Girls’ Table Tennis in Sweden
Rowden Fullen (2002)
In 1995 when I first came to Sweden I asked the obvious question — ‘Why is there so little success with women in Sweden when you achieve so very much in the men’s game?’ After some years here I now see many of the reasons and problems.
I see that at almost all levels you develop girls with built-in weaknesses or defects in their play which have a limiting effect on their ultimate level of achievement. You also in many cases produce girls who have very little understanding of what is effective in women’s table tennis. Many of the causes are to be found in the training during the formative years. It is certainly not a question of talent, you have players with remarkable potential. But pure talent without some framework of technique and tactics, and even more important without some direction as to how it should be focused into a particular style is largely wasted – even great talent becomes ineffectual if channelled into an area where it will only ever be 40/50% effective.
At a young age, say up to 11 - 13 years, technique is usually quite bad and there is no indication of any trained pattern of movement. There is little sign of any guidance towards an individual style of play and almost all girls play an incomplete game. By this I mean that they have only one way to play and are predictable. They have limited capability to do anything different, little understanding of how to cope with anything new or unusual, the short game, pimples, defence, the slow ball and often they are reluctant to open on the backhand. As to serve the vast majority have absolutely no idea of the theory of service, how to achieve spin, the differing grips and contact points on the racket.
If we move on what has happened by the age of 15 to 16 years? The girls are stronger and faster and hit the ball harder but are there signs of real development? Unfortunately not. There are still problems in movement, especially wide to the wings and in technique - often strokes are only partially developed and in such a way that further growth is restricted. The fast counter-hitting game is crystallizing and the player’s progress is starting to stagnate. Is there really any way forward from here? Just what do you do next for instance, in order to grow and advance - increase the power even more, hit the ball yet harder, play still faster? The options are really quite limited. In fact many girls have manoeuvred themselves into a dead end, from where there is no easy way out!
Even if we cast an eye at the very top level, at the small band of girls who represent Sweden in Europe, we don’t see great cause for much celebration. Yes there is more power, spin and some development in service and third ball - however no attempt has been made to correct or change the original direction in technique or movement patterns, there are still problems here. If anything the style and the way of playing is becoming more rigid, rather than flexible and adaptable. Many of these girls still have major difficulties in coping with different types of women’s play.
Sadly too at this highest level there is little awareness of advanced techniques - short touch play, use of angles, killing through topspin, using early ball block and sidespin pushes, varied stop-blocks, or even a real understanding of timing, when to drive and when to spin. It is also obvious that many top girls in Sweden are training with men (and indeed the wrong men in terms of playing style), and are training to play a man’s game. They train to serve like men, play a man’s third ball, go back from the table like men and try to cope with men’s power and spin. Most of them don’t have the strength, speed of movement, spin or precision of placement to do this. Against the best girls in Europe and certainly in Asia they will be destroyed.
Many readers of this may accuse me of being negative. My answer is quite simple. If you don’t face facts, face reality, don’t recognize and admit that you have a problem, then you can’t set out to find ways to correct it. Even in the ‘Pingis’ magazine as far back as the 70’s and 80’s well known Swedish players and coaches have been writing articles showing concern over the lack of development in the women’s game in this country. It is now 2002, so just when are we going to actually do something? People who argue positively that our girls are really capable of competing at top level in the light of our placings in the European Junior Championships or our performance in the Swedish Open are not helping the cause of girls’ development in Sweden! Now is really the time to start laying new foundations and to prepare for the future - the further we drop down the harder it will be to get back to the top again.
We have seen some of the problems, what now of the solutions? Just what do we have to do in Sweden to build a base, what are the initial steps in our plan to produce world class girls? First we must understand the importance of early technical development. Table tennis is a fast, automatic response sport, we teach players to react without thought. We can think about tactics when we play but not technique or our whole performance grinds to a halt. Wrong or incorrect programming when young is almost always carried forward into an adult game and is not easily changed. The message must be - get the technique right from the start, let us try to avoid the necessity of having to backtrack or waste time and effort trying to change things at a later stage. This is not always as easy as it sounds - a young player’s technique is not stable and requires constant monitoring to keep it on the right path.
