Linking Practice and Science – Report of the first international table tennis congress in Luxembourg

No less than four different organizations joined forces to set up an international table tennis congress for the first time in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg on 23rd and 24th November 2018. The invitation was sent by sports scientists, medical doctors, and table tennis officials with a total of 75 participants from 14 countries accepting. From the scientific and medical side, the Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH) and the Luxembourg Institute of Research in Orthopedics, Sports Medicine and Science (LIROMS) took responsibility for the preparation and conducting of the conference. The table tennis part was overlooked by the China Table Tennis College Europe (CTTC-E) and the Fédération Luxembourgeoise de Tennis de Table (FLTT). The audience, that gathered at the Novotel on the Kirchberg plateau on the last Friday and Saturday of November, was similarly heterogeneous. Alongside the table tennis coaches and players, medical doctors, physiotherapists, as well as strength and conditioning coaches showed up. For Congress President Professor Axel Urhausen and his Congress Secretary Eric Besenius, this table tennis congress was another stage in a series of educational events which are held on an annual basis by the Luxembourg Academy of Sports Medicine, Physiotherapy and Science.

The congress was launched on Friday evening by Professor Ivan Malagoli Lanzoni from the University of Bologna. Beforehand, Professor Urhausen as well as the Technical Director of the National Olympic Committee of Luxembourg, Heinz Thews, had given welcome speeches. Guy Schmit introduced to the audience the mission and structure of the China Table Tennis College Europe, which is located in Luxembourg. Lanzoni’s lecture was entitled “Applied Kinematics for Performance Analysis in Table Tennis”. It was based on a synopsis of 49 biomechanical studies that had been conducted so far in table tennis. He began by critically but constructively discussing the methodologies of the various investigations, before diving deeper into several studies to highlight the impact of research into daily practice. Lanzoni’s summary was clear and unequivocal: “Kinematics is a powerful tool.” He suggested, for example, that the loading of the feet may play an important role in the development of table tennis specific shoes. The sports scientist from Northern Italy, who also is an enthusiastic and a well-known table tennis coach, emphasized the significance of the pelvis in table tennis. This part of the body is of vital importance for the speed of a stroke; at the same time, it is a visual reference point for the opponent to estimate the direction of the oncoming ball.

The same part of the body was at centre stage again the next day but from a completely different perspective. Professor Patricia Thoreux from the hospital group “Assistance publique - Hôpitaux de Paris“ presented unpublished data. Together with her colleagues, the orthopaedist had examined the loading of the hip joints of young table tennis players. Her observations related to athletic activities that took place on two different floor coverings. One half of the subject group, consisting of adolescents and young adults, played on a hardwood floor, while the other half played on an elastic sports floor of a type that has been used for many years in high-ranking table tennis tournaments and training centres. The results of the current study suggested that the type of floor covering had no significant impact on hip joint degeneration. Thus, the symptoms, widespread among table tennis players, may be more likely the result of countless rotation or torsion movements executed by the upper body of an athlete in training and competition.

Immediately after Professor’s Thoreux’s lecture, physiotherapist Dr. Alli Gokeler from the University of Groningen (Netherlands) presented a different aspect of injury prevention. Gokeler drew from a pool of experiences gathered in different sports disciplines. He considered that injury prevention programmes also had a pedagogical or political responsibility. In the end, steps were highlighted that help to implement physiotherapeutic programmes in close collaboration with athletes, coaches, officials, and parents.

At first, the Friday night was completed with short presentations by two real table tennis experts, the first being Professor Miran Kondric from the University of Ljubljana. For many years, the Chair of the ITTF Sports Science and Medical Committee has made valuable contributions to the dialogue between different stakeholders in the table tennis world. As a scientist, he seeks permanent contact with coaches, players, officials, referees, as well as companies. The cooperation with representatives of other racquet sports is a big concern for him too. In his lecture “Table Tennis Research Horizon 2025”, he followed up the idea of networking. On the one hand, he pointed to several current research areas (ball quality, colour regulations, chemical after-treatment of rubbers, injuries, diagnostics, spectators, parasports). On the other hand, he stipulated the audience and the table tennis community to constantly exchange research questions and results.

Professor Martin Lames, Chair of Training and Computer Sciences in Sport at the Technical University Munich, also made a reference to the close collaboration between coaches, players, and scientists the following day. Since his academic unit has a good relationship with the China Table Tennis College in Shanghai, Lames was able to substitute a colleague from the People’s Republic, who could not be present at short notice in Luxembourg. Thus, the native of Rhineland-Palatinate held two lectures in a row. First, he spoke about the “Theoretical Performance Analysis in Table Tennis“. Here, he revealed the advanced developments of theoretical performance analysis in this sport. His follow-up lecture entitled “Practical Performance Analysis in Table Tennis“ showed the close link of match analysis in Chinese training and competitions. Seen from the viewpoint of the congress reporter, Lames’ remarks culminated in the word “performance analysis meeting “. These are regular meetings where the Chinese scientists talk over their research results with the coaches and players. A secret of the Chinese success in table tennis may possibly be the fact that in the People’s Republic the logic of table tennis is discussed considerably more often and more intensively than elsewhere in the world.

