Research into Women’s Table Tennis

Rowden 2011

Q. Is there really a big difference in coaching male/female players?

Until we fully understand that the men’s and women’s games are ‘two completely different sports’ we will never raise the level of women’s play throughout Europe. Women have many more differing styles of play which are effective at world level. The men don’t. 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. The mental and physical capabilities are also radically different. To work with and develop girls/women demands a great deal more from the coach.

Unfortunately too many of those involved in training girls in Europe see the answers to female table tennis as originating in the men’s game and the way men play. This of course ignores the differences in body strength and speed and also ignores the scientific aspects such as less spin and speed due to the banning of glue and the bigger ball. We have visionaries in Europe, such as Eva Jeler in Germany, who understand how women play, but most of the Associations and the coaches involved in training girls/women don’t listen. They have their own agenda and because of the lack of finance in the women’s game, often the professional development of girls is a low priority.

Q. Why is it that coaches in Europe don’t understand about coaching girls/women?

It’s quite simple, most coaches aren’t coaches any more, they are trainers. Too many are pushed into coaching from a playing career which often wasn’t very successful in the first place. They just don’t have the years of background knowledge and experience which is necessary. The single most important ingredient in any expert system is significant, pertinent and ongoing experience. Good decision making is about compressing the information load by decoding the meaning of patterns derived from in many cases decades of experience.

Such experience is never transferable in its entirety to other areas or subjects, though some parts may be.

Some aspects are transferable from playing to coaching, others are not. A player may be a good corner-man and tactician but quite out of his/her depth when it comes to understanding many differing styles of play and how each is developed and refined. This of course is one of the main requirements in coaching girls/women.

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 a variety of 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.

In fact many of the top coach educators in Europe are at the present time somewhat concerned as to the efficacy of fast-tracking top athletes into top coaching posts without adequate in-depth training. They question whether even the real top athletes have acquired the right attitudes and abilities during their performing career to make a direct transition into the coaching field.

Q. You hint that it’s perhaps more difficult to coach girls. Do girls perhaps need a certain type of environment and a different approach from the coach?

Many countries are quite backward in the coaching of girls and not much thought goes into their development. Girls must have a training programme which allows them to ‘get closest to their full potential’.

We need an environment where girls know where they are going and do not have to face too many conflicting ideas. Generally they are not as focused as boys on winning all the time but it is important to them that they know where they are going and how to get there. They should be able to work hard and profitably in surroundings 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.

The mental side and issues of self-confidence in general are rather more important with girls than boys. Girls are more vulnerable and sensitive and much more self-critical. Sometimes they are even quite self-destructive. The coach needs to be rather more understanding, less autocratic and prepared to discuss more with the player. Listen and liaise rather than dictate. Equally working with girls is much more challenging and demanding and requires rather higher levels of background knowledge and expertise from all involved in their development.

Q. Generally are there radically different tactics in the men’s and women’s game?

Of course. Men win points primarily with spin and power. Their main strength is the powerful forehand topspin stroke and usually everything is secondary to reaching the right position to use this. Such a pattern does not apply to women’s table tennis.

The ability to control speed is primary to women’s table tennis. And not only to control the speed but to do this with safety until an opening presents itself. This is why so many women use material; this is an aid to controlling the opponent’s speed and returning a different type of ball, which breaks up the opponent’s rhythm.

There are many more styles of play with women and basically points are won with placement, speed and change of speed, rotation and change of rotation. To control the play securely and safely on the backhand is an essential ability and also to have a suitable response when the opponent switches from your backhand into your forehand. When working with girls most of the focus needs to be on playing different strokes and combinations near the table and not backing away especially when moving from one wing to the other.

A big problem too in Europe with almost all girls is the lack of good foot-work patterns and techniques. The foot-work needs to complement all the other elements of play and should of course be the correct type for the individual player’s style. Too many coaches are unaware that differing styles require and will lead to different movement patterns. As a result far too often the wrong patterns for a particular individual in fact become an obstacle to perfecting strong and stable stroke-play.

Q. Why can’t women just play like the men? Swedish men for example were very successful right through the 1980’s and 1990’s against China.

