Women's Techniques and the Implications of Time and Distance

Rowden Fullen (2009)

Women play closer to the table than men, this is a well known fact and few coaches would argue with this. Women create less spin than men, few coaches would argue with this either. Women are not as strong as men and not as fast as men; look at world records for weightlifting and sprinting and few people would argue with this assertion. However when we come to training and the development of women players, far too often coaches in Western Europe seem to look to male styles as a sound basis for the evolution of women.

When one talks to the top Asian coaches regarding our penchant in a number of European countries for producing women who play a man’s game and topspin back from the table, their reply is always the same – ‘Long may you continue to do this, with the bigger ball the superiority of the Asian players will be even more pronounced. If you continue in the West to work with this style of play you will only ever produce top 100 players at best, you will never succeed in getting women in the top 25 in the world.’

Unfortunately however in Europe there seems to be little thought and fewer ideas as to where we are going with our women and indeed how to get there. Many coaches even seem to ignore the fact that there are many more playing styles in the women’s game than in the men’s and that it can be a very useful exercise to explore the varied alternatives. Any top-level training group of women players should normally consist of many more varied styles than you would find in an equivalent men’s group. If European women only spar against one or two styles of play how are they expected to progress into the higher echelons of women’s table tennis?

Techniques are and should be different too with players who are closer to the table, but again in Europe we don’t seem to set much credence in aspects such as this. A number of top coaches stress the point that table tennis is faster and faster every year but we don’t seem to take this to the logical conclusion – if our sport is faster then it follows logically that better close-to-table technique is crucial simply because we have less time!

It is however not only the increasing speed factor which we must evaluate but another element which, although of crucial importance, is often overlooked. This is the fact, that of all the racket sports, table tennis is the one where the ball slows most dramatically through the air and where spin most affects the trajectory of the ball.

We must therefore consider time and the implications of the time element in men’s and women’s table tennis. Men more often than not play from further back, with more spin and a more pronounced arc. Because of these factors although they hit the ball harder it takes fractionally longer to reach the opponent on the other side of the table. Women take the ball earlier and play flatter with less spin. There is a big time difference between attacking close to the table and executing similar strokes say three metres back.

If we feed in an initial speed of 15 m/second, a ball hit at the end of the table will reach the other end of the table in 0.2 of a second or slightly less and will then have a speed of 10 m/second as it crosses the end-line of the opponent’s half – on the other hand if the opponent contacts the ball from 3 metres back he/she will have around 0.5 of a second to react and the speed of the ball through the air will have dropped to 7.0 m/second. If both players are 3 metres back they will have a second or slightly more to play shots, which at top international level is a long time.

Just what are the implications of this difference in the time element? It has for a start a direct influence on technique. When you have less time technical considerations such as stroke length and playing the FH across the face assume rather more importance – or for example playing the BH with the right foot or right shoulder a little forward. If the technique is sloppy you deny yourself recovery time for the next ball.

Equally movement patterns are vital – it is critical that women have the correct patterns for their style of play and can execute them with good balance. Above all retained square-ness is vital – because they are closer to the table, women need to be ready at all times to play either FH or BH without a moment’s hesitation. If you watch female Asian players who topspin for instance they loop from a much squarer position so as to retain the initiative on the next ball. The position of the feet for topspin can be very different depending on whether you are initiating power or using the speed on the incoming ball. Sound technique is rather more vital in the women’s game than in the men’s.

Tactical considerations also become crucial. Not only do almost all women stand closer to the table, they also stand squarer, use more BH serves, receive more with the BH from the middle and play more BH shots from the middle. Nor are these tactics accidental as almost all the top women both Asian and European utilize them and many women so doing, such as Boros and Guo Yan, have in fact extremely strong FH strokes. These tactics are used because they work and because they save time.

But the prime question we must ask is how do we produce power? Then, does the production of power vary from differing distances from the table? Men often execute forehands with the right foot back and further back from the table; this can involve transfer of weight from back to front foot. Usually however if you watch the top male players the rear foot comes through so that the player finishes the stroke square. Women play closer to the table and invariably stay squarer than the men and use elastic energy and rotation more effectively. Power close to the table is invariably produced by rotation and racket-arm speed and almost always from a square or over-square stance (bat-arm foot forward).

Starting with the right foot back when close to the table has several major drawbacks –

  • It limits strong rotation of the hips (centre of gravity) and ultimate power development.
  • It leaves weaknesses in the body and crossover areas.
  • If players bring the right foot through to square up this takes too long.
  • It encourages players to move back as they play wide forehands and militates against taking the ball early on the forehand side.

On the other hand using the square or over-square stance while close aids recovery and there is no lack in power input provided rotation is good. The most common fault is that players take the ball too late; if the square or over-square stance is to be used then early timing is vital and participants must be ready to contact the ball well in front of the body.

Coaches should examine in some detail the sort of strokes that European and Asian women produce. Asian women will for example often drive through the opponent’s topspin on the bounce at an early timing point. European women use this stroke very rarely as in most cases they have the bat-arm foot too far back and can’t get in quickly enough. Asian players such as Zhang Yining, Wang Nan, Ai Fukuhara, Liu Jia (Austria) and one or two Europeans such as Pota and Steff are able to execute such early-ball shots purely because of their stance and movement patterns. They play in most cases square or over-square and move in to take the wide ball on their forehand side.

It is also quite noticeable in the case of the younger girls from Europe (and especially from the Eastern-bloc countries) that square-ness is the in thing. Players such as Szocs, Kusinska, Kolodyazhnaya, Noskova, Matelova, Xiao all play very square and in some cases pronouncedly over-square. This is obviously not accidental as countries such as Romania and Russia have a long history of producing high-level female players and their top coaches would not countenance obsolete or ineffective techniques.

One thing to bear in mind too is that close-to-table techniques such as good one-step movement sideways and in to take the early ball, are not just the prerogative of the attacking player. It is important that defenders also can break up the game and put attackers under pressure; in these modern times and with games up to eleven points to purely defend all the time is hardly a viable proposition. So defenders too should be prepared to use close-to-table techniques to their advantage.

If a woman is to reach the highest levels in table tennis a second feature to consider carefully is that one of the single most important aspects is control of speed. Without the capability to control the opponent’s speed it is extremely difficult for women to survive at any level in the female game. This is one of the reasons why so many of them play with material of one kind or another. If women adopt the type of stance, ready position and close-to-table movement patterns which encourage them to back away or to play the ball from a deeper position, then a number of the possibilities available to change the form of the rally are in fact lost to them.

Unfortunately even in a number of national centres throughout Europe the coaching and development of girl players and the individual attention given to them in terms of both technical help and ‘direction’ are woefully inadequate and considerably less than professional. In addition far too often the variety of styles is strictly limited as are the sparring and training opportunities available to the top girl players.

One further aspect that merits consideration with girls and women is upper body strength, which generally speaking is about 35% when compared with their male counterparts. As a result it is even more important for girls to have good technique from an early stage in their development as this generates full use of the torso and guards against injuries (especially to the lower back) caused by partial rotation and one-sided use of the upper body.

It is important too that women use elastic energy to maximum effect as this will both improve the efficiency of the strokes and also help to reduce stress on the upper body. In the case of the 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. This is much less important in the development of male players as not only do they play further back but because of their higher body strength it is easier for them generate power from a static position without any additional aids.

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