Constant Competition

May 9, 2014

Three Less Obvious Reasons China Dominates

The primary reasons for China's dominance are they train harder, have more players, and have more and better coaches. These are all true. However, the base of the dominance actually comes from three almost iconic changes in their training and playing styles.

First, the more obvious one, was the change from the close-to-the-table pips-out attacking styles that dominated from the 1960s to the 1980s, as well as (to a lesser degree) one-winged penhold loopers. By the late 1980s it was obvious that two-winged looping was going to dominate the game, and that the last few successful hitters were mostly hanging on because European loopers weren't used to playing that style. Countries like Sweden brought in pips-out hitting practice partners, got used to playing it, and in the early 1990s China went through a drought as European players dominated the game. Many of the Chinese coaches who had advocated sticking with their traditional pips-out games were replaced, and soon China began dominating with two-winged loopers who were even better than the Europeans. In fact, they revolutionized the game by developing loopers who could stay closer to the table than the traditional European looping style, and soon European loopers were struggling to keep up.

Second, during the 1990s another traditional Chinese style nearly died out - penholders. For a time they nearly disappeared from the world-class rankings. But then players from China developed the reverse penhold backhand, and learned to play their backhands almost the same as a shakehander. It started with Liu Guoliang, then Ma Lin, then Wang Hao (world #6, former #1) and Xu Xin (current #1 in the world). The big question for years was whether the future of penhold play was a combination of reverse penhold backhands for attacking with conventional backhands for blocking, or just reverse penhold backhands, even when blocking. The latter won out. While the pips-out penhold style pretty much died out, the one-winged penhold looping game transitioned into a two-winged penhold looping style that competes evenly with two-winged shakehand loopers.

Third is perhaps the less obvious one to many. China and most Asian countries have traditionally worshipped training, and would drill for hour after hour, day after day, often seven days a week. Because of this the Chinese always had the best players from a technical point of view. And yet, the European men would often battle with them with their obviously "weaker" games. The reason? The Europeans had one ace up their sleeve - they knew the value of constant competition, and they competed constantly in leagues and training matches, as well as drills that mimicked match play. And so their players, while not as technically proficient as the Chinese, knew how to win with what they had, while the Chinese often were more robotic, playing matches as if they were drills. But the Chinese figured this out, and by the turn of the century their coaches had their players playing more and more matches, both in practice and in leagues and tournaments. Events like the Chinese Super League allowed even more matches. They also incorporated more match-type drills into their training.

And so the match-savvy Europeans found themselves up against match-savvy Chinese, and with the Chinese technological superiority, the rest is history. Just browse this listing of World Champions (singles, doubles, teams) and you'll see. They've won Men's Teams seven times in a row and nine of the last ten. (Note that just before that Sweden won three times in a row.) They've won Women's Teams ten of the last eleven and 18 of the last 20 times.

"Dang"

I have a new official policy. Roughly every 30 seconds while coaching, when playing out points with students, I'll say something along the lines of "I would have gotten to that ball ten years ago," or "Shots like that used to be so easy." Well, this takes up a lot of time and gets repetitive. And so, starting this past week, my new policy is that whenever I can't run down or make a shot that I know, with 100% absolute certainty and beyond any doubt, that I would have made in the past when I was a world-class conditioned professional athlete (stop laughing now), I will just say, "Dang," and my student will know what it means.

Ma Long's Earned Everyone's Respect

Here's the article from TableTennista. It includes a link to his two matches in the Men's Final at the Worlds against Germany. Here are videos with the time removed between points: Ma Long vs. Timo Boll (4:07) and Ma Long vs. Dimitrij Ovtcharov (4:21).

Liu Guoliang Doesn't Blame Zhang Jike

Here's the article from TableTennista. It includes a link to the Zhang Jike-Dimitrij Ovtcharov video (31:10); here's a video of the match with time between points removed (5:01).

Table Tennis for the Cure

Here's the article. "A Sheffield man with a brain disorder is battling back to health after a coma – and puts his recovery down to table tennis."

