Developing the Talent of our Girls

Rowden Fullen (2002)

You are a twelve to thirteen year old girl and you want to be a top table tennis star – just how do you go about it and where do you go? You could choose to go to one of our big clubs or even to the table tennis academy. But results over the past few years have shown this is the hard way to the top. Our top girls have tried Lycksele, Falkenberg, Helsingborg and now the new centre at Köpings, but to no avail – we still have no girls say in the top 50 in the world senior rankings. Compared to the top 15 year olds Fukuhara and Guo Yue we are nowhere. Trying to reach the top after and in combination with several years’ schooling becomes more and more hopeless every year.

With a few exceptions the production of young, promising, female talents has virtually stopped in Sweden. Every so often we see one or two girls between 9 – 11 of real talent but in almost all cases they just drift away into oblivion after a couple of years, they just don’t develop to anywhere near their full potential. As an idea table tennis schools are good but unfortunately the results are bad.

The number of top women’s trainers in Europe and even coaches who understand how women play and what they need to do to get to the top, is now at an all time low. Too often girls train in the wrong way and against the wrong type of sparring for their game. Often when our best young prospects go abroad to China or Japan in their mid-teens they come into contact with top women’s coaches and suddenly it is brought home to them that their development in Sweden has in fact been in the wrong direction for them for a number of years, in spite of the fact that they have been to the so-called top table tennis schools.

The reality too is that in a harsh world where money steers the sport, there is seldom much space for talent to flower to senior level. It’s far easier instead to fill teams with foreign players and as a result many of our girls drop out well before they are 20, tired, disillusioned or burned out by our sport’s heavy demands. In many clubs there is unfortunately lack of competence and direction — many youngsters too are so spoiled by our easy modern-day life that they are not ready to make sacrifices, to give their all or go all the way to reach top levels. Talent on its own is nowhere near enough to scale the real heights – there must be intelligence, the right attitude and a considerable core of hard steel. Do you really think you can create such qualities in a semi-academic environment where those of your own age and experience surround you? When development is over, the step up to the grown-up world is often just too tough. If you’re 16 – 17 and you are not in the national troop then it’s far too late.

It’s far better for many 12 — 14 year olds to play in senior teams and to compete in senior tournaments from as early an age as possible. Here you build up a different toughness and different qualities. Maturity comes much more quickly. The change from junior to senior or elite is that much easier when it is time to take the step. If you have the opportunity play and compete abroad, travel abroad to training camps with older players, such experiences are character building and are never wasted.

It’s a simple fact that in Sweden it’s next to impossible to develop to world-class level in one club even a relatively big club – you reach the limits of what that club can do for you. You have to grow and to move on. Unfortunately too often clubs and parents hold young talents back because they don’t want to let go. Instead they end up destroying the player’s future.

The more precocious the talent the earlier it should be exposed to higher levels of competition. Waldner played elite men’s series at a little over 12 years and trained in China at 14, we all know the results. Some 7/8 years ago there was a fantastic young 12 year old from Iceland, hailed by many of Europe’s top trainers as an even better prospect than Waldner. Could he have been even more successful than the maestro? We will never know because he was kept at home and was never exposed to the higher levels necessary to develop his game.