30 May 2018

It is globally recognised that table tennis is a skill game but to me this is very reductive: with all its infinite variations of spin, speed, movement, tactical solution, co-ordination and many more, table tennis is located at the very top of the stairway.

Table tennis is the prince of all skill games and definitely the most complex sport.

by Massimo Costantini, Indian National Coach

As in any other skill game, talent has its own importance, the paradox is that the talent can express such great potential and at the same time carry great limitations.

If we observe the top players in the world, let’s say, top five players of each of 226 countries affiliated to International Table Tennis Federation, we can easily notice how those champions, because in their way, they all are champions, perform their specific techniques very much individually. Sometimes, in rare cases, we have players performing their strokes and actions in a similar way but, as per my experience, there were been very very few.

This observation leads to another aspect or better a question. Keeping in consideration that quantity can be converted in quality; can table tennis have a school? Or in a provocative way, can table tennis be taught? Is it talent that matters and nothing else?

In my opinion, the answer is yes and no.

It’s a yes: because, if it is there something not related to skill, then it can be taught. Just think of cyclical sports such as cycling, swimming, running, or sports where performance requires a single movement or a limited combination of movements such as baseball, archery, shot-put, discus, javelin and so on.

In these cases the motion process is fixed, extremely precise, it has nothing to do with a situation that from time to time changes. I am not saying they don’t perform abilities but definitely, the involvement of bio-mechanical dynamics is different to table tennis.

I will give you an example, currently I am in Patiala, Punjab, India, at the National Institute of Sport. They are having some courses for several sports, I was observing the coach for the hammer throw teaching the movements. All the students were performing the movement trying to do the same and mostly they succeeded. They looked pretty much the same with obviously different results; then the table tennis coach was also teaching the movements; the students performed the movements in all different ways. Nevertheless, the ball sent on the other side of the table was quite decent.

Hence it’s a no: because everything related to the skill is based on individual perception and evaluation and this is not teachable, so individual sports like tennis, badminton, fencing, the movement is unpredictable, adjustable, unexpected and sometimes improvised or better, invented. What a coach or teacher can see, perceive or evaluate during a sport performance not necessarily matches with his student’s sight, perception and evaluation. Here comes the short circuit. In addition, his or her performance depends also by the opponent’s performance.

So let’s start to say that table tennis is performed by two halves that synchronously work at their best: the upper side and the lower side of the body. Several books have indicated foot (lower side) and hand (upper side) and also those books have indicated a third area, head, the “control centre”.

We can also have several more parts of the body which can work autonomously or in connection with other parts, I am referring to the hand for the grip, the wrist, the neck, the eyes, the free arm and so on. Most of the time a player loses the point because is not able to keep up the co-ordination among the two halves.

It is proven that in table tennis a point can be won in many, many ways. I have seen players winning 11 points in 11 different ways, this shows how flexible should be the knowledge of a table tennis player because the unpredictability of the playing situation requires an extremely open mind, exceptional reflexes and creativity.

If we refer to the concept of school, we will fail but not because the idea school is wrong but because it is applied to a discipline which refuses by nature to be imprisoned in the system of school.

The definition of school is quite known; it will be given the same knowledge and depends on the student how to achieve the most. In this case it is very easy to teach table tennis, I have 10 students, for example, I teach them how to play a topspin, they learn it, they execute it, they exercise it (homework) and they apply it in competition. The most talented will succeed and we know that talents are few.

As a coach or teacher I am not happy with this result, because I know that maybe out of 10 and I say maybe, one may succeed, my job is to make all 10 succeed but to do so that I have to change the method of the school and shift it to the idea of applying an individual approach. It is like to deal with geniuses, we know they are uncomfortable with going to school, they require special guidance.

Table tennis is the same, we have no idea on how many geniuses we have in the table tennis hall and we have to provide them special guidance, don’t make the mistake to consider them all the same, just numbers.

Once we move from school to tutoring then our 10 students will perform way better than before and the most talented will succeed anyway. This is very much related to high performance, high performance is not the final path form to a certain level to excelling. It is from for any level to excelling at their best. I would go even further, the same principle can be applied in any field, in a company of any sector, the task is to identify the potential of each employee and trust me, the results are tangible.

When you have to deal with many players, please, consider that, all those many players have hidden talents, the ability of a coach is to make their talent appear on the surface by exploring their skills, by hard pushing their skills, by making them discover new skills; the limit of a talent is to find always a short-cut in getting the most; expressing their game, they take refuge in the usual game patterns and lastly, having lack of trust in other potential.

As you can see, the job of being coach or teacher is everything but simple and, if every day we want to be happy, then all you need to do is to walk into the gym, shut-down the system and set it up again and again, endlessly wondering how to gain the most from each of our students. The challenge is big, more than big, it’s huge but the reward in terms of self-realisation is way bigger.

Have a great table tennis ahead.

Sports Science Massimo Costantini