’s forehand corner. By playing to the forehand you hit the ball near to the pole, if you played back to the backhand you would strike the ball on the ‘equator’ or the area of most spin.
The variation in axes is what causes the biggest problem when playing against long pimple or anti-loop rubbers. You serve for example with immense sidespin and backspin — the opponent pushes the ball back but because his or her racket doesn’t affect the spin on the ball, you get a topspin return with a sidespin kick and you wonder what has happened! In fact you just got your own spin back. You get topspin back because your backspin remains on the ball (if the opponent returns the ball, without changing the spin, then it must come back with topspin because the ball continues to spin in the same direction) and you get the same sidespin back as you initiated.
Many sporting activities involve a stretch-shorten cycle where the muscles involved in the exercise are first stretched then shortened. This is generally observed in racket sports as a counter-movement during the back-swing or preparation stage of the activity (the stretching phase), that precedes the actual forward or upward movement (the shortening phase). One of the reasons for the use of the stretch-shorten cycle is that it enhances the quality and efficiency of the movement through the utilization of elastic energy.
The mechanical principle underlying the use of elastic energy in stretch-shorten cycle activities is a relatively simple process. During the stretching phase the muscles and tendons are actually stretched and store elastic energy in the same way as an elastic band stores energy when stretched. On movement reversal, during the shortening phase, the stretched muscles and tendons recoil back to their original shape and in so doing a portion of the stored energy is recovered and assists in the movement.
Biomechanical research has shown that, in running for example, the use of elastic energy has been estimated to account for approximately 50% of the total energy requirement. In other similar stretch-shorten cycle activities such as racket sports, (movement and stroke play for example), the use of elastic energy also contributes a significant proportion to the total energy requirement.
Elastic energy is stored in tendons and in muscle itself. The storage of elastic energy within muscle is dependent upon the level of muscular activity present during the stretching phase. The greater the tension in the muscle being stretched, the more elastic energy will be stored. Therefore, to maximize the storage of elastic energy, the stretching phase should be resisted by muscular effort. In a stretching movement of very short duration, such as the foot contact phase in sprinting, the energy can be stored during the entire stretching motion. However, in a movement of longer duration, such as in a forehand topspin, the energy is best stored just prior to the shortening phase. This is achieved by producing a high level of force, (large muscular resistance), towards the end of the stretching phase.
Research indicates also that increasing the speed of the stretching phase from a slow speed to a relatively high speed enhances the storage of elastic energy. This occurs as an increased speed or force of stretch extends the muscles and tendons to a greater extent thus storing even more energy. Therefore the final portion of the back-swing should be performed quickly as the faster the back-swing, the greater the elastic energy recoil will be during the forward swing. In the case of our attacking (or defensive) strokes in table tennis it is important that these stretch-shorten cycle movements be performed with a minimal delay between the stretch and shorten phases.
It has been demonstrated that 93% of stored elastic energy can be recovered. This recovery is largely dependent on the time period between the stretching and shortening movement phases. Elastic energy is reduced if a delay period occurs during the stretch-shorten cycle because during the delay period the stored energy is released as heat. The longer the delay the greater the loss of elastic energy. Research indicates that after a delay period of around one second, 55% of the stored energy is lost — after 2 seconds, 80% and after 4 seconds there is total loss.
Some training practices encourage players to prepare very early for stroke production and this often inadvertently produces a delay period between the back-swing and forward swing of the stroke. As a result stored energy is lost and an inefficient movement strategy results. For maximum efficiency players must practise allowing the back-swing and forward swing to flow naturally from one phase of the movement to the other. This is particularly important when playing defensive players, where there can be some seconds’ time-lag in returning the ball. Try more to move into a good position, but only to pull back the arm in the stretch phase of the topspin or drive movement at the time the ball bounces on your side of the table or even after. In this way you save a higher ratio of elastic energy and utilize it in the stroke.
The recovery of stored elastic energy tends to occur relatively quickly during the shortening phase of the movement. Tests show that all stored energy is released 0.25 seconds into the shortening phase. Thus in drive and topspin strokes the stored energy is used primarily to assist in the early forward swing stage of the movement.
The implications from this research are that the stretching or counter-movement phase should be performed quickly with large muscular resistance exerted over the final 0.2 seconds and that all stretch-shorten cycle movements should be performed with a minimal delay between the stretch and shorten phases.
Other research indicates that plyometric training (depth jumping, bounding etc.) may also enhance an athlete’s ability to utilize elastic energy and may even alter the elasticity of the tendons and muscles enabling them to store greater quantities of energy. Also in such training, the delay time between the stretch-shorten cycle is minimized ensuring maximal recovery of all stored energy. It would appear that plyometric training, as compared to conventional weight training, involves the implementation of those movement strategies which maximize the contribution of elastic energy to stretch-shorten cycle movements.
However although plyometric exercises may represent a more specific form of overload for many athletes, the performance of high impact stretching movements often results in muscle soreness in the days following training. It may therefore be necessary that the implementation of plyometrics in a training routine allows for recovery days between exercise sessions.
We have to remember that table tennis is above all an individual contest against another individual. Far too often in our modern society we are prone to stress the group aspects of sport and the individual emphasis is lost. Not only is table tennis an individual sport but it places heavy demands on participants and to cope they need to be well developed in a number of differing areas.
The main theme running through all coaching development must be the individual focus – yet to a large extent in Europe we now give far more attention to the group needs. The more individual approach naturally places altered demands on the trainers and coaches and also changes the working methods. For example no coach however expert can be a specialist in all the diverse spheres of table tennis. Even within the technical areas we have specialist fields such as style development, serve and receive, women’s or doubles play, use of materials, multi-ball, defenders and penholders for example. In addition to what we may regard purely as table tennis, we have aspects such as the physical and psychological sides plus areas such as diet, massage and sports injuries.
At the highest level where we have just one or two coaches deciding the coaching policy and direction or writing coaching manuals for any one country, to perform adequately they will have to refer to outside experts where they themselves lack knowledge. In a number of countries in Europe the coaching manuals include and pay tribute to articles by up to a dozen or more ‘specialists’.
The same applies also to developing players – what we need is a coaching team, using a number of coaches with their own specialist skills. This type of approach will almost always lead to more playing styles and will stimulate players to be more creative and inventive. The coaching team will of course bring differing skills, knowledge and experience which will compliment one another. Another factor is to build up access to the supporting aspects, mental training, physical testing, dietary, massage and injury experts. It also goes without saying that the various team members, whether coaches or supporting specialists, respect each other’s expertise and are prepared to work together from the outset. Far too often our sport seems to engender both a parochial and proprietorial attitude towards players – even national coaches are not immune.
The capacity to reach the heights is in more of us than we may think. It takes a long time to be a top player and the road is beset by many pitfalls, but one of the most important qualities of the coach is to believe in his player and to support him or her at all times. For the player it’s vital that he or she works with his or her own goals, which cannot be influenced by others. If we can only create the right environment then many more players will be able to achieve their full potential.
To reach the highest levels players must master these four aspects, be able to utilize them in play and have the capability of switching from one to the other. They must have the ability to combine these elements in their game when competing. If players are weak in one or more of these areas, they are unlikely to achieve real success in our sport. Often in the case of older established stars it is when one or more of the 4 elements weaken or when they are no longer able to combine them effectively, that their playing level starts to decline.
Of the four elements, power and spin assume more importance in the men’s game and speed and placement more in the women’s. Men use topspin more than women and it is necessary in order to create strong spin on a fast shot to hit the ball hard. The harder you can hit the ball with a closed racket, the more topspin you will produce. Women don’t hit the ball as hard as men do, so they achieve less spin and have less on-the-table control. It is speed and control of speed which is rather more important with women’s play. The ability to loop several balls in a row is not a prime requirement. Instead timing is vital as women drive much more – the timing window in drive play is extremely narrow, between ‘peak’ and 1 – 2 centimetres before.
Length also assumes much more importance with women’s play, as does placement. In the men’s game power with strong topspin means that the ball accelerates after bouncing and leaves the opponent’s side of the table with a much flatter trajectory. The vast majority of men counter from a deeper position and give themselves time. From this deeper position it is of course much more difficult to vary placement. Men more often than not look to place the first opening ball and once the rally deteriorates into control and counter-control back from the table then power and spin are the main elements. In the women’s game almost all players assume a much closer-to-table position and it is rather easier to vary placement, long and short or to the angles and to vary speed. Because women have a closer position it is inevitable too that a bad length ball is easily smashed. It is crucial that women can spin short or long and not mid-table.
As a result women really need to open in a different way to men. The ability for example to open hard against the first backspin ball and not spin all the time is a vital asset. Even the way that women loop, if they open with spin, is critical. This should not be hard and fast as in the men’s game for without the extreme spin that the men are capable of creating, the fast loop executed by women is more predictable and easier to block or to counter, particularly when the opponent is much closer to the table.
Women should be looking rather more to open with a slower ball, with finer touch, good spin and good length. More often than not this will create openings to drive or smash the next ball. Indeed rather than regarding topspin as an end in itself as the men do, women should look upon it as a weapon, a means to create openings from which they can win the point.
As we indicated at the start of this article the ability to combine these 4 elements, power and spin and speed and placement, into your game when competing, will have a direct significance on your ultimate level of play. Against the top players a weakness in any one aspect will be exploited instantly and will be a limiting factor in your own development.
The training hall is the arena in which athletes learn and develop techniques and skills. The prime skill of table tennis is the ability to adapt to an ever changing situation and to do this at speed – it is obvious therefore that our sport is an open skill and learning to execute the same technique time and time again is not as important as developing the ability to select the most appropriate technique to suit a changing situation.
Training must provide continuous and evolving possibilities for our athletes to apply a variety of techniques in a realistic and competitive environment. Coaches must ensure that players, as they progress through the learning process, are able to identify the most suitable technique and apply this in a variety of differing situations. Even with an open skill such as ours, it is vital to develop an automatic or subconscious reaction level (as this is how we play best) but because we are facing a rapidly changing situation all the time, to cultivate adaptive intelligence is absolutely vital. How do we do this? In a number of ways – we must for example:
The coach should also try to identify a new way forward with players working from their own experience and perceptions rather than his own. In our sport the most effective way for the performer to increase physical efficiency is to become increasingly aware of the physical sensations during activity. The awareness of bodily sensations is crucial to the development of skills. Unfortunately the majority of coaches persist in imposing their technique from outside. No two human minds or bodies are the same – how can the coach tell the player how to use his or hers to best effect, only the player can do this by being aware! Let us try to encourage our players to use their own intrinsic feedback to maintain and to refine their competence in applying various techniques.
Practice and how to do this should be evaluated in terms of short and long-term gains and also in terms of memory retention – some training methods result in rather better long-term retention and performance than others. We also of course need to practise in the right way so that we are able to adapt and quickly in the face of the myriad differing situations we will face in competition.
Constant exercises where we repeat exactly the same stroke to the same place, with the same length and the same spin are usually not very useful in transferring techniques into a competitive environment. Each shot is identical to the next and the previous and the technique is very specific. Such exercises are of more use in closed situations such as shooting rather than in learning open skills such as in our sport, where we continually face new and differing challenges.
Blocked exercises are also very similar where we repeat the same stroke but with minor variations in pace, length, spin etc. Again one technique performed repeatedly hinders the transfer of technique into an open or competitive environment. Such practice may appear very efficient and looks good, but is unlikely to have any lasting learning effect and will usually break down in competition, where we don’t meet the same predictability.
Variable practice is when performers try to deliberately vary the execution of one technique, using differing speeds, spins, heights and placement. This helps performers to learn the technique more effectively, helps its recall and retention into the long-term memory banks and helps with the transfer of the technique into a competitive situation.
Random practice where we mix a variety of techniques, not only helps recall and retention but also develops the ability to select the most appropriate technique for the situation and is most beneficial to an open skill such as table tennis. Obviously this type of practice most replicates the competitive environment and also forces the player to be actively involved in the learning process.
Mental practice of techniques can also help the learning process especially if we imagine executing the technique using all the senses – the resulting image is then that much more vivid and realistic. Use of mental imagery can be particularly helpful when recovering from injury, learning new techniques and when preparing for the big match or tournament.
The main problem in our sport is the instability of the environment. The player must be effective in a constantly evolving situation. High level players for example learn from mistakes immediately and do not repeat errors – they find effective solutions rapidly. Adaptive intelligence is the ability to evaluate a scenario in an instant, take in all the immediately available solutions and then take the best action. Often this is called reactive thinking – the ability to think clearly under pressure and use any available means to hand to resolve the problem. To be a really successful top-level table tennis player requires the nurturing and evolution of this aptitude – for the top coach to produce top players he or she has to be constantly aware of this fact and also be aware of the means of stimulating and fostering this ability. Regrettably too many of the training exercises we continue to use even at quite high level in Europe still reinforce predictability rather than adaptive intelligence.
Above all however it must be understood that for any practice to be effective it must be tailored to the style of the individual player. Players are individuals with a host of differing ways of playing. Exercises which are very beneficial to one player may in fact be detrimental to another. The prime criterion of the value of practice to the individual is whether or not this complements the player’s evolution. For this to happen the player must be aware of the direction of his or her development and the means of achieving maximum potential – unfortunately a number of players go through their whole career without ever understanding this.
You train as preparation for competition therefore sparring is of vital importance. However the strength and intensity of sparring is important and it’s vital too that you have opposition at a variety of levels. Many players seem to think for example that you can only improve by training with much higher level sparring than yourself. If you always play only against much better performers than yourself, how do you ever learn to impose your game on others and to develop your own tactical ploys? The better player is always in control! You need in fact to practise at three levels.
The importance of being in a good group with a variety of playing styles cannot be over-emphasized — this creates the ‘right’ training environment where all the players are ready to work for the others and to contribute to the group development. It is so vital for coaches to ensure that their players, right from the formative years, have the opportunity to train and to play against all styles of play and combinations of material. In this way the ‘automatic’ reflexes, the conditioned responses, that players have to work so hard to build up, cover a much larger series of actions and it is rather easier for them to adapt to new situations as they develop and progress to higher levels. In other words the content and method of training assume rather more importance than we may have initially thought, especially in the formative years. If players are to reach top level and realize their full potential it is vital that they are taught to build up a high adaptive capability in the early years.
Players who have good potential need individual attention. Several aspects of coaching, consciousness, tactics, the mental side, serve and receive, style development etc. are developed much more readily when tackled on a one to one basis. The coach is also able to feel for himself the strengths and weaknesses of the player and to understand in which areas training should be focussed.
Coaches must appreciate that each player is an individual and different and should be directed towards his or her own individual style of play and towards his or her strengths. And even after we have stressed the importance of basics, we should perhaps emphasize even more that none of us can ever be dogmatic about technique. It is not how the player plays the stroke that is vital but whether he or she observes the underlying principles and whether it is effective! There is absolutely no use in having a stroke that looks nice, is technically perfect, but has no effect.
Bear in mind too the concept of the player having his or her own idiosyncrasies, the idea of individual techniques but within the underlying principles is vital if the player is to cultivate his or her own personal style of play. Six players executing a forehand topspin will do so in six differing ways, with varied pace, varied spin, varied placement, a little element of sidespin etc. None of these is ‘wrong’. What we are looking at here is the concept of individual ‘flair’, but within the underlying principles, the critical features of the stroke.
What the coach should be looking at also is how such unique characteristics can be turned to advantage. Does the player have a ‘specialty’, something a little different which causes problems to opponents — or are there aspects of his or her game which can be accentuated to fashion such a specialty.
Another aspect that many players and coaches do not seem to appreciate is that development must be in the right direction for the particular player and that the right training must be devised to enable that player to evolve and mature. Indeed it is the prime function of the coach to unlock the potential of his player. Direction is vital, if the player follows the wrong course for him or her then much of that potential can remain untapped.
The coach must never neglect the importance of growth. A continuous honing of skills and setting new goals, learning new tactics etc. is necessary if the player is to continue to progress. Often coaches take players up to a certain ‘plateau’ then the development stops and levels out. Growth must continue throughout the player’s career, at no time should it be allowed to come to a stop. There must always be progression, without this there can only be stagnation.
If you are to aim for the top levels it is critical that there is mental growth too and that you start to analyse your performance and what is happening when you compete and train. This should become a regular part of your development and become a habit. What often distinguishes the elite from the ordinary athlete is the ability to make mental assessments more or less automatically. Any mental programme should be systematic and goal-oriented and it should indeed be on-going and continuous and progressive. This doesn’t mean that you need extra time to train, the mental side should indeed be integrated into and become an integral part of your everyday normal training.
Do we want ‘New players, old styles’, is this the way forward? Even more so do we want ‘New Coaches, old ideas’? Surely if we do not continuously seek new things we will stagnate. Are too many players in these modern times of athletic, dynamic table tennis just too ordinary, too conservative and too predictable? Do they fail to take risks or try new techniques/tactics through fear; are they afraid of losing what they have? And are they influenced by all the players around them to become just one of the herd and to ignore their individual talents?
Without change or innovation and the individual focus, which should be constant and ongoing, we will achieve very little. This should appear to be obvious. Yet unfortunately throughout Europe the coaching methods very rarely mirror this approach! Often the reason appears to be ‘the mindset’ rather than anything else: it’s easier to carry on with the same old programme, use the same old methods and follow in the footsteps of those who have gone before!
Seizing the initiative at the earliest point in the rally is vital in modern table tennis and is a skill which should be encouraged from an early age. But taking the initiative requires both mental effort and technical qualities and these aspects must be fostered in tandem. Equally the individual development is paramount as each player is unique and no two players of even very similar styles will play the same. What is vital is that each player fully comprehends exactly how he/she wins points and where the specific strengths lie. There is no room in modern table tennis for obvious weaknesses; the modern player must have strong all-round skills and be able to cope with all eventualities and styles of play.
To be effective in taking the initiative, players must upgrade their serves to the highest level and continue both to monitor themselves in this area and to research any new developments, which may be applicable in particular to their own style of play. The better the serve, the more opportunity the player will have to attack. The objective of course is through the efficiency of the serve, to be able to attack strongly and gain advantage over the next one or two balls. Once the server attacks the opponent must be kept under constant pressure. This does not necessarily mean that the attack has to be totally relentless. Often change can be equally if not more effective: hard and soft, long and short, spin and drive, angles and placement etc. The ‘stop/start’ game which the Asians use so effectively could be worked on a great deal more in Europe.
In the receive situation the objective is to keep control, while trying to snatch the initiative. This can be done by good short play and doing different things within the first few balls. Even in a fast early exchange the aim has to be to keep a measure of control, while looking for an opening. Too many players play too safe before going on the attack: better to try to keep the opponent off balance, then the opening for the attack will be rather easier. If possible, attack first, put more power and/or spin into the shot first, change direction first. Look to apply pressure to the opponent as soon as possible and while trying to keep enough speed in the rally to prevent the opponent getting in, look for every opportunity to attack or counter. Above all the desire to take the initiative should be fostered in the young, developing player. The ultimate personal performance is when we overpower our opponents by initiating all the changes.
Even in the case of defenders the opponent should be pressured in an aggressive manner: fast chops, slow chops, heavy backspin and float, counter-topspin and counter-drive back from the table and varied blocking and hitting over the table. Control of the rally must be maintained, but the will to attack at the earliest opportunity should always be present. Only those who are mentally strong enough will win the battle to initiate.
Speed is undoubtedly the most crucial factor in any style: speed and suddenness of shot, dynamic impact, speed of movement, speed of thought, speed of adjustment and speed of change. If you think and move faster, your attacks will be stronger. Being aggressive is essentially quickness, spin and change and the essentials are a variety of attacking strokes and constant improvement of the quality of these. A major part too of modern table tennis is improvisation. The game is just so fast that it is not possible to prepare and get into the perfect position for each shot and one often has to improvise in every facet of the game. If there are occasions where the player cannot take an offensive initiative then he/she must control the rally in such a way as to keep the opponent off balance until the chance presents itself to create the next attack. There is no room for sequential instability during the improvisation phase; each stroke however unstable must inter-link with the next.
Modern table tennis is arriving at a level of supreme all-round play. The top world-class athletes (and they are athletes) are faster, stronger both physically and mentally than ever before. They are equally comfortable close or away from the table, in all situations and against all types of opponents. They also have balance, the capability to control the game at speed until they can seize on the right ball to be totally aggressive.
At the top level in world play unpredictability is the norm. Change in all its forms is the heart and spirit of table tennis. Changing at the right time and in the right way strengthens your own style and makes you more formidable. Changing first imposes your game on the opponent. Upgrading defensive and even control shots to attack or counter-attack raises your whole level of play and advances your playing style. To be ultra-positive requires you also to raise your tactical awareness and understanding of the game to new heights.
Our sport of table tennis with all its technical changes is developed within a theoretical foundation. As a result coaches need to take the lead in studying the technical/tactical aspects of the game and evaluating the efficiency of various playing styles. This will provide pathways for the future evolution of the game. Coaches can see that our sport of table tennis consists of a number of elements of which speed, as we have already indicated, is the central core and the prime factor of development. Power and spin are also critical foundations, power to add force and potency to our playing style and spin to give stability and to test the opponent’s control limits. The flight of the ball is crucial too in terms of accuracy and on–the-table consistency: the gyroscopic effect of modern topspin cannot be underestimated. Equally the trajectory of the shot will often highlight weaknesses/strengths in your player’s game. Finally as we have emphasised, change in all its forms, pace, length, spin, placement and angles, is the heart and spirit of table tennis. We impose our tactics fully if we win the battle of the change! Top-level players will invariably be very good in at least three of these aspects.
Coaches should evaluate the impact of these five elements on the style and efficiency of their players, to ensure the highest level of shot quality. Quality strokes will evolve and develop if enough attention is focused by the player and coach on these 5 elements, speed, power, spin, the flight path of the ball and change. Each player will of course have a different and unique blend which will be individual to him/her. Each player must also be aware of what works for him/her and where the strengths lie within this blend of elements!
Years ago when table tennis was rather slower and the men played from much further back, the forehand was executed in a measured fashion – a push off through the legs, rotation of the body, good input from the shoulder and a fast moving arm and wrist. These principles are unfortunately still taught in many countries in Europe even on advanced coaching courses. The game however has changed dramatically over the last ten and especially over the last four to five years. Our sport of table tennis is now faster than it has ever been and the bigger ball has brought even the men closer to the table than ever before.
Not enough of the coaches running top-level coaching courses are looking at what the top players are actually doing and how they are producing power in an increasingly more pressured environment. For a start there is a big difference and always has been, between the men’s and women’s game, not only in the way they play, but in the methods of producing power. Women have to cope with speed rather than with power or spin – they stand closer, play flatter with less spin and stay square almost all the time. As a result they often use the backhand from the middle both on the 2nd and 3rd ball. Many of the top women who use this tactic (eg. Guo Yue and Boros) have in fact extremely strong forehands.
Almost all the top women spin and drive from a square position and there is no transfer of weight from a back to a front foot. Rather than strong use of the legs there is much more use of rotation, both the centre of gravity (hips) and the upper body. Rather than dropping back to try and play power a number of the top women come forward into the forehand side to take the ball earlier and use its existing speed – Zhang Yining, Michaela Steff, Ai Fukuhara and Georgina Pota are all prime examples.
In the case of the top men many either play square or finish the stroke square so that they are ready for the next ball. In many cases again there is no transfer of weight from a back to a front foot, as the game is just too fast. Players who have a relatively square stance most of the time are Chen Qi, Chuan, Boll, Maze, Heister, Kreanga and Blaszcyk. Players who finish square, either by bringing the right foot through, pulling the left back or moving both at the same time are Samsonov, Schlager, Kong, Oh Sang Eun. Players who didn’t finish square when they were younger but now do, are Waldner, Persson, Wang Liqin. Almost all the top men and women tend to have a wide stance in most cases much wider than shoulder width and many men now adopt the women’s tactic of at times using the backhand from the middle on the 2nd and 3rd ball (Waldner and Schlager do it as do Boll and Wang Liqin).
Over the last five years or so even most of the older top men players have moved in closer to the table and have ‘squared up’ to enable them to cope with the faster play prevalent in the modern game. The new generation of Asian players such as Chuan, Hao Shuai and Liu Guo Zheng automatically adopt a squarer recovery position as do many of the younger European players such as Suss, Crisan, F-Konnerth and Gardos. The game is too fast nowadays to play in any other way. There is just no time to go through the full gamut of preparatory movements to play each shot. More and more, players are having to improvise, to try not just to get the ball back (because at top level this is not enough), but to make a ‘winner’ from a difficult if not impossible position.
Maximum speed or power occurs when we use all the units of the body in sequence, from hips to hand for power, or from hand to hips for speed/precision. This rarely if ever happens in fact (and is more likely to happen in set pieces) as in our sport we have no time and are always improvising. It is therefore essential that we learn the final or last movement in the sequence FIRST. This also means in essence that we should really be approaching our coaching and development of young players from a rather different direction.
The single most important quality in any top table tennis player is the ability to be able to adapt to an ever changing scenario and to be able to do this at speed. Waldner recognises this in his book when he stresses the need to master play against all playing styles and also against penholders and lefthanders. What all coaches must appreciate is that a high adaptive capability doesn’t just happen – it is the result of the right training and from an early age. If players don’t have the correct development in this area, they will too often reach maturity with serious deficiencies in their game, (which in fact often does happen in Europe, especially in the case of the women).
Too much of our coaching is based on archaic training methods and too rarely do many of our top coaches not only look at and understand, but also evaluate what the world’s best players are doing and why. The top performers play in a certain way and use certain tactics quite simply because they bring success. Such aspects are particularly brought home to us in the European arena when our top girls take part on high level training camps in Asia, where they have access not only to coaches highly professional in women’s development, but also to several ex-world champions. The first question almost inevitably to the European girls is this – ‘Why do you try and play like the men, why not play a woman’s game?’
Too often practice doesn’t make perfect instead it makes predictable! Practice of course has to be realistic and has to transfer the technique into the competitive situation as well as improving recall and retention into long-term memory. Too often coaches, even at quite advanced level in our sport, use constant or blocked practices, which are more suitable or valuable for techniques executed in closed situations (archery or shooting for example) rather than a sport like table tennis, where the ability to select an appropriate technique is much more important than the ability to repeat the same one time after time. Random (blend of various techniques) or variable practices (varying the execution of one technique) on the other hand entail mixing a variety of techniques throughout the session, which much more replicates the competitive situation and forces performers to be more actively involved in the learning process.
Good coaching allows players competing in open situations to be versatile, creative and deceptive in the competitive environment. Such players are much more likely to be competent at assessing new and different situations and at selecting the most appropriate responses from their repertoire.
The main reason why many athletes aren’t able to take the final step from being really good, to reaching the absolute heights and becoming great, is a matter of rigidity. Performers become locked into certain technical ways of performing and certain tactics and strategies, which work some or most of the time, but not all of the time. But worst of all athletes become locked into patterns of thinking and perception, which do not permit them to change and adapt.
In a sport such as table tennis where we have an opponent at the other end of the table and a different type almost every time we perform, the ability to change what we do to cope with the new situation, is absolutely crucial. Table tennis is one of the sports where adaptive intelligence will make the difference between success and failure and also where reading the situation incorrectly or using the wrong tactics and strategies can be fatal. For a top player being predictable and playing the same against all opponents at all levels doesn’t happen as this would obviously be a recipe for disaster.