USATT Awarded US Paralympic Grant from US Department of Veterans Affairs

Here's the article.

2014 US Para Team Profiles

Here's the video (11:12), narrated by Stellan and Angie Bengtsson

Selfies from the Worlds

Here's the music video (1:14) of players at the worlds doing selfies to music.

Human Ping-Pong Ball

Here's the picture - though I think he looks more like a big fat onion to me!

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March 11, 2014

Constant Competition

Here's a great posting by 3x USA Men's Champion Jim Butler on the importance of competition. I concur 200%. USATT is always stressing the importance of developing our elite athletes, and yet misses the boat here. Sending our elite juniors overseas for a tournament or two is nice, but that's not how you improve through competition; the improvement comes from constant competition. It just so happens that that's what the Europeans did for years with their leagues to keep up with the better-trained and far more numerous Chinese. It was when the Chinese adopted the concept and added it to their normal training that they became nearly unbeatable.

While we're talking specifically about up-and-coming junior players and how constant competition (along with training) will turn them into truly elite players, it really applies to everyone. If you want to improve, find the right balance of training and competition. Developing the fundamentals is top priority, but once that's done, you need both training and constant competition.

Jim wrote, "Training really hard is a given.  Without the ability to play competition on a weekly to bi-weekly basis we will never develop great athletes in this country beyond the current standard we see now. Our young talent will not develop to their maximum potential until this country develops an infrastructure that gets everyone playing against each other and against the Chinese talent throughout this country in regular competitions."

I see the same thing. I see far too many up-and-coming juniors - including from my own club - who train and Train and TRAIN, and don't understand that's just the "given" part. Many partially make up for this with weekly matches with the other top players from their club, but they are playing the same players each week, with little at stake, and so it isn't quite the same. They need at least two tournaments every month, or a larger-scale league where they play more varied players.

Jim also wrote, "When I played this 3 tournament team trials over the 3 day weekend, I was clearly better by the last day.  I left feeling battle hardened, tougher, and sharper.  That has the same effect on the young players also." This is a common thing. Often our top juniors reach their best right as the tournament ends - and then there's no more competition to take advantage of it. Tournaments develop and bring out the best in our players, but it has to be a regular thing, just as training has to be a regular thing.

Ironically, just yesterday I wrote of Jim, "But now Jim, pushed to play well, often is forced to raise his level of play - and so while we don't often see the 2700+ Jim Butler of the 90s, we often see flashes of it, especially after he's played a bunch of matches where he's getting pushed hard." That's exactly what happened to Jim this past weekend, and exactly what happens to our up-and-coming players whey they are pushed hard in tournaments or other competitions. And guess what? When they are pushed hard, over and over, week after week, they often discover they can play at levels far beyond what they would have if they only trained.

Jim also comments on the strength of our young talent in the country now, and we both agree that it's incredibly strong. I've blogged about it a number of times; with full-time training centers popping up all over the country over the last seven years, the level of our junior and cadet players has skyrocketed, and is stronger than it has ever been. It used to be we'd have maybe one or two really good junior players in each age group. Now we have dozens of them, and with those dozens there are a few who break out and go beyond where anyone has gone before, such as Kanak Jha and Crystal Wang, with others hot on their heels. Who knows which other ones will break out of the field and challenge to be the best? But before we didn't even have a "field" of up-and-coming talent so much as a few isolated good ones.

But for them to reach their potential and keep on pace with their overseas counterparts - both European and Asian - they'll need both the given training and the constant competition. To quote Jim one more time: "This country is going to blow up with success once a tournament infrastructure is built.  Our young talent would thrive and play beyond their teenage years.  The players would become great in time, and the sport will take off. … It would be an incredible loss to watch this young talent die out after their teenage years because no competitive infrastructure has been built yet in the USA."

(Note - I originally ended this with a comparison to tennis. The Williams sisters, for example, didn't follow the conventional route to success, staying out of the junior circuit and mostly training. However, there are a lot of differences between table tennis and tennis, with table tennis having more intricate spins, variations, and instant reactions to complex situations, compared to tennis, where the rallies are more "pure" and the situations less complex. Also, one ad hoc example in tennis doesn't change the fact that the overwhelming majority of top tennis players reached their level from both training and competition. But I don't want to distract from the main topic here and turn this into a table tennis vs. tennis training thing. Perhaps another time.) 

