Asia and Europe
Rowden Fullen 2010
At one time Europe dominated our sport of table tennis. Over a period of 18 World Championships 1926 up till 1952 (H. Satoh, Japan) no Asian player featured in a World final and it was only eventually in 1956, on the women’s side, that an Asian woman won the singles (T. Okawa, Japan)(and bear in mind too that the Worlds was held yearly at this time, except for a gap of seven years during World War Two). However from 1954 to date only a handful of Europeans have won the men’s singles (1971 Bengtsson, 1975 Jonyer, 1989 and 1997 Waldner, 1991 Persson, 1993 Gatien, 2003 Schlager) and no women after 1955. A damning indictment of European table tennis and especially of the women’s game.
The golden years of modern European table tennis (for the men) were limited to 10 or 12 years from around 1983 to 1995. During this time the Swedish men’s team were in every World Team final (’83 – ’95 played every two years) and won in 1989, 1991 and 1993. In addition from 1989 to 1993 we had all-European men’s singles finals for the first time since 1953. There were a number of strong European men players at this time such as Primorac, Saive, Douglas, Gatien, Samsonov and the Swedish contingent of Waldner, Persson, Lindh, Apelgren and Karlsson. Most of these players continued (or still do) till late 30’s or even 40’s but there seems to be very few younger players coming through in Europe (with the exception of Boll and Maze) to assume the mantle of greatness.
So just what happened with our sport of table tennis and especially over the period from 1995 to date? A sport like table tennis is unfortunately difficult to assess and evaluate. With sprinting for example one can readily see that world records are falling year by year and that the times of Usain Bolt are far quicker than anything over the last five decades. With table tennis we know that Bengtsson won the Worlds at 17 years of age and that Waldner played Elite Men’s in Sweden at 12 and was in the final of the European Men’s Championships at the age of 16. But would they be able to do the same today? What circumstances were different at that time and what are things like now?
I think it’s fair to say that at the time Bengtsson won in 1971 the Asians were not so well developed nor so strong in depth as they are now. In the case of Waldner we should probably be prepared to concede that his is a truly exceptional talent and that he would be a winner in whichever decade he played. However looking at the broader picture it is obvious that while Asia has forged ahead and risen to new heights, with probably less resources than the West, Europe unfortunately has if anything gone into decline. Over the last 10 – 12 years Europe has just not produced the ‘goods’. Table tennis is now quite a high-profile sport in Asia but not in most countries in the West. What do the top coaches in Europe have to say?
: 'In Europe I think especially in the field of training there is a lot to do. I also believe that within Europe there is not enough professionalism and the particular associations do not cooperate enough. Many things must change. Some people say the present situation in European table tennis is a catastrophe, for me it is the reality we could have expected! Older people can say, they know that for very long we are not trying to educate our coaches properly. As long as young coaches in Europe cannot see any real future in their job it will be almost impossible to set in motion European table tennis! Last 3 years table tennis in Europe has rapidly gone down - I believed that the young generation will be able to step into the shoes of the previous generation, but now I cannot see that they made any progress. Without good coaches in the base it is not possible to make progress, but good coaches see no future in this job and are leaving table tennis!'
: 'Of course quite probably we must give the very best cadets earlier opportunity to play in seniors so as not to lose too much time in junior table tennis. It is better for these young players not to play too many junior tournaments, maybe only the big ones and instead pay more attention to the development of their game for senior competition. Junior titles cannot be the target, the target must be to develop the game which will enable the player to compete successfully in senior competitions.'
: 'European Youth Championships 2009 – ‘My credo is that you do not make a player on training camps, you make a player on the basis of daily work. That is the weak point of European table tennis. In Europe only a few players have an opportunity for good coaching on a daily basis. The ETTU should focus on giving the player the best possible conditions.’
These coaches mention a number of different aspects: the importance of coaches and coach education, that training is not of the level required, the importance of a good club structure and good development in the clubs and the importance of players playing to their level and not in their age category.
The reality in Europe is that we don’t have great players at a young age anymore. The fact that players well into their 30’s or even 40’s can get to the final stages of the Olympics is indicative of the serious shortcomings in our youth development within Europe. On the other hand Asian players in their late teens (or in the case of the girls in their mid-teens) are achieving more than creditable results in major table tennis events. Perhaps we need in Europe to have not only higher goals, but a different focus in both development and our training methods.
