Nice to look at or efficient?
Unfortunately in UK much of our training tends to influence our players into playing and thinking in a predictable manner and does not help in the development of adaptive intelligence. Why do so many players from the UK have extremely good technique compared to the Europeans, yet in no way achieve comparable results? We have nice strokes but we can’t win games!
Is this perhaps due to our training methods and to the lack of intensity in our training? Or is it more because we don’t focus enough on the individual aspects of player development? Could it be that our coaches lack the real vision to understand that all players are individuals and will only reach their full potential if they harness their own strengths?
Too often our players seem to be sidetracked into styles of play which will not succeed at world level and there seems to be a lack of comprehension that all players must keep progressing and moving forward. As soon as the top player stagnates and stops developing he/she is finished at top level.
Tactics are based on techniques and each player must have the right weapons to execute the tactics suitable to his/her way of playing. If for example you have an exceptionally good topspin there is little point in serving short and becoming embroiled in the short game scenario! You must develop the service techniques which most complement your own strengths. Players must be more aware (even from a relatively early stage in their career) how they play best and how they win.
Obviously from what a number of the European players still competing at top level have said recently this has not happened over the last 20 years or so. Timo Boll: ‘It’s only now at 30 years of age that I fully understand how I should play’. Werner Schlager (last European to win the Worlds): ‘When I look back much of my early training was wasted’. Michael Maze: ‘Now I have a Chinese coach, I have strengthened my BH and my movement is better and more dynamic’. Are these top players saying that coaching has been below par or in the wrong direction in Europe? Such comments certainly seem to indicate that many of our European stars have not been taught to think for themselves from an early age and that possibly if they had, their results could have been even more impressive or achieved at a much earlier age!
To develop full potential the prime criterion is that the player has an in-depth understanding of his/her own style of play as early as possible in his/her career. Bear in mind the crucial factor that tactical development is based on technical abilities. If a player doesn’t have the technical weapons to play his/her own game most effectively then he/she will never reach full potential. Throughout Europe there has to be a great deal more attention from coaches to the individual qualities of the player and an understanding from the player how to utilize these most effectively in his/her own personal development. Too often coaches seem reluctant to hand over responsibility to the player.
There are a number or areas in which you the player should be the prime decision maker. Only you know how you feel when you play, how positive you are prepared to be when the game is close and even whether or not you are comfortable with the way you play! Many performers throughout their careers will have a variety of coaches and mentors, some good and some bad, some knowledgeable and some not. Their purpose is not to dictate how you should play and to hold your hand for the rest of your life. Their function should be to show you how to get the best out of yourself, so that in effect after a while you don’t need them anymore. Any player who remains coach ‘reliant’ is extremely unlikely ever to become a real champion!
As Thomas von Scheele (ex-World Champion and Swedish Junior Team Captain) has stated: Two key areas must be fostered with our players –
• the willingness to take responsibility for their own development
• total self motivation
He states: ‘Too often in Europe the coaches help the young players too much, they must draw back and help the players to assume responsibility for themselves and for their own future. In this way it will be easier for them to take the step from the junior to the senior game. They will develop more quickly and be able to think for themselves.’
This of course will happen much more quickly if the young evolving players associate and train with older more experienced exponents from a young age. One of the factors limiting development is the inclination for training large groups of young players of similar low-level experience together. It helps enormously to be able to look up to and learn from role models who have already been there and done it! Having young adolescents of similar ages and experience levels training together often only both undermines and solidifies crucial aspects of the learning situation.
In Asia for example extremely talented young players rarely or at times never play cadet or junior events. They are introduced from an early age into senior training where they gain experience rapidly and from there proceed directly into senior tournaments. It seems completely counterproductive to expect groups of young stars however competent, to enjoy major success at senior level when they are not mentally developed enough to assess and profit from relatively simple tactical and strategic situations.
Another area where we in the West appear to fall down is in our gearing of training to the match situation. A great deal of our training is concerned for example with ‘nice-to-look-at’ flowing rally play. This looks good but what happens when we come into competition with the top Asians? We can’t get past the serve/receive and 3rd or 4th ball or the stop/start type of game. So of course as a result we never get into the flowing rally situation where we can use our carefully constructed strokes which we have spent countless hours developing! This means that although we may appear technically more ‘perfect’ we have not learned how to win games!
We must be rather more professional in our whole approach to the sport of table tennis: work much more on serve/receive and the first few balls, start every exercise with a serve, utilize more situational exercises where we rapidly introduce random changes in direction, pace, spin and angles. Above all we should ensure that exercises and training relate to and are suitable for the player’s individual style and eventual evolution: we should too encourage players to work at higher levels of intensity than are common in the Western world. It goes without saying that physical and mental attributes should be developed alongside technical and tactical capabilities.
As many top coaches throughout Europe are coming to understand, there needs to be a much stronger individual emphasis throughout our sport. Every player is different and has different strengths and weaknesses. From basic beginner levels coaches must be aware how even in the very early stages of growth certain factors can have a direct bearing on the ultimate style development: aspects such as grip, ready position, rotation and the correct movement patterns for the eventual style of play all have a critical impact on the ultimate degree of success achieved by the player and indeed whether or not he/she ever realises full potential!