I started playing table tennis casually after school on a table they had, then began playing competitively when I moved to Hobart at age 16.
always had a passion for the sport and it was quite competitive due to the popularity of racquet sports in those days – badminton, squash, tennis and table tennis.
While competitive, it played more for enjoyment. I worked my way up the grades, also playing grade cricket concurrently, without much in the way of training or structure. I even still play today in the veteran’s league.
As my cricket career wound down, I found myself as the Assistant Coach at my club. I wanted to continue coaching but also with my other passion – table tennis. I did my Level 1 qualification in the late 80’s, and progressed from there. The first person I ever coached was a person in a wheelchair, so I had a fairly early introduction to coaching in the para world! I found it an exciting challenge, as although I’d played for a long time and done my coaching courses, it was something completely new and had a lot of innovation.
Paralympic sport was just starting to become semi-professional, so I became a bit of a forerunner. If you went on international trips with the team, the coach had to double as a carer, which also gave me an insight into the daily needs and challenges that a person with disability faces. Now, the sport is much more professional and a coach is a coach. I also now coach some able-bodied people through the club.
11 CLASSES TO CONTEND
Your coaching needs to take into account a person’s disability. In some areas, they may not be able to perform the same movement as an able-bodied person, so you look at the assets they have and work with those. A lot of things will still cross-over.
There are 11 classes in para table tennis. 5 wheelchair classes, with 1 being the most profound disabilities of quadriplegia and similar, through to class 5 where they can be quite agile in the chair. Classes 6-10 are standing athletes, where 6 has the most disability and 10 the least. For example, Melissa Tapper is a Paralympic table tennis player of Class 10, who is also an Olympian as she can compete with the best in Australia, able-bodied or otherwise. Class 11 is for people with an intellectual disability.
We tend to have a lot of Class 6s and 8s, with a few wheelchair athletes. I’d like to have a squad that contained all classes if possible. When playing in a wheelchair, the chair itself is stationary, so the athlete can only reach across the table with their upper body and arms. Having long arms can be an advantage!
OUR TEAM FOR RIO
For our Rio team, we have Daniella Di Toro (Class 4, female) at her 5th Paralympics after switching from Tennis, Barak Mizrachi (Class 8, male), Melissa Tapper and Andrea McDonnell (Class 10, female) and one Class 11, Samuel von Einem. Each athlete has individual coaches as they are spread around the country, so I keep in contact through camps and Skype-type systems with both athlete and coaches. Geographical distance is just one disadvantage of being in Australia, compared to European or Asian countries.
I go to Rio as the Head Coach of the program, without any athletes specifically of my own. This is my 3rd Paralympics, after 2000 Sydney and 2012 London, where I was Head Coach as well. The Rio environment may be a little challenging with security, although we’re not too concerned being inside the Athlete’s Village. Our competition venue is an existing venue that is only a few minutes away from the Village, which is very fortunate.
Our biggest challenge will be China! They went very professional in a short amount of time with a dedicated training centre just for people with disabilities, where they play full-time as professionals. Our team work or study full-time and train as much as they can, by comparison. Overall, the 3 strongest countries are China, Korea and France.
PARA SPORT AND THE FAMILY MENTALITY
We’re hopeful that the team will do reasonably well as a few of our athletes are ranked in the world’s top 10. We aim for our athletes to play their best and support the team. Unfortunately the personal coaches can’t also attend, so it will be myself and Assistant Coach Alois Rosario overseeing the team due to limited accreditations for team personnel available nor is it financially possible. The coaches are encouraged to stay in touch with their athletes through Skype, Facebook and other ways, so everyone is aware of what’s happening and remains part of the journey. Good results are contributed to by everybody in some form or another, including parents and partners.
Our Australian Paralympic Committee do a great job at encouraging all Paralympic sports to work together as a team. We regularly meet to exchange information, and even athletes through talent transfer. Dani Di Toro is one example of talent transfer from Tennis through to Table Tennis, and is able to use her experience to mentor younger athletes coming through. It gives a real family/team culture so that when we go away to an event like Rio, the athletes have a genuine interest in other sports results rather than being focused only on their individual sports. The success of any team relies on everybody working together for a similar goal. This family mentality continues post-Paralympics, and is fostered by our athlete team captains.
5 TOP TIPS
- You need to be enthusiastic and passionate about what you’re doing.
- Surround yourself with good people.
- Learn as much as you can, including from other coaches and sports.
- Have an open mind and don’t just coach by the manual. Use innovation.
- Be an individual, and treat everybody as individuals.
ONES TO WATCH
China, Korea and France
For the Aussies: Melissa Tapper (Class 10) and Sam von Einem (Class 11)
Powerful Stories, Tips and Amazing Insight
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