The Secrets of Chinese Table Tennis…
and What the Rest of the World Needs to Do to Catch Up
By Larry Hodges and Cheng Yinghua
At the 2005 World Championships, China swept all five events – men’s and women’s singles & doubles, and mixed doubles. In fact, all but men’s doubles were all-Chinese finals. And yet, a number of cracks were shown, especially on the men’s side.
Denmark’s Michael Maze, after losing the first three games and falling behind 7-3 in the fourth against China’s Hao Shuai, came back to win. Maze earlier had defeated Wang Hao very easily, 4-0. Czech Republic’s Petr Korbel led Ma Lin 7-3 in the seventh before losing that final game 11-9. Wang Liqin had to go the full seven against Hong Kong’s Li Ching. Korea’s Moon Hyun Jung defeated Wang Nan, who’d won women’s singles at the last three Worlds.
Yet, all in all, the Worlds were a demonstration of Chinese supremacy in the sport.
So what is the secret to Chinese table tennis … and how can the rest of the world catch up?
SECRETS OF CHINESE TABLE TENNIS
The Chinese National Team
The Chinese team has more depth than any other team in the world. The primary training center is in Beijing. The team is made up of 96 players – 24 men, 24 women, 24 boys and 24 girls.
Players are given “tryouts” early on, usually with trips to major tournaments in Europe or elsewhere, to see how they do internationally. From this, the Chinese judge if this player has the potential to become a star.
A huge advantage China has comes from their depth. If a player on the national team isn’t working hard, doesn’t do well internationally, or has technical flaws hurting his/her progress, there is always another “hungry” player with potential on the outside waiting to get in.
National Team Selection
In many countries (including USA), the national team is selected in a Team Trials. This may be the fairest way of choosing a team, but it may not the best way to develop a dominating team. According to Cheng, in most countries – including USA – 90% of the training and team funding goes to “flawed players” who have no chance of ever winning medals.
This is a true problem as a Team Trials fits most people’s notion of fairness. Yet the players who make the team in such Trials usually do not match the players with the greatest potential for winning medals. Often players in their 40s make the team over promising players under 22. Exhibit “A” is the current U.S. National Team at the recent Worlds, chosen by Team Trials. Their ages were 46, 41, 41, 38, 37, 36, 34, 30, 19 and 18. (This is not to disparage the accomplishments of those who made the team in the Team Trials, who earned their positions.) Many of the top youth players in the U.S. just missed making the team. Ironically, the youngest player to make the team, Han Xiao, age 18, finished fifth, and only the top four spots are funded – so he had to pay his own way, even though he was the top player of his age in the country. The funding went instead to older players, mostly in their 30s and 40s. Players such as Mark Hazinski (20, U.S. #1 under 22), Adam Hugh (17, U.S. #1 under 18 boy), and Judy Hugh (15, U.S. #1 under 18 girl), did not go.
Was this the fairest way of choosing a team? Yes. Was it the best way to choose a team with the potential to develop into medal contenders? Probably not. Unless they were top world-ranked players, Chinese coaches probably wouldn’t have selected anyone over age 22. One option is to have either a separate “youth” team made up of under 22 players who train as part of the national team. Many countries already have these, but these players, along with older players who can challenge the best players in the world, need to be the focus.
The Chinese train long and hard. Typically they do seven hours of training each day – both table play and physical training away from the table. In the mornings, they normally do physical training away from the table, and serve practice. There is a morning and an afternoon training session, usually six days a week. (Training includes both regular practice with a partner, and multiball training with a coach. This is the same for most countries.) Some players play extra practice matches at night or on off days. Players generally get 12 days off per year, although they also get rest days after major tournaments (which often are travel days).
They normally focus on training from November to April, and with more tournaments the rest of the year. During Cheng’s years on the team, this was more clear-cut, but now with the ITTF Pro Tour and various leagues, there is more and more year-round competition.
