Coaching in Sweden

Rowden Fullen (2000)

In 1995 I retired and left England to coach in Sweden. I was ready to search out new fields to conquer and I was also looking to develop my own coaching skills — I felt then and still do that the lack of exposure to the highest levels of table tennis is an inhibiting factor in the development of coaches in England. Where better than the only country in the world which has succeeded in breaking the stranglehold the Chinese have had on the world men’s team championships since 1961? Sweden of course won in 1973, 1989 — 93 and again in 2000.

From 1995 to 2000 I was based in Bergkvara, a club with strong international connections and a long tradition in producing good girls. We succeeded in gaining promotion to the women’s elite division with one of the youngest teams ever, four girls seventeen or under and in 2000 – 2001 they were silver-medalists (two of the girls have also played in the National team). I coached too in Kalmar (where the legendary Waldner plays in the elite men’s team) and was able to contribute in taking their women’s team from division three to one in two successive seasons. In the summer of 2000 I moved to Långemåla, a club again with strong international connections especially in Eastern Europe. Because of its high level facilities the club is regularly host to national or international camps or European League matches. The club has the capability of training in two halls with twenty tables and of sleeping over forty players and coaches (and this in a small, quiet country village of some 300 persons.) This highlights one of the big differences between clubs in England and Sweden — the facilities. Kalmar for example have some 16 – 18 tables up all the time for practice and the club membership runs into several hundreds.

In fact I would say that Sweden has one of the best club systems anywhere in the world and a club environment that offers real opportunities for players to reach full potential. Where else can you study world class players in the practice hall and under match conditions in the elite series, European and Champions’ Leagues? Where else can a young player if he is good enough, join in his club’s ‘A’ team training alongside current or past world top-twenty players?

There have been two table tennis schools in Sweden where sport and education operate hand in hand and these are shortly to be combined into one National Centre which will operate in the same place as the current International Centre (there should be the availability of good sparring). However in a number of other centres educational establishments work with the big clubs in a progressive manner, organizing study schedules so that young players can train during the day, or for example extending two-year courses to three. The elite clubs usually have at least two training sessions daily, at times three.

Although training is extremely rigorous, often incorporating physically demanding multi-ball, I found it to be less rigid than in England and with an atmosphere of greater freedom. Players in Sweden are encouraged to be innovative and to try new things and there is much more dialogue between player and trainer, with a less formal structure.

The National League system is immensely strong in depth, 8 men’s elite teams, 16 division one teams in two areas, 32 division two in four areas, 64 division three in eight areas and 128 division four in sixteen areas. To gain promotion is very hard and often involves playing qualification matches even after winning the league. The tournament scene is equally thriving in Sweden with quite large entries in even under 9 and 11 events. In the junior boys classes both 17 and 20 the overall strength is so great that seeded players can struggle or go out in the early rounds. Because Sweden is such a large country and vast distances are involved, there is usually a good choice of tournaments most weekends in different areas. The very top events such as the Safirs International or the Swedish Open are very well attended with many of the world’s top players entering.

Of course things have changed much in Sweden since the halcyon days of the 80’s culminating in the world men’s team final of 1989 when they crushed China 5 – 0. But three of the original five man squad were still there in 2000 to win again! Few people appreciate just how good a national squad Sweden had in the eighties. Take away the household names, Waldner, Persson, Appelgren and Lindh and others such as Von Scheele, Peter Karlsson, Ulf Carlsson and Ulf Bengtsson could have represented any country in Europe had they been born elsewhere. But you had other factors involved, Waldner and Lindh going to China in the early eighties and bringing back multi-ball, the advent of glue which changed the game dramatically. Also a number of training initiatives from coaches such as Bo Persson and Glen Östh — strengthening the backhand, working more on serve, receive and block, emphasizing forehand topspin but from an earlier timing point and above all stressing individual style. It was particularly the ability to take the high serves and better blocking which neutralized the Chinese.

The training scene in Sweden as in other parts of Europe is now strongly club oriented. The older players in the national team have a deep understanding of the sport and how to plan and prepare for the season. It is these players who continue to play with imagination. Unfortunately there is no sign of younger players with their touch and innovative styles. The emphasis now appears to be all on strength and power.

There is also a considerable exodus of players and coaches to other countries in Europe both for financial and developmental reasons. Lack of funding and the difficulty of attracting good sponsorship tend to result in the priority being to reward the players rather than the coaches. This combined with poor coaching development has resulted in a lack of high-level coaches and trainers country-wide. In many of the smaller clubs there is very limited expertise, in the big clubs trainers have too many players and too little time and often other priorities rather than developing the young. As a result there is usually not enough individual help and technique is poor in the formative years. A considerable number of players develop with built-in defects which limit their ultimate level of achievement — this is particularly noticeable with girl players.

Other areas where coaching is deficient are in the knowledge and use of different rubbers and how to cope especially with combination bats or defenders. The single biggest weakness is in the development of individual style. Modern coaching in Sweden appears to be moving towards the stereotyped robot-like game — there is little understanding that each player is unique with differing reactions, talents and strengths and that style should be directed towards what he or she does best. This is not quite so much of a problem in the boys’ game — there are fewer styles here and the great role models are still playing (but for how much longer). In the girls’ game which relies so much more on being different to achieve success, this lack of direction in the coaching structure is serious.

If we draw a comparison between table tennis in Sweden and England, we can see that although Sweden has started on the downward cycle, it is by no means so far down the curve as England and there are still ways back to the top. The great players are still there, still winning titles at the highest level, but for how much longer, two years or three? It can be very important how their expertise is used when they retire. The extended club structure in Sweden, some 900 clubs with from only several players to several hundreds, gives immense depth in standard, which you see in the leagues and tournaments. This club system provides strong support to the players in terms of a social structure, older players, advice and corner-men; there is a wealth of experience and guidance to call on.

But time and tide wait for no man, or country — the world moves on. It is not enough to drift or to live on past achievements. Even a country with Sweden’s reputation and history of success must look to the future and organize and plan. Achievements in the European Junior Championships, especially in the girls, have hardly been encouraging for the future. The lack of coaching structure, the failure of younger players to emerge to assume the mantle of greatness and the stark realities of sponsorship (if you can’t attract sponsors after winning the World and European men’s team events, just when can you?) do not augur well for the future. However, back in the early ‘80’s a group of proud young men got together and laid a base for achievements that rocked the table tennis world. It’s been done before, perhaps it can be done again!

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