As a player gets past the stage of reasonable competence in the basic strokes and is able to play them from all parts of the table and the movement patterns are becoming established — then is the time to look at style development. Many players will in fact have already shown indications before this of how they are going to develop and the experienced coach will have started to point them in the right direction.
Indeed an experienced coach will be able to look at a player of 11 to 13 years who has been playing for 2/3 years and have a good idea of how the player will play as an adult. It is just a matter of looking at the type of strokes, the type of person, strength, movement and reaction speed and assessing where the player is strongest. The famous English coach/player Jack Carrington used to say — ‘You will never make a player really good in areas where they are at best mediocre.’ He was of course emphasizing the point that players must play to their strengths — it is all very well taking some time working at eliminating weaknesses, but in the long run players will win by doing what they do best.
All players are different, many may be similar but no two players are identical. Some have very fast reactions and are able to handle extreme speed close to the table — they don’t need to move back and are most effective in an up-to-the-table situation. Others do not have the reaction speed to do this but are able to control the ball well back from the table and feel comfortable in this position. Some players can loop or hit the ball very hard and win points with power, yet others rely more on deception or spin or control.
It is important that the coach assess the up-and-coming young player and look at where his or her strengths lie, look at reactions, strength, movement, mental attitude and stroke play – how does the player execute the strokes, how does he or she win points. If there are possible problems in a player’s game, perhaps he or she is good close to the table on the backhand, but good away from the table on the forehand, then some compromise must be arrived at. Another area which must be examined is that of equipment — within the context of the player’s style which type and speed of blade and which rubbers and sponge thickness will be the most effective. (If for example you want good effect from a long pimple rubber then it’s of no use having it on a slow blade). You may not always be able to put a player straight on to the type of equipment they will use as a senior, often this will have to be done in two or three stages, but you should as a trainer be aware in which direction you are going!
Equally it’s very important that the young player be monitored constantly till the style is set. Young players are not stable in technique and the coach must be often in attendance, bringing points to the attention of the player till they start to think for themselves. ‘Look at the racket, should it finish there after the forehand loop?’ ‘Look to the movement pattern, are you moving in the right way and are you balanced when you play the strokes?’ ‘Stop, watch the timing, should you be taking the ball so late with your style?’ ‘Come in, you’re too far back, it’s not your best playing area.’
In addition the coach should have a long-term programme for the development of his player. He should know what he is working towards and should plan the steps to achieve this. It is not always necessary that the player be aware of every stage of the plan — coaches know many things that they rarely tell players, there is little point in cluttering up the player’s mind with a great deal of unnecessary and irrelevant information. The player’s job is to play, not to be involved in the technicalities and details. His or her mind should be focused totally on playing.
What players must know is how they win games at any particular stage in their programme of development. Do they win with forehand loop? Do they win with set pieces – serve and third ball? Do they win by others’ mistakes? And most important of all if a player stops them playing their own natural game, can they change and adapt? Have they a second type of game to fall back on? Players must be adaptable and trained to think for themselves when faced with problems.
Above all there must be progress, a steadily expanding programme of development, new aims and objectives. Life is a process of change, when change stops, stagnation sets in and achievement levels off or recedes. So many players reach a plateau, a level and stop! They become satisfied with what they are and are no longer prepared and motivated to put in the effort required to reach or to stay at the top. In sport as in life, the mind must be kept fresh, ready to listen to new ideas and to climb to new heights.