Is our Priority to Produce Players?

Rowden Fullen(2006)

If we compare the advantages we have today in our sport of table tennis to the situation 25 years ago, then we should be producing far better players than we do. Players have access to better equipment and training facilities, to comprehensive methods of handling mental and physical training, to more coaching expertise, to a much more unified approach to European development through the strengths of the ETTU and the ITTF. We should certainly not be producing much worse results than we did 20 years ago - in other sports such as athletics, records are being broken month after month and there is just no comparison with a couple of decades ago.

Yet as far as the development of top young players in Europe is concerned we appear to be on the slippery downhill slope and indeed a large number of the top coaches are concerned as to the lack of strength in depth. Instead many of the famous names are still there, playing well into their thirties (even the forties in the case of one Chinese-born player at the Worlds and still doing well). Many of these older players are still high in the rankings. But where are the young players in any numbers (of course there is the odd one like M. Maze or M. Steff) to take over the mantle of greatness? In the 1971 we had European players like S. Bengtsson winning the Worlds at the tender age of 17, in 1982 we had Waldner in the final of the men’s in Europe at 16 years. Looking at the players we are producing now it seems most unlikely we will have anyone to challenge the Asian players in the foreseeable future. Perhaps now is the time to have a closer look at what has been happening in Europe over the last 10 years and to have a rethink as to just how to reshape our policies and methods.

The salient point is that we appear to be drifting away from the real essentials of producing players. We could even query if our priority is to produce top players in any sort of numbers or if we have some other form of agenda. In a number of European countries it seems that some of the best people are not used in the system or are left sitting on the sidelines and certain ‘favourites’ are handpicked instead. Top ex-players are often ‘fast-tracked’ into coaching without the need to take coaching exams and it appears to be assumed that they will have both the experience and the communication skills to adapt overnight. Unfortunately over the whole of Europe the ‘old boy system’ prevails and it’s not a question of what you know but rather who you know. Also as far as rewards are concerned table tennis is very much a ‘Mickey Mouse’ sport with only ‘breadline’ payments even at National levels. As a result the best coaches aren’t really interested, go into other jobs outside table tennis or to U.S.A or the Middle East where they can earn enough in 5 years to set them up for life.

I know of very experienced coaches apparently not good enough to work with National setups in Europe (who have for example been rejected in favour of the local favourite, a twenty-year old ex-junior National player who is being fast-tracked into coaching) who have then gone straight into coaching overseas on considerable dollar salaries where their record and qualities were immediately recognized. I also know coaches who attract quite large salaries abroad working with National teams but who are not even allowed to supervise the stage one coaching courses in their own countries as they have no qualifications.

A system which insists on using juniors or young senior players who are either injured or not good enough to make it at European or world level does not seem to be drawing on a sound experience basis for developing future talent. Nor does this take account of the fact that the development path of a player is very different to that of a coach. Why for example employ young players on National training camps when in many European countries we have Grade 4 coaches who are apparently not allowed or considered good enough to participate? If these coaches have achieved such high qualifications why are they not used more often? Or is it that the younger player/coaches are more easily controlled!

Equally any system which uses older players/coaches who are out of touch with modern methods and techniques is not liable to get very far. You only have to watch world-wide coverage of major table tennis events to spot some of the amazing ‘gaffes’ made by ex-national coaches or top players who should know better.

In many table tennis setups we have too many players and few coaches, whose priority is often not the players. You can’t run groups of twenty players and develop individual potential to the full for the efforts of the coach are too diluted. In addition many National coaches and also those in major clubs have far too heavy an administrative work load so their time for ‘hands on’ coaching is again limited. This again is one of the necessary restrictions where you have only limited funding. Systems employ top coaches to do everything, so as a result their real talents (those of developing players to their full potential) are very much underutilised.

Some thirty to thirty five years ago when some of the greatest talents in Europe and the world were developing things were rather different. Coaching was less invasive and less organized and players played more matches and trained more match play often with a very competitive attitude, playing for drinks or a meal for example, but playing thousands of matches in training and often in the training hall seven days per week. Training was not always just table tennis - players thought up many fun ways to compete and switch off but like the gladiators of old there was always this intense element of contest.

