How do we produce girls who can compete in Asia?
Clive Woodward (England rugby coach – World Cup 2003)
Over the years I’ve encountered many different versions of inherited thinking, or tradition as some call it, in business, sport and government. The symptoms are always the same: blind faith in ‘the way’, nepotism to protect the institution and a culture that heavily discourages, even punishes, any questioning of authority and where change is an anathema. My unspoken thought is always – Why is our sport so far behind? Why are we so ridiculously amateur?
Mario Amižic (Croatia, one of most prominent European coaches)
Some people say the present situation in European table tennis is a catastrophe, for me it is the reality we could have expected. Last 3 years table tennis in Europe has rapidly gone down - I believed that the young generation will be able to step into the shoes of the previous generation, but now I cannot see that they made any progress.
Michel Gadal (French Director of Sports)
Concerning the women I am not very optimistic, we have really a very difficult situation in Europe.
Li Yan Yun (National coach Austria, women’s team)
In past some young European players came very fast to the top in Europe, like for example in their time Olga Nemes, but then they did not develop further. We never analysed why it happened to several European talented girls and if we do not start now to make it better the same will happen to the present young generation.
Peter Sartz (National coach, Denmark)
Our juniors are too long playing only in the juniors; we do not put them into senior teams where the competition is much stronger.
Neven Cegnar (National coach Croatia, women’s team)
In my opinion table tennis situation in Europe regarding women is bad. I think that Europe is wrong in letting numerous young and old Chinese women play in European national teams.
I think Clive Woodward hit the nail on the head. We live and think too much in the past. If we are to succeed in today’s world we need to be totally professional in everything we do – the Associations need to be professionally run, coaching and selection need to be professional and above all we need to have the right people in the top jobs. Many Associations in Europe are unfortunately quite backward in girls’ development. Because of poor salaries we do not get top coaches in the girls’ game. Girls are often treated as ‘second class’ and if there is any shortage of funding they are the first to suffer.
If for example we are not producing numbers of top girls and girls who can achieve real results outside of Europe, do we really think that this situation is going to change dramatically if we keep the same old coaching and development staff, doing the same old jobs, in the same old way? In Brazilian football you are National Coach only for the 4 years from one world cup to the next and then you step aside for the next management team. Brazil is always in search of new ideas and fresh impetus to keep things moving forward, no matter how good they are or what they have just won.
What we really need with the girls in Europe in the case of many Associations is a completely fresh start. No-one can tell me that we don’t have girls with talent because we do, neither do I subscribe to the view that our girls are not committed and are not prepared to work hard enough. With the right guidance and handling we can have a dozen top girls in most European countries within one year. It is not the basic ‘clay’ that is the problem; unfortunately it’s the way the clay is moulded and developed over the years which results in substandard pottery. We need the professional approach; we need to produce winners, as one or two countries in Europe such as Romania and Germany succeed in doing.
So what do we need to do? ‘First of all, the players must be in focus and not the coaches. We need to look at every player as an individual and understand that two players cannot be coached in the same way depending on their different needs’. These are the words of Emanuel Christiansson (Sweden) and no truer words can be spoken in the case of girls’ development. In the women’s game there are many more ways of playing and many more paths to the top than there are in the men’s game. Training top women demands a great deal more from the coach than working with men. This is not only in communication,attention/favouritism, the physical and mental aspects of training, but also the detailed knowledge of the varying materials and techniques/tactics used in the women’s game. Your role too as a women’s coach is often just as supportive as it is tactical.
Far too often in the development of young girl players we are just not professional enough. We ‘play’ at it and wonder why we then don’t get top level players! The first question we must ask of our coaches is not even to do with table tennis – it is this: ‘Have you had teenage children of your own, are you able to get on the same wavelength as young ‘adults’, can you get the best out of them without just wielding the ‘big stick?’ Because if you can’t, you will find it next to impossible to help your players to attain their full potential.
The next aspect too is of major importance – coaching is a two-way process, with coach and player working together to move forward. This is where one of the prime qualities of the coach comes into its own – that of being a good listener. The world’s best players, whether young or old, are often strong characters, who have instinctive ideas as to just how they should play. The last thing they need as a coach is a dictator or someone who insists on forcing them into a mould of his/her own choosing. This is not the way to develop potential but too often unfortunately it is hard for experts to withhold their expertise sufficiently to coach well!
On the same lines at national level just how many coaches work with ‘the inner game’? The awareness of bodily sensations is crucial to the development of skills. Unfortunately the majority of coaches persist in imposing their technique from the outside. The coach should instead try to identify a new way forward with players working from their own experience and perceptions rather than his own. How can the coach decide how positive the player will be at 8 – 10 down or 15 all? Does the coach know just when and where the player is comfortable playing backhands or forehands and exactly where the ‘cut-off’ point is at the crossover? A number of conclusions have to come from inside the player – the coach can prompt, stimulate and inspire but an attempt to dictate will lessen the player’s input and usually water down the long-term potential.
