Around the Net

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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January 7, 2014

Away Wed-Sun

I'll be away the next five days, Wednesday to late Sunday night (Jan. 8-12), going to my nephew's wedding and family gathering in New Orleans. So no blog until next Tuesday. (I'll also put the Tip of the Week up on Tuesday.) At that point things get exciting - USATT Historian Tim Boggan moves in with me on Monday, and we begin the grueling two-week task of doing the photo work and layouts for Volume 14 of his History of U.S. Table Tennis, as I've done with the previous volumes. 

USATT Election Results

USATT just completed a special election for the open seat vacated by Christian Lillieroos. Here's the announcement - Jim McQueen wins over Ross Brown. Here's the USATT Board of Directors listing.

Ratings Records

I don't like to harp on ratings, but a record's a record. Here are two new ratings records, by Crystal Wang and Klaus Wood, both from my club, MDTTC. (However, as noted below, Klaus has spent most of the last four years in Taiwan.) 

Just as she did as a 9-year-old (with a 2150 ratings) and a 10-year-old (with a 2355 rating), Crystal Wang just set the all-time record for highest rating for an 11-year-old, boys or girls, with a 2402 rating after the North American Teams. Alas, it didn't last - at the USA Nationals, where she became the youngest ever to win Under 22 Women (beating in the semifinals soon-to-be three-time USA Women's Singles Champion Ariel Hsing), she sort of imploded in Under 18 Girls' Singles with several huge rating losses, and so came out at 2304. Suffice to say that few who play her think of her as "only" 2304.

Did she deserve the 2402 rating? You decide. (And remember that she beat the 2511 Ariel Hsing three weeks later at the Nationals!)
Wins: 2359, 2356, 2348, 2345, 2315, 2305, 2304, 2289, 2277, 2276, 2262, 2247, 2134, 2059, 2012.
Losses: 2781, 2542, 2394, 2325, 2305.

Crystal has been chasing after Kanak Jha's records for the last few years. Kanak, 13, set the record for highest rated 9-, 10-, 11-, 12-, and now 13-year-old in history, with Crystal breaking the first three. (Kanak's highest ratings at age 9, 10, 11, 12, and 13 were 2017, 2265, 2366, 2468, and 2635. This last one especially is going to be tough for anyone to top! Note - I'm not absolutely certain Kanak's 2017 rating at age 9 was the record, but I think it was.) The two are leading a huge surge in elite cadet players in the U.S., which is stronger than it's ever been. Just for the record, both Crystal and Kanak are U.S.-born citizens. I had a listing of Kanak's highest ratings at each age, and now I can't find it, alas - but I know his highest as an 11-year-old was somewhere in the 2350 range, which is still incredible.

At the USA Nationals, Klaus Wood, 12, went from 637 to 1747, a gain of 1110 points, which I believe might be a record. If anyone's gained that many in a tournament, let me know. At worse, it's probably a record for the Nationals. The amazing thing is that's way, way too low for him. Just look at his results - he beat players rated 2261, 2068, 1906, and 1892, and his worst loss was to a 2132 player in five games! He's really 2100+. But his 637 rating was from 2009. Here's his story: he started out as a 9-year-old at the Maryland Table Tennis Center in 2009 (my club), and played five tournaments that year, getting that 637 rating. I coached him a number of times that year in group sessions. Then his father got a job in Taiwan, and so he moved there and spent the last four years there training. (He's half Chinese.) He came back to Maryland for a time this summer and attended two of our camps. Then he attended the USA Nationals. He's back in Taiwan again, but he's supposed to return to Maryland permanently later this year. We look forward to having him back.

Full-Time Table Tennis Centers

I've added two new clubs to the list I maintain of full-time table tennis centers in the U.S.; there are now 67 on my list.  The new ones are the Zaman TTC in Westminster, CA, and the Washington TTC in Gaithersburg, MD. Let me know if there are any I've missed. I'm sure there are a few out there that I don't know about. One rule - the club needs a web page in order to be listed.

There are full-time centers in 23 states. The leaders are California with 20 and New York with 12. After that it drops down to four in Maryland and Texas, and three in Georgia and Oregon, and two in Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. States without a full-time center (in order of population) are MI, TN, MO, WI, CO, AL, SC, LA, KY, OK, CT, IA, MS, AR, KS, NE, WV, ID, HI, ME, NH, MT, DE, SD, AK, ND, VT, AND WY.

I was curious as to how they match up if you divide the state's population by the number of centers, and here's what I found, with number of full-time centers in parenthesis.

Population Per Full-Time Center in Millions

  1. RI (01): 1.1
  2. OR (03): 1.3
  3. MD (04): 1.5
  4. NY (12): 1.6
  5. CA (20): 1.9
  6. NM (01): 2.1
  7. NV (01): 2.8
  8. UT (01): 2.9
  9. GA (03): 3.3
  10. MA (02): 3.4
  11. NJ (02): 4.9
  12. MN (01): 5.4
  13. WI (01): 5.7
  14. PA (02): 6.4
  15. IL (02): 6.5
  16. IN (01): 6.57
  17. TX (04): 6.61
  18. AZ (01): 6.63
  19. WA (01): 7.0
  20. VA (01): 8.3
  21. NC (01): 9.8
  22. OH (01): 11.6
  23. FL (01): 19.5

Expert Table Tennis

Here's a growing step-by-step guide to playing table tennis. Not all the segments are complete, but it's halfway - nine articles done, nine to go!

