Coaching the Female of the Species
Rowden Fullen (2005)
The prime time difference
The time element and implications
Men’s and women’s game
The right direction
Girls – training needs
Seminar on girls’ play
Women and material
Ready position, serve and receive tactics. Are these changing?
Women’s play – facts and observation
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.
Unfortunately in these modern times and in our up-to-the-minute throw away society there is no place for the specialist and this applies to sport too. Just as in our modern society we have many fitters but few engineers, we have very few coaches and many trainers. What is the difference between a coach and a trainer?
Most kinds of power require a substantial sacrifice on the part of the person who wants the power. There is an apprenticeship, a discipline lasting many years. It is totally immaterial what kind of power you seek - company director, black belt in Kung Fu, spiritual guru, table tennis coach. Whatever it is you seek to aspire to, you have to put in the time, the practice, the effort. You must give up many other things to achieve your goal. The goal must be very important to you. And once you have achieved the power, it is your power. It can’t be given away, it resides in you and is part of you. It is literally the result of your efforts and of your discipline.
The trainer on the other hand is often a player who has gone into coaching at the close of his career, or after injury or even because he knows nothing else. His experience is usually from his own past, from training camps, so he is good at sparring and setting exercises. He is often not so good at correcting technical problems or at understanding the differing styles of play, all his own experience has been in trying to make his own individual style as effective as possible. He has certainly not had the commitment, the discipline of a long apprenticeship to help others to find their way and to release their full potential. You also notice I say he – women will give up the luxury of having a life to be a top player but not to be a top coach, at least rarely in the West.
The main problem too with coaching women as opposed to men is that it’s ‘a completely different ballgame’ and requires a different approach. Not only are we talking about the many differing styles of play and the extensive use of material, but also of the different mental and physical attributes. If you can’t communicate with women, if you can’t comprehend why so many women play with material or understand how to play with and against such material, then it’s difficult to make a meaningful contribution to their development. Direction is important with all players, male and female, whether you as the coach can point them in the right direction for their individual playing style. However this aspect is much more demanding in the women’s game and a much broader ‘experience’ background is required. If you are ‘blinkered’ and don’t appreciate that there are many more paths to the top level in the women’s game or indeed know what these paths are, again it’s hard to guide your player.
A further point is that women’s styles are fluid and changing year by year as Deng Yaping and Ni Xialan have shown us over the last few years. As a women’s coach you must be prepared to be much more innovative, ready to look at new tactics, techniques and styles. The individual ‘specialty’ is rather more important in the women’s game. Equally to understand the women’s game you must watch the world’s best women and assimilate how they play. What techniques and tactics do they use and more importantly why? There is little point in watching women’s play in many countries in Europe as you are only watching second or third class players – their styles, techniques and tactics have not been able to get them to top level! A coach carrying out his work in the 5th division of the local league is never really going to understand how the elite players perform.
Deplorably when you examine the coaching structures throughout Europe little if any emphasis is placed on the coaching of women and the differences between coaching men and women. It is therefore understandable why it is difficult for coaches to progress in this field.
2. THE PRIME TIME DIFFERENCE
If you watch the world’s best men playing you will be struck by the extreme power and spin. Men hit the ball hard, create a great deal of spin and play almost always from a little further back so they have time to play the counter-spin strokes. But how much time? At the highest level we are still only talking about from 0.600 – 0.700 of a second. This means from the time the opponent makes contact with the ball you have around half a second to understand where the ball is coming, how hard and with what spin, to get into position to play your own stroke and to decide how and where you will play!
As we said the men stand a little further back and take the ball later – if we have two women counter-hitters standing at the end of the table and taking the ball just after the bounce just how much time do we have then? It can be as little as from 0.200 – 0.400 of a second! The women of course don’t hit the ball as hard as the men but they play more directly, with less topspin and take the ball earlier and hit flatter. The ball travels in a straighter line and from a closer table position.
The biggest single difference between the men’s and women’s game is TIME. Women have less time to play and if female players can’t cope with and control speed then it’s hard to achieve any measure of success in the women’s game. There is of course less spin, as women do not have the same strength as men. When women play in men’s events for example they have noticeably greater difficulty in coping with the extra power and spin.
Because women play closer to the table and with less spin TIMING is of crucial importance. TIMING and the understanding of timing is the major problem when coaching girls. They fail to understand that to hit hard when the ball is below table height is impossible without topspin! If they only want to hit or counter then ‘peak’ (or 2 – 3 centimetres before) is not just nice to use it’s an absolute necessity.
3. THE TIME ELEMENT AND IMPLICATIONS
The demands on mental strength are amongst the heaviest compared to all other sports because in table tennis there is just no time!
If you look at a typical rally in the men’s game where even though both participants may be standing well back, say two to two and a half metres from the table, they hit the ball so hard and with so much spin that each player has often only around half a second to respond.
Just what is entailed in this response?
- The player must assess where the ball is coming to on his side of the table.
- He must also judge the length, speed and spin.
- He has to move into position to respond and get his body prepared for the action he will take.
- At the same time he is deciding where to play the ball on the opponent’s side of the table, which stroke to use and what power and spin input is required.
- Then he must play his own stroke.
- Finally he will move into the best recovery position with reference to the new angle of play.
From the time the opponent hits the ball, or rather to be strictly and technically correct, from 4 – 6 centimetres BEFORE the ball contacts the opponent’s racket, you have only between 0.6 and 0.7 of a second to execute the first five steps in the above list! We can say 4 – 6 centimetres before contact because almost all players are committed to a definite racket path this late in the stroke preparation.
Bear in mind too that the above check–list may be further complicated by the consideration of just what alternative responses it may be possible to play in the time you have available. Perhaps one out of three possibilities may have to be discarded because there is no time to play this effectively.
If we also consider in some detail how men and women play we can see that there is a significant disparity in the time for consideration between the sexes because of the differences in style and tactics. The men more often than not play from further back, with more spin and a more pronounced arc. Because of these factors although they hit the ball harder it takes fractionally longer to reach the opponent on the other side of the table.
