Where has all the Info Gone?

Rowden Fullen 2009

What has happened with our great sport over the last few years? I have been involved at all levels for sixty-odd years and coached on three continents for over fifty years and in numerous national set-ups. I have developed national-team players even at an advanced age and continue to do so. At all times I strive to progress, to learn new things and to improve myself and my methods. At all times I have sought out new knowledge. I liaise with many national or ex-national coaches in Europe and Asia – I talk to numerous top players. From the 1940’s I have been an avid reader of the table tennis magazines, in later years of items such as the ‘Coach’ bulletin and when they started various publications from the National Coaching Foundation – ‘Coaching Focus’. ‘Coaching Update’, ‘Super Coach’, ‘Coaching Edge’ etc. We used to have a great deal of ‘sports specific’ information available, but where has it all gone?

Nowadays we have glossy magazines and equally glossy web-sites but the paucity of real information and information relevant to our sport is glaringly obvious. Why for example are coaching courses increasingly going into the non-specific aspects, diet, nutrition, sports injuries, psychology, kinesiology and often at the expense of the specifics of the sport concerned? Just how many National Coaches and other top coaches don’t have access to all the experts they need? Probably very few if any. And are all the ‘experts’ involved in these non-specific aspects as knowledgeable as they claim? If so why do we so often have different information from different experts?

The potential danger of courses is of being overly theoretical and producing coaches strong in the ‘why’ but relatively weak in the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ relating to practical application. Similarly the generalised study of sports coaching often does not transfer well to sports specific settings. Governing body awards do not necessarily produce highly effective, knowledgeable or adaptable practitioners. While coach learning becomes more complex, a mature model of coach education is still lacking.

Coaches too require guidance to become the best. If coaches are to translate theory into practice their communication must be effective. What about the coach educators and assessors, is their development and knowledge up-to-date and who checks them? Do they do their job often enough to be efficient and to progress? Remember the half-life of training is the time it takes for half the total effectiveness of training to dissipate. Are even our National Coaches and High-Performance Directors as knowledgeable as they should be? Are these guys up to the job? Do such high-fliers get better each year they are in the job or do they start to cut corners? And who is to know? Is their performance ever checked?

Do we have too many top ex-players taking up coaching and being involved in national training? Rather than exceptional athletes being regarded as having potential for coaching roles – being effectively fast-tracked through coach education programmes and swiftly elevated to high profile positions – perhaps they should be recognised as requiring extra support in making the transition to thinking like a coach, with more comprehensive input from coach education and the accumulation of coaching experience in minor coaching roles. We certainly need a more sophisticated talent identification process for prospective coaches than athletic achievement alone; it takes a good coach educator to keep the player at the top.

Straightforward athletic success as a competitor may result in a lack of empathic understanding towards the problems experienced by others, which is critical within coaching and some qualities associated with a number of elite or high-performance athletes can be a major drawback in trying to selflessly help others to reach full potential. Principal lecturers in sports coaching at a number of our top universities have recently been querying in some depth whether or not top athletes in fact make the best coaches. In general their findings have not been positive.

Where are all the sports specific workshops and seminars to help broaden the knowledge base of existing coaches and help take them to higher levels? Many coaches, especially those more recently qualified, feel that they are working in a vacuum and are expected largely to make their own way forward (hopefully in the right direction). Even our regional and county coaches seem only able to provide very low-level courses and these more to do with the peripherals, such as club development, child protection etc. There appears to be a real need for sports specific information which is not being catered for by the governing body.

So just what can we do to address the situation? First we have to ask where we can access such information – unfortunately the coaching education programme in many European countries is moving away from sports specific fields into the peripheral aspects of our sport rather than focusing on the more scientific and technical areas. However in most European countries we still have a number of older, very experienced coaches working ouside the National Centres. Why not use their experience? Establish a register of senior coaches and list their preferred subjects for lectures, workshops and seminars. Then of course give them the power to run courses for clubs and interested groups.

Let our National Coaches and High Performance Directors run high-level seminars or forums at major events. Not only does this help with the dissemination of information, keeps players and coaches up to date with current developments in the game and lets us know what the Association is planning and aiming for but it allows for a better relationship between the Association and personal coaches and parents. They feel they are being kept in the loop.

In a number of cases we have foreign coaches and players working in clubs throughout the country who may well be able to make a meaningful contribution. Some of these have occupied positions high in the world ranking and have played in World Championships, others have worked in a number of other countries or National Centres throughout Europe.

Equally the main Association will often have access to specialists from other sports who are prepared to run workshops or seminars which may well be applicable to us. Aspects such as winning, the psychological preparation, diet or sports injuries in related racket sports. The possibilities are endless. However we may think to tackle the development of coaches and coaching one thing is certain. Recent surveys among older world-class players clearly show that in their opinion the main key to the future when looking at the table tennis of today and the current players is an in-depth programme to develop high-level knowledgeable coaches. Without this first stage any further evolution becomes highly problematical.