Coaching Development Course 4

Rowden Fullen (2004)

  1. Elastic energy in stroke-play.
  2. Stroke analysis.
  3. Analyse technique.
  4. Critical features of the forehand topspin.
  5. The 4 elements.
  6. Multi-ball and women.
  7. Ready position, serve and receive tactics are these changing?
  8. Diversity in technique and tactics – men’s and women’s game.
  9. Women – the simple facts.
  10. Win over Asian women.
  11. Long pimples simplified.

1. ELASTIC ENERGY IN STROKE PLAY

Many sporting activities involve a stretch-shorten cycle where the muscles involved in the exercise are first stretched then shortened. This is generally observed in racket sports as a counter-movement during the back-swing or preparation stage of the activity (the stretching phase) that precedes the actual forward or upward movement (the shortening phase). One of the reasons for the use of the stretch-shorten cycle is that it enhances the quality and efficiency of the movement through the utilization of elastic energy.

The mechanical principle underlying the use of elastic energy in stretch-shorten cycle activities is a relatively simple process. During the stretching phase the muscles and tendons are actually stretched and store elastic energy in the same way as an elastic band stores energy when stretched. On movement reversal, during the shortening phase, the stretched muscles and tendons recoil back to their original shape and in so doing a portion of the stored energy is recovered and assists in the movement.

Biomechanical research has shown that, in running for example, the use of elastic energy has been estimated to account for approximately 50% of the total energy requirement. In other similar stretch-shorten cycle activities such as racket sports, (movement and stroke play for example), the use of elastic energy also contributes a significant proportion to the total energy requirement.

Elastic energy is stored in tendons and in muscle itself. The storage of elastic energy within muscle is dependent upon the level of muscular activity present during the stretching phase. The greater the tension in the muscle being stretched, the more elastic energy will be stored. Therefore, to maximize the storage of elastic energy, the stretching phase should be resisted by muscular effort. In a stretching movement of very short duration, such as the foot contact phase in sprinting, the energy can be stored during the entire stretching motion. However, in a movement of longer duration, such as in a forehand topspin, the energy is best stored just prior to the shortening phase. This is achieved by producing a high level of force, (large muscular resistance), towards the end of the stretching phase.

Research indicates also that increasing the speed of the stretching phase from a slow speed to a relatively high speed enhances the storage of elastic energy. This occurs as an increased speed or force of stretch extends the muscles and tendons to a greater extent thus storing even more energy. Therefore the final portion of the back-swing should be performed quickly as the faster the back-swing, the greater the elastic energy recoil will be during the forward swing. In the case of our attacking (or defensive) strokes in table tennis it is important that these stretch-shorten cycle movements be performed with a minimal delay between the stretch and shorten phases.

It has been demonstrated that 93% of stored elastic energy can be recovered. This recovery is largely dependent on the time period between the stretching and shortening movement phases. Elastic energy is reduced if a delay period occurs during the stretch-shorten cycle because during the delay period the stored energy is released as heat. The longer the delay the greater the loss of elastic energy. Research indicates that after a delay period of around one second, 55% of the stored energy is lost — after 2 seconds, 80% and after 4 seconds there is total loss.

Some training practices encourage players to prepare very early for stroke production and this often inadvertently produces a delay period between the back-swing and forward swing of the stroke. As a result stored energy is lost and an inefficient movement strategy results. For maximum efficiency players must practise allowing the back-swing and forward swing to flow naturally from one phase of the movement to the other. This is particularly important when playing defensive players, where there can be some seconds time-lag in returning the ball. Try more to move into a good position, but only to pull back the arm in the stretch phase of the topspin or drive movement at the time the ball bounces on your side of the table or even after. In this way you save a higher ratio of elastic energy and utilize it in the stroke.

The recovery of stored elastic energy tends to occur relatively quickly during the shortening phase of the movement. Tests show that all stored energy is released 0.25 seconds into the shortening phase. Thus in drive and topspin strokes the stored energy is used primarily to assist in the early forward swing stage of the movement.

The implications from this research are that the stretching or counter-movement phase should be performed quickly with large muscular resistance exerted over the final 0.2 seconds and that all stretch-shorten cycle movements should be performed with a minimal delay between the stretch and shorten phases.

Other research indicates that plyometric training (depth jumping, bounding etc.) may also enhance an athlete’s ability to utilize elastic energy and may even alter the elasticity of the tendons and muscles enabling them to store greater quantities of energy. Also in such training, the delay time between the stretch-shorten cycle is minimized ensuring maximal recovery of all stored energy. It would appear that plyometric training, as compared to conventional weight training, involves the implementation of those movement strategies which maximize the contribution of elastic energy to stretch-shorten cycle movements.

However although plyometric exercises may represent a more specific form of overload for many athletes, the performance of high impact stretching movements often results in muscle soreness in the days following training. It may therefore be necessary that the implementation of plyometrics in a training routine allows for recovery days between exercise sessions.

2. STROKE ANALYSIS

In trying to learn a new skill we must endeavour to be as systematic as possible. Try to break down and isolate the different areas of the stroke — in this way it’s much easier to single out which aspects are causing problems.

  1. Preparation — the stance, the position of the feet and the body, the back-swing. Look at the preparation particularly in terms of results and economy. Are we achieving the required effect, but are there extra, unnecessary movements in the build-up? Is there enough movement so that we utilize elastic energy to the full? Modern table tennis is such a fast sport both in terms of reaction time and movements that there is just no time for superfluous components and balance at all times is a priority. The content and method of training of players assume rather more importance than we may have initially thought, especially in the formative years. It is vital that the ‘automatic’ reflexes, the conditioned responses, that the player has to work so hard to build up, cover as large a series of actions as possible. In this way it is easier for the player to establish a valid pattern and to have the capability to adapt to new situations as they arise.
  2. The instant of contact – the use of the body and legs, length and position of the bat arm, the timing and the angle of the racket. Are we achieving maximum effect from the contact and are we combining the movements of the legs, body and arms and in the right way? Are we applying the force in the right way and in the right direction?
  3. Follow-through – the length, trajectory, the use of body, transfer of weight. Do we retain balance at all times, is there enough follow-through to achieve good effect with the stroke or does the manner of follow-through limit stroke efficiency and development or even recovery to the next ball?
  4. Recovery – to the ready position, position of playing arm, balance, coordination. Does the player react to the next angle of play? Is he or she always ready to play the next shot? Are the feet and racket well placed for the next ball? Recovery is what links one stroke to the next and gives control of the table.

