The Growth of the Coach

Rowden 2010

The Problems

Most of the top coaches in Europe are concerned as to just how effective coaching is at the moment and if indeed we are going in the right direction and with the right methods. Particular criticism is directed at the lack of coaching expertise in general, the in-depth knowledge of women’s development and the increasing tendency to focus on the very young rather than developing players for the senior game. We certainly do not seem to be producing players to match the Asians any longer and particularly on the women’s side. Let us hear what some of the top people at the ‘cutting edge’ of sport throughout Europe have to say.

Slobodan Grujić: The danger is that the coaches try to prepare their young players to win cadet or even mini cadet championships and do not think about the most important long-term goal - how to form the player, his/her technique, tactics, fitness for the future as a senior player.
Peter Sartz: Regarding women we do not have training programmes and methods only for women yet; that’s why European women mostly can’t play at top international level. Also in Europe many countries have done nothing to improve their women.
Dusan Osmanagić: We all see that the situation in European table tennis is not very good. For me one of the most important reasons for such a situation is the problem with coaches - speaking of course generally as there are for sure exceptions to the rule - most of our coaches are not capable to meet the required standards.
Michel Gadal: We in Europe are much behind, we usually start later, we think in age categories and try to make from young players champions in their age category, not to follow from the beginning only the goal to make a top senior player - in that way we lose a lot of time.
Mario Amizić: The Asian countries have adapted to modern table tennis, Europe has gone backwards. The last three years have seen a particularly rapid decline in Europe; at one time I believed that the younger generation would be able to step into the shoes of the older, but this is no longer a possibility. The present situation in Europe is a catastrophe but if we really think about it, it is in fact the reality we should have expected. The methods we had in place some years ago produced a superb generation of players but these are not working any more. We have lost our way, we are not adapting to new trends and our model is no longer up-to-date. The older coaches in Europe will tell you we are not educating our coaches and trainers properly or indeed in the right way.
Rowden Fullen: There are differing coaching approaches throughout Europe, which vary from the rigid to the flexible. Systems unfortunately breed predictability and limit creativity. There are coaches and coaches. We have coaches who see the pathways and designs that others don’t. We have coaches who understand the patterns unique to the individual player and the relevant designs and intentions which are crucial to him/her reaching full potential. Finally we have a few coaches who not only understand the theory appropriate to the individual but who can actually convert this into reality.
Clive Woodward (England Rugby Supremo): A good coach opens your mind to new possibilities and plants the idea that to win against the best players in the world needs a whole armoury of playing tactics. Just like there are no rules in business there are no rules in sport. It is all right to question traditional thinking in others, who do things in certain ways because that’s the way they’ve always been done.

Being a top coach is not and never has been a question of certificates and diplomas and how many you are able to accumulate; rather it’s more a matter of how you think.

In most countries the Level 1 and 2 courses for coaches are characterised by predictability and rigidity; coaches are encouraged to go ‘by the book’ and to be conventional and to work within a certain regulated framework. Unfortunately as these coaches try to move forward and upwards they find that what they have been taught is no longer applicable. They find for example that what applies to beginners and intermediates may be totally irrelevant when they come to look at the real top players. For example at top level:

• The stance may be very much wider
• The players are more square to the table
• There is no leisurely build-up to the stroke, weight starting on the right moving to the left foot, measured rotation of the body etc
• The movement patterns wide, especially to the FH may be very different
• Often top players will use BH receive from the middle and even from the FH

What coaches eventually realise is that they cannot be totally dogmatic if they want to move on – their thinking has to be much more flexible and more unconventional. Unfortunately many coaches have been at Levels 1 and 2 for too long and are firmly entrenched in their views and approach to coaching; often they will have great difficulty in making the change and in ‘thinking on their feet’.

One of the toughest skills to teach any athlete is how to think, the toughest skill to teach any coach is to think more flexibly! It is often hard even for experts to withhold their expertise sufficiently to coach well. But probably one of the worse things in sport can be the dogmatic coach who insists on dictating and forcing his ideas on to the player. Each player is after all an individual and some of that individuality should appear in his/her game, we should not all be clones to the coach’s idea of technical perfection.

If the coach sees the player’s performance only in the light of his (the coach’s) idea of perfection in technique then the coach is still at the beginner level in coaching and at too low a level to be of real value to the better player. Then too we have the aspect of image and importance. Many coaches seem to think they are important and a considerable amount of their time and energy is directed to maintaining their image instead of using all their capabilities to help the player reach his/her maximum potential! In the final analysis only the player is important and he/she should be in total focus.

