This is the first 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 Training
In this article, I’ll be covering the decisions that need to be made regarding your child’s table tennis training.
Parents generally have the biggest influence on how much a junior player can train – as they are usually the ones that decide where and when training can happen. They are also typically the ones getting the players to and from the training sessions and paying for all of the various costs.
Parents have to make a lot of decisions and use their judgement in so many aspects of the sport. Ultimately, it is the player that has to hit the ball, but what the parent can do is create the opportunity for putting the player in an environment where they can learn the most.
Training at home
One question that often comes up is about training at home. Is it a good idea to buy a table for your home?
If you have a big enough property, where you can put up a table and have some space to play around it, this can actually be quite an effective way to help, particularly in the early stages of playing. It eliminates travel time and you can play for as long as you want, whenever you want.
If the table is going into a garage or conservatory, check the suitability of the table construction due to the temperature and humidity ranges you might get. Cold winters and hot summers can play havoc on a traditional wooden table. An outdoor table (used inside) is often a very good option for garages and isn’t affected by any extreme environmental conditions.
When the player is a beginner, not having a lot of space around the table isn’t too much of a disadvantage and can actually help the player learn to stay close to the table as there isn’t any space for them to retreat. The considerations for effectively playing at home are more in the medium and longer term. Who will the player train with? Unless you are a decent player yourself, then it will be hard for them to train well and progress without a good partner. However, if there are siblings who want to play together this can be a perfect way for them both to improve.
Space starts to really matter as their movement and power increases. This happens quite quickly if they are training regularly, so playing in the garage won’t really work long-term – unless it is a very large one! In reality, the minimum size room you will need to have is about 7 metres by 4 metres. For perspective, tournament courts are often 10 metres by 5 metres.
Don’t underestimate the extra lighting and also heating needed if you are in an outside building like a garage. Also, note that some coaches may not want to come to homes due to insufficient space and potential insurance concerns.
Training at a club
Identifying a good training venue which is set up for table tennis is generally the best option as the player will usually outgrow the home situation relatively quickly, maybe within less than a year.
A table tennis club should have good tables, lighting and flooring, which is suitable for learning to play high-level table tennis. Though some clubs will have their own purpose built facilities with their tables always up and available, there can still be some great clubs operating in shared sports centres on specific days and times of the week. It varies hugely and a dedicated venue isn’t necessarily the best option. The quality of the training is much more reliant on the quality of the players and coaches rather than the venue not being optimal.
Choosing a club to train at in itself can be a bit of an ongoing process. This is where good networking and asking other parents and coaches for advice is absolutely vital. Some locations are blessed with multiple clubs but it may be there is only one in your area.
This is the point when you might have to consider how much travel is needed. As a general rule, the better the player becomes, the amount of travelling required for training is usually going to go up quite substantially. This is because there are simply much fewer players and coaches further up the performance pyramid.
Clubs can, therefore, be suitable for different periods in your child’s development. They may run a great beginner session but then have nothing for intermediates to go into. Or very good high-level sessions but only with limited spaces on specific nights. This is one of the areas where, as a parent, you need to invest time and not be put off by any short-term issues at a club. Players and coaches can move around and the situation at a club can often be quite transient. This creates opportunities but also means you have to be constantly on the lookout for how the change impacts you.
One thing to consider is… don’t judge the club on just one session. Stick things out for at least four or five sessions because not every session will be good. Even the best coach in the world is going to be less than perfect. Sometimes a session can be fantastic, the players have energy and enthusiasm, and other days it just doesn’t work as well.
Teaming up with other parents can help to secure players of a known standard at the training. From the club’s perspective, they also need some commitment from the players and parents, as the facilities and coaches cost the same irrespective of the number of players at a session. Committing for a number of weeks allows the club to plan better and is also more of an incentive to yourself to keep going.
When a session becomes popular, the club is more likely to prioritise players who are down for a term of training than on a “show up and pay” basis. It is also important to recognise that clubs operate for many different types of players and not just for training juniors. Many clubs will have teams in different types of competitions and being part of this can be another way to learn and progress.
Quality and Quantity
How long is a piece of string? This is actually the answer to another often asked question; how much should a player be training? It isn’t difficult to realise that the more you practice an activity, the better you get. But is it simply “do as much as possible”, or just a bit more than the nearest rival players?
Clearly a lot depends on what level your child is currently at and what their goals are – though it isn’t as straight forward as saying, “I’m a beginner and I want to be an international player”. In fact, I am sure most players and parents don’t have any particular goals when they start playing. They simply want to participate in a fun sport and see what happens.
