The Key to the Future
As an English coach working in Sweden I was interested in the articles by Linus Mernsten and Sören Åhlen in issue 24 of the I.T.T.F. magazine. Both indicated the value of quality early technical development, a sentiment I would wholeheartedly endorse.
However if we in Europe are to compete on any sort of terms with the Asian players especially in the women’s game, I feel it of prime importance that we start much further back along the line of evolution than ‘the critical years after the junior ranks’. We have an appalling drop-out rate in the mid-teens, we have so much talent wasted, missed or self-destructing because of lack of access in the early years to informed guidance.
The key coaching emphasis must be in the 9 – 13 age group and the key aspects which should be carefully established, nurtured and monitored, are the structuring of sound technique (including movement patterns), the development of individual style and the cultivation of innovative attitudes. Get the players to a higher level at a younger age and they will achieve both more success and want to play longer.
Too many young players in Europe reach quite a high level with built-in weaknesses or problems either in stroke-play or movement, which restrict and limit further development and deny them the chance of ever achieving their full potential. Again this is particularly noticeable in the girls’ game. The problems of technique go back to early club training and not to the quality or the number of sparring partners, but to how you train and what guidance is available to you. In many small clubs there is little structured training and development is uncontrolled and unmonitored, in many big clubs groups are far too large and the main priority of the coach is not the young player, but the elite team or the European League. Even the National trainers can make little impact in the areas of technique — they don’t see the players often enough.
If technical development is to be effective it must be checked and monitored on a regular basis. There must be a continuity of training and the young player should have access to informed guidance at each stage of development. In our Western world it is more often than not socially unacceptable to remove young children from the home environment — in the case of the talented few it may be necessary to look at ways of taking the coaching to the player.
Too often it seems to be overlooked that all players are individuals with differing strengths and weaknesses and certainly differing natural gifts. You cannot force a player into a mould of your own choosing or indeed select a national style and expect players to conform to this and then be successful.
If a player is to reach full potential their style should of course be guided and channelled towards their own strengths and natural talents, even from a young age. Style however is not an area where the coach should dominate — rather it should be a continuing dialogue between coach and player. In the final analysis only the player knows whether he is comfortable with the way he plays, what level of risk-taking he is happy with and how positive and inventive he will be.
Many coaches will tell you that there are far more styles in the women’s game and style development is more vital here. Only partially true. Look at the Swedish men of the last fifteen years, Waldner, Lindh, Appelgren and Persson — they have achieved success with very different ways of playing. Far too rarely however do young players understand how they should play to make the best use of their own natural qualities and skills. Such understanding is only achieved after considerable experience but can often be stimulated and expedited by a close working relationship on a one-to-one basis with a coach of some considerable experience.
In many areas of Europe we seem to produce young players who are generally competent enough but without any real flair, too much rigidity of play with nothing different or unusual, power and pace but without feeling and variation. Equally we see many young players in the 10 – 13 age groups who promise great things, but fade away and by 15 – 17 are just run-of-the-mill performers, their game stagnating with no real way forward.
To make real inroads at world level you need something extra — world class players do the bread and butter things of table tennis extraordinarily well. But even more vital is the fact that only the player who continues to accept new ideas and who is prepared to bring change into his or her game will progress and develop. When you stop being receptive to change you stay where you are and stop moving forward. This is the one great lesson that every player must learn at as early an age as possible.
The great Swedish player J.O.Waldner demonstrates innovation better than anyone — in his third decade of play at the highest level he is still looking for new things, to do old things differently. Whether consciously or not he understands that without change there is no progress. You can fault his over-inventive play at times — but you can never fault his innovative thinking.