Talent

May 29, 2014

Playing Bad

[Note - after writing this I debated whether this should be a blog item or a Tip of the Week. Don't be surprised if a rewritten version of this shows up as a Tip of the Week later this year!]

When players play poorly, relative to their normal level of play, they usually attribute it by just saying they played poorly. That's circular reasoning - they played poorly because they played poorly? Actually, there's always a reason when you play poorly. And the reason is almost always mental.

I cannot emphasize this enough. Unless something is physical wrong with you or your equipment, or you are seriously out of practice, playing bad is always mental. Period. It's a simple concept that many don't get.

Is there something physically wrong with you? Don't say you are old or out of shape; these are constants that limit your playing level, but they don't make you play bad, relative to your normal level, since dealing with these factors is part of your normal level. No, something is physically wrong with you only if it's something that's not normal. Other common chronic problems that might lower your level include knee problems, back problems, sore arm, etc. But again, these do not make you play poorly; they simply lower your overall level of play. Maybe you were just tired? Well, that's a reason to play poorly; get more rest!

Is there something wrong with your equipment? This can happen, but it's rare. Usually it's your own fault. Is your rubber surface dirty and so not grabby as usual? Clean it. Is it getting old and so is losing its bounce? Get new sponge. (If you can't afford new sponge, then perhaps it's a chronic problem.)  Is it humid? Keep a towel just for your racket and ball so you can keep them dry. I'll also include here other factors in the equipment category. I'm used to playing in near perfect conditions, and so when I play on slippery floors, on brown wood floors with orange balls (where the floor and ball are similarly colored so I lose the ball in the background), or in bad lighting, I play poorly. Is this an equipment problem or a chronic problem? This might classify as both. The fact that I don't play well in poor conditions is a chronic problem that lowers my overall level of play, but only in certain circumstances.

Are you out of practice? Whose fault is that? Solution: Go practice. If you don't have time to practice, then it's a chronic problem that simply lowers your overall level of play.

So if nothing is affecting your play physically, and you can't blame it on your equipment, and you are in practice, what can you blame your poor play on? Yes, it's all mental. There are so many ways a player can talk himself out of playing well. The most common is by harping on the poor shots instead of the good ones. Harp on the good ones, and you'll likely begin to emulate them. Harp on the bad ones, and that's what you'll continue to do since that's what you're thinking about, and the brain (i.e. the subconscious) tends to mimic what it is thinking about. Or perhaps you got nervous? Yep, that's all in your head. Or you got defensive when you had a lead? Another mental problem. Or you just weren't up to playing? Yep, that's mental.

I could go on and on, but the conclusion over and over is the same. When you play poorly, it's almost always mental. And guess what? With practice, you can get control over the mental aspect. You have to choose to do so, but once you do, you'll rarely have a bad day again. Here are some resources on sports psychology.

Talent

Here's an interesting discussion on the subject of talent on Dora Kurimay's table tennis sports psychology webpage. One part I disagree with was from one of the takeaways at the end, "Talent doesn’t really exist…" I don't see how that came from the discussion. Avi Schmidt argued that you need some talent when he said, "Yes, personality traits matters but you need some hand eye coordination skills as well." And Sean O'Neill also implied the existence of talent while discounting its value when he wrote, "Talent is useless and often counterproductive."

We are not all born exactly alike, with identical brains and body. So of course there is such a thing as talent. (Here's where I blogged on the topic.) The only question is how much of a difference it makes. Ultimately, how hard a person works (as well as other intangibles such as coaching, playing partners, tournament experience, etc.) is more important than talent in the long run, though in the short run talent may seem the dominant factor. Or, as it says in the takeaways at the end, "Motivation and passion matter the most in the long run." 

The Health Benefits of Table Tennis

Here's the article. I don't think I've linked to this one before.

Interview with Stefan Feth

Here's the interview with the USA Men's Coach and former German star.

Killerspin Videos

Here are hordes of videos (including lots of coaching videos) from Killerspin.

Susan Sarandon and Table Tennis in People Magazine

Here's the page. She talks about table tennis in the bubble on the lower right. Here's what it says (it's hard to read on the page): On Celeb Ping-Pong Players, "Jamie Foxx, Ed Norton, and Prince are all very good. Even Jack Kevorkian! When he came to town after he got out of prison, he played all night. Some people get obsessed, but I never play to win. If I have to get competitive, I freeze."

Zhang Jike Impressed with Armless Player

Here's video (13 sec) of World and Olympic Champion Zhang Jike videoing Egyptian player Ibrahim Hamato as he smacks backhands with Samsonov. Here's more video (2:43) of Hamato from my May 14 blog.

Cristiano Ronaldo's Commercial

Here's a commercial (34 sec) for Banco Esperito Santo from 2010 that features soccer player (that's football for non-Americans) Cristiano Ronaldo playing table tennis. I especially liked the service fake near the end!

