Ban coaching at tournaments

Rowden Fullen (1990’s)

I have been reading with much interest the different articles in the magazine giving various reasons for and against coaching at tournaments. Perhaps I have the advantage of many coaches and leaders in Sweden in that I have seen many such bans attempted in other countries over the last thirty years, but I am still a little surprised that no coach has gone straight to the heart of the problem. You cannot stop coaching at tournaments. You can bring in all the rules and regulations you like, it makes no difference whatsoever. This is a point I have discussed with top trainers in many countries all over the world (and trainers and coaches disagree on many aspects of our sport), but in this area they are all pretty much in agreement — as long as the player can see or hear the trainer, coaching can take place and there’s not much anyone can do about it! You can drive coaching underground, you can stop the public meeting of coach and player between games, but you can’t stop the coaching. By driving coaching underground you achieve only two things — you give the more experienced player or the player with the more experienced coach a much bigger advantage!

Let me give you an example. Two players are 9 –- 9 in the fifth. One of the coaches blows his nose, takes off his glasses or shouts some perfectly innocent encouragement such as — ‘Come on, fight now’. His player serves two fast serves and wins 11 – 9. An accident? Now the player has not done this before, he was serving short — so did he think of this himself or did the coach make some signal only understood by him and the player?

If you think about it there are in fact only a limited number of instructions which a coach may wish to get over to a player during a match. There are a multitude of innocent gestures that we all make when watching any spectator sport or an equal number of encouraging words that are shouted to players. It is quite a simple matter to sit down with your player and devise a system of communication to cover most eventualities in the game. Nor can you stop players looking at parents or coaches as they play — many do this as a habit or for reassurance, it is a point of contact between the coach/parent and the player. To expand this ‘point of contact’ into a cohesive system is relatively straightforward given that most trainers and coaches are by nature of their profession innovators.

And even if you suspect a parent/coach of illegally advising his player, proving this is quite another matter. Do you ban all parents/trainers who make seemingly innocent gestures or clap twice instead of four times? Or do you just select certain coaches on the grounds that their players are winning and ask them to leave the hall as you suspect they may be coaching? I’ve seen this attempted and I’ve seen top coaches refuse to leave the hall! Their answer has been quite simple — ‘Either prove what you’re suggesting or shut up’. From the administration’s point of view to ‘push’ it can also be a little dangerous, they may well have a lawsuit on their hands the next day!

Nor is it much good to appeal to coaches on the moral issues. The first loyalty of the coach is usually to his club and his players. If coaches feel that the development of their players is being stunted or technical or tactical advancement being crippled by certain (in their opinion stupid and unnecessary) restrictions imposed by the governing body of the sport, then they in most cases feel quite justified in stepping outside the rules of the sport.

If the Swedish Table Tennis Association intends for one reason or another that players be as equal as possible while they compete, then probably the best way (still not 100% effective I might add) to have an enforceable ban is to play all tournaments behind closed doors. No parents or coaches to be allowed anywhere near the playing area!

Ridiculous you may say. Is it? What is more ridiculous than having a system which is not effective or indeed used at some tournaments and not others? What is more confusing and undermining for young players to find they can be coached at the National Junior Championships but not at the National Top 12? The formative stages in a young player’s development are critical — and we are not just talking here about technique and the direction of style, we also need to look carefully at the slow, controlled growth of mental strength, tactical awareness and the gradual flowering of self-confidence. These characteristics are developed and reinforced by dialogue between the player and coach — you restrict dialogue, you restrict progress. A critical factor also is the timing of dialogue — that the player learns and evolves under pressure and in the course of play and not at some undetermined time in the future when he or she has calmed down and it’s all over.

Style Development

Rowden Fullen(1990’s)

As a player gets past the stage of reasonable competence in the basic strokes and is able to play them from all parts of the table and the movement patterns are becoming established — then is the time to look at style development. Many players will in fact have already shown indications before this of how they are going to develop and the experienced coach will have started to point them in the right direction.

Indeed an experienced coach will be able to look at a player of 11 to 13 years who has been playing for 2/3 years and have a good idea of how the player will play as an adult. It is just a matter of looking at the type of strokes, the type of person, strength, movement and reaction speed and assessing where the player is strongest. The famous English coach/player Jack Carrington used to say — ‘You will never make a player really good in areas where they are at best mediocre.’ He was of course emphasizing the point that players must play to their strengths — it is all very well taking some time working at eliminating weaknesses, but in the long run players will win by doing what they do best.

All players are different, many may be similar but no two players are identical. Some have very fast reactions and are able to handle extreme speed close to the table — they don’t need to move back and are most effective in an up-to-the-table situation. Others do not have the reaction speed to do this but are able to control the ball well back from the table and feel comfortable in this position. Some players can loop or hit the ball very hard and win points with power, yet others rely more on deception or spin or control.

It is important that the coach assess the up-and-coming young player and look at where his or her strengths lie, look at reactions, strength, movement, mental attitude and stroke play – how does the player execute the strokes, how does he or she win points. If there are possible problems in a player’s game, perhaps he or she is good close to the table on the backhand, but good away from the table on the forehand, then some compromise must be arrived at. Another area which must be examined is that of equipment — within the context of the player’s style which type and speed of blade and which rubbers and sponge thickness will be the most effective. (If for example you want good effect from a long pimple rubber then it’s of no use having it on a slow blade). You may not always be able to put a player straight on to the type of equipment they will use as a senior, often this will have to be done in two or three stages, but you should as a trainer be aware in which direction you are going!

Equally it’s very important that the young player be monitored constantly till the style is set. Young players are not stable in technique and the coach must be often in attendance, bringing points to the attention of the player till they start to think for themselves. ‘Look at the racket, should it finish there after the forehand loop?’ ‘Look to the movement pattern, are you moving in the right way and are you balanced when you play the strokes?’ ‘Stop, watch the timing, should you be taking the ball so late with your style?’ ‘Come in, you’re too far back, it’s not your best playing area.’

In addition the coach should have a long-term programme for the development of his player. He should know what he is working towards and should plan the steps to achieve this. It is not always necessary that the player be aware of every stage of the plan — coaches know many things that they rarely tell players, there is little point in cluttering up the player’s mind with a great deal of unnecessary and irrelevant information. The player’s job is to play, not to be involved in the technicalities and details. His or her mind should be focused totally on playing.

What players must know is how they win games at any particular stage in their programme of development. Do they win with forehand loop? Do they win with set pieces – serve and third ball? Do they win by others’ mistakes? And most important of all if a player stops them playing their own natural game, can they change and adapt? Have they a second type of game to fall back on? Players must be adaptable and trained to think for themselves when faced with problems.

Above all there must be progress, a steadily expanding programme of development, new aims and objectives. Life is a process of change, when change stops, stagnation sets in and achievement levels off or recedes. So many players reach a plateau, a level and stop! They become satisfied with what they are and are no longer prepared and motivated to put in the effort required to reach or to stay at the top. In sport as in life, the mind must be kept fresh, ready to listen to new ideas and to climb to new heights.

Advising Players at Tournaments

Rowden Fullen (2002)

Just what do coaches say to players during the ‘magic’ minute between games at tournaments, what sort of advice, what aspects are they looking at, what are their main concerns and do they have priorities?

The first thing of course is to assess the mental and emotional state of the player, training is physical but competing is emotional and often the feelings can take over to the detriment of performance. The player’s emotional state can be such that there is absolutely no point in even trying to get over information about tactics, the opponent’s weaknesses or which serves are most advantageous! His or her mind is closed to all incoming information, the only step you can take within the time you have is to try and get the player in something like the right mood to continue the match in a constructive way.

Usually when emotion gets too high the level of play goes down and the player makes even more mistakes. Many players fail to realise three important facts.

