Does the System Protect the Professionals?

Rowden Fullen (2000)

In almost every country in the world including China table tennis is on the decline. If we look at the top players in Europe, most of the big names are over thirty, many well over thirty and there seems to be little indication that there are many younger players of exceptional talent coming through to fill their shoes. One of the main reasons is the ranking system which makes it extremely difficult for the up-and-coming younger players to break into the top ranking positions and which tends to preserve the positions of the top professionals. It is very hard to get into the top few ranking positions but once there you are reasonably safe and the chances of suddenly dropping down are equally quite remote.

The top professionals have access to regular international matches and to the major big money tournaments and invitation events from which the lesser players are excluded. In fact the younger players are often in a catch-22 situation, if they work full-time then they don’t have enough practice time to get into the top ranking positions, if they play full-time then what are they supposed to live on? The situation has altered from some 10/15 years ago when players in a number of European countries including England were paid at not too much below the rate in industry. They were paid for matches even if they didn’t actually play but just sat on the bench as a reserve and they were also paid to attend training camps. This of course meant that it was much easier to aim for the top without the added pressure of having to earn a living.

Nowadays the system controls the opportunities and therefore controls which players are allowed through to challenge the professionals. The system controls the national centres where many of the top players train, it controls entry to these centres, it controls selection for training camps and for national events. Therefore the opportunities available to the up-and-coming youngster to make a breakthrough on his own without being in the system are few and far between. He will certainly need private resources or considerable financial backing (it is increasingly difficult for even the talented youngsters of working-class families to reach their full potential) and in addition access to top level coaching and sparring.

He will certainly need access to rather better coaching and development than that available in many national centres throughout Europe. There is little pressure on them to actually produce the results! In fact in many countries in Europe there is little indication that national centres are really producing the goods – where are the younger players to take over the mantle of Waldner, Persson, Gatien, Primorac or Saive? Why is it that we have a 40 year old winning the European women’s championships? In a number of countries there appear to be many promises and few results. It is also strange that in a number of countries the very top players don’t attend the national centres even in the face of threats of expulsion from their own national teams – are they perhaps trying to tell us something? And just what are the National Associations indicating to us when they actually have to threaten top players to attend their centres? Somewhere along the line a drastic re-think is needed!

It is also quite commonplace for top players to gravitate into coaching at the end of their careers or if they are injured and very few questions ever seem to be asked as to their qualifications or capabilities for such duties. Such ex-players of course continue to support and preserve the system they have been brought up with, so the chances of anything new or innovative happening are very remote! Unfortunately the career path of a player is often very different from that of a coach. In many cases players have a background of knowledge primarily from training camps, are not as flexible as coaches and have an inflated idea of the value of their own personal playing style. They will on many occasions influence their protégés to play in the same way as they themselves did and have limited understanding of the value of other methods of play. Coaches on the other hand are rather more aware of just what can be achieved by varying styles of play and have had much closer contact with the development of a variety of players. One of the reasons why playing styles are becoming more and more stereotyped throughout Europe and why we have less and less unusual or extreme styles such as Carl Prean or Ni Xialan is probably because of more ex-players being involved in coaching at national level.

Often also ex-players are moved sideways into a coaching position at the close of their careers, where their total experience is of quite limited value. Take the male player who in his mid-thirties is expected to take over junior girls’ training. Very little he has done in his own training is applicable to this new situation. Is he fully conversant with the theory of table tennis and especially relating to the women’s game? Does he know how to coach and develop the much larger variety of styles in the female game, is he fully conversant with the greater number of various rubber surfaces used by the girls and the varying techniques and tactics to be used here? Does he have any idea of the completely different mental problems he will encounter in coaching the female of the species? It would appear that if we are going to continue to use players in this fashion, then it is really necessary to have a system of upgrading courses available so that ex-players can be more immediately effective.

One of the few ways left to bypass the system and still make it to the top is through the major European clubs. The big clubs pay well to have talented players in their teams. They are like mini-associations in their own right with top level administrators, coaches and sparring and they have access to opportunities at the highest levels. Obviously if a young player is playing and working in the club then the leaders are usually prepared to put themselves out to help. The top clubs usually have a sound financial structure, good sponsorship opportunities and access to sports foundation and European Union grant aid.

Of course once you have reached a good level or even if you have an unusual style there are opportunities to practise in the big clubs in Europe or even to train in a number of national centres. Top coaches everywhere are on the lookout to improve and develop their own players – if players from elsewhere are good enough or have different or unusual styles and want to train in their club or national centre then they are usually welcome. Many of the top women and young girls throughout Europe train on a regular basis at Statisztika in Hungary which has a well-deserved reputation as the top club on the Continent for women players. Croatia and also Poland for example which have had so many successes in Europe with their players in the junior events are welcome to train in almost any national centre. This can also be another avenue to the top for the aspiring young player who finds in general that the level of sparring and coaching in his own country is of poor or inadequate quality.

It would seem that if we are to produce young players of real quality in Europe and certainly if we have any aims to try and match the Asian players and wrest world titles from the hands of the Chinese, then we must really have a total rethink about our approach and methods. As a priority we should look to support all our talented players whether in the system or not and to try to make sure that all players have equal levels of opportunity regardless of background, class or personal wealth. Secondly we must look to upgrade our national centres throughout Europe particularly from the viewpoint of the level of individual and personal attention and guidance, which allows us to unlock the real talent of the player and gives him or her the opportunity to achieve full potential. In both cases it all comes down to opportunity, without the basic opportunities players are going nowhere!

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