Poor Sportsmanship

June 11, 2012

Tip of the Week

Dealing with Cheaters and Poor Sportsmanship.

Bad coaches

Since this week's Tip of the Week is on Cheaters and Poor Sportsmanship, let's continue the trend and look at the dark side of coaching. There are lots of great coaches out there. And I've often blogged about good coaching habits. However, let's talk about the other side of the coin: bad coaches. Here is a list of seven types of bad coaches. (I'm sure I missed some.) There is a lot of overlap between these categories, and the differences between some of them are subtle. There are probably bad coaches who combine the worst of multiple categories!

  1. Self-taught coaches who either don't really understand high-level table tennis that well. Often they were mid-level players who really think they know the game, but don't have the experience to realize they don't. The stereotypical example is the player who has had little or no experience in watching top players develop, but believe they know how it is done by watching the end product, i.e. top players (usually on video) after they have already become top players. Highly perceptive people can sometimes learn to be good tacticians this way, but to learn what a top coach does in the practice hall you have to be in the practice hall to learn.
  2. Highly-opinionated coaches who can only teach one way, and often are mistaken in what they do teach. They usually were not top players, and teach techniques that they themselves have little experience at and which they don't really understand. These types of coaches are legendary, but players usually see through them once they start observing what top players actually do, and see that there are sometimes multiple ways of doing something, depending on the player's style and technique.
  3. Those who can only coach their own playing style. Often they are former top players. I've seen coaches take well-developed and successful styles and practically destroy them by trying to make them play the way they did. A good coach understands the game in general, not just from his own game's point of view. Some top players are masters of knowledge regarding their own game and how it relates to playing other styles, but only know little beyond their own game.
  4. Those who live in the past, who essentially say, "This is how I did it, this is how my coach did it, and this is how my coach's coach did it, so that's how you will do it." I call these types of coaches "Parrot Coaches." These types of coaches are unable to change with the times as new techniques are developed.
  5. Those who do not personalize, and instead teach everyone the same. This comes out of pure laziness.
  6. Those only out for money, and are impatient or unenthusiastic. They often teach sound fundamentals, but getting them to take the extra effort to really develop someone as a player is like pulling teeth.
  7. Bad attitudes. Some of the "best" coaches are not very good coaches because of bad attitudes. One of my best students ever early in my coaching career reached #1 in both Under 14 and Under 16. He idealized a particular world-class player whose style he had copied, watching huge numbers of tapes of this player. Then, one day, lo and behold, the player came to the U.S., and was going to play in a major local tournament! Better still, he advertised that he would be coaching the night before at the tournament site, at a very high rate. My excited student signed up for a 30-minute lesson. They were speaking Chinese during the session, so I didn't know what they were saying as I watched, but gradually my student seemed more and more unhappy, and he left the session crying. According to him and to several onlookers who understood Chinese, the "coach" had spent the entire session berating him, insulting his game, and ended the session by telling the kid he had no potential as a top player. If I'd known what was going on, I'd have pulled him from the session immediately. Instead, completely disheartened at this treatment from his "hero," the kid barely tried that weekend, losing to nearly everyone as I watched helplessly from the sidelines, and never really overcame it. After years of training six days a week, he stopped trying in training sessions, stopped trying in school, and six months later, his parents pulled him from table tennis. (I later found out that this top player was notorious for this type of thing.)

Interview with Stellan Bengtsson on Sports Psychology

Table tennis sports psychologist Dora Kurimay interviews Coach Stellan Bengtsson (1971 World Men's Singles Champion) on the most important aspects of sports psychology.

Spin City Sports Table Tennis

Here's an article from the Tampa Bay Times on the Spin City Sports full-time table tennis club in Largo, Florida.

Great Point, Great Shot

Here's a video of a great 34-shot rally in the final of the Japan Open this past weekend, with Japan's Jun Mizutani (the lefty on the far side) fishing or lobbing back 13 shots in a row against Korea's Oh Sang Eun, ending with one of the best point-winning lobs you'll ever see. (Mizutani wins the final, 9,9,.-11,-4,12,5.)

