Women’s Development in Sweden

Rowden Fullen (2004)

Marie Olsson is certainly the most promising female talent that Sweden has had over the last 5 or 6 years, the only player who has been right at the top in her age group from the age of 9 years and one of the few to reach the highest levels of the European elite as a junior.

She was recently interviewed in the Swedish table tennis news magazine and made a number of statements, which should send shock waves through the Swedish table tennis hierarchy. She would for example ‘like to have access to a trainer who works with her every day and is regularly with her at tournaments’. Isn’t this totally ludicrous? A player of her level and capabilities without organized and supervised development! In almost any other country in Europe coaches would be queuing up to get the chance to help her.

Marie also indicated that those who were her junior contemporaries such as Vaida and Pota are now somewhat ahead of her due to stronger competition and better coaching and sparring in Europe. Certainly Marie’s results over the last year or so cannot be compared with those of Pota for example even though Marie is probably potentially a much better player. Surely this is a damning indictment of women’s table tennis in Sweden.

Finally Marie thought it would be nice for the women to have their own regular team captain who was there for them at all times! Sweden, one of the top table tennis nations in the world and no women’s team captain. Again totally ludicrous! Why should the top girls and young women in Sweden even want to play internationally for a country which shows so little interest in their welfare or development? Indeed one of our top young players has already said no to the national team and this is quite understandable.

It seems to be obvious that Sweden just does not have the commitment, the coaching expertise or sufficient depth of quality in the women to provide the right sparring and direction for talented girl players. It would make more sense for Marie to pull out of the National Team, to leave Sweden for the next 4 or 5 years and to work abroad at developing her game to its full potential. She will certainly not do this playing in Sweden.

One can to some extent understand the attitude of the Swedish Association. There are for instance so few of our top girl players who have the right motivation and are prepared to commit their lives totally to table tennis (one can almost count them on the fingers of one hand) that we can appreciate the reluctance of the Association to spend time or money on the women. But this is a two-edged sword – if the Association is not interested then it’s all too easy for the players to lose motivation and to give up on their ambitions to play at the highest level and to represent their country. It’s not as if there is any serious money in women’s table tennis so why bother? Better surely just to play abroad for money and develop your game as best as you can rather than to join the rat race at home.

There is also a further fundamental point to consider. Have we the trainers even at national level who are capable of developing our girl players to the highest levels? Results and an overview of the development of female players in Sweden would appear to indicate that we in fact do not! A number of our best teenagers have returned disillusioned from training in China or Japan where they have been asked almost from the first day why they don’t play a woman’s game. It is immediately obvious to top Asian coaches that the direction in which our girls are evolving is not going to bring results at top level in women’s table tennis. Some of these girls have had very high level coaching in Sweden!

It would appear too that even our top clubs in Sweden which are involved with girls are not in favour of allowing the National Association to take over women’s coaching. When it was suggested that all the best women/girls should train in the new National Centre one of the top women’s clubs threatened to cease all activity with female training and to withdraw their women’s teams from the league. The Association backed down.

Why too do we not make the best use of the resources we do have in Sweden? We have Chinese women playing in the leagues in Sweden, many of them of high level and with different playing styles, penholders or defenders for example. Why are they not used on training camps? This is a problem which has been with us for many years. Back in the ‘90s when Bergkvara were briefly in the elite their number one player Tong Fei Ming was a top twenty world ranked player. It took Lars Borg some 6 months and a lot of arm twisting before she was allowed to spar with Swedish players on training camps! We have trainers in Sweden who have trained girls and women at national level in other countries, even a former junior girls’ trainer in the Chinese National Team. Why are our own National Trainers so afraid to use outside expertise? Are they afraid that their own flaws and shortcomings will be exposed?

Possibly in all of this we should bear one fact in mind. Whatever the great successes of Swedish table tennis on the men’s side over the years, we have never, ever, had a Swedish woman in a world final, in either singles, doubles or mixed. And this is going right back to 1926. Now perhaps is the time that we should finally understand that men’s and women’s table tennis are two completely different animals. Success in one gives absolutely no basis for assumptions or performance in the case of the other.