The only real comparison if any in technique between differing levels is that world class players will play harder and faster than you, with more dynamic strokes and often earlier timing. Their shots may even be less perfect than yours, because of the simple fact that due to the increased speed they have to improvise more than you do. But most important of all top players customize and refine their strokes as they progress in their careers as we all will, as we develop and reach higher levels. For example a top player may have considerable sidespin on push, block or even topspin strokes which you wouldn’t encounter at lower levels. In most cases however it is not techniques which differ at the highest levels but how these are used, in other words not the technique itself but how it is applied within the area of performance.
Bear in mind too that it’s never the beauty of the technique that’s important but whether it’s effective and effective for the player using it. Also all your individual tactics and strategies are based on your personal techniques. The concept of individual flair, the idea that players can have different techniques within the underlying principles is one of crucial importance in allowing them to arrive at and to create their own personal style. As you can well see for yourself the underlying principles are extremely simple; BH for example more or less in front of body or slightly to the side, played with forearm and not too far away, but the number of personal variations in the technique can be immense.
At the highest levels technique is so refined to suit the individual player absolutely. But also the perception and the mind are honed to perfection. Often a younger international player will comment after losing to an older player of vast experience and equally often the content of the comment is remarkably similar. That the older player always recognizes immediately when the game changes but with the younger opponent this takes time, often two or three points. Older, more experienced players almost always have the edge when it comes either to changing what needs to be done or in recognizing what has changed and how to cope with this.
In many cases too a younger player competing with a world star will make the comment that they were able to stay with the better, more experienced player almost all of the game, but right at the end the older performer did something different, made a change which swung the game in his/her favour. Not only does the more experienced player have certain tactics and strategies he knows he can rely on totally, but he has been in this situation not once or twice but countless times before and this makes a difference.
Do I want to reach my full potential and be the absolute best I can be? If I do then I have to:
• Know and fully understand exactly how I play best and what works for me
• Be responsible for my own development, I am individual and differ from others: only I can feel what is right for me. If coaches and managers try to force me into boxes of their choosing, I almost certainly will not reach my full potential
• Understand that I must always look to progress and learn new things about my game and myself. If I stop progressing and am satisfied with how I play, then I stagnate. My career is finished
• Be able to cope with all types of players and adapt to different situations. If my training is predictable and does not develop adaptive intelligence, then I should look for training that does
• Know myself and understand that everything I do and think affects how I play. I cannot allow lack of physical fitness, lack of mental belief and strength, or any sort of emotion to get in the way of performing at my highest level. If I want to achieve my maximum and get where I want to be MOST QUICKLY, then I must give 100% all the time in every session and every match. There are no short-cuts, there is no easy way, if I want real success I have to give all to achieve it.
As we know from previous articles a topspin ball travels in an arc over the net, drops quite sharply before contact with the table and then shoots forward fast and low after the bounce.
Lets us look however a little more closely at the ball in the air and before the bounce. What we must first understand is that the ball surface is not smooth and contains pockets of air in the surface which react with the flow of air against the ball. We do know that in the case of the top part of a topspinning ball, this spins against the oncoming air while the bottom part is in the same direction. Therefore we have an area of high turbulence at the top and low turbulence at the bottom.
However the air flow round a ball moving at high speed changes from turbulent to laminar as it slows down in the air and this is what causes the ball to dip. Just what do we mean by this?
At the ‘static point’ which is the leading point of the ball at speed there will be an ‘eye’ like at the centre of a hurricane where there is an area of pressure. The flow of air around the ball however will in the initial stages of flight as the ball leaves the racket at speed, be chaotic or ‘turbulent’ in nature. By this we mean there is no smooth pattern of air molecules flowing around the surface of the moving ball.
It is only as the ball slows down that a pattern starts to emerge and the air flow around the ball forms a more ordered outline. We call this a ‘laminar’ effect.
It is of course at this stage that the high and low pressure areas forming on different parts of the ball’s surface have a direct effect and as a result the ball is forced to dip sharply downwards on to the table.
Nothing that happens on a table tennis table is inexplicable as long as you are aware of the basic laws of physics. Once the ball has left the racket, the trajectory and direction is determined by the power and spin fed into the stroke. The trajectory itself is determined by gravity, the air resistance and the influence of the spin. A similar stroke will always produce a similar result in terms of spin, speed and direction. One can of course point out that things will not be exactly the same depending on where one finds oneself on the earth’s surface. The weight of the ball can vary by as much as 0.5% depending on whether you play in a position near the poles or in a locality on the equator. However this is really quite meaningless when you consider that the rules allow a variation of up to 5% in the weight and diameter of the ball and at the most 8% when we are talking about bounce.
Far more significant variations occur in air pressure when we talk about height above sea level for example. At 1000 metres air pressure sinks by 12% and at 3000 metres by up to 30%! This has a major impact on both the air resistance and the effect of the spin on the ball in flight. A major championship event played for example in Mexico City will result in the ball ‘flying’ in an unusual manner and the players must be ready for this, as the trajectory of the ball will not conform to expected criteria. When players talk about a ‘hall’ being slow or fast this is a subjective experience. This can depend on different floor coverings, lighting, acoustics, heat and cold or just the size of the room. It doesn’t mean that the ball is moving in an unusual manner.
Questions relating to materials and the differing spins and effects can be rather more complicated as the manufacturing companies have not tried to create standardised tests to measure exactly what their products can do. Often experienced players or testers (or in some cases not so experienced) categorise rubbers in terms of spin, speed and control, but obviously these classifications are purely subjective. Different players will for example use rubbers in differing ways and one player will often be capable of getting far more out of a particular rubber than another player would. Such ‘subjective’ testing can give some useful information but helps little in giving any base for objective measurement when comparing products from different manufacturers. Also materials and indeed techniques and tactics are constantly in change - it is necessary that we always have an open mind and are ready to look at new ideas and ways of doing things.
After leaving the racket regardless of the spin, speed or direction, the ball is influenced simply by 3 factors - gravity, air resistance and spin (Magnus effect)(See diagrams A and B). In the case of topspin, gravity and the influence of the spin work together giving a more arced trajectory (See Diagram C). With backspin gravity and the spin factors work against each other so that the ball will rise initially in a curve before dropping sharply when gravity predominates over the lessening spin (Diagram D). Gravity is always equally strong and always directed downwards. Air resistance is always against the direction of travel and its effect is strongly influenced by the speed of the ball.
With a speed of 8.5 m/second (30.6 k/hour, 19.125 mph.) the air resistance is about equally as strong as gravity. Air resistance however increases or decreases by the square of the speed. This means that a doubling of the speed to 17m/second (61.2 k/hour) signifies a fourfold increase in air resistance. Halving the speed to 4.25 m/second (15.3 k/hour) would bring about a reduction in air resistance to around one quarter of gravity. In the case of fast counter play an average normal speed would be in the region of 12.5 m/second (45.0 k/hour) which means immediately that it’s always the air resistance which is the dominating factor in the early stages of the ball’s trajectory. (In the case of world records for counter-hitting (of so many shots per minute) an average speed of only around 33kph is achieved).
In the case of a top-spinning ball the force of the spin is at right angles to the speed and the rotational axis and as a result strengthens the downward pull of gravity. Very strong topspin is of the same magnitude as gravity and the ball will sink much more quickly. Note that a pure sidespin ball will have a distinct arc when seen from above. In the case of strong backspin the trajectory will veer upwards - here the power of the spin is stronger than gravity.
Of course it is the player’s own skill and technical knowledge which will determine his or her choice of direction, speed and/or spin. There is however an absolute limit for the all out hard smash where in theory one can utilise a completely straight trajectory.
Below the absolute line of sight the speed element in all no spin or backspin balls will be limited as all such balls will require an arc and some margin for error will be needed in the stroke. The no spin smash is the game’s hardest hit (around 31.1 m/second (measured speed off the racket) or 112 k/hour) and gives the opponent the least possible time to make the return. If balls higher than the absolute line of sight are looped instead, this means a slightly safer shot but at a slower tempo. However the difficulty in switching from topspin to smash often means that many players prefer to spin even in this ‘high ball’ situation.
Under the absolute line of sight topspin is used more than any other stroke as the arced trajectory allows more and more power to be fed into the shot while still retaining a high measure of safety with speed. The absolute line of sight is therefore a useful tool in judging the best stroke to play in any given situation.
- Topspin, backspin or counter-hitting with well judged (and controlled) speed.
Often in the boy’s game even from an early age it is a good idea to work with topspin as this gives high speed and also a high level of safety. With the help of topspin players can have a comfortable margin for error, a lower trajectory and a lower bounce on the opponent’s side of the table.
Backspin with its straighter trajectory often tends to come through nearer to the end of the table. However in spite of this often the peak of the arc is higher and the ball can easily kick up after the bounce (there is also a reduction of speed at this stage) above the dangerous ‘absolute line of sight’, which leaves the defender open to a flat hit kill. It is therefore important that defenders take the ball as early as possible and above table height. Then they have the opportunity of a low ball over the net and a lower ball after the bounce, as the ‘speed’ element tends to take precedence over the effect of the spin and the ball skids through off the table surface. Also the earlier chop will retain more spin as it is in the air for a lesser time between strokes. Length is also crucial for defenders, either very long or very short, so that opponents have little opportunity to smash.
If defenders can introduce a topspin ball back from the table then this is a highly desirable variation, especially sometimes with sidespin. There will be a big difference between the topspin and backspin strokes and even the best of attackers will make mistakes.
We should also look at the scenario where we face high lobbed balls. Here you will often have the opportunity of smashing from 3 areas, as the ball bounces upwards, at the ‘peak’ position or as it is descending (Diagram E). The ‘peak’ position (2) will need something like an overhead tennis smash and will bounce through high and long giving the opponent time to play the return, although the stroke is relatively safe. Killing the descending ball is also quite safe (3) but as you make contact from further back, you have less of the table to aim at and again the opponent has more time even though the trajectory will be flatter.
Theoretically the preferred contact should be as the ball bounces up (1). Here you have the chance to kill absolutely flat and angle the ball well as you are closer to the net - the opponent has very limited time to react. The problem can be that you have much less time yourself to study the spin and to react to any strange bounce. This contact is therefore a little more unsafe and requires practice (a short arm movement is important in this stroke). An interesting alternative is to use topspin from an early timing position - even though this is a slower stroke which gives the opponent time it results in a more curved shot and a ball which drops quickly after the bounce. Other alternatives are the chop smash or a stop ball taken very early.
The flick requires some feeling as the ball must be kept as low as possible over the net and yet it is difficult to create speed from a short ball often served with backspin. Good topspin can create a safer stroke but often it is not easy to achieve this over the table. To reach maximum speed over the table the flick should be taken at the ‘peak’ of bounce on every occasion, though the late-timed stroke played more slowly can also open up possibilities.
It is possible to feed in approximately 10 - 15% more speed into the diagonal flick because of the increased distance involved. (Total available distance 3.1m as opposed to 2.7m)
If you wish to flick more safely, with a higher margin then this will require playing the stroke more slowly. Flicking straight and low over the net will result in a maximum speed of around 8.0m/second (28.8 k/hour) but this would drop to 7.0 m/second (25.2 k/hour) if you wished to have a 2cm cushion over the net. Diagonal play would give the higher figure of about 10.0m/second (36.0 k/hour) dropping by 10% (32.4 k/hour or 9.0 m/sec) if the ‘safer’ diagonal stroke were attempted. The flick can often be angled harder and more easily than the counter hit as it is taken closer to the net and with less speed on the incoming ball. However no amount of training can increase the power of the flick beyond what the natural laws allow. The lifting movement (attacking a ball lower than net height) sets the limit and this can only be overcome by the creation of more topspin. However as we have intimated this is extremely difficult in the case of a low over-the-table ball.
If you assume that two top players take the ball about 20 - 25cms off the end of the table then in a rally the ball would reach average speeds of around 12 — 14 m/second (43.2 - 50.4 kms per hour, straight and diagonal respectively). In the case of the safe 2.0 cms over the net stroke, speeds would be around 11.0 and 12.5 m/second. When you compare this with the flick, the latter stroke would not achieve speeds in excess of two-thirds of counter play or around 10.0 m/second (36 kms per hour).
The dominance of the Asian players over the years has occurred primarily because they take the ball early, just after the bounce. European players on the other hand take the ball at ‘peak’ or after the top of the bounce. The difference in usable reaction time gives Asian players a real advantage by preventing opponents from coordinating and organizing their best strategies.
The serve can vary a great deal but the service rules and natural laws impose certain limitations. Because the serve must bounce from one half of the table to the other this means a minimum upwards and downwards movement of around 34 - 35 centimetres (17 + 17). The time frame is approximately 0.38 seconds for a backspin or float serve but this can be reduced in the case of strong topspin. One must bear in mind that the limit for a long serve straight is 2.7 metres but this increases to 3.1 on the diagonal.
The time limit from bounce to bounce is around the same for a long and short service. However in the case of the short serve one must add the time from the racket contact to the first bounce which will add 0.15 - 0.2 seconds. The total time for a short serve can be as long as 0.6 seconds compared with the 0.4 for a long fast serve. The speed for a long fast serve will be very similar to the speeds when flicking - between 8.5 m/second (30.6 k/hour) straight, to up to 10.0 m/second (36.0 k/hour) on the diagonal.
Strong spin presupposes that sufficient power has been used but spin and ball speed are connected and it therefore follows automatically that high speed will more often than not entail high spin.
The short serve will therefore always have a measurable spin which can be reckoned by the number of revolutions per second, while the long serve can have stronger rotation due to the increased power input. We don’t always experience this on the table as we often play with care against the short serve, however even a small lack of touch can lead to a ball in the net or a high return. Aggressive returns such as flick and long push do not require so much touch and are less sensitive to the spin element on the ball, therefore it is safer to play long if you have learned the technique and if the opponent’s playing style allows this. Also flicks against backspin can use the spin already on the ball and will result in a low dipping shot - long, fast service returns over 8.5 m/second will slow due to air resistance and this again helps when using topspin.
With the help of unusual or deceptive actions the server tries to hide the spin, speed or direction so as to gain an advantage over the opponent, lengthening his reaction time or making it harder for him to read the spin. Bear in mind that the variations to be found in the use of spin, speed, length and placement will often be sufficient to cause problems for opponents and it is important that your players can use the same serve in differing ways and execute differing serves with the same or similar actions.
After contact with a blade (without rubbers) the ball will retain on return about 85% of the incoming speed. In the case of a racket with 2.0 mm fast reverse rubber the return speed after the contact will only be about 70% of the incoming ball’s pace. For an attacking player the rubber’s task is to preserve the speed as much as possible (a part of the ball’s energy will always be lost against the surface) and at the same time give the player a good chance to create and vary spin during play. It is obviously important that the outer surface of the rubber has high friction, while the sponge can vary in hardness depending on whether the player needs more spin or speed.
Harder blades and sponges give more speed at the expense of control while softer blades and sponges provide more spin and control as there is a longer contact time on the blade (without gluing you lose between 10 - 20% of the speed and spin). The blade also has its part to play and even under the rubber and sponge it can deform against a hard hit. One can easily see that with a contact speed of up to 31.1 m/second (112 kph. or 70.0 mph.) and a contact time of a thousandth of a second, with a ball weighing 2.7 grams, the impact can be very considerable. If the stroke is not played absolutely cleanly then strong vibrations can be created in the blade with ensuing energy losses. An ‘unclean’ hit always gives slower speed.
Generally we can say that half the racket speed contributes to spin and the other half to speed. What you gain in the one aspect you lose in the other. When looping against a topspin ball the spin must be reversed which requires strong friction and a very closed racket. Looping against backspin means that you play with the spin which needs much less friction but a considerably more open racket angle.
Irrespective of the ball’s movement in the air, the friction and bounce depend on the material qualities of the racket and of the table. Although in principle the same natural laws should apply during ball/table contact and in ball/racket contact, here the two surfaces are dramatically different, varying from smooth and shiny to sticky with immense friction. Another vitally important factor is that the bat is usually used actively while the table’s part is always completely passive.
The energy which one imparts to the stroke, the motion energy, can be of two types, rotational or speed value. A smash has strong speed value while a loop has a great deal of both values. In the case of ball/table and ball/passive racket the rotational energy can predominate, dramatically slowing the speed value. Perhaps the most important consequence can be that the reversed rotational energy not only returns a much slower ball but also one that can alter direction quite markedly. In the case of the ‘active’ racket a new motion energy will be established.
The effect which will occur between the ball and the table is partially because of the bounce N (impact speed and angle) and the spin T (amount and type). There will also of course be energy losses (a reduction in speed of about 10%). The result will be a bounce which can reach a height of approximately 70% of the trajectory’s high point in flight.
The float ball will lose speed after the bounce but will acquire a weak topspin due to the bottom part of the ball being held by the table and the top part rolling forward (Diagram F). In the case of strong topspin the ball will acquire forward energy and this rotational momentum will be converted into extra speed (Diagram G). The speed of the ball’s movement forwards will increase. The result will be a bounce of less than 70% of the highest point in the trajectory, with a lesser spin but an increased speed (in the range of some 15 - 20%). The backspin ball is similar to the float ball - however the big difference will be the spin factor which will have as much effect as the frictional qualities of the table’s surface will allow. Often it can be a question of the ball ‘sliding’ through. Otherwise there will be a clear ‘braking’ effect after the bounce and the ball will slow, kick up a little and hang in the air (it can often kick up above the absolute line of sight).
Sidespin has the rotational values at right angles to the table’s surface which means directly that as the point of the axis is in contact with the table, there is little or no loss of spin. The ball therefore comes through with maximum retained spin.
The friction between the ball and the table will reach a maximum of around 20% of the impact force between the ball and the table - then skidding occurs. In comparison the friction between the ball and the racket is very much stronger and will reach levels of 50% or more. In the case of a passive stroke where the racket scarcely moves then the effect of the spin against the surface will be extreme.
Reverse rubber is very sensitive to spin and the racket must be at the right angle with reference to the incoming spin and speed. A great deal of topspin will require an extremely closed angle but if the speed is also high then the angle will need to be opened up. In the case of the ball’s contact with the racket we are concerned with two types of power. N = Normal power which consists of the bounce and the speed of the ball and T = Tangential power which depends on the spin and the frictional qualities of the racket.
‘Braking’ or frictional forces can have a major effect on the rotational values (spin) and the rotational energy can be changed, exhibiting itself as an increase in speed or as a dramatic change in direction.
The loop is usually executed with maximum racket speed and as thin a contact as possible. The harder one endeavours to strike the ball (with a closed (topspin) racket or open (backspin) racket) then the more spin one will achieve together with speed. Always bear in mind however the old cliché - ‘What one gains in spin one loses in speed and vice versa’.
Interesting effects can also be achieved when one contacts the spinning ball at one of the poles where there is little or no spin - the spin will remain on the return ball but often in a completely unexpected form. This is due to two different axes trying to assert themselves at the same time. A loop against a sidespin ball will result in a topspin return with a sidespin kick.
Obviously the further you back away from the table the more time you will have to prepare and the more time to set yourself and hit the ball harder. However equally the opponent will have more time (Diagrams H and J). Both show how the ball loses speed over a distance. If two players are each three metres back the total distance between ball contacts is around 9 metres and the ball will slow through the air — this gives over half a second to react which in the case of two fit, skilful players will mean that it will be hard to outmanoeuvre the opponent and win the point.
Diag. H. Choose your initial velocity, say 20 m/second which gives you a mark of around 0.1 seconds on the curved line and a figure of 3 on the baseline. Forget the figures to the left of the 0.1 and work with the right end of the curve. After another 0.2 seconds (0.3) the distance is 7.0, so the ball has travelled 4.0 metres (7.0 - 3.0) and the speed is down to around 11 m/second.
As we can see from (J) there is a big difference looping close to the table and executing a similar stroke three metres back. If we feed in an initial speed of 15 m/second, ball (1) will reach the other end of the table in 0.2 of a second or slightly less and will then have a speed of 10 m/second - ball (2) on the other hand will take around 0.5 of a second and the speed will have dropped to 7.0 m/second. We must also bear in mind that even at relatively slow speeds, say an average of 40 kph, the ball will cover the length of the table in about 0.25 of a second which is the approximate limit of human reaction time for the average player.
There are obviously several advantages in playing closer to the table which many top men are now coming to appreciate in the framework of our much faster modern game (the women have used these advantages for many years).
These aspects mean that the opponent has to cover more of the table and more ground in a lesser time and has to react at a higher speed (the time frame can more than halve). With access to information on time, distances and speed (in relation to the ball) one can easily move into the optimum position to make the best use of time and pressure the opponent. Equally such insight gives perception into one’s own capabilities and how these should develop.
Explosive speed is an inherited characteristic and players who don’t have it are rather limited in what they can do to train up this aspect. However there is nothing to stop any player only using those patterns which give most economy of movement. It’s elementary for example to understand that quick play requires short strokes so that you can recover for the next ball (not so short however that you fail to play ‘through’ the ball). If in our modern fast game you are attacked hard and have no time, then you must be satisfied with the block return.
Racket recovery is particularly crucial and it’s vital that the racket returns to the neutral position after each stroke so that you are ready to play FH or BH on the next ball. It is equally vital that the elbow drops down after the stroke (especially the BH counter) so that the forearm is in the best possible position to move in either direction.
The ultimate style of the player will dictate which type of movement patterns he or she should use. Close to the table blockers will use many one-step movements or small jump steps. Strong loop players will inevitably use the cross-step to reach the wide ball and defenders should train at moving in and out. However with the modern game both close and deep, movements which retain a square position are preferable. Movement is one of the most critical parts of any young player’s development and yet very few countries in Europe work constructively with footwork patterns at an early age. It is particularly important that you establish a pattern with a young player that can grow with the player, (can a sidestep pattern be easily developed into a cross-step?). It is also a priority in the ‘modern’ game, where we have limited time that footwork is economical, one big step is preferable to many small ones.
Among the world’s elite (especially the Asian players) the FH is still the dominant stroke and many men players will still move more in order to bring this wing into play. (Among the top European men because of the increase in the basic minimal speed many now use the BH from the middle or even from the FH side against the serve. It will be interesting to see if this tactic, which has been common amongst the women for many years, will become the norm in the men’s game).
Perhaps here a warning should be issued to women trying to use the FH over the whole table as some top men do. The women’s game is rather faster as they stand closer to the table, hit the ball earlier and flatter. Often they have less time to move and to react between shots. Also overall their physical capabilities can be reckoned as between 15 - 30% lower than the male. These factors can make the difference between success and failure at top level.
For a top player to execute strong topspin from FH and BH corners with FH and BH consecutively takes around 0.6 of a second. However to do the same with just the FH wing will take almost 1.0 second. This is quite a big time difference at top level. FH play over the whole table is asymmetrical (by this we mean one-sided and unbalanced movement). Symmetrical play is clearly superior from the point of view of economy of movement, the only downside being that the BH topspin is generally less powerful than the FH.
A change to more symmetrical play requires that the BH topspin be of the same quality as the FH. This can be achieved by use of what we call the tennis BH. Here with a quarter rotation backwards, taking the ball off the left hip and using good rotation and very fast forearm action, the stroke can be upgraded to a similar power and speed as the FH. Certainly in the future it is becoming obvious that in the light of the speed of the modern game, play will become more and more ‘symmetrical’ and that this will be the way forward.
A stroke can be executed with a large radius (a straight arm with forward movement) or with a small movement (flick of the wrist). If you use a large action then a small mistake in ‘timing’ will have little significance, however with a small movement the resulting error in placement will be very apparent. Use small movements over the table and the large action further back where you require more power and precision of placement.
In the case of any stroke where an arc is used we can have a positive or negative arc (Diagram I). The positive arc follows the outgoing trajectory of the ball much more closely and as a result has a higher safety margin. The negative arc places much higher demands on exact timing. However in the case of the loop against a backspin ball where the racket angle is much more open the advantages or disadvantages are not so critical.
Many players think that it’s safer and more natural to have a negative arc with the BH topspin and especially where the feet are more parallel with the end of the table. However for those who want to work with the ‘tennis’ BH it’s important that they have the same positive arc on both wings and don’t need to change from one to the other.
Whether it is a matter of standing right, moving in the right way or placing the ball in the most advantageous position, one can have a great deal of help from pure geometrical analysis. Most players for a start will want to cover around 60 - 65% of the table with the FH side as they can reach further on this wing, and 35 - 40% with the BH.
From the point of view of recovering to the most advantageous position relative to the angle of play, you must assess the total angle available for the opponent’s use and move into a position where your right shoulder is on the centre line (the bisecting line). Obviously when playing the FH from the BH corner playing on the opponent’s BH diagonal gives the most advantageous return angle.
However with the FH serve from the BH corner this can be placed to either corner - it is only necessary that you move to cover the return possibilities the instant after ball contact is made.
In doubles play the same geometry applies - the only difference is that the one who plays the ball doesn’t have to take the return. It is necessary to place the ball in an advantageous position for your partner. A right- and left-handed player complement each other well in this situation as both can often use the FH most of the time. In doubles it is wrong to always try to return to a normal ready position just as it is not profitable if both partners end up wide out on one corner or the other.
We often lay much emphasis on the movement of the bat arm in stroke play and acquiring good technique and do not perhaps stress enough or understood the use of the body and legs. With the development of looping and especially counter-looping techniques the player is not only required to strike the ball hard and with power but also to have a high level of control at all times and in a fast moving and fast changing situation. This is not easy. It is made more difficult in that the centre of gravity must start lower with the loop stroke so this entails moving, turning and lowering the body at the same time, all before executing the shot.
It also entails playing the stroke with good coordination and recovering with balance to play the next shot. This is why now and in the future the role played by the body’s centre of gravity in striking the ball should assume a higher level of importance. To give full play to one’s centre of gravity within the action of playing the stroke, one has to coordinate the movements of the waist and hips with those of the knees and feet. To play with the centre of gravity means that when the player swings his or her racket forward to strike the ball, he or she should consciously use the shift of the centre of gravity to enhance the striking force in the stroke and to make the whole movement more controlled and steady.
In many cases players pay some attention to their waist and leg movements but neglect those of the hip joints. In fact the hips are of rather more importance in that they are much closer to the body part where the weight is evenly balanced, the centre of gravity. It is therefore perhaps a wise practice to ‘borrow’ an exercise from the martial arts and add a few movements before striking the ball – first pull in and tense the abdomen and turn the hips, then relax the abdomen as you turn the hips forward. With the strength properly applied not only can the player reduce the extent of his or her movements but also enhance the striking force to a much higher degree.
Table tennis practice is guided by table tennis theory. Training at all levels needs theoretical guidance and players of all levels should absorb theoretical lessons. The concept of table tennis consciousness has not come about of itself, it has emerged only after long years of practice on the part of countless coaches and players. Unfortunately most publications concerning our sport contain little or no information on this subject and many trainers work their whole lives and never even consider this aspect of table tennis. Such a serious gap on the theoretical side should call for comprehensive attention from all coaches, players and researchers. In fact table tennis consciousness and the methods of cultivating this should be an obligatory theoretical course for all coaches, trainers and players.
The state of consciousness refers to the degree of awareness of your own feelings and of what is going on around you. A high level of consciousness means a state of mental clarity, where the player is not only well motivated but also well aware of the differing demands on him or her and how he or she is going to handle them. A healthy person’s state of consciousness is in fact variable, fluctuating from highly conscious, to moderately conscious, to absent-minded. The same can be said of the player in training or in competition. Other things being equal, a player in a good state of consciousness shows greater concentration in play and will achieve better results in training — also with accurate judgement, quick reflexes and good adaptability to changing circumstances, he or she will perform better in competition.