On the other hand the women use much more fast-reaction drive and counter play and from a closer position, either over or at the end of the table. The ball comes through much flatter and because they play with less spin there is less speed acceleration after the bounce. Bear in mind however that in the final analysis the racket contact points in the men’s game can be as far apart as eight to nine metres, while in the women’s game they can be as close as two and a half metres. The total response time can therefore sink from approximately 0.5 seconds to as low as 0.2 or less.
Just what are the implications of this difference in the time element? It has for a start a direct influence on technique. When you have less time technical considerations such as stroke length and playing the FH across the face assume rather more importance - or for example playing the BH with the right foot or right shoulder a little forward. If the technique is sloppy you deny yourself recovery time for the next ball. Equally movement patterns are vital - it is critical that women have the correct patterns for their style of play and can execute them with good balance. Above all retained squareness is vital - because they are closer to the table women need to be ready at all times to play either FH or BH without a moment’s hesitation. If you watch female Asian players who topspin for instance they loop from a much squarer position so as to retain the initiative on the next ball. The position of the feet for topspin is very different depending on whether you are initiating power or using the speed on the incoming ball. Sound technique is rather more vital in the women’s game than in the men’s.
Tactical considerations also become crucial. Not only do almost all women stand closer to the table, they also stand squarer, use more BH serves, receive more with the BH from the middle and play more BH shots from the middle. Nor are these tactics accidental, all the top women both Asian and European utilize them and many women so doing, such as Boros and Gue Yue, have in fact extremely strong FH strokes. These tactics are used because they work and because they save time.
Even a stroke which may have a high level of success in the men’s game (such as the fast topspin) is rather limited in its use and effect in the women’s. This is of course because women with much lesser power achieve nowhere near the same pace and spin and as a result the ball is easier to control. The return ball is therefore radically different - a block, counter or chop but rarely if ever counter-loop. There are many more reaction players in the women’s game and as a result women who loop have less time to play their strokes and are almost always limited to one or two topspin stokes. It is much more usual in women’s play to loop one and hit the next ball.
Above all what coaches should understand is that coaching women as opposed to men is ‘a completely different ballgame’ and requires a different approach. Not only are we talking about the many differing styles of play and the extensive use of material, but also of the different mental and physical attributes. If you can’t communicate with women, if you can’t comprehend why so many women play with material or understand how to play with and against such material, then it’s difficult to make a meaningful contribution to their development. Direction is important with all players, male and female, whether you as the coach can point them in the right direction for their individual playing style. However this aspect is much more demanding in the women’s game and a much broader ‘experience’ background is required. If you are ‘blinkered’ and don’t appreciate that there are many more paths to the top level or indeed know what these paths are, again it’s hard to guide your player.
But just why do we have so many different styles of play, so many differing paths to the top, so many girls using material among the ranks of the women players? Again this is all down to the lack of time. As a result over the years women have devised diverse methods of controlling the faster speed which is inherent in and an integral part of the way they play. If girls are unable to control speed then their chances of reaching the highest levels are strictly limited.
4. MEN’S AND WOMEN’S GAME
Unfortunately in a large number of European countries we are not really professional enough, from a coaching point of view, in isolating the important areas in technique and movement when our girl players are at a young and formative age. Many coaches too do not really seem to grasp the essential differences between the men’s and the women’s game. If you examine the basic topspin techniques for example you find that in the case of the men the racket usually starts further back and has a much more ‘closed’ bat angle. Quite simply the men have a longer stroke. Are there reasons for this and surely women can play the same?
It is not quite as simple as it may first appear. Men are generally much stronger than women and are able to feed considerable power into the stroke by starting with the racket well back and even holding this position prior to initiating the stroke. Women however usually need the ‘assist’ of elastic energy in stroke play to achieve real power which denotes directly that they must complete the whole stroke sequence as rapidly as possible.
In addition men and women face totally different incoming balls with very different bounce factors. Men almost always face a much higher level of topspin and power than the women do. If you have ever watched women playing in men’s tournaments at the higher levels, they have great difficulty in coping with the increased degree of spin and power on the ball. This higher degree of rotation means that men almost always face a significantly more predictable ball than women do in their play against other women. Because they face a more predictable ball it is of course understandable that men use their strength and start the stroke from rather further back. If they were to face a much bigger variation in ball movement after the bounce as occurs in the women’s game, men would find it rather more difficult to play in this fashion.
If you think about this at some length the potential problems become quite obvious. The further back you start the stroke, the more difficult it is to change the trajectory if you have a bad bounce. You are fully committed from the moment you commence the forward swing. If you use a shorter stroke and start nearer to the bounce it’s then much easier to change direction and to do different things.
In the women’s game you face less topspin, more drive and block play and a much larger proliferation of ‘funny’ rubbers. The element of strong topspin, which gives control and predictability to the returns, is often no longer present. As a result because your own spin is often returned in unexpected ways and also because the ball is being returned from a variety of pimpled rubbers, women players more often than not face more unpredictable returns. You often have balls stopping short, bouncing low and kicking up or even sideways after the bounce. It thus becomes rather less appropriate to use the man’s long loop stroke with a very ‘closed’ racket even if you have a woman player who has the strength to do this.
We must also of course consider the time element and what happens after the serve and 2nd ball. In the case of the world’s top men we usually see power with spin from a deeper position, two to three metres back from the table — the men give themselves more time to play and to use their superior power. In contrast in the women’s game the first opening ball is returned from a much closer position. It can be blocked, forced, countered or even smashed from an early timing point. The women have little or no time to topspin two or three balls in a row. What happens more often than not at top level is that after looping the first ball, the woman comes in and blocks or drives the next one. She tries to keep the initiative with a closer-to-table position.
