Breakthrough at National Level

Rowden Fullen (2008) Intro Clive Woodward

Usually it’s the establishment environment which is lacking. It doesn’t challenge the players. It doesn’t give the players the preparation they need; it doesn’t give them every chance. The selection system is inconsistent. The coaches insist on styles of play and training methods which are inadequate and behind the times. Players prepare for games at a level of intensity which indicates they are not doing everything possible, everything that needs to be done to win.

Often England coaches, working as volunteers or part-timers, can’t provide a competitive enough environment to keep the players interested. Often too they focus on what the top players in other countries are doing, which drills in the real message that we are of course inferior. The myth of the superiority of other countries seems to be firmly entrenched in the hearts and minds of the ‘chosen few’ in the coaching hierarchy and they seem only too keen to pass on this myth to the current players. Then they wonder why the players continue to lose.

In the English sports environment the central theme too is often a spirit of participation and there is little professionalism or cross-collaboration. What we need is the basic fundamentals of sport managed with a strong business ethic. To win we have to create the right competitive environment and engage the best specialists in each fundamental area of our sport. The myth of sporting superiority is just that – a myth. The strength of the top sporting nations lies in their competitive culture and their high level of preparation, not in some magic gene.

It’s no good having roughly the same tools as the other international team; you must be able to apply them differently. Success can be attributed to how the coaching and backup team work together under pressure, how they understand the importance of teamwork and loyalty and how they are willing to do a hundred things just one percent better. As a coach or manager you normally have in sport a workforce over which you have no control. If you want more from your players you have to give them good reasons why they would want to put in the extra effort.

First 4 paragraphs quote from Clive Woodward – England, World Cup Rugby 2003


Being in charge of English Table tennis is not an impossible job, but it’s certainly a difficult one. For example with any National League Club the manager can head-hunt any number of top players from Europe or even further afield. In the case of the National Team we are restricted to the players we have. There will always be problems for the man in charge (too much administration work, lack of time with the squad etc.) These problems are then compounded in that he needs top-level help on which he can rely absolutely to carry out his themes and these people too must be monitored. Too often in addition the man at the top is criticised for being innovative and bringing in younger players who no-one else thinks should play for the National Team. But this is in fact the way to keep moving forward as a team, never to stand still.

But surely the major problem is that we do not produce enough players of quality for the manager to choose from. If we are to qualify for and to win major events then the country has to establish a much better development programme which works. This is not just a problem for the ETTA but for the Manager of the National side too. He has the responsibility to make good players and to take players who are already good and to make them great. And he should be ready to use all our resources in this endeavour. Do we think that only the National Centre can produce and develop players of quality? Perhaps we think that coaches such as Dennis Neale, Brian Burn, Ken McLeod, Nicky Jarvis, Hans Souva, Alan Ransome and Pete Garvey are not able to ‘hack it’ anymore just because they aren’t in the National Centre. Strange as some of these have already been head-hunted for the top England position and turned down the job!

When we do not have enough quality players or enough variety of players then it also follows that even the resources in the National Academy are limited in respect of player development. What do we mean by this? Waldner in his book stresses the vital importance of training against all different playing styles if you eventually wish to be a top player. Private clubs are able either due to the number and diversity of their playing members or by simply buying in appropriate sparring, to solve the problem of training against penholders, defenders, ‘funny’ bat players, pimples, left-handers etc. Most National Centres due to financial restrictions, especially in the case of the ‘minorities’ such as the girls, are reluctant to pay for high-level sparring or consider it unnecessary. This does not only apply in UK but is prevalent in many national centres over the whole of Europe. The result of course is incomplete players who can only perform well against a limited number of styles.

For years we have whinged about Centres of Excellence and National Centres – but surely the main issues are much deeper and the solutions much simpler. It’s the way the competition and training calendar is set up which is wrong – the best young players in the country must train with the best opposition every week under the guidance of the best coaches. And it is obvious that all of the best coaches are not in the National Centre as are not all of the best players. Solutions must therefore be found which are acceptable to the players, for it is they after all who must be the ones in focus. Too often it would appear that the coaches come first and are in focus and not the players. Is this because far too often we seem to employ top ex-players in charge of our coaching? What does modern research say about this?

‘Straightforward athletic success as a competitor may result in a lack of compassion and empathic understanding towards the problems experienced by others, which is critical within coaching. Some qualities associated with a number of elite or high-performance athletes, such as selfishness or egotism, can be a major drawback in trying to selflessly help others to reach full potential. We certainly need a more sophisticated talent identification process for prospective coaches other than athletic achievement alone; it takes a good coach educator to keep you at the top.’ (D. Turner, lecturer in Sports Coaching)

The way to have a good National Side is for the best to train against the best, but the responsibility doesn’t just lie with the English Manager, it rests with the boss of every club in UK. If we are to advance we must use all our resources and we must think beyond the small areas, the towns and even the counties and regions. Many of the players and coaches working in the clubs may not even be English, but this is besides the point, when you are working in someone else’s country you have a responsibility to improve the way things work there. We have good clubs up and down the country such as Ormesby and Progress. What we need however is a common, cohesive philosophy that we can pass down the chain of command to the most junior helpers and coaches, so that the system benefits the whole country.

We cannot for example afford to have small, isolated pockets of good players spread around the country, especially in the case of the girls, who are both fewer and require more individual attention anyway. If players can’t get to the nearest big club, where there is good coaching then other arrangements must be made to take coaches to the players. Again we will hear the well-worn cliché ‘no way can we afford that’. I think we would find in many cases that family would help with funding if their child were really benefiting.

But it’s not only the coaching and development side which must be catered for – we must also look at upgrading tournaments and making these more exciting for the players and especially at a younger age when they are starting out. We have for example some excellent competition formats on the continent where young players play out both team and individual events for places. Players can play as many as 17 – 20 games in a weekend and end up finding their level in the tournament. Interestingly enough the overall costs, including flights and ferries are somewhat cheaper than in the UK!

We should of course also have a level playing field for all English players competing abroad. Parents and coaches should be encouraged to send their children/players to train and to compete abroad and ranking points should be awarded to all players whether they are representing their country or not. The more our youngsters meet foreign competition the more they will benefit and the more England will benefit. Competing in Europe, Asia or elsewhere should not just be the province of the National Team Players. If parents/coaches need the support of the Association to be entered into some major events overseas and there are spaces available, then this should be readily forthcoming.

Equally why don’t we seek to attract more foreign competitors into our tournaments in UK? Why not waive the single tournament licence fee for overseas players and make it a little cheaper for them to compete here? The more we can do to broaden our horizons the more English Table Tennis will benefit and the more the base of our pyramid will increase.

It is a priority one way or another that we take the coaching to the players, especially in those critical younger years. Also it is important that both parents and clubs realize that you don’t develop by just competing all the time — opportunity must be found for training. As Niels de Vos, the chief executive of UK Athletics said very recently of the new head coach – ‘What we have here is not a sacking it’s an evolution. The previous guy did a very good job in putting systems in place, but systems do not win medals. We felt we needed a higher level of coaching.’

Many things are changing in our sport and we must change too. That things happen is in most cases a matter of ideas and the ability and energy to translate ideas into reality. This applies to associations even at district and national levels.

The sport needs the very best coaching knowledge at the top level. Let’s finish with the great catch-phrase of the celebrated athletics coach Jesse Mortenson –‘The orthodox is just another word for the obsolete’.

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