Basically because women lack the power and dynamic speed of movement and the further they move away from the table, the more noticeable this becomes. The men back off the table and use their speed of foot and upper body strength to feed power and spin into the ball. However even the men complain now, that with the bigger ball and no glue the stresses on the body are much greater. A number of the top men in Europe were injured as soon as glue was banned and they had to adapt their game. For women to play in this way requires strength and speed they don’t have.

(At the time of the glue ban everyone was in agreement, both the coaches and the players, that the game without glue demanded much higher strength and fitness levels and that specific programmes had to be developed to prepare players to cope with these new demands. Players also emphasised the importance of better technique and better footwork, the days of reaching for the ball and letting the bat do the work were over.)

In addition there are many more good blockers and counter-hitters in the women’s game which means that an off-the-table topspin game is tactically much less effective. Close-to-table players just play short/long or out to the angles and the topspin player cannot create either enough pace or spin to win points.

Q. Does this mean that there are certain styles of play in the women’s game which are more effective at world level?

This is definitely the case. There are basically 3 styles which are most effective at top level. However there are many sub-styles within these 3 areas because of the variety of materials women use, from long to short pimples (with differing friction, speeds and sponge thicknesses) to use of material on the FH or BH sides.

1. Good defenders, even the old style ones have always been 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 younger defenders have the capability to topspin the ball and to change the form of the rally quite dramatically
2. Blocking and counter-hitting has always been a style which has been effective at the highest levels in world play, especially as many women play with differing varieties of pimples. The Asian players, who occupy almost all the leading positions in the rankings, generally have a very active game and will open at the earliest opportunity. The hard attack ball is important to 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).
3. The close-to-table attacker with spin capability is also a highly effective style at world level. 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 a style which can reach the highest levels in the women’s game.

The one style that has never been efficient at world level and has even less chance now with the bigger ball and no glue is the back-from-table topspin player. 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 appear logically 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.

We must never overlook the scientific aspects of our sport. The smaller 38mm ball achieved maximum revolutions of 150 per second according to tests done by the Chinese National Team. The 40mm ball we now use has an absolute maximum of 132.8 per second, but in addition because of the larger surface area loses spin much more rapidly through the air. This obviously affects the development of the women’s topspin game. Now speed glue is no longer allowed women will need to increase their power and strength considerably to be effective with this sort of game. With most women this is not really a viable option.

Q. Does this mean really that we should focus on certain styles from a very early age with the girls?

No coach will ever make players really good in areas where they are at best only mediocre. Every player has her strengths and should be coached to reach her full potential according to her individual characteristics. It is certainly never the job of the coach to force a player into a way of playing with which she feels uncomfortable.

If however a player shows capabilities which fit her into one of the categories which are more successful at top level then this is obviously a bonus. Coaches must also be aware that our sport is not static, but is evolving all the time. New styles may well emerge which will make a breakthrough at world level or old ones may be refined to be much more effective. The coach is expected to be an innovator and should be ready to accept this role.

Q. Are there certain areas in the early stages of girls’ development which are vital to their long-term development?

Top coaches understand that certain factors, even in the very early stages of growth, have a direct bearing on style development:
• The grip influences from the start just what you can do with the ball, which strokes are more effective and from what distance
• The ready position is closely connected to the player’s style and influences balance, reach, the movement patterns which can be used and which type of strokes can be effectively played
• Rotation is particularly vital and should be developed prior to the stroke. Good body use not only gives better strokes but limits injury as the player develops. Rotation is often less pronounced in the women’s game, as they stand closer, stay more square, react to speed rather then initiating and the velocity of the arm is the prime source of power
• Movement and the correct movement patterns (for your particular style) are crucial as these allow you to ‘come right to the ball’ and play stronger shots. Even at the beginner stage, players should not play strokes from a static position but should learn to move and hit the ball

It is interesting to note that both the Swedish and Chinese coaching systems are in agreement with the importance of these factors in the early stages of development. But of course they must also be understood when the player moves on to various coaching groups at higher levels.

All coaches must be aware that a forehand ready position leads to certain playing styles as a square ready position leads to very different styles. Also the movement patterns from differing ready positions will often be radically different. A very simple change, such as moving a foot back a few inches can dramatically alter just how efficient the player will be as she is no longer operating from the most effective position for her game. This type of awareness is often less prevalent in Europe nowadays as many top trainers increasingly come from the ranks of the players and do not have an in-depth coaching background. Often too their understanding of a variety of playing styles and what is required to make each effective is limited.

