Improving Women's Table Tennis in Europe
Rowden Fullen 2009
Csilla Batorfi (HUN) Italian national women’s team coach, former European Champion in singles
We have big problems as Asia and China are very strong. Our greatest problem is that there are a very few women in Europe who are playing table tennis seriously. There are simply not enough players that we can make a good selection from.
In table tennis there is a huge difference in earnings between men and women as professionals. Today some top women players can earn good money but it is not much compared with men or other popular sports. A problem is that young players just as they are becoming good go to some clubs which can pay good money but do not have good daily training which is of course bad for the further development of young players. To make it simple - young players very often when choosing between good money and good training chose good money which is not good for their table tennis future.
Two Romanian girls Dodean and Samara are very good and they have good chances to become really good. I hope that our Stefanova will make good progress too. The problem is that they are still young but over 20 years of age, and have not reached the top yet - I won the European Championships when I was 17! As I see it now, they must really work hard, time is running out fast, soon it will be too late. We in Europe have to look after talented cadet girls and start with them from the beginning.
Andreja Ojstersek (SVN), Slovenian women’s national team coach
The gap between European and Chinese women table tennis is so deep that it seems almost impossible to overcome it. The existing big difference between Asia and Europe is the result of training - they practise more, they have better sparring partners, they have top coaches at all levels.
As I see it, the big problem in Europe is training in clubs - generally speaking even in best women’s clubs they do not have enough practice, I even have a feeling that today they practise less in the clubs than we did. It seems that many players become discouraged and simply do not believe that there is a chance to change the situation. Of course nowadays it is not easy with the young generation - they are offered in Europe so many new, interesting ways to have fun, table tennis has to rival for new girls with a lot of other competition.
It is very bad for Europe that clubs which have money simply buy good Chinese players as it is much easier to engage a top player for the team than to try to raise their own players. I have seen for example in Austrian national women’s league that practically all teams have Chinese players, some are even composed only from Chinese players! In my opinion this is a catastrophe. The new ITTF rule which was voted in at the Annual General Meeting during the World Championships in Guangzhou will help us - now at last no new Chinese women will come to play for European national teams and we will have to concentrate on our own players.
An additional problem is that European women stop playing seriously at the age of 22-25, examples like Tamara Boroš are rare. Most of the younger players train hard and fight only for a few years, and then they give up! In my generation in Slovenia we worked more and harder than the present generation. We practised 5-6 hours per day and all of us graduated from some schools. Our present generation is practising less.
Girls stop working hard when they realize that they can not make it to the top in Europe, they lose all their ambitions. We have some talented young girls, cooperation within Europe might help them to become really good. The problem has of course its roots in poor practice in clubs - as a national women’s coach I have already for 5 years tried to improve the footwork of our girls, but my efforts are in vain as we are as a national team not often together, and in the clubs they simply do not care to work on the same problem! We try to improve some technical details, when the girls come again we have to start all over again, as at home they did not work on it! The most important thing is to have clubs with motivated coaches and good practice - then you have a chance to really make some progress!
Dr Miran Kondric (SVN) Lecturer for racket sports at Sport University Ljubljana, special advisor for ITTF Science Committee
Science in table tennis is just as much needed as in any other modern sport. Without science in table tennis coaches would not have any source which would help them in planning better training, developing new methods for teaching technique, etc. A coach can gather useful information from different scientific fields, so he can develop adequate programs based on scientifically proved facts.
Table tennis is the fastest ball game in the world, movements of the player are short and fast and differ a lot. There is still a lot of playroom in this field, so we must try to develop reliable physical and biomechanical tests for table tennis. This would be a great help to coaches as it would enable them to program better training, make better selections. When changing the rules concerning balls, rackets and such equipment we should anticipate what will happen, science shall give the answers and then we will know how to react. Some research on table tennis injuries shows that we have had recently significantly more injuries due to always shorter movements in modern game.
There is yet another problem in Europe regarding scientists involved in table tennis scientific research, they have not enough contact among themselves and not enough contact with coaches. Besides there is no publication where they could publish the results of their research! This is something what is really needed, a publication on table tennis scientific research is absolutely necessary.
Zoltan Melnik (SRB) Serbian national women’s team coach
The best illustration of the present situation concerning women’s table tennis in Europe for me were the results from last European Championships in St. Petersburg, Russia. In team, single and double events most of the medal winners were old players who have no real possibilities to improve their game significantly. My impression is that in the last few years European women’s table tennis has made no progress, we are witnessing stagnation or even regression! At the moment I can mention only Dodean and Samara as young European players, but even for them the time is running out, they must work very hard and be dedicated to reach the goal, it all depends on them, their will for hard practice.
In China both of them at the age of 22 and 21 would be either on top of world rankings or out of selection, but of course in Europe situation is another - they are among the 40 best in the world and have the possibility to improve further. In their generation I do not see any other girls capable of becoming world class players, but hopefully new, young generations are coming.
It is very difficult to find realistic ways of how to improve the level of European women’s table tennis. Our women are playing as professionals or mostly as amateurs with some allowances from their clubs. In the clubs they seldom have adequate training which would give them the chance of becoming top-class players. Due to many obligations for club, national team, school, there is almost no time or money for additional training camps.
