Facts and Observations

Rowden Fullen (2007)

PART ONE – do coaches see what is happening?

Table tennis is very much like life itself. There are always new challenges and new things to learn and if you are to progress then you must keep your mind open and ready to accept new ideas. This applies even to those of us coaches who have been working in our sport for many decades. The moment you think you know it all then your development and effectiveness as an instructor is strictly limited.

Many years ago I learned an important lesson from a young girl of 9/10 years old. She came to my club with her mother but it was she who did the talking. “I am going to be the national number one and I want you to get me there”. My first question was obviously why me. “You have all the best girls in your club and when I talk to them and their parents I find that you coached almost all of them from beginner level. You made them and you have already made 6 or 7 national number one girls. So you know how to do it. The best trainer to take me to the top is one who has already been there and done it before”.

The girl impressed me not only because of her obvious self-confidence and motivation, but because she had done her homework more efficiently than most adults. To achieve her objectives and arrive at the best solution for her situation she had used observation in the right way and had seen the salient aspects. She had also paid close attention to the facts and facts are above all important.

Observation is of course an essential part of our work as coaches but I sometimes think that we do not approach this in a scientific enough manner. We gloss over things, we see the general over-view without seeing the individual details which are often of prime importance. And above all we do not take enough account of the facts — facts are always important. On many occasions for example when I watch a big match and talk to coaches after, I wonder if they have been watching the same match as I have. They have been watching but they don’t seem to have seen what has actually happened!

Coaches cannot possibly examine technique and tactics if they are unaware specifically which components determine effective performance and how best to observe them. Any assessment is about scientific observation in such a way that you SEE what is actually happening. I spend a fair amount of time videoing the world’s best players. But if I wish to assess performance then I must break this down into its component parts to see what is actually happening and to see how they achieve results. Observers who try to see everything, often end up perceiving nothing. I may start for example with the 2nd ball, playing back all the receives of serve perhaps 20 times and looking at the different aspects – for example was the receive with B.H. or F.H., what was the stroke and the state of readiness for the 4th ball, which timing was used, was the shot negative or positive, which tactics were used against the short serve and what was the percentage of short serves, tactics against the long serve and percentage of these, where was placement on the opponent’s side of the table and why? I will then do the same with the 4th and 6th ball before going on to the serve and 3rd and 5th ball tactics and looking at playing and tactical plans in general. Overall I can examine the same series of video clips a couple of hundred times before I isolate the various individual aspects.

Equally if coaches are going to be involved in women’s training at any level then they have to be aware of the differences between the men’s and women’s game and of which tactics are successful. Yet I see little indication in many countries in Europe that coaches have much understanding of how women actually play! They often seem to have in their mind an ideal of how they would like their female players to play but this differs in most cases quite considerably from how women in reality do play. It seems to me that coaches watch women play but they don’t actually SEE what is happening!

When I talk to coaches about women’s play I hear a lot of generalities but few specifics. I hear comments such as – ‘Well the girls are getting closer to the boys and playing a more masculine type of game with more use of spin’. I would really like to see some of these female players because they seem to be conspicuously absent when I go to tournaments! Nor do I necessarily think that it’s a valid deduction to conclude because something works well for the men that it is going to be equally effective in the women’s game.

Why for example do we have women in the training hall working at looping 6 or seven balls in a row and even doing this back from the table? Look at the best 30 women in the world – do any actually play like this? Why are we pressuring girls to take the 2nd ball with the F.H. from the middle of the table? All the top European women, Boros, Steff and Struse (and most Chinese too) use the B.H. from the middle and even from the F.H. side. So do the world’s best juniors Guo Yue and Fukuhara and Pota. Even some of the world’s top men, Boll, Kreanga and Chuan are now using this tactic so they must consider it’s advantageous to do so.

Why too do we require female players to work more with F.H. serve and 3rd ball follow-up like the men do? In the women’s game the B.H. serve is used much more often and to good effect. And finally why do we have girls training against boys and often the wrong boys in terms of playing style? Do we really think it’s a good idea for girls to train against a style of play and a level of spin which they rarely if ever meet in the women’s game?

It would seem to be obvious that if the world’s best women use certain tactics then they do so for a reason – that THESE TACTICS WORK. I would also draw the conclusion that coaches, if they really want to produce top girl players, would do better to concentrate on what tactics the top women are using and WHY they in fact use them!

Part Two – the reality

The characteristics of the modern sponge and rubber allow the bat to be swung in a flat arc, giving more forward speed to the ball with topspin. This increased spin element has the major advantage of allowing much more energy to be fed into the shot while still maintaining control. With topspin you can hit the ball harder and harder because it is the topspin, which causes the ball to dip down on to the other side of the table. A fundamental point which many coaches fail to appreciate is that for the same bat path, the faster the racket moves, the more spin it puts on the ball. A fast hit with a flat, forward arc will contain more topspin than a slow hit. How much spin you produce is seen most readily when you play against long pimples and your hard hit comes back with very much more backspin than your slow hit. This means quite simply that POWER IS A VITAL FACTOR IN PRODUCING MORE TOPSPIN.