  • Tension affects concentration levels, if they are too stressed it’s unlikely that they can focus well on the play.
  • Secondly to achieve a high level in table tennis is a slow process and takes time, players should allow themselves the time to learn and develop, they don’t achieve perfection overnight!
  • Thirdly they do not understand that to win it is often not necessary to play 100%, or even to play at one’s very best. Top players will tell you quite regularly that they played badly, perhaps only at about 60% level and yet actually won the tournament!

Many players allow themselves to be very negative when competing, they tell themselves they can’t play, they have no chance, they are playing badly, even that they are going to lose. The brain is very like a computer, if you feed in negative thoughts, it will do its very best to help you lose! If on the other hand you think positively and believe that if you work and fight you have a good chance to succeed, it will indeed be ‘on your side’ and help you to do just this.

Fear is another emotion which causes incredible problems to the smooth operation of the nerves and muscles. Suddenly the body doesn’t seem to work very well anymore. The legs are made of wood, the breathing is laboured, there is a sick feeling in the pit of the stomach, just how can you hope to perform under such handicaps? Even normal everyday activities suddenly become next to impossible to carry out. If you allow fear to take over and dominate then it’s very difficult to compete at any level.

What you must do is to control the fear, not allow it to control you. As people who have been in life-threatening situations for several days or weeks have found out you can only live with fear for so long, then you absorb it and it starts to lose its power! What you must do is face your fear and conquer it. Imagine the very worst that could happen, see it happening to you, face it, absorb it. To conquer fear you must first realize that there is no escape from what you fear most. You must take it inside yourself, live with it, taste it, understand it, overcome it. Does the world end, does the sun stop shining, does everyone you know walk away and leave you alone, does life itself end? Or is it after all not quite as bad as you thought it would be?

It is vital to impress on all your players that perhaps the single most important consideration about competition is to bring the right approach and attitude to every tournament. Without the optimal mental state, the right level of nervous excitement and a positive, balanced approach to competition, it is very difficult to be successful. When competing you must be in the right mood, feelings and emotions get in the way and even the smallest things can be a source of irritation if you allow them to be. The psychological adjustment of players so as to keep them in the optimal mental state should in fact be an obligatory theoretical course for all players and trainers.

Players should first understand that self-control will give them the opportunity to think — the mind is much clearer and able to consider tactics, which serve to use, whether to use spin more etc. Also the body is more relaxed and able to respond more effectively to different situations. All players should try to work on the things they can control, trying to train hard and in the right way, having a good work-rate and attitude at all times, a strong fighting spirit, being calm and in control and above all being stubborn and never giving up.

One thing that many top players do in fact agree on is that the prime sources of success, are the areas you have control over and are capable of influencing — the internal factors. What we are talking about here is basically attitude — the qualities and the approach you bring to competition. Above all however these are the areas where you can take charge and steer your own course. If you focus completely on working and fighting for every point, then you have very little time and energy for doubt and worry and being negative. If you remain calm and in control and do not allow the emotions, irritation, anger and fear to creep in, then you have the time to think how you should play, to consider different tactics and possibilities.

One area where I often see coaches making a mistake at tournaments is trying to advise players on technique. Starting to get involved thinking about how to play the strokes or how to move is the last thing the player needs under the pressure of competitive play! It is when the body does things on autopilot that it is most effective. When you start to think about the strokes and especially about technique, you introduce problems, the thinking part of the mind interferes with the subconscious execution of the shot or serve and performance is affected. For a start the automatic reaction is much faster, you only slow things down by introducing the conscious, thinking process. The things that you can think about when you play and think about profitably are where you are winning and losing points, which serves to use and not to use, free your conscious, thinking mind to concentrate more on tactical areas of the game and how to gain advantage here.

It is indeed into the tactical areas that much of your advice should be directed during the one minute coaching period between games, provided always that your player is receptive enough. The prime skill after all in table tennis is the ability to read and adapt to ever changing situations. Our sport can be considered somewhat in the light of a chess match with move and counter-move, but played at a rather faster pace! What you as a coach are trying to do is to help your player to match his strengths against the opponent’s weaknesses (though on occasions it can be better to play weakness against weakness). One of the first things to look at is the serve and receive situation, where and how does the opponent stand, where is your player winning or losing points? Are certain serves an asset, some even a liability? Should your player be thinking of returning in a different manner? Is he or she too safe or too aggressive after the serve/receive? Above all just where is your player winning and losing points and what can he or she do to change this?

Do not overlook tactical aspects such as short play, use of angles, varying length, speed or spin or even just playing slower balls. Often slow play pays dividends even against very high level players, because their usual pattern of training is with extreme tempo or power. Always remember the prime skill is to read and to adapt. If you give the opponent something they are not used to then in terms of sports training theory their automatic reactions, the conditioned reflexes, are not firmly established, because they have not trained in such a way as to counter the new stimulus. This is why new techniques, tactics and playing methods are so powerful.

As a coach try always to put yourself into the mind of opponents. What sort of game do they like to face? Do they prefer speed, have they good feeling against spin, are they good in short play, are they better at moving to one wing or to the other? Are they confident in the crossover area, are they strong on diagonal or straight play, what are their strengths and weaknesses in movement and are they predictable in placement? How do they win points, what are their winning weapons and how can your player neutralize these?

Also assess the mental capabilities of opponents. Are they strong and calm in the mind, ready to fight to the last point? Or are there weaknesses under pressure? What serves and receives do they use when the game is really close? Do they change their tactics at times of stress, play safe or more negative or do they perhaps go the other way and play ultra-positive? What advantage can we gain here?

Bear in mind too that as a coach it’s not only advice that you are dispensing to your own player but also support and confidence. Quite often your quiet support can make all the difference in a very close match. Your own attitude and your approach to advising your player are particularly important. You should above all be able to control yourself and not allow your emotions to get in the way, however badly your player may have performed. Another aspect that many coaches overlook is that the player too may have some thoughts that he or she wants to talk over. Coaching at most levels should be a two-way process and the coach should be as ready to listen as to talk. Coaching is after all a development of players’ self-confidence and self-sufficiency so that they can eventually cope on their own without you to hold their hand for the rest of their lives!

What you must cultivate and allow to flower with your player is this self-sufficiency, the ability to cope with any situation he or she will encounter in any table tennis environment. Teach your pupils to be as professional as possible and to adhere to the professional’s creed — ‘Where you lack skill you practise, where you lack knowledge you study. But above all you must believe. You must believe in your strength of will, of purpose, of heart and soul. Whatever you want to achieve, you can, if only you want it enough. Never doubt openly or speak badly of yourself for the champion that is inside you hears your words and is diminished, lessened by them.’

The most important thing is not to win but to win with the right attitude. To beat the opponent is not important, it never was and never will be. All competition is against yourself. To beat yourself is all that matters. To be a real champion you must try and rise above yourself and the world around you. Once you understand this then everything becomes possible.

Thoughts on Match Play to Eleven up

Rowden Fullen (2001)

We shall now play up to eleven points and each player will have only two serves. Just how many of us have taken the time to ponder how we should approach and adapt to the new game? Should we rethink attitudes, concentration levels, tactics, be more negative or positive, more unpredictable and inventive, play differently, have a quite other emphasis or direction in our style of play? Above all should we now think to train in a new manner so as to adjust better to the needs and challenges of the shorter game.

What springs first to mind is that there is no place for unforced errors and against the defenders or long pimple blockers for example you cannot afford to throw easy points away. (There may even be many more radical rubber combinations around as coaches appreciate this is a way to pick up cheap points, with less chance of the opponent having time to understand what is happening).

It is vital now that you can focus and concentrate completely from the very first ball. There is little time or place for the ‘slow starter’, who gives the opponent a big lead and then comes back to win. In fact there is we find now little or no continuity of play, the game instead of flowing is much more ‘stop and start’ all the time, with less rhythm or predictability. It is harder to plan and organize your own service game with only two serves at a time. Equally it’s even more difficult to read and adapt to your opponent’s service when he or she serves in series of two instead of five. You see less serves before the game is over — you may for example lose 3 – 11 and only see six serves, the opponent may not even use his or her full repertoire.

