The Vital Factors of Early Development

Rowden Fullen (2010)

We must be aware from the very start that there are two basic coaching styles throughout Europe:
• The countries which have a quite rigid, basic framework within which players are expected to develop their technical skills
• The countries which place less value on a framework and more on the player and coach finding ways to develop their individual talents

Sweden is one of the leading exponents of individual development but it’s interesting to note that there are strong similarities in the way the Chinese and Swedish coach their young players. As von Scheele, the Swedish Junior Captain stresses: ‘The key phrases are responsibility for own development and driving force/motivation. To be a top player requires from an early age that you assume responsibility for solving your own problems in sport. Coaches in Europe help their players too much, they should pull back and teach more self-sufficiency’.

The Chinese basically combine the two systems. Although they are strong on the technical side and spend much time making sure that from a young age players have no weaknesses in technique, they are also always on the lookout for what they call the ‘specialty’. Some ability, tactic or playing style which makes the individual different and much more difficult to beat. In other words they look specifically for individual characteristics.

Too often we see the table tennis player as developing in steps, where we pass him/her on to more experienced coaches at higher levels, such as High-Performance, Regional or National Centres. Unfortunately however throughout Europe many of these ‘centres’ have fallen in level and are often no longer staffed by coaches who possess the required developmental skills and experience. Without some form of continuity this sort of system just doesn’t work. Do the coaches of today understand playing styles and the crucial importance of certain base techniques?

Too often too the men’s and women’s games are not seen as ‘two completely different sports’ and this is the main reason why women’s play is currently at such a low level throughout Europe. In the women’s game it is almost always speed which wins over spin, which is exactly the opposite of what happens with the men. There are also many more material players among the ranks of the women and coaches must be more fully informed as to the why, the how and the what. Many countries are quite backward in the coaching of girls and not much thought goes into their development. Girls must have a training programme which allows them to ‘get closest to their full potential’.

The trainer’s early focus in the first stages of development is particularly crucial and embraces a number of aspects, which the player must understand:
• Each technique should be as economical and as simple as possible
• In matches many techniques will be combined – this means knowledge of coordination, balance and automated footwork patterns
• Balance depends on rhythm and equal weight on both legs (both feet on the ground as much as possible)

Top coaches understand that certain factors, even in the very early stages of growth, have a direct bearing on style development:
• The grip influences from the start just what you can do with the ball, which strokes are more effective and from what distance
• The ready position is closely connected to the player’s style and influences balance, reach, the movement patterns which can be used and which type of strokes can be effectively played
• Rotation is particularly vital and should be developed prior to the stroke
• Movement and the correct movement patterns (for your particular style) are crucial as these allow you to ‘come right to the ball’ and play stronger shots. Even at the beginner stage, players should not play strokes from a static position but should learn to move and hit the ball

It is interesting to note that both the Swedish and Chinese coaching systems are in agreement with the importance of these factors in the early stages of development. But of course they must also be understood when the player moves on to various coaching groups at higher levels. All coaches must be aware that a forehand ready position leads to certain playing styles as a square ready position leads to very different styles. Also the movement patterns from differing ready positions will often be radically different. A very simple change, such as moving a foot back a few inches can dramatically alter just how efficient the player will be as he/she is no longer operating from the most effective position for his/her game.

This type of awareness is often less prevalent in Europe nowadays as many top trainers increasingly come from the ranks of the players and do not have an in-depth coaching background. Often too their understanding of a variety of playing styles is limited. They can be over-convinced as to the value of their own style and that this should perhaps be promoted at the expense of others which they don’t fully understand.

In fact many coach educators are increasingly concerned that top athletes are pushed into coaching roles without adequate preparation. They also feel that top athletes do not necessarily make top coaches and that their single-minded goal of pursuing personal excellence in one way of playing does not qualify them to advise others, who may have considerably different playing styles and physical and mental characteristics. In many cases too unfortunately the communication and people skills of top players are less than adequate.

What is required in Europe is a more in-depth understanding of ‘the whole coaching picture’. Coaching development is not something which occurs in stages, step by step and should not be seen like this. Trainee coaches must be made aware right from the very beginning of the crucial importance of many of the early factors of growth in directing the player towards the right path for him/her. Also coaches must understand the close relationship between techniques and tactics and that the appropriate techniques must be cultivated and refined so that the player is more easily able to execute the tactics suitable to his/her end style.

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