This is the second 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 Competitions
This article looks at the many aspects of table tennis competitions. There are plenty of things to consider so I hope this will help you navigate through the various opportunities your child has to compete in this fantastic sport.
One very obvious task for parents in the area of competition is dealing with the emotional challenges that will be faced along the way. So, preparation for competition, both for yourself and the player, starts with considering what actually happens in a competitive match.
Table tennis is one of those antagonistic sports where your skills are pitched directly against a single opponent. This means your own performance is directly impacted by the action of the opponent. The outcome can be far from certain and as all of this comes together it can create emotionally charged situations.
There will be tight rallies lost on an edge. Matches will swing back and forth in favour of both players. You will, unfortunately, face some heavy losses – sometimes unexpectedly.
Having some mental durability to accept the defeats and disappointments is as much needed for the parents as it is for the players. Though the parent can perhaps better understand the longer-term perspective, and recognise that there will be plenty of lows as well as highs, the player might not be able to see it that way – particularly straight after a match!
Regardless of the ability of the player, there will be many difficult defeats which somehow you will need to help your child through. In fact, as you progress in age, level, and experience, the stakes are often much higher and the defeats potentially harder to take. Each loss can have far bigger consequences, such as ranking or even prize money.
In order to support their child with the best effect, a parent must be capable of handling the wins and losses themselves. It can be much more stressful watching than actually playing. If the parent is unable to manage their own emotions, then it will be hard for them to give balanced advice and support to the player. Being well balanced is not getting too carried away with the high of a big victory, or becoming disillusioned after a tough loss.
The great thing about sport is that there is always another chance. They will probably have a tournament the very next weekend, so you need to quickly move on regardless of the outcome. A forward-looking viewpoint is always what you hear from top players and coaches.
The ability to be able to control your emotions can actually take many years to master as you follow your child through levels of competitive table tennis, and each parent has their own way of managing things. Some stay very close to the action whereas others prefer to follow the score from a bit more of a distance.
Hopefully, now you have some understanding of the challenge facing you as the parent of a competitive table tennis player. But don’t panic. This article will guide you through the entire process – from entering your first tournament to a potential international call-up. There are also answers to all of the frequently asked questions I encounter from parents.
Where should we start?
Selecting which competitions to enter is one of the first minefields you will need to cross as a table tennis parent. Obviously, there are many levels of competition but how do they all link together? How do you get from the school hall to perhaps one day playing on the international stage?
Often the very best place to start is at the school or club. They should host smaller local competitions for their players. This would generally be for the younger age groups as that is typically where the beginners will be.
Focusing on your club is probably the best thing to do before venturing further afield. The club’s aim will be to put on a lot of matches and avoid having a straight knockout system. So, a round robin format where everybody plays each other is often used. At this level, the matches might last between 10 to 15 minutes and there will be breaks and rotations for players to score.
It can take several hours to complete a group of matches and this is where parents can help to keep things on track, as young players often seem to disappear when they are needed to play or score, so the next match doesn’t start. If you want to finish on time it is better if parents are giving a hand to the tournament organiser.
However, watch out not to become directly involved in your child’s matches because there is the danger that you’ll be asked to help in adjudicating over a confused decision that the players and scorer can’t resolve.
The best advice is to let the players try and get on with it on their own, as much as possible. The player in the match has the responsibility to check that the score is correct, not the parent. One thing to remember is not to play the next point until the scorer has correctly turned over the scoreboard.
For the player wanting to progress beyond their school or club, there are plenty of options.
Club leagues, like the national cadet and junior league available in England, offer some of the best competitions. They are held at many different centres around the country to try and reduce travel time but also offer a wide group of ages and abilities.
Players are part of a team and play in a league which runs over a series of weekends against players of similar ability. Sometimes there are mixed leagues if there are not enough girls to have a dedicated female competition. As a player and team get better they progress into the next level. The main thing is there are lots of matches as it is a league format rather than a knockout. It also gets the player onto the ranking system in England, which is a great incentive for some of the players.
Most counties/regions run cadet and junior teams as well and should have a selection day which then offers the player more possibilities to play in different age groups and standards. In England, they have a mixed team of boys and girls to play against other counties in a league format over a few weekends.
As an individual player, there are also many competitions available, which at first can seem both daunting and confusing. In England, the national junior circuit is a series of competitions held at different table tennis clubs around the country across the age groups.
The highest standard is a 4*, which usually has qualified umpires at all the tables and sometimes prize money for the winners. The next level down are the 2* and 1* tournaments, which often restrict higher ranked players from entering. Ranking points will determine things like seeding in the draws used in each event.
