This is the fourth in a series of blog posts I’m calling “A Parent’s Guide to Table Tennis”. I believe this is a really important topic as parents have a big, and often undervalued, role to play in the development of their children’s sporting abilities.
The idea is to share some of the wisdom I’ve picked up over the years from speaking to the parents of competitive table tennis players. Many have spent hundreds if not thousands of hours supporting their children at the numerous training sessions and tournaments that occur every week. In fact, they are often as much immersed in the learning process as the players are!
I hope that this series will help to guide other parents as they nurture and assist their kids. You can find all the posts in this series in my Table Tennis Coaching Archive.
Table Tennis Coaching
The purpose of this blog post is to help everybody to understand a little bit more about the process of coaching in table tennis. I particularly want to try and offer some tips to parents as they are often the ones that have to make many of the overall coaching decisions and are usually the ones picking up the costs. However, players should also find this information useful too.
An introduction to your coaching choices
The decisions you take regarding the coaching of your children can be hugely important for their table tennis development. Unfortunately, it isn’t as simple as prescribing a single best solution. The context of each player’s situation and development will impact the coaching needs. That is why it is such a difficult topic for parents as they will quite often see other young players doing different things.
One of the reasons there isn’t a single best solution is that players often thrive under very different circumstances. As a consequence, you will find success stories that have been created from both simple and unusual coaching situations. For example, some players can remain with one coach throughout their entire career, whereas others may have had many coaches on their road to the top.
Circumstances generally have the biggest influence on the available choices, and the ones that impact these most are location and the available budget. Those two things in themselves start the main point around choices…
How far are you willing to travel to find a regular coaching session and how much can you spend on this?
So, the first aspect is simply to recognize that actually making a choice around coaching is an active topic you need to be engaged in. Finding the right coach for your child does involve some work and it doesn’t just stop the day you walk into a table tennis club.
Building coaching relationships takes time and this is something that parents need to work on as typically it is a three-way communication between the coach, player and parent. If you get it right, it can make a positive difference to a player’s development.
Much of the choices will depend on your location. The nearest table tennis club might have an amazing coach with all of the necessary credentials who is willing to help your child. Or you might be faced with the other extreme, where no qualified coaches exist, and you then have a much harder task to get some support – or simply have to resort to a form of “do it yourself”.
Circumstances can also change relatively quickly. The fast-growing ability of a player can actually cause coaching challenges and coaches can turnover too and move on. So, assessing the coaching needs and coaching availability is something that you need to keep your eye on, particularly if your child has dreams beyond the recreational levels.
Overall, the coaching that you apply can have a similar impact, in terms of performance, to that of teaching within education. You need to have the same mindset of trying to find the most suitable one for your particular circumstances.
Finding a coach
If your child is a total beginner, and you have some space at home, then you can be their first coach. Just putting a bat on the ball, and returning it over the net, is usually enough to keep a young player happy and occupied during the first few months.
However, children pick up the game relatively quickly and if you don’t have the necessary skills they won’t develop too far with just basic help. So, an initial approach just to get started is to either sign up for a club at school or locate the nearest table tennis club with training sessions for children.
If you go to a school or club, then there is a greater assurance that the coaches will have the necessary qualifications and clearances for working with children. A school will have the necessary safeguarding procedures for either using PE staff or specialized table tennis coaches. For table tennis clubs, national associations normally keep records of the necessary coaching qualifications.
As an example, Table Tennis England show on their website which people hold coaching licenses and the level of qualifications. This type of database can actually be a good resource to find a coach in your area. Also, in order for somebody to have an official coaching license, their safeguarding and protecting children checks would have to be in place and up to date. Additionally, a licensed coach in England would have public liability insurance and be part of a network of information to improve their performance as a coach.
The terminology you will see around coaching qualifications is going to be country specific. Within the UK, the UKCC terminology is used to cover coaching in many sports including table tennis. It is a structured set of courses based on achieving levels of increasing mastery in coaching.
