Asian Women: can Europe ever compete?

Rowden Fullen(2010)

The history
The reasons
Facts as they stand now
What can we do?
The women’s game
Understanding the women’s game
Style evaluation and which styles are more successful at world level
To produce top women players, the right system is needed into which to feed our young girls

The history

The last European woman to win a World Singles Final was the legendary Angelica Roseanu in 1955, 55 years ago! The last European country to win a women’s team event in the Worlds was Russia in 1969 with Z. Rudnova and S. Grinberg, who also won the women’s doubles. The last European woman in a singles final was Alicia Grofova from Czechoslovakia in 1973. It is now 2010 and since 1973 there have been no European women in any singles finals or in any team finals.

Since Pak Yun Sung (PR Korea and the first left-hander to win a singles final) won her second singles in 1977 only Chinese women have won the singles event, with the sole exception of 1993 (Hyun Jung Hwa, Korea). In fact two players from China, Deng Yaping and Wang Nan have both won the title 3 times.

Why can’t we in Europe produce players to match the Asians? Is it that we don’t have girls with talent, that we don’t work hard enough, that life in the West is too easy and comfortable? Many millions are poured into sport over the whole of Europe and the Swedes for example have shown in the men’s game from the mid 1980’s up to 2000 that it is possible to match the Chinese and to beat them. So why not the women? Why is it that not over just a few years but over decades Europe has allowed the Asian countries to forge ahead in the women’s game until they are just about out of sight?

The reasons

To my way of thinking there are a number of reasons:
• On the women’s side in the Western world, table tennis is largely a second-class sport and there is not enough funding overall, nor is there enough earning capability for those few women in Europe who reach the higher levels. Women’s table tennis has a low profile
• Many countries are quite backward in the coaching of girls and not much thought goes into their development. Over the whole of Europe coaches do not have enough technical knowledge and expertise in the women’s game. They don’t know how women play and far too often their coaching rationale is based on the men’s game. Even when they see that certain aspects may be important, such as the capability to produce spin, they don’t ask the right questions – such as what type of spin, how should this be produced technically and from where
• Women have many more different paths to top level than the men do and use much more material in their play. Coaches must be more fully informed as to the why, the how and the what. This also means that girls need to have much more individual development and their weapons have to be closely matched to their style and tactics. In the final analysis they must play in a way that is in complete harmony with their mind and body. Girls must have a training programme which allows them to ‘get closest to their full potential’
• We have to recognize that there are certain styles of play which can be more successful at world level than others in the women’s game and where possible (and if it suits the individual) these should be developed
• We do not from the start have a plan to develop our young players for the senior game. Instead we waste time trying to win cadet and junior events and developing techniques and tactics which will not help us at all to survive at senior level. Whatever we do then is too late and too little

Facts as they stand now:

Over the last 15 to 20 years just how close have the European women got to matching the Asians in depth? To be brutally honest – nowhere! Tamara Boros and Mihaela Steff came nearest, were both in the Top 10 in the World Rankings in the late 1990’s and Boros remained there till 2006. She actually attained No 2 at one stage, but Europe has never been anywhere near the Asians in large numbers.

Even now with our top ‘young’ players such as Samara and Dodean they are around 22 years of age and not in the top 30 in the world. The highest ranked European women on the October 2010 ITTF list are Toth at No 32 and Pavlovich at 34. Neither of these are exactly youngsters. China on the other hand has 15 year old girls, such as Zhu Yuling, who are beating women in the top 10 in the world!

The top young players in Europe are just not making any inroads against the Asian domination, in fact it’s the older women in Europe who are maintaining their world positions. On the other hand just look at what the Asians are able to achieve in the senior world rankings:
• Kasumi Ishikawa (Japan, 17 years of age) 420 on the world ranking in March 2006, No 18 in October 2010!
• Zhu Yuling (China, 15 years of age) 105 in July 2010, No 26 in October 2010.
• Gu Yuting (China, 15 in January 2010) 194 in June 2010, 93 in July, 68 in August and 38 in October 2010!

What can we do?

Is there actually anything at all we can do to produce players who have a chance to compete with the Asians? First we have to clean up our approach to coaching and producing our players. Let’s look at what the top coaches and high-performance directors in Europe have to say
Dusan Osmanagic: We all see that the situation in European table tennis is not very good. For me one of the most important reasons for such a situation is the problem with coaches - speaking of course generally as there are for sure exceptions to the rule - most of our coaches are not capable to meet the required standards.
Michel Gadal: We in Europe are much behind, we usually start later, we think in age categories and try to make from young players champions in their age category, not to follow from the beginning only the goal to make a top senior player - in that way we lose a lot of time.
Dirk Schimmelpfennig: All together in Yokohama it became obvious that the gap between Europe and Asia, especially of course China has become even greater. For this I see several reasons - one very important reason is that Asian players have a longer and better table tennis education.
Peter Sartz: Regarding women we do not have training programmes and methods only for women yet; that’s why European women mostly can’t play at top international level. Also in Europe many countries have done nothing to improve their women.
Mario Amizic: The Asian countries have adapted to modern table tennis, Europe has gone backwards. The last three years have seen a particularly rapid decline in Europe; at one time I believed that the younger generation would be able to step into the shoes of the older, but this is no longer a possibility. The present situation in Europe is a catastrophe but if we really think about it, it is in fact the reality we should have expected. The methods we had in place some years ago produced a superb generation of players but these are not working any more. We have lost our way, we are not adapting to new trends and our model is no longer up-to-date. We are trying to produce players of the future with the methods of the past.
The older coaches in Europe will tell you we are not educating our coaches and trainers properly or indeed in the right way. Young, talented, intelligent coaches see no future in table tennis, the money is poor and there is no acknowledgement of their work and achievements. As long as coaches see no real future in their job it will be almost impossible to drive table tennis forward. Instead we get a rapid turnover and little motivation.

