How much does Success Cost?
Rowden Fullen (1990’s)
HOW THE CHILD SEES IT
How does the average child see his involvement in sport and his relationship with the trainer? Does in fact the average child think at all? In very many cases it seems to be rather a matter of feelings than of coherent thoughts. The child often seems to operate on a subconscious level — ‘Am I liking and enjoying what is happening this week at the training? Are my friends and comrades here to play against and chat to during the breaks? Is the whole thing fun?’ The coach is of course aware that the whole thing only has a goodly element of ‘fun’ if there is some level of achievement and progress. The average child seems to put the coach or trainer somewhere between schoolteacher and grandparent or uncle depending on the age! After a while a relationship builds as they come to realize that this ‘father figure’ can actually help them to achieve something in the sport of table tennis!
Sometimes a player can go the wrong way and become a little self-important. He thinks he is doing you a favour by attending your sessions, it must be nice for the coach to have such a star to train. Then he can come to feel that perhaps a coach is not really necessary — from then on hard work in training and commitment and dedication go out of the window, practice is after all not so important, he can still (he thinks) turn it on in the big game.
Yet others seem to have great difficulty in concentrating for a full training session. It is rather more fun to conduct an on-going conversation with two or three other players some tables away, than concentrate on the training. It does not take too many people who can’t be bothered to train, even in quite a large group and the whole training session is devalued or destroyed. The application and concentration of those who do want to work hard and develop their game is gradually eroded too.
‘It is not whether you win or lose but how you play the game that matters’. This well-worn adage typifies the sportsmanship and comradeship enjoyed by generations of youth from 8 to 16 years and trying to live up to that statement has perhaps helped many children over the years to understand the concepts of friendship, teamwork and winning and losing. However many sports psychologists would say that changes in our society over the last 15 to 20 years have created conditions that turn this proverb upside down, especially in the individual sports. Children competing in these, swimming, gymnastics, skating, tennis and table tennis are required early in life to live by a new, though not necessarily improved, version of the old adage — ‘Win at any cost!’ This must-win situation is taking its toll on many children adding pressure and stress to their lives. Somewhere around puberty children figure out that their performances are important to the people who love them, to their peer group, their friends and their coaches and club. The pressure increases tremendously when children realize that people have an investment in them. It becomes harder to pull back and stop — they are on the roller-coaster, the web has been woven!
Don’t see children as little adults, they are children and don’t see things in the same light as you do!
HOW THE COACH SEES IT
The average coach couldn’t care less about the one individual child in the club. It is the club as a whole and group progress and development which matter and it is within this framework that the individual must operate and fit in. Children who don’t attend regularly, won’t conform or work with others not only destroy their own progress but more importantly disrupt group development and must therefore be weeded out.
Most coaches in fact get very little out of coaching. Often after a hard day’s work they turn out in all weathers, tired and weary and try to summon up the energy to cope with a long evening’s training. They get little or no money, often only the satisfaction of seeing a player they have started off reaching his or her full potential. The pleasure and satisfaction is invariably for the player — to feel you have had a hand however small in the development of a great player is reward enough in itself and no coach worth his salt wants to hang on to a player and hold them back once they are good enough to move on.
To see a player become self-important is sad — only hard work and total commitment will enable a player to reach the highest levels. Coaches know this, they have seen it all before. They know that however good a player, he or she cannot pick and choose the moment to turn it on — the only way is total commitment all the time. To see a young player under unacceptable stress is also sad, especially if it’s a great talent that’s being pushed out of our sport or gradually eroded and destroyed. Adult pressure is greatest in individual sports because the parent or trainer is dependent on one star, not a whole team. That is why a good club environment can be so important where you have the support and interaction of a group of players, older and younger and of leaders and coaches too. Children however often stress themselves. They consider bad performances in the light of having not lived up to everyone’s expectations — they feel they have let people down.
The greatest asset a young player can ever have is a good coach and to be part of a good club. If you have them hang on to these for dear life!
THE RESULTS OF SELF-IMPORTANCE AND STRESS
What happens in the case of the player who achieves too much too quickly, who is pressured at too early an age, who becomes too self-important, who is continually told (or it is inferred) that he is rather better than the average human being? All goes well of course as long as the player is successful and the ego can continue to grow — but no player however skilful wins all the time. Defeat brings the accounting — he, the player is no longer as good as he (and everyone else) thought he was, he has failed parents and coaches! The ego is dented and often doesn’t want to face up to facts. It is often easier not to face the problem, but to find other scapegoats, to make excuses — the other player was lucky, it was bad conditions, bad umpiring. Anger usually makes its appearance, tantrums occur, what started out as a game, to be enjoyed, becomes a war, to be won at all costs! Unfortunately throughout their young lives in our modern society children get the message, if they do well they are worthwhile if not, better not think about it! When they come home after a success they are rewarded — they therefore find it difficult to imagine a life devoid of competition. Some parents even treat the child miserably until he or she wins, obviously they confuse their own ego with that of the child!
