Thailand: 8th wonder of the world

Rowden Fullen 2007

Thailand has hardly any immense past tradition in table tennis or in the production of world-class players. One looks in vain through the annals of the history of our sport for past champions on the world stage in the men’s, women’s or doubles events. But perhaps all this is about to change. Probably few if any of you reading this article have heard of the name Suthasini Sawettabut and none of her coach and mentor, Kraiwan Suphaprasert.

Here we have a young girl not yet 14 years but already considered as the best in the world in her age group and already feared and respected at the very highest levels in the table tennis hierarchy. The ITTF have sent envoys to examine just how she achieves the results she does. Even the Chinese are starting to take note of the continued development of this wonder girl and with no little apprehension.

So just how has she reached the heights, where is the high-level sparring she trains against every day, where are all the varied styles of player, the defenders, penholders, long and short pimple artists, where is all the technical equipment, the robots, multi-ball nets etc? The simple answer is she has nothing.

The hut where she trains is home to four cats and five table tennis tables and is situated in a small town in Thailand not too far from Bangkok. She is by far the best player in the ‘club’ and has no high-level sparring of any kind. In fact the vast majority of her training is mental and physical – the actual ‘ball crossing the net part’ of the training takes up less than 25% of training time. There is in fact in theory, or so 99 out of 100 coaches in the West would say, no way this girl could have achieved the results she has with the level of help and opportunity she receives!

Some of you may have seen Suthasini in World Junior Protour events. She is the one sitting alone, eyes closed, quietly meditating prior to her next match and totally oblivious to everything going on around her. Not for her the loud music in her earphones or the chatting with fellow-players and friends before she has to perform. She is just completely and totally focused on what she has to do and on nothing else. The results and the way she plays once the match starts demonstrates that this approach works for her.

Perhaps this type of training where the coach is predominantly working with the mind and getting the player to learn for themselves rather than instructing them is the way forward, although in the Western world we tend to be rather sceptical concerning the ‘inner’ game of table tennis. It may be that in many cases the way we learn and more importantly the way we teach in our modern society must be questioned and modified. What we should bear in mind however is that coaching is unlocking a player’s potential to allow him or her to maximise performance. Often major breakthroughs can be made if the coach can identify a new way forward with players working from their own experience and perceptions rather than his own.

Certainly one of the aspects where most of the top players are in agreement is in the vital and increasing importance of the mental side in top level performance. Perhaps here in a remote outpost in Thailand it is being demonstrated that the mental side is all important and that we don’t even need to concern ourselves overmuch with the technique and style development of the player. Get the mind right and the rest will follow!

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