When we search for a table tennis coach, there’s a tendency to look for the very best player we can find. It’s true that the best players are examples of optimum execution in the sport. Great coaching certainly is critical to great play. But does great play necessarily predict great coaching?
Think about the process a guitar virtuoso goes through learning a complex piece of music. There are distinct steps which precede and predict quality performance. First, the music must be broken down into manageable components. The sequence of notes is learned very consciously; those sequences are grouped into phrases, into measures, and finally into the complete musical composition. Through substantial practice the musician becomes familiar and competent with the totality. At this point a most noteworthy step is critical to great performance: The performer must forget the separate fragments developed in the learning process, in order to intuit the work as a whole, to feel rhythm and express emotional value.
The same process is true in learning table tennis skills. To be able to perform effectively in matches, players need to learn the component parts of each new skill in a manageable sequence. Once the technical aspect of the skill is grasped correctly, then expertise is built through repetition. Finally, the player must go beyond technique, forgetting the component parts, to develop a feel for the new skill, integrating it into the context of their own unique game. A self-conscious player struggles with mastery in the flow of play.
The title of Jens Felke’s biography of the greatest player of all time, Jan-Ove Waldner, When the Feeling Decides might be a mnemonic for the state of consciousness required for great performance. A player of that caliber is no longer thinking about his technique while playing, he is playing from feeling and intuition. Waldner has quite literally forgotten more about table tennis than most of us will ever know! And therein lies the difference between a player and a coach.
A good player is someone who can execute skills at a high level, with a very low level of consciousness. A good coach, on the other hand has a high level of conscious knowledge about a domain and can communicate in a system appropriate for player learning. The coach needs to very specifically remember all of the steps required to build a skill, and must tailor a proportion of those steps to the individual player’s needs in an effective learning process.
While coaches must know as much as possible about what is being taught, they must not offer too much of that information to the player, and create self-conscious athletes. A good coach creates a specific development plan with each player, decomposes the skills required into an appropriate sequence, and communicates the granular steps necessary for each unique student to acquire skill to perform. Finally, the coach supports players in the process of forgetting those learning steps so they can perform intuitively.
This is not to say that a great player cannot become a great coach, but the skills require very different mindsets. When seeking instruction from great players, remember, playing and coaching are discrete skills: a great player is an unconscious and forgetful performer; a great coach is an analyst and a communicator.
Many years ago, when I transitioned from being a competitive tennis player to becoming a professional coach, I noted that as I improved as a coach I grew worse as a player. This was in part because my attention was on my students, not the ball or my own game, but it was also in great measure, due to the fact that I’d begun to remember all of those steps I had gone through to learn the sport – the very same steps I’d forgotten so many years ago in order to become a high level player.