3. ANALYSE TECHNIQUE

If you are to be a successful coach then it is vital that you have some system of studying what is happening. Even more important is that you know what you are looking for and are able to identify it when you see it. Unfortunately in this modern computerized world we more often than not have too many fitters and too few engineers. The specialists are disappearing and we replace the whole rather than finding out what part was defective. After a while we lose the understanding of how the whole was constructed. This applies too to our great sport. The professional coaches are disappearing – the guys who know how things work are being lost. More often than not they are replaced by players, who at the close of their career or after injury, take up the occupation of trainer. The expertise is in most cases not the same and they look at coaching from a different standpoint.

The first step even before we start to analyse technique, whether it be a stroke, a movement or a serve, is to know what we are looking for. Do we know the critical features of the skill – the back-swing or recovery phases, the force producing movements, the critical impact instant, the follow-through? The movements performed during the approach and ball contact stages are examples of critical features. They must be performed correctly in order to achieve the best results. Coaches must determine too whether or not the skill was performed to best advantage.

Do we have a picture in our mind of what perfect execution looks like? Because without this we have no model, no standard against which to measure! We must also consider any other relevant factors, especially those which may affect our observation of the ability. Bear in mind too that although critical features are inflexible parts of a movement they are often modified by individual differences. These unique and individual adaptations are what make up style. Do we know the difference?

We must visually and mentally break down the skill before actually attempting to observe it. Many advanced coaches already have in their mind a sound concept of the basic components of a particular skill, built up over years of experience of coaching players, lecturing to coaches or preparing and writing coaching material. However the ability to analyse and provide effective feedback is dependent upon the accuracy and relevance of the coaches’ observations. Coaches cannot possibly examine technique if for example they are unaware of exactly which components determine effective performance and unaware of how best to observe these.

Finally we are in a position to plan how we are going to observe our skill, what aids we are going to use and even from which position we are going to carry out our observation. The critical features are the components of the movement which are essential to the performance of a skill and when we talk about optimal technique we refer to the most efficient performance of a movement pattern within the constraints and requirements of the skill or activity. The identification of the critical features is a far from simple task. It requires a broad knowledge of basic mechanical and motor concepts and an ability to apply this information to different types of movement. The first step in the development of a model is to clearly identify the performance criterion — the exact purpose or goal of the skill and exactly what constitutes successful execution.

The second stage is to simplify analysis by breaking the movement down into parts or phases. Frequently technique may be divided into 4 phases and this break-down process allows the coach to examine the mechanics which affect specific components or parts of the skill.

  • Back-swing or recovery.
  • Force producing movements.
  • The critical impact instant.
  • The follow-through.

It is only after the purpose of the skill has been identified and the skill sequence simplified into parts that the coach is ready to determine the mechanical factors affecting each component or phase of the skill. Technique is largely determined by mechanical factors. This stage of the process is the most difficult as it requires an overview of all the fundamental mechanical principles. This movement analysis stage should be considered as the homework phase of the whole analysis process — take time over it. Systematically determine the mechanical factors for each part of the skill. These mechanics do not change, so once you have them figured out, your work on this step is complete. Many experienced coaches have for instance a mental check-list of exactly what to look for at this stage in the analysis.

Once the mechanical factors have been examined and determined, then the critical features can be identified and compared with our model of perfection.

Observers who try to see everything, often end up perceiving nothing. Movement observation must be systematic in order to be effective. The development of an observation plan answers how, when and where to observe. Coaches who approach observation haphazardly will be unable to selectively attend to and record performance of the critical features. They must be able to methodically search for the relevant features of a performance. Each observation plan is designed to relate to a specific task such as a coaching session, which may focus specifically on actions involved during the force production phase or the follow-through phase of a stroke. What is most important is not how you plan but that you do plan.

There are 4 steps involved in the design of an observation plan.

  1. Identify the observation task and select the relevant critical features.
  2. Determine the appropriate observation strategies.
  3. Determine the number of observations required.
  4. Select the positioning strategies to gather the identified information.

Coaches need first to identify the goal of the observation session. It may be to improve the movements in a particular part of the skill, or it may be to refine the skill as a whole. Critical features previously identified in the movement analysis phase are re-examined and those features relevant to the observation session are selected.

Consider for example the critical features which we may identify in the case of the forehand topspin. If the focus of the particular coaching session is to improve the actions which occur solely with the racket arm, then we only need to select for observation the critical features which are relevant. These are the amount of back-swing, the speed of back-swing, the length and plane of the arm, the speeds and application of the various parts of the arm, the force producing movement, the contact point in terms of time and place, the angle of the racket at contact, the optimum area of contact on the racket and the follow-through of the arm. We need not concern ourselves with the critical features relevant to leg movement or rotation of the body. The selection in this way of a sub-routine of relevant critical features will greatly simplify the observation process.

Observation strategies are formulated after consideration of the following questions.

  • What is the best way to observe the critical features — focusing or scanning?
  • On which parts of the body or the environment should the coach focus or scan?
  • Are there some critical features which need to be observed simultaneously?

The number of observations needed to obtain all the necessary information is dependent on the skill. Each repeated observation should be used to view some particular aspect of the movement, so that by the final observation there is a clear record of exactly what has happened. Throughout coaches must look for consistent characteristics of the player’s performance. The absence/presence of one critical feature in one repetition is fine, but what’s important is if this characteristic is consistent.

If the vantage point is not considered, other observation techniques may be useless. The optimum position to view varies from skill to skill and from feature to feature. The position of both the performer and the observer determines what can and what cannot be seen. Many inexperienced coaches have no recollection of their positions or remain in one spot all the time. Determining how to observe from the right place and at the right time to be sure to collate all the relevant information, requires serious thought and practice.

The purpose of the diagnostic stage is to identify primary errors, as this is a pre-requisite to making corrections and improving performance. A primary error is one which is the main problem and must be corrected before improvement in performance can take place. Secondary errors are important too, as they may provide important information concerning the primary errors.

