Coaching Newsletters

June 4, 2012

Tip of the Week

Serving Short with Spin.

Eastern Open

I was at the Eastern Open this past weekend, coaching 11-year-old Derek Nie. Derek made the final of 11 and Under at the last USA Nationals, and came in with a rating of 2127. (He's very small for his age, only about 60 pounds, and is almost for certain the best player in the U.S., pound for pound.) He played very well this tournament. But he also had a very bad experience with an opponent who was the ultimate in bad sportsmanship. Balancing that was a revelation Derek had about the mental game. Here's a synopsis.

On Saturday morning he started off at 9AM in Under 2500 against Wesley Fan, rated 2163. He didn't play well this match, and Wesley played much better than his rating, and won three straight easily. (Wesley would go on to win both Under 2250 and Under 2375.) Afterwards I took Derek aside and we practiced for an hour, the last half playing practice games. Since I know what "buttons" to push when I play him, I won all five games, but they were closer and closer toward the end. The first three we had a little fun, which helped him relax, then I told him to focus the last two games, and though I won, that's when he started playing well. I could see it, and couldn't wait for his next match. We finished the session with him practicing his serves for ten minutes.

In the Open Preliminary RR, starting at 10:30 AM, he started out against Scott Lurty, rated 2268. He'd played Scott in tournaments twice in the last month and lost both badly. (He hadn't had a coach in those matches.)  I knew Scott's game pretty well, and went over the important points with Derek before the match began. He started out having trouble with Scott's serves, and was down 3-9. That's when he figured them out, and Scott got a bit soft, and next thing you know Derek had come back to win the first game at deuce! Derek was really playing well - as someone watching said, "His forehand is like a machine - he never misses!" And his backhand was almost as good, both looping and smashing.) Derek won that match three straight, 10,7,11. (Scott would go on to win Under 22 and make the final of Under 2375.) Scott said afterwards that he thought he would have won if I hadn't been coaching Derek. (He and Derek are good friends, and bantered back and forth the rest of the tournament.)

In his next match Derek played Tina Lin, rated 2233, who is playing great. This may have been the match of the tournament. By now many players were gathering around to watch this tiny dynamo who was running around the court looping and smashing from both wings, and with good serves as well. The match was a doozy. Derek won the first 12-10, Tina the second 13-11 (I think Derek had a game point), Derek won the third 11-9. Derek then went up double-match point at 8-10 in the fourth, with Tina serving. He missed a backhand smash, 9-10. They then had the point of the match. Derek started the point on the attack, looping a series of forehands. Tina blocked them back, and finally smashed. Derek fell back and fished several back, then looped one back. Tina blocked, and was again on the attack, and finally smashed a winner to deuce it. She won the game in deuce. In the fifth, Derek served at 9-all, and both times he serve and looped, but missed a backhand smash and then a loop, and Tina pulled it out, -10, 11,-9,11,9. 

Derek next played Nhu Phong Pham, rated 2142. Pham had gone five with Tina (also coming back from down 0-2 to force the fifth) and gotten a game from Scott. Derek won the first two, but Pham won the next two before Derek won the fifth and the match, 8,5,-7,-10,6.

In the last match of the, Scott played Tina. If Tina wins, she advances at 3-0. If Scott wins, then he, Tina, and Derek are tied at 2-1, and Derek advances for sure (since he beat Scott 3-0 and went five with Tina). Even though he knew he couldn't advance, Scott fought hard for Derek and had Tina match point before losing at -8,10,13,-9,13! So Tina advanced by coming back from down double match point against Derek, down match point against Scott, and having to go five with Pham as well. Talk about your pressure play!

Derek then went 5-0 in winning Under 13, winning all five matches 3-0. He was quite proud of the trophy, which he said was the "tallest" he'd won. He came off the table after one match very apologetic because he'd just played a beginning kid he'd made friends with, and leading 10-0 in the third he'd tried to give away a point, but his attempted backhand smash into the net trickled over the net for a winner. "I didn't mean to win 11-0!"

Now is where things got a bit dark. In Under 2375 he faced an opponent rated about 2000 who exhibited about the worst sportsmanship imaginable - and we knew he would act like this before the match since he had a history of doing this, especially when playing junior players. I'd coached against him once before and he'd done the same thing in that match (though not as bad as this time), and other players, especially kids, said they'd had the same experience. The player had a strong backhand but weak forehand. So I had Derek go after his forehand over and over, and he won the first two games 11-3, 11-4. The opponent talked to Derek throughout, arguing about the score and other matters, but nothing major, and Derek was under orders not to talk to the opponent except when necessary, i.e. calling out the score, etc. A large crowd was beginning to gather, and they began booing this guy for his antics and cheering for Derek.