: 'We have to think how we in Europe shall play to be able to beat the Asian competitors - it is not enough to be European champion, we must try again to produce a World champion, an Olympic gold medallist! The target must be not to prepare our players for medals at European Championships but for competition with world’s best players in men and in women events.'
: 'The danger is that the coaches try to prepare their young players to win cadet or even mini cadet championships and do not think about the most important long term goal - how to form the player, his/her technique, tactics, fitness for his/her future as senior player. The coaches must be aware of it, they must plan the long term development of their players, form their playing style.'
One thing that is noticeable is that we appear to be able to develop good juniors but few countries within Europe appear to be able to keep these same players moving forward to become high-level seniors. Rather we seem content for seniors to end up in that 75 to 250 placing in the world rankings, we don’t seem to have the know-how and expertise to take them into the top 20 in the world. Interesting that now Maze has a Chinese coach he has won the European Championships and is talking about how he has strengthened the backhand and, because he has worked a great deal on building up the legs, is now coming to the ball quicker on the forehand and is in a better position to play higher quality strokes. Surely this could have been picked up rather earlier by European coaches?
Over the last several years in Europe we have had many complaints from top players that the coaches are inadequate to take them up to higher levels. This is why many players prefer ex-players to help them as at least they have ‘been there and done it’ and know what it’s all about at the top. Or alternatively they prefer Chinese coaches for although there may be communication problems at least they know how to get players to higher levels. The girls in particular return from training camps in Asia requiring answers to the burning question: ‘Why do I train and play like a boy, adopting male tactics, movement and playing styles and ignoring my own natural strengths.’
: 'Training programmes must be more intense, more complex and more individualised.'
Dr. Miran Kondrič
: 'When we compare the training of top players in Europe and Asia we must come to conclusion that Asian players spend significantly more time having top quality training than it is the case with European players. Length of training maybe the same but intensity and quality of the training are not, as they are generally better in Asia. How this problem can be solved is a task not only for coaches, but to European players as well.'
Top coaches in Europe advocate that players should find and play to their own strengths, that there should be more cooperation between European Associations and that the coaches involved in the players’ development should be the personal coaches, who see and work with the players every day. They also advocate that physical and technical training must be significantly more intense. There may however need to be a ‘pooling’ of resources so that European players get the best opportunity to train in the right way and with the right methods to get into the top 20 in the world. Also in any cooperative undertaking between countries in Europe, it is the players who must be in focus and their development which should be prioritised.
Another area we must investigate is the commitment of the players. In this modern age where life is so easy and comfortable in the West and where it takes a great deal of hard work and effort to get near the top in our sport and where unfortunately the rewards are very mediocre, just how many youngsters are prepared to make a career out of table tennis? In European countries if we look back over the last 5 – 10 years, how many cadets who were ranked in the top 3 nationally every year even continue to play as seniors? Very few indeed, the drop out rate is appalling!
A major problem all over Europe is of course an obvious, structured career path for top young players. Parents will not encourage their offspring to devote themselves full-time to a sport which offers little or no career security. Players themselves usually realise around the age of 18 to 19 years that there are few ways of making a good living when the playing days are over. With no career path in table tennis a young player has to be somewhat brave to try to ‘tread the professional road’, especially as it is often plainly apparent that other more senior players have tried the same route without marked success.
If we are therefore to retain the few players who are prepared to try to make it at top level in table tennis and if any country is to be successful in our sport, then the Administration must also be progressive and forward-looking and alert to new opportunities and new ideas. In any sport it’s not enough just to do what has always worked in the past. Methods of assessment, selection, ranking and national centres and training must be constantly monitored and up-graded. There must be some sort of quality assessment programme in place.
: ‘What we need is the basic fundamentals of sport managed with a strong business ethic. To win you have to create the right competitive environment and engage the best specialists in each fundamental area of your sport. The myth of sporting superiority is just that – a myth. The strength of the top sporting nations lies in their competitive culture and their high level of preparation, not in some magic gene.’
It is important that more and more countries throughout Europe demand not just some ‘movement’ from national bodies but actual achievement and at all levels across the board! Every association should be looking to improve on last year’s results, not just to do the same old things rather better than before.