For example to spend time trying to speed up the racket arm when there is inadequate back-swing, is a waste of time. Too short or too slow a back-swing inhibits the quality and efficiency of movement and inhibits the full utilization of elastic energy — either is a primary error. An accurate identification of the primary errors must occur before making corrections to improve performance.

The starting point to identifying primary errors is to note the differences between the observed and desired performance of a critical feature. Next the coach needs to make informed decisions as to the causes of these differences. These decisions are based on a knowledge and understanding of the basic mechanical principles.

The actions which cause the differences between the observed and the desired performances are the primary errors and are what the coach needs to address. Once the primary error or errors have been identified a prescription for remedial action is decided upon — a method of correction. It may be necessary to design appropriate exercises, at appropriate speeds to improve the technique.

The diagnosis of primary errors.

  • Aspects involving movement, jumping or balance – examine the take-off phase for primary errors, most discrepancies afterwards are secondary errors. Similarly most problems observed at the instant of landing or ‘arriving’ in a position to play a stroke find their roots in the initial take-off.
  • Problems in the direction of movements — examine the direction of force applied for the primary error. If a stroke results in the ball going to the wrong place perhaps the contact was at the wrong timing and as a result the force was incorrectly applied.
  • Problems in developing power – examine the preparation for the particular stroke, insufficient flexion and extension of the leg joints are primary errors. Often the sequence of joint rotations or of flexion and extension are not in the right order. With rotational power be aware of the principles of Angular Momentum and of the value of ‘whole body’ movement (use of free arm etc) both from the view of increased efficiency and preventing injury. The effective use of elastic energy is also important as are the use of the hips and stomach in influencing power.

4. CRITICAL FEATURES OF THE FH TOPSPIN

MOVEMENT OF THE ARM -- SKILL BREAKDOWN

The amount of backswing 1
The speed of the backswing 1
The length and plane of the arm 1
The power and impetus from the shoulder 2
The speed of the forearm fold 2
The angle and use of the wrist 2
The contact point in terms of time and place 3
The angle of the racket at contact 3
The optimum area of contact on the racket 3
The follow through of the arm 4

MOVEMENT OF THE LEGS -- SKILL BREAKDOWN

Flexion of both legs but especially left knee (for a right-hander) 1
Strong extension of the right knee 2

ROTATION OF THE BODY -- SKILL BREAKDOWN

Rotate right side of body backwards (for right-hander) in preparation 1
Start rotation with left elbow (for right-hander) 2
Strong rotation of the body, both hips and shoulders (Use hip area more, centre of gravity) 2
Stomach muscles, tensed at the start of the movement, relax 5 - 10 centimetres before ball contact 2

SYNTHESIS OF THE WHOLE MOVEMENT

Begin and end with balance.
Begin and end with recovery.

PARTS OF THE SKILL Breakdown

Backswing or recovery 1
Force producing movements 2
Critical impact instant 3
Follow through 4

5. THE 4 ELEMENTS

  • Speed
  • Placement
  • Spin
  • Power

To reach the highest levels players must master these four aspects, be able to utilize them in play and have the capability to switch from one to the other. They must have the ability to combine these elements in their game when competing. If players are weak in one or more of these areas, they are unlikely to achieve real success in our sport. Often in the case of older established stars it is when one or more of the 4 elements weaken or when they are no longer able to combine them effectively, that their playing level starts to decline.

Of the four elements, power and spin assume more importance in the men’s game and speed and placement more in the women’s. Men use topspin more than women and it is necessary in order to create strong spin on a fast shot to hit the ball hard. The harder you can hit the ball with a closed racket, the more topspin you will produce. Women don’t hit the ball as hard as men do, so they achieve less spin and have less on-the-table control. It is speed and control of speed which is rather more important with women’s play. The ability to loop several balls in a row is not a prime requirement. Instead timing is vital as women drive much more - the timing window in drive play is extremely narrow, between ‘peak’ and 1 - 2 centimetres before.

Length also assumes much more importance with women’s play, as does placement. In the men’s game power with strong topspin means that the ball accelerates after bouncing and leaves the opponent’s side of the table with a much flatter trajectory. The vast majority of men counter from a deeper position and give themselves time. From this deeper position it is of course much more difficult to vary placement. Men more often than not look to place the first opening ball and once the rally deteriorates into control and counter-control back from the table then power and spin are the main elements. In the women’s game almost all players assume a much closer-to-table position and it is rather easier to vary placement, long and short or to the angles and to vary speed. Because women have a closer position it is inevitable too that a bad length ball is easily smashed. It is crucial that women can spin short or long and not to mid-table.

As a result women really need to open in a different way to men. The ability for example to open hard against the first backspin ball and not spin all the time is a vital asset. Even the way that women loop, if they open with spin, is critical. This should not be hard and fast as in the men’s game for without the extreme spin that the men are capable of creating, the fast loop executed by women is more predictable and easier to counter, particularly when the opponent is much closer to the table.

Women should be looking rather more to open with a slower ball, with finer touch, good spin and good length. More often than not this will create openings to drive or smash the next ball. Indeed rather than regarding topspin as an end in itself as the men do, women should look upon it as a weapon, a means to create openings from which they can win the point.

As we indicated at the start of this article the ability to combine these 4 elements, power and spin and speed and placement, into your game when competing, will have a direct significance on your ultimate level of play. Against the top players a weakness in any one aspect will be exploited instantly and will be a limiting factor in your own development.

6. MULTI-BALL AND WOMEN’S TRAINING.

When working with girls/women in a multi-ball situation it is vital that the exercises are relevant to the women’s game. There is little value in feeding primarily heavy topspin when your player will more often than not face a faster, flatter ball in competition. Even when women do face spin there is usually a higher level of speed than rotation. The difference is quite evident when some of the top women play against the men in competition - they have great difficulty in controlling the topspin element.

