June 13, 2018

Patrick Wuertz overseeing an Elevate training camp. (Photo: ITTF-Oceania)

by Patrick Wuertz, ITTF-Oceania High Performance Officer

 

Introduction

‘Just you against the guy on the other side of the table.’

Despite several key tournaments which include team events (League systems, Olympic Games, World Team Championships etc.), many in our sport see table tennis as a purely individual sport. A sport in which winning or losing is solely defined by your own performance without the impact of other team mates. In some ways this definition is beneficial for an athlete’s development as it fosters self-discipline, autonomy and responsibility for their own action.

However, some interpret the definition of an individual sport as the crucial factor in their training environment. In some parts of the world, Private 1-on-1 coaching becomes the predominant method of training to eliminate the player’s “individual” weaknesses in the supposedly most efficient way. The exposure to groups is lowered to a minimum. If occasionally a squad training session is on, some players even hide their best serves and best returns in group training sessions to ensure that they remain an effective and surprising weapon against the opponents in the future.

I truly believe that the advantages of participating in group training sessions and team events are neglected. Who hasn’t experienced that extra kick of energy that’s released when there are people on the bench behind you, supporting you? Who hasn’t experienced the benefits of a good training session with a friend, exchanging tips and giving advice that ultimately helps both players toimprove? Who hasn’t experienced that the one ‘weapon’ you were trying to hide in your group training sessions, suddenly doesn’t work any more in an important match?

By neglecting the advantages of training with a partner and competing in a team, we miss out on so much that table tennis and sport in general can offer. A culture in which we play a defined role in agroup, contribute to our team and learn from others to improve in a faster and broader way.

Promoting the culture of ‘learning in a group’ while considering the benefits of individual 1-on-1 training has been one of the major challenges for me since starting coaching 12 years ago. Without doubt, regular 1-on-1 coaching gives the coach the time to dedicate 100% of his/her attention to the player. In this method, constant specific feedback in combination with a higher quality of receiving balls can lead to faster progress of the player’s skill level. However, my experience as a player, a coach and the evidence of player development on a global level shows that it is highly unlikely to reach a world class level without the continuous exposure to a strong training group.

Consequently, I dedicated my ITTF Mentorship Program to see how a high profile coach works in a day to day basis with training groups and individual players. I was fortunate to work with Dirk Wagner for one week. As the former head coach of the Werner Schlager Academy I was sure to find inspiration and lots of answers to my question on how to incorporate the benefits of group coaching and individualised coaching to ensure the development of the player to their full potential.

The topic from Dirk’s point of view

When talking to Dirk Wagner about how to ensure a player’s individual progress in a group, it becomes evident how many layers of individuality Dirk considers for the top players in his training. Dirk makes clear why he believes that we have to structure our training and focus on the individuals strengths and weaknesses:

“Table tennis is such a technical sport with such a variety of performed action. Therefore, you have to use your anatomic preconditions as well as your physical strengths in a way to maximise the quality of each shot. In addition, the tactical variations of the game are countless, hence, there is no one size fit all approach that can lead the player to develop in his full potential.”

For Dirk, the most important part of organising the training in a group is that each player can identify themselves with the training session.

“The players need to have the feeling that everything that the topics and objectives of the group training are valuable for their own progress; as if the exercise or training method was chosen just for them. Only then, the player will identify withyour topics, commit to your training and trust in your decisions”

Good communication skills are the key to ensure that every player can see the value of your training for them. This can be somewhat challenging, particularly when your squad consists of 8, 10 or 12 players and you don’t want to waste valuable training time with talking. In Dirk’s opinion it is therefore important that you exchange ideas, topics and training plans constantly with the player.

“First of all, you need to allocate time for each player to express your ideas, your philosophy and your individual development plan for the player. The better you describe your philosophy the less likely, the players’ will question your exercises and training methods when working in a group. Instead, the player will refer back to the conversation and choose the objective of the exercise that the player individually needs.”