Within England, the circuit tournaments are advertised via the national association website and typically you will need to enter at least two weeks in advance. It is these sorts of competitions where you will see some of the best cadets and juniors battling away. They are fighting for the trophies, sometimes prize money, but most definitely it is the ranking points that they are striving for.
Each competition has a certain weighting towards ranking and there are also bonus points on offer. In fact, that is another thing to be aware of as a parent – players excessively worrying about losing ranking points at a competition rather than just focusing their mind on trying to play well. Generally speaking, players should start by looking at the local 1* tournaments first and gradually working their way up the events as they improve.
National associations will offer competitions at regional and national level. They might have a regional qualifying format in order to go to nationals or, as it is now organised in England, players are invited to national events based on ranking. They will hold a national final for the different age groups towards the end of the season.
How do international competitions work?
The highest level of competition is the ITTF (International Table Tennis Federation) junior and cadet events. They have a tournament circuit which runs across the world for the best junior players (Under 18) and cadets (Under 15) to compete approximately once per month.
These competitions, which carry world ranking points, are held in different countries and it is generally the national team players of a country who participate in these events as it is the national association that actually has to enter the players. There are a limited number of places allocated to each country unless they are the host nation. So, in order to compete in these events, you need to work with your national association.
Additionally to these circuit tournaments, there are Continental and World Championships for Juniors and Cadets. A lot of these players will go onto greater things on the Senior Pro Tour. Playing at this level requires not only a highly skilled player but a significant amount of money and time away from home, and this is often during school time.
However, there are other ways to have the opportunity to compete internationally via open events and table tennis festivals. Some associations or regions create events in order to give opportunities for their up and coming players to play against players from other nations.
These are often fantastic opportunities to play lots of matches against some different players in lots of formats of competition. It can be as much a cultural experience as anything else and allows players to get experience against many new players. Again, this isn’t a low-cost affair but they are typically scheduled during the school holidays to maximise participation.
What should we expect at a tournament?
Most cadet and junior events are scheduled on the weekends and generally speaking the absolute minimum a competition takes is half a day. If you are entering several age groups it can often take much longer! So, if you factor in travel time, it can mean travelling the night before or a very long day if you don’t fancy spending a night in a hotel.
Some competitions are also held over two days and therefore the time away from home does add up. The time factor can be quite off-putting initially, especially if you are used to playing a team sport like football or netball where the whole thing is done in a couple of hours.
In a typical table tennis tournament, there are several stages used to determine the overall winner and with so many players entering it takes time to work through all of the rounds. For a young player, being able to perform as well at 7pm as they did at 9am isn’t easy.
Given all of this, it is probably wise to build up the amount of time spent at competitions step by step. A good approach might be to begin with local ones that don’t involve a lot of travel and to enter just one age group to see how the day goes. You might see other competitors entering every age group, but they have probably been doing the competition circuit for a while and are used to a full day of competing.
Playing their first ranking tournament can be very off-putting for a new player. When arriving in the hall, it’s almost like that first-day-at-school feeling. The scale and size of the event can feel like the big busy playground. Lots of noise coming from so many tables and players. Everybody seems to know what they are doing and where they have to go. The other players all have partners to practice with and lots of them are wearing kit with their club or name emblazoned on the back.
How will we ever fit into this environment where everybody already knows each other? This is where the survival skills you use wisely at the school gate need to kick in. The trick is to just get stuck in and start asking people for help. In fact, the competition hall is often the best place to find information as it will be filled with other parents on the same mission as you – trying to get their kid through the experience in a positive way.
It’s a good idea to work at establishing a strong network of parents who all frequent the same tournaments and events. This can be beneficial for a wide range of reasons. For example, hosting a player who is competing in your area to save hotel costs can be something that parents will do to help each other out.
How much does it cost to compete?
A mini tournament at your local club can be as cheap as a few pounds. Competing at the highest level of national and internationals will run into many hundreds if not thousands of pounds. So, there is a big range of expenditure depending on how you go about things.
Costs to consider include; the entry fees, travel, and possibly accommodation. One way of looking at things in a purely financial way is to work out the cost per the number of matches you expect to play. When you have to travel there is perhaps more incentive to enter some additional age groups as the extra entry cost is marginal compared to what you will be spending on travel and accommodation.
If you are working on a tight budget you may choose to be selective on the level of competition entered and the distance travelled. So, for example, entering a 4* tournament whilst still a beginner might provide good experience but it will be a very expensive price per match. A 2* tournament should offer much more value as you would expect to progress further in the competition.
If you are a stronger player you might not enter many 2* events as there is little to be gained from the matches compared to the money and time spent. In fact, many of the top cadets and juniors will only enter the minimum number of circuit tournaments required in order to qualify for the national events. This is as much to keep down the costs as it is the time away from home.