Coaches have for example carried out simple consistency or accuracy tests during training sessions and have discovered that their own approach to training can considerably affect the consciousness of the group. There can be a considerable difference if they speak in a quiet and mild manner and then give exactly the same instructions with a much more forceful and aggressive attitude. Results over a variety of test cases were markedly different because of the changing state of consciousness of the players being tested. According to the views of some 20 top level coaches, a change in the degree of a player’s concentration (which depends on the state of consciousness), can make all the difference in a match even though he or she doesn’t alter the tactics! Sometimes a little ‘nap’ may cost him several points but once he arouses himself and plays with a high degree of concentration, he can often make up the deficit extremely quickly — in other words his level of play goes up dramatically. This is why in tournaments the support of coaches and team-mates can often be of value in altering the level of consciousness of the player.
Table tennis play whether matches, tournaments or training is characterized by intense exertion punctuated by brief breaks. While the ball is in play, the player is required to attain the highest level of consciousness so that he or she is extremely clear-headed and capable of displaying a high degree of concentration. But as soon as the ball goes out of play between the points or games, the player can immediately switch off, relax and rest. It is important that all players fully comprehend this situation and are good at taking advantage of it. The value of being able to switch off cannot be underestimated, no player can keep going at 100% concentration level all the time and it’s crucial to be able to relax — however it’s also crucial that the player is capable of switching on and off at a moment’s notice, so that this ability becomes second nature.
The actions of a player in training or competition are bound to be governed by his consciousness. With a good state of consciousness he can train efficiently and quickly improve his overall competitive ability. However generally speaking, technical problems are visible and tangible and can therefore be easily spotted and resolved, whereas problems pertaining to consciousness are more difficult to detect and once they reveal themselves one may have to make tremendous efforts to overcome them, if indeed they can be overcome at all! Those who are not scientifically minded often pay little attention to the aspects of table tennis which they cannot physically see. They take the attitude that if you work a player hard enough you will eventually get the results and that those who sweat more will progress faster. Actually the hard toil of these people in many cases fails to bear fruit commensurate with the efforts they have put in. This is because things don’t really work in this way and all players are different, often a different approach is needed. It is important that coaches in particular are prepared to think scientifically.
In teaching theories about table tennis consciousness, great emphasis should be laid on integrating the theory with the practice. Skills are acquired through practice but consciousness is cultivated through the powers of understanding. Often we can use examples outside our sport to help players understand the essence of table tennis consciousness. In training we should stress that players cultivate consciousness in conjunction with technical and tactical practices. In judging incoming balls for example emphasis should be laid on making conscious efforts to ‘stare’ at the ball, especially at the salient points in its flight (just before the bounce on your side so you see the spin or lack of spin). In technical drills try to instil awareness of what is happening and what they are doing into the players’ minds. If they hit a ball out don’t just explain the cause of the error which may be faulty timing but stress the vital importance of feeling the stroke and the contact with the ball in play and the necessity of constantly adjusting the swing of the racket to compensate.
While doing technical exercises one must always have tactical aims in mind if one is to learn solid skills that are of practical use in tournaments. You often hear coaches say that their players progress very rapidly at the start of their career but then development slows down when they reach a higher level. One of the main stumbling blocks can lie in the lack of tactical awareness within their technical training. Tactics are a means of using and applying techniques and skills, which in turn serve as a means of operating tactics. Negligence in developing tactical awareness amounts to forgetting that the ultimate aim of training is competition! Training is aimless unless you know clearly what tactics to adopt against various types of game and which tactics are most effective against a particular opponent. On the surface all players may train in almost the same way but they may achieve very different results if they have different ideas in their heads. If you take the practice of block and push strokes for example, players may practise varying the direction and the placement of the ball as the exercise requires. However if the player does not have any tactical sense he or she may be able to acquire the skills but find it extremely hard to apply them properly in tournaments. One may even find the practice boring with all the endless repetition. But if we teach the trainees that some tactics can be applied with even block and push strokes, such as play to the wings then the middle or to the body then down the sidelines, they can at the same time learn to use their skills in competition and heighten their interest in training.
Some players fall into the habit too of playing too much control play in training and neglect cultivating a strong urge to attack. It becomes then very easy in tournaments to settle into grooved stroke play and it becomes very hard to break the habitual way of playing and actually break out and take the initiative.
When talking to the few coaches who understand the concept of table tennis consciousness, the vast majority of these are of the opinion that a player’s consciousness is more important than his or her technical proficiency. Skills can be learned but it is only with great difficulty that the quality of consciousness can be improved. Some players with poor consciousness are not aware of their problems until they have played for many years, others even remain ignorant after their retirement!
Consciousness of what is happening is vital when you play in all aspects of table tennis. Draw up programmes for cultivating consciousness with your players.
At the Worlds, Asian players showed especially in the longer rallies, just how perfect their physical preparation is; most European players were not prepared so well and in most cases they lost longer rallies against Asian players! As we have seen with China, Asian players pay much more attention to speed in their physical preparation, while this kind of preparation is often neglected in Europe. We get the impression that physical preparation in Europe is mostly based just on elements of the physical side such as muscle power, maybe coordination, but agility and specific table tennis quickness are not practised enough. We saw this in the match between Bojan Tokić and the Japanese Yoshida, in which Tokić was not able to parry the speed of the Japanese. We have to work much more on speed, there is no alternative and we have to improve in this area. Asian players compared with European players are much faster in coming to the ball, the effectiveness of their shots is therefore much better. Our advice to European players must be not only to practise specific speed on the table but to practise as well basic speed and speed endurance, but above all to pay much more attention to agility. Agility is in particular important when a player has to change the type of stroke which is quite often the case in modern play.
Physical preparation must be good enough in order to enable the player to come to the ball fast and therefore be able to produce a technically correct stroke. Without perfect physical preparation good stroke technique in the game is not possible. When we compare the training of top players in Europe and Asia we must come to the conclusion that Asian players spend significantly more time having top quality training than is the case with European players. The length of training is maybe the same but the intensity and quality of the training are not and these aspects are obviously better in Asia. How this problem can be solved is a task not only for coaches, but for European players as well.
As a result of the world-wide ban on the use of speed glue and boosters, new rubbers have generally lost speed and spin. The strokes and especially the smashes, are not as hard as they used to be. In order to compensate for this, it is necessary to learn to play using the entire body. This is especially important with the forehand-topspin technique, which depends not only on the movement of the hitting arm, but also on more hip and shoulder rotation and on the player’s weight being shifted forwards in the direction of the shot particularly when back from the table. Improved smash techniques are therefore considered one of the most important priorities for training at all levels in the year 2009.
After so many years playing with speed glue we have automated techniques adapted to the game with glue and it is extremely difficult to change such automated movements. There is so little time to react and to hit the ball, but when the ball has a rather different trajectory or bounces unexpectedly then we try to change the stroke in an extremely short time and try to abruptly change the direction of the movement, which brings the danger of injury. The adaptation time to the new game could last even one whole year but even after that will we have as attractive rallies as we have now? The ball will be slower as topspin duels with speed glue will be sadly missed. When the players get used to the game without glue maybe we will have very long rallies but it is doubtful if the spectators will appreciate this aspect. However in the current situation will it even be possible to have long topspin rallies? If somebody like Timo Boll or Vladi Samsonov has a good slow first topspin attack it is extremely hard to do anything now with this ball.
After the Olympic Games when players started to practice without speed glue and boosters all the time they had muscle inflammation as they had to use a technique of executing the strokes which they were not used to! As they were trying to put into the ball as much speed and rotation as possible but without the help of speed glue they had to use more power and a different technique — the end result was that they were injured, which in many cases had never happened before.
Because of the speed of the game and the need to play and stay closer to the table the strokes are now shorter and more abrupt leading to more injuries anyway. This was the direction of modern table tennis even before the big ball and the banning of glue and boosters. But it is unfortunately the case that these measures have accentuated the situation without really making the game more attractive to spectators and the media as was originally hoped.
It is when the body does things on autopilot that it is most effective. When you start to think about the strokes and especially about technique, you introduce problems, the thinking part of the mind interferes with the subconscious execution of the shot or serve and performance is affected. For a start the automatic reaction is much faster, you only slow things down by introducing the conscious, thinking process. This is why with players who have trained for many years and whose habits are firmly ingrained, you can often only change small aspects. You can only restructure the player’s technique by destroying his or her game and starting again. The things that you can think about when you play and think about profitably, are where you are winning and losing points, which serves to use and not to use, free your conscious, thinking mind to operate more in the tactical areas and how to gain advantage here.
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 will have difficulty in adapting in time.
The prime skill of table tennis is to be able to adapt to an ever changing situation. Unfortunately the way we train is often significant in reducing our chances of achieving this ideal. Training is repetition in the right environment, with the right content and the right attitude. As a result of this repetition our strokes become ‘grooved’ and automatic. We train so we don’t need to think about what we are doing — so that we can in effect play on auto-pilot.
Once we are in this position of playing completely automatically just how are we supposed to handle thinking about something new and different, much less being actually able to cope with and adapt to new aspects? This is the reason why players who have something unusual or unconventional in their game are so difficult to play against and why the Asian coaches, especially the Chinese, are always on the look-out to give their players some extra ‘specialty’, something that bit different to give them a big advantage over others.
This is of course 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, that 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.
Technique for example is the basis of tactics and the development of technique generally precedes that of tactics. Only when the player has mastered all-round technique successfully 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 in our work with young players.
Another aspect that many players and coaches do not seem to appreciate is that development must be in the right direction for the particular player and that the right training must be devised to enable that player to evolve and mature. Indeed it is the prime function of the coach to unlock the potential of his player. Direction is vital, if the player follows the wrong course for him or her then much of that potential can remain untapped.
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 even 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. How many even know where they are going and more important, how to get there? At a personal level how many players actually comprehend that they are training in the right way for them, with the right content and the right methods?
Even if you become involved with 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) or indeed where they are going. It would appear that a thorough understanding of the relationship of tactics to technique and the intricacies of personal style development are not considered necessary at national level in many countries.
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 training hall.
A player’s consciousness is more important than his or her technical proficiency. Skills can be learned but attitudes and the quality of consciousness are difficult to improve. The cultivation of table tennis consciousness should be an obligatory theoretical course for all players. Each player should be aware, should be able to ‘feel’ how he or she is contacting the ball, how he or she is moving, how his or her own body is performing during play. Many players are in fact quite insensitive and indeed ignorant as to just what is happening with the various parts of their own bodies when they play!
Cultivate awareness in seeking for example 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). In many cases the ability to be totally aware of exactly how you are performing, only evolves after some research or exploration into the mental side of the game. In fact many athletes in many differing sports are becoming much more conscious of the value of the ‘mental side’ of performance, especially now that in many areas we are perhaps closer to reaching the physical limits than we were some years ago.
If you are to be more aware for example of how you function and how your body operates in a playing situation, it is important that you study relaxation techniques and are first able to relax. The beauty about learning to relax completely even if you do this off the table and away from table tennis, is that soon you become aware of tensions in your body as you play, train or compete. You know yourself better and are then in a better position to control and to take action to change what is happening with your body.
It is quite important also to understand that the ability to concentrate and the ability to handle stress are very closely connected. The ability to focus on the task in hand and not to let yourself be side-tracked is one of the most essential qualities in competition. We must bear in mind too that although we know that the level of performance is affected by tension, we know very little of exactly how. Table tennis is one of the sports that will only tolerate a relatively low level of tension. Too much and it is extremely difficult to perform. Also different phases of an individual match will have differing levels of stress and pressures and we should understand this if we are to be effective.
If you are to aim for the top levels it is critical that you start to analyse your performance and what is happening when you compete and train. This should become a regular part of your development and become a habit. What often distinguishes the elite from the ordinary athlete is the ability to make mental assessments more or less automatically. Any mental programme should be systematic and goal-oriented and it should indeed be on-going and continuous and progressive. This doesn’t mean that you need extra time to train, the mental side should indeed be integrated into and become an integral part of your everyday normal training.
No player is going to become extremely successful at the highest levels unless he or she is adaptable enough to contend with all variations of play. Most top players also have strong fortés which help them to win through even against the toughest opposition and they are invariably mentally tough themselves. In fact it is often this quality of never giving up, of extreme stubbornness, which many competitors refer to when they talk about the ‘real’ champions.
Many table tennis players have experienced great difficulty in producing strong, spinny loops no matter how hard they try to lift the ball, speed up the racket or adjust the angle of the bat at the instant of impact.
There are many ways of increasing loop spin. One aspect however which many players tend not to consider, is the importance of having good control of the racket swing, especially in the preparatory phase and just before the instant of contact with the ball. If you wish to produce a loop that has the qualities of high speed, good power and heavy spin then this aspect is vital.
Generally the faster the bat-swing, the stronger the spin in the loop, but this is not always the case. We are aware that it is necessary to have a ‘thin’ contact in order to achieve good spin. However if the contact is too fine, we will not produce strong spin, however much force we apply. This is of course because the ball is not given enough friction and it will just slide off the bat surface without being held long enough to obtain the required effect. Let us look at three experiments by way of illustration.
From these experiments we can see that the quality of the loop depends not just on the sheer speed of the arm and the racket but on good control of the swing. Many of the world’s best players, including Ma Wenge, Gatien, Waldner and Saive, do not accelerate the speed of the racket swing until the moment of impact. In this way they are able to produce loops with immense spin.
To control the speed of the bat-swing the looper must fully relax his arm before hitting the ball. Only at the instant of impact should he suddenly contract his arm muscles to produce an explosive force. He should almost in fact try to feel that he has ‘acquired’ the ball with his racket (that it is being held by the rubber and sponge), before he accelerates the bat up to maximum speed!
When you watch many of our young stars performing on the table, one of the first things you notice is the inadequacy of the short and the ‘mid-field’ game. Usually the power strokes, the loops, drives and smashes are quite strong and well developed, but it appears that youngsters ignore the value of the short and linking play. Yet it is in fact expertise in just these areas which will allow them to get their strengths in during the game.
In almost all cases players are predictable and safe in pushing play — they take the ball at ‘peak’ or relatively late and give the opponent time to think and to play. In addition they often do very little with the ball, just return safely. By playing in this way they don’t obtain any advantage from ‘mid-field’ play, rather they allow the play to drift into a control situation where both they and their opponents have an equal chance to break out and win the point.
It is vital to retain the initiative in over-the-table play. In this way you can create many opportunities to get in and open up the play. How many players consider the point that there are basically 4 different ways to push — with control, speed, spin or deception? In addition there are all the various timing points from very early to very late. Just think if you combine the different methods of pushing with a variety of timing points, you increase the options enormously!
Quite often at top level players take the ball early so that they allow the opponent as little time as possible. However they use variation in the racket angle at contact to create lesser or greater spin. The opponent then faces a fast return with very much backspin or almost none and has limited time to react. Top players are also good at varying length with the same stroke movement. The half-long serve can be dropped back very short or pushed back long and fast, but both from the same early timing point.
However it is not only early timing that you can use to good effect. Many players overlook the value of very late-timed strokes, which can in fact be just as effective and deceptive. Consider the scenario where you come in to push the ball at a late timing point and just roll the wrist instead and play an attacking shot. Both early and late-timed strokes can be difficult to ‘read’ as the player has a variety of options and can change from one to the other almost instantaneously.
With the older type of push stroke, with much use of the wrist and the ball taken closer to the body, it was a little harder to create time and room to open on the next ball and to achieve enough back-swing to engineer good spin. This type of push was also often played from a low stance, so if the opponent were to hit the next ball hard, not only was it necessary to move to the ball but also to come up into a counter-hitting position.
It is obviously of particular importance to consider the technique involved in executing early timed push strokes and consider this in the light of how you play the stroke, where the racket finishes and how your execution of this individual stroke will affect the next shot you will play.
The most common modern technique is to take the ball well in front of the body, with little or no use of the wrist. Instead the stroke is executed from the elbow and the primary input is from the forearm. The stance is relatively upright and subsequent movement in any direction quite simple. If you consider this action in some detail, you may well arrive at the conclusion that there are a number of advantages.
Less use of the wrist gives rather more control in early ball play, without lessening the amount of spin you can feed into the shot. It is also possible to use a very fast action with this type of stroke, which makes it difficult for the opponent to ‘read’ the amount of spin and the length. But most important of all as the stroke is taken well in front of the body and finishes in a central position from a relatively upright stance, it is very simple to switch on to the attack. Because you switch on to the attack from a forward position and the arm is drawn back quickly, not only do you have space to play the shot but also you have good elastic energy input which you can use in the stroke.
Over the last few years there has been a shift in emphasis in the blocking game. Blocking used to be more a question of control and waiting for the opponent to make a mistake. Now it is rather more aggressive and the aim is to break up the play and to break out of the control situation and on to the attack as soon as possible.
At the higher levels and especially on the forehand side, the old type ‘control’ blocking game has almost completely disappeared. However it would be wrong to assume that it is no longer necessary for young players to concern themselves with the block. The original block is in fact the basis for the ‘stop’, sidespin and forcing strokes, which are used even at the highest levels in world play.
return to ready position so that you are in a position to counter-attack.
The best method of learning to block is by using multi-ball.
The best method of learning alternative blocking is by using multi-ball.
There are of course a number of varying ways in which you can block from control to forcing and all the various chop, ‘stop’ and sidespin strokes. Try to bear in mind the modern theory of blocking, unpredictability rather than control. As well as varying speed and stroke, think to vary placement and particularly length. The purpose is to break up the control game and to create attacking opportunities and as early as possible in the rally.
What comes after technique and why is technique important? Let’s first look at what technique does.
1. Provides you with the weapons to play the game you want to play and to do this to the best of your potential.
2. Is the crucial base for tactical development and for the refining of your individual style.
Many coaches unfortunately focus on technique to the exclusion of almost everything else and fail to understand fully where this leads and to understand the basic relevance of technique in the context of the development of their individual player.
Techniques are fundamental to the development of tactics. But these must be the right techniques for you the player and for your game so that you are able fully to implement the winning tactics which complement your way of playing. In other words you must not only have the right weapons, but you must be able to use these effectively and they must be the ones best suited to you, your character and your individual style.
This of course brings us to a further crucial point which coaches fail to fully appreciate and it is this: technique does not in fact predate tactics and style development. There are many aspects in the early stages of a player’s growth which are pivotal to just what he/she will achieve and also determine how far he/she will go. This means that early techniques must be refined in the light of the player’s end-style and the tactics he/she will then use in the future. This of course means that coaches should even from the earliest stages work with the ‘whole package’ and not treat technique in isolation.
What must be identified early on is how the young pupil will play as an experienced performer. The clues will for example be in the character, in the mental and physical strengths, in the grip, the ready position, the mobility and the movement patterns and the ability to play ‘body accented’ strokes. What the coach must of course fully understand is which techniques are appropriate to the player’s end-style and which will be most relevant to the tactics he/she will usually execute in the future.
Selecting and refining the appropriate weapons to suit the player’s end-style is very akin to the physical trainer’s job. If you ask the top experts on the physical side to devise a detailed training programme for your player their immediate response will be: ‘I can’t do that, because I don’t know how he/she plays. I can give you a general programme to build up basic fitness foundations but on a detailed personal level I don’t know whether to focus on stamina, reflexes and explosive speed etc. I only know the best approach if I know in detail how the player plays and how he/she uses the body and to what purpose’.
Equally if you the coach have 3 players with totally different playing styles, for example a backspin defender, a mid-distance topspin attacker and a close-to-table blocker/counter-hitter, then the physical requirements for each will be radically different. But similarly the technical requirements and the forging of suitable weapons for each of the 3 styles will also differ fundamentally. Technique of course doesn’t just apply to the stroke-play; it also embraces areas such as footwork and footwork patterns and these too in some cases will differ drastically.
Many trainers unfortunately do not understand the inter-connectivity involved in many areas of table tennis. Nor do they fully comprehend, especially those who are less experienced, the value and effects of the physical and scientific factors (such as upper body strength, ball speed and spin). European coaches must more fully understand the close relationship between techniques and tactics and that the appropriate techniques must be cultivated and refined so that the player is more easily able to execute the tactics suitable to his/her personal end-style. Only if we do this and try to help each player to achieve his/her individual maximum will we get anywhere near being able to match the Asians.
Some spin on serve but not in rallies.
Best spin side alone or combined with backspin. Side-spin balls stay shorter and kick sideways earlier than with the celluloid ball.
Easier to attack serves.
More long or half-long serves, far less short serves.
Ball slows off table and sits up.
Topspin doesn't kick forward off table but stands up and comes through more slowly.
Less topspin in play but backspin less affected
Counter-loop less effective, best to counter-drive or block.
Blocking very easy against loop or drive, especially against the faster ball.
Chopping still effective but only if heavy and low over the net.
Only really effective topspin is the slower ball, fast loop is very easy to control.
Push returns easier to attack due to less spin.
The speed of the ball is slower through the air and after the bounce.
The slower shot or the slow-roll ball can be very effective and often results in an unusual bounce due to the polymers used in manufacture.
Spin is much less in the rallies.
Rallies will be longer and players will need to be fitter and stronger.
Power will be important, especially if you can win the point in the first few balls, otherwise you will have to wait for the right ball.
Placement will assume a much more important role.
Variation in trajectory, pace and angles will be much more important.
The quality of the balls is poor and a number of balls don’t behave as expected in the rallies.
Pimple players especially long pimple players may need to change material. Such players have always had more problems against flat hit balls and no spin shots and will now be further disadvantaged. Pimple players who stay close will be better off than the orthodox defenders who play further back. Defenders will need more alternatives and may have to attack more and earlier in the rallies as well as staying in and blocking/stop-blocking more to change the form of the rally and to create openings.
Short pimple rubbers may well be the most effective with the plastic ball as not only are they ideal for changing speed and spin, but also they can easily return very short balls to the opponent. This will be highly efficient when using change of pace and playing short and long and may well be one of the dominant tactics with the new ball.
The topspin game off the table will now fall behind, as players will not get the same spin or penetration, especially in the women’s game. It is far too easy to hit hard and drop short with the new ball, especially as your opponent’s topspin tends to ‘sit up’. The shorter drop shots on the other hand will not come through and will tend to drop below table level very quickly which will cause big problems to the player who retreats too far. Power often will be decisive factor and younger, fitter players who can strike the ball with real force will have the advantage. On the other hand players who try to control and contain will have difficulty in winning points.
● Factors affecting reaction time include age, sex, left or right hand, peripheral vision, practice, fatigue, breathing cycles, exercise, personality, focus and intelligence. Many scientific studies in different sports have proved that men have faster reaction times than women in both the audio (ART) and visual (VRT) categories.
The speed of response in any individual is due to the lag between identification of the stimulus and the beginning of muscle contraction; motor responses in males are comparatively stronger than in females. Reaction times for trained athletes are much faster than those of ordinary people who exercise little and sedentary types of both sexes will be similar. In the case of top-level athletes responses will be much faster than the norm and there is generally a gender gap of between 20 to 30 milliseconds between males and females. However with VRT this does not apply to left eye – left hand dominant females. This suggests that female left-handers have an intrinsic neurological advantage.
● It is also well known that left-handers have better developed right hemispheres and therefore better developed motor, attentional and spatial functions, all supporting the notion that left-handed people have neuro-anatomically-based advantages in performing visuospatial and visuomotor tasks. In fact studying major events in tennis and table tennis over several decades it is found that left-handers are significantly over-represented in the final stages of major events.
The 40mm ball has a larger surface area so it will suffer more air resistance, which will tend to slow it down in flight. This however is offset by the fact that the ball is heavier and a heavier ball does not suffer so much retardation as a light one. If the weight is increased pro-rata with the size, then the two cancel each other out and the two balls will travel at the same speed through the air. The I.T.T.F. specification for the big ball is not quite a pro-rata increase which will mean that it will travel around 2.5% slower. To achieve the required weight the material for the big ball will need to be slightly thinner. Perhaps the I.T.T.F. recognized that it could be difficult to produce a ball that was consistently hard, for in the quality assurance tests they specified a median value which is slightly higher. Balls meeting this value will travel only about 1.5% slower. They further specified a maximum value which gives a pro-rata increase, meaning that the two balls would travel at the same speed!
Without accurate scientific testing (this would of course mean testing in the way in which table tennis strokes are played, where the racket contacts the ball usually at an angle and propels the ball forward) it remains to be seen what can be achieved practically but it would appear that the big ball will travel around 1 – 2% slower through the air. If you just drop a big and a small ball, they will both reach the ground at the same time but the big ball will not bounce up so high. Therefore it is in the reaction off the bat and off the table where any significant reduction in speed is likely to occur. Any specific reduction is not easy to assess because practically balls do not meet the table or the racket perpendicularly and even more importantly contain spin, which affects speed through the air and after the bounce. In some of the initial tests done in the research centre in Ottawa, they found that the harder the hit, the less difference there was between the speed of the big and small ball! Perhaps a really hard hit and the big ball will travel faster than the small one! Indications at the moment are that speed at the fast end of the game has not been affected very much but that speed at the slow end is rather slower.
Most players agree that the ball is more visible, slows down more quickly and tends to dip at the end of its trajectory. It also drops down to floor level rather more rapidly and doesn’t ‘carry’ so far after bouncing as the small ball did, especially with a lesser power input. As far as the ball coming off the racket is concerned, the sponge and rubber combination we use cannot create energy, it can only minimize energy losses. The ball will deform as will the racket surface — such deformation represents a loss of energy and the rebound speed of the ball (other aspects being equal) will always be less than the impact speed. The bigger ball with a larger surface area and the racket surface will both deform more, leading to higher energy losses. A similar situation will occur when the larger ball hits the table, there will be a little more deformation, a little higher energy loss.
It is in the area of spin rather than that of speed where most players are going to notice a difference with the big ball. The critical factor is air resistance which will slow the larger ball quicker, accelerating the dissipation of spin and causing it to ‘dip’ more rapidly under topspin conditions. The speed of revolution (spin) will be in inverse proportion to the size of the ball. The larger ball will clearly spin slower and less and since any point on the surface will travel further to complete a revolution, the spin will decrease quicker due to air resistance. However there is also the possibility that because of the larger surface area it is feasible that more friction can be transmitted to the larger ball, so that in service, very thin contact or over the table shots the opponent who stays close may face more spin! This is of course an equally valid argument with the hard hit ball but if the opponent takes this at a deeper position much of the spin will have dissipated.
A particularly important aspect is what happens after the ball hits the table. Spin is converted into forward or backward momentum. Topspin will add to the speed of the shot after the ball has bounced — the bottom of the ball stops but the top shoots forward increasing the topspin. With the larger ball where we have a larger surface area contact this will tend to dissipate the spin, but at the same time the bottom of the ball should be gripped more on contact thus increasing the topspin effect after the bounce. Which will predominate? Players seem to agree that the big ball dips more both before hitting the table and after the bounce.
Only months after the introduction of the 40mm ball many manufacturers were already producing quicker or oversize blades and faster glues. One of the answers is obviously to increase the power input so we have more spin and speed off the racket and thus to restore the status quo. But is this really the smart thing to do? Surely we the innovative players should be thinking of how to turn any new situation to our advantage not to restore things to what they were? Do we really want to end up slugging it out topspin to topspin two and a half metres back from the table till one or other player tires? If the ball drops rather more quickly, especially with spin and if there’s more effect with the slower shots, perhaps we should look into these aspects rather more — spin and variation rather than power!