Let’s take an exercise like ‘topspin from backhand, middle, backhand, forehand’. A standard exercise that every player has played hundreds of times. The objective of the exercise can be different for every player in the group. Here are some examples:

  • The player works intensively on his footwork and has to play the whole exercise with forehand topspin
  • The player works on his backhand close after the bounce, and plays the first three balls with backhand topspin
  • The player works on the cross step and plays the second ball from backhand with forehand topspin to increase the distance to wide forehand
  • The players works on different placements in the rally and plays the backhand topspins to the blocker’s backhand and the forehand topspins to the blocker’s forehand

The objectives of a simple exercise like this are countless and underline the opportunities we have as coaches to customise our training for each individual player while maintaining a structure in the group.

One of the problems that Dirk sees in group training is that we start the process of individualisation too early.

“It is dangerous to start individualising the training without having developed the basic skills. We need to develop a solid foundation of general basic skills first to besuccessful when customising the plan on a later stage. Basic skills are strokes and footwork techniques, basic fitness skills and motor control. Some coaches start to individualise the training very early on and focus too much on the short term advantages”

In addition, starting too early with a customised training plan for each player causes additional workload for the coach. From an organisational point of view it is extremely difficult to have an individual plan for such a large quantity of players. Instead, structuring the training for the players individually can be seen as something the younger players have to work towards by developing and mastering the basic skills.

Examples to structure and plan your training sessions

How and when to consider individual aspects in everyday group sessions depends on many different factors. The simplest way is to control the volume and intensity of each players training. However, given the complex nature of the sport and the topic of this paper, structuring group training sessions goes beyond the general basic principles of periodisation.

Some methods to consider for coaches need a relatively small amount of planning prior to the session. For example:

  • As previously mentioned, setting up the same exercise but giving each player a different area to work on. The better the communication to and education of the player prior to training session, the more likely the player will work on his/her own specific area. The areas that are agreed on can be documented in basic dot points.
  • Having a multiball table set up during the group training combines the advantages of group training with 1-on-1 training. In this structure, the players rotate from the multiball to the group training and hence work on individual specific topics and transfers these skills to a game related set-up.
  • Dedicate time slots in the session for the players to choose their own drills. The exercises can be either chosen fully from the player, or the coach gives some instructions, such as, it has to be a footwork exercise; the exercise has to include short serve and backhand flick, or; the exercise has to include a backhand topspin down the line

However, to ensure that the individual training topics are fully integrated into the group plan further planning and documentation is inevitable. Even an exerienced coach like Dirk plans every week ahead and structures the schedule, monitors training attendance and allocates time for each player in regards tot he topics and methods of each training session (App. 2, Training plan and schedule, week 41, 2017 for Table Tennis Club Zugbruecke Grenzau, Dirk Wagner). For Dirk planning the schedule and topics for the week sets the frame to ensure that all aspects of training are covered. In the next step, he uses this group training plan to allocate sessions or parts of the session to dedicate them to individual players.

I like to plan my group training in detail around 6 months in advance. 6 months ahead, I chose the training topics, define suitable exercises and choose objectives for each player. Planning 6 onths in advance allows me to ensure that all topics are covered, while staying flexible to react on unexpected situations, such as a change of the schedule or injuries. I usually dedicate 3-4 phases of 4-6 weeks per year for individual training plans. Each player, in the top section of my squad gets a personalised training plan that consists of 6 exercises with different levels of difficulty. Based on the individual training plans, we dedicate 50% of the weekly training time on the individual training plans where each player works on their own specific topics. The important part is the communication with the player prior to and during the individual training phase. Over the last year, I realised how important it is that the player is part of development of the plan by deciding the topic together with the coach and even creating their own exercises at times.

Conclusion

There are many different ways to individualise the training in a group environment to ensure that players the benefits from both, 1on1 coaching and training in a group. In many ways, it is a challenge to identify the right time and the right way to start an individualised program for a player. However, looking at the top players in the world in becomes evident that training predominantly and isolated with one coach hampers the development of the player to his/ her full potential. Consequently, I believe it is worth the time and effort to structure and plan the training in advance so that all players can identify with the topics and objectives. After the ITTF Mentorship Program, I value the importance of communication alongside this process even more.