National Associations : the way forward

Rowden Fullen (2007)

If any association is to have world class teams and players, then the foundations of table tennis in that country have to be good and solid. There must be for example a stream of good cadets and juniors coming through all the time. Sweden dominated table tennis in Europe and the world and challenged China in the 1980’s and 90’s but the Association was still relying on the old men to win yet another team championship in 2000. Now Sweden is fading away as a force in our sport precisely because the crop of new younger players hasn’t come through.

The more the general public has an interest in table tennis and the bigger the ‘grass roots’ player base, the larger will be the pool of talent coming through to national level. More players increase the odds of uncovering ‘the exceptional talent’. It is important to nurture the ‘grass roots’, the local leagues and their players and to encourage new ventures at the broad base of the pyramid.

However uncovering and identifying talent is of little value unless the Administration is competent enough to have a far-reaching junior development programme, employing the right people to turn the good juniors into the next crop of senior players. We should also have enough top seniors still in the system to pass on their experience and knowledge to the next generation.

Unfortunately in a number of countries in Europe the tendency is to isolate top young players from their own coaches, presumably on the premise that only the National Team Trainers have the required knowledge for further development. Yet strangely enough when you talk to top coaches in Europe and discuss the way forward in terms of developing top talent and trying to compete with the Asians, more often than not the coaches stress the vital importance of individual development and that players should come to select high level training camps in Europe not with their National Trainers but in fact with their own personal coaches. They stress the importance of having the coaches on hand who are actually working on a day to day basis with the players.

Coaches such as Mikola Ulyanchich and Tatyana Kokunina (Ukraine), Dirk Schimmelpfennig (Germany), Dusan Mihalka (Slovak Republic), Hans Thalin (Sweden), Jarek Kolodjejczyk (Austria), Leszek Kucharsky (Poland) and Joze Urh (Italy) are all in favour of much higher involvement by the players’ own coaches in any European development programme.

This perhaps underscores the importance of teamwork in any administration. Unless the majority of your association, players, coaches, organisers etc. are working together and pulling in the same direction, you will indeed struggle to progress and to move forward. Unfortunately many associations are bad in communication and neglect to keep, even in the case of their top youngsters, parents and personal coaches ‘in the loop’. This only gives rise to a considerable amount of ill-feeling and discontent.

A major problem all over Europe is of course an obvious, structured career path for top young players. Parents will not encourage their offspring to devote themselves full-time to a sport which offers little or no career security. Players themselves usually realise around the age of 18 to 19 years that there are few ways of making a good living when the playing days are over. With no career path in table tennis a young player has to be somewhat brave to try to ‘tread the professional road’, especially as it is often plainly apparent that other more senior players have tried the same route without marked success.

As far as the future is concerned in any sport it’s not enough just to do what has always worked in the past. We will not win medals in the future with methods of the past – table tennis is changing constantly and to progress we must change too, must be alert to new opportunities and new ideas. Every association should be looking to improve on last year’s results, not just to do the same old things rather better than before.

If a country is to be successful in our sport then the Administration must also be progressive and forward-looking. Methods of assessment, selection, ranking and national centres and training must be constantly monitored and up-graded. It is important that more and more countries throughout Europe demand not just some ‘movement’ from national bodies but actual achievement and at all levels across the board!