Specialized Practice Partners
One huge advantage China has over the rest of the world is their practice partners. Typically, in most countries, members of the national team train together. However, in China, much of the training is with “professional” practice partners. Instead of players always taking turns on drills, all the training focuses on the one player. (This is especially helpful for the women, who practice with male practice partners who are usually stronger then the women players.)
Even more important, practice partners mimic the styles of opposing players. The Chinese team includes practice partners who have developed their games to match those of the best foreign players – men like Schlager, Samsonov, Kreanga, Waldner, Saive, Chuan, Ryu and Oh, and women like Boros, Tie Yana, Li Jia Wei, Liu Jia, Kim Kyung Ah, and Pavlovich. These practice partners study videos of the player they are copying, and talk to players who have played them so as to better mimic them.
According to Duan Xiang, a member of the Chinese Technical Committee of the Chinese Table Tennis Association, “We have a lot of Chinese Samsonovs and Waldners. Our players play against them every day and that makes the real match day easier.”
Cheng spent much of his time on the Chinese team as a practice partner. During his early years, he was told to copy Hungary’s Tibor Klampar. Later, when Klampar retired, he was told to mimic Jan-Ove Waldner. Cheng even traveled to Europe to watch these players live in tournaments, and would speak with players who played them to get insight on their games and what made them so effective. Those who watch Cheng now can see the mixture of Klampar and Waldner in his game.
China’s Jiang Jialiang, a pips-out penholder, won the worlds in 1985. As the 1987 Worlds approached, it became apparent that his main rival would be Sweden’s Waldner. And so much of his time training was with Cheng, who could mimic everything Waldner did, from his serve and serve returns, to his forehand loops and drives, etc. As the ’87 Worlds approached, they began playing many practice matches, with the loser doing push-ups. Cheng won match after match, and after each match would stand over Jiang as he did his push-ups, asking how he’s going to win the Worlds if he can’t even beat him?!! The preparation worked; while Jiang didn’t do so well against Cheng before the Worlds, he became so used to the “Waldner” game that he was able to win the 1987 Worlds again.
Perhaps, if he’d practiced with players who mimicked the best Chinese, at the recent Worlds Maze wouldn’t have fallen behind 3-0 to Hao Shuai, and been more comfortable with Ma Lin’s game? Perhaps he was just getting used to Ma when the match ended, as he did with Hao Shuai? (He lost the match 11-7, 11-6, 11-9, 11-8, showing he was getting closer at the end.) And the same thing with other match-ups between Chinese players and others?
Two-on-One Practice Partners
A common problem for the best players in the world is finding a strong enough practice partner. During his prime, Waldner once quipped to the Swedish coach, “When do I get to practice with someone stronger?”
China has more depth than any country, but even there, the best players are the best players. Players like Wang Liqin and Ma Lin can’t find anyone better to practice with than themselves. Or can they?
China has developed a way of doing this. Cheng was hesitant about even talking about this, as this training method has been relatively secret, even to this day. It is normally only used in closed training sessions as they prepare for major tournaments. Cheng hinted that at one time, if he’d told “outsiders” about this technique, he’d have gotten in trouble.
The technique involves having two practice partners for one player. This is a luxury that other countries can’t afford, but that China, with their playing depth, can. Two practice partners are selected, one with a very strong forehand, one with a very strong backhand (but also a good forehand), and they learn to play together as a team. Together, they do drills with the best Chinese players. With one player only playing forehand from the forehand side, and the other only playing from the backhand side (favoring backhand, but also playing forehand from backhand as top players do), suddenly they become a “stronger player” than even Wang Liqin! And so even the best Chinese players are pushed to the limit, practicing with these “stronger players.”
Mental and Tactical Training
The Chinese team meets at least weekly with sports psychologists. (This is common practice in other countries as well.) One aspect that is probably different is that these sessions are joint psychology and tactical meetings. This is linked together as it takes proper mental training to execute proper strategies under pressure.