The women’s game

We must also take steps in the first place to understand the women’s game, that it is completely different from the men’s and that training and development must be approached accordingly.

Too often the men’s and women’s games are not seen as ‘two completely different sports’ and this is the main reason why women’s play is currently at such a low level throughout Europe. In the women’s game it is almost always speed which wins over spin, which is exactly the opposite of what happens with the men. There are also many more material players among the ranks of the women and coaches must be more fully informed as to the why, the how and the what. Until we have top coaches (not ex-players who have been pushed into coaching roles), who understand how women really play, we are never going to produce top women players in Europe.

What we can’t afford to overlook is that top coaches possess enhanced awareness and intuition and that the basis for this is the accumulated knowledge and experience they have built up over countless hours of being involved with players. The really experienced coach sees cues in the preparation, movement build-up and stroke execution as well as in the physical and mental attributes which enable him/her to make informed decisions as to which road the player should take to reach full potential. The less experienced coach or the ex-player does not yet have this ability (and may never have it). Also this is not something you can teach in a classroom over a few weekends, it is an understanding which grows and flowers in the individual over countless hours (sometimes decades) of meaningful participation in a particular activity and it is selective to that activity and not a skill which can be transferred to other areas.

Understanding the women’s game

What do top European coaches such as Eva Jeler (involved in coaching at National level in Germany for many years) have to say about how women should play?

In my opinion it is a mistake to think that it is enough to adapt the men’s style of practice to the women’s game and assume that this will do. The result of such training methods can only be men’s table tennis at a lesser level. As I see it we need to find different solutions to the method of how to win points - normally with girls you cannot rely on power to win the point, so you have to accentuate placement, speed and safety in the rallies. In comparison, boys try to win points with powerful forehand topspins and everything in the rally is subordinated to the attempt of coming into the right position to use this main weapon.

Such a pattern does not work in women’s table tennis, points have to be won with adequate placement, speed, rotation and change of rotation. An ability to play a fast and secure backhand and to have an adequate answer when the opponent is changing from backhand into forehand is essential. This means that when working with girls we must spend most of the time playing different strokes and combinations near the table. Another problem in Europe is the lack of good foot-work techniques. The foot-work needs to complement all the other elements of play instead of being an obstacle to perfecting the different strokes.

I would like to see us develop a fast game on both wings but with a dominant forehand and the ability to use rotation. When we speak about rotation I don’t have the rotation produced by strokes which begin with a very low racket position in mind, but I’m talking about the rotation produced with fast strokes near the table. When you look back over the last decade you see that the only European women who were able to endanger the Asian dominance did not play "the Romanian style" of fast counterattack without spin, but played a powerful topspin attack fast and near the table.

Style evaluation and which styles are more successful at world level:

• Back from table topspin player: Most women don’t go back and loop to loop like the men, they return in a variety of different ways, blocking, drive, topspin or defence and often using differing materials. They also play closer to the table and are therefore able to play the angles or vary length and speed more easily, especially as they almost always face less power. If the European women want to play a strong topspin game from further back with the bigger 40mm. ball which of course takes less spin, then it would logically appear that their chances of defeating the Asians become even more remote. They give their oriental counterparts more time to play and they give up the chance to control the over-the-table and short play. When coaching girls even at a very young age we must be very aware of the real dangers of allowing them to habitually drift away from the table
• Defenders: Defenders, even the old style ones were always able to get into the top 15 in the world even into the top 10 (Kim Kjung Ah is currently at No 4). However what all defensive players have now come to understand with the big ball and games to eleven-up is the necessity for attack. Often the older-style players will attack with drive play but nearly all the younger defenders have the capability to topspin the ball and to change the form of the rally quite dramatically
• Blockers and counter-hitters: This has always been a style which has been effective at the highest levels in world play, especially as many women play with different varieties of pimples. The Asian players generally have an active game and will open at the earliest opportunity. The hard attack ball is important in their table tennis philosophy. Over the years speed has been the dominant factor in their play and even now if they have to choose between speed and spin it will almost always be the former. They open as early as possible, directly after the serve for example and if they are compelled to play an intermediate stroke, they try to control the play so as to play positively on the next ball. Serve and the third ball hit are fundamental in their armoury and they spend much training time on this. They tend to take the ball at an earlier timing point than the European players. (Ai Fukuhara from Japan is a prime example of this style of play).
• Close-to-table attackers with spin capability: What we are looking at here, where players have the requisite reactions and feeling, is the ability to take the ball early and both spin and drive close to or even over the table. Many of the top Chinese in the last couple of years, Zhang Yining and Guo Yue and some of the young Japanese such as Kasumi Ishikawa have this capability. This is again a style which can reach the highest levels in the women’s game.