In fact the whole serve and receive scenario is upgraded to a much higher priority, as are the second, third and fourth balls. If you watch elite players in matches now they take more time and care in the serve and receive area of the game, there is a heightened concentration level. The training of serve must now have a rather different emphasis — it is of vital importance that you can serve radically different balls one after the other, that you are confident to change spin, speed, angles, placement and length dramatically and without mistake. Once you know a serve well, don’t train 20 / 30 times on the same serve, train randomly, without a pattern and in series of two or three very different serves. Most important of all train to play a positive third ball, to gain an early advantage even to win the point direct if you can; make this third ball play an integral part of all serve training until it becomes second nature and completely automatic. By starting every exercise whatever it may be with a serve you also turn the serve/receive situation into a conditioned response, it just becomes another natural part of the rally and not something you train on in isolation.

It becomes perhaps even more essential to devote much more training time to receive, to controlling the opponent’s serve so that he or she is not able to open hard and pressure you on the third ball. If you are able to neutralize the serve you then have the opportunity yourself to try and take advantage of the fourth ball. You should look of course to variation in all its forms, spin, speed, length, timing, angles and tactics and to advanced techniques – very early timed push long and short, with and without spin, flicking at both peak and very late timing, stop and sidespin blocks, dummy loops, playing with and against the spin.

With some styles of play, such as defence and control play games to eleven may well require a change in emphasis. It is not just enough to play safely and predictably all the time – some points must be won. Such players should cultivate a readiness to be more aggressive and earlier in the rally (after their own serve for example), and also a willingness to break up the game more and play less predictably. (Not only chop but come in and block or hit from back using pimples or reverse, more twiddling in the rallies, not only control but variation in all its aspects).

Above all attitude is going to be a key factor — it is going to be far too easy to fall into the trap of thinking and playing safe, of protecting a lead instead of going on to win and young players, especially girls, may well be tempted into negative habits. In shorter games to eleven it’s also all too simple to prioritize winning and overlook developing. Younger players should always be looking to the longer term — the most important thing is to be moving in the right direction. The bottom line is that you should be playing your own game all the time and in every situation whether to 11, 15, or 21. Think positively, use your strengths, your winning weapons and never lose sight of how you should be playing.

In fact with eleven up many players may well feel less stress, there is a general levelling of talent and ability. The lesser player has a greater chance of winning — even a little luck can change the game dramatically. But it goes rather further than that. When you perform before a large audience your gestures must be gross, larger than life, because subtlety is invisible to half a million eyes. Equally games to eleven are a crystallization of our game of table tennis, a highlighting of the core elements, a boiling down to the raw essentials — the strong winning weapon, the skilful serve and receive, the aggressive second and third ball, the totally positive approach, the readiness to take quick advantage of the very first opportunity, even the half-chance, the quick–silver change of plan and tactics, the lightning conversion of ideas into action.

One thing is for sure – our leisurely game of table tennis enjoyed in so many different environments, over all social strata and for so many years, has disappeared. We are indeed rudely uprooted into a new age where for many it will take both time and thought to readjust.

Just what makes a Young Player ‘The exceptional prospect?

Rowden Fullen (1990’s)

In the words of Deng Yaping’s father — ‘There are 3 things required of an accomplished table tennis player, strong fortés, all-round skills and no obvious chinks in his or her armour. But how are these to be applied to a child? Of all the three requirements, it seems obvious that the first one is primary while the other two are only secondary. If a child is able to develop very strong fortés at an early age, he or she can easily cultivate all-round skills and overcome his or her weak points at a later stage. But if you start out trying to be good all around so that you become something like a jack of all trades, you can hardly expect to develop any strong fortés later on.’

Deng Dasong put his ideas into practice when coaching his daughter in the early years. She started at the age of five and learned in the first year to play with the ‘shakehands’ grip. Because she was so small her father had her change to a tennis grip to increase her reach and bat-swing. Every day Yaping played one or two exercises, forehand attack against block or forehand to forehand duels with her father. For a period of two years or more Deng Yaping confined her training to only forehand attacking strokes and never practised backhand play. In later years all her opponents were afraid of her fearsome forehand. She developed one strong forté as a young player which stood her in good stead throughout the rest of her career. When a little later she started to work much on serve and third ball too, then this forté came very much into its own.

The early work done on her forehand also made it quite an easy task for her coach Zhang Xielin when it came to the time to decide what to do with her backhand wing. It was a simple choice to give her a long pimple rubber which was both slower and a little tricky, but which above all gave her time to use her strong forehand side and bring her forté into play. This is an ideal example of marrying equipment and playing style in a profitable way. In Dortmund in 1989, when she was only 16 and in her debut in the World Championships, Deng Yaping took her first gold medal in the women’s doubles.

Deng’s success provides much food for thought concerning the methods to be used for training young players. Perhaps the conventional route of all-round technical development is out-dated, certainly a new trail has been blazed by Deng Dasong who started his player out by specializing in a particular department before building an all-round game at a more advanced stage.

Of course Deng Dasong had the right idea — a player will only ever reach full potential by cultivating his or her strengths and developing what he/she does best, not by working on his/her weak areas, until these are passable or adequate! That is why with young players it is important to isolate their strengths in the early years and to put in a fair amount of training time to make these as formidable as possible. Strengths should above all be used and used to win games. The player even at a relatively young age should know how to get his or her strengths in during the match. This is why too it is very important to work on serve and receive with young players. Unless they develop an understanding of these areas of the game they are often restricted with what they can do with the next one, two or three balls and they never get the chance to play their winning strokes.

Even when a young player has a very good winning weapon it is vital that he or she knows how to use it in the right way. To be predictable at the highest level for example is not a winning tactic. You must have the tactics to be able to impose your game on the opponent and to get your strengths in and use them to full effect. To be able to think tactics while you play also requires you to be calm enough mentally and to have the right ‘arousal’ level and attitude.

In fact this is an aspect which it is important to emphasize in the case of all promising young players and especially with girls — their own approach and attitude to the game. Stress and concentration levels are very closely connected and it is difficult to retain focus if emotions take over. The ability to relax and to be calm enough to extract profit from one’s own mental resources is a priority.

Also central to a player’s development are self-confidence and the capacity to be positive. It is rarely if ever at the higher levels that players win by containing or waiting for the opponents to ‘do their thing’ first. At the top you need to think and play positively, you need to win the points and it is exceptional to get a second chance, if you don’t take advantage of the first when it is offered.

Young players must be encouraged to be positive in their play but also in their mind. They should take the attitude that to let an attacking opportunity go by is in fact failure! At times you may lose games by being over-positive but what both player and coach should be looking at is the overall, long-term development. Playing in ‘the right way’ is vital to the growth of the player. Many players have limitations in technique, they develop strokes in such a way that further progress is restricted. But many more are limited in the mind and develop the wrong attitudes — often winning or playing safe take priority over development and instead in the long run we get stagnation. The player’s game stops progressing and becomes set in a pattern.

Always bear in mind too that the concept of the player having his or her own idiosyncrasies, the idea of individual techniques but within the underlying principles is vital if the player is to cultivate his or her own personal style of play. Six players executing a forehand topspin will do so in six differing ways, with varied pace, varied spin, varied placement, a little element of sidespin etc. None of these is ‘wrong’. What we are looking at here is the concept of individual ‘flair’, but within the underlying principles, the critical features of the stroke.

What the coach should be looking at is how such unique characteristics can be turned to advantage. Does the player have a ‘specialty’, something a little different which causes problems to opponents — or are there aspects of his or her game which can be accentuated to fashion such a specialty.

The prime skill of table tennis is to be able to adapt to 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. Table tennis is largely a sport of conditioned reflex patterns where players train to react automatically. This is why new techniques, tactics and ‘specialties’ or unusual styles of play are difficult to cope with. The ‘automatic pilot’ doesn’t work as well any more and the player’s reactions are unstable, inaccurate, lacking smoothness and coordination. In fact the player who can keep one step ahead of the competitors in the innovation of technique, tactics or playing style, will have a big advantage (especially now we are playing to eleven up) because the opponent will have difficulty in adapting in time.


