European women’s table tennis

Eva JELER (2010) All about Women’s TT in Europe

Eva Jeler, German National Coach, won the bronze medal at the European Championships in 1976. In 1983 she became German national coach, from 1989 up to 1996 she was German head coach and after that became coordinator for cadet and youth teams. She is currently also coaching the girls’ national team.

Q: How good are European women, what can Europe look forward to in the future?

We have to compare Europe with the best and the best are Asian women, in particular the Chinese. It is not difficult to detect why European women are behind the Chinese and Asians in general. We have the same problems in all categories – cadet girls, junior girls and women. We in Europe do not practise enough. Concerning technique Asian women are significantly better than our girls. It is my experience that we in Europe have a special problem when we talk about women. In Europe, as soon as a really talented young girl appears somewhere there are suddenly many people around her. Instead of practising hard and focusing on their athletic development such girls have to deal with too many conflicting opinions regarding how they should progress. So despite having very good training and competitive conditions in some federations within Europe, such as Germany, we still have many obstacles to overcome on our way to the top, which to the same extent do not exist in Asia.

But even disregarding this issue, there still remain the factors of not having enough practice and not as good a technique as we should have and last but not least that we start to work seriously much too late. We also have a more basic problem with women’s table tennis in Europe. There is significantly less money in women’s than in men’s table tennis and today money is essential to top sport.

Women’s table tennis in Europe appears to be less attractive – the spectators want to see emotions in top sport and it seems that in Europe the only emotions women are supposed to show without being unfeminine are negative ones. So our girls show that they are not satisfied with their performance instead of showing fighting spirit and so making their game more attractive to spectators by offering more of a show. Our women will not try to produce such a show and so they must not be surprised that spectators are not watching their matches. At big tournaments spectators often go out to have a rest or a drink when the women’s rounds start - the women must do more to interest the spectators so they stay and watch! The girls must see that society is not always in tune with what is feminine and what is not. In sport a girl can show positive emotions without appearing unfeminine. Some people will always think that women do not belong in sport, but all girls have to accept that these people’s opinions do not have to concern a successful female athlete.

Q: In Europe Romania is at the top in cadet girls, in junior girls, in women. Still Romania has no chance in all in these age groups when playing against the best Asian players in their respective categories. Why not?

Despite being undisputedly the best in Europe, I think the Romanians still make too many errors in their play compared to Asian players. Because of these errors they are unable to develop their play to a level matching that of the top Asian players, even though they are dominating the rest of the non-Asian world. I have never seen them train, so I cannot sufficiently comment on their particular ‘school and style’, but they probably have to deal with the same issue as the rest of Europe: a decisively smaller amount of training than the Asian women that begins much too late in their development.

Q: Considering this, what would be your recommendation in dealing with the issues of European women?

There are several ideas about the ideal solutions to these problems and I can only hope that my idea will turn out to be the right one in the long run. In my opinion it is a mistake to think that it is enough to adapt the men’s style of practice to the women’s and assume that this will do. The result of such training methods can only be men’s table tennis on a lesser level. As I see it we need to find different solutions to the method of how to win points - normally with girls you cannot rely on power to win the point, so you have to accentuate placement, speed and safety in the rallies. In comparison, boys try to win points with powerful forehand topspins and everything in the rally is subordinated to the attempt of coming into the right position to use this main weapon.

Such a pattern does not work in women’s table tennis, points have to be won with adequate placement, speed, rotation and change of rotation. An ability to play a fast and secure backhand and to have an adequate answer when the opponent is changing from backhand into forehand is essential. This means that when working with girls we must spend most of the time playing different strokes and combinations near the table. Another problem in Europe is the lack of good foot-work techniques. The foot-work needs to complement all the other elements of play instead of being an obstacle to perfecting the different strokes.

Q: You have explained the problems with European women but your recommendations are going in the direction of Romanian table tennis – fast counterattack near the table - and Romanian girls are not good enough to compete on even terms with Asian opponents. What is your answer to this?

There is an important difference - I am not talking about the fast counterattack and blocking over the table without spin that the Romanians are mostly doing. I would like to see us develop a fast game on both wings but with a dominating forehand and with rotation. When we speak about this rotation I don’t have the rotation produced by strokes which begin with a very low racket position in mind, but I’m talking about the rotation produced with fast strokes near the table. When you look back on the last decade you see that the only European women who were able to endanger the Asian dominance did not play "the Romanian style" of fast counterattack without spin, but played a powerful topspin attack fast and near the table.

When you watch the girls beginning to learn, for example, a backhand topspin, then you mostly see them being taught to play a backhand topspin with a starting racket position at knee height instead of trying to begin to rotate the ball with a short stroke produced from the forearm and the wrist, whilst hitting the ball not much later then when blocking!

Q: Today we have in Europe quite a different situation than we had one or two generations ago when young girls came fast to the top in Europe, like Nemes, Steff and others. Now our young talents are for example Dodean and Samara who are already 22 years of age - in China they would be almost veterans! What is the reason?

We simply start too late to work seriously with girls. In reality we should start to work with them even earlier than with boys, they mature faster than boys and should be ready to climb to the top sooner! It is very important for girls to develop their technical abilities fully before puberty - after that it is quite difficult to change anything. The problem is that the girls start late to practise hard, and then they mostly have to correct their technique and conception of the game first. They are 16 or 17 then and instead of being at the top they are at the beginning! We are here again and again coming to the "mother of all reasons" - the girls start to have adequate training too late.

Another problem is that we at first begin to prepare girls for winning cadet championships, then to win junior championships and only then do we begin to think how to survive in senior competition. Instead of such an approach we should have the aim of forming a successful adult player in mind from the beginning.

Q: Can you please comment on the European cadet and youth championships and World team championships. What about European women, are there any who we could expect to see in due time at the top in the world?

In women’s sport it is especially difficult to predict the development of young players. There are so many elements that could direct their development in quite different directions. Mentality and the psyche in general are even more important with regard to girls than to boys. Girls are more sensitive, much more self-critical and can in that way often be self-destroying. If I had to judge the European girls’ potential, without knowing them and without judging their mental strengths, I would rate the Polish teams very highly. Also Szocs from Romania has in my opinion a chance to become good, even though there might be a thing or two to change in her game. Madarasz and Ambrus from Hungary also have potential. Samara, Dodean from Romania and Pesocka from Ukraine were very successful young players, but at the moment it looks as if they are not living up to their potential. We in Germany have two very promising talents, Sabine Winter and Petrissa Sӧlja - they are talented and we have all the possibilities to provide them with the best conditions for their development; it is only up to their own will and to the people supporting them to determine if they will become top world-class players.

Q: What do you think about Chinese women players playing in European teams - is it positive or negative for the development of European women’s table tennis?

It depends on how you treat them - if you use them to learn and to have stronger competition for our women, then it can be very positive, but if you take them only to win a medal, then it is of no use to us. In Germany we often had former Chinese players playing for the national team, but we learned from them. Our girls had to try to win against them and not complain about tough competition. It would be of course completely wrong to take several Chinese players and then neglect to work with the native players. China is world champion, we have to learn from them and when their players play in Europe we have to use this for our benefit. In the future they will be able to play only for clubs, no new Chinese will be eligible for European national teams, but we can continue to learn from them, we can even learn how to beat them! It is so simple - they are better then we are, we have to measure up to them, we have to learn from them, we have to try to reach their level and to beat them one day.