All these aspects are of course ones which should be considered in the formative period of the player’s evolution, when you are looking at the stroke development and planning for the future. In a sport such as ours where the aim is to automate actions as quickly as possible, it is difficult if not impossible to make major changes at a later date. Too many trainers look at the boys’ or the men’s style as giving the ultimate answers to growth in the women’s game.
Coaches too encourage girls for example to have the same ready position as the men and to take the serve as the men do with the forehand wing wherever possible. Many men of course do this so that they can control the table with the forehand on the next ball. They also often stand with the right foot a little further back so that they can get in with the forehand right from the word go.
However this is changing even with some of the top men, especially the younger players. Players such as Kreanga, Boll and Chuan Chih-Yuan stand much squarer than was usual three to four years ago. In addition they are just as liable to open with the backhand from the middle as they are with the forehand. If you have a strong backhand then of course you should play to your own strengths. But perhaps there are other reasons too. Opening with the backhand adds a measure of variety and unpredictability to the play. Often too it is a little more difficult for the opponent to tell exactly where you are going to play the ball.
If you examine top-level women’s play in some detail, the women quite simply play more backhands than the men do in the receive situation. They push receive more than the men with the backhand and they open more than the men with the backhand from the middle. They stand more square than the men but with less wide a stance and are in a better position to move in to the centre of the table to play backhands from the middle. Top European players such as Steff and Struse and the junior Pota all fall into this category. You see exactly the same with the Chinese players Zhang Yining, Niu Jianfeng and their top junior Peng Luyang, Lin Ling from Hongkong and Li Jia Wei and Jing Jun Hong from Singapore. The men on the other hand both push receive and open more than the women do with the forehand wing from the middle area.
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 do. At senior level the service game becomes noticeably tighter.
There is a considerable difference between the European and Asian women in the percentage of long serves. Generally the Asian players serve a much higher proportion of short and half-long serves and are rather better in the short game and at getting in on the attack from this position. European players use more long serves and particularly to the backhand side. Asian players on the other hand are very quick to come round and kill this type of serve with the forehand from their backhand corner. It would appear that there is much to be said for working quite extensively in the area of ’short play’ with our European girls and from an early age.
5. THE RIGHT DIRECTION
TIMING and the understanding of timing is the major problem when coaching girls. They fail to understand that to hit hard when the ball is below table height is impossible without topspin! If they only want to hit or counter then ‘peak’ (or 2 - 3 centimetres before) is not just nice to use it’s an absolute necessity.
1) Physical chains
To get to the top you first need to get rid of the physical chains which hold you back, until you unlock them you are going nowhere. Aspects for example such as –
- Problems with basics.
- Poor technique.
- Inadequate movement patterns.
- Little understanding of materials.
- Poor tactics against certain styles of play.
2) Mental chains
Many girls also have mental chains which limit their development. Chains such as –
- Rigidity of play, rather than flexible and adaptable.
- Rigidity of thought, not prepared to consider new ideas, new methods.
- The understanding that development means change! To play the same means stagnation — you don’t move forward. Becoming bigger and stronger and hitting the ball harder and moving faster is not development.
The understanding of how to play the women’s game. Aspects such as
- Control of speed
- Short play.
- Serve and receive.
- Use of table.
- Stronger BH.
- Positive attitude.
- Winning weapon.
- Not being afraid to be different.
3) Understanding own style
Each individual is unique and should develop their own unique style and do what they ‘do best’. It’s of vital importance that players –
- Understand their own style.
- Know their best playing distance from the table.
- Are aware of their backhand and forehand split.
- Have movement patterns appropriate to their style.
- Know what is effective for them and how and where they win points.
- Train in the right way to accentuate the growth of their own personal style.
4) Advanced techniques
It is of particular importance that in Europe women have access to the advanced techniques of the world’s best women players, such as –
- Short play.
- Use of angles.
- Change of speed.
- Killing through loop.
- Slow loop (short and long)
- Sidespin loop.
- Dummy loop.
- Early ball topspin.
- Early ball push.
- Early ball smash.
- Various chop and stop-blocks.
- Sidespin push/block.
- Late timed push/block/flick strokes and their application.
- Short drop balls (against defenders).
- Loop and drive play (alternating).
- Loop and block play (alternating).
- Block play (especially on the forehand side).
Women should of course also be aware of how these techniques should be carried out and of the finer points of execution (whether the wrist should be used and when, exact timing to get the best results etc).
Many trainers in Europe at the moment seem to be of the opinion that the girls are getting nearer the boys and playing a more similar game. However more often than not this is talked about in general terms and we seem to get very little detailed information. If you in fact go to the ‘experts’ on girls’ training, the top European coaches who have players winning individual and team events in the European Junior Championships and ask them why girls can’t be successful playing strong topspin like the boys, the answer is quick and to the point — strength, speed and balance, (especially under pressure). To these I would add one more quality, the ability to understand technical matters fully and quickly and to translate these readily into physical actions. Many girls do not easily grasp mechanical and practical aspects and need much guidance on technique, much more than boys.
If you also go to the other ‘experts’, the small group of women in Europe who are ranked in the top dozen in the world and ask them how often they train with men, you also get a pointed answer – ‘ Men, only if I have to, the one or two times I’ve had to train with men, my results against women have gone down quickly.’
On a purely practical level if you ask the best junior girls to loop for loop against the best boys, or the top table elite women against the bottom table elite men, just what percentage of the points do you think the female of the species is going to win? And to take practicalities a stage further when girls play against girls and one topspins just how is the ball returned? With topspin all the time? Very rarely in fact. Rather with flat counter, blocking of one kind or another, defence or with some combination of material. There would therefore appear to be little or no logical reason for girls to train against topspin. Playing men is largely a matter of coping with spin, playing women of coping with speed.
