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.