It is perhaps also of interest to think a little of the difference in the power element between the men’s and women’s game. We must touch on science here for a brief moment — we know that a modern ‘sandwich’ rubber racket can be swung in a much flatter plane than the old ‘hard’ bat, thus giving the ball more forward speed. The harder the ball is hit with this type of stroke, the more topspin it will contain. The sponge does much of the work in lifting the ball over the net and the spin in bringing it down on the other side of the table. However women don’t hit the ball as hard as men and will therefore achieve less topspin effect than men on the power strokes such as the loop drive. At the very highest levels in the women’s game those players who use the power strokes are going to achieve less spin through the air, less ‘dip’ on to the table and less speed off the table after the bounce. It should therefore be rather easier for the close-to-table women players to cope with those who like to back away and topspin from a deeper position.
Can you make life more difficult for your opponent by changing the trajectory of your topspin shots? If you lower the trajectory and play as low over the net as possible, then it becomes much more difficult for your opponent to counter with force, especially if you feed in rather lesser power. Faced with a lower, slower ball, he or she is obliged to initiate both speed and spin to play positively and get the ball over and down on your side of the table.
There are basically four different types of topspin trajectory which can be produced by varying the angle of the racket surface, the direction of the stroke, the time of hitting the ball and the method of feeding in force to the stroke.
The trajectories achieved in 3 and 4 are rather superior to those in 1 and 2, although they too may have their uses from time to time. Trajectories 1 and 4 are easier to use with a slower ball.
Many coaches seem to spend most of their lives focusing on the technical side. Sound technique in itself is a worthwhile aim but of course not the be all and end all – indeed many coaches do not seem to know where to go next after the technical phase is coming to an end as it surely does. In fact one aspect which most top coaches in Europe do agree on, is that the technical development should be completed by around last year cadet or at latest first year junior.
Technique of course forms the basis for the evolution of tactics and ultimately of style development. Unfortunately bad or incorrectly developed techniques can cripple the player’s future progress as he or she does not have the right tools to execute the required tactics or to fully cultivate the chosen style.
Good technique is nice, to be effective is better, to understand how you perform at your best and get optimum results is best of all. Each player has to understand how he or she wins as an individual and all individuals are different. It should therefore appear to be fairly obvious that direction along the right path for you the player is of some importance and that this needs close contact with coaches and other members of your support team and some considerable and on-going discussion. You the player must also have an input and in some aspects of coaching this should be more pronounced than others – for example only you know whether you feel comfortable or not with the way you play or how positive or aggressive you will choose to be under pressure.
Nor is there as some National Coaches seem to think ‘a style of play’ to which our players must conform if they wish to reach top level. This is a recipe for disaster for we start to move players away from areas where they have a natural talent and often into areas where they will only ever be mediocre. It is the natural talents of the player which we must direct into the appropriate channels for his or her style, so that the individual player realises full potential. We cannot effectively force players into styles of our choosing.
The content and method of training of players, especially girl players, assume rather more importance than we may have initially thought in the formative years. Why ‘of girl players’? Quite simply because there are many more styles and many more ‘material’ players among the ranks of the women. To play at top level in the women’s game requires a high ‘adaptive intelligence’ and this is not something which happens automatically – it is a capability which must be carefully nurtured and cultivated right from the early years.
It is of course the function of the coach to foster self-sufficiency so that in the long run his services are no longer required. However it is above all vital that with each and every player there is ‘continued progress’. Perhaps the single most critical aspect of the coach/player relationship is to promote an awareness that without progress there can only be stagnation. In the final analysis winning or losing is not really important – we learn from both – but the process of growing and evolving is.
Direction is about knowing where you are going and how to get there. It’s about being effective and knowing what is needed for you to play at your absolute best. It’s about continuous analysis and reassessment of your game so that you don’t take any wrong turnings on the way. It’s about asking the right questions – ‘Am I going in the right direction – for me and my end-style?’ ‘What is new in my game? Am I progressing, developing? What should I be working on to make my game more effective, to achieve maximum potential? How am I going to play as a senior?’
Unfortunately what often happens nowadays is that players are being removed, often at a much earlier age, from their own secure coaching environment with a great deal of individual attention and placed into national high performance squads where the majority of the training is group oriented. Sparring is a high priority but not individual development. Often these selected stars see their own performance and results steadily deteriorating while the not so good players who have managed to avoid the system continue to progress and often to overtake them.
The system of course in many countries is not and never was interested in individuals or only in the sense that it is quite prepared to destroy fifty or a hundred players to produce one European Champion. It is usually a question of the survival of the fittest and the vast majority will be used as the cannon-fodder to achieve this end and are expendable in the cause of developing the chosen few. Players entering the system or having dazzling opportunities presented to them must not be blinded to the harsh truths which are inherent in their acceptance.
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 from countries as diverse as Ukraine, Germany, Slovak Republic, Sweden, Austria, Poland and Italy are all in favour of much higher involvement by the players’ own coaches in any European development programme.
Too many coaches even at National level seem to be biased too towards certain styles or to not fully understand others. 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’!
When hitting the ball with an attacking shot the bat moves in a forward and/or upward direction. The forward motion projects the ball forward and the upward motion imparts topspin. The flatter the trajectory the faster the ball will leave the racket and the less topspin it will have. The ultimate is the flat hit which gives maximum speed and no spin. Topspin is the most important spin in table tennis because it gives a greater margin of error when hitting offensive strokes and without it we would not be able to hit the ball so hard when it is at or below net height. Due to the nature of the execution of the stroke in comparison with the drive (more lift) it is easy to use many more timing points and thus much more variation. What many players in the Western world especially women do not appreciate is the critical importance of timing in drive play. A flat hit will have very little margin for error and a slight miscalculation will cause the ball to go into the net or off the end of the table. However a topspin hit can be aimed well above the net and the topspin will cause the ball to dip down and still land on the table, thus giving a much greater margin for error.
Topspin is needed in attack because it gives the ball a downward-curving flight path while maintaining directional control. What is good about a downward-curving flight path? It is much more certain that the ball will hit the table because its final approach is nearer to the vertical instead of almost horizontal as in the flat drive. The gyroscopic effect of the spin gives strong directional control, thus more and more power can be fed into the stroke without greatly reducing the on-the-table accuracy.
An important point is that both backspin and topspin cause the ball to deviate in flight. Test this for yourself. In your own training hall loop the ball hard and long with much topspin — it will dip quickly to the floor during flight then after bouncing will spin forward and run on to the end of the hall. The backspin ball will veer upwards before dropping down, will run forward only a little, then will spin back towards you and can end up spinning back past you. Not only does the type of spin affect the ball in the air but it also affects the way the ball behaves after the bounce.
But why does spin cause the ball to deviate in flight and why do we sometimes have unusual, unpredictable effects after the bounce? This is in fact to do with the interaction of the spinning ball as it moves through the air against the flow of air molecules. (We have all felt air, when we stick our hand out of a car window moving at speed we can feel that air is rather more solid than we thought). As the ball moves through the air different areas of the surface are subject to lesser or greater resistance, the Magnus effect. With topspin the ball is forced down, with backspin conversely forced up. If we take a topspin ball for example, the fast moving area at the top of the ball opposes the air flow and we get resistance or high pressure. However at the bottom, the fast moving area of the surface moves with the air flow, the air molecules speed up and you get low pressure. As a result the ball is forced downwards. At the bounce the bottom of the heavily spinning ball is held by the table, topspin increases and the ball shoots forwards very quickly.
Once the ball has crossed the net some force is required to bring the ball down on to the table — gravity alone is not enough if the ball is travelling fast. This force is provided by topspin which causes the ball to dip. Therefore a hard hit must contain a lot of topspin to bring the ball down on to the table — the harder the hit the more topspin it must contain. Modern bats allow the ball to be hit very hard from below net height because they create sufficient topspin on the ball. This topspin also causes the ball to come off the table very quickly, shooting through fast and low after the bounce.
With the modern racket the characteristics of the sponge and rubber allow the bat to be swung in a different, flatter arc, giving more forward speed to the ball. Because of the spin produced, much more energy can be fed into the shot. In effect the ball sinks into the bat, is grabbed by it and as the bat is moving up and forward, the ball is projected upwards and forwards too. The surface of the rubber is very tacky so it grips the ball and imparts a great deal of topspin. It is this topspin which causes the ball to dip down on to the table. Another vital point is that for the same bat path, the faster the racket moves, the more spin it puts on the ball. A fast hit will contain more topspin than a slow hit. Most players, especially women, do not understand the importance of spin in hitting the ball hard. Very few women for example ever attempt to play with the same degree of closed racket angle as the men, so how can they hope to achieve the same level of spin as the men? It also means that the variety of topspin trajectories are often more limited in the women’s game. How much spin you produce is seen most readily when you play against long pimples and your hard hit comes back with very much more backspin than your slow hit.
Nowadays players have mentally absorbed the fact that topspin makes the ball shoot through fast after hitting the table. When they play against pimples they complain that the ball comes through much slower. Often players have problems coping with the flat hit with lesser topspin. The ball comes off the racket faster, therefore travels through the air faster, but comes off the table slower!
What many players fail to appreciate is that the ball will always come off the bat faster when it hits the bat at a perpendicular angle because the energy losses will be less. However fast and elastic, sponge cannot create energy, it can only minimize energy losses. With the sponge racket the grabbing and lifting effect enables the bat to be swung flatter to give more forward speed, but the flatter angle of attack means there are more energy losses due to a larger depression being made in the surface of the sponge. If the elasticity is increased, so that the ball springs off the racket more quickly, this will almost certainly reduce the lifting effect and the amount of topspin produced so there will be less ‘dip’ on to the other side of the table.
What players must understand too is that we should consider the relevance of speed over three different areas, speed off the racket, speed through the air and speed off the table. We should also consider how the different speeds are affected by how we play the stroke and then examine the trajectory of the ball. Will a loop ball which has a pronounced arc in trajectory reach the other end of the table more quickly than a flat hit which travels in a straight line? Obviously not unless there is a much greater difference in the power input.
We must also put a little thought into just how much effect the 40mm ball is going to have on our stroke play. Without accurate scientific testing (this would of course mean testing in the way in which table tennis strokes are played, where the racket contacts the ball usually at an angle and propels the ball forward) it remains to be seen what can be achieved practically, but it would appear that the big ball will travel at around 1 – 2% slower through the air. If you just drop a big and a small ball from the same height, they will both reach the ground at the same time but the big ball will not bounce up so high. Therefore it is in the reaction off the bat and off the table where any significant reduction in speed is likely to occur. Any specific reduction is not easy to assess because practically balls do not meet the table or the racket perpendicularly and even more importantly contain spin, which affects speed through the air and after the bounce. In some of the initial tests done in the research centre in Ottawa, they found that the harder the hit, the less difference there was between the speed of the big and small ball! Perhaps a really hard hit and the big ball will travel faster than the small one! Indications at the moment are that speed at the fast end of the game has not been affected very much but that speed at the slow end is rather slower.
It is in the area of spin rather than that of speed that most players are going to notice a difference with the big ball. The critical factor is air resistance which will slow the larger ball more quickly, accelerating the dissipation of spin and causing it to ‘dip’ more rapidly under topspin conditions. The speed of revolution (spin) will be in inverse proportion to the size of the ball. The larger ball will clearly spin slower and less and since any point on the surface will travel further to complete a revolution, the spin will reduce quicker due to air resistance. However there is also the possibility that because of the larger surface area it is feasible that more friction can be transmitted to the larger ball, so that in service, very thin contact or over-the-table shots the opponent who stays close may still face much spin! This is of course an equally valid argument with the hard hit ball but if the opponent takes this at a deeper position much of the spin will have dissipated.
A particularly important aspect is what happens after the ball hits the table. Spin is converted into forward or backward momentum. Topspin will add to the speed of the shot after the ball has bounced — the bottom of the ball stops but the top shoots forward increasing the topspin. With the larger ball where we have a larger surface area contact with the air this will tend to dissipate the spin, but at the same time the bottom of the ball should be gripped more on contact thus increasing the topspin effect after the bounce. Which will predominate? Players seem to agree that the big ball dips more both before hitting the table and after the bounce.
Do we really want to end up slugging it out, topspin to topspin, two and a half metres back from the table till one or other player tires? If the ball drops rather more quickly, especially with spin and if there’s more effect with slower shots, perhaps we should look into these aspects rather more — spin and variation rather than power! It is perhaps also of interest to think a little of the difference in the power element between the men’s and the women’s game. We must touch on science here again for a brief moment — we know that a modern ‘sandwich’ rubber racket can be swung in a much flatter plane than the old ‘hard’ bat, thus giving the ball more forward speed. The harder the ball is hit with this type of stroke, the more topspin it will contain. The sponge does much of the work in ‘lifting’ the ball over the net and the spin in bringing it down on the other side of the table. However as women don’t hit the ball as hard as men and usually play with a less closed bat angle, they will achieve proportionately less topspin effect than men on the power strokes such as the loop drive. Women will tend to suffer more with the big ball than men, those who do have a topspin game will be less effective because it will be more difficult for them to increase the spin element and thus some of the ‘on-the-table’ effect will be lost and with it a measure of control. At the very highest levels in the women’s game those players who use the power strokes are going to achieve less spin through the air, less ‘dip’ on to the table and less speed off the table after the bounce. It should therefore be rather easier for the closer-to-table women players to cope with those who like to back away and topspin from a deeper position.
Throughout Europe coaches appear to be operating increasingly at a lower and lower level — in fact you can almost say the real coaches are rapidly disappearing. Nowadays too much emphasis and time are spent on aspects such as technique and power or topspin and little or no effort in making the individual player more effective. On training camps we spend hours doing on-the-table exercises that have little or no purpose behind them. We often seem to go through the motions without really understanding what we intend to achieve. Few players seem to ask the important questions – ‘Why are we doing this exercise? What is the purpose? How does this benefit me in my play with my particular style?’ In fact in the final analysis we seem to be getting fewer and fewer players with real potential coming through the system in Europe.
Even those who do come through to national level appear to be rather more stereotyped in their overall style than the top Europeans of 10 years ago, which almost immediately gives rise to the question – ‘Just what is happening with our coaching in Europe?’ Players such as Appelgren, Waldner, Gatien, Saive and Primorac were all successful with a variety of differing styles – the young players of today have a workmanlike style with good pace and power but relatively little real feeling in their game. As a result they tend to be rather more predictable. And this is happening in spite of all the increased funding and better facilities that we now have throughout Europe in a number of countries. We once produced world champions such as Stellan Bengtsson at 17 years of age. Surely in these modern times with more money than ever before in table tennis, better equipment, better organization and facilities, increased advanced scientific help and wider know-how, we have much more going for us. We should in fact do rather better, not worse!
Unfortunately many of our up-and-coming young players seem to lack real discipline and especially direction. They appear to have little or no idea as to how they should play to be most effective. Or indeed what their end style of play should be, which direction they should take and how in actual fact they are going to get there! We read comments in various magazines such as – ‘Gone are the days when one coach or parent can produce a European or World Champion. The game is just too technical, too complex and too demanding for the enthusiastic amateur approach’. Perhaps someone could explain just how putting a group of even quite promising young players together (numbering between 15/20) in one national centre with one or two coaches is going to produce a champion? You may have the environment and some of the talented players, but you don’t have the method! In fact in a number of countries in Europe the top young players refuse to attend their national centres — they obviously feel they can get a better ‘deal’ elsewhere.
The time for individual emphasis and development in national centres is extremely limited. Good sparring is of course important and has its place but it is by no means enough on its own in the total scheme of things. In fact what has been achieved in national centres over the last few years (especially in view of the total input in terms of finance and expertise), compared with the successes of private coaches working alone and with limited resources, or measured against individual training in one or two of the better clubs, has often been quite laughable and yet we continue to pour funds into such ventures. It is perhaps now time that we appreciated that both the staffing and expertise levels in any such centres are absolutely critical. Coaches must have the time, the expertise and also the motivation to want to help players.
The single most important factor in the progress of a player at national level is that he or she has access to the right influences and sources of information. So many players reach national standing and stagnate! They may get a little stronger and hit the ball harder, but in terms of individual personal development there are few signs of forward movement. At every stage in a player’s career they must be progress and change, but this is of prime importance at the highest levels. No player can stop developing and ‘tread water’ on the way to the top, he or she must continue to advance and in most cases this requires some monitoring and guidance.
Also at national level in many countries there seems to be a ‘stagnation’ in motivation — it’s almost as if players attain the status of a national team player and are then satisfied. Perhaps they feel that they have achieved their goals and just don’t have the incentive to keep going! One of the problems too in Europe is that the top stars are often ‘safe’ in their national team place, there are few really talented young players pushing for their position. Regardless of their results, win or lose, perform well or badly, they are still going to keep their place in the team. This is hardly the environment to encourage players to keep raising their levels. In many cases they become too complacent.
If we talk to players involved in elite teams throughout Europe we find that there is quite often a general level of dissatisfaction with the input and the expertise of coaches and trainers. Quite a number of up-and-coming top players have to ‘take over’ and to organize the direction of their own training because the coaches even in the bigger clubs either don’t have the time or specialized expertise to do this. Many elite players would prefer to see more players going into coaching at the end of their careers because they at least have some idea of what it’s all about at the top. Many others prefer to have coaches from Asia because even though there can often be communication problems, they at least know how to develop table tennis players and take them up to higher levels. Young players who train for long periods in Asia return to their home countries dissatisfied and understanding often for the first time that the training at home, even at national level, is woefully inadequate and in many cases leading them in the ‘wrong’ direction as a player. This is particularly noticeable in the women’s game.
Whatever the reasons there appears to be an increasing tendency in many countries in Europe for more players to go into coaching at the end of their career or when they are injured. 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 players being involved in coaching at national level.
Very few questions ever seem to be asked as to the qualifications or capabilities of ex-players taking up coaching duties. In addition very rarely do these ex-players take upgrading courses in theory or in areas where they may be lacking in knowledge. What for example qualifies a young male loop player of thirty years to take over as a junior girl’s coach? Does he know the theory of women’s play, the various styles and materials and the differing mental approach? Many parents and coaches would in fact be horrified if they knew just how little thought often goes into the selection of some of the trainers, helpers and sparring partners at national level! They would be more concerned if they knew just how much pressure national coaches come under and just how little time they often have left to get down to actual coaching.
In all of this we must bear in mind that the career path of a coach is rather different from that of a player. We are not only talking here of the level of expertise (there are for example many things which coaches know that they don’t necessarily pass on to players and which players don’t need to know, because their function is not to teach but to play). We should bear in mind too that coaching is about handling people and getting the best out of them, something a player is not necessarily good at and may have to work hard to develop. Players have often spent their whole career trying to make their own particular style of play as effective as possible. Suddenly they are asked to take on the responsibility for the guidance and development of a dozen completely different styles. It’s rather like taking the combat soldier from the front line and putting him in the general’s chair! One situation requires the intense localised focus, the other a much wider overview. Aspects such as this must always be considered when promoting players to coaching duties and especially at national level.
When we are examining the quality of coaching at the highest level we must also consider the level of funding available. I have known of several instances in various countries in Europe where coaches have been asked to take on national duties and have refused solely because such a move would have entailed a drop of some 30% in salary. It is next to impossible to attract the right people without having remuneration at least comparable with industry or other professions. Another avenue we think to use is to look for coaches from outside our own country, often without understanding that the culture gap may mean several years without a real level of improvement. Foreign trainers usually need to be in a country for some time and to understand the system before they can be completely effective. Coach development too varies very much from country to country over Europe and different areas of expertise are often highlighted in differing localities. I know of national coaches from European countries working abroad who are not even allowed to take coaching courses in their home country, because they have never passed the first grade coaching examination!
Without the right people in our national centres the players are going nowhere! Players starting in national centres at a younger age, say between 12—15 years are especially vulnerable and usually require fairly constant guidance, particularly as they have often been uprooted from their own coach and the stability of family life. They more often than not need to be handled by coaches who have considerable experience in individual style development.
Whatever we are doing in Europe it is obviously not good enough. We are not producing the top level world-class players we once did, we are not getting players to elite levels at 12/13 years or finals of the European men’s singles at 16 years of age. It’s not really a valid argument to say that we don’t have the talented players any more because we do! Perhaps now is the time to re-evaluate our coaching in Europe and particularly to look at the direction it should take over the next period of 4/5 years. With our sport reaching higher and higher levels all the time, it is more than ever necessary to be aware of our strengths and to be looking at ways to maximize these.
Above all, players of talent whether in or out of national centres should have equal opportunity to progress. We must face the fact that we cannot force players to attend national centres, top players are often strong characters and wish to go their own way and in a number of European countries do just this. Perhaps we must also face up to the possibility that it’s not just the top players who are being ‘difficult’, but our national centres which are just not good enough and need upgrading with newer methods and systems.
Whatever the background and reasons may be we seem to be producing less and less players of individual style. There is much less individualism among the young and rather less flair and feeling in their game. 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.
Whether we work individually or in groups but especially in national centres we must find a way to bring in a larger element of individual focus on the major prospects so that they have the best possible chance to reach their full potential. If at all possible a top player must have something different, some unique quality which opponents have difficulty in adapting to. It is up to the coach and the player, working together, to find this quality and to work to develop it and make it most effective. Table tennis is a game of adaptation and counter-adaptation and the player who has something different or unusual in his or her game will always cause problems to the opponent.
How many of you have given much thought to the social values of table tennis? It never ceases to amaze me that you can go to a strange town, ring up the local league secretary and immediately there is interest. People want to know your level, if you are interested in playing in a team, helping with coaching groups etc. Our sport serves as an instant passport to a circle of new friends.
Perhaps you are one who plays purely because you enjoy the game and have no great ambitions. You play primarily for the social aspects and find it relaxing to have a night out once or twice a week with like-minded mates. If this is your approach, good luck to you. You will probably usually play well because your game will be relaxed and natural and there will be no great pressures on you to break records or do anything out of the ordinary. However you will have to be prepared to accept that there will be levels you can’t reach, standards you cannot achieve and players who will beat you purely because they practise more often or are more fiercely competitive.
On the other hand you may fall into the category of a number of players who although they are quite competitive, tend to be rather rigid in the way they play and in the way they think. Many players achieve a level and are satisfied with this. They aren’t really prepared to put in the exertion and the effort to raise the standard of their game or to aim for new heights. Even many young players come under this classification. They become set in their ways, play in a fixed pattern which brings them limited success, but in reality they have stopped moving forward. Their game is stagnating and nothing new is taking place. There is no progress or development.
Table tennis is above all about adaptation. If you cannot change your game to cope with the opponent’s tactics then it’s difficult to be a winner. If you are not continuing to change then you are not developing. True we all play the game for different reasons and of course we cannot all be world champions. But there’s no reason why we should not reach our full potential or as nearly as possible. To accomplish this we must first have the right approach and the right mental attitude.
Whatever your reasons for playing and at whatever levels you play, there will also be days when you play badly and need to call on your reserves of experience. The ability to keep on going even through difficult patches singles out the player who has the more professional approach. The quality of professionalism is often emphasized by the degree of planning, preparation and on-going analysis that goes into your game. Many players find in fact that the keeping of statistics during the playing season helps them and is of long-term value. Common factors start to emerge. They often lose against a certain style of player or have problems against some types of racket. Just how scientific you are prepared to be in your approach is up to you. Like we all do, you play in part because you enjoy the game, but I am sure you will find that if anything a more professional approach will enhance rather than inhibit this enjoyment.
If you want to be good you will quite simply make yourself fit enough to achieve the level you want to play at. There is little point here in detailing exercise programmes or spending much time on fitness aspects. Almost every book written on table tennis caters quite fully for the physical side of the game.
What we can do however is to stress some of the benefits of fitness. All coaches are agreed on the mobility factor - increase your mobility and you increase the level of your play. You get more shots back and you get them back more correctly because you have more time to get into the correct position to play them. You are better placed to feed in spin or power to your stroke. But mobility has long-term advantages too - you will for instance be able to play at a higher level longer and to continue playing later in life. Why give up playing at forty when you can continue getting enjoyment out of the game till sixty-five or over?
What too about the benefits of good fitness on the mental outlook, your level of alertness and the ability to cope with new challenges and stresses? Most top executives have come to appreciate in these modern times that a fit body allows them to do their daily paperwork, handle meetings and make decisions that much more efficiently. They are more alert, can think out problems more quickly, can stand longer hours and still function well, are more resistant to stress and illness and recover more rapidly. It is just so with the really fit table tennis player. He has time to think, to plan tactics, to work out his opponent’s weaknesses, to evaluate where he himself is winning and losing points. He has time simply because his body does not have to operate on overload all the time and he is able to allocate other tasks to his mental computer.
Then there are the psychological advantages of fitness. If you are in good shape you are much more liable to be at ease with yourself, to ‘like’ yourself. The perfectly functioning body tends to breed emotional serenity, a calmer outlook on life and as a result you often relate better to other people. The player who loses games because of his lack of fitness and is also inadequate in tactical areas because of this, is much more likely to be the one who throws his bat around after the match. He knows inside, if he is really prepared to admit it, that much of his failure is his own fault. He wants to play at a certain level, but is unwilling or unable to get his physical shape up to the standard where he can compete effectively. As a result we get internal conflict which grows as the player continues to lose.
On the other hand the player who has performed to the limits of his potential has no cause for self-recrimination. The other player was just better on the day and this is a situation we all have to face at one time or another. If we have played to our utmost and lost then we should accept defeat gracefully. Inventing excuses for failure is of no help to anyone. Rather than trying to find a scapegoat for our loss, we must weigh and evaluate the circumstances of the day and decide what changes we need to make in our own attitudes and training to continue to progress and to move forward.
This is one of the great things about table tennis. A defeat is not the end of the world, there are an infinite number of variables in our sport. From day to day and match to match conditions alter, sometimes in your favour sometimes against. Tables change, floors are different, space, height, balls and lighting vary. The mental approach of your opponent is never exactly the same, even the element of luck may play its part. With such a number of variables a rematch does not have to have the same result - only if you let it.
The outcome of the really big top of the table clash can often be largely decided before it is played. In terms of playing skill, point for point, the players will probably be very close and half a dozen sets might well be decided 11 - 9 or deuce in the final game. Preparation becomes vital. You know the opposing team’s strengths and weaknesses, the types of bats they use, their temperaments and limitations. Work out how you and your team-mates can exploit this knowledge, how you should approach the game against each individual opponent, how you can take the most out of him and wear him down, even if it may be difficult to beat him. For this cumulative effect is often vital in the big match.
You may face one opponent who is expected to take his three singles against your team. But if you can make him struggle for every point and keep him under pressure all the time, his chances of beating each successive player become less and less. Gradually you wear him down so that by the time he plays his last match he is physically and mentally weakened.
If you have home advantage then most of your problems are solved - tables, floor, lighting, the amount of space and height, the run-back distance, all these conditions will be familiar to you and you will allow for them automatically without conscious thought. If your match is at an away venue then prepare as much as you can. Use what knowledge you have - if you know the table is slow practise on a similar type of surface and arrive early so you have a good chance to get acclimatized.