Women must be able to cope with speed even if they don’t use it themselves, so a fair amount of multi-ball time should be spent on fast play. It is also wise to structure exercises so that they aid development in other areas, especially movement, as girls are often weak in this aspect. For instance if you work in series of five balls, backhand corner, middle, backhand corner, forehand corner, backhand corner, you develop a number of different areas -

  • You improve and develop the handling of balls to the crossover area (one-step short or trunk movement), movement long to the forehand (one-step long, two step or cross step) and long back to the backhand (again one-step long, two step or cross step).
  • You help to eliminate future problems in the crossover, the body area.
  • By encouraging your player to use the forehand from the middle, you develop better overall control of the table and a better position for the next stroke (in most styles of play).

Whether the player moves with attacking or control footwork and also the type of stroke she plays, will give some indications as to how her style should develop.

Once the player has progressed beyond and mastered the basics some topspin multi-ball can be introduced. At a more advanced level she will have to deal with topspin, and this is a good time to start girls on another important aspect of the women’s game, variation. If they are to reach a high level girls must look at different ways to handle spin -

  • Hitting through topspin at an early timing point, or forcing the ball on the block, the object being to return the ball with more speed than it came and a flatter trajectory.
  • Returning with a later timed topspin or roll, the intention being to pressure the opponent with a long, low, kicking and often slower ball.
  • Using the full range of blocking strokes, sidespin, soft block, chop block, the aim being to return the opponent’s spin or change it, often incorporating also a change of pace and length.

Of course it is also vital that girls learn to be positive and to open up early in their table tennis career — to this end backspin multi-ball should be introduced even in the early stages. One difficulty here is that girls especially at a younger age seem to have more problems than boys do in assessing length. Backspin multi-ball will usually work much better initially if you play to one spot, rather than changing length. It is also best to start with relatively light spin to allow your pupil to feel the ball.

As your player’s competence level grows you can vary spin and length much more, introducing more advanced balls, the short drop-shot or the half-long ball with the second bounce on the end line or just off the table. The player will of course be looking to use different options —

  • Dropping the ball back short (using early timing), flicking or pushing long and fast.
  • Looping slow or fast depending on the incoming length or spin.
  • Driving back hard.
  • Rolling back a ‘nothing’ ball, long and low.
  • Pushing back fast and long, early-timed with or without spin.
  • Pushing late with extreme spin.

This type of varied response multi-ball will help to develop girls’ tactical play to deal with defence players, hit hard, drop short and loop slow, especially if you make it more difficult by using a racket with different rubbers such as long pimple and a tacky surface so that you can play with much spin and completely without spin.

It is also of value to women players that you work with mixed speed/spin multi-ball — two or three backspin balls, one or two flat or topspin. This then becomes very like a game situation where the opponent counters sometimes hard and sometimes with spin.

A logical step forward from the basic multi-ball is to extend the exercise to the next one or two balls played. An obvious example would be for the coach to feed backspin — the girl opens, the coach blocks or counters, the player then drives or spins. This puts the multi-ball into an exact game scenario — the girl opens up, ball driven or blocked back, girl counter-hits. This type of multi-ball has a number of important advantages-

  • It helps the player to understand the differing stance and technique requirements to be used against alternating backspin or drive/block strokes - lower centre of gravity, use legs, drop racket, play up and forward: come in, keep racket up, play through the ball.
  • It helps the player to understand the difference between the drive return, faster but more predictable and not so spinny, and the block, often slower with at times much return spin and an unpredictable bounce.

The next stage is to return your pupil’s opening ball to different table areas - she opens with the backhand, you counter to body or forehand or even back to backhand, she opens with the forehand, you counter to body, backhand or even back to the forehand. This sort of exercise has the value of opening up other areas to assess your player. If she opens with the backhand, where is she weakest/strongest against the fast return, backhand, forehand or body? Equally you must look at the same when she opens with the forehand.

When working with opening at a more advanced level, the trainer should be concentrating more on change of spin and length — push with heavy spin, float, drop short in a variety of sequences. In this way your player will learn to watch the racket and the ball and to recognize spin and lack of spin. She will also come to an understanding of when it is best to roll, spin slow or fast and when to flat hit or drive and to develop an appreciation of the importance of a lower centre of gravity in spin play, especially when she opens against chop.

Equally there should be exercises involving quick changes of length and speed/spin at higher levels — short push to forehand, player drops back short or flicks, long push to backhand with heavy spin, player opens, fast drive to forehand, player counters or loops. As you work more individually with your player you should look to devise your own exercises, based on her needs and her personal style.

Another area where it is of value to use many balls is in serve and receive training and the development of third and fourth ball. For example your player serves short, or half-long backspin, you push fast and long to the corners (early timed), sometimes backspin, sometimes float, she opens. Variations in your return can be short drop back, early timed or late timed heavy spin push short or long. Another example could involve you serving short and the player pushing long — you loop, she kills through the spin on an early timing point (a technique we could work more on in Europe), or soft blocks taking the pace off the ball.

Working one to one in this manner is ideal for teaching and understanding which spin remains on the third and fourth ball, why this is so and how you can take advantage of it. From the start of course you should be aware when your opponent serves which way the ball is spinning, without knowing this it’s hard to be positive! A number of alternatives are open to you, play with the spin or against it, add to it, take away from it, use it (let the ball just kick back from your racket) or play to the axis, the dead spot on the ball and return the spin to the server. The end result and how many strokes the spin remains on the ball can be very different if one or both players use pimples or anti-loop rubbers.

If you work in a scientific manner with multi-ball it can be a very potent weapon in the development of your player. It will indeed have an impact in many diverse areas - footwork, easier recognition of spin and float, development of touch and better assessment of which stroke is appropriate in a particular situation.

7. READY POSITION, SERVE AND RECEIVE. ARE THESE CHANGING?

If we look at the top men, women and juniors in the world do we notice any changes in the ready position and in the serve and receive tactics? Obviously there are individual style factors which affect the issue — some top stars such as Kreanga and Steff use the backhand side to open much more from the middle of the table and especially against the serve or on the third ball. What we are looking for however are more general trends either in the men’s, women’s or the junior game.

It would appear that the ready position in the men’s game is changing. Many of the top junior boys and the younger top men now adopt a squarer stance, so that they have more options in short play (the right leg is not so far back as it used to be). Players such as Boll, Maze and Chuan Chih-Yuan fall into this category. If you look at the world’s best junior boys many have a relatively square stance - Zwickl, Süss and Asian players too such as Yang Xiaofu and Sakamoto. The main exception is with the Asian penhold players who want to play more forehands and receive with the right foot (for a right-hander) well back.

