Last month I was driving home from a long day of table tennis, listening to Radio 5 Live’s coverage of Jurgen Klopp’s press conference before his first game in charge of Liverpool FC. The extremely successful coach came across infinitely cool, funny and confident. I imagined his coaching to be fun and the players wanting to impress him. I also imagined the players to be hooked on every word. I was just listening to the radio. At the end of the press conference he said something that I think revealed a lot about his philosophy as a coach.
“At the end, it’s only football. They have to play really good football. We have to open our, er chest and run and fight and shoot and defend together and attack together, play like you do in your best dream.“
This resonated with me. Klopp wanted his players to play with creativity and passion. He wanted them to, above all, enjoy themselves. I was reminded of when I used to play football on the streets and imagine I was David Beckham. I used to dream about kicking that perfect free kick. I also used to watch Jan-Ove Waldner play impossible, almost arrogant table tennis and I wanted to do it. I’d go to training and when we had free time and during match play I would attempt the sort of shots that he played. These were the times when I enjoyed playing the most and I believe these were the times I learned the most.
Over the next couple of weeks I thought about some more examples of this unstructured practice. Futsal immediately came to mind. A game that is played all over Brazil, anywhere there is just enough space to kick a ball. This game played in Favaelas and on the beach, forces players to try skills and be creative over and over again. The have opportunities to learn over and over again. Brazil produces more than it’s share of highly skilled footballers. I also thought about skateboarding. I’ve never heard of a skateboarding coach. Yet you see kids on the street performing highly skilled tricks and moves. The skaters encourage each other to try new things and give each other feedback. They also try to out-do each other creating an environment where the skaters interact and express themselves in new and creative ways.
Looking at these environments and still remembering Klopp’s words (“play like you do in your best dream”). I decided to try and bring this unstructured play environment into my coaching. Near the end of one of my sessions last week with two junior players I asked the pair; “When you dream about playing your best, what are you doing?” After a pause, one of them replied. “Playing a short serve, getting a long receive to the crossover (between forehand and backhand), and hitting a huge forehand winner.” The other player added, “Yeah! Like Ma Long.” I then told them they were going to have some free time and they proceeded to practice this play. Swapping every serve they tried to out-do each other. They missed quite a lot but they also played some incredible shots I didn’t think possible for two players their level at that time. Each time one of them played a great shot they cheered and tried again. They moved the forehand around. Sometimes down the line, sometimes across, sometimes straight back at the other plays crossover in an attempt to wrong foot the receiver. It was amazing to watch two young players playing with no pressure or tension supporting each other to produce higher levels of skill and possibly learning.
There is a growing body of evidence that suggests unstructured play can accelerate skill development alongside numerous psychosocial benefits. If we can bring this playful and seemingly unstructured kind of practice into coaching more often; could we inspire more kids to pick up a bat, stay in the sport and achieve in table tennis. Lets create an environment where the players challenge and support each other to express themselves and encourage each other to find creative solutions to problems.