European Table Tennis: Direction

Rowden Fullen (2003)

Throughout Europe coaches appear to be operating increasingly at a lower and lower level — in fact you can almost say the real coaches are rapidly disappearing. Nowadays too much emphasis and time are spent on aspects such as technique and power or topspin and little or no effort in making the individual player more effective. On training camps we spend hours doing on-the-table exercises that have little or no purpose behind them. We often seem to go through the motions without really understanding what we intend to achieve. Few players seem to ask the important questions – ‘Why are we doing this exercise? What is the purpose? How does this benefit me in my play with my particular style?’ In fact in the final analysis we seem to be getting fewer and fewer players with real potential coming through the system in Europe.

Even those who do come through to national level appear to be rather more stereotyped in their overall style than the top Europeans of 10 years ago, which almost immediately gives rise to the question – ‘Just what is happening with our coaching in Europe?’ Players such as Appelgren, Waldner, Gatien, Saive and Primorac were all successful with a variety of differing styles – the young players of today have a workmanlike style with good pace and power but relatively little real feeling in their game. As a result they tend to be rather more predictable. And this is happening in spite of all the increased funding and better facilities that we now have throughout Europe in a number of countries. We once produced world champions such as Stellan Bengtsson at 17 years of age. Surely in these modern times with more money than ever before in table tennis, better equipment, better organization and facilities, increased advanced scientific help and wider know-how, we have much more going for us. We should in fact do rather better, not worse!

Unfortunately many of our up-and-coming young players seem to lack real discipline and especially direction. They appear to have little or no idea as to how they should play to be most effective. Or indeed what their end style of play should be, which direction they should take and how in actual fact they are going to get there! We read comments in various magazines such as – ‘Gone are the days when one coach or parent can produce a European or World Champion. The game is just too technical, too complex and too demanding for the enthusiastic amateur approach’. Perhaps someone could explain just how putting a group of even quite promising young players together (numbering between 15/20) in one national centre with one or two coaches is going to produce a champion? You may have the environment and some of the talented players, but you don’t have the method! In fact in a number of countries in Europe the top young players refuse to attend their national centres — they obviously feel they can get a better ‘deal’ elsewhere.

The time for individual emphasis and development in national centres is extremely limited. Good sparring is of course important and has its place but it is by no means enough on its own in the total scheme of things. In fact what has been achieved in national centres over the last few years (especially in view of the total input in terms of finance and expertise), compared with the successes of private coaches working alone and with limited resources, or measured against individual training in one or two of the better clubs, has often been quite laughable and yet we continue to pour funds into such ventures. It is perhaps now time that we appreciated that both the staffing and expertise levels in any such centres are absolutely critical. Coaches must have the time, the expertise and also the motivation to want to help players.

The single most important factor in the progress of a player at national level is that he or she has access to the right influences and sources of information. So many players reach national standing and stagnate! They may get a little stronger and hit the ball harder, but in terms of individual personal development there are few signs of forward movement. At every stage in a player’s career they must be progress and change, but this is of prime importance at the highest levels. No player can stop developing and ‘tread water’ on the way to the top, he or she must continue to advance and in most cases this requires some monitoring and guidance.

Also at national level in many countries there seems to be a ‘stagnation’ in motivation — it’s almost as if players attain the status of a national team player and are then satisfied. Perhaps they feel that they have achieved their goals and just don’t have the incentive to keep going! One of the problems too in Europe is that the top stars are often ‘safe’ in their national team place, there are few really talented young players pushing for their position. Regardless of their results, win or lose, perform well or badly, they are still going to keep their place in the team. This is hardly the environment to encourage players to keep raising their levels. In many cases they become too complacent.

If we talk to players involved in elite teams throughout Europe we find that there is quite often a general level of dissatisfaction with the input and the expertise of coaches and trainers. Quite a number of up-and-coming top players have to ‘take over’ and to organize the direction of their own training because the coaches even in the bigger clubs either don’t have the time or specialized expertise to do this. Many elite players would prefer to see more players going into coaching at the end of their careers because they at least have some idea of what it’s all about at the top. Many others prefer to have coaches from Asia because even though there can often be communication problems, they at least know how to develop table tennis players and take them up to higher levels. Young players who train for long periods in Asia return to their home countries dissatisfied and understanding often for the first time that the training at home, even at national level, is woefully inadequate and in many cases leading them in the ‘wrong’ direction as a player. This is particularly noticeable in the women’s game.