Ping-Pong Death Match

Since we have an interview with Bengtsson on sports psychology, it's only appropriate that we end with a video of a Ping-Pong Death Match (5:28). Ever play ping-pong with a guy who takes the game way too seriously?

Non-Table Tennis - New SF Story Published

My science fiction story "The Oysters of Pinctada" went up today in the new issue of Flagship Magazine. My name's on the cover! Alas, you'll have to buy the issue to read the story. (Here's my Science Fiction & Fantasy page.)


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June 6, 2012

Why coaches teach nearly everyone almost the same style

If you watch the top players, and especially up-and-coming juniors, you probably noticed something: they all seem to play pretty much the same. There are, of course, differences, often subtle, but in generally they mostly serve forehand pendulum serves (regular and reverse), they pretty much loop everything on the forehand (unless it's an easy smash, though some loop those as well), and they all loop on the backhand (though some will also hit). In generally, nearly every top player and top junior these days is a looper of some type. If you watch closely, you'll realize that many elite juniors aren't really hitting their backhand much anymore; they are looping them off the bounce. You'll even notice emerging trends, such as how they all seem to receive short balls whenever possible now with their backhands, using the newly popular "banana flip," which is basically an over-the-table backhand loop, often with sidespin. Why are they all playing so much alike?

Except at the highest levels, there are many styles that are successful. In fact, one of the strangest things about table tennis is that just about any style can succeed below the national level, say up to 2200-2400 level or so. There really aren't any disadvantages below that level for choppers, blockers, hitters, pips-out penholders, Seemiller grip players, long pips blockers, or just about any other semi-regular style. Given the chance, in fact, many players with these styles probably could nearly reach the top, even becoming, say, the best in the U.S. or top 100 in the world.

So why do so few coaches teach other styles?

Think of it from the point of view of the coach. He has a new player. Let's suppose that one style is slightly better than another at the higher levels. Why would the coach choose that particular player to develop a style he knows is slightly less successful than others?

Sure, some players may be more talented at one style than another, but these tendencies don't really show up early on. It's hard to tell if a new seven-year-old player might someday be better as a chopper than as a looper. And so he is trained early on to be a looper, the "default" style in the modern game. And when I say the default style, it's basically the style of nearly every player in the top one hundred in the world. The few exceptions I know on the men's side are chopper/loopers, who chop, but are highly aggressive loopers as well.

I don't know everyone in the top hundred, but I don't think any are pips-out penholders left, for example - a style that once dominated the sport. And yet I believe that if half of all new players were trained as pips-out penholders, probably a few would reach the top hundred.

But why would a coach put a new player at a disadvantage right from the start by developing them with a style that puts them at a disadvantage? And so, if there's a 1% advantage with one style over another, rather than have 1% more play that style, you get nearly 100% playing the 1% better style.

This is even true for serving. Players see that most world-class players use pendulum forehand serves (regular and reverse), and so they copy them. Coaches teach the most successful techniques, and so these are the serves they mostly teach. Backhand serves? Tomahawk serves? Windshield wiper serves? These serves all have potential, and many are used as "backup" serves, even by world-class players. But what coach wants to teach them as the primary serve, and later on risk have to explain to the junior why he taught them a less successful serve?

There are, of course, exceptions. Three top junior players from China recently moved to Maryland, and one of them is a 17-year-old chopper/looper with a rating now of 2567. Why did his coach choose to train him as a chopper? Perhaps I'll ask him. One of the three juniors is a 14-year-old penholder who loops from both wings, with a 2388 rating. In the U.S. and Europe, few coaches teach penhold, starting everyone off as a shakehander (there are more shakehanders at the top then penholders), but in China many players are trained as penholders - but with modern reverse penhold backhands so they can loop just like a shakehander, like Xu Xin and Wang Hao, #3 and #4 in the world. (The third junior is a 12-year-old rated 2306, a conventional two-winged looping shakehander - but he's a lefty.) 

