Power — where does this come from in the modern game?
Rowden Fullen (2006)
Years ago when table tennis was rather slower and the men played from much further back, the forehand was executed in a measured fashion – a push off through the legs, rotation of the body, good input from the shoulder and a fast moving arm and wrist. These principles are unfortunately still taught in many countries in Europe even on advanced coaching courses. The game however has changed dramatically over the last ten and especially over the last four to five years. Our sport of table tennis is now faster than it has ever been and the bigger ball has brought even the men closer to the table than ever before.
Not enough of the coaches running top-level coaching courses are looking at what the top players are actually doing and how they are producing power in an increasingly more pressured environment. For a start there is a big difference and always has been, between the men’s and women’s game, not only in the way they play, but in the methods of producing power. Women have to cope with speed rather than with power or spin – they stand closer, play flatter with less spin and stay square almost all the time. As a result they often use the backhand from the middle both on the 2nd and 3rd ball. Many of the top women who use this tactic (eg. Guo Yue and Boros) have in fact extremely strong forehands.
Almost all the top women spin and drive from a square position and there is no transfer of weight from a back to a front foot. Rather than strong use of the legs there is much more use of rotation, both the centre of gravity (hips) and the upper body. Rather than dropping back to try and play power a number of the top women come forward into the forehand side to take the ball earlier and use its existing speed – Zhang Yining, Michaela Steff, Ai Fukuhara and Georgina Pota are all prime examples.
In the case of the top men many either play square or finish the stroke square so that they are ready for the next ball. In many cases again there is no transfer of weight from a back to a front foot, as the game is just too fast. Players who have a relatively square stance most of the time are Chen Qi, Chuan, Boll, Maze, Heister, Kreanga and Blaszcyk. Players who finish square, either by bringing the right foot through, pulling the left back or moving both at the same time are Samsonov, Schlager, Kong, Oh Sang Eun. Players who didn’t finish square when they were younger but now do, are Waldner, Persson, Wang Liqin. Almost all the top men and women tend to have a wide stance in most cases much wider than shoulder width and many men now adopt the women’s tactic of at times using the backhand from the middle on the 2nd and 3rd ball (Waldner and Schlager do it as do Boll and Wang Liqin).
Over the last five years or so even most of the older top men players have moved in closer to the table and have ‘squared up’ to enable them to cope with the faster play prevalent in the modern game. The new generation of Asian players such as Chuan, Hao Shuai and Liu Guo Zheng automatically adopt a squarer recovery position as do many of the younger European players such as Suss, Crisan, F-Konnerth and Gardos. The game is too fast nowadays to play in any other way. There is just no time to go through the full gamut of preparatory movements to play each shot. More and more, players are having to improvise, to try not just to get the ball back (because at top level this is not enough), but to make a ‘winner’ from a difficult if not impossible position.
Maximum speed or power occurs when we use all the units of the body in sequence, from hips to hand for power, or from hand to hips for speed/precision. This rarely if ever happens in fact (and is more likely to happen in set pieces) as in our sport we have no time and are always improvising. It is therefore essential that we learn the final or last movement in the sequence FIRST. This also means in essence that we should really be approaching our coaching and development of young players from a rather different direction.
The single most important quality in any top table tennis player is the ability to be able to adapt to an ever changing scenario and to be able to do this at speed. Waldner recognises this in his book when he stresses the need to master play against all playing styles and also against penholders and lefthanders. What all coaches must appreciate is that a high adaptive capability doesn’t just happen – it is the result of the right training and from an early age. If players don’t have the correct development in this area, they will too often reach maturity with serious deficiencies in their game, (which in fact often does happen in Europe, especially in the case of the women).
Too much of our coaching is based on archaic training methods and too rarely do many of our top coaches not only look at and understand, but also evaluate what the world’s best players are doing and why. The top performers play in a certain way and use certain tactics quite simply because they bring success. Such aspects are particularly brought home to us in the European arena when our top girls take part on high level training camps in Asia, where they have access not only to coaches highly professional in women’s development, but also to several ex-world champions. The first question almost inevitably to the European girls is this – ‘Why do you try and play like the men, why not play a woman’s game?’
Too often practice doesn’t make perfect instead it makes predictable! Practice of course has to be realistic and has to transfer the technique into the competitive situation as well as improving recall and retention into long-term memory. Too often coaches, even at quite advanced level in our sport, use constant or blocked practices, which are more suitable or valuable for techniques executed in closed situations (archery or shooting for example) rather than a sport like table tennis, where the ability to select an appropriate technique is much more important than the ability to repeat the same one time after time. Random (blend of various techniques) or variable practices (varying the execution of one technique) on the other hand entail mixing a variety of techniques throughout the session, which much more replicates the competitive situation and forces performers to be more actively involved in the learning process.
Good coaching allows players competing in open situations to be versatile, creative and deceptive in the competitive environment. Such players are much more likely to be competent at assessing new and different situations and at selecting the most appropriate responses from their repertoire.