What must be appreciated is that the early training more often than not colours everything that follows. This is why many top coaches say that only the best coaches should be involved with beginners as only they have the experience to understand the relevance and significance of what they see. Often girls are forced early on into male ways of playing. Take the example of the ready position on the BH corner, with the right foot well back (right-handed player). The objective of course is to use the FH more, but unfortunately this leads to other technical developments: using the FH more in serve and receive in the middle of the table, playing too many FH’s from the BH corner and retreating at the same time as moving to the FH corner or wide. This system can work well and be successful in the younger years from 10 to about 14, but then the girl meets better and better players and finds that her carefully constructed game can’t be adapted to senior play. She is just too one-sided and not fast enough to cover the table and starts to understand that the best Asians don’t play like this at all.

One of the big steps forward in table tennis over the last ten years has been in the development of symmetrical play. This is of course why the pen-hold style is less and less popular and why even pen-holders have developed the reverse BH to render their style of play less asymmetrical. Even the very top men like Wang Hao use the reverse pen-hold BH from well into the FH half at times to preserve the balance in their game and to economise on movement. With the top ranked women in the world symmetry in their game has always been of vital importance. To therefore deliberately create an unbalanced style in the case of a young girl would seem from a coaching point of view to be the height of incompetence.

There is a further problem in the early stages of coaching girls and this is in the development of spin. Around 6 or 7 out of every 10 young boys develop spin quite naturally with the right training – the ratio for girls is much less, only around 1 or 2 out of every 10 have a natural spin capability. Why is this? Spin for a start needs upper body strength and dynamic movement which young girls possess rather less than boys. Topspin is of course the one stroke more than any other, which requires you to be in the right place to execute a proper shot or in other words to ‘come right to the ball’. Also girls, although maturing at a younger age than the boys, usually have less good balance in a moving situation and less ‘fine tuning’ than boys in the practical areas and use of motor skills.

Many trainers too do not understand the inter-connectivity involved in many areas of table tennis. Nor do they fully comprehend, especially those who are less experienced, the value of the physical and scientific factors (such as upper body strength, ball speed and spin). European coaches must more fully understand the close relationship between the evolution of techniques and tactics and that the appropriate techniques must be cultivated and refined so that the player is more easily able to execute the tactics
suitable to her end-style. It is interesting to note that even a world champion such as Werner Schlager now admits that probably two thirds of his early training was wasted or irrelevant.

The primary priority, right from the first tentative steps in table tennis, is to identify the player’s end style. To do this we assess the factors we have already isolated which have a direct bearing on the development of style and from there hone the techniques. In this way the player will have the weapons she needs to execute the required tactics. We must of course never forget that each player is a separate individual. If certain individual characteristics or ‘specialties’ can be segregated and refined to bring something different and unusual into her game, then the player can be even more effective.

Q. Are there certain specialist areas which require attention if we are to develop world-class players in Europe?

We are unbelievably weak in the serve/receive area and in short play. There is little or no point in being good in rally play if you never get the chance to use this! Most of our top young players serve too long, are always the underdog in short play and are forced back too easily on the switch. We have to work a great deal more at this aspect of the game right from club level and on a daily basis! We have to be much better at serve/receive and much better at controlling short play, understanding what is happening and being effective in this situation.

Many of the top European and most of the Asian players attack anything even a little long; for example balls bouncing in the last 4 or 5 inches of the table. What is required nowadays is not a two bounce serve (where the second bounce is near to the end line) but a three bounce serve. Touch play must also be much better as play overall is much tighter at top level.

Serve and receive needs to be approached differently for the women. There are many more long serves and more BH serves in the women’s game and the reverse serve is used increasingly at top level. We also have to be much more ready to be inventive and innovative, both in serve and receive and the first few balls. We are never going to make inroads against the world’s top players unless we do things differently; they’ve seen all the old stuff before.

Serve is one of the few areas where we can train alone. Why aren’t more players not training high throw serves, backspin balls coming back into the net etc at home in their own clubs? The girls especially have little variation and less spin and yet the service area is one where there is great potential for improvement.

