Girls and National Centres

Rowden Fullen (2007)

As a coach you have a large measure of responsibility for the direction of your player’s development and you should always be ready to answer questions. Not only parents and players but other trainers at varying levels will have queries as to where the player is going, why they are going along this path, which aspects you decide on and where you have discussion with the player, which equipment is best for him or her, what the short and long term goals are, what the end style will be. You should always be clear in your own mind as to where the player is going and how he or she is going to get there. Equally on regional and national camps and especially at national centres parents and trainers should want to know exactly what is going to happen to the young player and national coaches should be ready with their answers and prepared to justify their position. They are after all paid servants of the association. Far too often however (if we have any communication at all) we encounter too many fairy stories and too little professionalism.

* What plans are there for the player’s mental development?
* Will players be taught to be flexible in the mind?
* Is training in the centre the same for male and female players? Are there different training methods for girl players?
* How many table tennis theory sessions are there each week?
* Do the players have their own representative so that they can bring problems and complaints to the attention of the head coach?
* How often do players and coaches meet to evaluate technical problems or is this only done in the training sessions?
* How many times a month do coaches discuss with players how they personally are going to develop, where they are going and how they are going to get there?
* In which areas of style development does the coach have the final say and in which are the player’s views of more importance?
* How much time is spent on the cultivation of table tennis consciousness?
* How much time is spent training against differing materials or playing styles?
* How many and how often are outside sparring players available for training with centre players?
* Do seniors, juniors and cadets train together or are they segregated?
* How many hours multi-ball are there each day?
* Will there be coach supervised serve training?
* Are training sessions geared towards the individual needs of the player?
* Is physical training geared towards the player’s personal style requirements?
* Are there any political or traditional limitations to the player’s development? In other words at national level are certain styles more favoured than others because the coaches understand them better or feel these are more suited to our culture?
* Is it part of the coaches’ job at regional or national level to deliberately change the style of the player if they think this style will not be effective internationally? Do they liaise with the parents and the player’s own trainer if they are thinking along these lines? Do the coaches involved have the knowledge and the insight to do this?
* How many times a year do parents and the player’s own trainer get reports from national/regional centres?
* Will players be introduced to the advanced playing techniques suitable to their type of game?
* How much time is spent on serve/receive exercises during each training session?

Questions such as these should not pose the slightest threat to senior coaches who have worked with player development for many years. When you consider national training then the level at which such centres are run should be above reproach and open to examination at all times. Above all there should be an organized and in-depth programme and players and parents should know the direction and content of the course. Parents committing their children to such places for a number of years have every right from the outset to definitive answers on both education and training and there should be not the slightest difficulty in obtaining these.

Also at national centres there should of course be separate programmes for male and female players. Not only are the playing styles very different but the variety of paths to the top in the women’s game call for a rather different approach and differing training methods. European girls must come to terms with all the possibilities in the women’s game, with the many differing playing styles, work out which is best for them and develop their own character within the style. There are available to women players many more possibilities for success, many more different paths to the top levels, than there are for men. They only have to be open-minded about this, ready to accept that they need not be limited in their choice. They must also of course train in the right direction for their way of playing.

Too often players, coaches and selectors are ‘blinkered’ when they look at women’s styles in Europe. They only really want to see one or two styles of play, it’s almost as if they think that only these styles have a chance to succeed at world level. Perhaps in Europe we should take a closer look at just how the top women in the world have played over the last 10 years, think about the variety of styles and why these players have been successful. Perhaps also we should stop trying to influence women to conform to men’s playing styles, even where these have been successful!

European girls must also appreciate that it’s not enough only to be able to play well one way, often you must be prepared to alter your style to beat others. You must have the capacity to have other ways of play and to be able to cope with all styles. Above all the player and trainer should get together and think of a specialty which can make the player unique. In Asia players have the opportunity all the time to compete against all differing styles of play; from the national and provincial squads down, almost all training groups have all techniques, defenders, short-pimple pen-hold attackers, long-pimple blockers, left-handers etc. Where the women don’t have a style to spar against they will ‘borrow’ a man player or even create a player with this style. In comparison in Europe players often meet only one or two styles in training and don’t know how to cope with many others. The ultimate level of play is as a result strictly limited. Training methods must be devised to overcome this particular problem and where necessary appropriate sparring organized. The development of adaptive intelligence in the women’s game is of paramount importance.

A word about the opposition provided in training, your sparring partners and the level. Many players seem to think that you can only improve by training with much higher level sparring than yourself. If you always play only against much better performers than yourself, how do you ever learn to impose your game on others and to develop your own tactical ploys? The better player is always in control! You need in fact to practise at three levels.

* 1) With players better than yourself to learn new things and upgrade your skills.
* 2) With players of similar standard to work out new tactics and try to control the play.
* 3) With players of lesser ability where you can control the game and have more opportunities to use your more powerful strokes.