One of the single most vital factors in maximising potential with the young girl’s development and rather more important than with the male is ‘direction’. Girls need to know where they are going and how to get there. It is important to them to understand how they play now and will play in the future. Winning is often not the overriding priority but continual progress and a clearly defined career path are fundamental to their development. Far too often even in National Centres the girls do not get the required individual attention.
At least once a fortnight the coach and player should have an assessment meeting to talk about direction and to ensure the player is satisfied with progress. If a number of coaches are involved with the same player (as unfortunately occurs in many national setups) then each should update information daily on the computer so that other coaches and the player are all equally aware of progress and changes. It goes without saying that the player should have complete access to the information at all times and be allowed to add her own updates as often as she wants. The schedule should not only cover technique and tactics but also mental and physical programmes even if these are handled by outside experts.
It is particularly important that the physical and mental areas are focused on at an early age. Many girls are often less ready to work hard at physical aspects and need to learn good habits from the outset. Girls too usually need more support on the mental side as they often lack self-confidence and can lapse into negative attitudes more easily than their male counterparts.
We said earlier there are many more ways of playing in the women’s game — we only need to look at world champions over the last twenty years to see the variety of styles. The evaluation of, guidance towards and development of an individual playing style are particularly necessary in the case of young girls and should be introduced at an early stage in the player’s career. In many cases this will require from the coach specialist knowledge of rubbers, sponges and techniques/tactics and often some experimentation from the player. After all in the final analysis it is the player herself who must feel comfortable with her ‘weapons’ and with the tactics these weapons will facilitate.
As Li Yan Yun has said, in the past good European girls quickly reached a level, but then did not develop further, a problem which must be analysed and resolved. If we look back over the last several years out of all the top (European –born) juniors probably only G. Pota (Hungary) has continued to progress after attaining top junior status in Europe to reach the top 30 women in the world. Dodean and Samara are now getting there, both in U21 and Women’s rankings, but unfortunately as far as competing with the Asians and as far as numbers are concerned we have just too few top girl players.
What then should be the first step to redressing the situation and getting our training for girls on the right lines? Obviously as a start go to the ‘fountainhead’ of knowledge! Romania produces top girls who continue to develop to the next level in the women’s game. Send our coaches to study the approach and the methods, send our girl players too, to train and learn. If one country is able to produce the goods let’s swallow our national pride, ‘climb on to the bandwagon’ and find out how it is done!
One very important point here however, is which coaches are we going to send? Unfortunately in a number of countries in Europe the tendency is to isolate top young players from their own coaches, presumably on the premise that only the National Team Trainers have the required knowledge for further development. Yet strangely enough when you talk to top coaches in Europe and discuss the way forward in terms of developing top talent and trying to compete with the Asians, more often than not the coaches stress the vital importance of individual development and that players should come to select high-level training camps in Europe not with their National Trainers but in fact with their own personal coaches. They stress the importance of having the coaches on hand who are actually working on a day to day basis with the players.
This perhaps underscores the importance of teamwork in any administration. Unless the majority of your association, players, coaches, organisers etc. are working together and pulling in the same direction, you will indeed struggle to progress and to move forward. Unfortunately many associations are bad in communication and neglect to keep, even in the case of their top youngsters, parents and personal coaches ‘in the loop’. This only gives rise to a considerable amount of ill-feeling and discontent.
One other aspect which requires some deep thought is the logistics of a number of European countries working together to beat the Chinese. We cannot allow any power struggle, which country will be in charge, which coaches will oversee the programme etc., to get in the way of the development and the progress of the players. It is the players who must be in focus!
Another vital factor too is size. The single most vital factor in terms of restricting innovative thinking is size — train players in large groups and nothing happens. Everyone thinks the same thing at the same time, there is a pressure to conform whether it is intended or not, a group uniformity. Put three people on a committee and something happens, ten and it gets harder, fifty and nothing gets done. Any biologist will tell you that small groups in isolation evolve fastest. Put 150 birds on an ocean island and they evolve fast, put 10 million on a big continent and evolution slows and stops.
For the human species evolution occurs mainly through behaviour — we innovate new behaviour to adapt and change. The effect of large groups, of mass media, is to restrict behavioural change. Mass media swamps diversity, all differences vanish, even humanity’s most necessary resource, intellectual diversity, disappears. If we accept that the way forward is to work together in Europe, then the way we do this and how we retain the individual focus are areas which must be addressed first.
So just what will Europe do to get the ball rolling in the case of our girls? Unfortunately, probably nothing! In many countries bureaucracy and politics continue to rule and the interests and needs of the individual athletes, the only ones who can produce the results, come a rather poor second or third. Associations are more often than not reluctant or even afraid to use the resources they do have and tragically this applies even at levels higher than National Associations.
Countries like Great Britain for example simply chose to ignore their former Olympic gold medallists in contributing to prepare for Beijing. Instead the real ‘greats’ of the past, like Daley Thompson and Seb Coe are helping to train rivals from other countries! As Thompson said in a recent interview – ‘It’s down to the British athletics regime. The country’s most under-utilised resource must be our experience.’