Training In China
Rowden Fullen (2003)
Chinese junior players are more consistent, more powerful, more professional, more motivated and much stronger mentally in practice and competition than players in the West. Much of this is to do with the system and methods of training and development in China and the fact that there is such a tremendous level of competition to get into the national teams, even to get noticed by the top coaches. Results are everything. In Europe the top players often know they are ‘safe’ in their position and are not going to be replaced regardless of their performance — in this sort of situation it’s hard to maintain strong motivation to keep on developing and players too often become complacent. In China there is always a pack of players snapping at your heels and if you don’t take your opportunity when it comes, then there are quite simply just no second chances.
Each province has its own professional centre, which selects the best players from different cities throughout the province. Those selected live and train together and are paid by the government as professionals. These players receive a good monthly wage and the amount they receive is performance-based and depends on their results. It’s a simple system — if you win you get paid more, if you lose you get paid less. The coaches’ pay is based on the same principle, if their players do better they get more. Often when the players compete against each other in practice they compete for money. Each individual puts money into the kitty and all players compete for the total. As the players are not very wealthy there is immense incentive to put everything into trying to win. The economic situation is used as a motivating tool for success quite often. Each player knows that if they make it to the top they can expect to earn a very good wage and be highly respected as an international sports star.
In these professional clubs there is an internal tournament almost every weekend and players come from miles around to participate. Matches are played in large groups, as many as 15 – 16 and on a basis of all play all. There may be as many as a dozen groups from elite to medium level. The two best players in each group go up to the higher group next time and the two bottom players go down. As a result the competition is very fierce and the players have the advantage of having many hard matches.
Training is based on simplicity and logic. Everything that is done in the training hall is done for a specific reason no matter how simple or obvious it may appear. Under 12’s for example are often allowed only one practice ball, which teaches the player to respect each point as if it were in a match. As they are required to fetch the ball each time it misses the table they soon understand that it’s better not to make mistakes! Coaches seldom give positive feedback to their players on performance. The feedback is always on how they can improve, never in the form of congratulation on what they have achieved. This is done to keep the players striving for perfection. Exercises are rarely demonstrated, the players are simply told what they are to do throughout the entire training session. The players are given a great deal of freedom to choose their own exercises — this is done so that they feel they are more in control and have responsibility for their learning.
Players are also encouraged to write down how they play and feel and to monitor their performance at all times. They also write down their goals and aspirations and often on the monthly training camps each player’s list will be put up on the wall in the training hall so other players and coaches can study these and comment.
All players learn how to feed multi-ball to each other. This aids overall productivity as all can train against multi-ball at the same time. Often the Chinese use this as a tool for long periods of time and often instead of the more normal training. In fact it’s not unusual to have up to two hours at a time. Other benefits are that this aids the group cohesion, as everyone has to help one another. Multi-ball is used as a tool to improve stamina and to enhance concentration.
However even in China players have problems with certain aspects of the modern game. The decisive power of the forehand loop-drive is a major factor in today’s game. However over the past three decades, fast attack has been the theme in Chinese table tennis and has governed all the training systems and the principles of training. These have required stroke movements to be short, compact and quick (with unfortunately little attention being paid to use of the waist and the legs and the coordination between the two). As a result Chinese players are usually more suited to close-to-table combat and better against the first one or two loop-drives. Once the rally has progressed to a medium or long-range control situation, then their players lack the required power!
Basically the Chinese need to bring the training for counter-loop into the spotlight at all levels throughout their playing system. The most important is the counter-loop against the opponent’s first loop-drive initiated from a backspin ball. This specific technique holds the key to all counter-looping techniques. The mastery and awareness of counter-loop techniques have to be brought to the attention of and fostered among young players from an early age.
Because of the heightened levels of receive amongst the top Europeans the need for stronger backhand play also assumes a higher priority. Backhand block and push will only offer the opponent direct attacking opportunities to obtain the upper hand immediately. Most Europeans now adopt the step around forehand receive, which makes it easier for them to control the table with the forehand side of the racket and makes variation of placement simpler. Often the server is restricted and it’s hard to follow up with a forehand attack or with a strong enough forehand attack on the third ball.
In terms of ‘shakehands’ versus penhold grip, penhold players are on the decrease and the ratio is now around 75 – 80% to 25 – 20%. Most penholders in the national team have adopted the reverse side of racket play. However this reverse side topspin cannot be played with much force by many players and because of the grip restriction it’s difficult to loop-drive to the centre line. Though European players are inconvenienced the threat is not as dangerous as it might appear, for blocking or strokes without power are after all passive tactics and during a tight rally, it’s hard to switch on to a real offensive unless the player actually steps around.