In the third, it got ridiculous. Essentially every single point the opponent come up with something new to complain about, and began to bicker constantly with Derek, over and over making things up, and slowing the match to a snail's crawl as minutes would sometimes go by between points as he complained about the score, about lets he'd call after the point, that the ball was too shiny, about Derek's serve, and whatever else popped into his mind. He seemed to revel in the crowd booing him. Derek completely fell apart, unable to believe an adult would act like this and not sure how he should react, and lost that game 11-7. Between games I managed to get his head back together, but the guy kept it up in the fourth, making up new things to complain about all through the fourth. Derek managed to focus, and goes up about 7-3. They have another big argument about the score or something, and that's when I finally called for an umpire. Derek loses the next two points, missing easy shots, but finally gets focused, and wins the match at 3,4,-7,5, to huge cheers from the crowd.

Playing mind games with a kid? How low can one go. Derek said he'd never experienced anything like that, and couldn't imagine an adult acting like this. Another lesson learned. (Addendum added later: Five people have emailed me guessing who the person was. All five guessed correctly. The person is notorious.) 

In the last match of the round robin, Derek plays Richard Williams, rated 2269, a very athletic two-winged looper. Derek's barely able to concentrate after the last match, but he still plays pretty well, just not like he had that afternoon when his forehand was like a "machine." Over and over he'd play nice points, only to miss the final winning shot, the very shot he'd made over and over earlier. Match to Richard, 9,-9,9,6, who told Derek, "This is the last time I will ever be able to beat you."

On Sunday morning, Derek was in Under 22. He's seeded fourth in a group of five, but the top seed and fifth seed don't show. He lost the first game against Geoffrey Xiao (who seems way under-rated at 1923), but wins the next three and the match, -9,5,9,5. Geoffrey also won the first against Connor Bockoven, rated 2206, but Connor won the next three. Against Connor, Derek has great difficulty with his serves, and can't seem to control his own serves (his short serves keep going long), and the one serve that Connor has difficulty with - sorry, can't mention it here! - Derek is unable to do effectively. With Connor controlling points with his serve and receive, Derek not only spotted lots of points (mostly care of missing against Connor's serves), but was uncomfortable in the rallies. So Connor wins easily at 5,4,5. It was the only match Derek played where he lost the serve and receive battle. He now has "homework" so he'll be ready for the type of long, spin serves Connor kept throwing at him, as well as working on his own serves.

Derek had a revelation this tournament. He told me, "You can't improve your skills at a tournament. So at tournaments, the game is all mental." He is a wise fifth grader.

Derek couldn't play other Sunday events as his dad had to catch a flight that night to France for a business trip, and so we left around noon. 

Two other interesting notes. Normally the Easterns is held on Memorial Day Weekend, which was the week before. I asked why they had moved it, and was told they wanted to have Memorial Day Weekend off themselves. That's a good reason, but that meant the tournament took place right as high school students (at least in Maryland) were getting ready for finals exams, and they lost at least ten players from my club alone. I'm guessing they lost over 50 players by postponing the tournament one week. They ended up with 164 entries, compared with 227 (plus players who entered in doubles only or who paid and didn't play) last year.

Also, I saw a player wearing a CCCP shirt with hammer and sickle. CCCP is Russian for the old Soviet Union, with the hammer and sickle their official emblem. I had to check my calendar to make sure this wasn't 1991, the year the USSR collapsed!

Sports Psychology Night at MDTTC

On Friday, June 22, Table Tennis Sports Psychologist Dora Kurimay will run a 40-minute sports psychology workshop at the Maryland Table Tennis Center. She runs the table tennis sports psychology page dorakurimay.com, and is the co-author of the book "Get Your Game Face On!" (Here's my review of the book on the USATT website.) The schedule for the night will be: 6:30-7:00PM - book signing; 7:00-7:40PM: Sports Psychology Seminar ($20, which includes a free copy of the book); after 7:40PM: Personalized Sport Psychology Consultation. Here is the flyer for the event. Come join us!

USATT Coaching Newsletters

There have been five USATT Coaching Newsletters since Nov. 2009. Here's where you can read all five!

New Coaching Video from PingSkills

Positioning to Return a Smash (2:53)

Waldner-Persson Exhibition

Here are some nice exhibition points (4:10) between Swedish greats Jan-Ove Waldner and Jorgen Persson. (For some reason they also have a few exhibition points stuck in between Waldner and I think Chen Xinhua of China, a chopper.)

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