The order of play is of particular importance. Work out to the best of your ability the expected order of the opposition, try to put yourself into their minds, what are they trying to achieve? Endeavour to out-think and out- manoeuvre them right from the start. Do they have a regular order, does one of their players like to finish first or last? This last-second preparation might well tip the scales in your favour.
Aim to get an early lead. Many key matches have been won by one side going 3 - 1 or 4 - 2 up, it gives the whole side confidence and disheartens the opposition. If you have one good player who will win all his games, let him finish first - games won are always worth more than games to play in the mental stakes. Equally if there is no star player but the opposing team has one weak link, a player who perhaps because of a clash of styles loses easily to one or more of your team, use this. Beat this player comprehensively early on, this may well affect him mentally for the rest of the match. It may also put pressure on his better or more experienced colleagues and give you an advantage against them.
Don’t let hostile supporters get you down, remain calm and in control of the play. Whatever your methods of ‘crowd control’, never at any time reveal a lack of confidence. The player who remains totally expressionless during matches often raises doubts in the opponent’s mind. As far as supporting your team members is concerned you should know their moods and attitudes. Some do better with a little encouragement, others are better left alone in a tight spot and constant support can distract them.
Most of us have been in the situation where we have been well ahead, leading 8 - 1 and playing fluently. We are relaxed and confident, we have the game won and it is all over barring the entry on the scorecard. Then suddenly everything starts to go wrong. Our opponent starts to play better even though there’s no possibility that he can win and 8 - 1 becomes 8 - 4. We are still not too worried, all we need is a couple of good shots - but we miss and decide to tighten up our game but to no avail, 8 - 4 becomes 8 - 7. Now we are a little worried and try to shift into a higher gear, but our opponent seems to have a new lease of life and is playing better and better. We on the other hand start to tense up a little, as the feeling we can’t win becomes a certainty and surely enough this becomes fact and we lose 9 - 11!
We let the opponent off the hook, the big question is of course why, how did it happen? What was the intangible factor that changed the game? It is far too late at 8 - 7 to ask ourselves what is going wrong, probably too late at even 8 - 5. Something happened right back at 8 - 3 or 8 - 4 that we did not appreciate or a combination of things. Because we didn’t have our finger closely on the pulse of the game we missed it. Perhaps because we were playing so well and were in such a commanding position, we relaxed or started to play ‘impossible’ shots. Whatever the reason we started to miss and to lose points. At the same time something had happened at the other end of the table. Our opponent had decided he had lost and didn’t care any more or had changed his tactics or mental approach. Whatever it was, it happened that the upsurge in our opponent’s game coincided with the period of relaxation in our own.
Our opponent started to come back and each point he won increased his confidence and decreased ours. His run should have been broken when he got at most 1 or 2 points. But we allowed him to come back and probably didn’t fully appreciate the danger till about 8 - 6, by which time we were tensing up rather than continuing to play in such a relaxed fashion. Our game started to suffer just at the time our opponent was gaining in confidence and realised he had the chance to win.
To stop any comeback early is critical. Now we are only playing to eleven-up the game can change dramatically in a very few points and the player who has the last two serves often has a good chance to win. If you are for example leading 10 - 6 or 10 - 7 and serving it is important to make the serve count and finish the game.
In any one-to-one sport such as table tennis much is in the mind. If you ask top players what they are thinking about when they are playing ‘out of this world’, usually the answer is ‘nothing’. The mind is blank and they are just ‘playing’. As soon as you start to question and to doubt then in most cases your performance suffers and you play worse. This is because you allow the conscious, thinking part of the mind to interfere with the sub-conscious, automatic reactions. In our sport you train to react automatically, so that in fact you don’t need to think about things like technique and movement. It is when it is operating on autopilot that our body is most efficient, the interference of our conscious, thinking mind more often than not only causes problems.
The conscious part of the mind should be kept free for handling tactics and identifying how you are getting ahead and why you are winning. Try to keep mental track of just how you are winning points. It’s not easy to do this and to plan tactically while you play but if you can, it will pay big dividends. You can work at this in the training hall at first. Begin by trying to keep track of the first few points, then a few more, then gradually extend this to the whole game. By applying yourself to this type of exercise, you make yourself much more alert to any change of tactics that your opponent may bring in. At the same time you can monitor yourself and your own play so that you guard against overconfidence and the urge to ‘experiment’ rather than just winning the game.
There is no quality of magic in knowing what your opponent is going to do, it’s largely a matter of a systematic approach to the game and an on-going analysis of his style of play. Bear in mind that a number of factors can contribute to you not reaching a particular ball. You may be unfit or wrong-footed, your reaction time may be slow or you may have bad movement patterns. He who anticipates correctly gets a start moving to the ball as does the player with the fastest reaction time, but the competitor with the best movement patterns will save a great deal of time and energy over a match.
The first step towards controlling the play and thus eliminating much of the need for anticipation is effective service receive. Obviously look at the angle of the racket and any last second changes in this angle. If you watch the bat arm elbow this will often indicate whether the opponent is serving topspin or backspin. Most in-swinging serves can be attacked and if you play without too much power you will return the spin to the server. The out-swinger is often a prelude to a third-ball loop or hit and you should try to return to unexpected areas of the table. Early ball receive will give the opponent less time to react.
Above all watch your opponent and his racket. After you have completed your own stroke, turn your attention to him, look at his stance and how he is moving in position to play the next shot. Just before he contacts the ball concentrate on the racket and his wrist, so that you are aware of any last-second changes in length or direction. You should then be in a position to start moving even before the opponent actually hits the ball - you will have enough clues to indicate where he is going to play.
You will often find that your opponent has certain set patterns of play and tends to use certain areas of the table regularly. If you can establish where and when then you simplify the whole process of anticipation. If you know where he is going to place the ball you can get there in good time and play a strong return. Your opponent may then be forced to alter his target area, which may well cause him problems - many players hit better to certain parts of the table than to others.
One of the factors critical to efficient anticipation is to get back to a covering position relatively central to the total angle of play after each stroke. By this we mean that after playing your stroke you automatically assess just how much of the table your opponent has available for use.
You then move to the centre (or a little to the left of centre for a right hander, position X) of the area the opponent can play to. In this way you are in the best position to cover the table. Even though this may be an effort at times this tactic enormously simplifies the whole area of anticipation; there are no easy gaps for the opponent to aim at.
When you arrive at a strange venue there are a number of aspects with which you must familiarize yourself:
The main thing when the game commences is to have a plan even if you have to change it after a few points. If you win the serve then you should of course be looking to use your serve and third ball to best advantage. Many young players for example start off with very potent serves, but often as the game progresses their service power wilts, more so if the points are close and an element of caution creeps in. The top players on the other hand are usually more aggressive in a tight situation and rarely retire into their shell and become defensive.
If you have to receive initially you may well plan to attack the serve or to use the early-timed, short return and try to take advantage on the fourth ball. Some players even start by pressuring the opponent’s strength, then switch to the weaker areas midway through the game. In fact any change during the course of a game, whether this be table areas, change of pace or spin, or different tactics, is good policy and will usually pay dividends. Table tennis is all about adapting to the opponent’s playing style - if this is fluid rather than fixed then adjusting to the variations becomes more difficult.
Remember that a good early lead puts the mental pressure on the opponent, the onus is on him to start playing. It is never easy to play relaxed and fluent strokes from a tense situation. Often it is a good tactic to play ‘tight’ at the start of the game, attacking players usually try to begin positively and it can take a few points to get into their stride. Equally a steady start is important against the defender or the long pimple attacker - don’t be careless and let them have the advantage of an early lead.
As the game progresses try to analyse where you are winning and losing points, the aim being to capitalize on your strengths and to minimize your weaknesses. This should be a constant process, for as you work out which measures are winning you points, the opponent may well come up with a counter and you need to look for advantage elsewhere. Bear in mind that a good service or tactic used spasmodically will often win you more points than if you use it all the time. The opponent has difficulty in adapting because he doesn’t have time to get used to it.
You may find that running an on-going analysis while you are playing is difficult, some players are better at this than others. The first thing to do is to bring this into your training sessions and make a habit of keeping track of how you are winning and losing points. Start by dividing each game into sections of four points and work with a section at a time. You’ll find it’s easier to focus on a smaller slice of the action. Gradually you find that the process becomes automatic and you can take in and remember more and more of a game.
Obviously if you go 1 - 5 down at the start the priority is to isolate just where and why you are losing points. As a pattern emerges you must then tighten up on the areas in which are at fault. On the other hand if you get ahead 9 - 7 then the emphasis of your analysis must change. Just how did you turn the game around, what are you doing differently, what aspects of your game are causing problems to the opponent?
Try too to put yourself into the other player’s mind. He also has anxieties and apprehensions and some styles or tactics will worry him more than others. It’s just a matter of finding them. Successful table tennis is in essence the art of pitting your strengths against the opponent’s weaknesses. However often at top level you see competitors playing weakness to weakness rather than allowing the opponent to use his stronger weapons. If loop-attack is your strong point for instance and you are playing a defender who revels in this type of game, why play in the way he likes?
When the score is close at 8 - 8 or 9 - 8 against a top opponent and the pressure comes on, don’t freeze up and stop thinking. This is the one time you must stay alert and keep a tight rein on your mental control. There is often the temptation to play ‘safe’. You have however reached this stage in the game by playing in a certain way, by playing your game. Try to continue in the same way. Don’t change a winning game or tactic - trust in yourself.
Above all don’t let your mind wander and start doubting, or anticipating the win. As soon as you take your mind off the matter at hand your mental grip fades and loses potency. Stay completely focused, this is the time at the last hurdle, where you need all your concentration.
If you are having problems be prepared to experiment, change your game, the spin, speed, areas of the table, your service patterns. Don’t be afraid to ask your colleagues for advice between games. The man sitting watching usually sees more than the one playing and sees the overall picture. If nothing seems to go right try not to lose your temper. This will be one of the first signs to the opponent that he is making a breakthrough and that you are losing mental control. Indeed this is exactly what it is, losing mental control. How can you think and plan and stay relaxed if your emotions are boiling over? And what about the effect on your opponent? He will get renewed confidence from your display! You in fact lose on all counts!
On the occasion when you are well and truly beaten, do not brood over your defeat. Think back over the game, decide where you went wrong, and plan what to do next time you meet the same competitor. Once you have exhausted all the useful knowledge from this defeat, put it completely out of your mind. It is only if you learn from your setbacks that you can grow and move forward. If you come up against a player who always seems to beat you easily, take time off to watch him play opponents against whom he always loses. Study the way they play him, the tactics they use - often you will pick up a number of pointers for the next time you meet.
A great long-distance runner once said - ‘At the start of a big race there may be a dozen of the world’s greatest runners on the grid. They all want to win and some even expect to win. But somewhere among them is the one guy who knows he is going to win and there is no doubt in his mind about that. This is the difference between the winner and the near-winner.’
If you can adopt this attitude within yourself it is surprising how your confidence will show through and in some indefinable way be communicated to your opponent. Your attitude and what you show to the opponent, what he sees, is more important than you may think.
You may well think that if you are playing against a nationally ranked player that your chances are very slim indeed. If you believe however that you are going to lose then you most assuredly will. What you must bear in mind at all times is that our sport is one of many variables - of different conditions from match to match, space and height variations, different floors, tables, lighting arrangements and balls. Even your opponent’s mental approach differs from day to day, the man who crushes you one day may be but a tentative shadow of himself the next time you meet. It is these variables which must give you confidence - if the right factors fall into place for you on the day or if you can influence them to do so, then anything is possible.
Let us go back to the analogy of the long-distance runner for instance. Lap after lap the champion tries to shake you off, accelerating, changing the speed, trying differing tactics, but all to no avail — when he comes into the final straight you are still there, right on his shoulder, with only 50 metres to go. What do you think is passing through the champion’s mind now? Is he still sure of his invincibility or are some doubts starting to creep in? He is after all human just as you are.
Table tennis is very much the same. If you can stay with your opponent point for point, then you can beat anyone. It is the ranked player who is the one under pressure when you are leading 9 - 8 in the deciding game and as we have already learned tension and fluent stroke-play don’t go together. You on the other hand have nothing to lose - always the most dangerous type of opponent. In the vital stages in every match, watch the opponent's face closely. Often they will reveal their doubts and this will give you confidence. Remember only to focus totally on the last one or two points. The last yard to the tape, is the one time when you cannot afford to look round or to slacken off, you must keep going!
Already in the last 4/5 years we have seen from the top Asians and one or two Europeans new heights in skills and physical fitness, which prompt us to ask - ‘Just where can we go from here?’ The standard of mental readiness, tactical knowledge, mobility, the power and consistency of stroke-play reach new levels from year to year. I think we are entering a period where a change is taking place in the basic nature of the game itself and we have to recognize this and adjust our training methods accordingly. Older players will recall that when Jacobson first brought the loop from Japan in 1960, the game changed overnight. The change taking place now is I feel more widespread rather than localized in one specific technique and affects a number of different areas.
Service and the third ball is the set piece where extensive changes have taken place and much more emphasis and coaching time must be put in to developing skills here at quite an early age. Especially we should consider the value of good length short serving and forehand dominance on the third ball. Equal if not more consideration and training time must be given to service receive, using attacking strokes together with early-timed returns and touch to obtain early advantage.
The second prime area in which we must coach dominance, especially in the women’s game, is in over-the-table play. We should be working with aspects such as early-timed pushing, blocking and topspin and killing or looping over the table - all with variation in spin, speed and touch. This is the midfield area that the Asians have revolutionized in recent years, as a result commanding the close-in play and opening up time and time again easy attacking opportunities. We must work more to create openings and win points over the table not just merely to keep the ball in play or as a link between midfield and attack.
Thirdly perhaps in Europe it is now time to start working again to develop backhand strength. Strong backhand play with good topspin seems to be very much on the decline - true we have the odd player such as Kreanga however in general most of the up-and-coming young players demonstrate little flair or feeling on the backhand wing. If we are to have any chance too of competing on equal terms with Asian players then the development of a strong backhand is really a necessity.
The last focal point must be spin and power from a deeper position. At top level the counter-loop is a major weapon and it’s vital that players come to terms with the big ball and being able to play two-wing looping rallies with a high rate of power, consistency and accuracy. This power/spin area is one we must work on and be proficient in, to make real in-roads against the Asians countries.
What perhaps stands out overall is the completeness of most top players, the all-round ability and the total commitment. They are supremely fit and able to play shots from all areas of the table. Balance has always been one of the cornerstones of our sport but athletic movement with consummate balance is now reaching new heights. Players seem to be reaching a new level of awareness of how the different parts of the body function in harmony. The mental aspects are also reaching new heights and players are more responsive than ever before to the nuances of risk-taking. Are these factors pointers to the player of the future, more ‘complete’ and professional in every aspect of the game?
If you are to be a successful coach then it is vital that you have some system of studying what is happening. Even more important is that you know what you are looking for and are able to identify it when you see it. Unfortunately in this modern computerized world we more often than not have too many fitters and too few engineers. The specialists are disappearing and we replace the whole rather than finding out what part was defective. After a while we lose the understanding of how the whole was constructed. This applies too to our great sport. The professional coaches are disappearing – the guys who know how things work are being lost. More often than not they are replaced by players, who at the close of their career or after injury, take up the occupation of trainer. The expertise is in most cases not the same and they look at coaching from a different standpoint.
The first step even before we start to analyse technique, whether it be a stroke, a movement or a serve, is to know what we are looking for. Do we know the critical features of the skill – the back-swing or recovery phases, the force producing movements, the critical impact instant and the follow-through? The movements performed during the approach and ball contact stages are examples of critical features. They must be performed correctly in order to achieve the best results. By best results we do not always necessarily mean winning the point. Coaches must determine too whether or not the skill was performed to best advantage.
Do we have a picture in our mind of what perfect execution looks like? Because without this we have no model, no standard against which to measure! We must also consider any other relevant factors, especially those which may affect our observation of the ability. Bear in mind too that although critical features are inflexible parts of a movement they are often modified by individual differences. These unique and individual adaptations are what make up style. Do we know the difference?
We must visually and mentally break down the skill before actually attempting to observe it. Many advanced coaches already have in their mind a sound concept of the basic components of a particular skill, built up over years of experience of coaching players, lecturing to coaches or preparing and writing coaching material. However the ability to analyse and provide effective feedback is dependent upon the accuracy and relevance of the coaches’ observations. Coaches cannot possibly examine technique if for example they are unaware of exactly which components determine effective performance and are unaware of how best to observe these.
Finally we are in a position to plan how we are going to observe our skill, what aids we are going to use and even from which position we are going to carry out our observation. The critical features are the components of the movement which are essential to the performance of a skill and when we talk about optimal technique we refer to the most efficient performance of a movement pattern within the constraints and requirements of the skill or activity. The identification of the critical features is a far from simple task. It requires a broad knowledge of basic mechanical and motor concepts and an ability to apply this information to different types of movement. The first step in the development of a model is to clearly identify the performance criterion — the exact purpose or goal of the skill and exactly what constitutes successful execution.
The second stage is to simplify analysis by breaking the movement down into parts or phases. Frequently technique may be divided into 4 phases and this break-down process allows the coach to examine the mechanics which affect specific components or parts of the skill.
It is only after the purpose of the skill has been identified and the skill sequence simplified into parts that the coach is ready to determine the mechanical factors affecting each component or phase of the skill. Technique is largely determined by mechanical factors. This stage of the process is the most difficult as it requires an overview of all the fundamental mechanical principles. This movement analysis stage should be considered as the homework phase of the whole analysis process — take time over it. Systematically determine the mechanical factors for each part of the skill. These mechanics do not change, so once you have them figured out, your work on this step is complete. Many experienced coaches have for instance a mental check-list of exactly what to look for at this stage in the analysis.
Once the mechanical factors have been examined and determined, then the critical features can be identified and compared with our model of perfection.
Observers who try to see everything, often end up perceiving nothing. Movement observation must be systematic in order to be effective. The development of an observation plan answers how, when and where to observe. Coaches who approach observation haphazardly will be unable to selectively attend to and record performance of the critical features. They must be able to methodically search for the relevant features of a performance. Each observation plan is designed to relate to a specific task such as a coaching session, which focuses specifically on actions involved during the force production phase or the follow-through phase of a stroke. What is most important is not how you plan but that you do plan.
There are 4 steps involved in the design of an observation plan.
Coaches need first to identify the goal of the observation session. It may be to improve the movements in a particular part of the skill, or it may be to refine the skill as a whole. Critical features previously identified in the movement analysis phase are re-examined and those features relevant to the observation session are selected.
Consider for example the critical features which we may identify in the case of the forehand topspin. If the focus of the particular coaching session is to improve the actions which occur solely with the racket arm, then we only need to select for observation the critical features which are relevant. These are the amount of back-swing, the speed of back-swing, the length and plane of the arm, the speeds and application of the various parts of the arm, the force producing movement, the contact point in terms of time and place, the angle of the racket at contact, the optimum area of contact on the racket and the follow-through of the arm. We need not concern ourselves with the critical features relevant to leg movement or rotation of the body. The selection in this way of a sub-routine of relevant critical features will greatly simplify the observation process.
Observation strategies are formulated after consideration of the following questions.
The number of observations needed to obtain all the necessary information is dependent on the skill. Each repeated observation should be used to view some particular aspect of the movement, so that by the final observation there is a clear record of exactly what has happened. Throughout coaches must look for consistent characteristics of the player’s performance. The absence/presence of one critical feature in one repetition is fine, but what’s important is if this characteristic is consistent.
If the vantage point is not considered, other observation techniques may be useless. The optimum position to view varies from skill to skill and from feature to feature. The position of both the performer and the observer determines what can and what cannot be seen. Many inexperienced coaches have no recollection of their positions or remain in one spot all the time. Determining how to observe from the right place and at the right time to be sure to collate the relevant information, requires serious thought and practice.
The purpose of the diagnostic stage is to identify primary errors, as this is a pre-requisite to making corrections and improving performance. A primary error is one which is the main problem and must be corrected before improvement in performance can take place. (Secondary errors are important too, as they may provide important information concerning the primary errors)
For example to spend time trying to speed up the racket arm when there is inadequate back-swing, is a waste of time. Too short or too slow a back-swing inhibits the quality and efficiency of movement and inhibits the full utilization of elastic energy — either is a primary error. An accurate identification of the primary errors must occur before making corrections to improve performance.
The starting point in identifying primary errors is to note the differences between the observed and desired performance of a critical feature. Next the coach needs to make informed decisions as to the causes of these differences. These decisions are based on a knowledge and understanding of the basic mechanical principles.
The actions which cause the differences between the observed and the desired performances are the primary errors and are what the coach needs to address. Once the primary error or errors have been identified a prescription for remedial action is decided upon — a method of correction. It may be necessary to design appropriate exercises, at appropriate speeds to improve the technique.
The diagnosis of primary errors.
Let every training session have a mental theme. Players should try to be more aware of what they are doing, of their own actions and movements and what is happening both inside and outside. As a coach understand that your attitude will have an effect on the players and how they perform. The following can be some ideas to introduce into training or match-play sessions.
Table tennis is very like life. If you wish to progress and develop then you must really stand outside it, distance yourself from what is going on and make some decisions as to where you are going and how you are going to get there. A good coach can point you in the right direction but there must be a positive input from you. People who just drift rarely achieve anything.
First you must understand that the one constant in table tennis as in life is change, if you try to stop still and stay as you are then you will stagnate. Whether you progress or not depends on whether you are receptive to and ready to accept change. Have you the right mental approach?
One important factor that you must understand is that in our modern society it’s harder than ever to be an individual. Modern society destroys the individual and the specialist. Modern society renders everything uniform, mass media, the speed of communication and the internet for example, all tend to influence us and bring us down to a common level whether we understand this or not. For the human species evolution occurs mostly through behaviour — we innovate new behaviour to adapt and change. The effect of large groups, of mass media, is to stop behavioural change. Mass media swamps diversity, all differences vanish, even humanity’s most necessary resource, intellectual diversity, disappears. We stop thinking for ourselves and follow the herd.
Modern society does not even prepare people to cope with life. Educational establishments unfortunately do not get past the stage of schooling people to use their minds to store information instead of progressing to the level of actually solving problems! Modern education does not teach people to think for themselves – why for example do so many top managers go on leadership courses to help them to do their jobs? The reason is quite simple — in spite of all their time in school and college and university they have never been taught how to use their minds. To progress and develop you must first switch on the mind and then put it into gear. After a while you’ll learn how to drive!
Many players and coaches too do not seem to appreciate that development must be in the right direction for the particular player and that the right training must be devised to enable that player to evolve and mature. Indeed it is the prime function of the coach to unlock the potential of his player. Direction is vital, if the player follows the wrong course for him or her then much of that potential can remain untapped.
The player must of course be aware of his or her strengths and how to use these to win. Each competitor should in essence play his or her own game. If a player is to reach near-maximum potential, it is vital that he or she is aware of how to achieve this. It is the responsibility of the coach to show his player where he or she is going and how to get there! But in the final analysis it’s up to the player to do it!
It is interesting that in many ways we in Europe continue to ape the training methods of the Chinese without really understanding how and why they achieve success.
The Chinese have many top players going into coaching; we in the West use many young players/ex-players on our National camps. The Chinese use many simple regular exercises; we use mainly blocked or constant exercises on many of our National camps. What fails to register at top level in the Associations’ hierarchy is that players will use exercises with which they are familiar, ones from their training regime some 5 – 10 years in the past. Has our sport not changed at all over this period? Regular programmed exercises will of course produce predictable thinking and lack of innovation. Is this the sort of player we really want to produce in the West?
Neither is it of any great advantage to say that what works for the Chinese will work for us. The cultures and circumstances are radically different. Grooving and developing a stroke when you train 7 to 8 hours per day is rather different from a training regime of say 6 hours per week. What may also be overlooked is that the Chinese train much serve and receive and competition play – all this is random work which expands adaptive intelligence. This is the ability to evaluate a scenario in an instant, take in all the immediately available solutions and then take the best action.
What is perhaps also not fully understood is that the Chinese are masters of individual development. The talented junior will very quickly be taken out of the group and moved on and up, often into the hands of the specialist coach. The Asian coaches but especially the Chinese are always on the lookout for unusual even extraordinary techniques and styles of play. Trainers, coaches and administrators are always open in the mind to new ideas and possibilities. Players are also encouraged from an early age to be flexible in the mind and totally aggressive in play — ‘do it to the opponent before he/she does it to you’ is the usual law, in other words get in and attack first. The Asians are always aware that European players have great difficulty in getting to grips with their stop/start fast tempo game, especially as they take the ball at such an early timing point.
If we examine the last three decades of table tennis history the only European to make major inroads into the Chinese domination and the only one universally feared and respected by them has been J.O. Waldner. And what is the hallmark of Waldner’s play? It is the very fact that he is an innovator, always changing, always unpredictable. Even the Chinese admit that when he is playing well, it is quite impossible to plan how to play against him.
Waldner didn’t beat the Chinese by training harder than them, or by using their techniques and tactics against them, he destroyed them by being different, by the novelty and unpredictability of his game. Even as he has aged, he has never changed. In fact he demonstrates innovation better than anyone — in his third decade of play at the highest level he is still looking for new things, to do the 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.
Do we really think we are going to match the Chinese by training with their approach and methods, when they spend almost three times as long at it as we do, have many more players to choose from and many more specialist coaches and advisors? 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 the methods of the past?
Advanced technology has provided the means for the coach to gather very accurate information on the performance of his players. Video-cameras are now used extensively both in training and competition to record exactly how the player is functioning, so that the coach can assess areas such as technique and tactics, with the purpose of improving overall performance. While such tools do much to improve understanding of exactly how movements are executed, the analytical tasks faced by the coach are still predominantly qualitative in nature and he is still faced with an incredibly complex task.
Equipped primarily with his knowledge of the skill and his own qualities of perception, the coach is expected to observe and analyse his player executing many complex and extremely rapid movements. Using these observations he is then expected to make instantaneous decisions in respect of skill techniques and provide effective feedback to his player. All this ‘action’ happens frequently in time periods of as little as a fraction of a second up to one to two seconds! While there is no doubt that the experienced coach is able to do this extremely well, there is also no doubt that many others in our sport identify performance deficiencies using a trial and error approach.
To expose errors and correct these are the ultimate goals of skill analysis. Qualitative analysis offers a systematic approach to achieving such goals. While the approach is based on the knowledge of mechanical principles, it also requires acute and organized observation and diagnostic skills. The coach must also be aware not only of constraints on his player’s performance but also of limitations in his own processes of perception and observation.
Accurate error detection and ensuing correction require an ability to systematically observe and analyse performances. A systematic approach involves 4 major stages — pre-observation, observation, diagnosis and remedial steps. Figure 1 represents a model of a systematic approach to skill analysis.
The pre-observation phase includes two stages which must be tackled first, prior to observing and analyzing the skill performance. The first, movement analysis, focuses on the identification of the critical features. This is followed by the development of an observation plan.
The observation phase is concerned with the actual study of the skill, the attention to visual stimuli.
In the diagnosis phase differences between the desired and the actual (observed) performance are identified. The coach reviews these differences to determine the primary and secondary errors.
During the remedial stage the coach will reflect on the performance errors, then formulate a remedy — a correction. His feedback and suggestions to the player will be based on this formula.