Rowden Fullen(2008)

  • A short-pimpled hit has a low trajectory and the ball stays low after the bounce. Also the ball comes through more slowly after the bounce. As a result the opponent often plays into the net especially if he/she plays close to the table.
  • A flat hit can have backspin if the opponent has looped the previous ball.
  • A short-pimpled hit has good effect if you ‘force’ the ball.
  • With pimples many players neglect to utilize the ‘softer’ blocking techniques, which throw the opponent’s spin back to them.
  • ‘Soft’ blocking techniques can also be used with normal rubbers especially against players who loop with much topspin.
  • When you want to create more spin play the previous ball more slowly.
  • To open, push long on the previous ball, preferably fast and from an early timing point. This cuts down the time available to the opponent and often means that you get a weaker return ball.
  • When you want to change the pace take the shorter ball at an earlier timing point.
  • With pimples hit at ‘peak’ or 1 - 2 centimetres earlier, but roll or topspin at an earlier or later timing point. With many types of pimples you cannot play power if you adopt a late timing point.
  • Pushing early with pimples creates openings.
  • If you serve very short it’s harder for the opponent to create severe backspin on the return.
  • You can often take the half-long serve at a very early timing point. With the very short serve to create spin/length you must take the ball at ‘peak’.
  • Sidespin creates problems for defence players, especially those using pimples.
  • Slow balls often cause problems for short pimple players.
  • No-spin balls often cause problems for long pimple players.
  • Playing down the middle of the table cuts down the angles for the opponent.
  • Very early- or very late-timed shots are more difficult to ‘read’.
  • Early-timed or pimple bat smashes are often winners.
  • Why don’t combination bat players twiddle more?
  • Why don’t more players explore the aspect of lesser power? A long, low, slow return is not easy to hit hard even in the men’s game. Many players use the opponent’s power and pace very well but are not so effective against a more leisurely ball.
  • Why don’t more players use a slow return against a fast serve?
  • Ball can spin at 100 revs per second. Reality — more than 150 RPS
  • Ball can travel in excess of 100 mph. Reality — More like 70 MPH maximum
  • Players have 6/100th of a second to react. Reality — More like 1 or 2 tenths, due to diminishing speed.

Often quoted on television. Just where do these figures come from? They would certainly not seem to bear any relationship to reality!

Sequential Movement and Adaptability

Rowden Fullen(2007)

Many if not most table tennis players are good at playing the first shot in the sequence, even more so if they read where the ball is going and are able to get there.

It is often later in the rally or against much better players (who play more unpredictably) where they fail to read what is happening and don’t get to the ball in time. However in other cases it is readily apparent that a particular player’s sequential movement is inadequate – by this we mean that the movement to a number of balls in succession breaks down quickly. This may be general (where the player for example stops and straightens up between shots) or may be evident in the case of certain sequences – from BH to FH, or back to BH again, from middle to BH or to more than one ball on the FH. It may also be evident in the length of the stroke or in bad balance, which does not permit adequate recovery to the next ball.

What the coach has to decide is where the problem really lies. Not getting to a ball in time can be for a number of reasons. Is the player not reading where the ball is going? Is the player using inadequate or the wrong footwork patterns? Does the player have poor sequential movement? This latter reason is more common than coaches may think.

Of course the most important aspect of our sport is adaptability – no player is going to reach a high level unless he or she can cope with and play against all styles. This is why from a very early age it is important to train against all types of players, lefthanders, penholders, defenders, pimpled players etc. Coaches have to bear in mind that adaptability doesn’t just happen, in most cases it needs to be cultivated and developed. If the development of adaptive intelligence is left till too late then players will have great difficulty in coping with new styles and methods of play later in their careers. Their career development will be severely restricted.

It is interesting to note that in some countries in Europe, France and Germany for example, there is strong evidence in players as young as 9 – 10 years of age of a highly developed adaptive capability and their coaches are to be commended. On the other hand in countries which one may consider to be highly progressive, such as UK or Sweden, the same capability is severely lacking even among players in their late teens or those at senior level.

It’s all in the Preparation

Rowden August 2012

The GB cycling team has been enormously successful at the London Olympics, 2012. So successful in fact that there have been complaints from other teams claiming that GB cycles are in some way ‘fixed’ to provide superior performance! Or that perhaps our athletes have some super- energy drink which is not available to other countries!

The truth of the matter is that the cycling and the backup teams are totally professional and pay enormous attention to the smallest detail. This is the secret of their success and is something that many other sports could learn from, including ours.

For example all cycling athletes are treated as individuals and every machine is ‘tailored’ to its rider. Each bike and rider is tested in the wind tunnel, so that the bikes, helmets and clothes etc have the least possible drag coefficient and so that the rider too adopts the perfect stance for him or her to lessen resistance. Nothing is left to chance and just think how much confidence this gives to the athletes: they know that everything possible is being done behind the scenes to ensure that they are successful.

The athlete is in total focus all the time and the first aspect to research right from the initial stages is how to help the athlete achieve the absolute maximum at all times. All the members of the backup teams are totally committed to just this sole objective.

Just think what results we could achieve if we applied the same attention to detail to our sport of table tennis! Each player treated as an individual, exercises corresponding to the exact requirements of the player on each and every training camp, liaison on a regular basis with the player’s own coach, listening to the player and what he/she wants to do and how he/she wants to train!

National Coaches seem to forget that most of the player’s development is in his/her own club and not on a few training camps. Any National Coach who does not control the player’s development and does not have control over all the aspects that go into creating success cannot hope to produce world-class performers. Winning against other countries will therefore be, not because of the system, but in spite of the system.

In this environment if players are required to represent their country, it will be necessary for them to have some incentive to do so. It is also crucial that methods are in place, which allow players to reach full potential as seniors and which allow players to attain a high level of self-sufficiency: this is long-term the final objective of the whole developmental exercise. That players are given full responsibility for their own development is crucial to their long-term evolution.

In the final analysis it’s what we do in the areas of skills coaching and in the understanding and development of techniques, which will determine the world level of our top athletes: these aspects differ of course from one performer to another as each is an individual. If the right standards are not set early we will fall way behind the rest of the world. If we do not ‘tailor’ the training and development to the athlete then we will fail and he/she will under-perform. Only by focusing in on personal strengths and qualities and by allowing these to blossom to the full, will our players ever reach their maximum potential.

At National level many of the coaches just don’t have the input time with the player to play a large part in the evolution of style and in the tactical/technical areas. In many cases too they don’t have the right background; recent ex-players rarely have great experience in the development of a variety of styles. Equally due to lack of funding the back-up teams don’t exist to focus on the small details that matter. This means that in the long run our players will underperform and will fail to attain the levels they should if they try to stay within the system.

Logically this therefore leads to the conclusion that searching for perfection and endeavouring to be the best you can be, is often not unfortunately compatible with playing for your country.

If we are to get anywhere at all we must adhere to the fundamental concept, that at an elite level it is the coach’s duty to refuse to compromise, the player must be completely ‘in focus’, only he or she matters – nothing else!

It was more than a little interesting that during the 2012 Olympics UK Sport was asked for meetings by a number of other competing countries. What these Olympics have done is to establish GB as the market leader. Our system is working and other countries want to know what we are doing. From 4 Olympics ago in Atlanta, where GB left the Games with one gold and was regarded as a joke, there has been an amazing turnaround. There are even signs that Rio in 2016 could be way better! Is this possible you might ask? It is, because the GB system is young, raw and unrefined, the potential is huge but other nations haven’t yet seen the half of it. As Peter Keen, who did most of the strategic thinking at UK Sport has said: ‘These are no shock results, it is where we are. This is what we worked towards and planned for’.

