Many years ago I went running at my local park when a 9-year-old popped out of nowhere saying “I can beat you in a race” I thought who is this little ‘Muppet’? But I felt sympathetic and the ‘foot race’ began! I won using a light jog and the young kid was disappointed in himself, but he quickly bounced back by saying “I’ll beat you at table tennis” I tried not to laugh as he had no idea I was. At the time a part-time coach and one of England’s best players at the time!
So I invite little Zak to my TT club and showed him that I slightly better by beating him, using my brick Nokia phone!
I was fascinated seeing a 9-year-old whom had only played once on holiday (yes once and he thought he could beat me), able to coordinate his hand effortlessly. He was able to get his bat to ball regardless of spin or speed.
I know some may say there’s no such thing as ‘talent’ but he had a gift and I was certain of it! I was adamant that this kid would be something special and told his mum if you let me coach him he will be no.1 in England.
A bold prediction I know but his ability to adapt and absorb information was second to none.
Two More Table Tennis Players
A month later two new students entered my club one extremely confident ‘externally’ but clearly had some issues (anger management), his name was Guy. The third was a son of a former England player and a legend in my eyes when I was an aspiring young TT player. Reece, was trained by his dad but their relationship on the table broke down and his dad wanted me to take over.
Now I had three players: Zak a so-called natural, Reece an all-around ability and Guy poor hand-eye coordination.
Was able to do what I told him at an instant but rarely trained and when he did he was lazy, or messed about at least that’s what it felt like! (Although you could say it was his way of learning by experimenting)
He was strong-minded and had a great fighting attitude…
Was relatively hard working and also possessed great ability but he needed to hone his skills and lacked self-belief. Possibly due to expectation put on him by his dad and matching his dad’s past achievements.
Was the hardest working kid I’d ever seen! Unfortunately, his coordination was of a two-year-old. For example, I had to tie his legs with a piece of string at a certain length to keep them at shoulder width, rather than almost a ballet split position! this was alongside his dad holding his waist and free arm to possess the correct body balance needed for certain shots. Furthermore, I put barriers behind Guy so he wouldn’t drift backwards and I would give him visual, vocal, and technical instructions. Fortunately, he was willing to do whatever it took in order become a top player! He would train for hours on end before and after group sessions.
All three reached an incredible level nationally, the following positions were achieved no.1, 2 and 5. Given this information, I ask you to predict who reached what ranking in their respective age group?!
Mr talent –
I had to always think outside the box to engage and mentally stimulate him. This meant that I would stay up some nights without sleep preparing something different and special just so I could keep him happy and 9 times out of 10 he would find a reason for it to be a waste of his time!!! But I would challenge him by saying something like I’ve got over 50 different type of serves, I’m sure you could do all of my 50 serves, the question is can you do one extra, one that I have not seen before or one that I am incapable of doing and it’s unique to you?! (He did just that, and had one extremely special serve)
I would challenge his physical and mental skills alongside one another, for example; if I told him to do a normal drill he would get bored after two minutes so I would take a piece of paper and have Zak train while attempting to hit the paper and if he achieved it then he would have to fold it in half continuously. Then the challenge would be, giving Zak the option of placing the folded paper anywhere he wished, on their side of the table and attempt to hit it. This would become harder and harder as the paper got smaller and the location would be moved continuously. After 10 minutes of doing the exercises, Zak found a location which was virtually impossible to hit but legal and it just highlighted his maverick kind of behaviour.
Zak was always challenged to think outside the box and when it came to the crunch moment he would produce some sort of magic that nor I or anyone could have taught him under those circumstances.
He enjoyed every training session and he would do his best to learn and do as he was told. The problem came when pressure was introduced, so I would constantly find scenarios that would put Reece under pressure such as “your dad won this tournament” that would instantly get him worked up and his face would turn red in anxiety to either achieve that target or he would go into a shell and crumble under that pressure.
This meant I would need to find the balance of when to pile the pressure and when to take it off to get the best out of Reece. I would always find a way of putting pressure on him via drills or matches. For example, his dad often watched him train, so I would say here’s an exercise, then go to his dad and say are you willing to pay out if your son fails? In general, he would agree. So I made the odds 10-1! I said Reece you have 10 chances to open up if you get 80% on or above I will buy you and your dad a drink. But if it’s less your dad will be buying me 10 drinks. As he got nearer the target I would increase the pressure by using verbal pressure words such as “in a tournament you know you would miss this shot” and any other verbal triggers I could think of. If Reece passed the test I would remind him of his success at tournaments by saying “remember when I bet you that you’ll get over 80% well show me that it was not a one-off.