Whatever the reasons there appears to be an increasing tendency in many countries in Europe for more players to go into coaching at the end of their career or when they are injured. Such ex-players of course continue to support and preserve the system they have been brought up with, so the chances of anything new or innovative happening are very remote! Unfortunately the career path of a player is often very different from that of a coach. In many cases players have a background of knowledge primarily from training camps, are not as flexible as coaches and have an inflated idea of the value of their own personal playing style. They will on many occasions influence their protégés to play in the same way as they themselves did and have limited understanding of the value of other methods of play. Coaches on the other hand are rather more aware of just what can be achieved by varying styles of play and have had much closer contact with the development of a variety of players. One of the reasons why playing styles are becoming more and more stereotyped throughout Europe and why we have less and less unusual or extreme styles such as Carl Prean or Ni Xialan is probably because of more players being involved in coaching at national level.

Very few questions ever seem to be asked as to the qualifications or capabilities of ex-players taking up coaching duties. In addition very rarely do these ex-players take upgrading courses in theory or in areas where they may be lacking in knowledge. What for example qualifies a young male loop player of thirty years to take over as a junior girl’s coach? Does he know the theory of women’s play, the various styles and materials and the differing mental approach? Many parents and coaches would in fact be horrified if they knew just how little thought often goes into the selection of some of the trainers, helpers and sparring partners at national level! They would be more concerned if they knew just how much pressure national coaches come under and just how little time they often have left to get down to actual coaching.

In all of this we must bear in mind that the career path of a coach is rather different from that of a player. We are not only talking here of the level of expertise (there are for example many things which coaches know that they don’t necessarily pass on to players and which players don’t need to know, because their function is not to teach but to play). We should bear in mind too that coaching is about handling people and getting the best out of them, something a player is not necessarily good at and may have to work hard to develop. Players have often spent their whole career trying to make their own particular style of play as effective as possible. Suddenly they are asked to take on the responsibility for the guidance and development of a dozen completely different styles. It’s rather like taking the combat soldier from the front line and putting him in the general’s chair! One situation requires the intense localised focus, the other a much wider overview. Aspects such as this must always be considered when promoting players to coaching duties and especially at national level.

When we are examining the quality of coaching at the highest level we must also consider the level of funding available. I have known of several instances in various countries in Europe where coaches have been asked to take on national duties and have refused solely because such a move would have entailed a drop of some 30% in salary. It is next to impossible to attract the right people without having remuneration at least comparable with industry or other professions. Another avenue we think to use is to look for coaches from outside our own country, often without understanding that the culture gap may mean several years without a real level of improvement. Foreign trainers usually need to be in a country for some time and to understand the system before they can be completely effective. Coach development too varies very much from country to country over Europe and different areas of expertise are often highlighted in differing localities. I know of national coaches from European countries working abroad who are not even allowed to take coaching courses in their home country, because they have never passed the first grade coaching examination!

Without the right people in our national centres the players are going nowhere! Players starting in national centres at a younger age, say between 12—15 years are especially vulnerable and usually require fairly constant guidance, particularly as they have often been uprooted from their own coach and the stability of family life. They more often than not need to be handled by coaches who have considerable experience in individual style development.

Whatever we are doing in Europe it is obviously not good enough. We are not producing the top level world-class players we once did, we are not getting players to elite levels at 12/13 years or finals of the European men’s singles at 16 years of age. It’s not really a valid argument to say that we don’t have the talented players any more because we do! Perhaps now is the time to re-evaluate our coaching in Europe and particularly to look at the direction it should take over the next period of 4/5 years. With our sport reaching higher and higher levels all the time, it is more than ever necessary to be aware of our strengths and to be looking at ways to maximize these.

Above all, players of talent whether in or out of national centres should have equal opportunity to progress. We must face the fact that we cannot force players to attend national centres, top players are often strong characters and wish to go their own way and in a number of European countries do just this. Perhaps we must also face up to the possibility that it’s not just the top players who are being ‘difficult’, but our national centres which are just not good enough and need upgrading with newer methods and systems.

Whatever the background and reasons may be we seem to be producing less and less players of individual style. There is much less individualism among the young and rather less flair and feeling in their game. Most of the younger players are more robotic in their play and there appears to be developing in Europe a sameness of play, a universality of style, strong, efficient and workmanlike but without the personal, unique touches that differentiate the really special performers from the run-of-the-mill players.

Whether we work individually or in groups but especially in national centres we must find a way to bring in a larger element of individual focus on the major prospects so that they have the best possible chance to reach their full potential. If at all possible a top player must have something different, some unique quality which opponents have difficulty in adapting to. It is up to the coach and the player, working together, to find this quality and to work to develop it and make it most effective. Table tennis is a game of adaptation and counter-adaptation and the player who has something different or unusual in his or her game will always cause problems to the opponent.

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