Paul Drinkhall’s Personal Coach Interview

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We are delighted to interview Steve Bailey who is Paul Drinkhall’s manager and coach! Steve Bailey trained alongside England’s Paul Drinkhall when he was a young player. Paul quickly become the leading player in Britain winning many National titles and World titles, but just how did he do it? Steve will give us into an insight how.

Facts about Paul Drinkhall

– World Cadet Champion
– Triple European Youth Champion

– Four Time Senior English National Champion
– Spanish Open ITTF World Tour Champion 2014
– Victories over Dimitrij Ovtcharov & Marcos Freitas in 2014
– World Ranked 37 (February 2015)
– TIBHAR Professional Sponsored Player

Paul Drinkhall

Paul Drinkhall in the final of the 2015 English National Championships – Photo by: Alan Man

What age did Paul begin playing table tennis?

Paul began playing aged 7 with his brother Bryn who was 11 at the time. They arrived at the club on the recommendation of a local league player who had seen them hitting the ball at a local hall and he was suitably impressed – before that both boys had played tennis and other sports, and I remember they picked up the sport really quickly! Paul was shown the basic forehand drive shot as his first stroke, and it was amazing – the first time he played it he could consistently perform the stroke with almost the exact technique he had just been shown by the coach. Most kids struggle to hit the ball at that age, let alone play the shot consistently and with near perfect technique. The coach said there and then in that first session that Paul was a really special talent.

What was the training environment like at the old Ormesby Club, it seemed to breed players every year!

The Ormesby club back then was a really brilliant place to be. The club had an ethos of developing young local players ‘home grown’, if you like! The head coach at that time was Carole Moore who had been brought through the ranks of the old club herself, as a player she was National and Commonwealth champion. The rule was that to play for the club, you had to be a local player who had been developed at the club. No players who didn’t live or train locally could represent us, the idea being that with the players being at the club training every night they would breed more good players and so on – it was all about developing that culture. Winning titles with players bought in didn’t interest us, the rule was really strict. What benefit did the young players get from never seeing the first team players, never watching them or practising with them? The idea was that you built a strong squad from within and that generation would bring the next generation through. We trained Monday to Thursday, 6:00 – 9:00 pm then fitness afterwards. Fridays we usually travelled to competitions, otherwise it was more training, there were also sessions over the weekend. We were encouraged to practice outside of the session wherever possible.

Initially one of our first role models regarding how to train and apply yourself on the table in practice was a player called Stephen Uppal, he was a real workhorse. He didn’t really start until he was about 16 but went on to play for England School boys at Under 19 level before stopping to pursue a career in acting, he eventually went on to star in Hollyoaks and now lives in Hollywood. He was slightly older than us all and although he didn’t achieve a brilliant standard before stopping, his attitude showed us younger players how to improve. Paul started at Ormesby when this attitude and atmosphere was really in place so he never knew anything but that.

The training environment was probably more like a boxing gym than a table tennis hall to be honest – we all really used to sweat blood! There was no room for messing around or not applying yourself. We were a group of players hungry to improve, most sessions finished with physical conditioning and the session was about working as hard as possible to maximise improvement. We trained as a squad, travelled as a squad and totally lived in each other’s pockets. Paul was so advanced for his age he trained with our team even though he was so much younger, his standard was already so good for his age. Paul Drinkhall and then later Danny Reed came through after that, along with other players who all reached a decent level nationally, and the work ethic becomes normal. No one wanted to lose in the training hall, it was really competitive but then at competitions we had a massive team spirit and always supported each other.

The basic attitude in the training hall was – ‘What you practice in the training hall is replicated in the match hall’, and we had little or no choice in the matter!

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen young players who like to lob in practice, over experiment with strange returns, swap hands, all these things – and then they get into a real match at a tournament and wonder why they can’t find their top gear, or even worse fall into doing these things they have been doing in practice. We can’t just turn off our trained instincts and muscle memory, especially in a sport like table tennis where the speed means that often we live off pure reactions without too much time to process the shot the opponent has just played and ‘decide’ to play the corresponding shot, it just becomes second nature, so if you train your instincts to act this way in the training hall – guess what is it going happen! We had none of that in those days at the club, so young players like Paul were in a really good training environment straight away, and it helped to have an older brother in Bryn who always worked really hard and achieved a great level himself.

Can you remember what practice Paul Drinkhall did when he first started at the club?

The very first shot that Paul and all the other players that came through the coaching system at the time that produced him and others learned was the basic forehand drive shot. The second shot taught was the backhand drive. The reasoning behind this was simple once explained; when under pressure (I.E a match situation, or even more appropriately a match that has reached for example 10-10 in the deciding game), we always revert back to the things that we know best to help us try to win the game. The two drive shots are the basis of the forehand and backhand topspin – how many times have we witnessed players who win at Cadet level by playing safe, letting their opponent miss then lose time and time again at Junior level and then by the time they are seniors they are well behind? Answer – far too much. How many times do you see good senior players in tight situations (and throughout the match) open up with the first topspin loop stroke and then win the point? The answer is the same and is of course connected! If the player is taught to win in the ‘wrong way’ as a youngster, for example playing negatively, then this behaviour is learnt and reinforced and is very difficult to change as a junior or senior player. It’s an investment for years of wins to perhaps lose a couple of games as a cadet or younger player when learning the game.