Reece learnt how to use the pressure of training and often said to me can you give me a trigger moment, which he would put into a real match situation.
Mr hard work:
Guy, was willing to do anything to win but his skill was restricted by his limited coordination and often his desire to win was unmatched by his technical inability. So I had to find ways in which to give him the opportunity of winning even though he may not have had the skill required compared to his opposition. I found two aspects; 1) his natural speed and 2) his awesome power. This meant I needed to constantly work on increasing his speed and hone his power to be used when the time was right. For example, I would say after the third shot I want you to go for it (boom, show them the power), eat lighting and crap thunder (Mickey from Rocky).
I would do special drills such as multiball using two tables on Guy’s side giving him the ability to increase his speed while generating power. I went one step further, I would initially allow Guy to play backhands but as his speed increase, I limited him to forehands only. Guy had become so fast that no matter how hard his opponents hit the ball and no matter where they placed it. Guy, could get there and had possessed incredible retrieval ability.
Can one person overcome bigger opposition?
There was a local club rival and they had players of the same level and age as us (Barnet TTC at the time.
I was the only coach at my club and they had, a head coach alongside 4/5 Chinese coaches and sparring partners. On paper we should stand no chance of competing, right? Wrong!!!
We often played each other in leagues and tournaments but more often than not we won.
How could one coach beat 5 coaches?
I believe this was mainly due to my coaching style versus there’s.
I catered to my player’s individual needs while they were coaching their players in a particular style like robots. Everyone would do the same drills and no one would be given the freedom to express themselves. It was a set regime that had to be followed or you were out! I quickly worked out their style and was able to guide and give my players a winning formula against their systematic match play.
3 keys to my coaching success which you can use:
1. Truly work out your player’s individual needs and ability and hone in on it. This may include their body shape, height, speed, strength, mentality, background mindset etc.
2. Understand that some will have more natural ability than others but that does not mean they cannot achieve a high level as seen from the above players
3. Challenge yourself as a coach by thinking outside the box rather than doing the normal training exercises. Patterns are everywhere but if you are willing to continuously develop and innovate then there is no pattern and your opposition/rivals will struggle to beat you. I have never met a top coach who has done it exactly by the rule book.
China’s Table Tennis VS Sweden
A quick story on point no. 3 the Chinese have dominated my sport for most of its existence but in the 80’s and 90’s they met their match, with a small country called Sweden.
When the Chinese faced the Swedes they would tell their players to play against player 1 this way, player 2 that way but against player three who is regarded as the greatest of all time, it was a different story. He changed, moulded and adapted his game constantly and was so innovative, creating new shots that it was virtually impossible to predict his game pattern or style. So against player 3, the Chinese coach said: “do your best!”
I read a book by Napoleon Hill, he interviewed the likes of Thomas Edson and Henry Ford. After interviewing Henry, Napolean said, “how is this guy ever going to be a success” and after interviewing Edson, he said this guy can only be a success, after all, he was willing to fail over 10,000 times to finally create a light bulb! My point on this continues later…
England Table Tennis coach
I went up to an England selection coach at a tournament and said look at these three young players I’m working with. Zak was instantly picked to train with the England squad (U15), as for Reece, I was told he needs a little more work especially mindset and Guy, I was told he would never be any good and he’s a waste of time!
I was determined to prove this coach (a Muppet in my eyes for judging so quickly) wrong. He judged these three youngsters at such an instant which I didn’t agree with so I worked extra hard to make sure all three improved and within a year all three were training inside the England squad. Furthermore, I was given a job within the England youth development squad! You can imagine what I said to that England coach after all three were selected.
Admittedly my thoughts which were spoken out loud didn’t go down too well and I found myself out of a job, Lol, oh well!
Henry Ford and Thomas Edison
Napolean judged both Henry and Edson according to what he saw and heard in the complete opposite! But his judgement was only 50% correct as both achieved greatness as we all know! The England coach judged all three different but all three achieved England stature! The moral, never judge your players at an instant and provide them with your best regardless of your personal opinion.
Zak reached no.1, Reece no.2 and Guy no.5…
We can all achieve greatness if we’re willing to step into the uncomfortable situation and work through it to develop regardless of our circumstances