Professionalism in Europe

Rowden 2011

Situation

Why is it that European table tennis players, apart from the few rare exceptions, are no match for the Asians? Why are even the real top players in Europe quite old, many 30 to 40 years or more (and still able to win major events in Europe) while many of the top Asians are early 20’s or even in their teens and dominate at world level? Why don’t we in Europe get our young players to the top levels earlier?

If you listen to the top European stars they don’t seem to have much confidence in their early training. Timo Boll: ‘It’s only now at 30 years of age that I fully understand how I should play’. Werner Schlager (last European to win the Worlds): ‘When I look back much of my early training was wasted’. Michael Maze: ‘Now I have a Chinese coach, I have strengthened my BH and my movement is better and more dynamic’. Are all these top players saying that coaching is below par or in the wrong direction in Europe? If players of this level are dissatisfied then surely there is little hope for the rest of us!

As a matter of interest just what do the current top coaches and High Performance Directors in Europe think of our progress?

Peter Sartz: ‘Regarding women we do not have training programmes and methods only for women yet; that’s why European women mostly can’t play at top international level. Also in Europe many countries have done nothing to improve their women’.
Dusan Osmanagić: ‘We all see that the situation in European table tennis is not very good. For me one of the most important reasons for such a situation is the problem with coaches - speaking of course generally as there are for sure exceptions to the rule - most of our coaches are not capable to meet the required standards’.
Michel Gadal: ‘We in Europe are much behind, we usually start later, we think in age categories and try to make from young players champions in their age category, not to follow from the beginning only the goal to make a top senior player - in that way we lose a lot of time’.
Mario Amizić: ‘The Asian countries have adapted to modern table tennis, Europe has gone backwards. The last three years have seen a particularly rapid decline in Europe. The present situation in Europe is a catastrophe but if we really think about it, it is in fact the reality we should have expected. The methods we had in place some years ago produced a superb generation of players but these are not working any more. We have lost our way, we are not adapting to new trends and our model is no longer up-to-date. The older coaches in Europe will tell you we are not educating our coaches and trainers properly or indeed in the right way’.

Even the coaches at the sharp end of training in Europe are concerned as to the direction and scope of our training and the fact that we are not developing our players to match the Asians in any numbers. In the case of women’s play we are indeed woefully behind and show no real signs of moving forward in the near future. The last European woman to win the World Singles was Angelica Roseanu and the last time she won it was in 1955! This is 56 years ago!

Comparisons

In Europe far too often we coach young players to win mini-cadet or cadet events. Because of funding limitations (get results or no funding!) we focus on the means to win at a younger age. The weapons used to win at a young age are very different to those needed at world level. As a result we often have to backtrack later to try and re-structure the player’s game to be effective at senior level.

Many of the Asian countries and especially China, place little value on cadet and junior successes and the only results that matter are those in the senior game. Players such as Zhu Yuling have beaten women in the top 10 in the world at 15 years of age: what’s the point of playing cadet and junior events? The emphasis and the methods are completely different from development in Europe. If a player wins a continental cadet championship everybody expects him/her to become at least a good continental senior champion, but titles in cadet categories are not a sure indicator of a future high level career - such results only indicate that the player has certain qualities which may enable him/her to become a very good player. In fact very few cadet stars become senior champions!

Aspects which are vital in the seniors but often not worked on much at a young age are as follows: short play and control of short play, use of angles and placement, high level serve and receive, the first 6 balls, spin and control of spin, control at speed and how to win the point, power and uses of power, individual specialties and shot selection. Most senior players also work more with the mental side of the game, recognise much earlier the quality or lack of quality in the opponent’s shot and how to take advantage of this, see immediately when the opponent changes tactics or when something else changes in the game.

Solutions

It would seem that the methods we have in place in Europe are no longer producing top players (or very few) and need to be updated and refined.

We need to be more focused towards individual and senior development from the outset. We should take the shortest and most direct route to the senior game. Often we don’t train as much or as professionally as the Asians, so we need to make the maximum use of our time. We also need to make maximum use of our energy, usually the Asians train harder and more intensely. Above all we need to be focused on the right techniques/tactics for top-level play.

It is necessary to look at all our training sessions, even the High Performance and National ones to ascertain if we are progressing in the right direction. Have we enough coaches (and of enough quality) to individualise training? Do we have enough variety in styles to help the player develop adaptive intelligence? Or do we only have young players of the same styles and same experience levels in the group? To reach world level we need to develop the adaptive capabilities to deal with any type of opponent. We also need our youngsters to work with players of higher experience levels (as well as with top coaches) to understand how they should individually play and develop.

Crucially we need to look at methods of training and what we wish to achieve by differing methods. For example the Chinese train a great deal on the first 5 balls. We do the same in Europe but we train generally and without a real purpose, the Asians train specifically. By this we mean the Europeans train serve and 3rd ball, trying to win the point on the 3rd ball regardless of how the ball is returned. The Chinese will train serve and 3rd ball but valuing the return: if the return is poor the player may flick hard and try to win, if the return is first-class the player will drop the ball short and try from there to get an advantage.

What the Chinese are doing by playing in this way is to improve adaptive intelligence and to increase the ability to do different things with the ball. They in other words are not developing in rigid patterns, they are training to play flexibly and to adjust to varying situations. This is one method we should certainly adopt in Europe.

‘Situational training’ is another aspect we should explore and this describes a specific type of drill. The player’s objective is to find the best possible solution within a given exchange of shots. In the early stage of a rally the ball direction/placement will be pre-arranged. However at a certain point during the rally one of the players has to decide about changing the placement of the next shot. The essence of situational training is that this decision should be carefully weighed with reference to the quality of the incoming ball. Thus, one expects the player to weigh up very quickly what needs to be done, whatever the situation may be, advantageous or disadvantageous or almost even.

In this situation a player, who faces a good shot by his opponent, will choose to play say alternative A. But if there is an incoming ball of poor quality, the player will choose alternative B trying to profit from the weak stroke of his opponent. Both alternatives of course should be specified prior to the drill. Thus situational training is a specific type of drill with its very own intention and this is to improve the athlete’s self-reliance, judgment and adaptive intelligence.

The prime criterion is that players develop an understanding of their own style of play as early as possible in their career. This should be based on a detailed evaluation of top players at world level and what is effective here and also on an assessment of their own physical and mental attributes. Also the player should of course be comfortable with the way he/she is going to play. If we are going to rock the Chinese then there needs to be a much higher level of individual development throughout Europe. There is really no excuse for a player reaching 25 – 30 years of age and only then beginning to understand how he/she should play!

However we must also be aware that part of the problem is in the way and the length of time it takes for the adolescent human brain to mature. The brain normally only attains its full levels of ‘hard-wiring’ between 24 and 26 years of age, which explains many of the poor decisions taken by teenagers and young 20 years olds – often in their formative period they are just not ready to listen or to learn, they want to do things their way. Having young adolescents of similar ages and experience-levels training together often only both undermines and solidifies crucial aspects of the learning situation.

The countries in Europe which continue to produce world-level players and especially young players of quality (and by this we mean top 50 – 60 not 100 to 250!), are those which have older performers still competing on the world scene. Sweden, France and Germany are prime examples. At the recent European Championships in October 2011, Germany had 4 players in the last 8 in the men and both finalists: there were also 2 players in the last 8 in the women from Germany, one of whom reached the final. There is just no substitute for having ‘role models’ still active and competing on home soil!