The importance of the serve cannot be underestimated against the Asians. The European women usually serve longer as they wish to get their topspin game in at the earliest opportunity. However in many cases it is obvious that the Europeans have neither good enough serves nor a good enough first opening ball to obtain a real advantage. If we look at statistics of the rallies between top Asian and European women, the Europeans are struggling to hold their own in drive or counter-play but also they are not really dominant in spin play either. Unless their first opening topspin ball is of exceptionally high quality they almost always lose out when the game accelerates into fast counter-play.

However rarely if ever are the Asians afraid of the European serves and follow up ball. They consider that the Europeans have too few serves, are predictable in the way they use them and therefore usually limited with what they can do with the first attack ball. Often at the highest level against the Asians, European players aren’t allowed the opportunity to get their strengths in and are not able to use their strong spin early enough in the rally. With their serve and third ball and receive and fourth, the Asians deny them the time. Not enough European women are able to impose their game on the Asians and much of this goes back to the serve/receive and the first 4 balls.

Q. Are we anywhere near the Asians and what is needed in Europe to make our girls/women more competitive?

It is a well known fact that our girls in Europe are far behind the Asians and have shown no signs at all over the last 15 to 20 years of narrowing the gap. If anything we are falling further behind.

We start too late with serious training, are less good physically and technically and have few coaches who understand the women’s game. In addition we have the wrong focus, aiming too much at winning cadet and junior events, instead of preparing and developing our young players from the very outset for the senior game. We also train too little, too unprofessionally and with little or no individual focus and at too low an intensity. Finally there is too little money and limited financial support in women’s table tennis. These are the first aspects to be addressed if we are to be competitive with Asia.

As Ogimura said: ‘What matters isn’t extraordinary ability but extraordinary effort.’ Far too often in Europe we play at our sport of table tennis and the training is neither professional nor intense enough. We just don’t work hard enough or long enough or in the right way when it matters, to achieve the results we dream about. So that’s what our hopes become, just dreams – we are not capable of turning the dreams into reality.

If we want to make any inroads into the Asian superiority the first thing we have to do is to listen to the players. There has to be a great deal more individual emphasis. It’s the player who must be in focus and who has to take responsibility for her own development. Too many coaches in Europe, even at National Level, are too controlling and not up-to-date with what is happening in the women’s game at this moment in time. The one single thing we have proved without any shadow of doubt over the last 20 to 25 years is that whatever we have been doing with women’s development, this is just not working or even producing satisfactory results at world level.

Q. Are we perhaps a little behind the times? Do we need to focus more on the modern game with women and what the top women are doing now?

The techniques we use have to be modern and up-to-date. This means good short play, techniques nearer to the table (except defenders and even these closer than before), quicker footwork and spin capability on both BH and FH. We must look at what is important in modern table tennis. Far too often in the Europe of today we are not doing this.

We train too many long rallies and play nice to look at table tennis in Europe. It’s good to look at in training and even in matches, but the question we should be asking is, is this effective, is it a winning tactic? Of course this doesn’t help at all if you can’t take the opponent’s serve. You never then reach the sort of rally you work so hard to perfect, so much of your training is in fact completely wasted. The very first step must be to train more on serve, receive and 2nd and 3rd ball and short play. In our training it must be the primary aim to improve these areas.

Variation in sparring is also vital. As Waldner said in his book: ‘In order to win big titles, you must master play against all styles. Therefore, you must regularly practise and compete against players of different styles. The most important styles to embrace are loopers (maximum topspin), attackers (maximum speed) and choppers (maximum backspin). Another important aspect is play against left-handed players. I would like to remind you that both right and left-handed players spend 85% of their time playing against right-handed players. To be successful against both right and left-handed players requires well-developed technique and very good balance.’

We need in order to produce world-class women, to work to long-term goals and to work with the styles of play and the advanced techniques necessary to enable them to compete at senior level. We also need to keep our research up to date in respect of what the top women are doing and how the women’s game is changing today.

European girls must early on in their career 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 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.

Q. Do you feel that in many cases it is the National Associations in Europe who restrict the players’ development?

While being respectful of the situation and perspective of many Associations in Europe, we must also be mindful of the inadequacies in finance, structure and competence which lead in many cases to limited development in the women’s game.