So just why have many of our sports been so successful? At any home Games the sports and the medal hopefuls get more money and there is a direct relationship between money and medals: at least if the money is well spent by an effective organisation with top quality leadership. However the seeds of success were sown much earlier by UK Sport around 2006 when a youngster from Hampshire was selected for stardom by the Bolshoi Academy in Moscow and questions were asked: ‘How was he selected and why? How was he going to be trained?’

The Bolshoi selects tiny numbers in the expectation that almost all will make it. They are brilliant at finding the talent and equally brilliant at developing it. This is in direct contrast to the football academies in GB that take in thousands and throw most of them away! This elitist channel to success is the ‘pathway’ which UK Sport is continually trying to perfect.

This is the path which UK Sport is encouraging other sports to emulate and which all sports in the UK would do well to follow: find the talent, polish it and turn it into gold. Don’t waste time, energy and money on the mass participation and mass failure pathway!

Plastic Ball and Balance of Basic Elements

Rowden November 2016

Speed and power are now the basic elements, spin is dramatically reduced and is no longer a prime component, rather it enhances the other elements. If you watch two men both hitting at a distance off the table, even though they are initiating topspin, the ball does not have the same forward momentum after the bounce as the celluloid ball did, instead it tends to kick up and comes through higher. As rallies are longer, consistency and accuracy are also important in the total equation: power without control is largely wasted and shot selection is vital.

The plastic game requires a more intense level of physical conditioning and this is going to be essential if players wish to reach the higher levels of our sport. However the key ingredient in winning is CHANGE, when, where and how. Control plays its part and an important part, but at the higher levels change will distinguish the winner.
Speed – It must be considered that normal human reaction time is 0.22 of a second and many of the shots we respond to will be close to or even outside usual limits. That is why we need to be able to play on autopilot and why experience is vital as this gives us clues to ‘read’ the play, indicating what is going to happen.
Speed must be considered over 3 areas:
● Preparation, pre-stroke speed and timing.
● Speed of travel and trajectory of the ball.
● Speed after the bounce and the bounce factor.
The force fed into the stroke is only part of the picture and it is necessary to study and evaluate the effectiveness of the other areas. Also assess the value of other aspects, using the opponent’s speed to your advantage, using lack of speed and slower balls and the uses of variation in timing.
Power – This, the input into the stroke determines speed and this can pressure and damage your opponent’s game. Power comes in two forms:
● Brute force, innate and natural.
● Explosiveness, use of timing (more emphasis on consistency in this form).
Consider the total combination: use of the body, centre of gravity shift, the legs, rotation, the shoulder, arm, forearm and wrist, even fingers. In addition power with the plastic ball must be much more FORWARD, and not up. Play through the ball on almost all occasions.
Spin – of itself has little dynamic or force producing momentum. Rather it is reliant on speed and/or power. However it does enrich a variety of strokes and increases consistency.
Spin also has 2 main elements:
● The shifting of weight or centre of gravity.
● The use of the forearm and wrist to help achieve a finer contact (brush strokes).
With the plastic the strokes are changing with less brushing and more hitting, playing through the ball. The whole dynamic is the focus on forward momentum.
Although spin is of less value in the rallies it is still important in some areas:
● The serve, whatever spin but especially combined with sidespin.
● The first opening ball particularly when taken at early timing.
● Sidespin is the most effective with the plastic, but more so when combined with other spins.
Consistency and Accuracy – Aggression without control is of little value. Our sport of table tennis requires attention to a number of aspects:
● It needs constant adjustment as players deal with differing shots and situations.
● It requires alterations in both power and speed to progress and develop.
● It benefits from adjustment to trajectory, the higher arc is slower and safer, the flatter arc is faster and carries more risk.
Top players aim in the majority of their strokes, to clear the net by only millimetres. Top players also, though they may play extremely quickly, operate within a framework of control and select the right ball to win the point.
Change/Variation – This is the KEY component in winning and comes in more and more at the higher levels. Top players are not predictable, they don’t play several balls to the same place, at the same speed with the same spin, they use all the table and variation in all its aspects: change in pace, rhythm, spin, placement, arc and trajectory, angles etc. They try continually to pressure and confuse the opposition.
Focus on the Initiation of Change – There are occasions in the game when it’s more important to focus on change:
● When you start to fall behind or are losing impetus.
● When you’re well ahead and the opponent starts to come back strongly.
● When the match deteriorates into a stalemate.
● When the game is close.
● In the crucial/final points.
Also study the different times in the game, the beginning period, the middle and the endgames to come to a decision when, how and where change is needed.
Study the mental/tactical aspects too, the opponent’s habits, actions, gestures, facial expressions and evaluate his/her level of confidence.
Changes Required with Plastic –
● More basic technical training and combinations.
● More hitting, less brushing.
● More physical training to raise power levels and prevent injury.
● More footwork training.
● Stand and play closer to the table.
● Ball slows and drops faster.
● Travel/trajectory and especially behaviour after the bounce is different.
● More variation in service.
● More aggression and touch in receive.
● Higher focus on 2nd/4th and 3rd/5th balls.
● Longer rallies and as a result:
1. More focus on change to win points.
2. More training on mental aspects.
3. More training on handling/coping with pressure.
The Modern Player and the Plastic
Bear in mind that all players are different and must come to terms in their own way with the plastic, though it may benefit some players more than others.
● It is the combination and mix of the elements and the way the player uses these which will determine his/her style and effectiveness.
● The combination improves the whole stroke and improves shot quality.
● There may be conflicts between aggression/speed/power and control/consistency/accuracy.
● If you play harder and earlier you have time to anticipate, also the opponent is under more pressure and less able to react strongly.
Bear in mind the following:
● Think to be ready to be creative.
● Enhance your judgment, identify early where and how the ball will come to you, at the POINT OF CONTACT on the opponent’s racket (especially the 3rd ball).

Plastic Ball and Connecting Areas of Strength

Rowden March 2016

An important aspect which many players even at a high level overlook or do not fully understand is the principle of connected areas of strength.

Basically there are up to three interconnecting areas in which players will generally operate:
● Close-to-table, where serve and receive is so important with the plastic ball. Most serves are short and the most common receive is the flick over the table, followed by the short drop shot. All players, male and female and regardless of style need to be efficient in this close area and within a distance of two feet or sixty centimetres from the playing surface. Many girls and women, especially the blockers and counter-hitters are most comfortable in this area.
● Medium distance, between say two and five feet or up to a hundred and fifty centimetres from the table. This is a good position from which to use strong counters with power and is an area used by both male and female players. Defensive players will also operate towards the rear of this zone as they will be able to return a faster, flatter ball which gives less time for the opponent to think and plan.
● The deep area from around a metre and a half up to three metres or more from the table. Usually this zone is the prerogative of the male players, as they have the upper body strength and the dynamic movement to both lob and counter-smash from this position and still even win the point. Very few women players have the power to do this against a dropping ball and bear in mind that the plastic ball can drop below table height very quickly when less force is fed into the stroke. In the women’s game too those who choose to retreat too far, face many more good blockers and counter-hitters.

What is crucial for players to fully understand is that all of us have a comfort zone within which we operate most effectively. Not only have we to identify exactly what this is, but we also have to be efficient in the adjoining zones and training time has to be spent here too. In other words there are overlapping areas of strength and each of us needs to evaluate not only where we are most effective but indeed how we are effective. Are the strokes and strategies we use at maximum efficiency, in relation to the areas and distances from which we operate? Or do we need to change things or work with new ideas regarding stroke usage and development?

The plastic ball has brought differing scientific factors into our game and we need to come to terms with these: a little less speed and much less spin, longer rallies, less advantage on the serve and more on the receive and rapidly slowing balls when there is less power input. It is easy to get more balls back when you retreat but much harder to win points from back due to less penetration with spin. When players are forced back the stronger, more athletic performers can more easily gain the upper hand. It is therefore much harder for the women with less upper body strength and less dynamic movement, to play an effective off-the-table style. For many players the physical side is going to require a rather increased emphasis.

