Are we going in the Right Direction?
Rowden Fullen (2002)
In life as in table tennis you can grow and develop or you can stagnate. You are not the same at five, twelve, eighteen, thirty and fifty years of age, you don’t think or act the same. The same applies to your table tennis, there should be growth, a progression. However just how many players can honestly say that their game is developing and that there is a definite upward trend? How many ask themselves regularly — ‘What is new or different in my game over the last six months, one year? How is my game growing? What changes do I have in serve and receive, strokes, placement or tactics? What development can I see in spin, speed, variation, timing or mental approach? Even, do I actually know where I am going, what is my ultimate goal?’
It is all too easy to drift, to procrastinate, to accept lesser levels of achievement. It’s very human to take the easy road. Many players don’t seem to question where they are going — they just drift. After a while the mind becomes frozen and they don’t even question any more. It’s also all too easy to be limited by those around you, both coaches and players. How often do I hear the phrase — ‘But you must face up to reality!’ But what is reality? Ten players in your club will tell you it’s impossible to become a world champion. But if you talk to one or two world champions, they won’t laugh at you for thinking and aiming big, because they have already done it! It’s all a matter of perception — if you set limits in your own mind on what you expect to achieve, then you will indeed never exceed these limits. Just what is your reality!
How many players also know how to get the best out of their own game, what is effective with their own personal style of play? If you ask players how they win points, what is their winning weapon, they may well know this. But if you go into their style in more detail you get fewer and fewer answers and often little understanding of several important areas. Many players do not seem to be aware of their most effective playing distance from the table or how much of the table they would cover with the forehand or the backhand for example. If you start to explore in depth, which serve and receive is most effective with their style of play against designated opponents, how they change against defence or pimples, ask if they can take advantage knowledgeably of return spin on the third or fourth ball and use elastic energy or the Magnus effect against defence players, often you only get blank looks in reply.
In fact if you compare the young players of today in Europe with those who have been at the top for many years and are now between 25 — 38, there seems to be much less individualism among the young and rather less flair and feeling in their game. Swedish players such as Waldner, Persson, Appelgren and Lindh all have very different styles of play as do Primorac, Gatien, Saive, Korbel and Kreanga. Most of the younger players are more robotic in their play and there appears to be developing in Europe a sameness of play, a universality of style, strong, efficient and workmanlike but without the personal, unique touches that differentiate the really special performers from the run-of-the-mill players.
If our European style of play is changing, the first question to ask is why. What has changed over the last twenty years since the older players were in their formative period? Is it the coaches, the players or the system or some combination of all three? Or is it that with more interaction between European countries, more joint training ventures, more mass media, magazines, internet, there is now a standardization of coaching, less invention and fewer ideas? Is it perhaps that in many countries we now have more top players being involved in coaching, especially in the National centres, who as a result of their own background, look at the development of style in a rather different light, or even consider certain styles of play more preferable to others? It would appear that whatever the reasons that there are fewer ‘extreme’ styles coming through in Europe at the moment and fewer trainers working with the more unusual type of game as played by Carl Prean or Ni Xialan for example.
The other vital question we must ask ourselves is — ‘Are we going in the right direction?’ Is our modern, efficient, workmanlike style going to dominate world play for the next I0 — 20 years and sweep aside the Asian block countries? How many of our up-and-coming players in Europe between say I7 – 20 have really made the transition from top juniors to top senior level and are in a position to positively challenge the older stars? The young Swedish players of the ‘80’s were in every team final from I983 to I995 winning 3 gold and 4 silver. Before that Stellan Bengtsson was world champion at the tender age of I7 years! There would appear to be little or no evidence that the current youth of Europe is reaching world level at a similar sort of age.
Perhaps one of the biggest dangers of being encouraged to play a certain type of game, whether the influence is from coaches, media, other players or role models, is that there is a lessening of the individual input. What should always be remembered is that all players are unique and they should be urged to accentuate and develop their own personal style and to do what they do best. To imitate others often means that you try to develop areas of your game where at best you will only ever be mediocre. Some coaches even seem to think along the lines, ‘we’ in our country have ‘our own National style’. This too is a rather dangerous assumption as there is then a tendency to ignore potential which doesn’t fit in with the ‘National Plan’!
If we are to look at technical areas where we have some reasonable chance to dominate the Asian players, then surely we must examine their training programmes and methods and isolate aspects where they fear the strengths of the European game. The conventional fast attack game has been common for many years in Asia and as a result training programmes and exercises are traditionally aimed more at speed with shorter, more compact movements. Many coaches have not laid so much emphasis on the lower centre of gravity and the use of the body and legs. It is only relatively recently that Asian coaches have started to allocate much more time to looping and especially to counter–looping techniques and to raising the level of their players’ understanding of the use of arm and body and the required movement patterns. Many coaches from the Far East feel that once the rally has progressed to a longer range loop to loop battle that their players are at a disadvantage against the Europeans. The power of the European backhand causes further problems to Asian players, many are weak against repeated attacks to this wing or even to take a strong enough initiative themselves here. In fact many Asian players even those who use the normal shakehands grip often don’t develop their backhand wing to the same extent as the forehand side.
In fact if you look at the victories over China, I979 Hungary and I989 – 93 and 2000 Sweden, these wins were achieved by the use of topspin, strong backhands and an emphasis on individual style development. In view of the advantage that Europe already has in the two-winged topspin game, there would seem to be much to be said for continuing to consolidate our position with this playing style. Perhaps however we should emphasize the topspin element a little more than many of our young players do in Europe at the moment – the larger ball dips quite quickly and can cause problems for many opponents. Also in many countries in Europe backhand development with good spin appears to be stagnating — perhaps now is the time to strengthen the backhand again and the ability to accelerate from block to drive and from drive to spin at will.
But above all if we are to make real inroads at world level I feel that the single most important aspect is to develop the individual strengths of our players, and to adapt selected techniques to give maximum effect to their individual styles of play. Although table tennis at world level is now in fact much more integrated with differing styles and techniques flowing one into the other, the basic principle still applies that it is only by building on and allowing players’ personal specialties to flower that they will eventually reach full potential.