The big difficulty is that we have almost no really strong, well organized clubs to organize adequate daily training. At the moment in the clubs we succeed to educate cadets or even juniors of solid European level, but the clubs have not the means to enable those players to make the deciding step from good juniors to good seniors - the federation must help, we hope in future we will be able to do it.
I know that several other former top European countries in women’s table tennis have similar problems, take a look for example at Hungary - the situation there is generally the same as ours! We must admit that in our country the popularity of table tennis is decreasing - 10 years ago it was no problem for my club to get 70-80 children beginners for our table tennis school, now we have difficulties to find 20-30! This is quite a serious problem, we must fight to come back!
Tamara Boroš (HRV) Croatian player and European ranked n° 5
The problem with young girls in Europe nowadays is that they are not ready to practise as hard as it is necessary to reach the top world level. It is true that we now have a lot of Chinese players in European national teams, they are a sort of obstacle for young girls who strive to become national team members. But for me and the girls of my generation it was in some way a challenge to work harder and to become good enough to beat them. I thought that I have to learn to play against them, I thought it was good that I got a lot of opportunities to play against the Chinese in Europe and even to practise with them. The girls nowadays are not ready to dedicate themselves 100% to our sport, to sacrifice something to become better, the results of such an attitude are obvious. Today older women players are still at the top in Europe, Samara and Dodean are really the only younger players seriously threatening them. I can imagine that most of the older players would leave the international scene and national teams if they were seriously threatened by the new generation.
So they proceed to play as they are still at the top, even if they are not anymore as good as they used to be. If a player like Kristina Toth 34 years old wins 3 medals on European Championships she of course proceeds playing as long as she feels she can be successful - if there were many good young players beating her, she would probably soon give up! In my opinion the main reason why Europe is losing their position, why the gap with Asia becomes bigger and bigger is the lack of will among young European top players to dedicate a part of their lives to our sport - it is not possible to become a top world class player without really hard work and concentration on the job you are doing. When I was young even after training sessions I analysed table tennis videos, thought about my game and practice - it is obvious that not everybody is ready to do it in the same way, but it must be your decision - do you really want to reach the top and are you ready to do everything for it or you are just dreaming about being on the top?
A problem in Europe is that when a young girl makes some good results she immediately is taken by top clubs and has to play a lot in club competitions, matches for the national team, tournaments etc. Even in the best clubs they often have not the best training opportunities and besides, they often have not enough time for practice and recuperation. I am disappointed with the way training in most clubs I have recently visited is going on - most of the time you have the impression that the players and coaches are doing a dull job and are only waiting to finish it! If you really do not like table tennis then it is stupid to make out of it your profession, even if it is only temporary.
Neven Cegnar is one of the outstanding European women’s coaches. With the Croatian national team he already managed to win several team medals at European Championships; his best "product" Tamara Boros was for many years the only serious European threat to the best Chinese and Asian women and is still after a long pause due to an injury among the best in Europe
The situation in Women’s European table tennis does not look very good. Among the best 5 players on the official European women’s ranking list four are coming from China, the only one from Europe is already 35 years old! Among the best 20 women on the European ranking list more than 50% - 11 are coming from China(!!) , from 9 women born in Europe 5 are over 30 years old and only two are under 25.
Professional coaches working with young girls in Europe are forced to "produce" medals already in cadet and girls’ competitions, they prepare the girls to win medals in their age category and the target is at that moment not a long-term goal to enable the girl to compete at top level when she will play in women’s senior competitions. Due to this we are mostly not selecting the girls who will be able to climb to the top of the women’s ranking lists but we are looking for girls who can immediately win medals in cadet competitions and later in junior competitions.
In Europe we have a problem which does not exist in China. Our sport authorities spend normally 20-25% of the budget on bureaucracy and to justify it they ask for results and medals in all age categories. The result is of course that all federations try to win medals in all categories - in China their best coaches work with cadets and juniors, only results achieved in senior competitions count. Chinese cadets and juniors practise much more than they play in tournaments.
It’s obvious that many of the top coaches are concerned with the development of girls in Europe. A number of aspects are highlighted:
- The numbers of serious women players are declining.
- Financial rewards for women are poor.
- The priority with many girls is to chase what money is available rather than going or staying where they can develop their own game.
- The girls we do develop are not good enough, early enough.
- There is too much emphasis in Europe on winning at a young level and too little preparation for the senior game. Much of this is because the funding bodies require results early.
- Many girls reach a level as cadets/juniors but don’t make the transitional step into the seniors.
- In most cases training in clubs in Europe is not good enough. It is vital to have good coaches and sparring in the clubs to make real progress.
- Older players think the younger ones aren’t committed enough and don’t train hard enough.
- Young players don’t stay in the game long enough. When they realise it’s too tough to make it to the highest levels, they become disillusioned and give up.
- Older women are still playing and winning major events in Europe because they are not seriously challenged by younger players.
- The young player’s table tennis life is too cluttered with club matches, tournaments, training camps and matches for her country that there is too little time for personal and individual development and recuperation
These comments also bring us perhaps to further conclusions. Do we have for example the expertise in many countries in Europe to produce women in the top 30 in the world or are our ambitions limited because we don’t have the infrastructure, the funding, or the coaching knowledge to do this? Are even our National Associations competent in this area? Or do we have too much traditionalism and inherited thinking in the way they approach player development?
There are many more paths to the top and many more styles of play in the women’s game, but far too often in Europe we seem to look only at the men’s game to provide answers to producing and developing good girl players.