Over the last 15 - 20 years in Europe we have had some very strong, athletic women topspin players. None of them have succeeded in winning the worlds or have ever been in the number one ranking spot. I also hear the argument that because our women in Europe are much bigger, they are too slow to compete in terms of speed with the smaller Asian girls and must play power from further back to create more time! Since when did big mean slow! I thought the American football stars and the New Zealand rugby players had demolished that theory when they produced guys of 120 kilos who could run the 100 metres in 10.1 or 10.2 seconds. Do we really think that now playing with the big ball which takes less spin, the predictable fast, hard topspin game is suddenly going to come into its own and topple the Asian players?
6. GIRLS — TRAINING NEEDS
Let us take a close look into the training of the female player and which areas of technique, tactics and development are of vital importance in producing players who can make a real impact. Particularly let us always bear in mind the value of early programming which is so significant in a fast reaction sport such as ours.
The establishing of sound movement patterns is one of the single most important factors in determining just how far a young girl can go in her career. Generally the top women move in four different ways (depending on how you categorize these), the men often have additional patterns. What you must appreciate however is that in a match situation there is often a combination of one or more patterns at the same time. That is why it is so important to train movement in a multi-choice manner and at advanced level in a random fashion. But what is most vital of all is that you the coach are aware that you are laying the right ground patterns — that you establish the patterns that are appropriate to the player’s end style and which can grow with the player.
Diagonal play for instance wide to the backhand followed by switches to middle or forehand results in one-step short or one-step long in the case of a block/drive player or one-step and cross-step in the case of a looper (or a very small player). Variation between the short and long Falkenberg will involve the pivot step followed by one-step long or the cross-step (preceded perhaps by the jump-step small, the most common of all movements). Strong attacking play especially if combined with spin is usually characterized by the cross-step, jump-step and the pivot step, while control/block players more commonly use the one-step short, long or back.
One other aspect well worth looking at for young girls is the knee angle of top women in play – ready position 110 degrees, one-step long to forehand 104 degrees, left leg braking after long cross-step 91 degrees. Playing with straight legs and being a top player are just not compatible!
CONTROL OF SPEED
Many women play fast and flat – it is not essential that girls play fast, what is essential is that they are able to control speed, without this it’s hard to progress in a women’s table tennis world. Each girl must find her own method and work in areas most suited to her own individual style – drive play, blocking of one kind or another, topspin, defence, rolling ‘nothing’ balls, using different rubbers, variation in placement, speed or angles.
But above all it’s important to look at the psychology of speed and power. Women who play ultra fast like to have speed back right from their own long serve. Often their effectiveness is greatly reduced if they are faced with a return of little pace. Also they are often less comfortable against short play or slow spin.
It is of particular importance that girls learn to open from a pushing situation as early as possible in their development. It is all too easy to win at a young age by being negative but the long-term development is slowed down. Focusing on winning in the 9 - 11 age groups should not really be an over-riding priority. The earlier the young player becomes confident in opening the quicker the next stages in development can proceed.
Coaches will be aware that there are a varying number of ways to open — drive, punch, sidespin, fast topspin or slow loop or even the roll ball. However they and their players should be alert to the fact that with women power is rarely the answer. Female opponents usually respond more easily to the fast ball, it is the slower one that more often than not causes problems. It is vital that girls learn to open with a slower ball, slow loop or roll, the main thing being that this first opening ball be to a good length, either very short or very long (and of course girls should be able to open on both wings).
Just as important as opening is the ability to do something with the next ball. After the first opening spin it is vital that girls can be positive and if at all possible put the next ball away and win the point. Not spin and spin again till the rally degenerates into a control situation, but spin and drive or kill. Regard spin as a means to create openings, not as an end in itself. In this way the opponent receives two very different balls in quick succession and is unable to find a rhythm.
At a higher level girls must be able to cope with short play, both the serve and the next ball. It is therefore important that they become comfortable in this area at an early age, and explore methods of being positive and creating advantage from this situation. We are not only talking about flicking or top-spinning over the table, but pushing also in a positive manner so as to make openings to create attacking opportunities, using very early timing and playing back a short, dead ball, or even long and fast to the corners or body with heavy backspin or no spin. This early-timed, deep ball especially with spin gives the opponent very little time to act positively. (To open with spin or power the centre of gravity starts from a lower position, so this entails moving, turning and lowering the body all at the same time, before playing the return ball.)
However it is not enough just to be able to deal with short play, the next stage is to cope with the opponent’s first opening ball. Again at high level it is not sufficient only to control the first drive or topspin — against the top players just being safe is inadequate. Girls should train to force the return with either power or spin or even to kill through the topspin from a close position, a technique not worked on enough in Europe. Other alternatives would be to return a different ball, stop-block or slow roll.
Girls with good serves invariably go far and the time to work on the different grips and actions is at a young age. Usually they have a little more difficulty than boys in achieving spin, especially good back and sidespin so it is important that they persevere. Girls also often need more help and individual training time before they fully understand the techniques involved, the stance, body action, grips, where they hit the ball on the racket, where the racket starts and stops, the contact angle, which part of the ball they hit and at what height they should make contact. It is important that they achieve a variety of different spins and speeds with the same or very similar actions. Also the young player should fully understand the differing ways in which her service may be returned and should always look to be positive on the third ball.
Return of the short serve has largely been covered under ‘short play’ but of course variation in all aspects is vital, in spin, speed, placement and angles. The long serve often causes problems in the girls’ game usually because they return with too much power. It is well worthwhile looking at a variety of receives — drives, blocks, (soft, forcing, sidespin, stop and chop), spin, punch, slow roll and even chop and float. A different method of return may well prove effective against differing players.
Too many girls are predictable in the way they play. To be effective at top level requires much more thought to variation — change of spin and speed, length and placement, not just to hit harder and harder. Girls should be encouraged to be unpredictable in the way they play, often straight or to the body instead of diagonal, with regular change of pace and use of the slower ball.
USE OF THE TABLE
There are a number of things we can combine under this heading — better length, (too many girls play mid-table balls instead of up to the white line), more short and long play, more angled balls off the side of the table, more straight shots and balls directed at the body or between 15 - 20 centimetres either side of the racket. Force the opponent to move to play the return.
