Business, Olympic Edition It’s all in your head: Behind Table Tennis high performance
By: Jens Lang • 4 years ago •
I WAS BORN INTO A TABLE TENNIS FAMILY IN GERMANY. MY DAD WAS A FIRST BUNDESLIGA (GERMAN PROFESSIONAL TABLE TENNIS LEAGUE) PLAYER IN THE 1970S, AND MY BROTHER ALSO USED TO BE A PROFESSIONAL TABLE TENNIS PLAYER. IN GERMANY, IT IS A PROFESSIONAL SPORT WHERE YOU CAN MAKE A LIVING OUT OF IT. ESSENTIALLY, I WAS HOLDING A BAT BEFORE I KNEW WHAT IT WAS. I STARTED PLAYING AT AGE 7 OR 8, JUST AT HOME WITH MY DAD. HE NEVER WORKED AS A COACH ON A STATE OR NATIONAL LEVEL, BUT HE WAS MY FIRST MENTOR AND PRIVATE COACH. I WAS OF COURSE INSPIRED BY MY OLDER BROTHER AS WELL.
started competing at the age of 9. I played for my home club, and moved through the ranks of the junior age groups. At my level, I was quite successful in the beginning and made it to State level and into the top 10 fairly quickly. Then from 14-18 years old, I had a variety of interests. I was still playing table tennis, but not with the focus or intensity that my brother did at that age. In the end, I didn’t make it into the German National Team, however my brother played a number of international tournaments for Germany. He played in the first Bundesliga pro league for 6 years, and another 15 years in the second and third leagues. I played in the second Bundesliga for 4 years while I was also working full-time, and in the third for 10 years.
During my time working for Andro (one of the biggest table tennis brands), I made my first visit to Australia. I like to see other parts of the world and to keep growing as a person and as a professional. I spent 5 weeks in Townsville with the coach there who was an Australian Olympian, Brett Clarke. I found the Australian mentality very welcoming, easy to talk to, not as intense as Germans can be. The climate also makes a huge difference to quality of life. I then moved to Australia in 2011 to take up my current role with Table Tennis Australia.
DIFFERENT SYSTEM, DIFFERENT APPROACH
In Germany, there are 600,000 registered members in the German Table Tennis Federation. When you think about Germany being a quarter of the size of Queensland, there’s automatically a much larger depth of players in terms of clubs. In Germany, there are more than 10,000 clubs, whereas in Australia, we have 10,000 registered players. Table tennis in Germany is comparable to perhaps swimming in Australia. Everybody can play. Every village or small city has a table tennis club, alongside a football club and a volleyball club.
In Australia, we don’t have a league system, it is all based on an individual set up for both players and coaches. Clubs are run like individual businesses, which is not particularly helpful for the development of the sport or sporting pathways. When you turn 17 or 18, there used to be a disincentive to continue playing as students would enrol in university and be required to quit the sport to focus better. In Germany, there’s not the immediate need to make that decisive call as you’ve got team competitions and the club environment, so you can compete at all kinds of levels and retain the social aspect of playing. It is something that is unfortunately missing in Australia but is getting better over time.
CREATING SUSTAINABLE STRUCTURES FOR SPORT GROWTH
Coaching was never my chosen No.1 career path but now I am the High Performance Manager and National Head Coach – a hybrid role. The program management part is 80% of the position, so actual coaching is a part-time role for me. I saw this as a great opportunity to build sustainable structures in the sport in Australia.
This year, being an Olympic year, the balance has shifted to perhaps 60% programs, 40% coaching. We have so many events on – the Olympic trials, the Oceania Championships, the Oceania Cup, the Australian Open, the Australian Junior Open – so this requires a lot more on-table coaching than usual. On top of this, we have national junior training camps and have started a national assistant coaching program as well. The high performance program has grown significantly over the last 5 years, to the point where my portfolio becomes too big and it becomes hard for the program to keep growing. The idea was to have 3 assistant coaches who underpin my position and do the groundwork in the program in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney.
On a worldwide level, we are not competing for a medal at this stage. For the Olympics, our goal is to challenge our opponents as much as possible. Not having a medal target has its pros and cons. For example, in the team event, there’s only 16 nations who qualify for the teams, and due to the seeding, we will face the top 4 countries in the world straight away. We likely play China or Korea first. We might not be able to beat them, but we want to make their life as hard as possible, really challenge them. In the individual events, the performance target for all four of our players is to win their first round matches.
