Let's try and spin the ball the other way sometimes! By Owen Kelly
All players should progress through the development pathway. This is defined by both the player's ability and their age. Table Tennis has been identified as an early specialisation sport and ideally in a system where players are introduced at an early stage at 7+yrs and under by the age of 12yrs to 13yrs players will have developed a basic foundation in the sport. Having completed basic stroke production, stroke combination, 5 point techniques and will be at a stage where they are introduced to advanced stroke techniques.
This is an ideal stage for players to be introduced to defensive and counter-hitting techniques. However in Ireland this stage is used more commonly as an introduction to our highest level of competition which is played within the under 12 section of the Irish Ranking tournaments.
Often once a player achieves any level of result at this very young age they become engaged in this field of endeavour and it is unlikely to see any significant changes in their playing style. They are then just honed and polished.
This might be just a matter of opinion but we have very few defensive players at junior level in Irish Table Tennis. Why is this? Is it because it is a dead technique? After watching the last Olympics I would dispute that, there were a number of top ranked defensive players. Even in England Matt Syed must be one of the most successful players they have produced for some years and John Hilton was another for those with longer memories or who follow the Veteran tournaments. There are many, many examples.
In Ireland Tommy Caffrey still figures as one of the top players in the country and is still one of the most successful players we have ever produced. My dad was an old fashioned chopper and he always said to me, "Choppers don't win all the time, but in time they will!"
The Irish Junior scene is not entirely without defenders, the current Irish No.1 Junior girl who has been playing just over 2 years, is described by her coach as a defender, however I can not think of another one, is that just coincidence?
So that brings me back to why we have so few using defensive techniques. Is it because the players do not like chopping? In my experience they love learning to chop, some of that is just because it is something new. I think there are a number of other reasons.
1. Very few coaches teach players how to chop.
2. A lot of coaches do not know how to chop.
3. Players are not aware that it is an option.
4. It generally takes longer for a defender to develop as a competitive player.
5. You are considered "different" or "weird" if you chop.
6. Some coaches put players onto very fast rubbers and blades early on.
7. Some coaches think you need specialised equipment to learn to chop well.
8. A lot of clubs do not have enough room around tables.
9. We do not introduce players to table tennis, at a young enough age so that often they are playing competitively in U12 rankings before they have even been playing for two years.
I have often found that in the clubs and schools I coach in that there can be a number of players who struggle to learn to drive or top spin while others pick it up very fast. The players who struggle are often considered pour prospects and discounted as potential players. However next time you have one of these players at the end of the table why not ask them to try and push or even chop the ball, you might just well be surprised at the result!
Other advantages of promoting a variety of styles are that when we send teams of Irish players abroad they will have some experience against other styles of play. We may even reach a stage when we send out a team who do not all play exactly the same and the only variety that a captain can call upon is to introduce a left hander. The other advantage is a personal one, I would actually enjoy watching more of the matches at Irish Junior Rankings rather than just watching to see who is the best to come off the production line this season. Let's try and spin the ball the other way sometimes!
Owen Kelly is a qualified ITTA Tutor with over 20 years of coaching experience.