Girls: Make Things Happen

Rowden 2008

Unfortunately table tennis is a non-contact sport, you don’t get hurt if you make a mistake, so there is less pressure on you to learn quickly. In the case of martial arts for example bad technique incurs an immediate penalty. You block the opponent’s blow incorrectly and you suffer a broken arm! With our sport the penalty occurs years later and is often much delayed. Some more knowledgeable coach or national trainer will tell you that your future development is severely limited because of poor initial technique. Perhaps you have known this yourself for some time but have not felt any urgency to correct this. In our sport where the learning process is slower, the onus is on each individual to control his or her own destiny. This is even truer in the case of girl players. There are many more styles of play and a larger variety of paths to the top in the women’s game than there are in the men’s, but unfortunately far fewer coaches capable of taking girls to the higher levels.

What are you? A girl? Define this. Somewhere between a child and an adult. What is an adult, define this. Someone who is able to handle almost all situations? Many adults can’t do this either. Perhaps someone who has been taught to think for herself and to have self-confidence.

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 predominantly important. Above all she had used her mind to solve the problem.

To get to the top you have to make things happen. Modern society doesn’t favour specialists or individualists. Indeed modern society doesn’t teach you to use your brain. Otherwise why do so many high-profile business executives have to go on special courses to help them do their jobs after years in schools, colleges and universities? Let me tell you another story of a young girl who made things happen. At the age of 13 she came to me – ‘Tournaments are costing too much and my parents are not that well off. You always say I should use my brain to solve problems but where do I start?’ As I said to her – ‘Isolate the main costs, travel and hotels and take it from there.’ She rang round all the local car firms and petrol stations and the hotels in the town where the tournament was to take place. Two or three days later we had free travel and accommodation. Two years later the same girl, then playing professionally in France, went round all the airlines and obtained free air travel anywhere in the world for a three year period.

There are few coaches of the women’s game in Europe now – I get two or three calls every season asking for women’s coaches. In the last six months I have had calls from top women’s clubs in such diverse areas as Spain and Norway. Above all what coaches should understand is that coaching women as opposed to men is ‘a completely different ballgame’ and requires a different approach. Not only are we talking about the many differing styles of play and the extensive use of material, but also of the different mental and physical attributes. If you can’t communicate with women, if you can’t comprehend why so many women play with material or understand how to play with and against such material, then it’s difficult to make a meaningful contribution to their development. Direction is important with all players, male and female, whether you as the coach can point them in the right direction for their individual playing style. However this aspect is much more demanding in the women’s game and a much broader ‘experience’ background is required. Coaching women is rather more difficult than men and more involved. If you are ‘blinkered’ and don’t appreciate that there are many more paths to the top level or indeed know what these paths are, again it’s hard to guide your player.

Many coaches and even national centres have a false perspective – they know or think they know how the top players play. This in itself is not a major problem, but it becomes a problem when they try to force their own players or those coming under their control into the same mould. There is not just one way of playing or indeed one route to the top and this is especially true in the women’s game.

What do top women in Europe say about practice, training against men for example? How do top women play and what exercises should we use in the case of girls’ training? Do coaches see what is actually happening or what they want to happen? When I talk to many top women, they don’t know how to play and are not satisfied with their training and development. Perhaps coaches working with women should spend more time evaluating just how the top women play, how they achieve results and what techniques and tactics they in fact use!

To girl players I would say this. Don’t take for granted what coaches tell you, even national coaches. Always be prepared to question. Ask how exercises benefit you specifically. Progress and development is not just blindly following others, listen to your own instincts and assess your own capabilities. You will soon come to understand how you should play. Above all watch the best women players in the world, examine their techniques and tactics and try to work out why they use them. At top level there is always a reason.