Chinese players, even those who use ‘shakehands’ grip, have difficulty in coping on the backhand side with rallies at medium to long range. Due to their lack of strength and power players find it very hard to switch on to the offensive when they have been forced back into a defensive position on this wing. This has to do in fact with their own training methods in China, where the coaches and players often spend a great deal of time strengthening the forehand rally play back from the table and have tended to neglect the backhand area at a similar depth. This is probably a ‘relic’ of the days when pen-hold players predominated in China and the main emphasis of training was on forehand strength. Chinese players and trainers must now re-think their training priorities.
In boys’ training sessions in China the better boys tend to train with each other but in the girls’ sessions there is no discrimination in terms of practice partners, everyone plays with each other. This mirrors to some extent the difference in the attitude to training between the sexes. Training generally starts with 45 minutes consistency exercises and most of these are irregular. All players train very hard but the atmosphere is always relaxed and even with humour at times. The coaches tend to sit and observe and make notes and give little direct feedback to players on technique during training. The attitude is that if a player is aware of a problem with technique, then he or she needs to find the answer to that problem. Learning becomes more effective than simply being told to change.
However there are exceptions in two areas.
- The younger players, under 12’s for example, are given constant technical feedback and spend much time in front of the mirror perfecting technique. This is done to provide immediate feedback to the player.
- The other exception is during multi-ball. Technical feedback occurs as the players are playing.
All players keep a diary in which they review their training each day. The coaches review the diaries weekly and establish what the players should focus on in the next week’s training.
In many countries in the West we put a great deal of emphasis on ‘performance’ rather than on winning and losing. We delve much into the psychological aspects and feel that players should not be obsessed with winning but should focus more on ‘how to win’. In China the reverse is true and the complete emphasis is on winning – the coaches pressure players to win even from a very young age. As one coach stated – ‘We find out where each player’s breaking point is and we take them to that breaking point as often as possible. It is only in this way that the player learns to live with pressure.’ If you look at training from this perspective then players do not try and avoid pressure, but instead regard it as a perfectly natural part of the game.
To develop concentration the Chinese use many practical techniques in training, such as introducing distractions while playing. When having practice matches no lets are allowed — if a ball bounces into the court, or between your legs or another player crawls under your table to fetch a ball, you are expected to carry on playing regardless. The philosophy is that if you can keep focused in the face of such distractions in practice then at a normal tournament you will have no problem in concentrating.
Physical training involves a number of fun games, indoor and outdoor football for example. Fun and competition are the key components of much of the physical training, both to increase motivation and keep the players enthusiastic. Weight training is also a major factor in boys’ training, and many exercises involve bounding (plyometrics) whilst carrying weights.
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There is a strong pyramidal system in the country from the schools and clubs through the cities to the Provincial Centres and finally into the National Team and current policy in China is both to examine the development of players from other countries and to allow their own players every chance to play outside China. Exchange of players is quite commonplace and the Chinese are obviously keen to keep their fingers on the pulse of table tennis development outside their borders so that they themselves continue to progress and keep up to date with new methods and advances in our sport. The government invests more money than ever before in table tennis in China and players have an enhanced status.
In respect of style several penhold players continue to hold their own at the top levels in the world rankings and when one considers the results of players such as Liu Guoliang and Ma Lin they have had good success against top Western grip players. Statistics also show that their reverse backhand stroke is in fact not comparatively weaker and they do not lose out on this wing in the backhand rallies.
Many of the Chinese players of course give up rather sooner than their European counterparts. This however is not so surprising when you consider that they start their professional careers much earlier. Usually coaches meet with the parents of talented prospects at no later than 9 — 10 years old to discuss whether the child shall give up school in order to concentrate full-time on table tennis. If this is agreed then it is straight up to eight hours training daily. This means of course that there is immense competition for places in the National team and new players are coming through the ranks all the time. It is extremely hard even for world stars to keep their place for a long period of time. Many players look to go into coaching instead once they reach the age of the early twenties or even before and the job of trainer is now quite a high-profile position in China. Others join the ‘overseas corps’ and make a new playing career for themselves in another country. There are Chinese players representing national teams on every continent in the world and many continue to maintain their levels even up to the age of 40 years!