Many of the mental deficiencies of the young player are the result of the stresses of our modern society and inadequate or unprofessional psychological handling by parents or trainers.
LESSONS TO BE LEARNED
One must look at the peaking age of table tennis players in relation to other sports. It is not like gymnastics where 12 – 15 year olds can achieve consistent world-class performances. Usually players reach their peak at around 18 – 25 and can carry on till their mid-thirties at the very topmost level. There is therefore not the need in our sport to push young players in the 9 – 12 age groups into a totally professional adult world. Rather the development of talented youngsters should be professional yes, but limited. Allow them to enjoy not only table tennis but other activities as well. In the mid-teens the professional approach becomes more necessary, particularly if they show real potential, but push them too early and you risk killing off the young stars before they even fully develop!
The question of prime importance becomes — just how much is being demanded of our youngsters and at what point in their lives. There is a ‘delicate balance’ between stress and distress. Children need to learn how to relax and concentrate under pressure. Changes in parental thinking can help to diffuse any stress the child may feel. Anxiety levels can be reduced by educating coaches and parents in the proper way to train children. Nobody should expect a child to become a mature athlete by daily repetition and regular increases in workload in only one sport. It’s unnatural and unhealthy. Let him or her have the opportunity to participate for fun in a variety of activities, including other sports, before specializing. A number of respected sports psychologists believe in fact that a large number of ‘elite athletes’ over-train which prevents them reaching full potential. They say — ‘you cannot always just train harder and harder and then expect to get better and better’. Indeed you should train in the way which is right for you, the individual.
The sad thing about stress or the inflation of the ego is that with all the extra feelings floating about, all the excuses and tantrums, the player ignores the lessons to be learned from defeat. The way to progress and to develop is to study one’s losses and learn from them — face up to the loss, extract the real reasons for defeat, decide how you would do things differently next time and forget the whole matter. By trying to avoid facing facts you lose the opportunity to benefit positively and to improve.
We are in the dark when it comes to the relationship between emotional trauma and physical injury. Children at a young age realise for example that injury is a socially acceptable alternative to the pressures of competition. In the public’s eyes an injured athlete is not the same as one who ‘quits’. Many young players exaggerate minor injuries and convince themselves they are still injured long after. Physically the doctors can find nothing wrong with them. This can be indicative of ‘burnout’, where youngsters show no enthusiasm about what they are doing. Their personal relationships may deteriorate, sometimes they can’t eat or practise. Competition is no longer fun, it has become a burden.
Training in the right way will always eventually pay dividends. The true champion faces facts and learns from his defeats.
THOUGHTS ON THE WAY FORWARD
Coaches must be careful how they build the will to win. Parents must be supportive without wanting to ‘live on’ the successes of their children. The home environment is very important — this is where the young player returns every day, here he or she must have a refuge, a safe haven away from the stresses of the outside world. Few of our coaches unfortunately have the psychological background or training to dabble with real assurance in the mental field and far too often they know next to nothing of the home environment and upbringing of their player and make little effort to find out. What we must be working towards is a stable long-term mental approach and state, not a short–term development which will bring short-term results. The young player should especially have a gradual and guarded introduction to pressure and should not be pushed too early into the hotbed of competition, bearing in mind the peaking age of table tennis players. The individual should be considered in detail, even young players are very different in coordination, concentration levels, strength and body types — above all the emotional well-being must be taken into account to ensure proper technical and physical training and development.
Try to minimize issues such as winning, talent and superiority (who is better than who), try not to build self-importance. Try to maximize issues such as the value of hard work in training and training the right way, with above all the right attitudes. Try to build self-esteem, that progress is based on sound foundations and advances one step at a time
Coaches must bear in mind that their duty is to train the player to unleash his or her full potential as a senior. The coach should not expect to be part of the end product, rather he should train the player to be in fact self-sufficient. In other words over a period of time the coach will work himself out of a job!
Even if you stay all the way there are varying stages in the coaching/pupil relationship and these change (and should do so) as the player changes and develops.
- Teacher/instructor — Up to even a fairly advanced stage the coach will be heavily committed to technical and tactical development — however there will come a time when the player is technically competent and has learned to assess and solve his own shortcomings.
- Trainer/adviser — Bear in mind these stages will overlap. This stage will have started some time ago. Here physical and mental development, planning and tactical advice, the continuing evolvement of style and the introduction of new things to keep the player’s game alive assume more importance. The role of the coach has changed and his relationship with the ‘once’ pupil has also changed.
- Manager/friend/confidant — At the very highest level the coach has lost much of his function, rather he is there to lean on, offer support, handle the problems which may affect the concentration of the player. He releases the player so that all he or she needs to do is to play. He is there to smooth the way and becomes largely a spectator watching a great performance like many others.