Even among the seemingly identical loopers there are subtle differences. Some serve mostly backspin or no-spin; others serve more sidespin and topspin. Some like to mix up their serves; others keep them short and simple. Some loop nearly everything on the backhand; others both loop and hit. Some loop close to the table; others move back to loop. Some favor the forehand every chance; others are more two-winged. Some back up to counterloop, fish, or lob when the opponent attacks; others mostly stay at the table and either block or counter-loop off the bounce, though nearly all counterloop just about everything on the forehand side. Some mix in short receives against a short serve; others only push long or flip. But these are, to the average observer, subtle differences, and overbalanced by the similar serve motions and mostly all-out looping styles. 

As a coach I face these problems regularly. There are beginning junior players I'm tempted to train as, say, chopper/loopers, or to use pips on their backhand, or to be pure hitters. I've always thought that the Seemiller grip would be rather successful in the women's game, where there is more emphasis on speed and quickness (advantages of the grip) rather than backhand looping and counterlooping abilities (disadvantages with the grip), with the added advantages of the grip (great blocking, strong in middle, lots of wrist motion when looping, an alternate surface). But what junior girls should I choose to test this theory? Five years later they are going to ask me why, and I'm not sure I will have an answer. And so they are trained as loopers.

Poor Sportsmanship at the Easterns

In the interest of full disclosure, early this morning the person I wrote about in my Monday blog for his bad sportsmanship at the Easterns responded with four (4!) long, rambling, disjointed, and obnoxious comments, attacking Derek and me with numerous accusations, making excuses for his behavior and for why he lost, and basically pushing my patience to the limit. I'm not going to get into a point-by-point argument with all the things he wrote about and accusations made; suffice to say he thought people were laughing at him because he was losing to a "small boy" when of course they were laughing at him because of his on-court antics. I have a low tolerance for this type of thing, so I deleted the four notes and he is banned permanently from this site. (After nearly a year and a half, he is only the second person banned, other than advertising spammers.) I haven't named him, but I have received numerous emails and Facebook notes from people, most of whom were not at the Easterns but who recognized the behavior. So far 100% of them have correctly identified the person. My Tip of the Week this next Monday will be how to deal with poor sportsmanship and cheaters.

The Daily Visits Spin New York

"Pingpong has become the latest social sport, so The Daily's Olivia Zaleski went to Spin New York to perfect her game." Here's the video (4:18) with ping-pong host (and Spin co-owner) Frank Raharinosy.

It's Derek versus Goliath!

Here's a table tennis cartoon I liked. The caption is in Spanish, "A veces la fuerza no es la major arma," which my online translator translates as, "Sometimes the force is not a major weapon."

Top Ten Angry Moments in Table Tennis

And here they are! (4:41)


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June 5, 2012

Bad Sportsmanship and Cheaters

Yesterday I blogged about the Eastern Open, including the extremely bad sportsmanship of one player. Here are some examples of really bad sportsmanship or cheating I've experienced in the past.

