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.