The Chinese team has a tactical support staff that develops these strategies. According to Zhou Zuyi of the Shanghai Daily (May 7, 2005), “Insiders give credit to the backroom staff that devote themselves to analyzing the opponents’ games and developing new techniques and strategies. The technicians work out a game pattern for each major foreign player, which is in turn followed by training partners whose only job is to emulate different stars from around the world.”
The Development of a Chinese Player
Chinese children are tested at a very early age for sports skills. Those that test well are often put into special sports schools. Cheng was tested at age 5, and tested highly for racket sport skills, and so was put into a special sports school. From age 5 to about 12, he was trained in both table tennis and badminton. From age 12 on, he was essentially a full-time table tennis player, dropping out of school to focus solely on table tennis. Most other top Chinese players have similar stories.
Others come from regular schools. Essentially every school in China has a table tennis team that trains regularly. In a country of 1.3 billion, that’s a huge number of teams! According to the Shanghai Daily (May 7, 2005), “10 million players play regularly. These are players who are exposed regularly to what high-level play is like, not the basement players that make up the masses in the U.S. and many other countries.”
Some say China is good at table tennis only because of sheer numbers. There is, of course, a degree of truth to this. However, as shown by Europe’s (especially Sweden’s) rise in the early 1990s, and China’s decline, numbers cannot overcome poor technique. In the late 1980’s/early 1990s, China was slow to adjust to changing technique, sticking too long with most pips-out style games while the rest of the world was changing to inverted looping, especially shakehand style. China has learned from that experience, and now leads the world in this very style. Wang Liqin was recently re-crowned as world men’s champion (he also won in 2001). On the women’s side, Zhang Yining just won the Worlds; she was preceded by Wang Nan, who won three straight. All three of these players are shakehand loopers, and are probably the most emulated players in the world.
What happens in China is that the players with the best technique, talent, and mental & physical skills tend to rise to the top. Where before some of these players might have been kept out because they didn’t play the “right” playing style (with most shakehand loopers relegated to becoming practice partners who copied the European loopers, like Cheng), now they become regular Chinese team members. Because there are so many Chinese players, they are loaded with skilled and hard-working players. And so the best Chinese players tend to be the ones with the best technique.
New techniques are regularly coming out. Probably the most noticeable is the “reverse penhold backhand,” best exemplified by Olympic Silver Medalist Wang Hao and World Men’s Singles Finalist (and recently ranked #1 in the world) Ma Lin. Historically, penholders use the same side of the racket for both forehand and backhand. In the 1990s, a number of Chinese players began using the reverse side of the racket to attack on the backhand, most prominently by Liu Guoliang (1996 Olympic Gold Medalist, 1999 World Champion), who used it mostly as a variation. Ma Lin raised it to a new level, using it as a primary shot. Wang Hao raised it to an even higher level, making it his primary backhand shot.
While Europeans pioneered backhand looping, the Chinese have developed over-the-table backhand looping to a higher degree. Europeans like Klampar developed this technique in the 1970s, but few others developed this style. China did. Now Chinese players like Wang Liqin, Kong Linghui and Zhang Yining are among the best in the world at this (along with Austria’s Werner Schlager and Korea’s Oh Sang Eun).
Above all, Chinese players dominate with serve & receive techniques. Other countries have closed the gap in serve techniques, yet most consider Ma Lin’s serves the best among world-class players, and before him, Liu Guoliang’s – both Chinese players. But it is return of serve where the Chinese really dominate. Where other countries learn to return serves to neutralize the serve, the Chinese return serves to throw opponents off and take the initiative. Ma Lin is probably best at this, tying opponents in knots with his returns, but all the Chinese players train many hours at this, and so have few peers at receive. Outside China, Waldner may be the only one who can do this at the Chinese level.