Tactics must be taught from an early age. The young girl should be able to play against different types of game and trained to recognize what tactics to use against varied rubber combinations right from the start. The earlier this is done the easier the information is absorbed and the quicker she will become the complete player, at ease in and able to cope with any situation.
The steering of a young girl towards the style most suitable for her and the equipment most effective for her game, is at the same time one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of the coach’s work, and the single most important part of her development. Compared with the men’s, the women’s game has a much greater variety of styles and greater use of differing material combinations. Each player has areas where they are naturally more gifted and their end style should be guided towards these. It is pointless to model oneself on others who are different, have differing talents, are quicker, have better reactions or more feeling. Style is an individual thing and each player is unique.
It should go without saying that girls should train in the correct manner for their style and above all train to play against women and not men. Competing against men is often a matter of coping with spin and power, against women, coping with speed and usually a flatter ball with less spin. Ideally girls should train to be unpredictable, changing speed, spin, timing, angles and length and using the slow ball. Early in their career time should be spent on short play and encouraging touch, opening up from a push with both backhand and forehand and above all getting movement patterns right. Spin can be very effective in the girls’ game but usually only if your player shows an aptitude for this and even those who spin naturally often need guidance as to technique, when to use the wrist and which parts of the arm are most effective in the various loop strokes. Bear in mind that women tend to use spin as a means to an end not as an end in itself.
If our girls in Sweden are to make a real impact at European level and higher, then they need access to informed guidance in the areas we have highlighted. From my own experience and conversation with top coaches such help is rarely available at club level in Sweden. Also unfortunately the coach education system does not cover such areas in enough detail or in a scientific enough manner. It would therefore be necessary in any programme of development that groups or centres be set up at either regional or national level, where girl players could have access to guidance on technique, tactics, style and training for the women’s game on a regular basis, at least once a month. It would also of course be a good idea to involve theirown coaches in any such programme.
Finally attitude and the cultivation of the correct approach to her end goal are most important in training a female player. Girls usually have less self-confidence than boys, accept instruction more readily (and usually new ideas too) and are more quickly realistic as to their chances of attaining their goals. However they are also social animals and require support from those around them, family, partner, coach, club and friends - strong support, encouragement from and trust in those around them is often a recipe for success.
It is of the utmost importance that girls have an open mind at all times, keep looking forward and do not become satisfied with the way they play. Be ready to listen, be receptive to new ideas, be prepared to question coaches and trainers. Unless you as a player continue to change and evolve, you stay as you are. The progress may be slow but progress there should be. Look closely at yourself, your game, six months ago, one year ago. Do you still play the same? Are there new things in your game? Are you developing, working to a programme? Or are you just a bit faster and stronger, but otherwise the same? It’s your life, take control of it!
In ending let us return to the beginning - ‘Why is there so little success with women in Sweden ….?’ - and move a little further afield. Let us examine briefly why the Asian women are so dominant.
From a very young age there is much emphasis on good technique and especially on the small details, use of the wrist, even the fingers, position of the feet, free arm and shoulders. Movement is considered a high priority and a great deal of time is spent on establishing good patterns suitable to the style of the player and moving in a strong, athletic manner. Much attention is focused on a good variety of serves and being able to take positive advantage of the third ball. The mind is directed to always seek the first attack, to be aggressive, to open hard with a strong ball at the very first opportunity.
But above all players are encouraged to be different, to develop their own individual style, indeed in an environment surrounded by so many outstanding players, to be unusual is often the only way to succeed. There is strong pressure to be flexible, unpredictable, to change tactics to cope with other styles of play, to think to make better use of the table, not just to play one way all the time.
Finally the Asians train harder, longer and more professionally. We in Sweden may not be able to devote so much time to training but there is certainly no excuse for lack of professionalism or failing to use our resources effectively. Perhaps instead of looking for funding to send our young girls abroad for tournaments or training, we should look more to put our house in order at home. We have assets here in Sweden, we have good level Asian women players who could be invited for sparring, we have former National Trainers for girls and women from many countries including China, we have good venues for camps. Above all we here at home have the motivation and the interest to make things work. Let us just be prepared to make the effort and get things moving!