Cadet Girls’ Development Sweden

Rowden Fullen (2000)

If we in Sweden are to win medals in the cadet girls’ events in the Junior European Championships, then we should be examining carefully and assessing the quality of play now to be seen in girls’ 11 – 13 classes. In Växjö in Girls’ 13 we had an entry of some 40 players, many of the best in Sweden, what did we observe that gave us cause for hope or fear for the future?

Serve — Some good long serving with the backhand (good to see backhand serves in view of possible rule changes), with good placement and angles, wide to backhand and next ball to the body or fast to the body and the next ball wide to the backhand. Even some fast serves down the line to the opponent’s forehand.

Short service was generally bad in both placement and spin, usually long enough to attack hard — only three players were able to serve with enough backspin to cause real problems to the opponent. It was also quite obvious that most players did not understand the technique involved in achieving backspin. About 20% of the girls were looking to use 3rd ball attack and had some idea of how their serves were returned.

Receive — This was usually a little too predictable — if the serve was short the usual response was to try and hit hard with the forehand or push long with late timing and often to the backhand side. When faced with the long serve to the backhand the response again was a hard hit (often with only 40 – 50% success) with little or no spin, or even at times an attempt to push!

There did not seem to be much thought to variation, to drop the short serve back short for example, or push long and fast with early timing to the body or out to the corners. Against the long serve no attempt was made to play the ball back slow or with topspin or to return it differently with for example an early-timed stop-block.

Opening up — Almost all the girls would open against backspin on the forehand side, but not always quickly enough. In Europe you are rarely allowed the luxury of pushing 2/3 balls especially to the opponent’s forehand! Only about 20% of players opened with some spin on the forehand but only two showed evidence of good slow topspin on this wing. No player opened with spin on the backhand and the vast majority were quite content to be involved in extended pushing rallies, backhand to backhand without any attempt to open al all!

Play and tactics — There was much play on the diagonal, especially the first opening ball with the forehand. We must be thinking much more of different placement — straight, to the body and out to the angles. Also there was too much use of power and too little change of speed or spin. It was rare for any player to open with a slow ball. Once into the rally not one single player tried to vary the pace and play long or short, moving the opponent in and out.

Movement with the majority of the girls was weak particularly to the wide ball and especially from the forehand corner back to the backhand. There appeared to be little awareness of what the Chinese call the ‘inside techniques’, the more advanced level of stroke-play – touching serves short, killing through topspin, using early ball back and sidespin pushes, even when and how to convert from spin to drive.

Conclusions — We should want our girls to play the right game which has a chance of success at the highest level. How many of the top women in Europe (except defence players) or even in Sweden push back a long backspin ball? The key-point must be that if someone pushes long, you open!

But even more important is the question of development, if you are stuck in a negative rut then your game is not progressing, not moving forward, instead it stagnates. If it stagnates too long then you fall behind and it becomes more and more difficult to catch up with the top players, who are being positive, are doing new things and are advancing.

Each of those 40 girls in Växjö should really sit down and ask herself a few questions.

* Do I want to be the best I can be?
* Am I negative in parts of my game? Do I for example win points, or do I wait for my opponent to make mistakes?
* If I am negative how long have I been so? Six months, one year?
* When am I going to do something about it?
* What new serves do I have in the last six months, one year?
* How have I changed my receives in the last six months, one year?
* What new strokes or tactics do I have in the last six months, one year?
* Am I prepared to listen to new ideas and to try different ways of doing things?
* Do I understand that without change there is no development?

One of the ways to reinforce positive play is to applaud young girls who drive or topspin a long push even if they lose the point. Players should also be encouraged to play their weak shots and new strokes and tactics in practice even if they miss, eventually they will have the confidence to use them in matches. Above all coaches must ensure that girls can attack and open safely and consistently as well as being able to play the power balls. I feel that one of the problems with the Swedish girls’ game is that the control element in their attack is too low. The safety shot and the power winner are two different strokes. For example if it’s 9 - 9 and the opponent pushes a long ball anywhere on your side, you should have a safe opening shot which you are absolutely certain will go back on the table.

If you know in the back of your mind that you can open with absolute safety on both backhand and forehand, then you will be that much more confident going into the big matches.

The way forward — One thing that I as a foreigner noticed immediately is that these 40 girls were from many different clubs, some 25 or more and no two in the top 8 were from the same club. Probably many of these are smaller clubs or clubs which have only a few girls training, almost certainly these girls are spread over a large area and have little opportunity to train on a regular basis together with other good girls of their own level. Equally important is the training of techniques and tactics applicable to women’s table tennis. What is therefore a matter of concern is the quality and consistency of the long-term development with particular reference to the frequency of access to the level of coaching needed to take them to international standard or above.

Many people would say in a big country such as Sweden we must face the fact that only a very small number perhaps less than 10% will have access to the type and frequency of training needed to reach the top. I don’t accept this type of negative approach. There is always a way — if we can’t bring the players to the coaching then we must take the coaching and sparring to the players. Other countries with fewer resources than Sweden and much less going for them have done it and continue to do it. I also hear the tired old phrase which comes out every time something new is suggested — ‘Good idea but we just can’t afford it’. Often when you talk to parents and leaders however they are prepared to find the money to fund any venture which will help develop their players!

Some would say that it’s the job of the Swedish Association to find solutions, which in part it is, especially in the case of the players they wish to groom for stardom. However it’s all too easy to sit back and wait for others to act. Surely there’s much that clubs could do themselves by cooperating and working more together with training programmes – as an outsider it appears to me rather than a spirit of cooperation and a willingness to work together there is more often than not an atmosphere of some distrust or even jealousy between clubs.

Equally I feel there is much that the districts could do by promoting girls’ table tennis, organizing training groups, having regular squads which train together on a monthly or six-weekly basis. Why not even take this a stage further to embrace the idea of different districts training together? I already hear the complaints — ‘But the calendar is so full, there are so many tournaments, we just don’t have time’. I have only one answer to this, you cannot train by competition alone, particularly at a young age. To parents and leaders I would ask which is of more importance, to win tournaments at twelve years of age or to develop the right kind of game which can succeed at senior level.

I leave you with one final thought — the bigger the pool of players the Association has to pick from, the more chance we have to achieve success in Europe and beyond.