Interview with Jim Butler

While we're on the subject of Jim Butler, here's a rather emotional interview with Jim at the USA Team Trials, right after he'd clinched the final spot on the U.S. Team. (The link should take you directly to it, but if not, the interview starts at 1hr43min39sec, and lasts for 5.5 minutes.)

The Duel: Timo Boll vs. KUKA Robot

Here's the video (3:52) of the much hyped man vs. robot table tennis match - but judging from the comments, it's a disappointment. It was obviously staged, and wasn't a real match. (If it had, Timo would have killed the robot with ease.) Most believe that much of the play was cgi, though I'm not sure of that. They even had a landing pit for Timo to dive into when he dove for the ball. After watching the video, read the comments and see if you agree. Here's an article on the event, which found it disappointing. My view? I was a bit disappointed that the video really didn't show us the robot's actual capabilities. It made it appear to be blocking Timo's best loops, but since we only saw snippets of rallies, it's not clear if it was actually doing so, if it was only doing so occasionally, or if it was cgi.

Final Preparations Underway for Star-Studded Butterfly Cary Cup

Here's the article - by Butterfly's new traveling reporter and former MDTTC junior star Barbara Wei! She'll have a daily article up each day until the tournament this weekend, and then a flurry of articles during and after the tournament. (I'll be there, in Cary, NC, just playing hardbat on Friday and coaching the rest of the way.)

Liu Guozheng on the New Plastic Ball

Here's the article on his views after testing it. (Liu, a former Chinese star, is now coach of the second men's team.) One problem - they don't say which of the new balls was tested. By most accounts, they play differently. The one that seems to play best is the Xu Shaofa seamless one, but since he says the ball is more fragile, I'm pretty sure it's not that one, which (due to the seamlessness) is far less fragile than a celluloid ball.

The Missing Key in Table Tennis Footwork

Here's the video (2:02) by Ohio top player and coach Samson Dubina - Improving Your Table Tennis Footwork with Better Anticipation.

Wang Liqin Doing Multiball

Here's 29 sec of three-time World Men's Singles Champion Wang Liqin doing multiball.

Around-the-Net Backhand Counterloop (and an almost-nice receive)

Here's the video (60 sec, including slow motion replays). It's a great shot, certainly, but I wonder how many saw something more subtle and more important to your table tennis game? Watch the receive at the start. See how the player reaches in as if he's going to push to the left, and at the last second pushes to the right. That's how advanced receivers push. However, while he made an excellent last-second change of direction, he made another subtle mistake - the push isn't wide enough, and so the server was able to recover and make a strong loop. If the receive had been to the corner or just outside it, it would have been a great receive. If you do these last-second changes of direction, and place the ball well (usually to wide corners when pushing deep), then you are more likely to mess up the server. And that is your goal. 

Attempt on World's Longest Rally

Here's the article. On March 23, Peter and Dan Ives (father and son) will attempt to break the record for world's longest table tennis rally, currently held by Max Fergus and Luke Logan at 8 hours, 30 minutes, and 6 seconds. The Ives are doing so to raise money for Prostrate Cancer UK Charity.

China Primary School Ping Pong Army

Here's a video (2o sec) of a zillion kids in China doing their morning ping-pong.

Crossword Puzzle Pong

Yesterday's Washington Post crossword puzzle had this question for 45 across: "Ping-Pong ball delivery." So what was the answer? It was a bit disappointing: "Random Number." (So more lottery than table tennis.)

Table Tennis Memes

Go to Google. In the search engine put in "table tennis memes pictures." (Or just use this shortcut I created.) And see all the great ones that come up!

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March 25, 2013

Tip of the Week

Importance of Constant Competition.

Spring Break Camp

In Friday's blog I mentioned that we have so many coaches/practice partners that we can't always use them all. Actually, it looks like that was incorrect - they will all be used in our camps, either coaching, feeding multiball, or as practice partners.

