Day 67, June 26 - Mikael Andersson Details Creation of the ITTF’s Junior Program
“If you work closely with the youth, you also work with the future of our sport.”
“With the Future in Mind” is an expression that you have attached to the ITTF’s Junior Program. That’s what the Countdown would like to discuss with you today. Before we get there, can you tell us more about your background, including how you got exposed to table tennis?
I grew up in Mörsil, a small village in Northern Sweden, the home of around 800 people. My father was the gym teacher and also the chairman of a very active local sports club. He was the one that introduced table tennis as one of the core sports in the club. He was also smart enough to invest in a good coach from Stockholm to travel north to run training camps during all school breaks.
I was one of the younger players and I guess that I benefited from the coaching and started to compete on a pretty decent level for Swedish standards. However, I was very far from the junior national team – it was just impossible to compete with the players from the South of Sweden. They were more skilled and they also practiced a lot harder than we did in the North. Anyway the club had some success in the regional leagues and we started to travel all over the place to compete each and every weekend. Since we really did not have a designated coach for the weekly sessions, it was decided that we should take turns to run each session as a kind of playing coach. So that’s how I basically started my coaching career. Thirteen years old and coaching players older than myself.
At what point in the era of Sweden’s table tennis brilliance did you become involved and how did their great performances inspire you?
In 1982, when I was 20-years-old, I decided to move south to study sports pedagogy and to develop my coaching skills. At that time I was quite focused on becoming a soccer coach. But the first professional offer came from Halmstad Table Tennis Club – one of the best clubs in Sweden and the home of Jorgen Persson.
It didn’t take long before I was heavily involved in the club, coaching the youth and also assisting with the first team. My mentors at the time were Anders Johansson in Halmstad and also Bo Persson in nearby Falkenberg. Both of them were involved in the national team work in Sweden. We had Jörgen in our club and also some other good competitive young players so I guess that I kind of got sucked into a wider circle of club coaches that actually played a huge role in the Swedish model at the time.
We worked hard from our side to contribute to the success of the national team. When I look back, this was a very good model and something that I think that Swedish Table Tennis badly misses today. You know motivation is one of the key aspects when it comes to coaching. I was working day and night to improve my players - so of course they soon enough started to gain some ground and to qualify for the Swedish junior national team. It is true as well that Swedish Table Tennis “brilliance” as you so catchy call it , also helped me to become the first-ever full time national coach in Denmark – a position that I held for seven years between 1988 and 1995.
As the Countdown Day 85 stated: “In 1999, there was no junior circuit; by 2013, there were more than 30 events. The Junior World Championships were inaugurated in 2003. Since then, there have been 11 annual Junior World Championships, spanning 5 continents.”
You were integral to that process. You have many traits that enabled you to have a clear vision for the ITTF’s Junior Program. You are passionate about the sport, deeply committed to youth development, and, may I add “not afraid to be vocal.” Can you tell us step-by-step how you went about creating the ITTF’s Junior Program?
After resigning as the national coach in Denmark 1995, I returned to Swedish Table Tennis and worked for the Halmstad club again and also with some other projects. In 1997 there was some movement on the international job market and I ended up in an interview with the ITTF in London in early 1998. This is how I met with Adham for the first time.
I did not get the ITTF job – but soon after Adham came back with an offer to work part-time for the Canadian Association as the National Coaching Director and to combine that job with holding a series of ITTF High Performance courses as we called them at the time. In August 1998 I moved to Ottawa with my family and began working in a completely new environment.
Travelling for the ITTF was very inspiring and, of course, a huge opportunity to get a first-hand look at the reality of our sport. The first two years I think I did ten to twelve courses around the world, many of them in Latin America with our friend Miguel Delgado as the translator and co-partner. Together we spent many hours discussing what to do with the many talented players we came across during our sessions, how to give them a true chance to pursue a professional career in Table Tennis.
I think it was sometime in the year 2000 that I first filed some ideas with the ITTF Executive Committee on a potential youth development program. Nothing really happened with that until India decided to push through politically with the idea of an annual World Junior Championships. So by the end of 2001 I was more or less on my way back to Europe when Adham asked me to start working on how the ITTF should approach the world juniors and perhaps combine it with some other events.
At the time the ITTF was not a large organization like it is now. And if you were handed a task like this, you had the chance to access the ITTF president basically on a daily basis for feedback and advice. Things rolled on pretty quickly and I think we formed a good group of people – heavily involved both in the political scene and with the reality of our sport -- to become the first Junior Commission chaired by Tony Yue from Hong Kong.
As the staff person responsible for the task, I did most of the heavy lifting and that gave me the advantage to keep feeding this group with smart and well thought out ideas. I have always spent a lot of time with all my projects to think about a solid inspirational vision and the desired outcomes for the ITTF and the sport itself. I think the development of ITTF Global Junior Programme worked pretty well, especially since we were building it from scratch more or less. Still today I like the qualification system for the World Juniors and also the World Cadet Challenge concept that brought the continental associations into the picture as the main drivers.
One thing that I was strong on from the beginning – and this turned out to be important -- was to force a completely different level of organization around ITTF GJP events, especially the title events. Adham allowed me to recruit Raul Calin from Spain and he started his work, I think, early in 2004 if I remember correctly. Without him and his hard-nosed perfectionism and drive for success, the ITTF Global Junior Programme would have gone nowhere. But together we had a very strong combination – myself with the strong visions and the creative ideas -- and Raul with his ability to implement high standards for our events. This was the key to the first survival (as a programme) and led to some degree of success.
Anyway with Raul taking the lead for the events, I had some time to work on the promotion and also how to make it possible for young players to become more active with the ITTF GJP – to compete more. Jordi Serra had back in 2003 introduced me to some IOC Olympic Solidarity programmes and I managed to access some funding for special athletes-oriented projects. These projects were then glued together and it formed the “With the Future in Mind” project that since the start in 2003, now over eleven years, has been able to pump some US$ 1.5 million into Youth and Junior TT – mainly for the benefit of emerging / developing table tennis countries.
Funny that you mention me being vocal at times – kind of raising my voice inside the ITTF. This is true. I am passionate about youth development in general and the ITTF Global Junior Programme specifically. We should not forget to continue our work with the programme part of the ITTF GJP – for that I wish for the ITTF to get some new blood into the role of an ITTF GJP manager. It is time to pump some new life into the ITTF GJP and have it fly again for the good of our sport.
You know if you work closely with the youth, you also work with the future of our sport somehow. This is logical. You see first-hand the great opportunities, but also our shortcomings as a sport that predominantly and historically has been dominated by a very few strong and powerful associations.
I have always been a guy that believes in the power of a good idea and the dynamic formula being VISION + PASSION + ACTIVITY = SUCCESS. I understand the reality of working for an international body with all the political angles to be covered before things can start to move. At the same time, we have to stay in touch with the reality and the changes happening out there.
So, yes, I can at times get a bit frustrated and try to demand attention from the decision makers at meetings or through other means of communication. I guess that people, perhaps even ITTF colleagues can view me as very critical and at times too offensive, but I sincerely hope that they understand the need for debate and discussion as well. This is the only way for our sport and the ITTF to grow stronger as an association.
And you know what? Someone has to stand up for the small guys out there as well – the juniors and the youth. When we started the ITTF Global Junior Programme we dreamed about improving the level of excellence in our sport, to have star players emerge also from smaller associations and compete at the highest level in the world. We are not there yet, so I guess we have to keep fighting for that cause in any way we can.