So just how do we marry up the new techniques and strategies with the overlapping/connecting areas of strength. There are a number of questions the player has to now ask him/herself:
● Do I fully understand my most effective comfort zone in relation to the table and do I play the most appropriate strokes from here?
● Am I limited with what I can do or have I alternative strokes and strategies from this area?
● Do I spend between 60 – 80% of playing time in this area where I am most effective?
● If I have to move outside my comfort zone do I get back within one or two shots?
● Am I effective in the close-to-table zone which is so crucial in the modern game?
● Am I fit enough to cope with the increased physical demands of today’s game?
● Do I train not only in my comfort zone but in the areas either side so that I can cope with all situations and be as complete a player as I can?

One final aspect of importance to consider and bear in mind is symmetrical play. By this we mean the equal use of the Forehand and Backhand strokes in the fast modern game so as not to leave gaps which the opponent can exploit. The majority of players understand this fully in the close-to-table situation where time is at a premium and where it can be unwise to come round and play the Forehand from the Backhand corner, unless you are certain you can play a winner.

What must be understood now with the plastic ball is that less powerful players and especially girls and women, will not be capable of generating enough penetration with the ball from the deeper areas. This means that if they retreat too far, coming round to play forehands will still leave them at risk from a strong counter and particularly if the opponent adopts earlier timing and a closer position.

Plastic and Change

Rowden November 2017

Top players change things. They are not winners by being predictable and allowing opponents to settle and play their own game. They are winners by being different! Many lower level players unfortunately don’t learn this lesson early enough in their career or think they have a good enough game that they can impose this on anyone and in any situation.

In any match it’s vital to be tactically aware, to understand (and quickly) where you are winning and losing points and above all to pinpoint the critical moment when you need to change. It goes without saying that you need alternatives, if you only have one game and your opponent absolutely loves this, then you will find it almost impossible to win.
A number of players fail in certain key areas:
1) They only use a small number of serves and try to make these as dominant as possible. However with the plastic ball and the easier receiving scenario this often leads to less success. Fewer serves mean that:
● Your alternatives are limited and also your opportunities on the next two balls. Therefore you are less able to cope with tactical changes from the opponent and less able to create significant change yourself.
● Your overall development slows down. This will occur because you are fixed in too narrow a game plan and create a habit of restriction, which limits your flexibility in thinking and in considering other courses of action.
2) They don’t use their best weapons at the right times and are not tactically aware of what is needed. Or if they are, they are not capable of using the required techniques effectively to create change and advantage. They need to be able to:
● Use the opponent’s speed, spin and power more. By using the opponent’s strengths to your own advantage, you change the form of the rally and the plastic ball behaves differently after the bounce and in ‘slower’ situations.
● Change the pace, play hard and soft, long and short, fast and slow. This again brings a different dynamic to the rally and uses the different characteristics of the plastic to maximum effect.
● Place the ball better, straight, to the angles and to the body. Use all the table not just one or two easier and more comfortable channels.
3) They need to be much better in short and over the table play. Touch and the linking play between the serve/receive and the first opening ball which leads into the full attack, need to be much more tightly controlled with the plastic if players are to get an advantage. They must be able to:
● Vary push and touch play, using differing timing, early to late, fast and slow, with spin and without. With the plastic you have to make life as difficult as possible for the opponent to get in on the first attack.
● Open earlier with the BH over the table and with variation, fast topspin/sidespin, drive, slow roll and from differing timing points. Also use all the table when opening, so that you are equally comfortable directing the ball to any part of the opponent’s half.
These are areas which need to be addressed if you wish your level to improve. Bear in mind too that restricted techniques and tactics will soon form habits which will later be very difficult to change.

Practice makes Perfect?

Rowden 2011

Practice makes perfect! This is a phrase we hear quite often, especially in sport and in various learning processes. But is it true? Surely it is more accurate to say ‘Practice makes Predictable’! Practice in fact usually makes us more rigid and inflexible in our thinking. We perform the same action time and time again, until we no longer need to think about it, until it becomes completely ‘automated’. This is exactly what we do when we are learning table tennis; we train until we don’t need to think about what we are doing and react automatically.

But surely this is good? Table tennis is an extremely fast sport and to respond in the ‘right’ way we cannot afford to take time to think about what we are doing; responses must of necessity be instinctive. For a start the automatic reaction is much faster, we only slow things down by introducing the conscious, thinking process. When we start to think about the strokes and especially about technique, we introduce problems, the thinking part of the mind interferes with the subconscious execution of the shot or serve and performance is affected.

The problem of course is that instinctive reactions are inflexible and predictable! What happens when we encounter the situation when we have to adapt? Unfortunately we can’t. We start to use the conscious part of the brain and to try to change instinctive reactions we have ‘automated’ over the years. The result is usually total disaster!

So what is the answer? Quite simply the solution is to change our methods of training so that the automatic reactions we need, cover a much wider range of possibilities. Also we have to work with procedures and systems which enhance the development of adaptive intelligence and render our styles of play more flexible and responsive.

How do we do this? 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, that 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 early years.

Methods of training must change to be much more professional if we in Europe are to make any inroads into matching the Asian and especially the Chinese players. We should particularly target exercises which help our players value and assess the incoming ball and which look at alternatives and variations in responses. We must as a matter of course use more random and irregular exercises. Only in this way will we develop adaptive intelligence and broaden the ‘automatic reflex’ base. At all costs we should avoid patterns of training which reinforce primarily rigid and inflexible evolution.

‘Situational training’ is another aspect we should explore and this describes a specific type of drill. The player’s objective is to find the best possible solution within a given exchange of shots. In the early stage of a rally the ball direction/placement will be pre-arranged. However at a certain point during the rally one of the players has to decide about changing the placement of the next shot. The essence of situational training is that this decision should be carefully weighed with reference to the quality of the incoming ball. Thus, one expects the player to weigh up very quickly what needs to be done, whatever the situation may be, advantageous or disadvantageous or almost even.

In this situation a player, who faces a good shot by his opponent, will choose to play say alternative A. But if there is an incoming ball of poor quality, the player will choose alternative B trying to profit from the weak stroke of his opponent. Both alternatives of course should be specified prior to the drill. Thus situational training is a specific type of drill with its very own intention and this is to improve the athlete’s self-reliance, judgment and adaptive intelligence.

The prime criterion is that players develop an understanding of their own style of play as early as possible in their career. Bear in mind that tactical development is based crucially on technical abilities. If the player doesn’t have the technical weapons to play his/her own game most effectively then the performer never reaches full potential. Throughout Europe there has to be a great deal more attention payed by coaches to the individual development of the player and to maximising his/her own personal strengths.

The judicious and directed development of automatic responses together with the individual focus on personal strengths, will in the long run produce players of real quality.

However we must be aware that part of the problem in the production of young performers is in the way and the length of time it takes for the adolescent human brain to mature. The brain normally only attains its full levels of ‘hard-wiring’ between 24 and 26 years of age, which explains many of the poor decisions taken by teenagers and young 20 years olds – often in their formative period they are just not ready to listen or to learn, they want to do things their way.

To become champions at an early age young people need to be working, sparring and training with older players who have more experience. It helps enormously to be able to look up to role models who have already been there and done it! Having young adolescents of similar ages and experience levels training together often only both undermines and solidifies crucial aspects of the learning situation.

This is highlighted by the fact that the countries in Europe which still have older stars currently involved at world level (countries such as Germany, Sweden and France) continue to develop young players of real quality, players currently in or capable of reaching the top 50 – 60 in the world. Most other Associations in Europe only aim to produce players in the top 100 to 250. The value and impact of the national ‘role models’ and their vast experience cannot be underestimated.

