Coaching women in Europe: ineffectual

Rowden Fullen 2010

For coaching to really work at any level we need to have the right people, in the right positions, at the right time. And above all we need to have the players in focus and not the coach. What do we mean by this? If the coach considers himself to be in charge and of importance or a top player himself, then a certain amount of his energy is directed into maintaining his position and feeding his ego. Therefore not all of his energy is centred only on the player and in giving the player the best of all possible opportunities to reach his/her full potential.

In too many countries in Europe coaches in National Centres are only interested in doing ‘their own thing’. They know best how to develop players, they don’t need to listen to either the players or their personal coaches and they don’t need to have contact with the big clubs who produce the players. But are most of these coaches operating from a position of strength or of weakness? Usually from one of weakness!

Often unfortunately most top coaches now come from the ranks of former players. As a result although they may understand what top players need and feel, they often have little insight into what is required in the development of differing playing styles and the use of materials, or in the case of the women’s game, of the many and varied paths to the top levels. In the majority of cases most of the in-depth development of these coaches comes only from the training camps they have attended as cadets or juniors and of course what they have learned is very much dependent on the expertise and methods of those in charge of such camps and also in the continuity of the training. How many coaches in National Centres have ever actually ‘produced’ top players themselves? Few if any!

To justify funding, sports authorities in Europe ask for results and medals from a young age. In China the best coaches work with cadets and juniors, but the only results that mean anything are those achieved in senior events. For young players to evolve we need more time for practice, not more and more competitions all the time. Looking for and producing girls who can immediately win medals in mini-cadet, cadet and junior events does not in most cases build a suitable grounding for senior competition. Already in cadets the prime goal of practice and selection becomes success as soon as possible.

Because our focus is on the short-term, selection is often biased in the wrong direction towards the sort of player who can achieve short-term success. Of course it is always easier to get results at mini-cadet, cadet and junior levels – the proof as it were of the competence and efficiency of the coaching and development in any association is whether or not they can bridge the gap between junior and senior success and produce world-ranked seniors. And what do we mean by world-ranked seniors? At least in the top 50 in the world.

If the emphasis is on success at a young age then the tendency is for a rapid turnover of players, who represent their country a few times and then disappear. The focus of the coaches immediately switches of course to the next even younger group of ‘hopefuls’, who are coming through behind. In this way we have a rapid turnover without ever really getting anywhere and in the process we demotivate a number of older players who perhaps do have the commitment to get somewhere given time and a little help.

This approach also means that the National Coaches have no need to liaise with the few big clubs, which are working hard long-term to produce top seniors and have good coaching and development on a daily basis. Such clubs and any contribution they may make are unnecessary because what they may achieve is in fact largely outside the parameters of what the top coaches require at national level.

Even on the coaching front there is no requirement for the development of top coaches to raise the overall levels throughout the country. In fact this could from the point of view of the main association be counterproductive as it would result in a cadre of top coaches, who long-term would produce better players than those being groomed nationally. The fact also that players were being developed outside the national framework to play a senior (and often different style of game) would also be directly against what the National Coaches need and require to win at the younger levels. Of course in all of this the wishes, aims and feelings of the individual players would be totally irrelevant.

Such a developmental pathway and a continued input by ‘player’ coaches also tend to ignore the individual assets of the player and far too often a ‘traditional’ style is favoured by the coaches in charge. It appears that the preferred playing style with the girls in Europe at the moment is two-winged topspin off the table. Players who don’t do this are ‘encouraged’ to change. In any group of ten girls they can be half a dozen differing styles and a fixation with one particular style will only benefit two or three players in the group at most. The rest are therefore expendable ‘cannon-fodder’ and are probably not going to be selected for international duty, despite any results they may achieve: they may in fact just as well not bother to attend development camps.

A focus on one particular style as being nationally more acceptable than others is always dangerous. As Jack Carrington said in UK 60 years ago and it’s even more relevant today: ‘You will not make top players by working in areas in which they will never be more than mediocre’. Many coaches in Europe for example say of the unusual players such as Carl Prean and Ni Xialan: ‘In quite a few countries in Europe players such as this would never get a place in the National Team because their style would be traditionally unacceptable’.

We need in order to produce world-class women, to work to long-term goals and to work with the styles of play and the advanced techniques necessary to enable them to compete at senior level. We also need to keep our research up to date in respect of what the top women are doing and how the women’s game is changing today. Unfortunately this long-term approach would probably deny us results and funding over a number of years and therefore we shall continue to produce women in Europe who are basically second-class in world terms.

In the case of the women it was plainly evident in the Tokyo 2009 Worlds that the two-winged topspin game for the women is something of a ‘dinosaur’, especially when played off the table. It was demonstrated for all to see, that consistent European topspin players like Toth (still dominant in Europe) were totally outplayed as soon as they drew back from the table.

The only European girls to get results were the Czechs, Vacenovska and Strbkova who at least tried to take the Asians on at their own close-to-table fast game. So why are we so fixated on spin with the girls? Why force girls down a route which is almost certainly going to be less successful in the future due to the equipment being used and their physical makeup?

With this type of coaching approach we are unfortunately only ever going to produce women in the top 70 to 300 in the world rankings and our ultimate aims are always going to be restricted. Coaching of women in Europe must move on to the next level. We must not only be aware of what the top women in the world are doing and of the styles that are most successful, but we must stop following and start innovating. It’s of little use watching the Asian players and especially the Chinese and waiting for them to come up with new techniques and tactics, then following blindly where they lead.

We in Europe and particularly the coaches (not the ex-players involved with table tennis, who will rarely if ever be able to break the mould of inherited thinking), must be ready to pioneer, to create, to originate, to initiate. And any innovation must be based on the natural strengths of the individual player. Only in this way are we ever going to make inroads against Asian dominance in our sport of table tennis.

Systems unfortunately breed predictability and limit creativity. Coaches are only going to produce the top players and the players are only going to attain their full potential, if they are resourceful, inventive and imaginative enough to bypass the regime and to ‘think outside the box’.

Finally of course, which few coaches seem to understand, is that producing a champion in any sport is not just about developing the technical and tactical skills, it’s about moulding and expanding the whole person. Coaching is not about dictating or coercing, but about pointing out the way and the alternatives. The player has to think for herself, act and be self-sufficient, in the final analysis only the player is going to ‘produce the goods’: many players however even throughout the whole length of their playing career, never actually come to terms with what is required for them personally to reach the goals they dream about.