What we must also have in our mind is that within the above methods of playing there will be many sub-styles and players who may be generally categorised within a particular style, will of course develop to their own individual strengths. All players are individuals and will impose their own character on a style of play.

To produce top women players, the right system is needed into which to feed our young girls

As Jeler has said too we need a system where girls know where they are going and do not have to face too many conflicting ideas. They should be able to work hard and profitably in an environment where there is no stress and where the developmental pathway is clear and without complication. Above all they must be able to feel that the way they are progressing is in harmony with their physical and mental capabilities. In view of the lack over the whole of Europe of coaches who can help them reach their full potential, girls must also be ready to take more responsibility for their own progress.

In women’s sport it is especially difficult to predict the development of a young player. Mentality and the psyche in general are even more important with regard to girls than to boys. Girls are more sensitive, much more self-critical and can in that way often be self-destroying. Equally working with girls is much more challenging and demanding for the coach and requires rather higher levels of background knowledge and expertise.

European women must from the start come to terms with all the possibilities in the women’s game, with the many differing playing styles, work out which is best for them and develop their own character within the style. There are available to women players many more possibilities for success, many more different paths to the top levels, than there are for men. They only have to be open-minded about this, ready to accept that they need not be limited in their choice. They must also of course train in the right direction for their way of playing. Too often players, coaches and selectors are ‘blinkered’ when they look at women’s styles in Europe. They only really want to see one or two styles of play; it’s almost as if they think that only these styles have a chance to succeed at world level.

Basically we simply start too late to work seriously with girls in Europe. In reality we should start to work with them even earlier than with boys, they mature faster than boys and should be ready to start their journey to the top sooner! It is very important for girls to develop their technical abilities fully before puberty - after that it is quite difficult to change many things. The problem is that the girls start too late to practise properly and are not educated in the right training ethics from the beginning. As a result they then have to backtrack and correct their techniques and concepts of the game first. They are by this stage 16 or 17 and instead of being at the top they are only at the beginning! We are here coming back once again to the "prime reason" - the girls start to have adequate training too late.

I am also of the opinion that most Associations in Europe need the rethink their systems and policies concerning the development of women in their countries. Make it a major priority to find more funding for the women’s game and get the right people involved in the development of girls at a young age. It is obvious that many of the real top coaches and high-performance directors throughout Europe are very much dissatisfied with the way coaching and player education as a whole is progressing and they feel that we are falling further and further behind Asia. However their thoughts and criticisms seem to carry little or no weight with European Associations and those responsible for running them. Nothing happens and most Associations seem to meander along as they have done for years if not for decades. Nothing new or innovative occurs.

We need movement and ideas from the top and we need these now; we are not going to produce players of the future with methods of the past. The one thing we have proved without any doubt over the last 20 to 25 years is that whatever we have been doing with women’s development is just not working or even producing satisfactory results. There is little or no point in continuing in the same vein, we must make changes.

As a matter of interest what has Martin Sorӧs, the Chief Executive of the new Werner Schlager Academy have to say about women’s development in Europe at the 3rd European Coaching Seminar in Vienna, November 2010: ‘In Europe nearly all we could do wrong in conjunction with women’s table tennis, we did wrong.’

Perhaps now is the time for the top-level private centre such as the Werner Schlager Academy in Vienna. With this type of venture we can collect a team of top coaches from all over the world and the Associations in Europe can leave the development of their top players to the real experts!

Let us finish with a quote from the man who put England’s rugby on the world map:
Clive Woodward (England Rugby Supremo):
Over the years we’ve encountered many different versions of inherited thinking, or tradition as some call it, in business, sport and government. The symptoms are always the same: blind faith in the ‘way’, nepotism to protect the institution and a culture that heavily discourages, even punishes, any questioning of authority and where change is an anathema. Often the establishment can’t take in the ideas of the visionaries because such an approach would shake up many of their own top coaches – the ideas are too far ahead of what these coaches practise, know and believe in and introducing substantially different ideas would expose their real lack of knowledge.

Usually it’s the establishment environment which is lacking. It doesn’t challenge the players. It doesn’t give the players the preparation they need, it doesn’t give them every chance. The selection system is inconsistent. The coaches insist on styles of play and training methods which are inadequate and behind the times. Players prepare for games at a level of intensity which indicates they are not doing everything possible, everything that needs to be done to win.

In the sports environment what we need is the basic fundamentals of sport managed with a strong business ethic. To win we have to create the right competitive environment and engage the best specialists in each fundamental area of our sport. The myth of sporting superiority is just that – a myth. The strength of the top sporting nations lies in their competitive culture and their high level of preparation, not in some magic gene. It’s no good having roughly the same tools as the other international team; you must be able to apply them differently and effectively.