Speed the Essential Component

Rowden May 2016

Speed is the essential component of the game. There are 4 types of speed required at international level:

1. Ball speed (or power). At the higher levels it is vital that the player can weight the shot and play with real penetration, whether with spin or not is irrelevant. Against some players the flat shot will win points, against others a measure of spin will pay dividends. With the new plastic ball, power and ball speed will assume more importance and power is always more important in the men’s game. The most effective spin with the plastic ball is off-the-bounce fast topspin as this allows the lesser spin to be most pronounced over the shortest distance.
2. Speed of foot. Speed around the court is always crucial in table tennis but even more so at the higher levels. Arriving at the ball early enables players both to choose what they will do and to do it better (play stronger strokes), which allows them to dictate the game. Players must also of course have the right systems of footwork for their individual style of play otherwise their speed may be wasted and their reactions ineffective.
3. Rapidity of play. Top players have the ability to play quickly and give opponents very little opportunity to play their own game (time pressure). Keeping up the momentum of the rally until you can finish off the point with placement or power is particularly prevalent in women’s table tennis.
4. Speed of adaptive intelligence (the capability to react to new and different situations). At the highest levels this of course is the prime speed. If you think how a table tennis player reacts to what the opponent does and the time involved, the number of decisions which take place is phenomenal:
● What has the opponent just done, where is the ball going to impact on my side and how (with what speed, power and spin)?
● What alternatives do I have in terms of shot selection?
● Do I have time to reach the ball and to utilize all of the alternatives or will some be better (more effective) due to the time pressure?
● Of the suitable alternatives which will be the best to use?
● Having decided on the best, where and how do I play the ball to gain the biggest advantage both in respect of my shot and the recovery?
To attain international standard, speed of adaptive intelligence is essential and world-class players will be highly effective in at least two other categories of speed. In addition all top athletes will have weapons and/or tactics they can depend on to win the big points.
It is crucial to bear in mind too that speed can be variable and it is beneficial to use it in this way. However fast you are able to play being predictable at the highest levels (and playing at the same speed too often) will usually play into your opponent’s hands. It is also noticeable that the plastic ball can be used very effectively at a slower pace as the speed dies rapidly with a lesser power input and the ball tends to drop down quickly below table level.

Thoughts on Tactics

Rowden Fullen(1990’s)

A weakness of the way we play in the Western world is often the changing between the backhand and forehand sides during match play, owing to players being slightly/considerably stronger on one side because of the grip. Another weak area is often the backhand when we are pressured hard on this wing.

Against players who want to play forehand over the whole table and are particularly positive on the third ball after their own serve, the obvious place to avoid is long to the middle area of the table. This is the ball they are waiting for so that they can loop/kill it past you. You must try and play long and fast (give them as little time as possible to move to and prepare for the next ball) out to the corners or even to the angles, off the side of the table. The other alternative is where possible to return short to the forehand or the middle of the table, (to flick from the middle is often difficult.) On your own serve of course also think to serve short or wide out to the backhand. Always be alert to the opportunity, especially if the opponent has a tendency to run round on the backhand corner, for the long fast serve down the line to his forehand.

During the rallies remember that hitting down the middle of the table or to the opponent’s body will cut down the return angles that he is capable of using. Particularly try not to get involved in forehand to forehand duels, play one to the forehand and the next to the crossover or down the line to the backhand. Another possibility which many players don’t think to use is the slower roll ball — cut out the power and spin and give the opponent a ‘nothing’ ball return. Many players return very well and confidently when they face power and spin and don’t need to think, they just let the reactions take over. When they have a rather slower ball, which drops downwards much more quickly and which doesn’t come at them half so fast, then they often don’t play well at all! Try not to give the opponent the sort of game he likes to play!

Strong backhand oriented players often want to play the backhand up to the middle of the table or sometimes even into the forehand half. Because they often adopt a little more central stance they are weaker against the shorter balls to both wings and against good angled play. If this type of player attacks with the backhand (especially from the middle) try to play the return ball to the crossover or wide to the forehand. A good tactic too is often to play the first ball into the body and the next wide out to the backhand or vice versa and also to use many straight balls on both wings. When you have the service watch particularly where they stand, if a little central you have the option to serve either way and even the fast ball to their strength, the backhand, can often be successful. The slower spinny ball can also be a good tactic against this type of opponent as it’s harder to kill through topspin with the backhand and many such players will be reduced to blocking. With the over-the-table balls try to adopt a very early or very late timing point so that the opponent has difficulty knowing exactly where you will play the ball.

Against backspin defence players, variation over a number of aspects is important. Too often in Sweden players topspin and keep on topspinning, hoping they can hit through the defender if they just continue with the same tactic! Choppers can of course be beaten by this method but this is probably the hardest way to win, by feeding them predictable long, topspin balls! Defence players find the flat hit or even the slow, high loop much harder to cope with than fast topspin attack. But often the short ball is not used anywhere near often enough. What is wrong with hitting hard to one corner, then dropping short to the other wing? Or for example serving short and hitting to the body? Far too often players serve the wrong ball to the defender’s pimples ( usually heavy spin) then have little idea what spin they have back or indeed how to take advantage of it! Pimple bat players usually find no-spin serves much more difficult to deal with and also find it harder to gain a positive advantage from this type of service. Another tactic which very few players think to employ against choppers is the slow roll with little or no spin or the ‘dummy’ loop. This slow game without spin or pace often causes real problems to defenders.

Against the long pimple attackers you face rather different problems more associated with lack of speed. Often you get a very low return but one which slows very rapidly. What you should always remember against long pimples is that your opponent can only use what you give to him or her and the capability to initiate is limited. Playing against such players is more often a question of tactics and not of the problems posed by the rubber. If you play the wrong tactics, yes, you will make life extremely difficult for yourself!

Invariably in Sweden players try to use power and spin and usually continuous power and spin against such rubbers. With long pimples you get back what you put in. If you feed in very much power and spin you get back very much effect and encounter problems with unusual spins and bounces on your own side. On the other hand if you give the long pimple player nothing, then they have nothing to use and nothing to send back to you. Why not play a slow roll game with little pace or spin and wait for the ball to hit hard, or change the pace more often, hit one, push one for example? In this way you avoid the build-up of spin and effect which is what causes the problems. More often than not it is lack of spin or speed that makes life more difficult for the long pimple player.

Doubles play is also an area where players tend not to think about tactics at all but because options are limited tactics are in fact even more important if you are to have a good chance of winning. First and foremost in doubles you don’t play to your strength (to get the sort of ball back that you like), you play to your partner’s strength (so that he gets back a ball that suits his style of play and from which he can gain an advantage). Never forget this distinction when you are involved in doubles play. Service is of course especially vital as you are restricted to one area, the forehand side. But remember this is still a large area and you should use it to the full! If your partner is a left-hander for example serve wide to the forehand angle, if a right-hander serve down the centre line. Also look where the opponent is standing and which wing they will use to take the serve, sometimes you can gain an advantage by serving fast to the middle or to the corner. Serves are usually short in doubles but variation is important especially in spin, sidespin can give rise to mistakes when trying to flick for instance. Tactics can vary depending on the opponents, sometimes hard down the middle (restricting the angle of return) then out to the wings, or hard out to the forehand, then to the middle or the backhand. Quite often in doubles it pays dividends to use more straight play down the sidelines.

In the early 1960’s the Chinese first introduced and developed the tactics of the ‘attack after the serve’, with which they gained a distinct advantage for almost the next twenty years. Now the 2nd, 3rd and 4th ball are of vital importance in the modern game. We should not only be thinking about winning directly from or almost directly after the service, but for example by controlling the 2nd or 3rd ball in such a way that we can smash the next ball. We have in other words still succeeded with an attack after serve or an attack after receive by using a transitional ball to gain a definite advantage. To do this it is vital that you know what spin is on the serve, to be able to play with and against it or return the spin to the server. It is equally vital to know what spin remains on the 3rd, 4th or 5th ball and why. In other words is your opponent by the way he plays or because of the equipment he or she is using, adding to the spin on the ball, taking away the spin, leaving it as it is or changing it in one way or another?