In these modern times it is very different. Group interests are put before the individual. Players attend 2 - 4 sessions per week which are more organized with more exercises but less real competitive play. We spend far more time on the intricacies of the physical and mental sides than we ever did before. We have many more young ‘designer’ coaches at top level who seem to think that one of their main functions is to keep thinking up new ideas and new ways of doing things perhaps to keep the players’ interest. For the players to keep up with the new ideas can sometimes be a problem. Instead of producing fighters and competitors we tend to produce ‘designer’ players. But in all of this we are producing less good players and achieving poorer results at world level than ever before.

Many National setups even seem to feel the necessity to control their players, running down the players’ own coaches and trainers and restricting access to new ideas apparently on the grounds that only they know what they are doing. Yet in a number of countries over Europe very little is done to develop coaching experience - there are fewer courses, few workshops and seminars to bring existing coaches up to date. Even updating courses churn out the same old material from 30/40 years ago. At National level many coaches seem reluctant to liaise with ‘inferior’ coaches, who are the ones developing the players. It makes one wonder if the general reluctance to hold forums etc. and to meet the coaching public is due to a lack of confidence in the top trainers’ own knowledge and abilities! If they possess the knowledge, why the necessity to keep it such a secret?

It seems too that in many countries any form of criticism is no longer allowed - this seems to be seen as ‘rocking the boat’, generally being negative and therefore counterproductive. This even applies when there are obvious and major deficiencies to address. Yet if one tries to have a quiet word at top level then of course nothing happens. It would appear that it is necessary to shield those at the top from any sort of confrontation. Personally I have always held the opinion that if you can’t stand your corner, prove yourself and defend your methods and ideas, then you shouldn’t really be in the job! The same applies to results. Certainly those in top jobs in industry and even in other sports such as football, have to produce the goods otherwise they are on their way and looking for a new job very quickly.

Players are sent to train in other countries in Europe at some expense to their parents, many even at a very young age when they are still developing technically. Is this because we feel inadequate ourselves and not able to develop our own players or do we genuinely think that coaches in other countries have a real interest in helping our players to reach their full potential? The only valid reason is perhaps to get a little different and better sparring but even much of this is wasted when players are still at a fairly basic level.

It would seem that many coaches have lost sight of two vital facts –

  • Table tennis is basically a simple but very competitive game and we certainly don’t need to make it more involved than it already is.
  • If players do not develop as individuals with their own playing style then they will never achieve their full potential.

If we want to get back to producing good players in numbers in Europe then we have to start making some changes. Just how many countries are in any sort of touch with their table tennis public? In most European countries for instance coaching policy is controlled by just one or two individuals - it should be obvious that no one or two individuals are experts over all areas of coaching, so to be effective they should have access to a panel of specialists. We have had some ten to fifteen years of operating pretty much in the same old way and nothing much has happened. Both the numbers and quality of cadet and junior players have gone down - the situation in the boys’ game is bad, in the case of the girls’ it’s a total disaster. So just what do we need to do?

Let’s take a look at the European Junior Championships, July 2005. Romania topped the medal table, taking 3 gold and 2 silver, with their girls (they have in fact 4 girls in the top 20 in junior rankings), but didn’t take any medals in the boys events. Russia took 3 gold and a silver, gold in cadet girls’ team, cadet mixed and cadet girls’ singles, silver in junior girls’ doubles (they have 5 girls in the European top 20 cadet rankings). Germany had 5 of the 8 quarter finalists in junior boys and both finalists, (the same 5 are in the top 20 in Europe including the top three) but also won the cadet girls doubles and took silver in the final of the cadet girls team (Germany have 4 girls ranked in the top 20 in cadets in Europe). England dominated the cadet boys winning 2 gold in team and singles and 2 silver in singles and cadet mixed (they have 3 boys in the top 14 in European cadets including the 1 and 2) but took no medals in the girls.

To summarize it would seem from this that England and Germany are successful with boys and Romania, Russia and Germany (and don’t forget Spain) are producing quality girls. However of all the countries in Europe only Germany can claim to have a good level of success with both. There would appear to be fewer countries participating in the top level successes. A measure of the dominance of countries such as Germany, England and Romania was that for the first time in many years they had both finalists in their best events, (the last time this happened was in 1980 in Poznan) which doesn’t really say too much for the many other countries taking part. In a number of cases it’s going to be a case of ‘back to the drawing board’ and with a vengeance.