There is another “secret” strength of Chinese technique, except it’s not really a secret: they have the best basics. They spend huge amounts of time on the “boring” basics, and so are nearly machine-like in their efficiency. You rarely see a Chinese player miss an easy shot. Cheng said of his winning the USA Nationals in 2004 at age 46 that most of his opponents simply didn’t have good basics. (This is relative, of course – good basics at the world-class level are pretty advanced for most of us.)
Challenging the Chinese: A Formidable Challenge
The result of all this training is that the Chinese tend to have the greatest fitness (along with the Koreans), the best basics, and the best serve & receive games. They often have the best techniques and strategy. And they have such depth that they always have a new player ready if one falters. How can the rest of the world challenge this?
There are basically two ways of attacking this problem. The first is simply to match the Chinese in as many of their strengths as possible. The second is to develop other strengths.
Other countries don’t have the depth the Chinese have. However, they can expand their national team to include more players, especially younger, up-and-coming players. One way is to allow the national team coaches to select promising players to join the team. This only makes sense, however, if the team trains together on a regular basis.
National Team Selection
This is problematic as it probably isn’t feasible to switch from team trials to the Chinese system of the coaches choosing the team. However, it is possible for countries to put age limits on their team members who don’t have minimal world rankings, or some version of this (perhaps only having the two top spots completely open). It’s also possible to have youth or junior teams that train with practice partners or national team members. Even this, however, would meet with huge opposition, and may not be feasible.
The Chinese train nearly year-round together as a team. Few other countries do this. Most European countries only get together a few times each year to train as a team, as the players instead play in leagues, and train with their team in the league. Many European countries get together for “Super Camps” before major competitions, but again it’s only a few weeks per year. It can’t compete with the best Chinese players training together full-time all year.
The USA team gets together only a few weeks per year, if that. It’s simply not enough.
To match the Chinese, other countries need to focus on year-round training, not just periodic training, combined with league-type play and competing in the ITTF Pro Tour. One way of doing this is to simply have the teams train at the location of the leagues, even if that means training in another country. If countries combine their practice sessions, then the best players can train together, and pool their resources for practice partners (see below) as well as training center expenses. Otherwise, the best players in, say, Europe won’t get to train with the best players, as the Chinese do (since many of the best players are on the Chinese team).
1989 & 1987 World Champion Jan-Ove Waldner of Sweden attributes much of his success to training in China. Those who wish to challenge the Chinese should consider doing the same.
Most countries don’t have the resources to have as many practice partners as the Chinese. However, this is a must if they wish to challenge the Chinese.
Teams that are not among the best in the world need world-class practice partners to help them raise their level. It’s nearly impossible for 2600 and 2700 players to become 2900 players unless they train with 2900 players.
Teams that are among the best in the world need world-class practice partners that emulate players like Wang Liqin and Ma Lin. When Wang Liqin or Ma Lin plays, say, Samsonov, they’ve been practicing with Samsonov-like players regularly, and so they’re ready. Meanwhile, Samsonov has been practicing with whoever he can get, meaning mostly weaker players, and none who really play like Wang Liqin or Ma Lin. Anyone watching Michael Maze against Ma Lin in the semifinals of the recent Worlds can see how uncomfortable he was against Ma’s game. Most likely, two years from now he’ll be equally uncomfortable as he won’t get to train against this style. Meanwhile, in China, there are players whose main job is to play like Maze, and so Ma will be even more prepared.
It’s unlikely that other countries can regularly train with two practice partners in the way the Chinese do, at least in the foreseeable future, but the first step is just getting these practice partners. Surprisingly, the answer is to go right to the source: China itself. China has a huge number of top players who are not on the Chinese team, players who, if given the chance, would be among the top 50 in the world or even better. Since costs in China are cheap compared to most other countries (which is why USA was able to hire former Chinese team members Cheng Yinghua, Huang Tong “Jack” Huang and Huazhang Xu as practice partners in the late 1990s), they are affordable, if this becomes a priority. Countries can pool their resources and hire practice partners – and they can do so right from China!