Still on Friday night, Professor Zoran Djokic from the Educons University (Serbia) spoke about technical and tactical changes in high-performance table tennis that have followed the diverse rule modifications throughout the years (enlargement of the ball diameter from 38 to 40 millimetres, reduction of the number of points per game from 21 to 11, ban of hidden services and the chemical manipulation of rubbers). The table tennis and fitness expert from Novi Sad presented data suggesting that the regulation changes had resulted in a somewhat lower emphasis in the importance of the service. Nevertheless, this did not significantly reduce the importance of serve-and-receive play in table tennis: According to the data presented, winners and losers in this racquet sport more obviously than ever before differ in regard to two skills: first, to benefit from one’s own service and, second, to return the serve of the opponent effectively.

Statistical evidence for the fact that serve-and-receive play gains importance as the level of performance rises became visible en passant in the research of Professor Christophe Ley. The professor for applied mathematics works for Ghent University (Belgium), and he had come to Luxembourg to present a new model thought for the analysis of table tennis matches. Ley and his colleagues had even organized two test tournaments for club players in order to examine their mathematical tool called “mutual point-winning probabilities”. Ley and his team had found that this statistical instrument gives insights into two vital fields of performance. Firstly, the performance of an athlete in the roles of the serving or receiving player, respectively, can be analysed. Secondly, the capability to win the most important (“critical”) rallies of a game or match can be put to the test.

As Saturday progressed, a nice change of pace was provided by two table tennis legends. Tamara Boros (Croatia) and Jean-Michel Saive (Belgium) had been advertised, and the expectations of the audience were not disappointed. Beside other outstanding results, Tamara Boros had won the bronze medal in Women’s Singles at the 2003 World Championships, and Jean Michel Saive had been runner-up at the 1993 World Championships in Men’s Singles. In the course of interviews, the former top athletes chatted about their careers. Notwithstanding that they are different in character, some similarities were revealed. For example, both former players said they could count on 100 percent support from their parents right from the beginning. Another characteristic of Tamara’s and Jean-Michel’s development were stable coach-athlete relationships. A closer look makes clear that both personal histories were influenced in each case by two specific coaches. One expert within each career took responsibility for the training and coaching in the cadet or junior days, while a successor in the role of the coach supported the player throughout the entire career as a professional. Furthermore, both world-class players put very strong emphasis on physical fitness. Here as there, interval training seemed to be a permanent fixture in the conditioning programme. It also became obvious that neither Tamara nor Jean-Michel were affected by severe injuries while training and playing on a competitive level. Finally, it may be interesting that both World Championship medal winners attributed their success to an extraordinary fighting spirit, as well as their strong commitment to intensive training. The interviews with Tamara Boros and Jean-Michel Saive were conducted by Gunter Straub from the Association of German Table Tennis Coaches (VDTT).

On Saturday afternoon, it was left to Professor Andreas Mierau from LUNEX University (Luxembourg) to end the series of short lectures in the table tennis congress. The expert for neuroscience in the field of sport has dealt for some time with the neurophysiological determinants of reaction speed. The German academic, who works in the Grand Duchy, outlined that in principle visual perception, and not motor-related processes, determine how fast an athlete can respond to visual motion stimuli. In the recent past, Mierau and his colleagues could confirm this assumption in the course of a study with young table tennis players. Looking at sports practice, it became clear that methodological and diagnostic consequences arise from this focal insight. Thus, Professor Mierau’s work is part of a school of thought whose representatives have repeatedly argued that the visual perception of table tennis athletes should be trained explicitly. One promising approach in this context may be stroboscopic training (or sports vision training). Here, special eyeglasses (so-called shutter glasses) are used. The Academic Director from Luxembourg and his colleagues assessed this training method among German top-level badminton players. After an intervention period of four weeks, it was noted by neurophysiological measurements and behavioural testing (smash defence) that this modern training method was superior to traditional training. Mierau’s investigations give hope that, by the use of encephalography, relevant neural visual processes sooner or later may be converted into visuomotor performance profiles as standard features. This measurement technique may be useful in future, just as physiological performance analysis and physical fitness test batteries already fulfil their function currently on a daily basis.

Professor Romain Seil from the Centre Hospitalier de Luxembourg gave the closing presentation of the congress. The former President of the European Society for Sports Traumatology, Knee Surgery and Arthroscopy (ESSKA) summarized the main findings of the first international table tennis congress in Luxembourg. Here he raised the main question “Why was this important?”. Seil was not the first speaker at the congress who pointed to the gap between academic theory and athletic practice. His reminder to further develop the science of table tennis expressed what several speakers were feeling. As an orthopaedist, his main concern was that science has to acquire a broader knowledge about overuse injuries in sport. He not only encouraged his listeners to use health care opportunities even more, but to work together across national boundaries. His idea, which was addressed to the western table tennis community, to see oneself as “one common European continent” may indeed contribute to join forces. The events of the day show clearly how broadly-based and strong the Asian continent is in terms of table tennis.

Professor Seil’s conclusion was succeeded by a grand finale in sportive terms: It was held at the near-by Centre National Sportif et Culturel (“D’Coque“). Here, the congress participants were invited by Jean-Michel Saive as well as Maël van Dessel and Karolis Mikalauskas to a demonstration training session. The ex-champion, who took up the role of the coach, and the two members of the Luxembourg U14 team not only concluded an academic event in an entertaining manner; in addition, they stood allegorically for the multidimensionality of the first international table tennis congress in Luxembourg.

Gunter Straub