Level 1 is the first and Level 1 coaches would typically be an assistant to a more qualified coach at a club. The most common level you see as a club coach is Level 2. Further levels can be done but are quite expensive and also take a long time to achieve, so you may not meet many Level 3 or Level 4 table tennis coaches.
Don’t judge a book by it’s cover
One thing to recognize is that the formal coaching level does not necessarily indicate coaching skill or playing level. Playing and coaching require very different abilities and coaches can differ wildly in their effectiveness regardless of their actual qualifications. Clearly, demonstrating shots is an important task for a coach, but equally organizing the training session and keeping 20 children engaged requires a very different skillset than just playing.
It can be a bit random on what the playing capabilities of a coach are. Often coaches are ex-players and there can be some seriously good players who only have a Level 1 coaching qualification. However, there are also some very good coaches who haven’t necessarily played the game at the highest level themselves. Generally, as things progress, having experience around the bigger and higher level competitions can be an important consideration.
The main point to consider here is coaching first. Focus on how good the coach is as a coach, rather than looking for a great player but who knows little about coaching and instruction.
Once you are up and running with a coach and you are going through the first stages, you will start to see how your child is developing and you can then think about what a coach actually does and if this is the right coach for you.
What do we expect coaches to do?
Again, there isn’t really a simple answer because of the context but it is certainly something that should be near the front of your mind as you consider how your child develops. If you follow the pathway from beginner to elite, the coaching needs will change quite a bit over that journey. Additionally, the personality and needs of the child will develop alongside their table tennis skills.
It could be that a singular person can take a player from their first experiences, right to the top level. However, that’s probably more the exception than the general rule. Usually, the coaches that start children off at clubs by introducing them to the sport are not going to be the same type of coach that supports them in international-level competitions. The reason for this is that very different skills are needed as a coach working at different player levels.
At the beginning, a lot of the role of the coach is very much about energizing and engagement. How do they get a new player interested enough that they will be able to concentrate and then practice in a way that builds the necessary skills for the future? This first period of development can be pretty challenging for anybody leading a session.
Probably the biggest trial is keeping the table tennis fun enough without it descending into total chaos. Setting games up for a group of children with a mix of ages and abilities takes a certain level understanding and empathy. This type of early experience certainly isn’t wasted time on the journey to being a top player. Every young player will have spent the first months of their table tennis education running around a hall waving a bat around in some form of game that roughly resembles table tennis.
These formative sessions are vital in igniting the interest and enthusiasm in the game and keeping the player wanting to come back for more. Coaches who can do this week after week are just as valuable to the sport as any of the elite ones – since they provide the pipeline of all the future players at every level.
The next stages of coaching will involve developing the correct strokes and building the many layers of technical and tactical capabilities. Getting the strokes developed to a good level does take time and this is the core activity that young players need to spend time on. Mastering footwork (and then all of the complexities of spin) will keep a young player engaged with a good club coach for years.
One of the key skills that good coaches have is observation. They need to be able to observe a group of players’ overall performance and also then the individuals in some significant detail. If you spend time with some of the more experienced coaches and listen to their observations, you will start to see that they are viewing the game through a completely different lens to you.
Initially, parents tend to focus very much on the outcome as the most important thing. Did their child win a point, or not. So, they tend to follow the ball. A good coach will be looking at so many other additional things in those frantic seconds of action. The point won or lost might be only twentieth on their list of things that they are considering about the player.
Good coaches seem to have a video camera constantly running in their head, so they can watch a player perform a practice drill and then rewind with several minutes of feedback to the player. Often they are doing this whilst also feeding multi-ball or blocking for a player. They need their playing skills to be totally automatic so that they can focus on the player only.
Once the foundations are in place the coach will begin adding some tactical awareness of how to construct points and win games. Clearly, this becomes more important as players start to enter tournaments and want to see some results for all of their hard training.