Most players, especially women, do not understand the importance of the initial power input and the path of the stroke in achieving spin. Very few women for example are as powerful as men or use the body as effectively as men in the stroke. Few too ever attempt to play with the same degree of closed racket angle as the men do. How then can they hope to achieve the same level of spin as the men? It is the gyroscopic effect of the spin, which gives strong directional control and allows more and more power to be fed into the stroke without greatly reducing on-the-table accuracy. Because women achieve less topspin, mainly due to having less power than men, THEY HAVE LESS ON-THE-TABLE CONTROL THAN MEN DO.

With less topspin the ball has a less downward curving flight path and less directional control. With less topspin on the ball it’s also easier to block or to hit through the spin. Therefore it becomes immediately apparent that length becomes much more important in the women’s game. In the case of the men who are playing much further back and hitting the ball with that much more spin and power, whether the ball contacts the opponent’s side of the table in the middle or at the end is relatively unimportant. Because women play closer to the table any topspin ball that bounces in the middle is liable to be smashed back and because women achieve less topspin it’s easier for the opponent to control their loops even if they produce good length balls.

Top women are of course aware that constant topspin is not a viable weapon in the women’s game and they don’t use it. Instead they spin one ball and then drive the next often from an earlier timing point. It’s not spin and power that win points in the women’s game but speed, variation and placement.

Part Three – the facts

It is obvious that counter-play is still the basic norm in the women’s game. We rarely if ever see the loop-to-loop rallies that we see in men’s play with both players well back from the table. Instead the first opening spin ball is blocked or hit and there is little or no time for the loop player to spin again. Rather the top women come in after their first topspin so that they are in a better position to counter fast, over or close to the table. After the first opening spin ball, the next is usually taken at an earlier timing point to pressure the opponent. It is essential in fact that women can convert — change from topspin to drive and vice-versa at will rather than loop several balls in a row.

Another extremely important consideration is predictability. In the women’s game the behaviour of the ball after the bounce is more unpredictable. For two reasons men face a ball that behaves as anticipated. Firstly the higher level of power and spin means that the ball bounces off the table as expected – it dips sharply downwards before the bounce and shoots forwards after hitting the table. Also the men do not face the vast array of differing material surfaces, which are common in the women’s game. A loop played against a long-pimple blocker will for instance usually be returned with backspin and sidespin. These two factors, a lesser level of spin and much more use of varying materials, mean that women face many more ‘unpredictable’ balls than the men do.

This factor tends to have a direct effect on the technical development of the two sexes. The men for example often have a long stroke, especially on the forehand wing, with the racket starting well behind the body. This is of course quite permissible when facing a stable trajectory and a predictable bounce. When facing an unpredictable ball however such a long stroke means that the player is ‘committed’ too early to a particular racket ‘path’. It is then next to impossible to change the stroke if the ball behaves in a totally unexpected way. In addition most women need the ‘assist’ of elastic energy in stroke-play and this is rather easier to achieve with a shorter back swing and a shorter stroke action.

Perhaps now we begin to see why it can be tactical suicide to loop hard and without too much spin (and especially from back) in the women’s game, where most players stand close to the table, have good reactions, are used to coping with speed and block and counter supremely well. But just why do so many top women use the B.H. from the middle of the table and especially on the 2nd ball? And remember here we are talking not just about a few good players but about the majority of women in the top 30 world rankings. Also in many cases, Boros and Guo Yue for example, we are talking too of players who have extremely strong forehands – such players are not using the B.H. because of a weakness on the F.H. side, they are using it as a tactic, as a means to control the play or to create an advantage.

Quite simply table tennis is much faster than it was even five years ago, players are allowed less and less time to play their game. The top men use the F.H. receive over the table because they want to keep control of the table and to play the F.H. on the next ball if they can. However the men are fast enough round the table to be able to maintain a good position for the next ball – in most cases the women aren’t. And even some of the top younger men and the juniors are standing squarer and using the B.H. on the 2nd ball (Boll, Chuan and Kreanga for example). It is obvious they perceive a tactical advantage too in doing this.

Women have always played closer to the table, generally have a squarer ready position and are not as fast as the men round the table. Also many players, not only women, have better control of the opponent’s serve with their B.H. wing. Because of their closer table position and because they face less power and spin, women are often better placed to handle the 4th ball if they control the serve from the B.H. side. This requires less movement. Often too they can create a favourable position for the 4th ball as the B.H. is a shorter stroke and more difficult for the opponent to read in terms of length, spin and placement.

The same principle applies when using B.H. serves. The B.H. is a quick-recovery serve and saves time when recovering to the next ball. It is easier to hold a sound position for the next stroke and less movement is required. This is rather more important now that players can no longer hide the ball in service as the opponent can see the spin and play more aggressively on the 2nd ball. The server then has less time to recover and to prepare for the 3rd ball. The top women use these tactics in a planned way which indicates that they do so for a good reason and that they know what they are doing and why. It is also interesting to note that almost all the top women in the world both from Asia and from Europe use the same tactics to a greater or lesser extent. Perhaps it is time that coaches everywhere, but particularly in Europe, play closer attention to just what is happening in the women’s game, how women in fact are playing and just what tactics they do use to win matches.