USE OF EQUIPMENT
Girls should seek advice on and explore the possibilities of the many differing rubbers on the market. It is not a coincidence that around 60% or more of top women players use something different on one side of the racket or the other. They are successful because they are different and unusual — nothing wrong in this!
STRONGER/ DIFFERENT BACKHAND
With many girls the backhand is used in a supporting role to the forehand and as a control stroke rather than a point-winner. At top level it must be remembered that any weakness will be very quickly exploited. It is important that even from an early age girls work at strengthening this wing, so they have the capability to accelerate from mere blocking into drive play or spin. The other path is to use a different rubber to achieve a different effect, making it difficult for the opponent to win points here.
Girls are always much more negative than their male counterparts. Throughout early development strong support should be given by parents and coaches and every effort made to strengthen positive aspects. Indeed girl players should be urged to attack at the earliest opportunity, to be alert for that first opening, to try to develop a sense of aggression, to cultivate the attitude that to let an attacking opportunity go by is failure.
A WINNING WEAPON
Every player must have a strength, a way to win points. It is up to the coach and player to find this strength and to build on it. Sometimes it may be a combination, loop and kill, serve and third ball. Whatever it may be the player should be aware of her strength and how to use it to best effect.
Above all girls should look to be different in style. Throughout Europe there are thousands who play the fast, flat, ‘typical women’s game’ - only the very best one or two will get anywhere. Even these are unlikely to succeed against the Asian players who play this type of game even better and put much more practice time in at it!
Not only should girls be encouraged to develop their own personal strengths and characteristics so that a unique individual style emerges, but also they should be prepared to be flexible in thinking. The effects of mass media and the many cultural and sporting interactions in Europe tend if anything to standardize training methods and style and to inhibit forward thinking.
HAVE THE RIGHT ATTITUDE TOWARDS CHANGE — Progress and development entails change. If your game remains the same or your mind refuses to accept change then you don’t go forward, you remain as you are. This is the one great lesson that every player must absorb at as early an age as possible. Be receptive to new ideas, prepared to test new theories and methods, alert to new techniques and tactics, ready to keep your game fresh and alive and moving forward.
7. SEMINAR ON GIRLS’ PLAY
- Men play well back from the table with power and strong topspin. Women play closer to the table and counter more with speed than topspin. This means that very different timing points are used in male and female table tennis.
- Men hit the ball harder and are capable of achieving more topspin than women do. The harder you hit the ball with a closed racket, the more topspin you create and the more on-the-table control you have.
- As a result the men have more control and face a more predictable ball. Many women play with lesser power and differing materials, which also adds to the unpredictability after the bounce in the women’s game.
- The unpredictability in the women’s game directly affects the stroke technique especially on the forehand side.
- Because of the lesser spin and power in the women’s game length becomes much more significant.
- Women generally have a much squarer stance than men do (60% to around 25 - 30%).
- Women receive much less with the forehand than the men do (53% to around 80%).
- Women receive much more with the backhand (47% to 19%). Many receive with the backhand from the middle.
- Women in general serve more with the backhand (20% to around 5%).
- Women use more long serves than men do (16/17% as opposed to about 10%, but European women serve long much more than Asian women, 30% to around 13%).
- Asian women serve more short serves than European women do (65% to 50%).
- Counter-play is still the main tactic in the women’s game and timing is vital. The ‘timing window’ in drive-play is extremely narrow, between ‘peak’ and 1 - 2 centimetres before. It is just not possible to ‘hit’ the ball hard from a late timing point WITHOUT TOPSPIN.
- The ability to open hard against the first backspin ball and not just spin all the time is a vital asset in the woman’s game.
- From an early age it’s vital that girls learn to open and to play positively on the backhand side.
- It’s also important that girls are at ease in the ‘short play’ situation and able to gain advantage in this area.
- Strong serve and third ball and good receive tactics are of prime importance if girls are to reach high levels.
8. WOMEN AND MATERIAL
Many coaches and players seem to think that it’s some form of legalized cheating to use pimples or at best that that it’s only to win matches cheaply or to cover a weakness. Of course at top-level pimples are rarely used in the men’s game but are quite normal in the women’s game even at the very highest levels. Many coaches unfortunately have little understanding of the real differences between men’s and women’s play and why pimples are a necessary tool in the women’s game. The players themselves however begin to understand when they get a little older.
For example in girls’ 13 classes in Sweden you have hardly any girls playing with material, not because they don’t want to or wouldn’t benefit by using pimples, but solely because their clubs or trainers totally reject this alternative. If however you look at the National Swedish Rankings for girls’ 20 a large number of our girls are by this age using material - from nothing the percentage has leapt to around 50%. Why? Either because the players have come into contact with more enlightened coaching or because as they have become older and more experienced they have also become aware that without material they are not going to reach the higher levels in women’s table tennis. Women begin to understand that there are many more paths to the top level in the women’s game than there are in the men’s. By not allowing our younger girls to explore the various alternatives in the women’s game at an early age we often deny them the opportunity of reaching their full potential.
Take a look at the SOC in Malmö — at the very best women in the world rankings — players from Asian countries with material, from Europe and the Americas with pimples. Most countries competing had pimpled players in their teams. A girl from Hongkong only ranked 5 in her country and 46 in the world, reaching the final - pimples. Shouldn’t we perhaps be learning something from this? Many top women play with material for a good reason - quite simply because such rubbers complement the women’s game and tactics. And over the years we have had a considerable number of female world champions playing with pimples. All this makes the total rejection of material by many coaches in Swedish clubs rather ludicrous.
What do we mean by ‘complement the women’s game and tactics’? Just what is the difference between the sexes in the way they play? If we compare top men and women we immediately notice the contrast in power. Quite simply men hit the ball harder. Usually too they give themselves more time and room to use their strength and play from further back and with much more topspin. Women on the other hand play closer to the table and block and counter much more. Even those women who topspin can’t be compared to the men. A strong woman such as Boros just doesn’t hit the ball anywhere near as hard as a man.