Often at national centres training is allowed to become too rigid and inflexible and there is a lack of innovation and ideas. With large training groups and few coaches, development becomes stereotyped with the same exercises and methods, systems take over and the individual emphasis and personal touch are lost. Coaches do not make or take the time and opportunity to focus on what is individual in style to each particular player. The group as a whole drifts without guidance into a general style of play and development of new and different aspects and personal style specialties is slowed down or lost. Equally training itself, the process of training becomes devalued - players work within the group and often work very hard indeed but in many cases without ever knowing exactly why! They train because they want to be better - how can they achieve any destination when they don’t know where they are going or how to get there? In this sort of situation it’s only the one or two very best players who benefit. It’s very easy for the rest of the group to drift and become merely a support element, expendable cannon-fodder!

On the other hand if the national group is too small you lose the stimulus of variety and it’s too easy for training to become boring and stereotyped, with the same players and sparring day in and day out. As in all things there must be a balance, a balance between individual attention and group training.

Above all parents and coaches should ask the right questions, especially in the case of younger girls starting in national centres and should keep on asking until they get the right answers. After this the next stage is to monitor development so that you are sure it is proceeding as planned. If you can’t get answers then be suspicious, if things don’t happen as planned be even more suspicious! Over the whole of Europe there are many of the best individual players who don’t go to their national centres and have refused to do so even in the face of threats of expulsion from their national team. These players and their coaches must have very good reasons for such a stand. In those countries where many top players do go to national centres results at world level have hardly been encouraging, especially in the case of the women.

What almost all parents and many trainers are totally unaware of is how national coaches for girls’ and women’s teams are selected throughout Europe. In most countries the women’s game is ‘second-class’, it is not a priority. Often the trainer for the men’s team will have ‘responsibility’ for the women too, or perhaps the job will fall on the shoulders of the trainer in charge of the juniors. Usually it’s a question of finance and the largest slice of the cake goes to the men – even in the big European tournaments a number of countries will send the men but not the women and the grounds will almost always be because they have a lower budget.

There is also an increasing tendency in Europe for girls’ coaches to come from the players’ ranks but not of the women, of the men! So you get a man who has been a player for twenty years who is suddenly responsible for the development of girls’ table tennis. Or you have a younger male player who has been injured and can’t continue his career so again he becomes a women’s trainer. Very few women players of course in the West would ever want to be a top coach — a woman may sacrifice having a life to be a top player but not to be a top trainer. In many countries in Europe there is also still strong discrimination against women trainers.

Nobody ever seems to raise the question whether a man who has been a player and who has been totally focused on playing and developing his skills in this area in the men’s game, is the one best qualified firstly to be a coach, secondly qualified at all to be a women’s coach! In too many countries it’s the ‘old boy system’ that operates, where top players and administrators stick together – it often appears that it’s not a priority to get the best people in the job or even to get the best possible results. The people at the top like the ‘status quo’, they don’t want newcomers with ideas, they don’t want things to change, above all they don’t want someone rocking the boat and upsetting their carefully preserved positions.

Let me give you an example that will perhaps demonstrate to many of you the difference between the men’s and women’s games. Not so long ago at a tournament I was sitting next to the coach of a man player who has held a top ten world ranking. The coach said to the player - ‘Be careful against your next opponent, he’s a long pimple blocker, plays like the women do and many good players have problems when they meet him’. The player wasn’t interested and his answer was - ‘However good he is, basically he’s only a local league player. He has no chance against the professionals’. He almost lost the first game! His comment when coming over to the coach - ‘ I was wrong, I’ve never met anyone who puts so much spin on the ball, but now I know how I have to play in the next game.’ The coach replied - ‘You know what you have to do only because you’re at a level where you’re able to adapt your game to almost any situation. However you really understand very little, the other guy is not putting any spin at all on the ball.’

The same can be true of men players trying to make a sudden transition to being women’s trainers, they often really understand very little. The career path of a top player is very different from that of a top coach, they may both start out by playing but go their separate ways very quickly. How many top players understand the theory of table tennis, how many understand the method of stroke correction techniques? Many can’t even organize their own game so that they play to near full potential all the time! How can they then do it for others, especially in an environment where different physical and mental approaches are required and where even the tactics can be totally different because of the much larger variety of playing styles?

It is interesting to note for example that out of all the good table tennis nations in Europe only Romania and Czechoslovakia have ever won World Championship gold in both women’s team and individual events and only Romania in relatively recent times. Countries such as Germany and Russia have never won the women’s singles, France, Italy, Holland, Poland even Sweden have never competed in a women’s team final! Perhaps it is just possible that in the not too distant future someone may make the connection that the achieving of success depends in no small measure on the right direction, the right training methods and informed guidance. If you don’t know where you’re going then it’s not easy to get there, in fact you may never arrive!