The prime skill of table tennis at all levels is the ability to adapt to an ever changing situation and to do this quickly. Training is repetition in the right environment, with the right content and the right attitude. As a result of this repetition our strokes become ‘grooved’ and automatic. We train so we don’t need to think about what we are doing -- so that we can in effect play on auto-pilot. Unfortunately the way we train is often significant in reducing our chances of achieving the ideal of adaptability.

For example once we are in this position of playing completely automatically just how are we supposed to handle thinking about something new and different, much less being actually able to cope with and adapt to new techniques and tactics? It is obviously vital for coaches to ensure that their players, right from the formative years, have the opportunity to train and play against all styles of play and combinations of material. In this way the ‘automatic’ reflexes, the conditioned responses, that the player has to work so hard to build up, cover a much larger series of actions and it is rather easier for him or her to adapt to new situations. In other words the content and method of training assume rather more importance than we may have initially thought, especially in the formative years.

Teachers, coaches and instructors unfortunately more often than not are tempted to perpetuate conventional wisdom and to want players to learn by the ‘book’. This means that the personal preferences, attributes and qualities of the performer are suppressed. This makes life easier for the coach and the dependence of the player on the expert is also maintained, which many coaches unfortunately seem to need. Equally unfortunately the unique characteristics of body and mind of each individual are ignored or over-ridden. The pupil learns to develop to an outside prescription instead of harnessing his or her own confidence, esteem, self-reliance and responsibility.

Often it is hard for experts to withhold their expertise sufficiently to coach well! In many instances even the really experienced coach sees players in terms of their technical faults instead of seeing them in terms of how effective they are and how efficiently they use their bodies. Bodily inefficiency stems from self-doubt and inadequate bodily awareness.

We have less training time than most of the top Asian countries. So if we are to develop players who can match and overcome the Asians we need an ‘edge’. We need to harness the full capabilities of the players allowing them more self-awareness and giving them more responsibility for their own progress and development. We certainly need a lesser input from the coaches. The coach should act as a ‘sounding board’, an adviser, allowing the players to air their own ideas and giving them the freedom to direct their own growth.

In this way not only will the player grow in a way which is appropriate and relevant to his/her own skills and talents, but the coach will indeed grow too.

The Solutions

The training hall is the arena in which athletes learn and develop techniques and skills. The prime skill of table tennis is the ability to adapt to an ever changing situation and to do this at speed – it is obvious therefore that our sport is an open skill and learning to execute the same technique time and time again is not as important as developing the ability to select the most appropriate technique to suit a changing situation.

Training must provide continuous and evolving possibilities for our athletes to apply a variety of techniques in a realistic and competitive environment. Coaches must ensure that players, as they progress through the learning process, are able to identify the most suitable technique (and the most appropriate for them as individuals) and apply this in a variety of differing situations. Even with an open skill such as ours, it is crucial to develop an automatic or subconscious reaction level (as this is how we play best) but because we are facing a rapidly changing situation all the time, to cultivate adaptive intelligence is absolutely vital. How do we do this? In a number of ways – we must for example:

• Train against all styles of play, penholders, left-handers, blockers, loop players, defenders, long pimple players etc.
• Learn to read the game more quickly (watching the opponent’s body action etc.)
• Train in the right way for the individual, using variable/random or thinking situation exercises.
• Use alternative training, such as multi-ball and use this technique in a variable/random manner.
• Train in a fashion which compels the player to react most rapidly to changing situations.

The coach should also try to identify a new way forward with players working from their own experience and perceptions rather than his own. In our sport the most effective way for the performer to increase physical efficiency is to become increasingly aware of the physical sensations during activity. The awareness of bodily sensations is crucial to the development of skills. Unfortunately the majority of coaches persist in imposing their technique from outside. No two human minds or bodies are the same – how can the coach tell the player how to use his or hers to best effect, only the player can do this by being aware! Let us try to encourage our players to use their own intrinsic feedback to maintain and to refine their competence in applying various techniques.

Practice and how to do this should be evaluated in terms of short and long-term gains and also in terms of memory retention – some training methods result in rather better long-term retention and performance than others. We also of course need to practise in the right way so that we are able to adapt and quickly in the face of the myriad differing situations we will face in competition.