Power and spin are important in the men’s game, placement and change of and control of speed in the women’s. You rarely if ever see the loop-to-loop rallies of the men’s game in women’s play — almost always the return is a block, counter or defence stroke. Not only does the ability to loop several balls in a row against topspin require strength that most women don’t have (and in the long term often leads to injury) but also tactically it’s not a prime requirement in women’s play. Because women loop with less spin and power than men their topspin is much easier to control and contain and there are far more good blockers and counter-hitters in the ranks of the women than in those of the men.
Pimples are ideal for changing spin and speed and for returning unpredictable balls to the opponent. They are particularly good for controlling topspin, especially the lesser level of spin and power you get in the women’s game. With pimples you also have the capability of taking the ball very early and denying the opponent time to play their next stroke so this material is in fact ideal for controlling the opponent’s speed and allowing you to be on level terms with much faster players. The higher level of unpredictability in ball behaviour especially after the bounce means that it is very difficult for topspin players (and particularly those with a long stroke) to adapt. They are often committed too early to a certain stroke path and are unable to change this. When you compare Asian loop players they usually have a much shorter stroke and don’t therefore suffer so much against material (also of course they train against all different playing styles and from an early age).
Of course there are so many different pimples on the market that the whole area is now something of a minefield - should you play with short pimples with no friction, a little or much friction or should you play with medium or long? Which would suit your style of play? Don’t despair if you don’t know. Up to a couple of years ago the rubber manufacturers didn’t know either. Generations of Asian women players have used a variety of sponges under the rubber for the last 30 years because they knew something the manufacturers didn’t. That the softness of the sponge is of vital importance in getting maximum effect particularly in the case of short and medium pimples - there’s little point in using 45 or 50, you really want at least a 35 or even a 30. It’s only recently in Sweden that we have started to get the full range of sponge sheets in different thicknesses and hardness and have had access to the same advantages as the Asians (for further information contact Lars Borg at Japsko).
Neubauer of course 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.
From a young age it is vital that girl players learn to cope with all types of playing styles. There is little point in getting up to the level of the National team at 18 - 20 years only for the trainers to discover that you can’t play against defence players or pimples. Your further development is going to be severely restricted. However if you have played with and against material at a young age your long-term development is liable to be much more comprehensive.
And let us remember too that playing with pimples can be a stage in the development of a young player, it doesn’t have to be permanent. Using material can even be a way of refining technique as with many pimples, short and medium for example, you have to play the ball rather than just placing the racket in the way. Quite a number of players turn to pimples in their early teens only to go back to normal rubbers later, but almost always with a much better understanding of how to play against material.
As we said earlier in this article in the women’s game there are many more ways to the top than there are in the men’s. I would appeal to coaches and trainers at club level to understand this and to give their girl players a fair chance of success from the start. You have a big responsibility to do the very best for your players and to put them on the right road for them.
The Chinese have a saying - ‘When a fool sees himself as he is, he is a fool no longer. When the wise man becomes sure of his wisdom, then he is a fool.’ — If you as a coach have stopped listening, then you are no longer prepared to look at other possibilities. Perhaps it is true to say — only in absolute certainty is there danger. Certainty is the enemy of progress, we stop thinking and further development is not possible.
9. READY POSITION, SERVE AND RECEIVE TACTICS — ARE THESE CHANGING?
If we look at the top men, women and juniors in the world do we notice any changes in the ready position and in the serve and receive tactics? Obviously there are individual style factors which affect the issue — some top stars such as Kreanga and Steff use the backhand side to open much more from the middle of the table and especially against the serve or on the third ball. What we are looking for however are more general trends either in the men’s, women’s or the junior game.
It would appear that the ready position in the men’s game is changing. Many of the top junior boys and the younger top men stand more square now so that they have more options in short play (the rear leg is not so far back as it used to be). Players such as Boll, Maze and Chuan Chih-Yuan fall into this category. If you look at the world’s best junior boys many have a relatively square stance - Zwickl, Süss and Asian players too such as Yang Xiaofu and Sakamoto. The main exception is with the Asian penhold players who want to play more forehands and receive with the right foot (for a right-hander) well back.
Even in the case of many players who do stand with the right foot back, often they come in with the right foot against the serve to use the forehand from the middle of the table. In this way they keep control of the table with the forehand on the subsequent ball. The men take over 80% of the opponent’s serves with the forehand wing. If top men can’t open against the serve, the main receive is the short push return with the forehand.
In comparison with the top men over twice as many of the top women stand quite square - almost 60% as opposed to 25 - 30%. The women too use the backhand much more from the middle of the table on the service receives, both to push and to open. They in fact use the backhand receive almost 50% of the time. European players such as Steff and Struse and the junior Pota fall into this category and even Asian players use the tactic. Players such as Guo Yue, Zhang Yining, Niu Jianfeng (Ch), Lin Ling (H.K.), Jing Jun Hong , Li Jia Wei (Sin) and top world juniors such as Peng Luyang (Ch) and Fukuhara (J) all use the backhand from the middle.
In the service area we note a number of differences between the men’s and women’s game. The female players use the long serve more than the men, in a ratio of around 16 - 17% as opposed to 10%, but there is not such a great difference in the short and half-long serves at the very top level. 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 do and the girls use the long serve more than the women. At senior level the service game becomes noticeably tighter. The men almost exclusively use the forehand to serve, with one or two noticeable exceptions such as Primorac. Backhand service is however generally lower than 5% as opposed to nearly 20% in the case of the top women.
There is a noticeable difference in service tactics between the top Asian and the top European women. The Asian women serve more short serves, around 65% in comparison with 50% and significantly less long serves, 13% as opposed to almost 30%. The best girl in the world Guo Yue, number 15 in the women’s rankings at 14 years, serves around 97% short or half-long serves. The Asian women are generally better and much more confident in the ‘short’ game and at opening against a backspin ball even over the table.
