How to Keep Players in Table Tennis beyond the age of 15-16 years

Rowden Fullen (2000)

I have been reading with some interest the debate started by Thomas Andersson and Göran Skogsberg concerning the problems in Swedish table tennis and especially the difficulty in keeping players in our sport past their mid-teens. What do we find however if we go back 12 –15 years in some of the old ‘Table Tennis’ magazines?

Marita Neidert

‘ Now in 1990 I am reading an article on women’s table tennis which makes me believe that time has stood still since I first began my coaching career in 1969. There have been no advances in the Swedish women’s game since those days’.

Ulf Lönnqvist

1986 ‘An aspect from the latest European Youth Championships which must worry and concern us is the lack of success with our cadet teams. We must quite simply intensify our coaching and leadership programmes so that we produce enough experienced people to work with and develop our up-and-coming players. We don’t have very much time left.’

The problems with leaders, coaches, girls’ and youth development in Sweden seem not to be recent in origin but to have been with us for a long number of years. A much more crucial question should be — ‘Why have the Swedish Association and the districts (because these are not problems that can be solved by the main association alone) sat back and done nothing about these problems for so many years?’

Thomas knows as well as I do that if players have the right development when they are young, in the formative years, then there is a bigger chance they will keep on playing. He got Frida Johansson to a high level at a young age, result, she is still playing. I did the same with four players in Berkvara, two are 19 years now, all are still playing — one professionally in France, one in the ex-‘Table Tennis Academy’ in Falkenberg and yet another has played in the junior National Team. Get players to a good level at a young age so that they can achieve some success and they will have the motivation at 15/17 to continue.

The biggest problem I see is that players just don’t have access to the right level of coaching at club level at the age when they need it, mainly due to the lack of experienced coaches. Even in the big clubs the trainers often have priorities other than developing the young players. The critical age group is in the 9 –13 area where solid foundations are essential if players are to progress to the higher levels. When players feel at the age of 15/17 that they are just not progressing any more then they lose interest and drift away. If we don’t have the coaches at club level, then the role of the district assumes a much greater importance in developing both coaches and players.

Looking at the wider picture, the problem of declining standards in table tennis and the inability to take players to the higher levels is not common to Sweden. Where are the younger players in numbers to take over the mantle of Waldner, Persson, Primorac, Gatien and Saive? Why is a forty year old winning the European Women’s Singles? Why does Poland win so many boys events in the junior E.M but do so poorly in the seniors? Ten years ago Europe was strong, now it’s still the older players who carry her along.

In 1999 Linda Nordenberg lost in the semi-finals of the Junior E.M. to the Austrian girl Liu Jia in three sets — not that big a difference in playing levels. Now three years later Liu Jia has been as high as 14 in the world rankings in women, she has continued to progress and with the right training and development her level keeps going up and up! Could it just perhaps be that sound basic training in the player’s formative years is critical and continuing guidance at an older age to keep her progressing in the right direction for her style of play is also vital if she is to reach full potential? Do promising young players in Sweden have access to the right help?

Ulf Lönnqvist’s prophetic words of 1986 — ‘We don’t have very much time left’, were spoken from near the top of the mountain of success. Now Sweden is rapidly gathering speed downhill on the other side. To stop the slide action is required, inertia is no longer an option.

It is a priority one way or another that we take the coaching to the players, especially in those critical younger years. Also it is important that both parents and clubs realize that you don’t develop by just competing all the time — opportunity must be found for training. Many things are changing in our sport and we must change too. That things happen is in most cases a matter of ideas and the ability and energy to translate ideas into reality. This applies to associations even at district and national levels. We cannot afford to be too traditional or parochial in our outlook. Do we really think that we are going to produce the players of the future with methods of the past?