Basically this involves visually and mentally breaking down a skill before actually attempting to observe it. Many advanced coaches already have in their mind a sound concept of the basic components of a particular skill, built up over years of experience of coaching players, lecturing to coaches or preparing and writing coaching material. However the ability to analyse and provide effective feedback is dependent upon the accuracy and relevance of the coaches’ observations. Coaches cannot possibly examine technique if they are unaware specifically which components determine effective performance and how best to observe them.
Pre-observation preparation may require a little time and effort, however it is a precursor to accurate observations and analyses and does become much easier with practice. It is also noticeable that coaches originating from countries which are strong in ‘formal’ coaching development, often have a rather better base for assessing what makes up technique as this forms part of their early development. Coaches from countries where training development is more informal or players who have been transplanted into coaching often find much more difficulty in this area.
The pre-observation phase is divided into two steps — the movement analysis and the observation planning stages. The movement analysis stage culminates in the identification of the critical features, while the purpose of the observation planning stage is to design observation plans and decide how to record these. A diagram of the movement analysis stage is shown in Figure 2.
|Step 1||Determine performance criteria|
|Step 2||Simplify performance criteria|
|Step 3||Determine mechanical components|
The critical features are the components of the movement that are essential to the performance of a skill. Coaches interested in improving the technique of their players must focus on these critical features during their observations. For example a back-swing is required in a topspin stroke in order to develop maximum racket speed. This component of the movement is critical and its absence or malfunction will prevent effective performance. Critical features are observable, mechanical quantities such as impetus and momentum are not. However where you have movements such as long arm action or fast rotation of the body during a stroke, although these may indicate that impetus or momentum has been produced, they are also patently discernible – therefore they are critical features.
Adaptations within a given technique.
Although critical features are inflexible parts of a movement they are often modified by individual differences. Within a given technique a performer may use individual modifications such as unique timing or sequence of movements. These unique and individual adaptations are called style. The use of a circular wind-up for a forehand stroke is an example of an individual adaptation. This is not a component of the sequence of movements that is critical to the outcome of the skill. Conversely, the movements performed during the approach and ball contact stages are examples of critical features. They must be performed correctly in order to achieve the best results. Optimal technique refers to the most efficient performance of a movement pattern within the constraints and requirements of the skill or activity.
The identification of the critical features is a far from simple task. It requires a broad knowledge of basic mechanical and motor concepts and an ability to apply this information to different types of movements. The following process can assist in pinpointing the critical features for differing skills. The 4 steps serve to channel and focus the coach’s analysis in a logical and systematic manner, by developing a mechanical model for each skill.
The first step in the development of a mechanical model is to clearly identify the performance criterion — the exact purpose or goal of the skill. In other words what is the intended result of a successful performance of the skill? How is it measured or evaluated in a competitive situation? Is it measured objectively or subjectively?
Often subjective skills can be evaluated on the basis of their contribution to the point or game. Coaches must determine whether or not the skill was performed to best advantage. The purpose is then expressed as an advantage and this purpose is dependent perhaps on spin, speed or placement, or some combination of these.
The second stage is to simplify the skill for analysis by breaking the movement down into parts or phases. Frequently skills may be divided into 5 phases and this break-down process allows the coach to examine the mechanics which affect specific components or parts of the skill.
Once the purpose of the skill has been identified and the skill sequence simplified into parts, the coach is ready to determine the mechanical factors affecting each component or phase of the skill. Remember that technique is largely determined by mechanical factors. This stage of the process is the most difficult as it requires the synthesis of all fundamental mechanical principles. This movement analysis stage should be considered as the homework phase of the whole analysis process — take time over it. Systematically determine the mechanical factors for each part of the skill. These mechanics do not change, so once you have them figured out, your work on this step is complete. Many experienced coaches have for instance a mental check-list of exactly what to look for at this stage in the analysis.
Once the mechanical factors have been determined, the critical features may be identified. Critical features describe specific body movements — we are looking for an indication of whether or not the mechanical factors have been executed ideally. Force is not observable but we can watch for specific body movements, quick straightening of the legs, strong body rotation, fast arm movement, all of which indicate that force is being generated.
Coaches should be aware of possible external and internal distractions and try to recognize, eliminate and/or minimize these. The ability to observe and selectively attend to the most important parts of a skill is fundamental to effective coaching. The observer’s needs and interests, as well as the competitive and/or coaching environment, will affect what attracts their attention — possibly resulting in a reduced focus on the critical features of the performance — and subsequently how they interpret their observations. The factors affecting the quality of observations made can be divided into three groups — internal distractions, external distractions, other physical or environmental constraints.
Internal distractions — Different sources include motivation, fear, excitement, observer bias and expectancies and lack of an observation plan. Coaches must be careful to remain objective and not to ‘see things that aren’t there’. It’s also important not to jump to conclusions, what is present in one skill execution may not be there consistently — examine the consistent traits.
External distractions — The more intense the colour and the larger the size, the more an object will attract attention, as will sharp contrasts. Extraneous movement attracts attention and a certain amount of ‘visual discipline’ is required to focus on specific movements, when other activity is in view. It is more difficult to observe very fast or very complex movements, often it is better to scan the whole movement from afar and then move in to focus on specific parts. Our eyes also tend to scan best from left to right and rapid movements are best observed from a vantage point which allows left to right viewing. The type of surroundings, lighting etc. may affect our ability to concentrate on specific body movements.
Other physical or environmental constraints — Coaches need to consider their own influence on their player’s performance during their analysis. Other constraints may be physical, body structure, limb length, vision - physiological, power and endurance, flexibility or cardio-vascular conditioning — mental, not motivated — or characteristic of the event, equipment conditions, playing surface, or temperature.
Observers who try to see everything often end up perceiving nothing. Movement observation must be systematic in order to be effective. The development of an observation plan answers how, when and where to observe. Coaches who approach observation haphazardly will be unable to selectively attend to and record performance of the critical features. They must be able to methodically search for the relevant features of a performance. Each observation plan is designed to relate to a specific task such as a coaching session, which focuses specifically on actions involved during the force production phase or the follow-through phase of a stroke. What is most important is not how you plan but that you do plan.
There are 4 steps involved in the design of an observation plan.
1) There is a limit to our ability to observe and accurately record the movements of the human body. Coaches need therefore first to identify the goal of the observation session. It may be to improve the movements in a particular part of the skill, or it may be to refine the skill as a whole. Critical features previously identified in the movement analysis phase are re-examined and those features relevant to the observation session are selected.
Consider for example the critical features which we may identify in the case of the forehand topspin. If the focus of the particular coaching session is to improve the actions which occur solely with the racket arm, then we only need to select for observation the critical features which are relevant – the amount of back-swing, the speed of back-swing, the length and plane of the arm, the speeds and application of the various parts of the arm, the force producing movement, the contact point in terms of time and place, the angle of the racket at contact, the optimum area of contact on the racket and the follow-through of the arm. We need not concern ourselves with the critical features relevant to leg movement or rotation of the body. The selection in this way of a sub-routine of relevant critical features will greatly simplify the observation process.
2) Observation strategies are formulated after consideration of the following questions.
3) The number of observations needed to obtain all the necessary information is dependent on the skill. Each repeated observation should be used to view some particular aspect of the movement, so that by the final observation there is a clear record of exactly what has happened. Throughout coaches must look for consistent characteristics of the player’s performance — the absence/presence of one critical feature in one repetition is fine, but what’s important is if this characteristic is consistent. The effects of fatigue on performance may also need to be considered if observation lasts for some time. The pre-observation phase helps prepare the coach to capture the essential elements of performance as efficiently as possible.
4) If the vantage point is not considered, other observation techniques may be useless. The optimum position to view varies from skill to skill and from feature to feature. The position of both the performer and the observer determine what can and what cannot be seen. Many inexperienced coaches have no recollection of their positions or remain in one spot all the time. Determining how to observe from the right place and at the right time to be sure to collate the relevant information requires serious thought and practice.
Practice is needed to perfect observation skills and to obtain an accurate record of what was actually observed. Initially it is better to record observations manually. One method is the use of a checklist which can be ticked off as you observe. Some coaches even bring with them a complete movement break-down and observation plan, which clearly indicates how, why and when they will observe each of the selected critical features. With practice and as different components of the analysis become absorbed mentally, coaches can develop and apply a plan in which the observation of the critical features is mentally recorded.
The purpose of the diagnostic stage is to identify primary errors, as this is a pre-requisite to making corrections and improving performance. A primary error is one which is the main problem and must be corrected before improvement in performance can take place. (Secondary errors too are important, as they may provide important information concerning the primary errors.) For example to spend time trying to speed up the racket arm when there is inadequate back-swing, is a waste of time. Too short or too slow a back-swing inhibits the quality and efficiency of movement and inhibits the full utilization of elastic energy — either is a primary error. An accurate identification of the primary errors must occur before making corrections to improve performance.
The starting point in identifying primary errors is to note the differences between the observed and desired performance of a critical feature. Next the coach needs to make informed decisions as to the causes of these differences. These decisions are based on a knowledge and understanding of the basic mechanical principles.
The actions which cause the differences between the observed and the desired performances are the primary errors and are what the coach needs to address.
Once the primary error or errors have been identified a prescription is decided upon — a method of correction. It may be necessary to design appropriate exercises, at appropriate speeds to improve the technique.
Suggestions which may assist in the diagnosis of primary errors.
Not only our sport of table tennis but life itself and our progress through it, is to do with change. Nothing stands still and if we try to stand still we stagnate: we stop developing and progressing and lose and/or resist the ability to adapt. Developing, improving, growing, evolving are all about moving forward and adapting to new situations and challenges. As soon as you put players into ‘style boxes’ you restrict their ability to both adapt to different opponents and situations and indeed to themselves develop to higher levels and reach full potential.
Table tennis is above all a sport which requires adaptive intelligence. Even though we play on autopilot and much of what we do is automated and has to be because we have such a limited time to react, we need, to reach the higher levels to have the capability to adjust to rapidly changing situations. In fact it is essential that the player's mind is freed up to spend more time assessing tactical needs during the match and working out which weapons to use to best cope with differing styles/opponents.
It's all too easy to do the 'safe' things at times and not to take risks. Sometimes the player has to force herself/himself into trying different things and here 'self-talk' or 'self-thought' can play a big part: 'If I play 'safe' I will lose therefore this isn't an option.' Training can also be geared to speed up the process -- play games in training with only short or only long serves. or one long to the corners and one short to the middle alternately, so that variation and adjusting to the third ball become automatic. Bear in mind too that it does take anything from 3 to 6 months to bring out what you do in training into matches.
Reaching full potential is all about continuing progress, about not being satisfied with yourself and about being ready to try new things all the time. It’s a matter too of assessing and evaluating what works for you and bringing in new techniques which complement your style of play and give you a bigger advantage. But it’s also a question of having alternatives to cope with differing situations and opponents. No two opponents play the same and nor can you or your players play an identical game against all other competitors. At times you will need to modify what you do, on occasions you won’t be able to play your usual tactics at all and may well have to change your game plan completely if you are to have any chance of winning.
Forcing young players into a ‘style box’ limits their ability to adapt and modify their game to cope with the ever changing scenario of modern table tennis. This is even more critical when a player is constrained to play in a manner which does not permit his/her natural strengths to flower and develop. Such performers will never achieve full potential because quite simply they are not doing what they are best at! They are not harnessing their own natural talents to maximum effect and are in fact spending time developing their second or third level game to the detriment of the innate, instinctive skills they possess.
To reach the highest levels in sport any athlete must be aware of how he/she performs and indeed performs best. In addition the athlete must be in tune and comfortable with the manner in which he/she performs. The coach/athlete relationship should never be one of dictating to the player, but rather one of working together to isolate and develop the inherent skills which will unlock full potential.
Unfortunately in UK much of our training tends to influence our players into playing and thinking in a predictable manner and does not help in the development of adaptive intelligence. Why do so many players from the UK have extremely good technique compared to the Europeans, yet in no way achieve comparable results? We have nice strokes but we can’t win games!
Is this perhaps due to our training methods and to the lack of intensity in our training? Or is it more because we don’t focus enough on the individual aspects of player development? Could it be that our coaches lack the real vision to understand that all players are individuals and will only reach their full potential if they harness their own strengths?
Too often our players seem to be sidetracked into styles of play which will not succeed at world level and there seems to be a lack of comprehension that all players must keep progressing and moving forward. As soon as the top player stagnates and stops developing he/she is finished at top level.
Tactics are based on techniques and each player must have the right weapons to execute the tactics suitable to his/her way of playing. If for example you have an exceptionally good topspin there is little point in serving short and becoming embroiled in the short game scenario! You must develop the service techniques which most complement your own strengths. Players must be more aware (even from a relatively early stage in their career) how they play best and how they win.
Obviously from what a number of the European players still competing at top level have said recently this has not happened over the last 20 years or so. 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 these top players saying that coaching has been below par or in the wrong direction in Europe? Such comments certainly seem to indicate that many of our European stars have not been taught to think for themselves from an early age and that possibly if they had, their results could have been even more impressive or achieved at a much earlier age!
To develop full potential the prime criterion is that the player has an in-depth understanding of his/her own style of play as early as possible in his/her career. Bear in mind the crucial factor that tactical development is based on technical abilities. If a player doesn’t have the technical weapons to play his/her own game most effectively then he/she will never reach full potential. Throughout Europe there has to be a great deal more attention from coaches to the individual qualities of the player and an understanding from the player how to utilize these most effectively in his/her own personal development. Too often coaches seem reluctant to hand over responsibility to the player.
There are a number or areas in which you the player should be the prime decision maker. Only you know how you feel when you play, how positive you are prepared to be when the game is close and even whether or not you are comfortable with the way you play! Many performers throughout their careers will have a variety of coaches and mentors, some good and some bad, some knowledgeable and some not. Their purpose is not to dictate how you should play and to hold your hand for the rest of your life. Their function should be to show you how to get the best out of yourself, so that in effect after a while you don’t need them anymore. Any player who remains coach ‘reliant’ is extremely unlikely ever to become a real champion!
As Thomas von Scheele (ex-World Champion and 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.’
This of course will happen much more quickly if the young evolving players associate and train with older more experienced exponents from a young age. One of the factors limiting development is the inclination for training large groups of young players of similar low-level experience together. It helps enormously to be able to look up to and learn from role models who have already been there and done it! Having young adolescents of similar ages and experience levels training together often only both undermines and solidifies crucial aspects of the learning situation.
In Asia for example extremely talented young players rarely or at times never play cadet or junior events. They are introduced from an early age into senior training where they gain experience rapidly and from there proceed directly into senior tournaments. It seems completely counterproductive to expect groups of young stars however competent, to enjoy major success at senior level when they are not mentally developed enough to assess and profit from relatively simple tactical and strategic situations.
Another area where we in the West appear to fall down is in our gearing of training to the match situation. A great deal of our training is concerned for example with ‘nice-to-look-at’ flowing rally play. This looks good but what happens when we come into competition with the top Asians? We can’t get past the serve/receive and 3rd or 4th ball or the stop/start type of game. So of course as a result we never get into the flowing rally situation where we can use our carefully constructed strokes which we have spent countless hours developing! This means that although we may appear technically more ‘perfect’ we have not learned how to win games!
We must be rather more professional in our whole approach to the sport of table tennis: work much more on serve/receive and the first few balls, start every exercise with a serve, utilize more situational exercises where we rapidly introduce random changes in direction, pace, spin and angles. Above all we should ensure that exercises and training relate to and are suitable for the player’s individual style and eventual evolution: we should too encourage players to work at higher levels of intensity than are common in the Western world. It goes without saying that physical and mental attributes should be developed alongside technical and tactical capabilities.
As many top coaches throughout Europe are coming to understand, there needs to be a much stronger individual emphasis throughout our sport. Every player is different and has different strengths and weaknesses. From basic beginner levels coaches must be aware how even in the very early stages of growth certain factors can have a direct bearing on the ultimate style development: aspects such as grip, ready position, rotation and the correct movement patterns for the eventual style of play all have a critical impact on the ultimate degree of success achieved by the player and indeed whether or not he/she ever realises full potential!
The single most important element in the development of a table tennis player is that he/she understands his/her own game and understands how to achieve the absolute best performance. The duty of the coach is to help the player reach this supreme level.
Unfortunately far too often the coach wants to have his/her own input and tries to make the player conform to his/her own ideas of how the top player performs. This approach takes away the players' own responsibility to evolve in the way they feel is best for them as individuals. The coach is basically asking players to 'buy into' someone else's model of how they should perform.
Usually really talented performers have a good idea of what works for them and how they should play. There have been a number of occasions on National Training Camps where the top players (in some cases World Champions) have walked out, simply because they felt so strongly that the training was not of benefit to them with their style of play and was pushing them in a direction they didn’t want to go. Such incidents only serve to reinforce the principle that the coach/player relationship should be a dialogue, even from quite an early stage in development.
What the coach must bear in mind from the start is that each player is different, a unique individual, with differing strengths, reactions and skills - at no time can you force him or her into a pattern of your choosing; or you can but the player will almost certainly never achieve his/her full potential. Rather you must help players to develop and flower in their own way. In the areas of technique, tactics and physical exercises the coach can show the way, in mental areas and in the choosing of a style, with which they feel comfortable, the players should have a large say in their development. It is only the players who know what risks they are prepared to take, whether they are more at ease playing close or back, fast or slow, spin or drive, it is only the players who in the final analysis know what feels right for them.
As Thomas von Scheele (ex-World Champion and Swedish Junior Team Captain) has stated: Two key areas must be fostered with 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 guide 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.’
In their dialogue with players, coaches must try to help players to assume more responsibility for themselves and their development; ask questions which provoke thoughts on how they play, what tactics they will use against different players, how they will serve to get in their strengths, what are their strengths and weaknesses etc. Encourage players to try new things and to always be progressing and moving forward. To stop and be satisfied is to stagnate; you will not get any better.
Unfortunately throughout Europe much of the training tends to influence players into playing and thinking in a predictable manner and does not help in the development of adaptive intelligence. Why do so many players in Europe have extremely good technique compared to the Asians, yet in no way achieve comparable results? We have nice strokes and can play long flowing rallies but we can’t win points! We have weapons but don’t know how and when to use them!
Tactics are based on techniques and each player must have the right weapons to execute the tactics suitable to his/her way of playing. If for example you have an exceptionally good topspin there is little point in serving short and becoming embroiled in the short game scenario! You must develop the service techniques which most complement your own strengths. Players must be more aware (even from a relatively early stage in their career) how they play best and how they win; especially they must be aware how their particular serve and receive tactics are most efficient and in what way they can bring their strongest weapons into play most quickly and to best effect.
Also whatever the style of play every player must realise that there are certain aspects of the modern game which have to be mastered. Short play and ‘over the table’ tactics are critical and each performer must find his/her own system of handling these most effectively and in a way which complements his/her own individual style of play. Players should also be aware of the science of our sport, how this is changing and how changes affect them personally and either limit or aid their game. For example the maximum revolutions with the 38mm ball were around 150 per second but these diminished to 132 with the 40mm ball and will be reduced even further when the plastic ball is introduced. Each reduction makes it more difficult to be effective away from the table and therefore restricts some styles of play.
When you talk with the world’s best players they feel that they must try to play most of the time in the best position for them relative to distance from the table. Most players feel that they should be focused on moving in and staying that bit closer. With the bigger ball moving slightly slower through the air and with the spin dying more rapidly, retreating too much means that you quickly reach the position from which you can no longer win the point: you are too far away and can only control but not dominate.
This is of course particularly vital in the women’s game. Women are less powerful, play with less spin and there are far too many good blockers and counter-hitters among their ranks. Running away rapidly becomes a recipe for disaster. It is too easy for the closer player to play long and short and out to the angles.
But of course it’s at the top level that the early development of adaptive intelligence in the players’ game comes into its own. Not only do the world’s best adapt and cope with whatever is thrown at them by the opponents, but their own way of play is unpredictable. They don’t play two to three balls to the same place, they don’t open on the diagonal all the time, they are always thinking to do different things: play to the body, then wide, play short and long, use the angles and the line balls, change the speed and spin, don’t give opponents time to be comfortable and get their own strengths in. At the highest levels being unpredictable and innovative become a way of life!
Training 4/5 hours a day for 10 years and still not in the top 100 in the world! Why not? The reasons can embrace one or a number of areas:
• The training time is insufficient
• The training methodology is totally incorrect
• The direction of the growth of style is flawed
• The support aspects of physical and mental preparation are equally inadequate.
You do not get to reach the heights unless you work and prepare in the right way.
In too many European Associations we have indeed lost track of the ideal of producing world ranked players of real top level. We are unfortunately content with lower aspirations, especially with the women and are satisfied to achieve rankings between say at the highest 70 and 200 in the world. The level of our ambitions is mirrored in lesser levels of training, lesser quality and lesser commitment – after a while even the best young up-and-coming players understand that they are not being developed in the right direction for them and lose their drive and enthusiasm. Many never even know or if they did, forget how to train at the level required to reach the top and lose the real hunger to want to get there, particularly when they understand that even at National level, helping them as individuals to reach their full potential is not and never was the top priority.
Funding for minor sports is always a problem and more so in these times of economic recession. Also earnings for table tennis players in times like these are liable to be more and more limited. Therefore if players are attending National Centres for a number of years and especially in the case of the women only ending up somewhere between 150 and 400 on the world ranking, then they are largely wasting their time. Their opportunities to make substantial earnings in Europe or Asia with such a ranking level are virtually none existent. The system as such is of little or no benefit to the players and only keeps a small number of lesser coaches in a job. To a large extent the players are conned by promises of continued involvement in National Teams but at no time is it explained to them that their chances of realising their full potential and making it to the real top levels are extremely limited if they exist at all.
In most cases players should at first ask and then answer the question: ‘What is my ultimate goal? Do I just want to represent my country or do I want to be one of the best players in the world, at least in the top 50?’ In many countries in Europe these two aims are unfortunately not compatible. For many other players it would make far more sense for them to work and then play only part-time in the lower divisions in Europe. In this way they could still enjoy their table tennis and earn an income at the same time. They would however have to give up the dream of ever becoming a real top player.
As Ogimura said: ‘What matters isn’t extraordinary ability but extraordinary effort.’ Far too often in Europe we play at our sport of table tennis and the training is neither professional nor intense enough. We just don’t work hard enough or long enough or in the right way when it matters, to achieve the results we dream about. So that’s what our hopes become, just dreams – we are not now and unlikely ever to be, capable of turning the dreams into reality.
The time to put in the effort is when players are young, in the learning stages of development, so that they are brought up in the right environment, with the right work ethic, the appropriate methodology, expert guidance on the most suitable individual direction for them and the most relevant physical and mental training. It’s during the early developmental stages in the player’s career that he/she needs the 1,000 hours of the right training per year for at least five years to put him/her on the right road to success. Without total professionalism early in the developmental phase we will only ever continue to produce second-class players.
Unfortunately throughout Europe getting the right coaches into the top jobs is becoming more and more difficult. If you talk to the top experts, those at the ‘cutting edge’ of player development throughout the continent, almost all are unhappy over coaching levels throughout the continent and at the direction coaching is taking. Most stress major weaknesses in the following areas:
• Coaching knowledge overall is declining.
• We prioritise winning in younger age categories to the detriment of senior player development.
• We need women in focus and much more understanding of women’s play and the specific training methods.
One of the toughest skills to teach any athlete is how to think, the toughest skill to teach any coach is to think more flexibly! It is often hard even for experts to withhold their expertise sufficiently to coach well. We have lots of systems throughout Europe but regrettably systems unfortunately breed predictability and limit creativity. There are coaches and coaches. We have coaches who see the pathways and designs that others don’t. We have coaches who understand the patterns unique to the individual player and the relevant designs and intentions which are crucial to him/her reaching full potential. Finally we have a few coaches who not only understand the theory appropriate to the individual but who can actually convert this into reality. How many of the latter do we have now in Europe?
As the great Mario Amizić has stated: ‘The Asian countries have adapted to modern table tennis, Europe has gone backwards. The last three years have seen a particularly rapid decline in Europe; at one time I believed that the younger generation would be able to step into the shoes of the older, but this is no longer a possibility. The present situation in Europe is a catastrophe but if we really think about it, it is in fact the reality we should have expected.’ Basically Amizić is saying that we haven’t done our homework, we are not preparing in the right way and that it’s only our fault. In many ways he is right!
In our training for example it’s so easy to just practise the things we can do well – it’s enjoyable, looks good, doesn’t take much effort and is absolutely futile. Top performers on the other hand constantly take active steps to stretch their limits at every session. Purposeful practice may not be easy but it’s unbelievably effective! The key to excellence is not in the genes but in practice time, practice quality and direction. So just how long do you need to practise? Modern research has even come up with a specific answer to this question – a minimum of ten years to reach world-class status. 1991 Anders Ericsson (Florida State University): ‘What is vital in the achieving of excellence is the number of hours devoted to serious practice’. The right practice is the only factor distinguishing the best from the rest. 10 years is the magical number for the attainment of excellence. Practice not talent is what ultimately matters. Gladwell quotes around one thousand hours a year or the ten thousand hour rule.
Unfortunately in Europe we seem to have lost sight of the Ogimura principle of ‘extraordinary effort’. We are never going to produce champions by taking the easy road and far too many coaches still seem to adopt the ‘big talent’ theory: that the really good players are born with the talent and don’t need to work at their game. All players who get to National Centres have the basic skill levels, they wouldn’t be there otherwise and some may be a little more naturally gifted than others, but in the final analysis it will be the right amount and type of practice which turns them into world beaters. Sadly in many countries throughout Europe the players don’t get what they need.
One factor which even many top coaches tend to overlook is that it’s knowledge above all which determines excellence. Experience matters, good, long-term training matters, rarely does the young player identify quickly enough when factors change during a match, but the older player understands immediately and takes the appropriate corrective action. Exactly the same principle applies in the field of coaching, experience matters! In almost all cases there is no time to examine the evidence before making a decision, due to the large number of often swiftly changing variables in the sporting situation. Decisions would appear to be made by instinct but they are not. They are based not on what one sees, but on an in-depth understanding of at times obscure background movements: this ability of course comes solely from long experience. And if course it is not something which is inherited, but is an aptitude nurtured and matured in many cases over decades of living through similar experiences.
Speed in sport is not based on reactions but comes from highly specific practice over a long period of time. Top performers possess enhanced awareness and anticipation. If you can exploit advanced information this will result in the time anomaly where top players seem to have all the time in the world to play their shots.
This is why the quantity and quality of long-term, directed practice is so crucial: it builds up a background of knowledge which will enable the player to make the right decisions quickly and under pressure. It also cultivates and expands within the player the insight to handle situations which he/she may not have yet encountered.
If we are to produce players to match the Asians this will require from most National Associations in Europe a rather more professional and directed coaching approach than we have seen to date. It will also need us to move away from traditional areas of thought. 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. Perhaps now is the time for the leaders and organizers in clubs, districts and National Associations to move away from traditional avenues of thinking, be more flexible in attitude and less conventional in their approach to our sport. We are not going to produce the players of the future with methods of the past.
What we can’t afford to overlook too is that top coaches possess enhanced awareness and intuition and that the basis for this is the accumulated knowledge and experience they have built up over countless hours of being involved with players. The really experienced coach sees cues in the preparation, movement build-up and stroke execution as well as in the physical and mental attributes which enable him/her to make informed decisions as to which road the player should take to reach full potential. The less experienced coach or the ex-player does not yet have this ability (and may never have it). Also this is not something you can teach in a classroom over a few weekends, it is an understanding which grows and flowers in the individual over countless hours (sometimes decades) of meaningful participation in a particular activity and it is selective to that activity and not a skill which can be transferred to other areas.