Even in the case of many players who do stand with the right foot back, often they come in with the right foot against the serve to use the forehand from the middle of the table. In this way they keep control of the table with the forehand on the subsequent ball. The men take over 80% of the opponent’s serves with the forehand wing. If top men can’t open against the serve, the main receive is the short push return with the forehand.

In comparison with the top men over twice as many of the top women stand quite square - almost 60% as opposed to 25 - 30%. The women too use the backhand much more from the middle of the table on the service receive, both to push and to open. They in fact use the backhand receive almost 50% of the time. European players such as Steff and Struse and the junior Pota fall into this category as do Asian players such as Guo Yue, Zhang Yining, Niu Jianfeng (Ch), Lin Ling (H.K.), Jing Jun Hong , Li Jia Wei (Sin) and top world juniors such as Peng Luyang (Ch) and Fukuhara (J).

In the service area we note a number of differences between the men’s and women’s game. The female players use the long serve more than the men, in a ratio of around 16 - 17% as opposed to 10%, but there is not such a great difference in the short and half-long serves at the very top level. Perhaps the most informative factor is in the difference between the junior and senior players of both sexes. Both the boys and girls use the half-long serve more than the senior players do and the girls use the long serve more than the women. At senior level the service game becomes noticeably tighter. The men almost exclusively use the forehand to serve, with one or two notable exceptions such as Primorac. Backhand service is however generally lower than 5% as opposed to nearly 20% in the case of the top women.

There is a marked difference in service tactics between the top Asian and the top European women. Asian women serve more short serves, around 65% in comparison with 50% and significantly less long serves, 13% as opposed to almost 30%. The best girl in the world Guo Yue, number 15 in the women’s rankings at 14 years, serves around 97% short or half-long serves. The Asian women are generally better and much more confident in the ‘short’ game and at opening against a backspin ball even over the table.

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 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.

It is obvious too that counter-play is still the basic norm in the women’s game. We rarely if ever see the loop to loop rallies that we see in men’s play with both players well back from the table. Instead the first opening spin ball is blocked or hit and there is no time to spin again. Rather the top women come in so that they are in a better position to counter fast over or close to the table. After the first opening spin ball, the next is usually taken at an earlier timing point to pressure the opponent.

There seems to be little thought at top level to bring in any changes in the forehand service action or position to create a more positive advantage in respect of the new service law. Most top players just try to remove the free arm and serve as they did before. Few have thought to increase the rotation of the upper body so that the free arm automatically swings away, or to use a higher throw so as to have more time to rotate the body. Players don’t really seem to appreciate that without rotation the service action is often quite stiff and it can take up to three separate movements to get the body and feet in the right position to play the next ball. Few players too have thought to serve from a squarer stance so as to be more adaptable against the return ball. It is noticeable that the women particularly are sometimes a little slow now to get in the right place for the third ball, especially if this is played hard into the corners.

8. DIVERSITY IN TECHNIQUE AND TACTICS - MEN’S AND WOMEN’S GAME

Many trainers in Europe seem to be of the opinion that girls at the moment are getting nearer to the boys and playing a more similar game. However more often than not this is talked about in general terms and we seem to get very little detailed information. If in fact you go to the ‘experts’ on girls’ training (eg. Nikola Vukelja, Croatia), the top European coaches who have players winning individual and team events in the European Junior Championships and ask them why girls can’t be successful playing strong topspin like the boys the answer is quick and to the point — strength, speed and balance, (especially under pressure). To these I would add one more quality, the ability to understand technical matters fully and quickly and to translate these readily into physical actions. Many girls do not easily grasp mechanical and practical aspects and need much guidance on technique, much more than boys.

Unfortunately in a large number of European countries we are not really professional enough, from a coaching point of view, in isolating the important areas in technique and movement when our girl players are at a young and formative age. Many coaches too do not really seem to grasp the essential differences between the men’s and the women’s game. If you examine the basic topspin techniques for example you find that in the case of the men the racket usually starts further back and has a much more ‘closed’ bat angle. Quite simply the men have a longer stroke. Are there reasons for this and surely women can play the same?

It is not quite as simple as it may first appear. Men are generally much stronger than women and are able to feed considerable power into the stroke by starting with the racket well back and even holding this position prior to initiating the stroke. Women however usually need the ‘assist’ of elastic energy in stroke play to achieve real power which denotes directly that they must complete the whole stroke sequence as rapidly as possible.

In addition men and women face totally different incoming balls with very different bounce factors. Men almost always face a much higher level of topspin and power than the women do. If you have ever watched women playing in men’s tournaments at the higher levels, they have great difficulty in coping with the increased degree of spin and power on the ball. This higher degree of rotation means that men almost always face a significantly more predictable ball than women do in their play against other women. Because they face a more predictable ball it is of course understandable that men use their strength and start the stroke from rather further back. If they were to face a much bigger variation in ball movement after the bounce as occurs in the women’s game, men would find it rather more difficult to play in this fashion.

If you think about this at some length the potential problems become quite obvious. The further back you start the stroke, the more difficult it is to change the trajectory if you have a bad bounce. You are fully committed from the moment you commence the forward swing. If you use a shorter stroke and start nearer to the bounce it’s then much easier to change direction and to do different things.

In the women’s game you face less topspin, more drive and block play and a much larger proliferation of ‘funny’ rubbers. The element of strong topspin, which gives control and predictability to the returns, is often no longer present. As a result because your own spin is often returned in unexpected ways and also because the ball is being returned from a variety of pimpled rubbers, women players more often face much more unpredictable returns. You regularly have balls stopping short, bouncing low and kicking up or even sideways after the bounce. It thus becomes rather less appropriate to use the man’s long loop stroke with a very ‘closed’ racket even if you have a woman player who has the strength to do this.