But will anything actually happen or will it just be a case of plodding along in the same old way? Unfortunately in Europe as we stated earlier a number of associations are not at all in touch with the feelings of their table tennis public and to be honest don’t really seem to care much. Politics too often seem to take precedence over the needs of the players. There are always plenty of people prepared to ‘dabble’ in the player’s development (and often at the parents’ expense rather than their own) but few prepared to get down to the hard daily toil of shaping that player so that he or she eventually achieves his or her full potential.

It’s very easy to be an ‘exercise setter’, one or two coaches on a national training camp with 30 players for example changing the exercises every 10 - 15 minutes. “We will now all play FH loop against block”. “The next exercise is the Reverse Falkenberg controlling from the FH corner”. Yes good sparring and group interaction is important in a player’s development but it’s only one small part of the whole package.

Coaching in large groups with little individual input will produce clones which is what is tending to happen nowadays in Europe. If you look at the great players of the 1980’s, players such as Waldner, Persson, Appelgren, Gatien, Saive, Grubba, Secretin for example, they all had their own individual way of playing. Their individual strengths and style were allowed to develop and flower. They were not forced into a mould, they were guided or in a number of cases had the strength of mind to select the right style direction for them.

It is difficult if not impossible for a player to evolve completely in a group environment. Certain areas such as the mental side, serve and receive and style development require the ‘one to one’ situation to be really effective. This of course presupposes that you have the coaches available who recognize just where the player is going and how to get there. Coaches involved with style development must also be conversant with the large number of different paths which are available to players, especially for example in the women’s game, where you can have defenders, blockers or attackers and often with a large variety of different materials. If coaches do not have in depth knowledge of the various rubbers and how to play with and against them, then their effectiveness in the development phase or at National level is severely restricted. It is the prime function of the coach at whatever level he or she operates to unlock the full potential of the player.

What we need to do in Europe is to allow the top coaches to coach. Their time should be spent on ‘hands on’ work with the players, not in administration, office work or arranging sponsorship etc. Equally where we have coaches whose specialist fields are in style development, serve and receive, the women’s game, defence or pimple play, then their input must be used on training camps and on a one to one basis. We need more specialist individual emphasis even at National levels - rather than individual high-performance directors we need the team approach, a team of specialists working individually with players in their own areas of expertise. The player must have access to the differing specialists in order to reach their full potential.

Table tennis is a very technical sport and the basic law is adaptation and counter-adaptation. The player must have the capability to read what is happening and to adapt quickly in an ever-changing situation. Each player tries to adapt to the technique, tactics and playing style of the opponent and to avoid being ‘controlled’ by the way the opponent plays. The prime skill of table tennis is to read the game and to adapt in an ever-changing situation.

This is why it is so vital for coaches to ensure that their players, right from the formative years, have the opportunity to train and play against all styles of play and combinations of material. In this way the ‘automatic’ reflexes, the conditioned responses, which the player has to work so hard to build up, cover a much larger series of actions and it is rather easier for him or her to adapt to new situations. In other words the content and method of training assume rather more importance than we may have initially thought, especially in the formative years.

Finally it’s important to develop the ‘complete package’ in the formative period. Many coaches feel that they can leave certain advanced techniques till a later stage when their player is stronger and more mature. It doesn’t work like this. Once the automated reactions are established it’s difficult if not impossible to start changing technical aspects. Many of the top coaches in Europe will agree (and they don’t agree on too many things) that the technical development of the player must be completed by the last year cadet or at the latest by the first year in the juniors.

Perhaps it is felt over most of Europe that image is important and we need to give the impression of a young virile sport. This may be the reason why we need to see young (ex)players developing the stars of the future. Sadly it means that a great amount of experience built up over many decades is then ignored and wasted. As Sheri Pittman of the U.S.A. Association said in her July/August report 2005 — ‘Experience creates the possibility of excellent preparation’. One of my coaching acquaintances (now in his eighties) told me recently - ‘ I was informed by a national official that I was a dinosaur and should give up coaching or at least bring myself up to date with modern methods. Strangely enough I did neither and yet my player still got to number 1 at national level within one year and is now ranked in Europe’.

In Asia knowledge is respected and you see many quite ancient coaches even at the World Championships along with young ex-world champions who have gone into coaching. However behind the scenes in the regional coaching centres you find a great many older coaches whose job it is to prepare the young player during his or her formative years. Their experience is used at the right time in the player’s development. Interestingly enough the latest innovation in China, the reverse pen-hold backhand, did not originate from one of the new player coaches but from a much older coach, well into his forties, working in one of the provincial centres.