Butterfly Online

April 22, 2014

Genetics and Table Tennis

The question sometimes comes up whether some people have a genetic advantage in table tennis. A troll raised this question in the mytabletennis.com forum, and while he was likely just trolling (you should see his postings in other threads!), it is an interesting question. (The thread has since been closed.) 

The troll argued that the Chinese have a genetic advantage that gives them faster reflexes, and that's why the Chinese dominate. It's nonsense. One could just as easily claim the Swedes have a genetic advantage since their country of nine million people dominated or played even with the Chinese (over one billion people) for many years. But anyone with a knowledge of the game understands the reality.

The Chinese are the best in the world right now because they have more players, more top coaches, and train harder than any other country in the world. It is a national sport there, and taken more seriously there than anywhere else in the world. Most European players train six days a week, with much of summer off. The Chinese often train seven days a week, and train all summer.

And yet even the mighty Chinese can fall behind smaller upstarts such as Sweden, and before them, Hungary. Why? For technical reasons. The Swedes and the rest of Europe began to dominate against the Chinese in the late 1980s/early 1990s because they were playing a modern two-winged looping game, while the Chinese were still trying to win with pips-out hitters. It wasn't until China fell behind much of Europe in the early 1990s (finishing seventh at the 1991 Worlds) that they completely changed course and not only developed modern two-winged loopers, but developed them at a higher level than the Europeans. And now they dominate with numbers, technique, and training. Before the Swedes it was the Hungarians, who beat or played even with the Chinese for roughly a decade (mid-1970s to mid-1980s) with Jonyer, Klampar, and Gergeley, with their two-winged looping (a precursor to the modern game) and (surprisingly) their forehand flips, which put the Chinese on the defensive even when they served.

And yet Germany is hot on their heels with Dimitrij Ovtcharov (world #4) and Timo Boll (#9, but formerly #1). They also have Patrick Baum (#21), Bastian Steger (#27), Patrick Franziska (#37), Steffen Mengel (#49), Ruwen Filus (#62), and Christian Suss (#65). However, while their top two can match up almost even with the best Chinese, their #2 lags far behind China, who has world #1, 2, 3, 5, 6,and 7. Is it because of genetics? As a percentage of their population, Germany (population 82 million) is probably stronger than China - but no, I don't think Germany has a genetic advantage!!!

Actually, comparing whatever current country is challenging China isn't a fair comparison. It's one thing to choose a country at random and compare it to China. But when you pick the best out of all the European countries and compare to China, that's cherry-picking. I don't think Hungary, Sweden, or Germany have a genetic advantage in challenging the Chinese.

And yet genetics does help. Fast-twitch muscle is an advantage in table tennis, where speed is so important. At first glance, you'd think that the best sprinters and jumpers in the world would be great table tennis players, and China isn't very good in these events. The top eight fastest sprinters in history (100 meters) include five Jamaicans and three USA, with the next two spots Canadian - and yet Jamaica, USA, and Canada don't exactly dominate in table tennis. (Here's the top ten.) So perhaps the Chinese are overcoming a genetic disadvantage?

Liu Shiwen Injured

Here's the article. Will she be ready for the Worlds? Liu is ranked #1 in the world, has won three World Cups, and made the finals of the last Worlds, and the semifinals of the two before that.

Michelle Wie Hosts Charity Ping-Pong Event

Here's the article. She is currently ranked #10 in the world - for golf that is!

Ping Pong for Charity Tournament

Here's the home page (they raise money for brain fitness and mental health), and here's a Facebook posting where Dr. Scott Sautter says: "Current neuroscience says the best activity for the brain is probably aerobic exercise, and the easiest aerobic exercise is brisk walking a few times a week. However, I then say ping pong is far more fun, socially interactive and great for the mind, body and spirit! It's been said that ping pong is like aerobic chess requiring strategy, eye hand coordination, balance, stamina and a cool demeanor so that you remain calm even if you lost a point." 

Persson vs. Gatien

Here's a recent match (10:53, much of it exhibition) between 1991 and 1993 World Men's Singles Champions Jorgen Persson and Jean-Philippe Gatien (the lefty). Gatien looks older, but is actually only 45 (46 on Oct. 16), while Persson turned 48 today. Happy Birthday Jorgen!

Ariel Hsing for Class of 2017 Social Chair

Here's the video (2:01)! After the dancing start, Ariel talks starting about 52 seconds in.

Extreme Double-High Table Tennis

Here's the video (1:06), with the table top about eye level!

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Re: April 22, 2014

Larry, I think your comparison of the skills needed in TT to the fast-twitch muscles issue in speed running (100m dash and such) is a bit off the mark. Running doesn't require high-speed "fast-twitch" reaction executed every second, it just requires ability for rhythmic and fast muscle contraction in your legs/torso (granted, you need one super-fast moment of reaction - to the starting gun). I think that table tennis reaction, especially combined with the need for fast(er) decision-making before you even start executing your stroke or moving your body, that is something quite different from running.

In most track-and-field disciplines, even in such super-complicated ones as pole-vaulting, we are talking about highest-order body coordination skills, but they are basically executed without any interaction with the outside world. The only opponent that the pole-vaulter or high-jumper or hurdler is fighting is himself (with some rare exceptions). And therein lies is a huge difference in action-reaction process (and in required body-brain skills) between those sposts and any opponent-driven sports (there must be a better or perhaps an existing name for them, but I couldn't find it).

But of course I could be wrong... :)

Larry Hodges's picture

Re: April 22, 2014

Fast twitch muscles are definitely a huge asset for sprinters. For example, here's an article at about.com about muscle types that says, "Having more fast twitch fibers can be an asset to a sprinter since she needs to quickly generate a lot of force." I've actually studied this quite a bit in the past, though it's been a while. I was a miler on my high school track team and became interested in why some could naturally sprint faster and jump higher. It's also of interest to table tennis coaches since extra fast twitch muscles are an advantage as it allows explosive footwork. However, so are slow twitch muscles, which allow players to train longer and play long matches without getting as tired - but you can develop slow twitch muscles much more easily than fast twitch muscles, where you are basically stuck with what you are born with. 

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