The European women usually serve longer as they wish to get their topspin game in at the earliest opportunity. However in many cases it is obvious that the Europeans have neither good enough serves nor a good enough first opening ball to obtain a real advantage. If we look at statistics of rallies between top Asian and European women, the Europeans are struggling to hold their own in drive or counter-play but also they are not really dominant in spin play either. Unless their first opening topspin ball is of exceptionally high quality they almost always lose out when the game accelerates into fast counter-play.
It is obvious too that counter-play is still the basic norm in the women’s game. We rarely if ever see the loop to loop rallies that we see in men’s play with both players well back from the table. Instead the first opening spin ball is blocked or hit and there is no time to spin again. Rather the top women come in so that they are in a better position to counter fast over or close to the table. After the first opening spin ball, the next is usually taken at an earlier timing point to pressure the opponent.
There seems to be little thought at top level to bring in any changes in the forehand service action or position to create a more positive advantage in respect of the new service law. Most top players just try to remove the free arm and serve as they did before. Few have thought to increase the rotation speed of the upper body so that the free arm automatically swings away, or to use a higher throw so as to have more time to rotate the body. Players don’t really seem to appreciate that without rotation the service action is often quite stiff and it can take up to three separate movements to get the body and feet in the right position to play the next ball. Few players too have thought to serve from a squarer stance so as to be more adaptable against the return ball. It is noticeable that the women particularly are sometimes a little slow now to get in the right place for the third ball, especially if this is played hard into the corners.
10. WOMEN’S PLAY — FACTS AND OBSERVATIONS
Part One - do coaches see what is happening?
Table tennis is very much like life itself. There are always new challenges and new things to learn and if you are to progress then you must keep your mind open and ready to accept new ideas. This applies even to those of us coaches who have been working in our sport for many decades. The moment you think you know it all then your development and effectiveness as an instructor are strictly limited.
Many years ago I learned an important lesson from a young girl of 9/10 years old. She came to my club with her mother but it was she who did the talking. “I am going to be the national number one and I want you to get me there”. My first question was obviously why me. “You have all the best girls in your club and when I talk to them and their parents I find that you coached almost all of them from beginner level. You made them and you have already made 6 or 7 national number one girls. So you know how to do it. The best trainer to take me to the top is one who has already been there and done it before”.
The girl impressed me not only because of her obvious self-confidence and motivation, but because she had done her homework more efficiently than most adults. To achieve her objectives and arrive at the best solution for her situation she had used observation in the right way and had seen the salient aspects. She had also paid close attention to the facts and facts are above all important.
Observation is of course an essential part of our work as coaches but I sometimes think that we do not approach this in a scientific enough manner. We gloss over things, we see the general over-view without seeing the individual details which are often of prime importance. And above all we do not take enough account of the facts — facts are always important. On many occasions for example when I watch a big match and talk to coaches after, I wonder if they have been watching the same match as I have. They have been watching but they don’t seem to have seen what has actually happened!
Coaches cannot possibly examine technique and tactics if they are unaware specifically which components determine effective performance and how best to observe them. Any assessment is about scientific observation in such a way that you SEE what is actually happening. I spend a fair amount of time videoing the world’s best players. But if I wish to assess performance then I must break this down into its component parts to see what is actually happening and to see how they achieve results. Observers who try to see everything, often end up perceiving nothing. I may start for example with the 2nd ball, playing back all the receives of serve perhaps 20 times and looking at the different aspects - for example was the receive with B.H. or F.H., what was the stroke and the state of readiness for the 4th ball, which timing was used, was the shot negative or positive, which tactics were used against the short serve and what was the percentage of short serves, tactics against the long serve and percentage of these, where was placement on the opponent’s side of the table and why? I will then do the same with the 4th and 6th ball before going on to the serve and 3rd and 5th ball tactics and looking at playing and tactical plans in general. Overall I can examine the same series of video clips a couple of hundred times before I isolate the various individual aspects.
Equally if coaches are going to be involved in women’s training at any level then they have to be aware of the differences between the men’s and women’s game and of which tactics are successful. Yet I see little indication in many countries in Europe that coaches have much understanding of how women actually play! They often seem to have in their mind an ideal of how they would like their female players to play but this differs in most cases quite considerably from how women in reality do play. It seems to me that coaches watch women play but they don’t actually SEE what is happening!
When I talk to coaches about women’s play I hear a lot of generalities but few specifics. I hear comments such as - ‘Well the girls are getting closer to the boys and playing a more masculine type of game with more use of spin’. I would really like to see some of these female players because they seem to be conspicuously absent when I go to tournaments! Nor do I necessarily think that it’s a valid deduction to conclude because something works well for the men that it is going to be equally effective in the women’s game.
Why for example do we have women in the training hall working at looping 6 or seven balls in a row and even doing this back from the table? Look at the best 30 women in the world - do any actually play like this? Why are we pressuring girls to take the 2nd ball with the F.H. from the middle of the table? All the top European women, Boros, Steff and Struse (and most Chinese too) use the B.H. from the middle and even from the F.H. side. So do the world’s best juniors Guo Yue and Fukuhara and Pota. Even some of the world’s top men, Boll, Kreanga and Chuan are now using this tactic so they must consider it’s advantageous to do so.
Why too do we require female players to work more with F.H. serve and 3rd ball follow-up like the men do? In the women’s game the B.H. serve is used much more often and to good effect. And finally why do we have girls training against boys and often the wrong boys in terms of playing style? Do we really think it’s a good idea for girls to train against a style of play and a level of spin which they rarely if ever meet in the women’s game?
It would seem to be obvious that if the world’s best women use certain tactics then they do so for a reason - that THESE TACTICS WORK. I would also draw the conclusion that coaches, if they really want to produce top girl players, would do better to concentrate on what tactics the top women are using and WHY they in fact use them!