We must also of course consider the time element and what happens after the serve and 2nd ball. In the case of the world’s top men we usually see power with spin from a deeper position, two to three metres back from the table — the men give themselves more time to play and to use their superior power. In contrast in the women’s game the first opening ball is returned from a much closer position. It can be blocked, forced, countered or even smashed from an early timing point. The women have little or no time to topspin two or three balls in a row. What happens more often than not at top level is that after looping the first ball, the woman comes in and blocks or drives the next one. She tries to keep the initiative with a closer to table position.

All these aspects are of course ones which should be considered in the formative period of the player’s evolution, when you are looking at the stroke development and planning for the future. In a sport such as ours where the aim is to automate actions as quickly as possible, it is difficult if not impossible to make major changes at a later date. Too many trainers look at the boys’ or the men’s style as giving the ultimate answers to growth in the women’s game.

Coaches too encourage girls for example to have the same ready position as the men and to take the serve as the men do with the forehand wing wherever possible. Many men of course do this so that they can control the table with the forehand on the next ball. They also often stand with the right foot a little further back so that they can get in with the forehand right from the word go.

However this is changing even with some of the top men, especially the younger players. Players such as Kreanga, Boll and Chuan Chih-Yuan stand much more square than was usual three to four years ago. In addition they are just as liable to open with the backhand from the middle as they are with the forehand. If you have a strong backhand then of course you should play to your own strengths. But perhaps there are other reasons too. Opening with the backhand adds a measure of variety and unpredictability to the play. Often too it is a little more difficult for the opponent to tell exactly where you are going to play the ball.

If you examine top-level women’s play in some detail, the women quite simply play more backhands than the men in the receive situation. They push receive more than the men with the backhand and they open more than the men with the backhand from the middle. They stand more square than the men but with less wide a stance and are in a better position to move in to the centre of the table to play backhands from the middle. Top European players such as Steff and Struse and the junior Pota all fall into this category. You see exactly the same with the Chinese players Zhang Yining, Niu Jianfeng and their top junior Peng Luyang, Lin Ling from Hongkong and Li Jia Wei and Jing Jun Hong from Singapore. The men on the other hand both push receive and open more than the women with the forehand wing.

The female players use the long serve more than the men, but there is not such a great difference in the short and half-long serves at the very top level in the men’s and women’s game. Perhaps the most informative factor is in the difference between the junior and senior players of both sexes. Both the boys and girls use the half-long serve more than the senior players do. At senior level the service game becomes noticeably tighter.

There is a considerable difference between the European and Asian women in the percentage of long serves. Generally the Asian players serve a much higher proportion of short and half-long serves and are rather better in the short game and at getting in on the attack from this position. European players use more long serves and particularly to the backhand side. Asian players on the other hand are very quick to come round and kill this type of serve with the forehand from their backhand corner. It would appear that there is much to be said for working quite extensively in the area of ’short play’ with our European girls and from an early age.

9. WOMEN — THE SIMPLE FACTS

With the modern racket the characteristics of the sponge and rubber allow the bat to be swung in a different, flatter arc, giving more forward speed to the ball and because of the spin this produces, permitting much more energy to be fed into the shot. In effect the ball sinks into the bat, is grabbed by it and as the bat is moving up and forward, the ball is projected upwards and forwards too. The surface of the rubber is very tacky so it grips the ball and imparts a great deal of topspin. It is this topspin which causes the ball to dip down on to the table. Another fundamental point is that for the same bat path, the faster the racket moves, the more spin it puts on the ball. A fast hit with a flat, forward arc will contain more topspin than a slow hit. How much spin you produce is seen most readily when you play against long pimples and your hard hit comes back with very much more backspin than your slow hit.

Quite simply men can hit the ball harder than women so they will achieve more topspin

Most players, especially women, do not understand the importance of the initial power input in achieving spin. Very few women for example are as powerful as men and few ever attempt to play with the same degree of closed racket angle as the men, so how can they hope to achieve the same level of spin as the men? It is the gyroscopic effect of the spin which gives strong directional control and allows more and more power to be fed into the stroke without greatly reducing on-the-table accuracy. Because women achieve less topspin, they have less on-the-table control than men do. With less topspin the ball has a less downward curving flight path and less directional control.

with less topspin women have less on-the-table control

With less topspin on the ball it’s also easier to block or to hit through the spin. Therefore it becomes immediately apparent that length becomes much more important in the women’s game. In the case of the men who are playing much further back and hitting the ball with much more spin and power, whether the ball contacts the opponent’s side of the table in the middle or at the end is relatively unimportant. With the women any topspin ball which bounces in the middle of the table is liable to be smashed back.

it is crucial in the women’s game that the loop is either very short or very long. good length is critical

Another extremely important consideration is predictability. For two reasons the men face a ball which behaves as anticipated. Firstly the higher level of power and spin means that the ball bounces off the table as expected - it dips sharply downwards before the bounce and shoots forwards after hitting the table. Also the men do not face the vast array of differing material surfaces which are common in the women’s game. A loop played against a long pimple blocker will be returned for instance with backspin and sidespin.

in the women’s game the behaviour of the ball after the bounce is more unpredictable

This factor tends to have a direct effect on the technical development of the two sexes. The men for example often have a long stroke, especially on the forehand wing, with the racket starting well behind the body. This is of course quite permissible when facing a stable trajectory and a predictable bounce. When facing an unpredictable ball however such a long stroke means that the player is ‘committed’ too early to a particular racket ‘path’.