It is particularly important for instance to consider serve tactics in the light of the style of opponent you are facing. Where is he or she strong and what type of game does he or she like to play? If you want to stop an opponent hitting the second ball hard then obviously you can serve short or half long (with the second bounce on the white line). Equally you could serve very fast and long or short float serves as many players find it harder to initiate spin from a no-spin serve. Should the opponent be good at flicking then your short serve must be both low and with enough backspin so that he or she cannot open hard (it is also a good tactic to serve more to the middle, it’s more difficult to flick well from this area). If however they want to topspin, often short or half long serves with a mixture of much backspin, a little backspin or float are effective — it’s harder to keep the ball short if they push and it’s not easy to judge the amount of spin if they loop. With those players who like to push return, sidespin with varied chop is often very effective as they find this type of service difficult to keep short.

With all the different serves under your command bear in mind that at top level the more time the opponent has to study you service action, the easier it is for him or her to read the spin. If the action is very short and fast they have less time to see what is happening, if there is a very short distance between the bat contacting the ball and the ball contacting the table even the very best players can have problems reading the spin!

Pay also particular care to your receive position. You should be in a position to take any serve with a minimum number of movements. A large number of players have too many movements, some even jump in to take the serve and then get caught out by the long, fast serve to the corners. Always keep your bat up and pointing towards the line of play so that you are in a position to drive/hit if the chance arises – many players have the racket too low and because they start from this position, often put the ball out when they have the opportunity to hit hard. The one tactical receive that very few players think to use against the long serve and one which is of particular advantage in the women’s game is the slower return. The slow roll receive, long, low and bouncing on the end line can be very effective. It is difficult to hit this ball hard and many servers are reduced to playing a passive, control third ball. Equally the stop-block short or half-long can put the server under pressure.

With many players the backhand is the weaker side and it is a good tactic to apply pressure to this wing. If working to this area try to mix strong spin, flat hit or slower balls so that you reduce the opponent to a passive game with your variation in spin and speed. Do not forget also to play the angles, often a slower, wider ball will win the point direct. Tactics in placement are also especially important, many players have problems in the body and crossover areas and it often pays dividends to direct one ball to the backhand and the next to the body or vice versa. When serving always be ready to move round and use the forehand to apply pressure to the corners, angles or body, either with third ball loop or direct kill.

Attack to the opponent’s forehand is a tactic seldom used in matches. Too many exercises and too much play in table tennis are from the backhand side of the table. With most players the forehand is the stronger wing and perhaps opponents fear to initiate attacks to this side of the table. However the forehand stroke is in fact often slower with a longer arm swing. If you play a fast left-hand blocker you may well find he can play 10 backhands in the time you can play only 6 forehands. Also many forehand strokes, for example are not always played with power, especially those played for safety, transitional shots or when reaching. Players expect more play to the backhand and movement is much easier from this wing to the forehand rather than vice versa. For these reasons first attack to the forehand side followed by switch out to the backhand can be a particularly effective tactic and one well worth working at, (it can be even more effective if you train to play the angles wide to the forehand on the first attack). If you train to attack the forehand corner only, from both sides of the table, after a while your ability to cope with the opponent’s forehand attacks will be greatly enhanced.

Techniques form the basis of tactics while tactics help the development of techniques. The more advanced your techniques, the better you can execute tactical requirements and only with all-round efficient techniques can flexible, variable tactical ploys be initiated. Nowadays three technical requirements have to be fulfilled by the player who wants to aim for the highest levels — firstly he or she must have strong fortés in order to put pressure on opponents and win points, secondly he or she must be technically proficient all-round so as to be able to handle adversaries of all styles as well as adapting to differing game situations, thirdly he or she must be free of obvious weaknesses in order to avoid being taken advantage of by the opponent.

Your aim in applying tactics is to pit your own strong points against your opponent’s weak points. In order to do so, you must not only give full rein to your own advantages but also study your opponent’s strong points and weaknesses and draw up your plan of action accordingly. To utilize your own strengths to the best advantage, in addition to having a good attitude and fighting hard at all times, you must try your best to bring out the characteristic features of your own game. As game situations keep changing all the time, it’s not always possible for you to pit your own strengths against your opponent’s weaknesses. Often you can only pit your strong points against your opponent’s strong points or even in some cases, the situation is such that each side tries to prevent the other from having the opportunity to use his strong points, so that both parties have to resort to their minor skills. In such a situation one must play flexibly and vary one’s tactics according to the changing circumstances so as to gain the initiative as rapidly as possible.

Thoughts on Training

Rowden Fullen (1990’s)

Directed training always produces better results — this is why the top Asians all have their own coaches. Players who do not have access to the right help, especially in the formative years, unfortunately often develop with in-built faults and their future development is then in most cases limited and they don’t have the opportunity to reach full potential. Bad or ineffective coaching also limits potential as the player is often influenced to develop in the wrong direction. The first 2 – 3 years of training, the formative years are vital, this is when the base is laid and major changes in technique are difficult if not impossible to initiate at a later date.

Why is it next to impossible to change things at a later date? Table tennis is a fast reaction sport similar to the martial arts or boxing — you train by repetition day in and day out until a reaction becomes automatic, until you don’t need to think about it any more. It is when the body does things on autopilot that it is most effective. When you start to think about the strokes and especially about technique, you introduce problems, the thinking part of the mind interferes with the subconscious execution of the shot or serve and performance is affected. For a start the automatic reaction is much faster, you only slow things down by introducing the conscious, thinking process. This is why with players who have trained for many years and whose habits are firmly ingrained, you can often only change small aspects. You can only restructure the player’s technique by destroying his/her game and starting again. The things that you can think about when you play and think about profitably are where you are winning and losing points, which serves to use and not to use, free your conscious, thinking mind to concentrate more on the tactical areas of the game and how to gain advantage here.


So how should you train to do things right from the initial stages as a beginner if you wish to be a top player?

  • The first priority is to get the technique right from the start and this includes the grip and movement patterns — like most players your grip will be biased in favour of forehand or backhand strokes and you must have the right movement patterns to suit the type of game you will play as a senior.
  • Secondly you must look at the tactics which can be best used with your technique, because use of the appropriate tactics can bring your technique fully into play.
  • Thirdly you must assess and develop your own personal style of play, examining this from the viewpoint of both your physical and mental characteristics.
  • Fourthly you must ensure that you have the physical and mental strength and qualities to succeed in your aims.
  • Fifthly you must train against as big a variety of styles and rubber combinations as possible at as early an age as possible — the content and method of training can influence just how broad or narrow your automatic reaction range will be as a senior.
  • Finally you must train in the right way for you, with the right exercises for your style of play (too many safety and regular exercises and often you stop thinking) — and the training should keep you moving forward in the right direction. There should at all times be continued progress.


A word about the opposition you play against in training, your sparring partners and the level. Many players seem to think that you can only improve by training with much higher level sparring than yourself. If you always play only against much better performers than yourself, how do you ever learn to impose your game on others and to develop your own tactical ploys? The better player is always in control! You need in fact to practise at three levels.

  • With players better than yourself to learn new things and upgrade your skills.
  • With players of similar standard to work out new tactics and try to control the play.
  • With players of lesser ability where you can control the game and have more opportunities to use your more powerful strokes.

Be aware at all times what is happening as you train. Be aware of your own body, what it is doing and how you are using it. Be aware of your feet, the movement and your balance and recovery. Be aware of the differing contact and timing points and how to use these. Be aware of spin and no-spin shots, the flat and brush strokes which are the essence of table tennis. Be aware of variation in spin, speed and length and of force and lack of force. Be aware above all of how and where you play best, of how you win points and in what circumstances, of your own fortés and strengths.

Perhaps the single most important thought however about training is to bring the right approach and attitude to every session. Without the optimal mental state, the right level of nervous excitement and a positive, balanced approach to training, it is very difficult to progress — instead we keep taking half a step backwards. There is little point in training if you’re just not in the mood, if you bring outside problems from your personal life into the hall – feelings and emotions get in the way and even the smallest things will be a source of irritation. The psychological adjustment of players so as to keep them in the optimal mental state should in fact be an obligatory theoretical course for all players and trainers.