The practice always started with a good solid warm up, we were encouraged to get our brains ready for training as much as our bodies in warm up and stretching period. We NEVER started playing without warming up first, it was very disciplined. We did regular footwork as our first exercise 99% of the time. Hard exercises – forehand pressure play, the falkenberg movement exercise, things like that. We generally did at least two hard regular footwork exercises every session with the focus being on developing movement and a good speed to consistency ratio, then into irregular footwork, then service based practice before matches. A lot of work was done technically, changing strokes and developing a game to win matches. It was a very controlled environment and there was a great buzz in the hall.

Paul reached a world class level at such a young age, what helped him achieve this over other young aspiring players?

Paul had reached a very good standard for his age by the time he was 10, he was already beating a lot of players who were 3, 4 5 years or more older than him and managed to maintain this into a successful senior career. The key to this, apart from his ability and the fact he worked really hard, was that he was given a game to win from the start. However, I can recall him losing to players a couple of years older when he was very young that he was probably better than technically, because he went for attacking, positive strokes and missed through his own errors. In effect, he was ‘pushed off’! These attacking strokes were still the correct shots to go for, even though he lost the game; it was a great investment for the future. When he played these shots and lost the game, the coaches working with him would applaud the tactic even though the game was lost! He might have lost in the final of the Under 12 National Championships when he was 10, but within a year those shots had been developed and the mistakes were not happening and he had well and truly surpassed these players he had lost too.

To phrase this a little more concisely, his physical game had caught up with his trained ‘instincts’. Once players reach the latter stages of their Junior years, a lot of the ‘top’ players from the Under 12 or Under 14 age bracket are left standing and are suddenly ranked much lower because their habits developed in the training hall have caught up with them in the worst possible way. Under pressure, in tight situations or when nervous, they revert back to those training sessions (and those first few successful years) where they learned to gently push the ball over the net. What awaits them is an attacking shot that now is very, very rarely missed, and as the level gets higher the mistakes get even less.

Paul went to the National Academy for about four years and worked with Liu Jia-Yi almost exclusively, who has to take a massive amount of credit for Pauls development. He worked with him very closely and really pushed him, and gave him such a brilliant game. I can remember the first time I lost to Paul properly in the training hall on merit. He had just been to China for around three months if I remember correctly and came back very physically strong and powerful. He was 15, and being in that type of environment with his ability and work rate certainly worked; he came back an absolute power house, he was just killing every ball that was even slightly loose, and when he was in that mode he was virtually unplayable. He’d improved about 6 or 7 points in that spell abroad and he was a top 5 player in the UK at that age, pretty soon after he became the best player in the country.

Even from a young age Paul was like the rest of the players in that he hated to lose, even to players who were older and better than him, he always believed he could win and always wanted to win more than anything, his attitude towards games was really incredible.

I think a mention must go also to the massive sacrifices Paul’s family made for both of the brothers but then as the years went on especially Paul, Andy and Karen his parents spent every weekend travelling the country and basically gave up their lives for that. The support they gave was unbelievable.

How were the practice sessions at the old club? Were a lot of the exercises performance based?

Yes totally. The way a player conducts themselves in the training hall is crucial to how they perform in a match. The sessions were hard, demanding and based around constant improvement. It depended on what time of the season it was – in competition season quite a lot of the training was various practice games. If a player did this in a relaxed, joke like manner, how can you suddenly expect your brain to adjust at the drop of a hat to playing in a pressure match style environment? The players at Ormesby table tennis club were conditioned to focus and give their best in every session. This discipline helped develop this mentality, then the practice level is much more likely to be transferred to the players competitive match play.

Do you have any types of notable key exercises Paul and yourself and the squad did?

In terms of exercises to practice – remember once again that you are training your subconscious, your instincts, so choose wisely! Make your practice fit your style. I very often see players training close to the table, taking the ball right off the bounce – then in matches they change this tactic completely and play at the top of the bounce or later. Play influences technique, not the other way round!

Paul, and all the other top players I have seen, practice and apply themselves in this manner and it’s purely a continuation of the best practice and good habits that they have learned to differing degrees as younger players.
Some very regular practises included:

Forehand loop from two points on the table to either forehand or backhand block – we would do five minutes looping from wide backhand then middle forehand, five minutes two middle points then five minutes middle backhand and wide forehand. When you do this quickly and consistently it’s a total killer!

Backhand, forehand from the backhand side, then forehand from wide forehand position wide – the old falkenberg practice.

Irregular footwork, the bloker plays one ball to the body then one ball anywhere, one ball to the body then one ball anywhere, then repeat.

The blocker plays one or two balls to the forehand, then one or two to the backhand. Brilliant for developing anticipation.

Free table – one person blocks from either the forehand or backhand side to anywhere on the table.
Lots of service exercises that included a touch short return, and always looking to make the first attack – if it was even the slightest bit long or loose, either player was straight in with the first topspin loop attacking shot.
All these exercises had the same theme, which was to be as aggressive as possible whilst being consistent. They were the two parameters that had to be met to keep the pressure on yourself and keep improving!

Steve Bailey coaching Drinkhall at the 2015 English National Championships

Steve Bailey coaching Drinkhall at the 2015 English National Championships

Thanks very much for your time Steve!

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