Too often the Associations are not professional enough and have the wrong people in the coaching and development positions. The women’s teams are often treated as second-class. I know of many cases where players have to choose between playing for the National Team or reaching their full potential and being a top player. In many countries the two are not compatible. I am also aware of cases where players have left National Academies and the National Team because they were not allowed to develop in what they felt was the right way for them, nor were the so-called top coaches prepared to listen.

Too many coaches even at the top have a traditional idea of how women should play and what is effective at world level and because of this then try to force the players into a mould of their (the coaches’) own choosing. As a result the individual talents of the player are often ignored or suppressed and she never reaches full potential.

Another area in Europe where we psychologically inhibit our women is by dwelling on the awesome strengths of the Asian and especially the Chinese players. If most of our coaches feel we have no chance of ever competing in the world arena and that it’s pretty much a waste of time trying, what message do our top girls and women players take from this?

I quote from Clive Woodward, the English Rugby Supremo, who puts it better than I ever could: ‘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.’

Q. Do you think the ITTF and ETTU are doing enough to help with women’s development?

It is obvious that many of the 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. You only have to read the comments of Amizić, Cegnar, Gadal, Sartz and Schimmelpfennig on the websites. However the thoughts and criticisms of the top gurus in Europe 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.
So let’s just consider what the ITTF and the ETTU could do to help correct the situation.

First and foremost education is needed. If the National Coaches in many countries are reluctant to bring their knowledge up to date then it will be necessary to bypass them and go down one or two levels below. This will not be easy. To refer again to Clive Woodward: ‘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.’

We need to aim at the players’ own personal coaches (many are older, senior or even ex-National coaches, most of whom have worked in the Associations at one time or another). It should be the priority to provide educational programmes so that the young players they are developing have their style well and truly set before they reach the stage of representing their country. Then of course their game is rather more difficult to change.

What is needed more than anything is a detailed presentation of how women play (this of course needs to be very specific, not in general terms) and which playing styles have a better chance of being most effective at world level. Seminars and lectures need to be held in a number of countries over the whole of Europe and a team needs to be set up to first research exactly what will be presented and then to execute the ideas. Any European conferences dealing with this subject need also to be thrown open to all personal coaches throughout Europe and not restricted only to a limited number of National Coaches who may sometimes not be really interested.

A number of the smaller Associations in Europe may well need help and guidance, as often they will not have the resources to implement the required measures. Nor may their coaches and leaders fully understand what we are trying to do or indeed the relevance of some aspects.

There is a vast wealth of experience and knowledge outside the National Centres and National Coaches in Europe which we should make an effort to tap into. If we are to make any inroads into improving the levels of our women then no avenue should remain unexplored. Over the whole of Europe the girls' game is declining and will continue to do so. An increasing number of top young girls will continue to leave the game simply because they are not happy with the way they are being developed. Girls need to be content and to be able to work in a stress-free environment to progress. If they know they are going in the wrong direction for them, then sooner or later the dissatisfaction outweighs the advantages of representing their country etc.

It is also an excellent idea to have more common European training initiatives at various levels. In many countries the numbers of top girls are too small and the variety of sparring styles too few. One very important point here however, is which coaches are we going to send? Unfortunately in a number of countries in Europe the tendency is to isolate top young players from their own coaches, presumably on the premise that only the National Team Trainers have the required knowledge for further development.

Yet strangely enough when you talk to top coaches in Europe and discuss the way forward in terms of developing top talent and trying to compete with the Asians, more often than not the coaches stress the vital importance of individual development and that players should come to select high-level training camps in Europe not with their National Trainers but in fact with their own personal coaches. They stress the importance of having the coaches on hand who are actually working on a day to day basis with the players. A considerable number of coaches from differing countries in Europe are in favour of much higher involvement by the players’ own coaches in any common European development programme.

This perhaps underscores the importance of teamwork in any administration. Unless the majority of any association, officials, players, coaches, organisers etc. are all working together and pulling in the same direction, we will indeed struggle to progress and to move forward. Unfortunately many associations are bad in communication and neglect to keep, even in the case of their top youngsters, parents and personal coaches ‘in the loop’. This only gives rise to a considerable amount of ill-feeling and discontent.