It is then next to impossible to change the stroke if the ball behaves in a totally unexpected way. In addition most women need the ‘assist’ of elastic energy in stroke-play and this is rather easier to achieve with a shorter back-swing and stroke action.

it is expedient in the women’s game that the players’ attention is directed towards the value of the shorter stroke

It is obvious that counter-play is still the basic norm in the women’s game. We rarely if ever see the loop to loop rallies that we see in men’s play with both players well back from the table. Instead the first opening spin ball is blocked or hit and there is little or no time for the looper to spin again. Rather the top women come in after their first topspin so that they are in a better position to counter fast over or close to the table. After the first opening spin ball, the next is usually taken at an earlier timing point to pressure the opponent.

timing is vital in the women’s game. The timing ‘window’ in drive-play is extremely narrow, between ‘peak’ and 1 – 2 centimetres before. It is essential too that women can convert – change from topspin to drive and vice versa at will. the ability to loop several balls in a row is not a prime requirement in the women’s game

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 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.

in the women’s game the vital importance of spin on the first opening ball (and good length) cannot be over-estimated. This creates openings

European women should bear in mind that there are other alternatives when opening up against a backspin ball. The Asians often demonstrate the hard first ball hit against backspin, which we would do well to work with more often. As women usually play closer to the table this is a viable alternative to the loop. It is feasible to either use the incoming spin or to create your own, but the most important factor is to take the ball at an early timing point.

the ability to open hard against the first backspin ball and not just spin all the time is a vital asset in the women’s game

In the men’s game over 80% of receives are with the forehand so that they control the table with the forehand on the next ball. Many women players push or open with the backhand from the middle of the table on the 2nd ball. This is easier for them and involves less movement. Most of them stand closer to the table too so this is a viable option.

never stop girl/women players receiving with the BH from the middle (or even the FH) it’s done at the very highest level

Although at a lower standard and at a younger age girls/women are less positive than men are on the backhand side, at the very highest levels you rarely see women pushing more than one ball. They have the capability to flick over the table or to open from further back on this wing.

from an early age girls should learn to open and play positively on the BH side

There is a noticeable difference in service tactics between the top Asian and the top European women. The Asian women serve more short serves, around 65% in comparison with 50% and significantly less long serves, 13% as opposed to almost 30%. The best girl in the world Guo Yue, number 15 in the women’s rankings at 14 years, serves around 97% short or half-long serves. The Asian women are generally better and much more confident in the ‘short’ game and at opening against a backspin ball even over the table. Europeans must analyse the possibilities in this area and upgrade their technique and tactics.

from early in their career girls should train till they are at ease in the short play situation, aware of the various possibilities and able to gain advantage in this area

Examine top-level matches between the best European women and you see the play is often one pace and predictable, pre-planned and leisurely. By the way they play it looks as if many Europeans train far too much control play, loop to loop or loop to block, they don’t train to win the point! The result is that against the top Asians they just don’t have the time or the opportunity to utilize the stronger technical aspects of their game. Instead of playing further back from the table, perhaps the European women’s development should be directed more towards the importance of serve, receive and the first four balls and also towards methods of more effective and active play over the table. In this way they will have rather more opportunities to create attacking positions and earlier in the rally.

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 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.

Strong serve and 3rd ball are essential elements if women are to reach the highest levels

The importance of the receive cannot be underestimated in the women’s game. It is important that they are able to control the short serve, drop short, push long, flick and deceive and from differing timing points and with differing spins. Against the long serve it’s vital that women are both safe and positive. There are just too many mistakes against the serve even at the highest levels.

Receive tactics are of prime importance in the women’s game

10. WIN OVER ASIAN WOMEN

A number of top coaches and top women players in Europe seem to be of the opinion that if you can topspin the ball powerfully from both wings and get in the first attack, then the road to victory against the Asian players is open. The idea is often to develop the player’s style towards a two-winged topspin game similar to the men. It is also important of course to have the capability of attacking first and of using the serve to set up a third ball attack. These are keys to winning at top level. However is the concept of a consistent, strong topspin attack sufficient in itself in the women’s game? Perhaps it is necessary to examine the whole approach to this type of style in more detail! It can also be necessary to point out that we should see clearly what is happening and not what we would like to happen!

There is for example a noticeable difference in service tactics between the top Asian and the top European women. The Asian women serve more short serves, around 65% in comparison with 50% and significantly less long serves, 13% as opposed to almost 30%. The best girl in the world Guo Yue, number 15 in the women’s rankings at 14 years, serves around 97% short or half-long serves. The Asian women excel and are much more confident in the ‘short’ game and at opening against a backspin ball even over the table. They are superior in short play and Europeans must analyse the possibilities in this area and upgrade their technique and tactics.

It’s vital to have the advantage on the ‘first three balls’. If we let this slip away then we are on level terms or even a little behind with the serve and handling the 2nd and 3rd balls. It’s also important to reinforce control and counter-control measures over the 4th, 5th and 6th balls so we maintain an offensive initiative and do not let the play drift into a stalemate situation.

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.

Indeed it is of some importance that the point be won after one or two topspin balls. In longer rallies top European women often lose the point. This in fact emphasizes the difference between the men’s and the women’s game. In the men’s game with the longer rally the Europeans have an equal or better than equal chance of winning the point, as the Asians are a little behind in counter-looping techniques and are often weaker back from the table, especially on the backhand side. Therefore when the rally degenerates into a control situation they are at a disadvantage.

The reverse is the case with women’s play - women don’t counter-loop, they drive, block, hit or even chop and as a result it is the player who loops, who is at a disadvantage as the rally progresses. In the women’s game the longer a looping rally goes on usually the less chance the Europeans have to win as the Asians initiate speed or variation. There is just too much pace or variation on the return ball and it is difficult to maintain consistent pressure with topspin tactics. In the women’s game therefore it is the first one or two loops which are of prime importance and it is vital that the loop player makes the opening to ‘kill’ and wins the point as early as possible in the rally.

European women should bear in mind too that there are other alternatives when opening up against a backspin ball. The Asians often demonstrate the hard first ball hit against backspin, which we would do well to work with more often. As women usually play closer to the table this is a viable alternative to the loop. It is feasible to either use the incoming spin or to create your own, but the most important factor is to take the ball at an early timing point to pressure the opponent.

Another aspect that strong women topspin players could work profitably with is counter-looping techniques. Give the opponent the half-chance to spin the 2nd ball for example, then pressure her directly with an aggressive topspin counter. This tactic is common in the men’s game but is rarely if ever used in women’s table tennis.

Often if you assess the European woman’s game plan she uses something like 60% drive or flick play and only 35% topspin. Does she fully understand how she should play? True short play may be the key but she must use the right tactics to get her spin in from a short play situation! If she puts the emphasis on speed and power she usually gets a faster ball back and it’s then more difficult to create good spin! As a result flicking and drive play over the table often work against what she is hoping to achieve, which is good spin on the first one or two balls so that she creates the opportunity to win the point. In other words spin one or two then hit!

