Line of Play
Rowden Fullen (1970’s)
Just what is ‘the line of play’? We have been talking about this in our coaching courses right back to the 1960s or even earlier. It’s not a phrase that many coaches in Europe or the Asian countries use for example (more often than not it’s ‘the opponent’ or ‘the incoming/outgoing ball’). How many aspiring coaches or players in England can explain just what ‘the line of play’ is? Certainly in my experience there are not many players who understand just what the phrase means.
Early in the 1970s I was taking a coaching course and one of the older trainees happened to be a professor of physics working with the Ministry of Defence in the area of ballistics and the trajectory of naval projectiles. He immediately took me up on this magic expression ‘the line of play’. As he said, you can’t really use this phrase, it’s not precise or specific enough and will only confuse players. The immediate problem is that there exist at any one moment many ‘lines of play’. Your outgoing line of play becomes your opponent’s incoming one.
Which ‘line of play’ are we talking about? Should we be square to the opponent’s outgoing one, (i.e. our incoming one) or square to our outgoing line of play? Differing lines of play will in fact apply in different circumstances. You the coach may understand, but does the player? Even square to the opponent is not really precise enough, you can face the opponent’s body but he can contact the ball with his racket some distance away from the torso. The most precise description would be square to ‘the incoming/outgoing ball’ or even better, square to the ‘point of contact between the opponent’s racket and the ball’.
What we must of course bear in mind is that ‘lines of play’ can refer to totally different things. ‘To take the serve stand square to the line of play’ would mean stand square to the incoming ball. ‘Finish your stroke square to the line of play’ would of course mean finish square to the outgoing ball!
This is the reason why for many years I have used the phrase ‘square to the incoming ball’ or ‘square to the outgoing ball’ which I feel is rather simpler for any young player to understand, when we are talking about close to the table play.
It is interesting to note however in all of this that (after the serve or receive) quite a few of the top women actually stand ‘square to the table’ when in a close position. If you watch European women such as Pota (former junior champion) or Steff, European number 2 this fact is patently obvious; the same even applies to Asian top 10 world players such as Guo Yan. So are their coaches doing a terrible job and don’t know what they are doing? Extremely unlikely as these players have over the years been very successful.
The answer is quite simple. In most cases women play more down the middle of the table and don’t use extreme angles. If you play like this then ‘square to the table’ and ‘square to the incoming/outgoing ball’ are in actual fact very much the same. Even playing strokes on the diagonals will often entail being square to the table.
This perhaps underlines the fact that we cannot just coach in ‘theory’ and that what we are involved in always has practical applications. These practical aspects are often best observed by watching the world’s best players in action, which is something we don’t usually have the chance to do in many European countries.
One final observation - many of the world’s top men, especially the juniors and those at the younger end of the scale are adopting a squarer stance!