As players become older and competitions are a lot tougher, the coaching role is often much more about the mental side of the game. How to prepare the mind of a player leading up to a tournament can be a critical role for a coach. Helping them through a tournament and then spending time afterward in feedback is another feature you will see from the higher level coaches who are focused on developing players for the big tournaments.
Parents are often interested in knowing how their child is getting on, so another important skill for a coach is communication – they have to be able to talk with both the player and the parent.
Sometimes parents see things differently to a coach. They might believe their kid needs moving up to a higher group, while the coach has the opposite idea. One thing that parents often don’t realize is that the coach has often seen it all before and is making an overall judgment looking at many different factors.
However, explaining that to an impatient parent who doesn’t feel that their child is being best supported isn’t always the easiest thing to do. Therefore, finding some positive ways to engage with a coach when they can concentrate on your questions and concerns is often a more beneficial approach. Demonstrating that you are interested in the sport by supporting both the player and the coach is much better, rather than just expecting the coach to deliver something for you.
Expectations and “coachable” players
Having a good coach should be an advantage for a player. However, a top coach doesn’t guarantee success. The hours it takes to become a great player are put in by the player, not the coach. The coach can only encourage, guide and offer their experience.
There are plenty of situations where a coach is able to extract that extra bit of performance from a player, to get them to focus and deliver in a tournament what they have shown in the practice hall. However, as a parent, you need to always recognize that the player is ultimately responsible for the results.
No matter how much you paid for coaching lessons a few days before a big tournament – the coach doesn’t hit the ball.
If a player is unable to concentrate and train regularly, that isn’t the best motivation for the coach to work with them. They want to work with players who are as interested in the sport as they are. A lot of coaches are volunteers and are giving up their time, so they want to work with players who love the game and are desperate to learn.
In fact, one of the best compliments you can hear about your child is that they are “coachable”. This is a single word which basically explains that the coach can work well with them because they can positively engage with the player. The player is listening carefully to the feedback, responding to the instructions from the coach, and is very interested in learning the game.
The “coachable” players are the ones that the coaches will probably gravitate towards in the training hall because they will find it easier and more rewarding to work with them. So, as a parent, helping your child to be more “coachable” can pay a lot of dividends when they are in the training hall.
The majority of club coaching is done as a group of players. Maybe 10-20 players working together in a sports hall with one or two coaches leading the session. This can be an efficient way to do many hours of practice at a relatively low cost for each player. However, if you concentrated that coaching onto just one player, would that be a better way to improve?
Are one-to-one coaching sessions worth the extra cost?
Clearly, if you focus all of the coaching time onto just one player, the coach can deliver a very specific and concentrated message. Improvement should come much more quickly than in a group situation. During these sessions, you can do some very useful things – such as multi-ball. Additionally, with a coach, the drills are likely to be much more sustained with a more consistent feed and, of course, they are totally focused on your game.
When it comes to using one-to-one coaching, the vast majority of the top players will get some form of one-to-one as part of their regular training. So, the harsh reality is that if you want to compete at the higher levels then one-to-one coaching is something that you need to seriously consider within the overall coaching plan.
However, my experience with training Sam in The Expert in a Year Challenge is that one-to-one coaching certainly isn’t some kind of magic bullet to excellence. There’s only so much you can take in from a coach and sometimes it’s better to try something new with a coach and then spend the rest of week trying to put it into practice during the rest of your sessions and matches.
So, perhaps really the question is when and how often should you try and arrange these sessions in between the regular group training and tournaments? In my opinion, if you are serious about improving, then setting something up with a regular coach for an hour a week would make a big difference in your overall performance.
How good do you need to be to start having a one-to-one? Is it worth doing this as a beginner?
When the player is a beginner a one-to-one session can seem very beneficial because there are a lot of opportunities to improve. However, it can also be quite intimidating having the focus on just you and then also physically demanding, particularly for a younger child to work continuously over an extended period.
