Juniors and Ratings

By Larry Hodges

Ratings can be a cancer on junior table tennis. They change the focus from improvement to immediate results and leave juniors nervous and defensive in their matches. They also take much of the fun out of the game for juniors who become obsessed with fear of blowing their rating.

Like a disease, the obsession with ratings by parents and juniors--and some coaches--causes tremendous damage to junior development. It's not enough that a kid faces the pressure of regular win-lose situations when they play tournaments; now, with one loss, they can blow their rating and have to live with the aftermath for--what seems at the time--forever!

It's understandable that a junior might be upset about losing a key match in a tournament. However, once it's done, it's done, and they should move on. With ratings, the effects of that loss live on. Worse, juniors often lose because they are so nervous about their rating that they end up blowing their rating because they are afraid of blowing their rating.

The frustration of watching otherwise successful junior programs--including ones I work with--that are handicapped by rating hysteria is disheartening. The most amazing thing is the often strained defenses given month after month by players, coaches, and parents, all in defense of protecting a rating--while in reality, teaching the junior a loser's mentality. Some of the best coaches in the U.S. came from countries without a rating system, and either do not recognize or do not understand how to address these problems. Yet, when you talk to top U.S. coaches like Stellan Bengtsson and Dan Seemiller, they roll their eyes in irritation at the very mention of ratings.

Most U.S. coaches know of up-and-coming players who flopped because they were more worried about their rating than in long-term improvement. Usually, it was the result of pressure (intentional or not) from parents or coaches, whose worried about short-term ratings cost their player long-term improvement--and ultimately led to a lower level of play and a lower rating.

Coaches, let's put a stop to it.

Rating events are a perfect place for juniors to learn to compete, and to think and play like a champion. Yet juniors--often under pressure from parents or coaches--often enter only higher events where they are less likely to play a weaker player and lose rating points. There are fewer things more sickening to me than seeing a junior rated 1600 only enter events from Under 2000 and up--but I see this type of thing all the time. (A similar thing happens in junior events, where juniors often avoid events they might win--but must defeat lower-rated players to do so--and instead enter older junior events where they aren't competitive but have a better chance of pulling off a "ratings upset.") Entering higher events and competing against stronger players gives experience that can lead to improvement, but it's only half the equation.

How can they learn to compete by avoiding the very players they need to learn to compete against? They need to learn to dominate against weaker players, and you don't learn to do this by playing only stronger players. A player who is rated 1999 and avoids the Under 2000 event because he's afraid of losing rating points isn't thinking like a champion. A champion rated 1999 wants to win that Under 2000 event. He may not do it, and he may even suffer a bad loss--thereby "blowing" his rating--but he'll keep trying, he'll learn from his losses, and eventually he will win it, and move on to higher events. Along the way, he'll learn how to compete and win. The one who avoids the event does not.

I remember a junior I was coaching at the Junior Nationals who was in the final of the Under 12 Boys' Singles. His hands were trembling before the match. I asked him why he was so nervous and his answer floored me: "I've never been in a final before." It was true; the kid had played for three years and probably 50 tournaments, but his parents had studiously kept him out of any rating or junior event that he could compete in, only entering him in higher events. He was rated much higher than his opponent, but he was too nervous to play, and lost badly.

I spoke to the kid's parents, and convinced them of the value of playing events where he was competitive. I'll give them credit; they learned, and soon their son was in the final of a rating event against a lower-rated player. However, it was too late; before the match, the kid was again nervous. I asked why, and his answer again floored me: "I'll blow my rating if I lose this." He lost again; the fear of losing rating points had been instilled in him.

The kid never came close to becoming a champion.

Rating anxiety by juniors is amplified because juniors are less experienced, and so more upset prone. But that's exactly why they need to compete, to gain that experience so they can learn to dominate matches against all styles. Juniors are the most rapidly improving segment of tournament players, and so are most likely to pull off an upset. Yet it is those painful losses that stick out to those who are obsessed with ratings.

There are some legitimate problems with the rating system that apply here. For a top junior, one bad loss can blow their seeding at a later national tournament. For this reason, I've never liked the idea of using current ratings for seeding at major events, as opposed to average rating over a period of time. But we have to live with the reality that current ratings are used. The problem is that the excuse of protecting one's rating for seeding purposes is way, way overdone. It's far more important, long-term, that the junior get the tournament experience to prepare for the big tournament and future ones than avoiding competition for fear of blowing their rating and seeding.

Imagine for a moment the best players in the world back when they were up-and-coming juniors. Can you imagine them avoiding an event because they were afraid of losing rating points? It's hard to imagine because the best players in the world (and the U.S.) are all very strong mentally. They are not worried about losing. If they were rated 1999, they wouldn't avoid the Under 2000 event; they'd want to win it because they have a champion's mind. They are competitors.

Now imagine the player with a 1999 rating who avoids that Under 2000 event. Is he avoiding it because he has the mind of a champion? Or is he avoiding it because he is afraid of defeat? Does he have a hitch in his mental game--fear, or lack of confidence in himself? How was this fear instilled in him?

Is he gaining the necessary experience to develop into a champion? Or is he avoiding that experience, while his peers compete, learn, and become champions?

Is he unable to perform at his best because he is afraid of failure?

Is he so afraid of losing that he can't make changes in his game to improve? Does he fall back into the same bad habits that worked at the lower levels?

Is he trying to succeed, or trying to avoid failure?

While there is no sure-fire cure for cancer or rating anxiety, doctors and coaches can help. In the latter case, coaches need to instill in juniors and parents from the beginning that ratings are not the focus of their play; improvement is. Coaches should stress the following from day one.

  • Do not take ratings seriously. When ratings go up, they are fun; when they go down, who cares?
  • Focus on improvement, with the goal to win events and titles.
  • Ratings are only a snapshot approximation of your current winning ability in a tournament. Where you will be later on is more important than where you are now.
  • Ratings can be a tool if used as intermediate- or long-term goals. There's nothing wrong with a 1600 player making it a goal to go over 2000 within a year, though that should be combined with event-oriented goals, such as winning the state junior championships, or winning the Under 2000 event at a major tournament.

Often a higher-rated player is like a house with a weak foundation, preventing further improvement, while a lower-rated player is like a skyscraper under construction with a strong foundation. The house might be taller now, but which one will someday soar into the sky? Those who focus on ratings may temporarily gain a higher rating but with a weaker foundation, while those who focus on improvement develop the foundation to become a skyscraper. Ask your juniors which they would prefer. If they want to be skyscrapers, urge them to compete in rating and junior events that they can win, and when it's over, don't ask them their rating. Ask them what they learned.