Mental and Tactical Training
Many countries already have meetings with sports psychologists. It might be a good idea to combine this with tactical meetings, as the Chinese do.
Most countries have one or two coaches who develop most or all of the strategies for their team (along with the players themselves). There are many top coaches or former top players who can be brought in, often as volunteers, to help develop tactics. For teams that can’t yet challenge the top players, they should focus on the tactical and style development of their players. If they are at the level where they can challenge the best teams, specific strategies against specific players becomes higher priority.
Again, other countries don’t have the depth the Chinese have. They can, however, close the gap with more grass-roots development. Germany, for example, has a huge number of players due to their league system.
Where other countries can top the Chinese is in more match practice, especially in competitive situations. A Chinese strength is their actual training. However, many Europeans players have more effective match practice, due to the many European leagues. This makes them “match tough,” and this allows them to be at their best in big matches as they become used to developing flexible tactics for their matches. If they are able to combine this with playing practice partners who emulate top Chinese players, they can be even better prepared for the match than the Chinese player, who may have more and better training, but not as much match play in competitive situations against different players (since much of their match play is in practice sessions against other Chinese players).
To get this match practice, players can play in various leagues, such as the German Leagues, considered by many the best in the world, as well as the ITTF Pro Tour. This, combined with matching the Chinese in other aspects of their development, can make them competitive with the Chinese.
Technique is an open thing, as you can learn the most modern technique by just watching the best players. However, if you do it that way, you are always years behind those who develop these techniques.
This is where careful planning of coaching methods becomes important. Teams need to emulate the best techniques by the best players (both Chinese and non-Chinese), and add their own techniques.
When Hungary defeated China to win the 1979 World Team Championships, they dominated mostly on the strength of their flip returns of serves and backhand loops. When Sweden dominated China in the early 1990s, they did so with their shakehand inverted games with speed glue. In both cases, the Chinese were caught off guard, and lost due to the new techniques.
USA is also a good example here. In the modern sponge era, roughly the past 40 years, only two players have reached the top thirty level in the world – Dan Seemiller (#29, now the USA Men’s Coach) and Eric Boggan (#18). Both copied the most advanced techniques in the world, and added them to their own new techniques. Both of these players played with the “Seemiller” grip, first developed at a high level by Seemiller himself, whereby one side of the racket was used for both forehand and backhand (sort of a windshield-wiper grip), with antispin rubber on the other side as a variation. At the 1985 Worlds, four of the five USA team members used this grip! (Dan & Rick Seemiller, Eric Boggan and Brian Masters, with Sean O’Neill the sole shakehander.) The new technique help bring USA to its highest level in four decades, where they could actually challenge all but perhaps the top four countries in the world.
This doesn’t mean USA or other countries should start switching to the Seemiller grip. It means that to really challenge the Chinese, other countries need not only to copy their technique, but develop new ones, as the Hungarians and Swedes did. Or, doing as the Chinese did by copying Klampar’s technique and improving on it, other countries can improve or develop current techniques. Somewhere out there are players using new techniques that few have noticed, but which may be the next big breakthrough.
Europe already has one possible advantage over China, and that is their rallying techniques. China may dominate at the start of the rally, but the Europeans, who spend more time training their rallying techniques (primarily counterlooping), and tend to use softer sponges (better for counterlooping) often have an advantage here. This is something they can develop, if combined with tactics to get into these types of rallies.
Challenging the Chinese in table tennis is a formidable task, similar to the rest of the world challenging USA in basketball. A few years ago, USA basketball seemed invincible, and now they are not. The Chinese are much more challengeable now than USA basketball was, but it won’t be an easy task. Basically, it’ll take a combination of matching Chinese strengths, while developing other strengths. Can it be done? Yes. Will it be done? That remains to be seen.