Part Two - the Reality
The characteristics of the modern sponge and rubber allow the bat to be swung in a flat arc, giving more forward speed to the ball with topspin. This increased spin element has the major advantage of allowing much more energy to be fed into the shot while still maintaining control. With topspin you can hit the ball harder and harder because it is the topspin, which causes the ball to dip down on to the other side of the table. A fundamental point which many coaches fail to appreciate is that for the same bat path, the faster the racket moves, the more spin it puts on the ball. A fast hit with a flat, forward arc will contain more topspin than a slow hit. 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. This means quite simply that POWER IS A VITAL FACTOR IN PRODUCING MORE TOPSPIN.
Most players, especially women, do not understand the importance of the initial power input and the path of the stroke in achieving spin. Very few women for example are as powerful as men or use the body as effectively as men in the stroke. Few too ever attempt to play with the same degree of closed racket angle as the men do. How then can they hope to achieve the same level of spin as the men? It is the gyroscopic effect of the spin, which gives strong directional control and allows more and more power to be fed into the stroke without greatly reducing on-the-table accuracy. Because women achieve less topspin, mainly due to having less power than men, THEY HAVE LESS ON-THE-TABLE CONTROL THAN MEN DO. With less topspin the ball has a less downward curving flight path and less directional control.
With less topspin on the ball it’s also easier to block or to hit through the spin. Therefore it becomes immediately apparent that length becomes much more important in the women’s game. In the case of the men who are playing much further back and hitting the ball with that much more spin and power, whether the ball contacts the opponent’s side of the table in the middle or at the end is relatively unimportant. Because women play closer to the table any topspin ball that bounces in the middle is liable to be smashed back and because women achieve less topspin it’s easier for the opponent to control their loops even if they produce good length balls.
Top women are of course aware that constant topspin is not a viable weapon in the women’s game and they don’t use it. Instead they spin one ball and then drive the next often from an earlier timing point. It’s not spin and power that win points in the women’s game but speed, variation and placement.
Part Three - the Facts
It is obvious that counter-play is still the basic norm in the women’s game. We rarely if ever see the loop-to-loop rallies that we see in men’s play with both players well back from the table. Instead the first opening spin ball is blocked or hit and there is little or no time for the loop player to spin again. Rather the top women come in after their first topspin so that they are in a better position to counter fast, over or close to the table. After the first opening spin ball, the next is usually taken at an earlier timing point to pressure the opponent. It is essential in fact that women can convert — change from topspin to drive and vice-versa at will rather than loop several balls in a row.
Another extremely important consideration is predictability. In the women’s game the behaviour of the ball after the bounce is more unpredictable. For two reasons men face a ball that behaves as anticipated. Firstly the higher level of power and spin means that the ball bounces off the table as expected - it dips sharply downwards before the bounce and shoots forwards after hitting the table. Also the men do not face the vast array of differing material surfaces, which are common in the women’s game. A loop played against a long-pimple blocker will for instance usually be returned with backspin and sidespin. These two factors, a lesser level of spin and much more use of varying materials, mean that women face many more ‘unpredictable’ balls than the men do.
This factor tends to have a direct effect on the technical development of the two sexes. The men for example often have a long stroke, especially on the forehand wing, with the racket starting well behind the body. This is of course quite permissible when facing a stable trajectory and a predictable bounce. When facing an unpredictable ball however such a long stroke means that the player is ‘committed’ too early to a particular racket ‘path’. It is then next to impossible to change the stroke if the ball behaves in a totally unexpected way. In addition most women need the ‘assist’ of elastic energy in stroke-play and this is rather easier to achieve with a shorter back swing and a shorter stroke action.
Perhaps now we begin to see why it can be tactical suicide to loop hard and without too much spin (and especially from back) in the women’s game, where most players stand close to the table, have good reactions, are used to coping with speed and block and counter supremely well. But just why do so many top women use the B.H. from the middle of the table and especially on the 2nd ball? And remember here we are talking not just about a few good players but about the majority of women in the top 30 world rankings. Also in many cases, Boros and Guo Yue for example, we are talking too of players who have extremely strong forehands - such players are not using the B.H. because of a weakness on the F.H. side, they are using it as a tactic, as a means to control the play or to create an advantage.
Quite simply table tennis is much faster than it was even five years ago, players are allowed less and less time to play their game. The top men use the F.H. receive over the table because they want to keep control of the table and to play the F.H. on the next ball if they can. However the men are fast enough round the table to be able to maintain a good position for the next ball - in most cases the women aren’t. And even some of the top younger men and the juniors are standing squarer and using the B.H. on the 2nd ball (Boll, Chuan and Kreanga for example). It is obvious they perceive a tactical advantage too in doing this.
Women have always played closer to the table, generally have a squarer ready position and are not as fast as the men round the table. Also many players, not only women, have better control of the opponent’s serve with their B.H. wing. Because of their closer table position and because they face less power and spin, women are often better placed to handle the 4th ball if they control the serve from the B.H. side. This requires less movement. Often too they can create a favourable position for the 4th ball as the B.H. is a shorter stroke and more difficult for the opponent to read in terms of length, spin and placement.
The same principle applies when using B.H. serves. The B.H. is a quick-recovery serve and saves time when recovering to the next ball. It is easier to hold a sound position for the next stroke and less movement is required. This is rather more important now that players can no longer hide the ball in service as the opponent can see the spin and play more aggressively on the 2nd ball. The server then has less time to recover and to prepare for the 3rd ball.
The top women use these tactics in a planned way which indicates that they do so for a good reason and that they know what they are doing and why. It is also interesting to note that almost all the top women in the world both from Asia and from Europe use the same tactics to a greater or lesser extent. Perhaps it is time that coaches everywhere, but particularly in Europe, play closer attention to just what is happening in the women’s game, how women in fact are playing and just what tactics they do use to win matches.