Responsibility for Yourself

Rowden Sept 2013

The single most important element in the development of a table tennis player is that he/she understands his/her own game and understands how to achieve the absolute best performance. The duty of the coach is to help the player reach this supreme level.

Unfortunately far too often the coach wants to have his/her own input and tries to make the player conform to his/her own ideas of how the top player performs. This approach takes away the players' own responsibility to evolve in the way they feel is best for them as individuals. The coach is basically asking players to 'buy into' someone else's model of how they should perform.

Usually really talented performers have a good idea of what works for them and how they should play. There have been a number of occasions on National Training Camps where the top players (in some cases World Champions) have walked out, simply because they felt so strongly that the training was not of benefit to them with their style of play and was pushing them in a direction they didn’t want to go. Such incidents only serve to reinforce the principle that the coach/player relationship should be a dialogue, even from quite an early stage in development.

What the coach must bear in mind from the start is that each player is different, a unique individual, with differing strengths, reactions and skills - at no time can you force him or her into a pattern of your choosing; or you can but the player will almost certainly never achieve his/her full potential. Rather you must help players to develop and flower in their own way. In the areas of technique, tactics and physical exercises the coach can show the way, in mental areas and in the choosing of a style, with which they feel comfortable, the players should have a large say in their development. It is only the players who know what risks they are prepared to take, whether they are more at ease playing close or back, fast or slow, spin or drive, it is only the players who in the final analysis know what feels right for them.

As Thomas von Scheele (ex-World Champion and Swedish Junior Team Captain) has stated: Two key areas must be fostered with 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 guide 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.’

In their dialogue with players, coaches must try to help players to assume more responsibility for themselves and their development; ask questions which provoke thoughts on how they play, what tactics they will use against different players, how they will serve to get in their strengths, what are their strengths and weaknesses etc. Encourage players to try new things and to always be progressing and moving forward. To stop and be satisfied is to stagnate; you will not get any better.

Unfortunately throughout Europe much of the training tends to influence players into playing and thinking in a predictable manner and does not help in the development of adaptive intelligence. Why do so many players in Europe have extremely good technique compared to the Asians, yet in no way achieve comparable results? We have nice strokes and can play long flowing rallies but we can’t win points! We have weapons but don’t know how and when to use them!

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; especially they must be aware how their particular serve and receive tactics are most efficient and in what way they can bring their strongest weapons into play most quickly and to best effect.

Also whatever the style of play every player must realise that there are certain aspects of the modern game which have to be mastered. Short play and ‘over the table’ tactics are critical and each performer must find his/her own system of handling these most effectively and in a way which complements his/her own individual style of play. Players should also be aware of the science of our sport, how this is changing and how changes affect them personally and either limit or aid their game. For example the maximum revolutions with the 38mm ball were around 150 per second but these diminished to 132 with the 40mm ball and will be reduced even further when the plastic ball is introduced. Each reduction makes it more difficult to be effective away from the table and therefore restricts some styles of play.
When you talk with the world’s best players they feel that they must try to play most of the time in the best position for them relative to distance from the table. Most players feel that they should be focused on moving in and staying that bit closer. With the bigger ball moving slightly slower through the air and with the spin dying more rapidly, retreating too much means that you quickly reach the position from which you can no longer win the point: you are too far away and can only control but not dominate.

This is of course particularly vital in the women’s game. Women are less powerful, play with less spin and there are far too many good blockers and counter-hitters among their ranks. Running away rapidly becomes a recipe for disaster. It is too easy for the closer player to play long and short and out to the angles.

But of course it’s at the top level that the early development of adaptive intelligence in the players’ game comes into its own. Not only do the world’s best adapt and cope with whatever is thrown at them by the opponents, but their own way of play is unpredictable. They don’t play two to three balls to the same place, they don’t open on the diagonal all the time, they are always thinking to do different things: play to the body, then wide, play short and long, use the angles and the line balls, change the speed and spin, don’t give opponents time to be comfortable and get their own strengths in. At the highest levels being unpredictable and innovative become a way of life!

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