Developing Players: Move with the Times
Do we want ‘New players, old styles’, is this the way forward? Even more so do we want ‘New Coaches, old ideas’? Surely if we do not continuously seek new things we will stagnate. Are too many players in these modern times of athletic, dynamic table tennis just too ordinary, too conservative and too predictable? Do they fail to take risks or try new techniques/tactics through fear; are they afraid of losing what they have? And are they influenced by all the players around them to become just one of the herd and to ignore their individual talents?
Without change or innovation and the individual focus, which should be constant and ongoing, we will achieve very little. This should appear to be obvious. Yet unfortunately throughout Europe the coaching methods very rarely mirror this approach! Often the reason appears to be ‘the mindset’ rather than anything else: it’s easier to carry on with the same old programme, use the same old methods and follow in the footsteps of those who have gone before!
Seizing the initiative at the earliest point in the rally is vital in modern table tennis and is a skill which should be encouraged from an early age. But taking the initiative requires both mental effort and technical qualities and these aspects must be fostered in tandem. Equally the individual development is paramount as each player is unique and no two players of even very similar styles will play the same. What is vital is that each player fully comprehends exactly how he/she wins points and where the specific strengths lie. There is no room in modern table tennis for obvious weaknesses; the modern player must have strong all-round skills and be able to cope with all eventualities and styles of play.
To be effective in taking the initiative, players must upgrade their serves to the highest level and continue both to monitor themselves in this area and to research any new developments, which may be applicable in particular to their own style of play. The better the serve, the more opportunity the player will have to attack. The objective of course is through the efficiency of the serve, to be able to attack strongly and gain advantage over the next one or two balls. Once the server attacks the opponent must be kept under constant pressure. This does not necessarily mean that the attack has to be totally relentless. Often change can be equally if not more effective: hard and soft, long and short, spin and drive, angles and placement etc. The ‘stop/start’ game which the Asians use so effectively could be worked on a great deal more in Europe.
In the receive situation the objective is to keep control, while trying to snatch the initiative. This can be done by good short play and doing different things within the first few balls. Even in a fast early exchange the aim has to be to keep a measure of control, while looking for an opening. Too many players play too safe before going on the attack: better to try to keep the opponent off balance, then the opening for the attack will be rather easier. If possible, attack first, put more power and/or spin into the shot first, change direction first. Look to apply pressure to the opponent as soon as possible and while trying to keep enough speed in the rally to prevent the opponent getting in, look for every opportunity to attack or counter. Above all the desire to take the initiative should be fostered in the young, developing player. The ultimate personal performance is when we overpower our opponents by initiating all the changes.
Even in the case of defenders the opponent should be pressured in an aggressive manner: fast chops, slow chops, heavy backspin and float, counter-topspin and counter-drive back from the table and varied blocking and hitting over the table. Control of the rally must be maintained, but the will to attack at the earliest opportunity should always be present. Only those who are mentally strong enough will win the battle to initiate.
Speed is undoubtedly the most crucial factor in any style: speed and suddenness of shot, dynamic impact, speed of movement, speed of thought, speed of adjustment and speed of change. If you think and move faster, your attacks will be stronger. Being aggressive is essentially quickness, spin and change and the essentials are a variety of attacking strokes and constant improvement of the quality of these. A major part too of modern table tennis is improvisation. The game is just so fast that it is not possible to prepare and get into the perfect position for each shot and one often has to improvise in every facet of the game. If there are occasions where the player cannot take an offensive initiative then he/she must control the rally in such a way as to keep the opponent off balance until the chance presents itself to create the next attack. There is no room for sequential instability during the improvisation phase; each stroke however unstable must inter-link with the next.
Modern table tennis is arriving at a level of supreme all-round play. The top world-class athletes (and they are athletes) are faster, stronger both physically and mentally than ever before. They are equally comfortable close or away from the table, in all situations and against all types of opponents. They also have balance, the capability to control the game at speed until they can seize on the right ball to be totally aggressive.
At the top level in world play unpredictability is the norm. Change in all its forms is the heart and spirit of table tennis. Changing at the right time and in the right way strengthens your own style and makes you more formidable. Changing first imposes your game on the opponent. Upgrading defensive and even control shots to attack or counter-attack raises your whole level of play and advances your playing style. To be ultra-positive requires you also to raise your tactical awareness and understanding of the game to new heights.
Our sport of table tennis with all its technical changes is developed within a theoretical foundation. As a result coaches need to take the lead in studying the technical/tactical aspects of the game and evaluating the efficiency of various playing styles. This will provide pathways for the future evolution of the game. Coaches can see that our sport of table tennis consists of a number of elements of which speed, as we have already indicated, is the central core and the prime factor of development. Power and spin are also critical foundations, power to add force and potency to our playing style and spin to give stability and to test the opponent’s control limits. The flight of the ball is crucial too in terms of accuracy and on–the-table consistency: the gyroscopic effect of modern topspin cannot be underestimated. Equally the trajectory of the shot will often highlight weaknesses/strengths in your player’s game. Finally as we have emphasised, change in all its forms, pace, length, spin, placement and angles, is the heart and spirit of table tennis. We impose our tactics fully if we win the battle of the change! Top-level players will invariably be very good in at least three of these aspects.
Coaches should evaluate the impact of these five elements on the style and efficiency of their players, to ensure the highest level of shot quality. Quality strokes will evolve and develop if enough attention is focused by the player and coach on these 5 elements, speed, power, spin, the flight path of the ball and change. Each player will of course have a different and unique blend which will be individual to him/her. Each player must also be aware of what works for him/her and where the strengths lie within this blend of elements!