• Constant exercises where we repeat exactly the same stroke to the same place, with the same length and the same spin are usually not very useful in transferring techniques into a competitive environment. Each shot is identical to the next and the previous and the technique is very specific. Such exercises are of more use in closed situations such as shooting rather than in learning open skills such as in our sport, where we continually face new and differing challenges.
• Blocked exercises are also very similar where we repeat the same stroke but with minor variations in pace, length, spin etc. Again one technique performed repeatedly hinders the transfer of technique into an open or competitive environment. Such practice may appear very efficient and looks good, but is unlikely to have any lasting learning effect and will usually break down in competition, where we don’t meet the same predictability.
• Variable practice is when performers try to deliberately vary the execution of one technique, using differing speeds, spins, heights and placement. This helps performers to learn the technique more effectively, helps its recall and retention into the long-term memory banks and helps with the transfer of the technique into a competitive situation.
• Random practice where we mix a variety of techniques, not only helps recall and retention but also develops the ability to select the most appropriate technique for the situation and is most beneficial to an open skill such as table tennis. Obviously this type of practice most replicates the competitive environment and also forces the player to be actively involved in the learning process.
• Mental practice of techniques can also help the learning process especially if we imagine executing the technique using all the senses – the resulting image is then that much more vivid and realistic. Use of mental imagery can be particularly helpful when recovering from injury, learning new techniques and when preparing for the big match or tournament.

The main problem in our sport is the instability of the environment. The player must be effective in a constantly evolving situation. High level players for example learn from mistakes immediately and do not repeat errors – they find effective solutions rapidly. Adaptive intelligence is the ability to evaluate a scenario in an instant, take in all the immediately available solutions and then take the best action. Often this is called reactive thinking – the ability to think clearly under pressure and use any available means to hand to resolve the problem.

Speed and anticipation in sport however are not based on reactions but come from highly specific practice over a long period of time. Top performers possess enhanced awareness and anticipation. But the accumulated knowledge and experience are crucial. The really experienced player sees cues in the preparation and movement build-up which enables him/her to be certain where the ball is coming. The less experienced player does not yet have this ability (and may never have it). Also this is not something you can teach in a classroom over a few weekends, it is an understanding which grows and flowers in the player over countless hours of meaningful participation in a particular sport (or other areas of life) and it is selective to that particular activity.

To be a really successful top-level table tennis player requires the nurturing and evolution of this aptitude through specific training – for the top coach to produce top players he or she has to be constantly aware of this fact and also be aware of the means of stimulating and fostering this ability. Regrettably too many of the training exercises we continue to use even at quite high level in Europe still reinforce predictability rather than cultivating adaptive intelligence.

What may not be readily obvious either is that adaptive intelligence is much more crucial in the women’s game than it is in the men’s. This is of course because there are many more ways to the top and many more different styles of play in women’s table tennis. Not only do women face a much larger variety of styles but also a much larger variety of materials, which means that the larger element of unpredictability inherent in women’s play requires them to be more adaptively ‘aware’.

Above all however it must be understood that for any practice to be effective it must be tailored to the style of the individual player. Players are individuals with a host of differing ways of playing. Exercises which are very beneficial to one player may in fact be detrimental to another. The prime criterion of the value of practice to the individual is whether or not this complements the player’s evolution. For this to happen the player must be aware of the direction of his or her development and the means of achieving maximum potential – unfortunately a number of players go through their whole career without ever understanding these aspects.

Imagine the situation on a high-level training camp with the best young players in the country if the 4 coaches in charge all feed in a differing input and then expect the players to comply. The players will certainly be confused to say the least and the coaches will not get the best from either the group or the individuals. Envisage the difference if the 4 coaches, all with diverse backgrounds and experience, approached the players in an identical way. ‘What do you think you should be doing, I think these are the possibilities, but where do you want to go? Are you comfortable with your style of play? How does your stroke feel, do you feel a tightness, a tension anywhere, in wrist, arm, shoulder etc? I think this, but what do you feel? Are you comfortable with your distance from the table, your FH and BH split etc? Do you understand there are many things you can correct for yourself and that the awareness of bodily sensations is crucial to the development of skills? Are you aware that your development should be yours, not someone else’s?’

Coaching is unlocking a player’s potential to allow him or her to maximise performance. It is helping players to learn for themselves rather than instructing them. In many cases the way we learn and more importantly the way we teach in our modern society must be questioned and modified. The coach must think of the player in terms of potential and not performance. Good coaching or mentoring should in fact take the player beyond the limits of the instructor’s own knowledge.

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