Direction not Sparring
Rowden April 2017
Far too many players and coaches too, seem to ignore the purpose of the journey of table tennis or to become so heavily embroiled in the minutiae of the technique, tactics, strategies, the stresses of competition and the constant need to win and show results, that they overlook the importance of the final destination. Or perhaps they become so much involved and interested in the journey that the ultimate goal is forgotten or is no longer under constant scrutiny.
Table tennis is a long-term undertaking, a bit like building a house brick by brick over a period of time and it’s a process of slow learning and development. There are no quick and easy fixes. Equally it’s a process of developing the individual, we are all very different. So it’s a process of identifying the personal qualities and characteristics we have, which will best help us to achieve full potential and to eventually be the very best we can at this sport of ours! It is never a question as a large number of coaches in the Western world seem to think, of shoehorning the player into some form of ideal model, to which all great players must conform if they are ever to achieve perfection. In the final analysis this state is only ever achieved if the coach allows the player to grow and flourish in his/her own highly individual way. In fact in Asian countries coaches often look for a ‘specialty’ within the player’s style which they can build on to create success.
This is also why in Asia and especially in China (and particularly in the women’s game, where we have many more differing avenues to the top) we have so many specialist coaches, catering for men’s or women’s table tennis, for defence, short or long pimples etc: in this way whatever the gender or style of the individual players there are always experts available to take them forward.
In the West we need to spend more time on individual development bearing in mind that the style of any player is not just concerned with the technical requirements, but also the physical and mental aspects; does the player have the power, speed, reflexes, flexibility or other qualities needed to cope with the style he/she wishes to use and is he/she comfortable mentally with this way of playing?
With many young players it is often possible for the experienced coach to evaluate even at an early age which style they will adopt as a senior and to guide them towards this. However ‘direction’ is paramount and both player and coach must keep the end goal in sight and keep reviewing this on a regular basis. This means as well that players should train in the ‘right’ way for them as individuals, they should not be taking detours or venturing into cul-de-sacs which lead them nowhere; all their practice should be purposeful because the one thing about purposeful practice is that it is transformative!
In every training session therefore the player must ask the question: ‘Will this series of exercises be of benefit to me as an individual and do they fit in with where I am going as a player?’ In fact many of the top European players (even of the level of Boll and Schlager) have admitted in retrospect that much of their early training was wasted and was not precise enough. In other words they could have probably achieved what they did rather earlier or even better with the correct input!
Also bear in mind that even when the player is satisfied with the basic mental, physical and technical aspects of his/her game, there are many sub-routines and procedures which it is necessary to evaluate and fine-tune. For example what is the player’s most effective distance from the table and can he/she perform and maintain play in this area around a minimum of 70% of the time? How efficient is he/she in the areas either side of the prime distance? Does the player play most of the time at the right pace for him/her and more importantly is the player encoding in his/her subconscious the correct characteristics for the specific type of table tennis he/she intends to play? Is he/she precise enough in serve and receive placement and generally in the use of all areas of the table? What alternative techniques, strategies does the player have to cope with unusual situations? How adaptable is the player and how quickly does this occur? Even very simply, does the player have the correct and most economical footwork patterns for his/her particular style of play? Reaching full potential requires detailed assessment and research and of course there needs to be steady and progressive development.
In the final analysis the player may even prefer and be happy with a style which will never be successful at international level! If this is the path he or she wishes ardently to pursue, why should any coach feel he has the right to force the player down another route with which the player is not comfortable?
At the moment of writing this, Japan has 8 out of the top 10 under 21 female players in the World Rankings, with the other 2 being from Hong Kong and Singapore (China has none) and in fact Japan also occupies the number one Junior Team position in the world for girls. If we in Europe are ever going to close the gap on Asian women what we need most of all is ‘direction’, how they are going to play and what is most suitable for them as individuals. It goes without saying that we will never have any chance of matching the Asian women until we start working to our players’ strengths. We start later and train less than the Asians, have not so good technique and many fewer coaches who are adept in women’s table tennis. Only by having a constant dialogue with our players and by steering them into areas where they feel comfortable with the way they play and are able to use their individual characteristics and capabilities to the full, do we have any chance at all.