To reach the top

Rowden Fullen (2010)

Training 4/5 hours a day for 10 years and still not in the top 100 in the world! Why not? The reasons can embrace one or a number of areas:
• The training time is insufficient
• The training methodology is totally incorrect
• The direction of the growth of style is flawed
• The support aspects of physical and mental preparation are equally inadequate.
You do not get to reach the heights unless you work and prepare in the right way.

In too many European Associations we have indeed lost track of the ideal of producing world ranked players of real top level. We are unfortunately content with lower aspirations, especially with the women and are satisfied to achieve rankings between say at the highest 70 and 200 in the world. The level of our ambitions is mirrored in lesser levels of training, lesser quality and lesser commitment – after a while even the best young up-and-coming players understand that they are not being developed in the right direction for them and lose their drive and enthusiasm. Many never even know or if they did, forget how to train at the level required to reach the top and lose the real hunger to want to get there, particularly when they understand that even at National level, helping them as individuals to reach their full potential is not and never was the top priority.

Funding for minor sports is always a problem and more so in these times of economic recession. Also earnings for table tennis players in times like these are liable to be more and more limited. Therefore if players are attending National Centres for a number of years and especially in the case of the women only ending up somewhere between 150 and 400 on the world ranking, then they are largely wasting their time. Their opportunities to make substantial earnings in Europe or Asia with such a ranking level are virtually none existent. The system as such is of little or no benefit to the players and only keeps a small number of lesser coaches in a job. To a large extent the players are conned by promises of continued involvement in National Teams but at no time is it explained to them that their chances of realising their full potential and making it to the real top levels are extremely limited if they exist at all.

In most cases players should at first ask and then answer the question: ‘What is my ultimate goal? Do I just want to represent my country or do I want to be one of the best players in the world, at least in the top 50?’ In many countries in Europe these two aims are unfortunately not compatible. For many other players it would make far more sense for them to work and then play only part-time in the lower divisions in Europe. In this way they could still enjoy their table tennis and earn an income at the same time. They would however have to give up the dream of ever becoming a real top player.

As Ogimura said: ‘What matters isn’t extraordinary ability but extraordinary effort.’ Far too often in Europe we play at our sport of table tennis and the training is neither professional nor intense enough. We just don’t work hard enough or long enough or in the right way when it matters, to achieve the results we dream about. So that’s what our hopes become, just dreams – we are not now and unlikely ever to be, capable of turning the dreams into reality.

The time to put in the effort is when players are young, in the learning stages of development, so that they are brought up in the right environment, with the right work ethic, the appropriate methodology, expert guidance on the most suitable individual direction for them and the most relevant physical and mental training. It’s during the early developmental stages in the player’s career that he/she needs the 1,000 hours of the right training per year for at least five years to put him/her on the right road to success. Without total professionalism early in the developmental phase we will only ever continue to produce second-class players.

Unfortunately throughout Europe getting the right coaches into the top jobs is becoming more and more difficult. If you talk to the top experts, those at the ‘cutting edge’ of player development throughout the continent, almost all are unhappy over coaching levels throughout the continent and at the direction coaching is taking. Most stress major weaknesses in the following areas:
• Coaching knowledge overall is declining.
• We prioritise winning in younger age categories to the detriment of senior player development.
• We need women in focus and much more understanding of women’s play and the specific training methods.

One of the toughest skills to teach any athlete is how to think, the toughest skill to teach any coach is to think more flexibly! It is often hard even for experts to withhold their expertise sufficiently to coach well. We have lots of systems throughout Europe but regrettably systems unfortunately breed predictability and limit creativity. There are coaches and coaches. We have coaches who see the pathways and designs that others don’t. We have coaches who understand the patterns unique to the individual player and the relevant designs and intentions which are crucial to him/her reaching full potential. Finally we have a few coaches who not only understand the theory appropriate to the individual but who can actually convert this into reality. How many of the latter do we have now in Europe?