Just for some perspective, many of the top cadet and junior players (who are in their national teams) will be away from home well in excess of 50 nights per year playing table tennis.
How often should a player compete?
This is a difficult question as it is very much connected to the individual circumstances of the player. Some players hate training and love competition. So, to a certain extent, the competition time helps them to improve more than the training time does. Others find a lot of competition to be quite stressful and tiring.
Probably the best advice is put together a plan for the next few months to see what sort of competitions are available for the level needed and find a good balance between competing regularly but also having some breaks to rest and do other things. However, it’s important to be flexible with the plan. You don’t need to actually enter the tournament until just before the deadline.
How can we evaluate performance?
For a young player it is rather unrealistic (and potentially unhelpful) to measure progress in terms of winning tournaments and taking home trophies. Instead, you are better off using a few basic goals – win a set, win a match, win two matches on a day etc.
As the player becomes more proficient the goals can be set for the short and longer term. For example, the long-term goal of the season could be to reach the semi-final stages of a 2* event. In order to do this, the short term goal could be as simple as to get out of the group stages of a tournament. In order to do that, they will need to win one or two matches in the group stage.
It’s a good idea to keep track of the scores achieved in matches and calculate the points ratio between the points won and lost. You can compare this over time and track the progress of how that ratio changes depending on improvement and level of competition.
As a parent, recognising where the gaps are in achieving certain goals and objectives can be helpful feedback for the coach. For example, it could be that you notice the other players seem to have better serve and receive, so if your child could win a few more points in this area of the game it could tip the balance from losing to winning.
Often the player won’t acknowledge this deficiency in their game as they might not recall what happened during the match or find the feedback difficult to accept from you as the parent, not the coach. It can also be hard to spot if you are not so familiar with the game so it might be worthwhile to video a few of the matches. Ones that you lost will feel a bit hard to watch but you learn a lot more from them than the victories.
Some parents and players feel self-conscious about the video process but you need to get through that. You must get the permission from the event organiser and unless there are objections (from the other player, parent or coach), just set up the video and hit record. After a while, both players forget about it.
You don’t need to watch back every single match. Instead, pick the matches versus players they consistently struggle against.
What should I do if I’m “corner coaching”?
Currently, when you are at an individual tournament, a player is allowed a single coach to give advice at the end of a set and during a time out. In the future, it has been proposed that coaching will be allowed throughout the match.
How many see some players being supported by club coaches, but many players will be on their own or have their parents to support them. If you are able to get a coach to do the cornering then clearly this is ideal, however, don’t underestimate what you can still do yourself.
Even if your table tennis knowledge is quite limited you will be able to provide advice at the corner because you know your child. Often it is the emotional support that provides the biggest benefit to a player over any technical things. They are not going to learn new techniques at the end of a set but you may be able to help in the emotional element of the match. For example, some players do better when they are excited and alert, while some need to be calmer.
Sometimes parents will help each other and offer advice to players and parents who are just starting out in tournament play. Don’t feel intimidated to ask other coaches for their advice after a match as well. If you lost the game, maybe the opposing coach can give you a few comments about what he thought were the key points in the match. Try to recognise the turning points in a match if the game changed and see how the coach might have provided that influence.
When to call a time-out can be a worry for parents. However, there are patterns that the more experienced players and coaches use, which is generally to take time-outs at key points earlier in the match rather than waiting until it is unrecoverable. They might actually time-out in an offensive moment when they have set or match points in their favour because they want to close out the game using a set play. Even a defensive time-out might be early in the match.
In the corner, make sure you have plenty of fluids available for the player during the match. Between matches make sure they take some calories on-board. Don’t underestimate the physical exertion in table tennis and particularly when playing in hot conditions. Energy levels can quickly drop off and if you make it far in the tournament you still need to deliver the best performance at the end of the day.
How can we keep it fun?
At the start of the article we talked about the emotional aspects of the sport and we will conclude on a similar point.
Competitive table tennis is challenging and it will be impossible to progress up the levels without some bumps along the way. However, for a player to continue in the sport for the long term it has to be an overall enjoyable experience.
Enjoyment can come from many different aspects of the sport. This could be the training, the matches, and particularly the friends that will become an integral part of the whole experience. Finding the right balance of competition for each individual player is perhaps the key to this.
Some players will be self-motivated to strive towards the very top, and that is fun for them. For other players, keeping the level of competition local might be all they want to do. Both are equally great experiences for the players. One of the best things you can do as a parent is genuinely listen to and support the preferences and decisions of your child.