February 3, 2012

Breaking 2000

I just finished reading the excellent book Breaking 2000, by Alex Polyakov. The book is a first-hand step-by-step look at the strategic development of a player from near beginner to an advanced level. I don't think I've seen it covered like this anywhere else. Instructional books generally do a good job in teaching how to do each technique; this book shows the actual events taking place as the techniques were learned, how they were learned, and most important, why. (And on a related note, Alex's coach, Gerald Reid, who is mentioned throughout the book, came to several of our training camps back in the 1990s!)

Improvement in table tennis is rarely a steady upward progression; as you learn new things, your game often temporarily "regresses" as you learn the new technique, and so rapidly-improving players often go up a bunch, then down a little, then up, then down. If you chart their improvement, it's more of an upward staircase. And that proves to be the case with Alex - see his rating chart. (I created the graphic from the USATT ratings page. If you have a rating, just put in your name, and then click on "Chart Ratings" on the right.)

Here are some interesting quotes from the book. There are many more that are specific to the techniques he is working on, but these are some of the more general ones that caught my eye. I especially love the "I did not know what I did not know" statement - this is the bane of so many players, who often do not know that they do not know what they do not know.

  • "I know exactly how I was losing my matches during the tournament. I simply did not know what I did not know. My game consisted of simply reacting to the ball and hitting it if the opportunity came up. I had no strategy, no clear and concise thinking; all I had was simple brute force."
  • "Coaching has been the major factor in my success and is the biggest reason why I have been able to achieve my goals."
  • "Gerald proposed to start by shaping my game in such a way that would allow me to develop certain undeniable strengths which would never fail me. He called it a 'base.' Having this base would mean that these basic skills would in time become a power that would tilt the pendulum during my matches against 95% of opponents of my level. This so-called base was meant to establish a set of technically correct strokes, which I could execute flawlessly and with consistency."

Table Tennis Tactics: A Thinker's Guide

Just when I thought the book was nearing completion, it got less competed. After going over the critiques and comments from six pre-readers (my thanks again to Scott Gordon, Chris Grace, USATT Coaching Chair Richard McAfee, John Olsen, Dennis Taylor, and Kevin Walton), plus my own growing notes since writing the first draft, I keep finding new sections that need to be written or old ones to be rewritten. I'd really hoped to have it pretty much finalized before I leave to coach at the U.S. Olympic Trials next Wednesday. There's little chance of that now. (I'll be spending much of my time between now and then watching videos of opposing players to prepare for the Trials, plus a busy coaching schedule since I'm also subbing for Coach Jeffrey Zheng, who's in China for a few weeks.) On the other hand, in my completely unbiased opinion, the book keeps getting better and better!

Serving low

Here's a video from PingSkills (1:05) that explains how to keep the tomahawk serve low, but the explanation is applicable for all serves. (Basically, to serve low, you need to contact the ball low.) Serving low is one of those keys to serving that players often do not appreciate because you can get away with slightly high serves at the intermediate level. As you advance, stronger players either jump all over these serves, or (more likely) simply have no trouble making effective returns. The server never understands that if they learned to serve very low to the net, the opponent would have to lift up on the ball, making it harder to attack or control the return.

Table tennis jewelry

Here's a place that sells some very nice table tennis jewelry. Yes, you too can show up at the club bedecked with table tennis ornamentation! Check out all four pages. (There should be a way to view all on one page, but I don't see a way.)

Let's pay our respects to the dying

Let's all take a moment and pay our respects to some of those who may soon no longer be with us. May they rest in peace. (Am I missing any?) There are still many practitioners of these "dying arts," but they are getting older and fewer.

  • Forehand flat hit against backspin
  • Forehand chop
  • Conventional penhold backhand
  • Pips-out sponge
  • Antispin (except perhaps the new "frictionless" varieties)
  • Seemiller grip

Jamie at One

Here's future world champion Jamie, age one, demonstrating his futuristic forehand as he does multiball training. Afterwards he'll do some counterlooping, some footwork drills, half an hour of serve practice, and then pushups, sit-ups, and a five-mile run. (See the seven pages of comments on this video.)


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