Around the Net Winner

Here's video (41 sec) of Adam Bobrow winning a match in Vietnam with a spectacular around-the-net backhand counter-smash winner.

Imitating the Stars

Here's a funny video (1:56) of someone imitating four top Chinese players. See if you can identify which is which!  If you're stumped, the comments below it identify them. (Anyone who doesn't recognize the first hasn't been paying attention!)

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November 1, 2013

Another Oriole Takes Lessons

Okay, cat's out of the bag (or Oriole is out of the nest?), since most of the local table tennis juniors now know. The Baltimore Oriole baseball player I blogged about yesterday that I'm coaching is Darren O'Day, the 6'4" submarining $3.2 million/year relief pitcher with a lifetime 20-9 record and 2.62 ERA. Last year in 68 games he had a 2.18 ERA, the best of the O's relief pitchers. I hit with him some in August. I'm coaching him later today; afterwards he's hitting with our local kids, who are out of school today (some teachers meeting) and so doing a one-day training session (10AM-6PM).

I did find it interesting how fast these Oriole players pick up the sport. As noted yesterday, of the 25 Orioles, about half are at least 1200, the result of non-stop competitive play in their clubhouse. Surprisingly, most have decent technique - they copied much of it from JJ Hardy and Brady Anderson, who play 1800+ level. The lefty Brady actually has the best technique, running around attacking with his forehand, and not a bad backhand either. JJ has a nice counter-hitting game, but tends to point his racket up when he strokes - but it gives him an excellent blocking game, and he can smash as well, along with a surprisingly spinny forehand pendulum serve, made even more effective because he does it from his forehand side, which almost nobody does in "real" table tennis - except me, who does it in close matches as a variation. (Why don't you?)

Scream Halloween

In a class I taught yesterday just before the kids left to go trick-or-treating I did a nasty trick. I hid my Scream mask in the restroom before the class began. About ten minutes before class ended I asked my assistant coach, John Hsu, to talk to the kids about how to create spin on serves, and arranged that he'd be facing the restrooms as he did so, so the kids would have their backs that way. Then I went to the restroom, put on the mask, and quietly sneaked up on them. Then, staying silent, I leaped in front of them. There was quite a bit of screaming! Then I went after Coach John, "choking him to death" right in front of the kids. (John knew - it was pre-arranged.) Then I chased several of the kids around the table, still silent. Finally I put a Gatorade bottle on the table and motioned for them to go to the far side. We spent the last five minutes with me feeding multiball in the mask while they tried to hit the bottle of "worm juice." When they did, I had to jam the bottle up under the mask to drink it, always looking back and forth sharply between the bottle and the kid who hit it. Then I'd go right up to the kid and stare at him from one inch away. At the end, I went back to the restroom, removed the mask, and returned and said, "Did I miss anything?"

Table Tennis the Brain Sport

Here's an essay by Daniel G. Amen, MD, on the greatness of table tennis as a brain sport.

Four-Table Tennis

Cape Fear Table Tennis Club in Fayetteville, NC, is running the first four-table tennis tournament in the U.S. What's "four table"? It's table tennis played with four tables! Here's video (7:06). And here's their home page with info on the tournament.

Around the Net Shot

Here's video (38 sec) of Puerto Rican cadet star Adriana Diaz doing an around-the-net roll-on-the-table shot at the 2013 World Cadet Challenge.

16 Table Tennis World Records

Here they are!

Table Tennis Animation Project

Here is Sneak Peak of a Demo/Test raw footage (1:44) of a table tennis animation work in progress by Mike Mezyan. Can't wait to see the final version!

Queen Latifah vs. Granny Franny

Here's the story and video (51 sec).

Superhero Bee Pong

Look! Up at the Table! It's a Bird! It's a Plane! No - it's . . . a large bumblebee playing table tennis? I think that's what it is, not sure. Someone correct me if I'm wrong.

Non-Table Tennis - "The Best Things About Halloween"

Last year I had a story, "The Haunts of Albert Einstein," published in the anthology Specter Spectacular: 13 Ghostly Tales. ("Poor Albert Einstein is destined to haunt his old offices in Princeton for eternity, surrounded by the ghosts of bickering physicists who simply will not shut up, and the relentless paparazzi. What can he do to save himself from this fate?") The editors asked the authors to recount their favorite memories of past Halloweens. They just put up three of them, including mine - here they are! Mine's about getting caught up in a Halloween prank, and hiding late at night behind a bush in a Tyrannosaurus Rex costume as a drunk, angry man stood on the other side trying to find me.

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