Just what is the function of the coach after fulfilling his basic duty of establishing a sound technical base for his player? The responsibility of the coach is to fully unlock the capabilities of his player, so that he or she plays as nearly as possible to the absolute limits of full potential.
What the coach must bear in mind from the start is that each player is a unique individual, with differing strengths, reactions and skills - at no time can you force him or her into a style of your choosing. Rather you must help players to develop and flower in their own way. In the areas of technique, tactics and physical exercises the coach can lead, in mental areas and in the choosing of a style, with which they feel comfortable, the players should have a large say. It is only the players who know what risks they are prepared to take, whether they are more at ease playing close or back, fast or slow, spin or drive.
With young players it is important to isolate their strengths in the early years and to put in a fair amount of training time to make these as formidable as possible. Strengths should be used and used to win games. The player even at a relatively young age should know how to get his or her strengths in during the match. This is why too it is very important to work on serve and receive with young players. Unless they develop an understanding of these areas of the game they are often restricted with what they can do with the next one, two or three balls and they never get the chance to play their winning strokes.
A player’s style should always be based on and directed towards his or her greatest strengths but always he or she should bear in mind that style is a living, growing organism, developing all the time however slowly. When it stops progressing you stop moving too and stagnation sets in!
Table tennis is a very technical sport and the basic law is adaptation and counter-adaptation. Your 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.
However table tennis is largely a sport of conditioned reflex patterns where players train to react automatically. Therefore their ability to react and adapt to new aspects is limited by their training! This is why new techniques, tactics and unusual styles of play are difficult to cope with. The ‘automatic pilot’ doesn’t work as well any more and players’ 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.
As a result it is 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, that 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.
The coach should be continually researching new training methods and be on the look out for innovations in technique and style and individual fortés which may benefit his player. What the coach should be looking at is how unique characteristics can be turned to advantage. Does the player have a ‘specialty’, something a little different which causes problems for opponents — or are there aspects of his or her game which can be accentuated to fashion such a specialty?
The coach must never neglect the importance of growth. Often coaches take players up to a certain ‘plateau’ then the development stops and levels out. Growth must continue throughout the player’s career, at no time should it be allowed to come to a stop. There must always be progression, without this there can only be stagnation.
Many players and coaches too do not seem to appreciate that development must be in the right direction for the particular player and that the right training must be devised to enable that player to evolve and mature. Indeed it is the prime function of the coach to unlock the potential of his player. Direction is vital, if the player follows the wrong course for him or her then much of that potential can remain untapped.
If a player is to reach near-maximum potential, it is vital that he or she is aware of how to achieve this. It is the responsibility of the coach to show his player where he or she is going and how to get there! Your player must be aware of his or her strengths and how to use these to win. Each competitor should in essence play his or her own game.
The mental aspects of our sport are just as important if not more so than the technical and physical areas. How many players 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 players bring the wrong attitude to the training hall. It is one of the functions of the coach to set the atmosphere.
The player’s consciousness is more important than his or her technical proficiency. Skills can be learned but attitudes and the quality of consciousness are difficult to improve. Each player should be aware, should be able to ‘feel’ how he or she is contacting the ball, how he or she is moving, how his or her own body is performing during play. Many players are in fact quite insensitive and indeed ignorant as to just what is happening with the various parts of their own bodies when they play!
In many cases the ability to be totally aware of exactly how the player is performing, only evolves after some research or exploration into the mental side of the game. In fact many athletes in many differing sports are now becoming much more conscious of the value of the ‘mental side’ of performance.
If the player is to be more aware for example of how he or she functions and how the body operates in a playing situation, it is important that he or she studies relaxation techniques and is first able to relax. It is quite important also to understand that the ability to concentrate and the ability to handle stress are very closely connected. The ability to focus on the task in hand and not to let oneself be sidetracked is one of the most essential qualities in competition. Table tennis is one of the sports that will only tolerate a relatively low level of tension. Too much and it is extremely difficult to perform. Also different phases of an individual match will have differing levels of stress and pressures and players should understand this if they are to be effective.
If your players are to aim for the top levels it is critical that they start to analyse their performance and what is happening when they train and compete. This should become a regular part of their development and become a habit. What often distinguishes the elite from the ordinary athlete is the ability to make mental assessments more or less automatically. Any mental programme will only become fully automated if it is systematic and goal-oriented and indeed continuous and progressive.
The vital importance of timing in the men’s game cannot be overestimated. Even though our game is faster than ever before, with the big ball top men have time to get into position and to play the return. In theory two top 20 world players at a distance of 3 to 3 and a half metres from the table should be able to keep the ball going for a very long time. What we have to bear in mind particularly is that a table tennis ball due to its light weight slows rapidly through the air and players have around a second to get to the ball at this distance from the table — this gives them more than ample time to recover and assume a good position for the next ball. If evenly matched, players should have difficulty in winning points with pure power from this sort of distance.
What is tending to happen at top level is that players are winning points from the mid-distance and the one who drops further back off the table will usually lose. Longer serves are coming back into use, especially the long serve to the BH side, as the server hopes to force opponents back from the table into a less advantageous position, or to force them to play a weaker return. The player who drops off the table is compelled to adopt a containing game and the player who dominates from the mid-distance is much more likely to win the points with power and pace, angles or even with use of the stop-ball. The player who retreats also has of course much more ground to cover and will suffer more pressure because of this aspect.
It is important that players observe their own movement patterns critically. Many players for example move diagonally backwards when they are switched from the wide FH to the wide BH – this obviously gives them more time but equally gives the initiative to the opponent and allows their adversary to move in and occupy the mid-distance. Players have to be aware of the position they will move to and take up when they are switched.
Players must also of course comprehend exactly what the ‘mid-distance’ signifies to them. This will vary dependent on the height, reactions and type of shot the player uses. What may suit Samsonov may well be completely different for Kreanga whose topspin strokes have a pronounced arc. Players should be looking at the position where they feel comfortable and where they are most effective. Mostly this will mean being in the best place to use the incoming pace to maximum effect – this will also of course usually minimise the time the opponent has to fashion a strong counter.
A common tactic in Europe is to make the first attack to the body or the crossover in the hope of unbalancing the adversary, so that a further attack to the wings will force the opponent to retreat from the table and adopt a less favourable position further back. All players must be alert to the purpose of such manoeuvres. It is tactically advantageous in the men’s game to occupy the mid-distance, to do this first and to hold this position whenever possible.
|Receive analysis||FH Push||30|
17 years, WR No9. Opens with BH from the middle even though has a ready position with the right foot well back. On receive pushes the 2nd ball long and either spins the 4th or hits hard.
|Chang Chenchen||Serve analysis||Short||15|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||30|
15 years, LH. Often serves to the opponent’s FH or middle.
|Lu Yun-Feng||Serve analysis||Short||1|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||3|
|Frida Johansson||Serve analysis||Short||3|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||10|
Too many movements after serve and before playing next ball. Almost always pushes short.
|Ai Fukuhara||Serve analysis||Short||6|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||0|
Much backspin on short serves, one of the few modern players working with heavy backspin. Pimples on BH, 563.
|G. Pota||Serve analysis||Short||1|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||1|
Good fast BH control, speed power and direction. Very square stance, even with right foot well forward.
|Huang I-Hwa||Serve analysis||Short||1|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||2|
|S. Hirano||Serve analysis||Short||2|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||6|
|T. Boros||Serve analysis||Short||7|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||3|
Uses good variety of serves including high throw. Prepared to open with control on 2nd ball.
|M. Steff||Serve analysis||Short||8|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||10|
Serves like men from BH side with FH plus reverse. LH World ranked 7. Not always enough spin on first opening FH. Short play good and ready to open over the table, especially with BH topspin. Often BH loop on 3rd ball. Opens with BH from middle but tends to push from middle with the FH to control the table for the next ball. After loop from either BH or FH she is good to come in and take the next ball early with block or drive. Weaker v 1 - 2 to BH then out wide to FH side.
|N. Struse||Serve analysis||Short||10|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||1|
Square stance, strong BH, uses from middle on 2nd ball.
|Guo Yue||Serve analysis||Short||25|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||5|
LH WR 15 Born July ‘88. Good 3rd ball FH, good short returns. Good BH after playing FH out wide. Against high throw serves she moves to middle to receive with the BH.
|Zhang Yining||Serve analysis||Short||10|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||1|
|Niu Jiangfeng||Serve analysis||Short||15|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||8|
|Li Nan||Serve analysis||Short||11|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||12|
Uses high throw serve
|Lin Ling||Serve analysis||Short||14|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||0|
|Guo Yan||Serve analysis||Short||13|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||15|
Good reverse serve
|Lau Sui Fei||Serve analysis||Short||3|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||5|
PH. High throw serves
|Fujinuma Ai||Serve analysis||Short||5|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||5|
|S. Johansson||Serve analysis||Short||4|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||7|
Most serves with backspin and all to BH side, needs to vary more. Plays too far back and controls in the rallies. Must win more points.
|Unemura Aya||Serve analysis||Short||6|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||4|
|Li Jia Wei||Serve analysis||Short||8|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||6|
|Jing Jun Hong||Serve analysis||Short||9|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||3|
|Tie Yana||Serve analysis||Short||13|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||3|
|Qiu Yike||Serve analysis||Short||9|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||13|
WR No 1 Junior
|Yang Xiaofu||Serve analysis||Short||7|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||5|
|J. Axelqvist||Serve analysis||Short||14|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||16|
FH serves and reverse from BH corner. Often opens straight.
|C. Suss||Serve analysis||Short||7|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||7|
|R. Sakamoto||Serve analysis||Short||10|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||8|
|D. Zwickl||Serve analysis||Short||2|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||3|
|G. Tsubois||Serve analysis||Short||10|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||1|
|K. Kreanga||Serve analysis||Short||5|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||4|
|W. Schlager||Serve analysis||Short||4|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||3|
|V. Samsonov||Serve analysis||Short||2|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||0|
Tries loop 3rd ball with FH
|Chuan Chih-Yuan||Serve analysis||Short||12|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||4|
Good short serves, opens well on 3rd ball. Opens well with BH on 2nd ball.
Very square stance even with right foot forward.
|J. M. Saive||Serve analysis||Short||3|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||4|
|T. Boll||Serve analysis||Short||15|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||23|
Square stance, feet wide. FH serve from BH including reverse.
|Wang Liqin||Serve analysis||Short||8|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||2|
Aggressive v serve, opens whenever possible.
|Wang Hao||Serve analysis||Short||14|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||7|
|A. Smirnov||Serve analysis||Short||4|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||6|
|Qin Zhijian||Serve analysis||Short||12|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||5|
High throw serves
|D. Heister||Serve analysis||Short||4|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||2|
|Kong Linghui||Serve analysis||Short||3|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||6|
|M. Maze||Serve analysis||Short||4|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||4|
|P. Karlsson||Serve analysis||Short||4|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||0|
|Ryu Seung Min||Serve analysis||Short||2|
|Receive analysis||FH Push||8|
Predominantly short serve or half-long and in the region of 95% in these areas. The figures for the top boys as opposed to the top men are almost identical and there is no significant difference between Asian and European players.
Compare this with Guo Yue, best girl in the world and 15 in the women’s rankings.
Compare this with S. Johansson only 55% short or half-long serves.
|Ma Lin PH||Right foot well back||Wide||8 FH from BH|
|A. Smirnov||Right foot back||Medium||8 FH from BH|
|K. Kreanga||Square||Medium||19 FH from BH||Reverse|
|Qin Zhijian LH.PH||Left foot back||Wide||17 FH from BH|
|D. Heister LH||Left foot well back||Wide||6 FH from BH|
|W. Schlager||Right foot back||Wide||6 FH from BH||Reverse|
|M. Maze LH||Square||Wide||4 FH from BH||Reverse|
|J.M. Saive||Right foot back||Medium||4 FH from BH||Reverse|
|Wang Hao PH||Right foot well back||Wide||3 FH from BH|
|V. Samsonov||Right foot back||Wide||4 FH from BH|
|Kong Linghui||Right foot well back||Wide||8 FH from BH||Reverse|
|Chuan Chih-Yuan||Square||Narrow||8 FH from BH|
|T. Boll LH||Square||Wide||8 FH from BH||Reverse|
|P. Karlsson||Right foot back||Medium||9 FH from BH||Reverse|
|Wang Liqin||Right foot back||Wide||12 FH from BH|
|Ryu Seung Min PH||Right foot well back||Medium||11 FH from BH||Reverse|
|J. Axelqvist||Square||Medium||15 FH from BH||Reverse|
|C. Suss||Square||Wide||15 FH from BH||Reverse|
|G. Tsubois LH||Square||Wide||16 FH from BH|
|D. Zwickl||Square||Wide||7 FH from BH||Reverse|
|Yang Xiaofu||Square||Medium||8 FH from BH|
|Qiu Yike||Right foot back||Wide||9 FH from BH|
|R. Sakamoto||Square||Wide||14 FH from BH||Reverse|
|Fujinuma Ai LH||Square||Wide||5 FH from BH||High throw|
|Lau Sui Fei PH||Square||Narrow||5 FH from BH||High throw|
|M. Steff LH||Very square||Wide||20 FH from BH||Reverse|
|Zhang Yining||Square||Narrow||20 FH from BH||Reverse|
|S. Johansson||Square||Wide||18 FH from BH||Reverse|
|Lin Ling||Right foot well back||Medium||12 FH from BH||7 BH|
|Guo Yue LH||Left foot back||Medium||17 FH from BH|
|Li Nan LH. PH||Left foot well back||Narrow||16 FH from BH|
|Guo Yan||Square||Medium||10 FH from BH|
|Unemura Aya||Right foot well back||Medium||8 FH from BH||2 BH|
|Niu Jianfeng||Right foot well back||Medium||10 FH from BH||1 BH|
|Jing Jun Hong||Right foot back||Narrow||12 FH from BH|
|T. Boros||Square||Wide||14 FH from BH||1 BH + Rev|
|Li Jia Wei||Right foot well back||Narrow||15 BH|
|N. Struse||Square||Wide||12 FH from BH||4 BH|
|Tie Yana||Square||Narrow||6 FH from BH||10 BH|
|F. Johansson||Square||Medium||18 FH from BH||Reverse|
|Peng Luyang||Right foot well back||Wide||11 FH from BH|
|Hirano Sayaka||Right foot back||Medium||9 FH from BH|
|G. Pota||Over-square||Medium||8 BH. Varied|
|Huang I-Hwa||Right foot back||Wide||8 FH from BH||(Sidespin)|
|Ai Fukuhara||Right foot back||Narrow||18 FH from BH||Reverse|
|Chang ChenchenLH||Square||Medium||18 FH from BH||(Fast)|
|Lu Yun-Feng LH||Left foot well back||Medium||4 FH from BH|
|Short||59 = 40%||161 = 61%||97 = 55%||59 = 59%||54.6%|
|Half-Long||61 = 41%||60 = 23%||63 = 36%||29 = 29%||30.9%|
|Long||29 = 19%||43 = 16%||16 = 9%||12 = 12%||14.5%|
|FH Push||65 = 45%||88 = 33%||53 = 51%||86 = 48%||42.1%|
|FH Open||25 = 17%||54 = 20%||21 = 20%||58 = 33%||22.7%|
|BH Push||21 = 14%||52 = 19%||18 = 17%||15 = 8%||15.3%|
|BH Open||35 = 24%||73 = 27%||11 = 11%||19 = 11%||19.9%|
The women quite simply play more backhands. They push receive more than the men and they open more than the men on this wing. They stand squarer and often move in to the middle of the table to push or to open with the backhand. The men on the other hand more often than not stand more side to square (though many of the juniors and younger seniors are getting nearer to square, eg. Boll, Maze and Chuan) and prefer to receive with the forehand whenever possible so that they can control the table with the forehand on the next ball. The men both push receive and open more than the women on the forehand wing.
The female players use the long serve more than the men, but there is not such a great difference in the short and half-long serves at the very top level in the men’s and women’s game.
Perhaps the most informative factor is in the difference between the junior and senior players of both sexes. Both the boys and girls use the half-long serve more than the senior players. At senior level the service game becomes noticeably tighter.
As far as the stance is concerned the women generally stand squarer than the men and are in a better position to play backhands from the middle. They also don’t have as wide a stance as the men.
The men and the junior boys used no backhand serves.
Of the girls only G. Pota used the backhand serve. No Asian girls did. A number of the Asian women (44%) used the backhand service, but if you ignore the 3 players who used this as a tactic the percentage went down dramatically to just over 4%. European women utilized 16% backhand serves.
Younger men and juniors have a more square stance, Boll, Maze, Chuan Chih-Yuan, Zwickl, Süss.
|Men square stance = 25 – 30%||Women = 60%|
|Men receive with F.H. = 80% plus||Women = 53%|
|Men receive with B.H. = 19%||Women = 47%|
|Men long serve = 10%||Women = 16/17%|
|Men serve with B.H. = 5%||Women = 20%|
Seniors serve tighter than juniors, both men and women.
|Asian women short serve = 65%||European = 50%|
|Asian women long serve = 13%||European = 30%|
Counter-play is still the main tactic in women’s play and not loop.
There is little or no change with the forehand serve action after the new serve regulations. Most players just try and move the arm out of the way and haven’t thought out in which ways they can make the serve more effective with the new action.
In learning table tennis our actions are ‘automated’ by constant practice, in other words we train so we don’t need to think when we play. In fact we play better when the body is on autopilot. Because of this major difficulties occur when we encounter something unusual, an atypical response. When for example we see a ‘push’ action our brain interprets this in a fraction of a second as backspin.
If however the ball comes over as topspin then we are confused and all our instinctive, carefully automated reactions are worse than useless. We then have to try and introduce a ‘thinking response’ into an automated system, which tends to throw everything out of tune. We are again like beginners, faced with a totally new situation. Reactions that we have built up over countless thousands of training hours are not only of no help to us but they in fact actively hinder our understanding of the new situation. This is why training against pimpled rubbers at an early age is so important, because it widens the boundaries of our instinctive reactions.
The most deceptive long pimple rubber and the one with most effect is without sponge and on a fast blade, so that the ball springs off the blade very quickly. Many players don’t understand that what is happening is that they are in effect getting their own spin back. If they for example put heavy backspin on the ball and the opponent pushes the ball back the return will not have backspin (even though his or her stroke is down and forward) but an element of topspin. A long pimpled rubber with a thicker sponge will usually return the backspin ball as ‘float’, while the rubber without sponge can send back a ball with considerable topspin.
This of course occurs because most long pimpled rubbers have little or absolutely no friction capability. Whatever spin you initiate, this stays on the ball, because whatever stroke the opponent plays doesn’t have any effect. You loop, the ball comes back with your spin still on it, unchanged. You therefore get back backspin. You push, the ball comes back with your original spin, topspin. Your mind only has to accept the fact that whatever the opponent does with his or her racket is completely irrelevant!
Of course long pimple players use their rubbers in many differing ways. Time is always an important factor when trying to read what is happening. The long pimple defender gives you more time to play your shots and to read the spin or lack of spin. The long pimple block player or attacker on the other hand gives you no time at all and this is when life can become very difficult.
Another factor that many players and coaches overlook is that power also affects the return ball. The harder you hit the ball with a closed racket, the more spin you create. Thus the harder you hit the ball against long pimples, the more backspin you get back on the return ball. It is often a better tactic to play slower balls or balls without spin to this type of rubber.
A big problem too is that few if any of us play with ‘pure’ spin. We loop not only with topspin but with sidespin too. This therefore results in us getting a return ball with backspin and a sidespin ‘kick’. This too is the reason for the ‘wobbling’ effect we often see on the return. The ball is in fact not rotating truly but is spinning in an irregular fashion and the axis changes as one spin or another predominates.
Many long pimple players for example are aware that sidespin is extremely effective with their rubber. They serve a short, heavy sidespin serve and when you push return they in turn block/push the ball back very fast and from an early timing point. You then receive a ball with topspin (from your push) and a sidespin ‘kick’ (spin still remaining from the serve). You also have little or no time to think or read what is happening.
When playing against long pimples it is in fact your own experience that lets you down. It is not what your opponent is doing with his bat that is important but what you did with your last shot. You therefore have to re-train your mind to remember exactly how you played your last ball.
Predictably this is not easy and even after you train yourself to do it, you will often have lapses, where your ‘automatic’ training kicks back in and you make the most basic and stupid mistakes. When this happens don’t panic, just keep calm, try to remember what you should be doing and have the confidence and courage to do it.
The job of any coach is to help his players to reach their maximum potential – but the coach must bear in mind that all players are individuals and different and will only achieve the maximum if they allow their own special talents to develop and to flower. There are many different ways to the top especially in the women’s game and it is up to the coach to make available a number of alternatives to the player and to suggest the right direction for him or her.
On some occasions the coach can readily see that the player should use pimples by the way he or she executes the stroke (perhaps a ‘punching’ action on the backhand side). Often however it will come down to what the player can or cannot do with the ball in a match situation. First has the player good technique in both slow and fast loop and drive play and smash on FH and BH sides. Does the player have difficulty in creating strong topspin? In the case of many girls for example, rarely can more than one or two out of every ten create real topspin. If players have difficulty in creating or in controlling spin there can be a good case for material of one kind or another.
There are basically seven differing types of rubber surfaces on the market and we will look at these in some detail –
NB. In the case of all pimple rubbers there must be no less than 10 pimples to a square centimetre and no more than 30 to a square centimetre. In the case of all long pimple rubbers the aspect ratio (ie. The pimple length divided by the pimple diameter) must be larger than 0.9 but not more than 1.10).
If we look at these seven categories in the light of their ability to affect or change the spin on the incoming ball we get results somewhat as follows –
|Anti-spin||=5 – 12%|
|Short pimples||=75 – 95%|
|Half-long pimples||=65 – 75%|
|Long pimples with friction||=30 — 35%|
|Anti-loop long pimples||=0%|
Occurs when a ball is played with more than one spin, for example topspin and sidespin. When this type of ball contacts a hard, long pimple (such as without sponge, plastic pimples and on a fast blade), it then springs off the surface very quickly and the spin already on the ball, remains on it. You therefore get back the same as you applied, (but reversed of course, your topspin comes back unchanged, as backspin), backspin, with a sidespin kick. The ‘wobbling’ effect occurs because you have two differing axes on the ball at the same time and both are trying to assert themselves.
Most spin reversal is where you have a red, long pimpled rubber, with thin, hard, widely spaced, plastic type pimples and on a fast blade. The ball kicks off very quickly and there is no time for it to be affected by the rubber. The plastic type pimples have absolutely no grip and when thinner and widely spaced have minimum contact with the ball. Because they are hard they don’t bend so much and therefore the ball is not held on the surface.
Herbert Neubauer has done his own exhaustive testing on long pimpled rubbers and the effect of rubber colour and blade weight and speed on return spin. As a result his long pimpled rubbers were originally only manufactured in red because the same rubber in black produces considerably less effect. He has also proved that pimples have most effect when used on a fast and even heavier blade. Of course it is now possible to have double-sided blades, fast on one side and slower on the other to suit the style of the individual player, so having just one fast side is no longer a problem.
There can be some speed reduction with thinner and softer pimples which have a cushioning effect during the contact phase. However you must always bear in mind that if the pimple surface is softer and the ball is held longer, then there will be less spin reversal. Most players who are able to play short returns on service receive or in a rally have good feeling in the wrist.
When we consider control we must look at how the player is using the rubber. Long pimple without sponge may have good control when you go back and play defensively, but the same rubber can have control problems when you try and block close to the table. Against a fast loop the ball just springs off the racket too quickly. A layer of sponge will help with blocking control as the ball is held longer on the bat, but you will of course lose effect. Even with a normal, reverse rubber most players will have discovered at some time in their playing career that it’s much easier blocking with 2.0mm sponge than it is with 1.0mm.
Effect versus control is always a major point for discussion with long pimple users. In most cases it is a question of whether to try sponge or not and if so how thick. In the final analysis it is often a matter of feeling and ‘what works for me’.
Long pimple players all play differently even with the same rubbers and selection of the best playing materials is a highly individual matter and usually one for some experimentation.
Catapult effect or speed just doesn’t exist. If you throw a table tennis ball against a stone wall as hard as you can, it will bounce back fairly sharply – if you do the same against a pair of thick curtains, the ball will drop almost directly to the floor. There is just no way a ball will rebound faster off a soft surface than off a hard one. While elasticity levels of both sponge and rubbers will continue to increase we must bear in mind that the resilience of the surface cannot create energy, but only minimize energy losses.
The big difference between the hard rackets of the ‘50’s and the modern sandwich rackets is that the surface is much softer and more ‘tacky’ allowing the ball to sink in and be gripped. As a result the contact angle used to strike the ball has altered dramatically. Players are able to strike the ball with a much more closed racket angle, which results in very much increased topspin. Using a more closed racket angle not only can players achieve much more spin, but also they have the capability of hitting the ball much harder and still getting it on the table! Striking the ball with a closed racket angle with power means SPIN and the harder the player can hit the ball the more spin will be generated.
What we are able to say is that players nowadays, because of the way in which they contact the ball can feed in much more power, hit the ball much harder, but still get it on the table.
We must really consider speed over three areas, speed off the racket, speed through the air, and speed after the bounce on the opponent’s side of the table.
In the case of the topspin ball struck with a much more closed racket, the ball will of course have a much more pronounced arc and much more spin through the air. During the last stage of its flight the ball will dip down sharply on to the table. A particularly important aspect is what happens after the ball hits the table. Spin is converted into forward or backward momentum. Topspin will add to the speed of the shot after the ball has bounced — the bottom of the ball stops but the top shoots forward increasing the topspin. We have a much smaller angle after the bounce and the ball shoots forward low and fast, much faster than the flatter ball with less spin.
What has tended to happen over the years is that we are so accustomed to this accelerating effect of topspin after the bounce that we play automatically without thinking about what we are doing. It is when we play against pimpled attackers for example and the ball comes through more slowly after the bounce that we often have problems.
On the ITTF list of approved rubber sheets, long pimpled rubbers are categorized as those where the aspect ratio of the pimples is more than 0.9. The aspect ratio is arrived at by dividing the length of the pimples by the breadth — a sheet with pimples of 1.8mm length and 1.7mm diameter will have an aspect ratio of 1.06. To be approved the aspect ratio is not allowed to exceed 1.1. This in effect means that very long and thin pimples are not permitted. Most pimpled rubbers today have a length of between 1.5mm and 1.8mm. On the 2005 ITTF list of Authorised Racket Coverings there are 79 different long pimpled rubbers listed.
The most deceptive long pimple rubber and the one with most effect is red, hard, without sponge and on a fast blade, so that the ball springs off the blade very quickly. Many players don’t understand that what is happening is that they are in effect getting their own spin back. If they for example put heavy backspin on the ball and the opponent pushes the ball back with the pimples, the return will not have backspin (even though his or her stroke is down and forward) but an element of topspin. A long pimpled rubber with a thicker sponge will usually return the backspin ball as ‘float’, while the rubber without sponge can send back a ball with considerable topspin.