Management of expectations is hugely important, especially psychologically. As with many other sports, table tennis takes place in the head for the majority of the time. There are many external factors that have an influence or an impact on your performance:
- Playing conditions – the table tennis ball weighs 2.5 grams, travels at speeds of up to 110km/hr, and can rotate 80-100 times per second. It’s a highly volatile object. External factors that affect this are air flow, equipment, lighting and so forth.
- Being an interactive racquet sport, the extent to which external factors influence the outcome of a table tennis game is quite large. As an athlete you can tick all the boxes – do all the right things in training, follow a thorough match preparation routine, show heart and true fighting spirit during the match, etc., but you still come out short.
Accepting and really embracing that a large part of an athlete’s performance on the day is outside of their influence is a tough lesson, but also a key success factor for any athlete moving forward. There is always the temptation to place blame on something or someone else if you’re losing. This is something we educate the junior squad members about from the beginning – how they think, realising that the sport is very competitive on an international level, a lot of factors that you have no influence over. Management of your own expectations is the key. Through mentoring, extensive conversations in the lead up to and after competitions, debriefings, you try to generate learning and breed a healthier and more sustainable culture amongst the junior squad members. It’s something that needs to be educated from grassroots onwards.
THE HIGHS AND LOWS OF THE OLYMPIC EXPERIENCE
In the lead up to Rio, there’s a lot of work and preparation, including on the weekends when competitions are held. You have to make sacrifices in your private life as well, as everything is dedicated to performing and excelling at the Olympic Games. I have worked 9 of the last 10 weekends. In that regard, it’s certainly not easy and part of the nature of the job. On the other side, it’s a massive opportunity and a privilege to be part of the Australian team. It’s worth working for and striving for!
London was my first Olympics, and was such big learning experience. You’re surrounded by the best in the world in their sport and as coaches or high performance managers. The Olympic environment is very inspiring and something that motivates you to do your very best like nothing else. I want to do my absolute best as a coach, as a mentor and a program manager.
At London, our best male player, William Henzell, had his career best performance, eventually losing to the former World No.1 Vladimir Samsonov. He had just previously beaten the World No.39 – his previous best performance. William recently retired, but had been the dominant male player in Oceania for many years and approached his training and preparation with strong attention to detail. He was a true professional and he had an ability to focus like few others. We did some video analysis before he faced Vladimir Samsonov, but Vladimir doesn’t really have much in the way of a weakness in his game! However, William always wants to succeed in whatever he does, so we looked at where we might be able to create opportunities. It was one of my most memorable moments as a coach, as William ended up leading 4-1 in the deciding 7th game, and played perfectly to game plan. At that point, I realised he might actually be able to win. In the end, he was leading 6-4 when Vladimir changed and opened another facet of his game, which turned the tide of the match. We didn’t win any medals overall, but that wasn’t realistic anyway. All our four players outperformed expectations. It was fantastic.
MY TOP TIP
If you’re a coach, you’re seen as an example. Therefore, integrity is super important. You need to embody and stand for the values you expect from your players, of any age. This definitely works for me. Be the best example for what you expect from your players. The existence of role models is particularly important in the early stages of development because what do the juniors do? They copy. If you’re the best example, then that’s what they copy. In the end, it’s not rocket science. Understand what “control the controllables” means, and really embrace that.
ONES TO WATCH
From Australia – Jian Fang Lay, who will be going to her 5th Olympics. It’s inspiring how she maintains her level and her international competitiveness. Also, Melissa Tapper who is the first Australian athlete to qualify for both the Olympics and Paralympics. She is a medal prospect at the Paralympics.
Overall: China! In particular, Ma Long, the World No.1 and favourite for the gold medal. From the Europeans, Dimitrij Ovtcharov (Germany) ranked No.4 in the world, and Jun Mizutani (Japan), ranked No.5. The sport is dominated by China to an extent where it is counterproductive for the international development of the sport. For the 2012 Olympics, they changed the rules to allow only two players per country to compete, so now at least the bronze medal is up for grabs!
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