Topspin Myth and Coaching Women

Rowden Fullen 2009

Spin is of course one of the big myths and one which persists. It’s just like the myth of high-level players going into coaching. As our top university coach educators have stated – ‘These are the usual suspects when high-profile coaching jobs become vacant and so the uncritical acceptance of their suitability persists’. Yet few if any high-level athletes make top coaches.

It’s amazing how many coaches will tell you – ‘All my girls can topspin the ball, this is one of the first things I teach them’. However when you talk to a cross-section of knowledgeable coaches the answers you get are rather different. Most will tell you that boys spin much more naturally than girls and that on average 6/7 out of every 10 boys can create quite good spin. On the other hand with the girls you are lucky if 3/4 out of every 100 have the capability of achieving substantial spin. So why are we so fixated on spin with the girls? Surely with most girls there are easier paths for them to reach a higher level, rather than forcing them down a route where they will at best only ever be mediocre?

Secondly of course we now have the bigger ball and no glue. Do we therefore generate more or less topspin with the tools now at our disposal? We in fact initiate considerably less and this of course plays into the hands of the blockers and counter-hitters and militates against the topspin player who prefers to retreat and spin back from the table. This was plainly evident in the Tokyo 2009 Worlds, where it was demonstrated for all to see that consistent European topspin players like Toth were totally outplayed as soon as they drew back from the table. So yet again why are we so fixated on spin with the girls? Why force girls down a route which is almost certainly going to be less successful in the future due to the equipment being used?

Thirdly how is topspin produced and what are the salient features inherent in the ability to produce several strong spin shots in a row? The two main factors are upper body strength and dynamic speed and in both areas men are much superior to women. You need to be in the right position to spin well, men have the speed to get there and the power input to create the spin. Quite simply men hit the ball harder. Even strong women who topspin can’t be compared to the men. A big woman just doesn’t hit the ball anywhere near as hard as a small man. Yet again why are we so fixated on spin with the girls? Why force girls down a route which is almost certainly going to be less successful because of their physical makeup?

Fourthly in what context is spin used in the women’s game? Is it used to win points, to power through the opponent and is it used successively to produce several strong topspin shots in a row? Rarely if ever! It’s the men who give themselves more time and room to use their strength and play from further back and with much more topspin. Power and spin are important in the men’s game and they win points in this way, with these tactics. Women on the other hand play closer to the table and block and counter much more.

In the women’s game rather than power, placement and change of and control of speed are important. You rarely if ever see the loop-to-loop rallies of the men’s game in women’s play — almost always the return is a block, counter or defence stroke. Not only does the ability to loop several balls in a row against topspin require strength that most women don’t have (and in the long term often leads to injury) but also tactically it’s not a prime requirement in women’s play. Because women loop with less spin and power than men their topspin is much easier to control and contain and there are far more good blockers and counter-hitters in the ranks of the women than in those of the men. Why are we so fixated on spin with the girls? Especially as spin is not a prime tactical requirement? When women do use spin it is generally not to win the point as in the men’s game, but to create an opening, which is a completely different tactic.

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

Far too often in Europe with the girls we seem to be locked into coaching methods and ideas of development which are at best decades behind the times. We seem to be unaware that our sport is changing rapidly year by year, that there have been for example dramatic changes since the glue went out just over a year ago. Even worse we don’t seem to be watching the top women and learning from their current tactics and ways of playing. We even see cadets and young juniors among the best in Europe, who ably demonstrate by their style of play that they are instinctively aware of the route to success and the tactics to be used – yet six months to a year later their game has changed dramatically and they have been forced into a mould like all the others.

It would perhaps seem that with the women we are mostly content to produce players only as high as 70 to 300 on the World rankings and have no higher ambitions! If we did we would certainly approach our coaching and development of girls in a totally different manner.