The 30-year-old Romanian Bogdan Pugna spends up to 14 hours a day, almost every day of the week, in the training hall of the Sparkassen TT-Leistungszentrum in Ochsenhausen. There he works with all the players – from the youngest in the Liebherr Masters College to Hugo Calderano. And when compass talent Flavien Coton comes for one of his regular training visits, Bogdan is responsible for making the stay special in the 14-year-old Frenchman’s ongoing development flow.
Growing up to be a promising U15 talent in the Romanian system, Bogdan Pugna went to France after leaving school. He came as a player, but soon switched sides and embarked on a coaching career. Having now spent a few years in Germany, he thus already has extensive experience in three of the most successful table tennis countries in Europe.
“I have done my homework and gained experience. It’s time to optimise things and become an expert. I didn’t manage to be one of the best players. Now my goal is to become the coach who can help a player reach his best possible level.”
A mix of the different characteristics from the three table tennis cultures he has worked in has ensured that he has been able to find his personal style.
In general, what would be the content of such a mix?
“The Romanian system is very much performance-based. The sports ministry pays all the costs, but you can be kicked out at short notice, both as a player and as a coach. In the sports schools, everyone trains about 33 hours a week. Training is based on repetition and learning good technique. The atmosphere is very serious and it is normal to be quite hard on the players. Once when I came home from a tournament at 6am, there was no question of me not taking part in training, which started two hours later.
In France, pleasure is important. The mentality is to smile and feel good. In Germany, you are very strict about what you have to do and everything has to be done with mutual respect. But maybe you are a little less creative than in France.”
Bogdan points out that most of the prominent Romanian players – Michaela Steff, WRL 3 in her prime, Kreanga (7), who played for Greece but is originally from Romania, and Crisan (12) – grew up in the Romanian system but then left the country in their late teens. Their experience was that they had all learned a solid foundation in their home country and that the new environment allowed them to go their own way, make their own decisions and thus take responsibility for their future development and career.
Does that also apply to Bogdan Pugna as a coach?
“Yes, I would say it is comparable. I had an interesting offer to become a coach in one of the Olympic centres in Romania, but I preferred to stay in France. There I worked in clubs, for five years in one of the regions. I worked with players of different ages and different levels. Step by step, I learned about different areas of the sport and how the system works. In the meantime, I also had the opportunity to further my education through the table tennis federation’s education programme.
All in all, I think my experiences from different countries and working with players who grew up in different table tennis cultures allow me to adapt quickly. I can read the player and quickly recognise the technical information I need to contribute to development.”
A question of timing
Bogdan Pugna tries to combine the best of the three table tennis cultures he has lived and worked in: the serious, straightforward performance attitude of the Romanians with the energetic French sense of joy and pleasure – and the strict respect and discipline of the Germans. For him, it’s a question of timing, of understanding when to do what. When to pull the strings tighter and when to let go. When to be demanding and when to joke. When to protect and when to challenge. When to play and when to be strict.
“My goal is for the player I work with to feel like he’s improving. And that he feels comfortable in his project.”
You visited the Europe Youth Top 10 this autumn and also the World Youth Championships in December 2021. What were your impressions?
“That we have some talented and motivated players in Europe. But also that we look at them with a limited view and develop them too short-sightedly. We put too much emphasis on the result in the current competitions. We want everything immediately – instead of focusing on how to prepare the players for optimal long-term development. We need to work out a strategy based on continuity and patience.”
China and Japan dominated the World Championships, winning 110 out of 119 gold medals at the 2003-2019 World Junior Championships. How will Europe and the rest of the world be able to compete with Japan and China, as well as Korea, in the future?
“Firstly, to challenge the Asians, we have to believe wholeheartedly that it is possible.
Secondly, China, Japan and Korea have their respective systems of play and I don’t think we can beat them where they are good. Above all, I think we have to improve a lot physically. And at the table, we need to teach our talents how to vary the ball, shots, spin, pace and placement. We need to attack the Asians by building strong, fast and confident players who bring a lot of creativity to their game. We need to explore how to do this in a good way and work hard every day on what it takes to become the very best. We should develop innovators!”
You are an important part of the team around Flavien Coton, who was two years younger than his opponents when he won two gold medals at the European Youth Championships last summer. What is his environment or training situation like at the moment?
“Flavien trains about 20 hours a week in a group with about 18 other players at the Hauts de France regional centre. Alice Joneau is responsible for the centre there as well as for Flavien himself. His brother Adrien, three years older, also trains at the centre and plays with him for the Bruille club in the French third division, a semi-professional league. Their father Xavier is the team’s coach. Both he and his mother Carole have played at competitive level themselves, and the whole family has a great passion for table tennis. The environment is dedicated but without pressure, it’s calm but not exhausting, it’s a lot of fun but still serious. Perfect for Flavien, I would say.
He also has the full support of the compass Foundation, his sponsor DONIC and the French Federation to fulfil his dreams.”
Please describe the work you and the team are doing to develop Flavien and realise his potential in the long term.
“Flavien comes to Ochsenhausen regularly for training periods of varying lengths. We are in close contact with Alice Joneau, so we work according to a joint plan. Flavien started using Ochsenhausen as a second base when he was 11. He comes here to experience training at the highest level first hand, to understand step by step and at his own pace what it takes to achieve excellence in our sport.We work with different experts on his fitness, especially with Mika Simon, so that Flavien can handle high loads from training or matches without getting injured. At the table, we try to bring harmony into his game, i.e. a technique that helps him to play in a relaxed way and to be free in his search for his own playing system – to create a bridge, so to speak, without resistance between his brain and his body.”
What is the most important thing for the process at the moment?
“Now a phase begins in which it is important for him to play competitions. He has to test his limits. Players his age have not had the opportunity to play tournaments so often in the last 2 years because of the pandemic. He also needs a dynamic continuity between training and the very valuable information from playing in tournaments.”