One other aspect which requires some deep thought is the logistics of a number of European countries working together to beat the Chinese. We cannot allow any power struggle, which country will be in charge, which coaches will oversee the programme etc., to get in the way of the development and the progress of the players. It is the players who must be in focus!

Q. If you had a free hand and an unlimited budget how would you tackle women’s development in Europe?

The first thing is to realise the realities of the situation. At the moment much in Europe is about image and presentation, in many countries it’s not the players who are in focus, other agendas are in operation behind the scenes. Often this is not completely the fault of the Associations, they have to jump through hoops to get the funding they require. This is one of the reasons why we waste so much time working at winning mini-cadet and cadet events when we should be focusing only towards the aim of making young players effective at senior level. But this takes too much time and the funding bodies are only interested in results.

Look too at the situation with many top coaches in Europe. How can they give much time and energy to coaching and research when many of their duties are administrative and organisational? How many of the real top players even want to take up a coaching career at the end of their playing days? Usually instead we end up with ex-players of a rather lesser playing standard who end their career in a coaching role. This contrasts very much with China where many of the world’s best players go into coaching, but not without extensive re-education in the theory and the various aspects of their new trade.

There are Associations in Europe which continue to progress despite all the current problems: Germany, France and Romania come readily to mind. Unfortunately however there are many more which are on a downward spiral and where there would seem to be little hope of innovative thinking in the immediate future.

The first step for me in upgrading women’s development in Europe would be a twin-pronged attack: directed both at the coaches and the players. Without coaches who know what they are doing, we achieve nothing. But I also believe that this should be a private initiative outside the control and influence of the European Associations. I think too that we already have the perfect location in place with the Werner Schlager Academy in Vienna.

I would suggest that we use the Academy to develop women’s play within Europe and as a training ground for the players’ personal coaches. The centre already has the infrastructure and a number of top coaches in position and if necessary we could bring in other coaching experts in the field of women’s development to support this venture.

I would envisage beginning with 3 groups and each group would consist of a minimum of 12 players: the first group would be mini-cadets or cadets around 13 years or younger, the second girls between 13 and 17 to 18 years and the third senior players. The aim for all would be the same: preparation, development or refining of play for success in the senior game. I would hope the groups could train at least 6 to 7 times a year, sometimes individually and sometimes together. Of course there could well be some over-lapping between the groups as it’s never age which is important but ability and the level of development. Life should never be easy; the way forward is always for the player to test and to keep testing her limits.

At the same time however we would expect the players to come with their own personal coaches, not with the National Coaches from their respective countries. In my view it is essential to have the coaches there who are working on a day to day basis with the players.

What girls in Europe need most of all is ‘direction’, how they are going to play and what is most suitable for them as individuals. Of course it goes without saying that we will never have any chance of matching the Asian women until we start working to our players’ strengths. We start later and train less than the Asians, have not so good technique and many fewer coaches who are adept in women’s table tennis. Only by having a constant dialogue with our players and by steering them into areas where they feel comfortable with the way they play and are able to use their individual characteristics and capabilities to the full, do we have any chance at all.

This is the area in which the Schlager Academy could be an invaluable base for European women’s table tennis: in an advisory capacity to both players and coaches at the same time. What could be better than players coming with their own coaches, in whom they trust and working in a highly professional environment with the best coaches in Europe? And even the best in Europe may find themselves developing and learning some new things too! Of course it would also be important to have other supporting factors such as good and varied sparring of differing styles and courses/seminars on the women’s game run by the ETTU and ITTF. These naturally should be open and not restricted to only a few National Coaches.

I also feel that in a number of cases (due to politics or reasons of favouritism) we would not always get the most suitable players put forward by National Associations. Equally the coaches in some Associations feel that their country has a traditional, national style of play to which their players should conform. As a result those who do not fit in with their ideas are ‘overlooked’ in the selection process. A number of top coaches in Europe say for example that Carl Prean and Ni Xialan would not have played internationally for several European countries as their unusual styles would have been traditionally unacceptable.

We must therefore have some way of bypassing the system so we have access to as many players as possible who could be developed to make a real impact against the Asian players. In the beginning too there could well be resistance from some Associations, but I am sure that after some months, when they saw the level of progress, those who were against such joint ventures would rapidly become converts.