A coach asking questions and pushing the limits of the player is only beneficial if the player can cope with those demands. Therefore, when the player is younger, having shorter but more frequent sessions is perhaps the best idea.
Another important factor to consider is the cost. Depending on your circumstances, one-to-one coaching can be from 5 to 20 times the cost of group training. When it comes to the coaching fee, it fundamentally is about the credentials of the coach, and supply and demand in the area where the coaching takes place. A coach with a strong reputation and a very busy schedule is going to be able to charge much more than somebody who is just starting off in an undeveloped location.
The total coaching costs need to be considered in the overall expense for both the parent and the coach. For example, room and table hire, is this included along with training balls etc? How far are you traveling and how far is the coach. So, finding some positive mutual ways to keep costs down is one task the parent can look into.
Also, think about maximizing the use of the available time with the coach. For example, do a warm-up before the session starts so you are ready to hit balls the moment the clock starts. Sharing the session with other players is another option. Just as an example, unless the child is very fit it is actually quite hard to sustain a one-to-one practice session with a coach for several hours. Training with a partner, where they take turns at multi-ball (one playing whilst one picks up the balls), can be both effectively economically but also a very pragmatic choice around performance.
Unless you have done multi-ball training yourself at a sustained high pace it is hard to grasp how much physical effort is being exerted by the player. A young player is unable to do this for minute after minute without a break.
Quite often clubs provide a mini one-to-one element within the general coaching sessions or as part of their training camps. For example, a couple of players go to the one-to-one coach for 10-20 minute slots and rotate with the other players in the group. This actually can be a good taster for a player on how multi-ball works and they can gauge the benefits of having a longer session with a particular coach.
Coaching at tournaments
One of the most common questions that comes up is… Is having a coach necessary at tournaments?In some
In some respects, it would be much easier if no coaching was allowed and players just had to get on with the matches themselves. However, the reality is that coaching during matches is part of table tennis. The rules recently changed to allow coaching to occur more openly during matches so, in reality, corner coaching is now even more important than it was in the past.
At the beginner level, having somebody to help a player get through the emotional challenges of a match is perhaps the most valuable thing. Sometimes this works well if the parent handles this because they know the child and how to deal with those situations.
As the player becomes more proficient and the level goes up, it does add something to have a coach available to support during matches. The players know what is going on in their match but having somebody to provide some overall perspective can help. For example, how much risk to take during receiving and giving some help on reading some of the serves.
Remote and e-Coaching
There are situations where either your coach can’t regularly observe you playing or you want some tips from people who are not nearby to you. Taking videos of your matches and sharing them with a remote coach can be a very valuable way of getting some feedback on things you can work on. With cloud storage it is now becoming very simple to share video files. Try to record the video from a position where the coach can see both the stroke and the footwork.
Watching coaching sessions on YouTube can be a good way to see how others are able to train and how they are learning. There are also specific online resources that can be very helpful, such as Coach Tao Li’s TableTennisUniversity.com!
Don’t underestimate the power of learning from online video. So many skills are now transferred and learnt through this format. YouTube is becoming one of the biggest teaching mediums, and with dedicated educational sites like Khan Academy, you can see the future. Clearly you still need to do the actual table practice, but watching good players/coaches and listening to their comments is certainly going to be useful.
Planning and training camps
Having a coaching plan that considers today and the future can help in identifying how to best spend the available time and budget. Thinking through how you spend your budget over something like a season means that you can consider what offers the best value to help you improve. This could be combinations of regular group training, one to one sessions, and also training camps.
Training camps offer a great opportunity to give a boost to your playing level and often a place to meet new players and coaches. Training camps are typically held over weekends or during school holidays so this is where having a plan can help map out when to fit them into your schedule of school and holidays. It is definitely worth while discussing training camps with the club coaches or with other parents who may have had their child already on them.
The one that always gets great feedback from players is the B75 one in Denmark. This is run by experienced people (the organizer is a man called Lars Rokkjaer) and the coaches really know how to deliver a great experience for the players.