The Coach: Tradesman or Artist?

Rowden Fullen (1990’s)

Almost every coach in the country would wish to produce a World Champion. Just think of the far reaching effects on our sport if we had the best playing here in England. Not the best in Europe, not even one of the top dozen in the world, but the world Number One man or woman. What an incentive to the young players!

An impossibility you might say — the quality of life in the West has become so easy, over indulgent, that the ultimate effort is shirked by the talented few. Others are satisfied with a little success and feel no pressure to push themselves to higher limits. Often national teams consist of the same old players year after year with no players challenging for the top spots. Win or lose, players are going to keep their place in the team — not really a tremendous incentive to keep working and pushing to raise your own game to ever higher levels! Often other activities or sports are seen as offering more glamour, pleasure or reward. However I would say this, things are only impossible or unattainable if you believe them to be so. What is an indisputable fact is that unless coaches are prepared to be totally professional in all aspects of their trade then achieving real results becomes very difficult indeed for the player!

Most of us are not professional enough. We mention trade, all coaches are tradesmen, technicians, engineers, many remain at this level, many only wish to have for one reason or another limited commitment, however a few, a very few become artists. I do not say this in any derogatory way, one definition of a tradesman is a ‘skilled worker’ and this is just what coaches are. The fact that we need to coach at different levels is why we have different grades in coaching. Most coaches are part-timers or volunteers and of course they have a life outside of table tennis, we cannot expect them to sacrifice this to get a few players to the top. So have a care when you talk to coaches about what they are prepared to give to our sport!

Let us take a look at the tradesman’s areas of responsibility

  • Technician — passing on knowledge, developing technical skills.
  • Scientist — analysing direction and style.
  • Sparring partner — keeping the player sharp, developing tactics.
  • Disciplinarian — building the framework so the player remains receptive to information.
  • Administrator – planning, organizing.
  • Publicity Agent – promoting.
  • Trainer – increasing fitness, stamina, handling strains and injuries.
  • Corner-man – handling tactical advice and dealing with stress.

Although these ‘bread and butter’ aspects are the easy areas of coaching, efficiency here is vital — without the basic tools the player will have no chance to reach the top or ever to achieve his or her full potential. Stroke development, movement patterns and style need to progress along totally professional lines. Coaching should be organized in depth so that the player has a programme and knows exactly where he or she is going. Each session should have a purpose and be part of a series. Many coaches will say that they just don’t have more time to give but in fact I’m not talking about giving more, I’m talking about using the time we do have available, much more effectively. Only in this way will we achieve the best results. It’s relatively easy to keep track by drawing up a simple three month programme for your player and tick off after every session which areas you have worked on. In this way you start to follow a plan and coaching becomes more organized. Of course the programme may have to be amended as tournaments or matches throw out aspects which need attention but this is only to be expected.

As soon as the player starts to emerge from the intermediate level, he or she will need squad coaching, where he or she is a member of a group benefiting from the experience of meeting and sparring with a variety of styles and the formal, disciplined interaction between committed players. Squad coaching offers a variety of moods and incentives, a classroom of association with rivals and allies and the coach who can use the individual’s assets for group progress is on the road to success.

The player will also require personal sessions with one or two good players and coaches, where he or she can be put under the spotlight, studied in rather more depth and put under more pressure. It is only with individual emphasis that you can work effectively in such areas as serve and mental development. On the technical front it goes without saying that a great deal of work will need to be put in at both personal and group level on aspects such as serve/receive, 2nd, 3rd and 4th ball, irregular movement and style development. However overall the coach should try and maintain, within the time and commitment he is capable of giving, the highest professional level in his preparation and handling of and approach to the differing areas of the player’s development. Only in this way will high level results be achieved and will the player have a chance to reach his or her full potential.

We have talked of the engineer, the tradesman, the competent technician. Indeed we see in many clubs and on many training camps and even at national level, what we can call the trainer. This is the exercise ‘setter’ or organizer, he makes sure the session runs smoothly with a minimum of interruptions or problems — the on-the-table exercises follow each other with monotonous regularity and at exact 7½ or 10 minute intervals. It looks good, it seems to function well and even the players appear to like being ‘organized’. The sad thing however is that often thinking has stopped and everyone is just going through the motions. What is the purpose of each exercise, how does it benefit each individual player, is there a programme for the individual players, do the players know where they are going and how to get there? There is a far deeper side to coaching. Coaching is after all a progression, a growing process, an alteration and a maturing of standards, values and attitudes. It is of the utmost importance to bear in mind at all times that we coach people and not just techniques. As the great Kung-fu master said — ‘It is far more than just a most effective form of self-defence. It is an exercise in physical and mental balance and moulds the personality of the individual.’ Equally the moulding of a champion in our sport of table tennis is far more than the mere passing on of techniques.

Coaching is something akin to an experienced climber taking a youngster up a high mountain — he or she must be trained gradually and well trained in the technical aspects. Well taught basics are vital and will almost certainly determine just how good a climber the youngster will become or whether he will become a danger to himself and a distraction to others when he gets higher up. Initially there will be a duty to safeguard and to protect and guide. However as the climb progresses not only will the coach and pupil face differing problems but slowly the relationship between the two will change. The trainee will become more confident and self-sufficient and indeed should be encouraged to be so. In due course the roles will be reversed and he or she will become the master, at ease in any situation.

This is a time in fact when many coaches let go and give up with the feeling they are no longer required. In some cases true, they aren’t. However I would say this to many who find themselves in this situation. What gives you the right to give up on your players when you have spent several years honing them to a peak of physical and mental perfection, when you know them inside out, know exactly how they will react in any given situation, are aware of all their little moods and problems? What gives you the right to leave them on their own when you are the one old, comfortable friend they can trust and to whom they can talk openly and naturally at any time? As we have said, over a period of time the teacher, technician and trainer areas will diminish and if the right sort of relationship has been allowed to develop, rather more important aspects will flower. This can be the time that the performer needs your support more than ever as the one stable rock in an ever changing environment. I would suggest you think twice before running out on your player.

  • Tactical adviser.
  • Psychologist.
  • Motivator.
  • Friend, mentor, counsellor, confidant.

As many of you will have noticed even at the very top in other sports, tennis for example, the champions have their friend and mentor at the court-side. Top players are well aware that as far as skills, techniques and physical condition are concerned, these are pretty near identical at the highest levels. What will make the difference, the winning factor, will be the inner self, the attitudes and values built up over the years - who better to have at court-side than the one person who has helped them to develop these qualities? Here is where the true artistry of the coach will be apparent and I suggest that it is only if he achieves the breakthrough in these areas that perfection is possible.