  • I was coaching a top 13-year-old against a much higher-rated player in a best of five to 21. The 13-year-old won the first two games. The opponent won the first point of the third game. He then walked over to the 13-year-old's side of the table, put his fist in the kid's face, and screamed very loudly, "Yeah!" He then walked back to his side of the table. The kid was stunned, and didn't want to play. I called for the referee, who actually had seen it, but all he did was give a warning and send out an umpire. The kid barely tried the rest of the way, saying before they started up again, "If he wants to win that bad, then let him."
  • Back when foot stomping was illegal when serving (since players were using it to cover up the sound of contact with combination rackets), a player I was about to play convinced the umpire in advance that if a player lifts his foot during the service motion, it's an illegal foot stomp. The umpire fell for it, and since I do lift my foot up slightly on my forehand pendulum serve, he faulted me on the very first point. I called the referee, who explained to the umpire that it was a foot stomp only if, in the umpire's opinion, the stomp was loud enough to cover the sound of contact. The umpire then tried to change his call to a let, but my opponent insisted it was a judgment call, and an umpire can't change a judgment call after the fact. The referee reluctantly agreed, and the point stood. (The opponent admitted he'd planned the whole thing.) This is still the only time in 36 years and probably over 500 tournaments that I've been faulted.
  • I discovered an opponent had great difficulties with my forehand tomahawk serve. When I served it to him at 19-all (games to 21), he caught the ball saying he wasn't ready. I served it again, and again he caught the ball. This happened four times in a row! I called for an umpire. Again I served the tomahawk serve, and the opponent again caught the ball saying he wasn't ready. The umpire then asked him specifically if he was ready before each of the next two points, the opponent reluctantly agreed, I gave him two tomahawk serves, and forced to actually return them, he missed both. He admitted afterwards he'd decided he was going to catch it and say he wasn't ready anytime I gave him that serve.
  • Two top players were battling it out, and the score reached 17-12 in the third (best of three to 21). Both agreed on the score, but both claimed to be up 17-12. Havoc ensued. The referee finally had them replay the game from scratch.
  • In the 1980s there was a player who was notorious for cheating. Opponents basically called an umpire against him nearly every match. I played him once, and he kept calling lets whenever I hit a winner even if there was no ball anywhere ("Yes there was!" he'd claim), and then he simply called the score wrong, giving himself a lead when I was winning. I had to call an umpire, and then beat him easily. (Fortunately, there were a number of spectators who were watching, who all verified to the umpire what the score was.)
  • I was watching play from a balcony on a hot and humid day when Dan Seemiller called me over and pointed at a top player who was about to serve. The player was a chopper who, surprisingly, had long pips on both sides of his racket. Just before serving, over and over, he'd turn his back on his opponent, spit on the ball (!), and then serve. The opponent would put it in the net, and thought it was just the humidity.
  • There have been a number of times I've watched grown men berate little kids throughout a match in an attempt to intimidate them, such as the example I blogged about yesterday at the Easterns. One time I was playing Perry Schwartzberg a match, and we kept getting interrupted by the antics of a grown man on the next table, who kept badgering the little kid he was playing. Finally Perry walked over and let the guy have it. I wish I had done it.
  • Here's a controversial one. In the final of Men's Singles at the 1987 World Championships, defending champion Jiang Jialiang of China was up 2-1 in games on Jan-Ove Waldner of Sweden. Waldner led 20-16 game point, and it seemed they were about to go into the fifth and final game. Jiang won four in a row to get to 20-all. He then did his infamous walk around the table: With his fist in the air, he circled the table, walking right in front of Waldner on his side of the table. Waldner later admitted this bothered him, and Jiang won in deuce to win the championship. Here's the video of the match (17:26). At 10:07 Waldner is leading 20-16. At 11:27 they start the spectacular point where Jiang deuces it, and then you see him walk around the table. Poor sportsmanship, over-exuberance, or basic gamesmanship?

Fast Serves

How many players have confidence they can pull of a very fast serve at a key moment in a match? It's risky, since most players don't practice this serve just before a tournament to get the timing down. Key phrase: "most players don't practice this serve just before a tournament." Fast serves need more precision and timing then spin serves or they are easy to miss, and so they need more warm-up and practice before a serious match. So, how do you think you can fix this? Duh!!! (When I warm up a player I'm coaching at a tournament, I almost always finish by having them practice their serves, including the fast ones.)

Want to Find Your Record Against Anyone?

Go to the TTSPIN ratings page, search for your name (see "player search" at top, since it seems to have David Zhuang as the default), choose your opponent, and your complete record (going back to 1995) will appear! (Green means you won, red you lost.)

Final of the China Open

Here's Xu Xin defeating Ma Long 4-2 (-6, 5,10,-9,7,4) in the final of the China Open in Shanghai, May 23-27. Time between points is taken out so entire match takes just nine minutes. (Xu is the penholder.)

Easterns and Meiklejohn Results

There were two major 4-star tournaments this past weekend, the Eastern Open at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and the Meiklejohn Senior Championships in Laguna Woods, California. Here are the results:

100 ping-ping balls. 100 mousetraps

Here's the result (34 seconds).


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