Once you understand the above then all the rest of the ‘hype’ about long pimples is very much simplified. So-called spin reversal becomes obvious, you play topspin you get back backspin, you push you get back topspin. Whatever the opponent does with his or her racket is largely immaterial. Even the ‘wobbling’ balls are easily explained — these occur when you play with a none-pure spin, when for example you loop with topspin and sidespin (as most of us do) and you get back a backspin ball with a sidespin ‘kick’, simply because there are two different axes both trying to assert themselves at the same time. The most important consideration when playing against long pimples is not what the opponent is doing with his or her racket, but what you did with your last stroke.
Another factor that many players and coaches overlook is that power also affects the return ball. The harder you hit the ball with a closed racket, the more spin you create. Thus the harder you hit the ball against long pimples, the more backspin you get back on the return ball. It is often a better tactic to play slower balls or balls without spin to this type of rubber.
Of course there are one or two other aspects to consider – with some long pimples it’s easier to play short or low returns or even initiate some spin. Certain players are able to get much more effect from their pimples than others. The sponge (if used) will also have a considerable impact on what you can do with the rubber. A rubber without sponge will have maximum return effect, thin sponge will often have more control (but less effect) and it’s much easier to hit with thicker sponge.
The long pimpled rubbers with the most pronounced anti-spin (or spin reversal) effect are quite hard and the individual pimples feel more like ‘plastic’ rather than rubber.
The most pronounced effect is usually where the pimples are more widely spaced and less ‘rubber’ comes into contact with the ball. The flexibility of the pimples can also give unusual reactions but of course very soft pimples are easily broken.
Where long pimples are shorter, wider and more densely packed the control and spin elements will usually be higher. These are of course the reverse characteristics to the more ‘anti-spin’ types of long pimple. A thicker rubber base will also give a slower rebound speed and more control as will a thin layer of sponge. Softer pimples which are more flexible can help in returning balls short on the opponent’s half of the table.
We must really define what we are talking about in terms of speed off the racket. Pimples with no sponge will give very quick recoil from the wood of the racket and at times it may be difficult to control hard loops. Pimples with medium or thick sponge will have a slower rebound from the racket and it can be easier to control topspin.
Some pimples have a ribbed or rough surface and therefore have the capability to produce spin. This is still relatively small when compared to the spin created by reverse or some short pimpled rubbers. Often too the softness of the pimples or sponge or the thickness of the sponge will play a much larger roll in creating spin than the actual surface of the pimples.
The prime question for frictionless long pimple (FLP) players as they look forward to life after the ban should not be – ‘Which material should I now use?’ Instead it must be – ‘Where am I going now in terms of my playing style? How do I want to play?’ The change of material will mean of course that many things will change –
With FLP many players just blocked with the pimples and the rubber caused the opponents to make errors or to return high balls so the pimple player could kill. Now lower returns will mean more use of topspin, more movement and more variety of shots. The game becomes more complicated for the pimple player and new things need to be learned.
Anti can be one of the simplest solutions as it allows the player to use very similar stroke techniques. However anti will give less spin reversal (if the rubber could be made much harder and faster it would help) and will be easier for the opponent to predict. The rubber must therefore be used much more aggressively and a highly active style entails more risk.
Players could also use an approved long pimple with either no sponge or a very thin sponge (0.4 – 0.6) which would be very similar to the anti. There are one or two long pimples (Friendship and TSP) on the market which give some effect.
However with grippy pimples players have to look at direction (where they are going and which type of game they want to play).
Players must also bear in mind that most or all of these will require adjustments on the FH side and there will be a number of changes for the player to consider.
Players must now bear in mind that compared with how the game was developed with FLP, spin variation will now be much more important. Now it will not be the characteristics of the rubber which cause the opponent to make errors, but the player’s ability to change and influence the spin on the ball which will create openings. This new game will be more difficult and will need more training and practice, but at the same time it will give players more opportunities to do different things and to develop.
With short/medium pimples timing is much more critical if players wish to achieve real advantage. The push for example can be taken very early and played with no spin or very much backspin (depending on the pimple type and grip). Drive play requires the ball to be taken at peak or 1 – 2 centimetres before for maximum effect. Usually active play needs short strokes over the table and good use of the wrist. Play with short/medium pimples can be dynamic with good variation of pace and many short/long balls, but often requires fast feet and reactions and positive play on the FH wing too to keep the balance.
• Table tennis is all about CONTROLLING the play (which means being consistent) until you can win the point by some form of CHANGE (more power or spin, different timing, better placement or angle, softer, shorter ball etc). These combinations of change whether in speed, spin or placement are the way our game is going to develop. This aspect of change must be executed by you FIRST before the opponent can do it
• Serve and receive and short play are an essential ingredient to getting in your own strengths – if you can’t control these areas then you will not be able to reach a high level. In Europe we are not precise enough in serve/receive and short play and are limited as a result in what we can do with the subsequent ball. Always look for the opportunity to go on the offensive and try to develop your attack system and your own personal style within the serve and receive scenario
• If you move faster you are better placed and have a sounder base to attack strongly. There is then a better chance that your first attack stroke will have quality. If you can play quality shots you will get weaker returns and have more chance to dominate
• Speed is always the most important factor in any style. Speed includes quickness in all areas, bat, body and mind, change and tactics, footwork, reactions and adaptability
• Winning the battle of placement enables you to use your tactics to the fullest extent. Attack should as much as possible be constant and varied and should keep the opponent under pressure in one way or another. However bear in mind that change in any form can keep the opponent off balance and create openings
• To progress to higher levels players must be innovative and creative. Too many players are conservative and fail to take the necessary risks to achieve greatness
• The mentally strong will win the initiative battles
• Always consider the differing types of power, these are part of the various forms of change. Power can be:
1. Full (90% sufficient)
2. Medium (60 – 70%)
3. Using the opponent’s force (40 to 50% of own to gain 70 to 80% effect). This is a safe way to be aggressive
4. Absorbing the opponent’s power
• In today’s game all-round skills are vital. Top opponents are very quick to see and to take advantage of any weak areas
• Even in defence, keep applying pressure, maintain control, but look for an early opportunity to change the form of the rally and counterattack
• Timing and style will affect stance and movement patterns
• Sequential play is vital – to connect up the 3rd and 5th shots for example, to play sound linking shots and create combinations. Don’t get in the habit of playing weak or safe shots before attack; keep the opponent wrong-footed.
To be a champion at table tennis requires you to have the right weapons, both generally and specifically. By generally we mean for the men’s or the women’s game, by specifically we mean relevant to the way you play as an individual. Weapons usually refer to 3 areas, physical, mental and technical/tactical.
The men’s and women’s games are very different and require different weapons. Men win points primarily with spin and power. Their main strength is the powerful forehand topspin stroke and usually everything is secondary to reaching the right position to use this. Such a pattern is not relevant to women’s table tennis.
The ability to control speed is primary to women’s table tennis. And not only to control the speed but to do this with safety until an opening presents itself. This is why so many women use material; this is an aid to controlling the opponent’s speed and returning a different type of ball, which breaks up the opponent’s rhythm. There are many more styles of play in the women’s game and basically points are won with placement, speed and change of speed, rotation and change of rotation. To control the play securely and safely on the backhand is an essential ability and also to have a suitable response when the opponent switches from the backhand into the forehand. When working with girls most of the focus needs to be on playing different strokes and combinations near the table and not backing away especially when moving from one wing to the other.
Each player has his/her own way of playing. This is called style and is personal and individual to the player concerned. The specific weapons required here are those which are most relevant to the manner in which the player performs and which will make him/her most effective. However each opponent you meet will have a different style and your usual weapons may not always be appropriate to every situation. You may at times have to play differently against certain opponents and with weapons other than those you would normally prefer. This is a crucial point to bear in mind. You will need alternatives and to have the capability to play a different game at times.
The physical attributes of the player must of course be most appropriate to the player’s style. There would be little point in a close-to-table attacker having very slow reactions or a backspin defender having no stamina and being slow to move in and out. Each player must, early on in his/her career, evaluate the physical characteristics which will be most beneficial to development of the individual style and then hone these to perfection.
Equally the mental side is as, if not more, important. Almost all top players work hard, fight for every point and rarely lose touch with what is happening in the game. However where the mental aspect is crucial is more in the attitude or state of mind of the individual player. A defender for example will more often than not have a conservative approach to the game and will want to keep the ball in play and wait for the opponent to make mistakes (although even in the case of defensive players there are many differing types, from retrievers to offensive defenders). On the other hand the attacker will usually be more aggressive and will want to win the point as early as possible in the rally. It is important that the player’s style conform to his/her mental state of mind.
Technique is of course the basis of all tactics and it is imperative that the player has the technical weapons to be able to carry out the tactics he/she will most use with his/her style of play. This of course means that the weapons must be specific and tailored to the individual style of the player. The weapons too are not just comprised of the type of strokes to be played but also the timing, the right ready position, distance from the table, how serve and receive are used and most importantly the movement patterns and the preparation. Unless you move in the correct way for your style you will not come to the ball in the right way to use your weapons, not quickly enough, not with a stable base nor with good balance. Your weapons will then be ineffective.
For the player to be successful there has to be a blending and harmonising of these 3 areas. He/she requires the right physical input, the appropriate mental attitudes and the correctly honed techniques to be most effective in the execution of the tactics relevant to his/her style of play.
Let us examine several scenarios.
• In the physical frame early reading of the play, fast reactions and dynamic movement
• On the mental side the attitude of patient control until the right moment arises to win the point, aggression but within a framework of control
• Technically/tactically a square stance at all times with one or two step patterns across the end-line.
• Good coverage in the crossover area with often more use of BH
• Timing most often at early or late ascending stage, with the ability to both absorb and utilise the opponent’s power, spin or speed
• The capability to convert at will between spin and drive and vary pace, length, angles and placement
• Strong in short play with good feel, touch and variation
• Good use of serves, both long and short and strong 3rd ball, using appropriate spin or power
• The understanding when to take the half step back and when to feed in extra spin/power
• Comprehension of own comfort zone and the next sector back
• Obviously not so fast reactions, but good dynamic movement, good stamina and good upper body strength. Topspin off the table requires power in the upper body. Movement needs to be dynamic as often the FH will be used over much of the table
• Mentally the player must be feel that this sort of style is how he/she wants to play
• A reasonably square stance much of the time, but side to square at times and with good crossing movement patterns to the wider balls
• Good coverage in the crossover area more often than not with the FH wing
• Timing more often at peak or early descending with the ability to keep speed/spin on the ball. Occasionally balls played later with less power/pace and/or more spin
• The capability to play more or less spin, harder or softer, use of sidespin to angles or body
• Good short play geared to flick or longer pushes to feed into own topspin game
• Use of half-long, longer serves to get opportunities with 3rd ball spin
• The understanding when to come in for short play and when to drop back to contain. Recognition of own comfort zone but some expertise in the sectors either side
• Excellent stamina and good dynamic movement. The defender will play longer points than almost any player and the movement patterns encompass both side to side and in and out movements. Important too that the defender can read the play early in order to get into position in time to take advantage of counter-attacking opportunities
• Must mentally have the patience to keep the ball in play and to be prepared for long points but also the courage to change things and (in the present climate to eleven up) to attack when an opportunity presents itself
• Both squarer stance (close to the table) and side to square at times when in a deeper position. Both sidestepping and crossing sequences required depending on the strokes and the distance from the table
• Use of both FH and BH in crossover, often BH closer to the table and at times when deeper (sidespin chop with BH from crossover for example) but also FH backspin and counters from the crossover when in a back from table position
• All timing points used from early/late descending to early ascending (e.g. blocks and stop balls over the table). The defender must have the capability to switch between differing timing zones at will. This is especially important with the bigger ball, games to eleven and no glue
• The capability to play more or less spin (both topspin and backspin) harder or softer. Not only should the defender be able to switch between backspin and float, but also between topspin (slow and fast) and drive play (and even ‘fishing’)
• Defenders must also nowadays be competent over the table and in short play and able to take a positive advantage in this area
• Serve and receive assume much more importance to the defensive player in the modern game. It’s vital that the defender can use the serve and 3rd ball effectively at crucial stages in the game. Equally important is the ability to vary the receive, to chop, float or even to stop-block or topspin to change the form of the rally
• The modern defender must more fully comprehend the various playing zones and distances from the table to a greater extent than almost any other player
• It is vital too that although the defender may spend most time in the mid-distance area (the area from which defence is most effective with flatter, faster backspin balls over-riding the Magnus effect and also the area from which the defender can win points by countering) that he/she is comfortable both further back (in the retrieving position) and also competent close to the table
Technique is of course important and many coaches will tell you that ‘Technique is the basis of Tactics’. When looking at techniques the coach should be evaluating which weapons (techniques) the player will need for the senior game. The weapons the player requires will of course have to be tailored to the player’s style as all performers are individuals.
To develop to maximum potential the prime criterion is that the player has full understanding of his/her own style of play as early as possible in the developmental stage. Bear in mind that tactical development is based crucially on technical abilities. If the player doesn’t have the technical weapons to play his/her own game most effectively then the performer never reaches full potential. We must also bear in mind the principles of Long Term Athlete Development: ‘If the critical periods in the life of a young person, at which time the effects of training can be maximised, are not utilised to the full, then this can significantly reduce the performer’s chances of ever reaching full potential’.
National Coaches are primarily interested in producing players who will play at International level for their country. If performers don’t fit into this category then they may not get the right help for them as individuals. This can mean in some Associations that playing for your country and being the best you can be are not always compatible: in others it is felt that the country has a traditional style of play and players who are different are not readily accepted. Unfortunately at National level there can also be a tendency to over-emphasise minor aspects of technique which in terms of the bigger picture are of limited importance, or to generalise, to look at:
• What most of the top players are doing now and to copy this
• The techniques of the top Asians and to try to apply these to youngsters in the West
Both of these unfortunately have major flaws. We are always following and playing ‘catch-up’ and don’t think to develop our own vision! We also tend to focus on trying to fit our young players into a style of play which is not necessarily in accordance with their own talents and inclinations. Unfortunately as well in many countries throughout Europe there is a tendency to introduce players to professional training at younger and younger ages. This can have the effect of ‘fitting them into boxes’ at a very young age but sadly by the time they mature their particular ‘box’ is no longer relevant!
If we take a simple example, most top men players are dominant on the FH side and will attack hard with this wing whenever they receive a long or half-long ball. Therefore the coaching system decides on developing this strength and style of play with all young boys. This principle however ignores the fact that some young boys may well be naturally BH oriented and that if we had persisted with this type of method in the past, many great players such as Des Douglas, Kreanga, Jorgen Persson and Otcharov, would never have achieved their potential.
It is all too easy with young players to make sweeping technical statements; ‘You can’t get any power if you play square and don’t have lots of backswing’ (Makes one wonder about the ‘one inch’ punch in martial arts!) or ‘Spin is the only answer if you can’t spin you can’t win’ (Most girls can’t spin anyway and many use material).
We have all seen players ranked in the top 30 in the world playing square with ultra-short strokes or even over-square or winning without spin and playing flat.
What is needed is a greater perception of the individual qualities of the athlete and in particular what is natural to him/her. These are the attributes which need to be developed for the individual to attain full potential. What appears to be overlooked on too many occasions is that to focus on the areas where a player is never going to be more than mediocre will never produce a world champion. Rather this will lead to losing the player from the sport as he/she will become dissatisfied with performance.
A player may have a style of play which top coaches feel strongly will never produce world-class results at the present time. However table tennis is changing year by year along with equipment and rules. A style which is limited now may well be very successful in five years time. Equally forcing a performer into a ‘box’ where he/she does not feel comfortable is of little or no benefit now or for long-term development.
As far as strokes and tactics are concerned it is not what ‘looks nice’ that matters but what is effective and works for the individual.
• Value speed, spin and accurate/effective change; aim to use your strengths and take the initiative within the framework of all-round control
• Attack constantly and keep the opponent guessing. Any attack should be constant and varied and should keep the opponent under pressure in one way or another. Change in different forms will also keep the opponent off balance
• Improvisation is required all the time. Attack using power/spin or change if you can, if you can’t take the offensive initiative, then you must control until you can.
• In receiving serve, keep control, return the ball in different ways, try to go on the offensive
• In rallies, attack first, put more speed, spin or power into the stroke before the opponent and change direction, length or angle first
• In defence, keep applying pressure, maintain control, but look for the opportunity to change the form of the rally and to counterattack
• Good serves give you more opportunity to attack
• Good serves and movement help you to build up your attack system and your own unique style
• If you move faster you are better placed to attack strongly
• In today’s game all-round skills are vital. Top opponents will quickly take advantage of any weak areas
• In Europe we don’t play athletically enough and don’t play body-accented strokes
• We are not precise enough in serve/receive and short play and are restricted as a result in what we can do after
• Sequential play is vital – to connect the 3rd and 5th shots for example and make combinations. Don’t get in the habit of playing weak or safe shots before your attack
• The mentally strong will win the initiative battles
• Your first attack stroke should have quality
• Try to do something different first, to make the opponent play your game. The highest levels are reached when we dominate in the initiative of change
• Be unpredictable at all times
• Speed is always the most important factor in any style. Speed includes quickness in all areas, bat, body and mind, change and tactics, footwork, reactions and adaptability
• The combination of speed, spin and placement is the way our game is going to develop
• Coaches are required to take the lead in researching playing style, this provides clues for future development and the pursuit of excellence
• Winning the battle of placement enables you to use your tactics to the full
• Speed, power, spin, trajectory and placement are the prime strengths. Top players are good in at least 3 of these areas
• To progress to higher levels players must be innovative and creative. Too many players are conservative and fail to take the necessary risks to achieve greatness
• If you can play quality shots you will get weaker returns and have more chances to dominate
• Be aware of all the timing possibilities – early and late ascending, peak and early and late descending. Timing will affect stance and movement patterns
• Be aware of the various forms of power.
1. Full power (90% is often enough)
2. Medium power (60 to 70%)
3. Using the opponent’s power (40 to 50% of your own to gain 70 to 80% effect). This is a safe way to be aggressive
4. Absorbing power.
• Use the centre of gravity (even in serving, pushing and blocking)
• Lead with the wrist before hitting the ball
• Focus on a point on the table when hitting the ball
• Use the opponent’s power first in your stroke production
• Play through the ball when playing the shot
• For good counter-attacking take up position a little deeper
• If you are weak in power, have a closer and squarer position. This also applies to players who use the opponent’s power well
• Players who have quick footwork and want to play FH’s from the BH corner can assume a position on the BH half of the table. Bear in mind however that retreating when moving to the FH can result in weakness or in a gradual change of style
• The slower all-round player should be more central in position
• Each player has a distance from the table in which he/she operates most effectively. The player must try to stay in this area 70 to 85% of playing time. However he/she should also train in the closer and the more distant positions to be effective when forced out of the comfort zone.
Table tennis is an ‘antagonistic’ sport. This means that it involves power and judgment from two opposing parties, who both influence what happens to the ball. To play the most effective shot to suit the situation at hand we have to consider both:
• the type of incoming ball
• the precise amount of effort needed in our stroke
A detailed consideration of these two factors will help the player over a period of time to establish an instinctive theory to deal with any situation and just as importantly, will develop the concept of how to utilise power to the best effect.
There are basically 3 types of ball and to each type of ball there is a best response in terms of effort: the main influencing factor which dictates the ‘best response’ is the influence of time.
What are also critical in the equation (not solely the amount of effort) are the type and length of stroke to be used, relevant to the demands of time, as these will be variables. Essentially the stroke will shorten or change under the pressure of time and this is significantly more important in women’s table tennis due to the fact that they are closer to the action.
The main fault with many players, especially younger players and which leads to a high rate of errors, is the tendency to try to play ‘hard effort’ against a ‘hard’ ball. This of course is not impossible and is seen at the highest levels, but it is an acquired skill which needs development and training. High-level selection of the most effective shot does not occur overnight and requires experience and is part of the process of evolution. The player tends to learn and develop this through ‘converting’ power into placement on the opponent’s side of the table.
The danger in trying to play power against power or ‘hard’ against ‘hard’ at too early a stage in the player’s development, is the lack of effective time to deal appropriately with the incoming power. One of two things will tend to occur as a result. The player will either:
• change or violate the usual stroke configuration
• back away to create more time to feed in a longer stroke
The attempt to play too hard, therefore constructively limits your ability to prepare and then to feed in your own power in the time available. The creation of any ‘time deficit’ is of course of immediate advantage to the opponent and gives him/her a direct opportunity to increase the power ratio first.
More often than not when you watch top players perform, within the context of their level of play, you in fact see medium effort against medium effort. (You must not of course confuse the fact that their medium may well be your very hard! This concerns ‘levels of play’ and is the difference between town, county, regional, national, international and the small handful of the world’s best players.) Top players perform within a basic framework of control and then spar for the opportunity to execute the best shot to win the point.
What every player must therefore assess at some point in his/her career is the exact degree of effort required to be able to control ‘the play’, a degree of effort which denies the opponent the time to play with strength, but at the same time creates the opportunity to ‘accelerate’ his/her own more powerful aspects. A player for example could ‘control’ at 60% input, but find that at this level he/she loses out because the opponent is able to get in with the hard shots which win the point. Equally the same player could control at 90% input, but still lose out, not because the opponent gets in, but because he/she just makes too many unforced errors. Table tennis is a game of ‘balance’!
A critical stage to understand the usage of power is of course as the player moves on from the basic technical levels and starts to expand potentials and capabilities and is moving upwards towards a higher level of performance. Without an in depth perception of the principles of power usage many budding stars will unfortunately fall by the wayside.
Younger, developing players must especially appreciate that initially feeding in around 75% of effort will lead to winning around 75% of the points. The theory behind this is of course that at this speed you keep the opponent under enough pressure that he/she is not allowed the time/opportunity to open up with the ‘hard ball’ and/or power. Or if he/she attempts to do this, it entails risks and the possibility of unforced errors. Alternatively the attempt to create power from the opponent’s end of the table will result in a decisive advantage for you!
One final point which should be emphasised is that the 75% theory has a great deal more relevance and significance in the women’s game. This is of course because of the lesser power input in general and in consequence the longer rallies which occur. As a result the ability to keep the ball on the table with safety and enough speed to keep the opponent under pressure and unable to feed in the ‘hard ball’, assumes rather more importance as does the ‘juggling’ for supremacy by one or another form of change within the rally.
Many coaches will tell you that ‘Technique is the basis of all Tactics’. But just how does this work and how does style fit in as all players are individual and even players who are very similar will do things in different ways?
From a young age coaches should be assessing the strengths and weaknesses of their players and evaluating in some detail which ‘weapons’ will be required for the senior game. These weapons are the techniques, but obviously they will have to be tailored towards the needs of the player’s style. A defender will need differing techniques to a drive player or a looper. The next aspect is to consider whether or not there are certain basic elements on which these techniques are based. And in fact there are!
There are 5 basic elements of table tennis, which are at the core of every technique:
• Flight (of the ball)
Speed (which is the most important of the 5) covers all aspects and is the central core and the prime factor of development; it doesn’t just cover the ability to play fast and to control speed, but to think and to react swiftly, to adapt quickly, to move rapidly and with the right footwork patterns. It also covers the aspect of combining the other four elements at differing speeds.
Power adds force and potency to our playing style. This consists of the capability to apply power at various levels (how to use power), hard medium and soft, but also to absorb the opponent’s strength and to respond with the slower ball.
Spin gives stability to your game and puts the opponent’s control under test. In addition it should reflect the player’s aptitude to create differing levels of spin, at slow and fast speeds and to control, counter or even hit through the opponent’s spin.
The trajectory or flight path of the ball has many lessons for the player and is crucial in terms of accuracy and on-the-table consistency; the gyroscopic effects of modern topspin cannot be underestimated. Equally the trajectory of the shot will often highlight weaknesses/strengths in your own player’s game.
Finally change in all its forms is the heart and spirit of table tennis. This can be in respect of pace, fast and slow; length, short and long; spin, slower and quicker; trajectory, higher and slower arc and lower, flatter flight path, together with placement and angles. We impose our tactics fully if we win the battle of the change! And even against the world’s best, we win if we change first before the opponent is able to.
Top-level players will invariably be very good in at least three of these 5 elements.
It is important too to consider the 5 core elements of technique in tandem with the 5 timing positions. These are:
• Early rising
• Late rising
• Early falling
• Late falling
Most of the world’s top players take the ball at the late rising timing point in modern table tennis, particularly if they are trying to win the point with power. This can of course differ dramatically dependent on style. Many defenders used the late falling timing years ago, now the tendency is to use early falling or even peak as this gives a faster, flatter return which causes more problems to the attacker. Women will often keep pressure on the opponent with early rising timing and quick over-the-table play until they can feed in power and win the point.
Power and spin assume more importance in the men’s game and speed and change more in the women’s. The harder you can hit the ball with a closed racket, the more topspin you will produce, so this suits the more powerful male game. Women don’t hit the ball as hard as men do, so they achieve less spin and have less on-the-table control (gyroscopic effect of the spin). It is speed and control of speed which is rather more important with women’s play and the ability to loop several balls in a row is not a prime requirement. Instead timing is vital as women drive much more – the power timing window in drive play is extremely narrow, between ‘peak’ and as early as late rising.
Length also assumes much more importance with women’s play, as does placement. In the men’s game, power with strong topspin means that the ball accelerates after bouncing and leaves the opponent’s side of the table with a much flatter trajectory. The vast majority of men counter from a deeper position and give themselves time. From this deeper position it is of course much more difficult to vary angles. Men, more often than not, look to place the first opening ball (to the body for example) and once the rally deteriorates into control and counter-control back from the table then power and spin are the main elements.
In the women’s game almost all players assume a much closer-to-table position and it is rather easier to vary placement, long and short or to the angles and to vary speed. Because women have a closer position it is inevitable too that a bad length ball is easily smashed. It is crucial that women can spin short or long and not mid-table.
As a result women really need to open in a different way to men. The ability for example to open hard against the first backspin ball and not spin all the time is a vital asset. Even the way that women loop, if they open with spin, is critical. This should not be as hard and fast as in the men’s game for without the extreme spin that the men are capable of creating, the fast loop executed by women is more predictable and easier to block or to counter, particularly when the opponent is much closer to the table.
Women should be looking rather more to open with a slower ball, with finer touch, good spin and good length. More often than not this will create openings to drive or smash the next ball. Indeed rather than regarding topspin as an end in itself as the men do, women should look upon it as a weapon, a means to create openings from which they can win the point.
To develop full potential the prime criterion is that the player has full understanding of his/her own style of play as early as possible in the developmental stage. Bear in mind that tactical development is based crucially on technical abilities. If the player doesn’t have the technical weapons to play his/her own game most effectively then the performer never reaches full potential. Throughout Europe there has to be a great deal more attention to the individual development of the player and to maximising personal strengths.
In all of the above we should not overlook the scientific factors of table tennis. With the bigger 40mm ball there is now less spin and spin is lost more rapidly through the air because of the larger surface area. This means that playing away from the table requires more physical strength from the player. Women trying to play topspin off the table are therefore at an immediate disadvantage.
In addition we must look to what may happen in the future. There is still a great deal of ‘boosting’ or ‘treating’ of rubbers of one kind or another, especially in the men’s game. If means are found by the ITTF to stop this then many players will be much less effective and the game will change. Equally once the new plastic ball is introduced the game may well change anyway and players will have to adapt to differing spin levels and bounces.