Angry Moments

December 11, 2012

Table Tennis Tactics for Thinkers Update

The page layouts are done! Well, mostly. I still don't have the front and back covers, and I need to do a lot of proofing of the layouts. The book is 240 pages, with 76 photos/illustrations, and 99,425 words. Due to the upcoming Nationals (I leave for Las Vegas on Monday), I probably won't get much more done this week - lots of coaching activities over the next six days. If all goes well, the book will be out by the end of January.

I did the final three segments in the book yesterday, giving more examples of tactics used in actual matches. They include:

  • A player fell behind 0-2 in games because the opponent looped his deep serves, and either dropped short or quick-pushed at an angle his short backspin serves to the forehand or backhand. The solution? Short no-spin serves to the middle, which take away most of the angles and are difficult to push short.
  • A match won by simplifying a strong but erratic backhand loop by deciding to go relentlessly crosscourt, even though shots to the middle and forehand gave the opponent trouble, as well as a late-match change to short receive, which hadn't worked earlier, but did now for reasons explained in the text;
  • Turning a crosscourt 2500 monster into a down-the line 2200 mouse (and focusing on looping any slightly long serve, mostly down the line) leads to upsetting the top seed and making the U.S. National Cadet Team.
  • A player spends a week working on a specific doubles serve, which leads to winning a doubles title.
  • When paired with a two-winged ripper, a player learns to play control to set up his partner and win a major doubles title.

Note that none of these are complicated tactics. Tactics isn’t about finding complex strategies to defeat an opponent; tactics is about sifting through all the zillions of possible tactics and finding a few simple ones that work

Regarding the cover, I'm running into a problem in that I need to get permission from a top player to use his image. I decided I would use Cheng Yinghua, my fellow MDTTC coach and former top player, and created this cover. However, Cheng surprised me by being embarrassed about it, and didn't want to be on the cover. I may try to talk him into it. Otherwise, I'm back at square one - any suggestions? (The back cover is tentatively a picture of me coaching Todd Sweeris at the 1996 U.S. Olympic Trials. He made the team. I have to check with him on this - if he sees this, Hi Todd!)

Maybe I should just put myself on the cover. I don't want a cover that just shows a coach talking to a player; I want something that says table tennis, i.e. a table tennis shot. The head shot of "The Thinker" at the top signifies the thinking aspect. (Someone here suggested that - who was that? Comment here and take credit!!!)

Late Starters - Embrace It!

To become truly great at table tennis you need to start very young (and lots of other things as well). Most players start late, often well after their juniors years. (I didn't start until I was 16, alas.) You can still become very good, but you probably won't be world champion.

On the other hand, there's a huge advantage to starting late. Players who start very young peak (often at a very high level) by their 20s, and by age 30 can at best hold their level. They may continue to learn new things, but this only postpones the inevitable physical decline that comes with age. Late starters may never reach the heights of those who start early, but they can improve their level for nearly their entire lives. It may be a slow progression, but I know lots of players who started as non-juniors, played for many years, and got better well into their 50s and even 60s. It's a different perspective, of course. The steady improvement from beginner at age 20 to 2000 player at age 50 can be long and slow, and seemingly not as exciting as a journey starting at age 8 that leads to 2600 at age 20, but if the journey is the destination, then both journeys are exciting - one just lasts longer.

Playing in Less Than Ideal Conditions

Here's a short article by former top junior Vikash Sahu on the topic.

Angry Moments in Table Tennis

Here's a video (7:04) that showcases seven minutes of unhappy players. I don't think I've linked to this one before, though in June I linked to the "Top Ten Angry Moments in Table Tennis" (4:41).

Table Tennis Then and Now

This is a great video (10:48), showing table tennis as it evolved from the hardbat era to now. It's also inspirational, and will help calm you down after the preceding video on "Angry Moments."

This is Why They Call it Sandwich Rubber

But it's good to snack while you play!

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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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