If we also often use a fairly high ratio of long serves (over 30%) the result is again that we get a hard return and have problems in creating enough spin on the third ball. When we assess the backhand too in Europe we often see that women have not really such good spin or don’t try to use much spin - more often than not they drive the ball. Again as a result they get drawn into the counter-hitting type of game.

Not only must we work at developing better serves, but must use them to best effect. The priority (and here length is of particular importance) is to get the opponent to push so that we can loop strongly and with good spin on the third ball. We then have the initiative in the rally. The same applies on receiving. Subtle use of the push or of techniques such as the stop-block against the Asians will pay more dividends than trying to flick or open all the time, especially when our first opening ball is weak or has insufficient spin.

Often the tendency in Europe with a woman is to harness the strength element and to encourage her to play more like a man. This strategy ignores both the theory of the creation of spin and the differences between the men’s and women’s game. Top European women are often made to look very ordinary when they meet players who can control their hard loops and who pick the right ball to counter.

The theory of the creation of spin tells us that the harder you hit the ball with a closed racket, the more spin you will create. Women are not as strong as men and will never achieve as much spin as men. It’s of little use taking the view that a strong woman can hit harder than a man - compare Boros with Wang Liqin or Kreanga and there is little or no similarity in the power development.

Equally the return ball is completely different in the women’s game. Rarely if ever do the women run back and counter-loop, they block, hit or defend. More often than not the loop player just has no time to loop more than one ball, as their loop comes back with so much speed - and in many cases the harder you topspin, the faster the ball comes back. Such players as Steff for example (top 10 world ranking) have the capability to topspin the first ball then come in and counter the next ball from a very early timing point. It is often in fact a better tactic in the women’s game to topspin slower and with more spin rather than faster and with more power.

The other critical point about the women’s game is that both because of the lesser topspin and the greater use of differing rubbers, players face a much more unpredictable reaction from the ball after the bounce than they do in the men’s game. This tends even to influence the technical development of the female topspin stroke. There is little point in developing the habit of starting the loop stroke too far back if you’re uncertain just what the ball will do after the bounce.

Overall in fact there seems to be very little point in women training to loop several balls in succession. Rather they should be training to loop one (or two) then smash. Spin rather than speed is of the utmost importance so they create the opening to hit hard on the next ball. In fact the single most important loop is the first opening against a backspin ball.

If you look at the top European women such as Boros and Steff you in fact perceive quite quickly that they do not run away from the table and loop several balls in a row. Indeed much of the play, over 50%, consists of flick or drive strokes. But they are capable of flicking the 2nd ball for example and looping the 4th. They are also accomplished in looping the 3rd ball if they have the slightest opening and they both have good serves and good variety in the service area.

One final aspect that we must of course stress is the importance of competing in Asia. It is necessary to play against Asian players and often, in order to learn what we need to work on to defeat them.

11. LONG PIMPLES SIMPLIFIED

In learning table tennis our actions are ‘automated’ by constant practice, in other words we train so that we don’t need to think when we play. In fact we play better when the body is on autopilot. Because of this major difficulties occur when we encounter something unusual, an atypical response. When for example we see a ‘push’ action our brain interprets this in a fraction of a second as backspin.

If however the ball comes over as topspin then we are confused and all our instinctive, carefully automated reactions are worse than useless. We then have to try and introduce a ‘thinking response’ into an automated system, which tends to throw everything out of tune. We are again like beginners, faced with a totally new situation. Reactions that we have built up over countless thousands of training hours are not only of no help to us but they in fact actively hinder our understanding of the new situation. This is why training against pimpled rubbers at an early age is so important, because it widens the boundaries of our instinctive reactions.

The most deceptive long pimple rubber and the one with most effect is without sponge and on a fast blade, so that the ball springs off the blade very quickly. Many players don’t understand that what is happening is that they are in effect getting their own spin back. If they for example put heavy backspin on the ball and the opponent pushes the ball back the return will not have backspin (even though his or her stroke is down and forward) but an element of topspin. A long pimpled rubber with a thicker sponge will usually return the backspin ball as ‘float’, while the rubber without sponge can send back a ball with considerable topspin.

Of course long pimple players use their rubbers in many differing ways. Time is always an important factor when trying to read what is happening. The long pimple defender gives you more time to play your shots and to read the spin or lack of spin. The long pimple block player or attacker on the other hand gives you no time at all and this is when life can become very difficult.

This of course occurs because most long pimpled rubbers have little or absolutely no friction capability. Whatever spin you initiate, this stays on the ball, because whatever stroke the opponent plays this doesn’t have any effect. You loop, the ball comes back with your spin still on it, unchanged. You therefore get back backspin. You push, the ball comes back with your original spin, topspin. Your mind only has to accept the fact that whatever the opponent does with his or her racket is completely irrelevant!

Long Pimples

Another factor that many players and coaches overlook is that power also affects the return ball. The harder you hit the ball with a closed racket, the more spin you create. Thus the harder you hit the ball against long pimples, the more backspin you get back on the return ball. It is often a better tactic to play slower balls or balls without spin to this type of rubber.

A big problem too is that few if any of us play with ‘pure’ spin. We loop not only with topspin but with sidespin too. This therefore results in us getting a return ball with backspin and a sidespin ‘kick’. This too is the reason for the ‘wobbling’ effect we often see on the return. The ball is in fact not rotating truly but is spinning in an irregular fashion and the axis changes as one spin or another predominates.

Many long pimple players for example are aware that sidespin is extremely effective with their rubber. They serve a short, heavy sidespin serve (with their reverse rubber)and when you push return they in turn block/push the ball back very fast with the long pimples and from an early timing point. You then receive a ball with topspin (from your push) and a sidespin ‘kick’ (spin still remaining from the serve). You also have little or no time to think or read what is happening.

When playing against long pimples it is in fact your own experience that lets you down. It is not what your opponent is doing with his bat that is important but what you did with your last shot. You therefore have to re-train your mind to remember exactly how you played your last ball.

Predictably this is not easy and even after you train yourself to do it, you will often have lapses, where your ‘automatic’ training kicks back in and you make the most basic and stupid mistakes. When this happens don’t panic, just keep calm, try to remember what you should be doing and have the confidence and courage to do it.