Once a week for one to two hours will be an excellent start to give players their first experience of table tennis. The main thing is to be able to go to a session that is at a suitable level and that they find enjoyable enough to make it a regular commitment over time and perhaps be able to continue even during holidays. Often the biggest progress is made during the holiday sessions where more hours can be fitted into the week.
School-based clubs or local community centres are often the starting point, and the coach of these sessions is looking at keeping players actively engaged in the whole session rather than any major technical developments in the strokes. The coach might start to be able to recognise which players show more interest and perhaps more potential to go further.
A table tennis club that offers junior training usually has different sessions set up for ability levels. After an initial assessment the club will make a decision based on the ability level and also available spaces. It won’t be uncommon that a parent thinks their child is better than the group they are allocated to. However, training is not just about who can win a short match or hit one or two big shots. The coaches will be looking at many aspects of the players overall ability. Touch, ball tracking, athleticism, hand co-ordination, consistency, concentration and training attitude might just be a few of the things they are considering. Some players can win matches at a lower level with some good serve and receive skills but are poor at consistency and won’t train so well.
Since time is always precious, rather than looking at simply the number of hours your child attends a session, consider how many strokes they are making and how that changes over time and in different sessions. Beginners with poor coordination and concentration, struggle to keep the ball on the table and will be spending most of their time just looking for the ball at the back of the hall. Advanced players who are committed to improve and who are given a ready supply of balls to hand could each exceed a 1000 strokes an hour.
The stroke output differs vastly depending on players and circumstances. Even having enough balls around can make a big difference if you add up all of the lost minutes chasing a single ball around a large hall. So, finding the right session where there is sufficient concentration by the players and a general positive attitude to improve can actually be the most important step in the player’s development journey. This is where the parent can monitor and adjust depending on the level and goals of the player.
Though I said focus on what happens in the session rather than counting the hours, just for some perspective it might well take over 1,000 hours of practice before the basic stroke techniques and combinations are possible. Clearly some players will be quicker or longer than this very rough guide.
That figure is quite a daunting prospect. It could take around two years of playing 10 hours a week to get the basics properly sorted out. There are other sites and books that will better explain why table tennis is so hard, but it appears there are no obvious shortcuts. Recognising the concept and opportunity of more quality training rather than just “attending” training sessions is one way to at least make the journey as short as possible.
A lot of young table tennis players will have been exposed to many other sports as they go through their school years. Getting chances to play multi sports at a young age is considered to be important for the overall sporting development of a child. However, there does come a tipping point in the player’s development where there is simply not enough time in the day to maintain all of the different activities including academic studies.
A player might have already got to a very good standard in another sport in parallel to developing their table tennis skills. However, the combined challenge of training and competing at a high level in more than one sport can simply be too much.
There can also be external pressures to deal with from coaches and clubs when schedules will inevitably collide. There will come a point where the player needs to make a decision about which sport they want to pursue over the others. Coming to a good decision should involve advice and input from many people including the coaches and perhaps parents who have been through a similar situation. The more candid feedback you can get on potential and opportunities, the better.
When thinking about table tennis versus other sports there will be some clear differences and similarities to consider…
Table tennis is an individual sport. Obviously, there can be a doubles element and sometimes being part of a team in leagues and competitions is also possible. However, even then, you are always competing as an individual against another individual. Your results are very hard to hide from. Your performance is measured in points won and lost. Every month a ranking will sort out who has improved over others, be that locally, nationally or internationally. In this respect, the sport is a meritocracy of individual performance. This spotlight of personal performance can be exactly what your child loves or hates. It can encourage or discourage improvement.
Coaches of team sports have to make difficult selection decisions which often brings them into conflict with parents. With table tennis, there are two players and one ball. Football, twenty-two players and one ball. Even the best footballer playing for the best team touches the ball only a few minutes in a game. So even being selected for a football team doesn’t guarantee too much. In table tennis, you are always fully involved.
Table tennis is an antagonistic sport, the action of your opponent has a direct bearing on you. Being able to handle the mental battle between yourself and an opponent is often the difference between players. Having mental resilience and the desire to win is an important asset.
Though table tennis is a hard sport to master well, there could still be more opportunities or possibilities to progress upwards compared to other sports simply based on the numbers of players competing in each sport. Something like football has a massive number of players so even though there are a large number of professional players, that still represents just a fraction of a percentage of the players training at a high level in teenage years.
One interesting point in favour of table tennis compared to some other sports is that physical stature isn’t such a major discriminator in performance. If you look at physical statistics of elite players in basketball or netball, the most obvious connection between the players is that they are all going to be very tall compared to the average. Table tennis does require high athleticism but the overall stature has less of an impact on elite performance.
If you look at the development of the majority of top international table tennis players you will be hard pressed to disagree with the conclusion that if you want to make it as a pro you need to go “all-in” as early as possible.