Day One starts this morning. As usual, I do all the talking, introducing the camp and giving short lectures. However, unlike our summer camps, where we have a lot of out-of-towners, the Spring Break Camp is mostly locals (since it coincides with the local spring break), and so the lectures will be extra short, with the goal to get them out on the tables. I'll probably be feeding multiball in the morning, working with beginners in the afternoon.

Mornings are mostly multiball. I'll be feeding multiball, along with coaches Cheng Yinghua, Jack Huang, and Wang Qing Liang ("Leon"), and perhaps one other. If not feeding multiball, then Chen Bo Wen ("Bowen") and Chen Jie ("James") will be practice partners for players waiting their turn at multiball. (We have other part-time coaches - not sure yet of their hours.) In the afternoon, it's mostly table play, with the first half drills, then games. I'll be taking the beginners to the back tables to work on basics (and then games near the end), while Cheng and Jack run the session for the rest, with the others as practice partners.

The big question each day, of course, is what to order for lunch. We order Chinese food delivered each day. I'm thinking Orange Chicken, though Mongolian Beef also sounds good. Right after lunch it's sort of set that most of the kids will all want to go to the 7-11 down the street, and so we walk there as a group. The 7-11 manager always sneaks me a free mini-Slurpee for bringing them. Not sure if I'll want a cold Slurpee today - we had four inches of snow last night. Maybe we'll build snowmen during lunch break.

Table Tennis Tactics for Thinkers - Kindle Version

After a long battle with the formatting, I've finalized the new version for Kindle with the 90 pictures used in the print version, and it is ready for downloading. I've also contacted Amazon about giving free downloads of the new version to anyone who bought the previous text-only version. Here's their response:

We've now entered your request to provide updated content to customers who purchased your book. Thanks for providing specific details about the changes made. We’ll perform the review of the changes to determine the most appropriate way to describe the updates to your customers. As we previously told you, this review will be complete within four weeks, and the possible results of our review listed below.

1. If the changes made to your content are considered critical, we’ll send an email to all customers who own the book to notify them of the update and improvements made. These customers will be able to choose to opt in to receive the update through the Manage Your Kindle page on Amazon.com. www.amazon.com/gp/digital/fiona/manage

2. If the changes made to your content are considered minor, we won’t be able to notify all customers by email, but we will activate their ability to update the content through the Manage Your Kindle page on Amazon.com.

Chinese Publisher for Table Tennis Tactics for Thinkers

I started googling for Chinese publishers that might be interested in translating and publishing the book in China. And then it hit me - it's already been done! Well, sort of. My previous book, Table Tennis: Steps to Success was translated into five other languages (Chinese, Korean, Indonesian, Malaysian, and Hebrew - plus of course the English version). So all I have to do is contact the Chinese publisher of that book and see if they'd be interested in this one. It was published in China by China University of Mining and Technology Press. (Someone also contacted me about possibly doing a Swedish translation. I'll get back to him soon.)

Combating Nerves - Playing Against a Big Reputation

Here's the article from Table Tennis Master.

International Articles from Table Tennista

Here are four more.

Do You Try at 10-0?

Here's an interesting discussion at the OOAK Table Tennis Forum on whether to give away a point if you are leading 10-0. Personally, in non-competitive matches, I always give it away, or at least put up a high ball for them to smash (though then I might try to win the point lobbing). Against players near my level in practice I might also put a ball up like that, but not in a tournament.

Forehand Loop Against Block

Here's a nice video (3:11) from PingSkills that demonstrates and explains this.  

Assembling a Racket

Here's a video (1:57) showing how to put sponge on your racket - plus a little behind-the-back play by Steven Chan.

Bruce Jenner Plays TT

So how does 1976 Decathlon Olympic Gold Medalist Bruce Jenner spend his free time? Playing table tennis with a robot! Here's a video (33 sec) of him hitting with the robot at his home.

Chimp Picture

Here's a new Chimpanzee ping-pong picture. (Here's an older one.)

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