Sweden Will the Old Methods Still Work?

Rowden Fullen (2000)

Some time ago I read an article in the ‘Table Tennis’ which asked – ‘What is the secret of China’s dominance in world table tennis.’ I don’t think there is any big secret. They work more in areas that matter at a younger age, concentrate ruthlessly on even the smallest aspects of technique and movement and also train against all styles of play. In comparison in many countries in Europe we are just ‘amateurs’, we only ‘play’ at coaching and development. In Sweden for example we produce players who reach the National team with quite major faults in their game, both in technique and tactics — unfortunately at international level there is absolutely no hiding place if you have weaknesses. The lack of individual attention is understandable given the number of coaches in Sweden (those in full-time employment can probably be numbered almost on the fingers of one hand!) and the ratio of players per coach. Unfortunately it means we are bringing up a generation of new players whose ultimate level of play is limited. In most cases they don’t have access to the right kind of guidance at the time when they need it. It’s rather like putting a teenager in a car and saying — ‘Here are the keys, get on with it, learn to drive.’ Yes, they learn to drive after a while, but just how many good drivers do we get?

If I look back in the old magazines even in the mid-eighties we had headlines such as - ‘We must solve our youth development problems!’ Sixteen or seventeen years ago we were looking for more leaders and coaches, we were not satisfied with results from the Junior Europeans and we were complaining about lack of success in the women’s game. So just what has changed? It seems to me essentially nothing! Successive administrations have sat back and done nothing — the men’s team was successful and that was enough, no need to actually do anything to solve the real problems! Now we still have the problems but we are rapidly running out of old men to keep our men’s team at the top. So, just when are we going to do something? It’s also not enough to do a few isolated things at top level, like the new centre at Köping, we must get things moving over a much larger area. Regions and districts must be involved a great deal more to improve levels at the base of the pyramid, otherwise we shall have fewer and fewer players and also players of lesser quality to actually attend in Köping! One way or another we must get over the inertia that seems to be holding everyone back.

Since the 1960’s when I first worked with Chinese coaches I have been a strong advocate of individual attention. When I established my own club in England in the 1970’s we operated on a ratio of four to eight players per coach — we produced seven number one ranked players over ten years and in the early 1990’s had 5 players, 3 girls and 2 boys in the England teams. The problem of more individual attention in Sweden is by no means without solutions, there are a number of alternatives, especially if you are prepared to ‘think around corners’. However the main problem would be whether the solutions would be politically acceptable to the clubs. In the majority of cases an acceptable level of technical and tactical guidance along with individual style development cannot be provided at club level, especially if you are talking about European top twenty standards. Times are changing and we will almost certainly not produce the players of the future, with the methods of the past!

Fortunately you have one of the best club systems in the world, unfortunately almost all are traditionally insular. In Sweden it seems tradition is more important than ideas. If I were to point out that it’s next to impossible to achieve the highest levels in isolation, the bigger the pool, the more chance you have to produce top players, you would probably agree with me. But if in the next breath I were to suggest that Malmö and Eslöv, Helsingborg and Falkenberg, Kalmar and Enig, Ängby and Spårvägens should cooperate and work together to raise the overall level, I would probably be told — ‘You’re not Swedish, you don’t understand, that’s traditionally unacceptable.’ In other words club priorities are more important than the development of players or even national considerations. Traditions are important, however there is one inescapable fact of life, everything changes. Progress, development mean change. Resist change and try to stay as you are and stagnation sets in. Does anyone really think that the great household names of Swedish table tennis, the Waldners, Appelgrens, Perssons and Lindhs just grew and developed by playing all their lives in one or two clubs in Sweden, even big clubs? They went out into the big pool of world play and their development was shaped by their experiences in many different lands.

Even in little Långemåla they succeeded in getting money for their ‘Girls’ Table Tennis in Focus’ project, to develop girls’ table tennis in Småland and had players and coaches from England, Sweden, Wales and Poland supported by E.U. funding. They have facilities to run camps for up to 40 players and coaches with accommodation and this in a very small club set in a very small village community of only some 300 persons. That so much has happened here is largely due to the ideas and energy of one man, Stig-Olof Holm. It is just a little surprising perhaps that more is not happening in other areas of Sweden where there are much bigger clubs and communities, with more resources and many more people working for table tennis. However it is not the size of the club that is significant in making things happen, it is in fact often largely a matter of one or two people with the ideas and the ability and energy to translate ideas into reality.

Quite many of our young players are now moving out of Sweden to play and in some cases to live in other countries in Europe. One or two have come to realize an important fact of life — if you only travel to play matches, European clubs will use you but they are not too interested in helping you develop your game, however if you stay and work in the club then they are prepared to invest some time in you. And just how do these clubs finance their foreign players? Do they use their hard-earned sponsorship money? Of course not. The first question they ask is — ‘How do we get a player or a coach free? What grants, assistance, are available in our country, in their country, from the local community, the National Sports Foundation, what European Union schemes fit our particular case?’ Quite often the clubs will get a free coach or player, just as in fact many clubs in Sweden could. But of course if you think in traditional ways and you remain isolated in your own club, then there is perhaps less flexibility of thought and less willingness to consider new ideas. When I had my own club I took players all over Europe to camps and tournaments but always with other people’s money!

Of course soon we shall have our own centre in Köping — here we seem to have a community which is very supportive and people who can turn ideas into reality. But is one centre enough for a country the size of Sweden? And will it attract the top players? Experience in several countries in Europe has shown that the best players often choose not to go to the national centres and even in those countries where many of the top players do attend, results at world level have hardly been encouraging. Also in most countries players are only selected for these centres at an older age when their style is already set. Perhaps again we should be ‘thinking around corners’ and be considering other approaches, not I would emphasize instead of, but in addition to the new centre. One or two countries have been experimenting with taking the coach or sparring partner to the players instead of bringing the players to one centre. One of the main themes for instance of the ‘Girls’ table tennis in focus’ project in Småland was that the coach and sparring players should go out into the clubs to follow up on players who had been on the camps. Just think what we could achieve for starters, if every district in Sweden were to set up coaching groups on a regular basis at the younger age levels, 11 and 13 both boys and girls — not only is guidance important at a young age but also some continuity.

Let me finish by saying that I have nothing but admiration for what little Sweden has achieved in men’s table tennis over the last twenty years. But 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. Traditionally Swedish players are thought (in other countries) to be innovative and colourful in their play. Perhaps now is the time for the leaders and organizers in clubs and districts to move away from traditional avenues of thinking, be more flexible in attitudes and less conventional in their approach to our sport.

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