As the great Mario Amizić has stated: ‘The Asian countries have adapted to modern table tennis, Europe has gone backwards. The last three years have seen a particularly rapid decline in Europe; at one time I believed that the younger generation would be able to step into the shoes of the older, but this is no longer a possibility. The present situation in Europe is a catastrophe but if we really think about it, it is in fact the reality we should have expected.’ Basically Amizić is saying that we haven’t done our homework, we are not preparing in the right way and that it’s only our fault. In many ways he is right!

In our training for example it’s so easy to just practise the things we can do well – it’s enjoyable, looks good, doesn’t take much effort and is absolutely futile. Top performers on the other hand constantly take active steps to stretch their limits at every session. Purposeful practice may not be easy but it’s unbelievably effective! The key to excellence is not in the genes but in practice time, practice quality and direction. So just how long do you need to practise? Modern research has even come up with a specific answer to this question – a minimum of ten years to reach world-class status. 1991 Anders Ericsson (Florida State University): ‘What is vital in the achieving of excellence is the number of hours devoted to serious practice’. The right practice is the only factor distinguishing the best from the rest. 10 years is the magical number for the attainment of excellence. Practice not talent is what ultimately matters. Gladwell quotes around one thousand hours a year or the ten thousand hour rule.

Unfortunately in Europe we seem to have lost sight of the Ogimura principle of ‘extraordinary effort’. We are never going to produce champions by taking the easy road and far too many coaches still seem to adopt the ‘big talent’ theory: that the really good players are born with the talent and don’t need to work at their game. All players who get to National Centres have the basic skill levels, they wouldn’t be there otherwise and some may be a little more naturally gifted than others, but in the final analysis it will be the right amount and type of practice which turns them into world beaters. Sadly in many countries throughout Europe the players don’t get what they need.

One factor which even many top coaches tend to overlook is that it’s knowledge above all which determines excellence. Experience matters, good, long-term training matters, rarely does the young player identify quickly enough when factors change during a match, but the older player understands immediately and takes the appropriate corrective action. Exactly the same principle applies in the field of coaching, experience matters! In almost all cases there is no time to examine the evidence before making a decision, due to the large number of often swiftly changing variables in the sporting situation. Decisions would appear to be made by instinct but they are not. They are based not on what one sees, but on an in-depth understanding of at times obscure background movements: this ability of course comes solely from long experience. And if course it is not something which is inherited, but is an aptitude nurtured and matured in many cases over decades of living through similar experiences.

Speed in sport is not based on reactions but comes from highly specific practice over a long period of time. Top performers possess enhanced awareness and anticipation. If you can exploit advanced information this will result in the time anomaly where top players seem to have all the time in the world to play their shots.

This is why the quantity and quality of long-term, directed practice is so crucial: it builds up a background of knowledge which will enable the player to make the right decisions quickly and under pressure. It also cultivates and expands within the player the insight to handle situations which he/she may not have yet encountered.

If we are to produce players to match the Asians this will require from most National Associations in Europe a rather more professional and directed coaching approach than we have seen to date. It will also need us to move away from traditional areas of thought. No-one can live on past glories. Change is the essence of life, if you don’t change, you stagnate. Change is the essential element of progress, of development. Perhaps now is the time for the leaders and organizers in clubs, districts and National Associations to move away from traditional avenues of thinking, be more flexible in attitude and less conventional in their approach to our sport. We are not going to produce the players of the future with methods of the past.

What we can’t afford to overlook too is that top coaches possess enhanced awareness and intuition and that the basis for this is the accumulated knowledge and experience they have built up over countless hours of being involved with players. The really experienced coach sees cues in the preparation, movement build-up and stroke execution as well as in the physical and mental attributes which enable him/her to make informed decisions as to which road the player should take to reach full potential. The less experienced coach or the ex-player does not yet have this ability (and may never have it). Also this is not something you can teach in a classroom over a few weekends, it is an understanding which grows and flowers in the individual over countless hours (sometimes decades) of meaningful participation in a particular activity and it is selective to that activity and not a skill which can be transferred to other areas.

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