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October 28, 2011

Werner Schlager on Talent

2003 World Men's Singles Champion Werner Schlager of Austria recently made a surprise appearance on the about.com table tennis forum. While explaining how Germany's Timo Boll (European #1, world #2) did something so well, he wrote, "I can assure you, there is only one 'magic' behind it: a little talent and many of years of practice." When asked to elaborate on the subject of talent, this is what he wrote:

"Imagine you are born with a double resolution of your eyes retina. You can see with more detail than others. Any exercise regarding reading, searching, etc. is somehow easy for you. But: Probably you wouldn't even realize that you have that gift. Because for you it is NORMAL.

"And this is why i see my gift (far more unspectacular than double resolution retinas, lol) also as "not so special". Probably it is very special to others, but i couldn't even describe you my talent. Is it logical thinking? Is it body movement sensitivity? Is it vision? Is it creativity? Is it my low muscle tension? Hmmm- most likely a little bit of all the things i just mentioned...that is why i stated: 'a little bit of talent' ;)

"But i somehow still believe everybody can play as good as i do- or better. And every time somebody fails, i scratch my head and almost can't believe it.

"Because for me it is easy and normal."

Jun Mizutani's backspin serve

They call it his "ghost serve," but it's just heavy backspin. The video shows how he does it in just 55 seconds. (One thing you can't see very well in the video is that he contacts the ball near the tip, where the racket is moving fastest, thereby creating the most spin.) Here are two tips.

First, while it's good practice to create a backspin serve that's so spinny and short that it bounces back into the net, you generally have to serve slightly high to do so, as Mizutani does here. It's more effective to serve it lower, and so that the second bounce (given the chance) is near the end-line, with more forward motion so that it doesn't bounce backward despite the extreme backspin. The serve Mizutani is doing is more for show, and is easier to return than one that goes deeper, faster, and lower.

Second, learn to do this serve where you also contact the ball near the handle, but with the same vigorous motion you use to produce heavy backspin by contacting the ball toward the tip. Then you'll be able to create heavy backspin and "heavy no-spin" with the same motion, which will confuse your opponent and lead to many missed or popped-up returns. ("Heavy no-spin," where you use a big serving motion but serve with no spin, is my favorite table tennis term.)

Zhang Jike loop

Here's world champion Zhang Jike's loop against a chopper (2:20).

High rating ambitions

Every year at about this time I'm always struck by the number of players using the "Team Finder" page for the North American Teams Championships to try to get on a much higher-rated team than their own rating. Personally, I'd feel rather awkward about trying to team up with players rated much higher. I'm sure every one of these players would argue that they are under-rated. (If they were over-rated, would they be looking for lower-rated teammates?) I've cut & pasted some of the ratings and messages there.

  • 500: I'm looking for a team rated in the 500-1300 range.
  • 1287: I am underrated and play as if I'm rated 2100.
  • 1635: We are looking for three players 1700 to 1850. Call me or email.
  • 1650: looking to join a team around 1700-1850 rating
  • 1700: Looking for a team with players ranging from 1750-1900.
  • 1884: Im looking for a syrong team who hace a rating between 1900- 2100
  • 1948: I'm looking to join a team with 2 players over 2000.
  • 2145: LOOKING FOR A TEAM 2300 LEVEL
  • 2236: Want a team with ratings above 2400 as that was my rating before.

Jackie Chan table tennis commercial

Here's a 30-second 2007 Visa commercial starring Jackie Chan as he tries to get it to the Beijing Olympics in 2008 by making the Olympic Team. He ends up using his Visa card instead.

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May 19, 2011

 

Talent Revisited

Yao Siu-Long ("Siu") emailed me the following question, after reading in my April 27 blog entry about Crystal Wang, who recently became the youngest player ever to break 2000, at age 9 years 1 month. (She's rated 2031, but at the recent unprocessed Potomac Open, should go up even more.)  Siu asked the following:

"I read your blog about Crystal Wang.  It sounds like she was progressing but suddenly took off.  Why?  What approach to learning and practicing do you think is key to such spectacular success?  Is it the number of hours practiced?  The coach? Going to China?

"Before you answer "talent", I've read quite a bit of research (and maybe this could be something for you to blog about as well).  There is a large body of research that suggests that talent is overrated (take a look at the book "Bounce" by Matthew Syed, a table tennis player).  You need a certain level of talent, but after that it's hard work and, perhaps, the training methods.  For example, "deliberate practice" is key.  That is, practicing with intent and goals.

"What do you see as making the difference for the successful players that you've coached?

This is an excellent question. I actually wrote my thoughts on talent in my March 11, 2011 blog entry. And I definitely agree that talent is way over-rated. On the other hand, there is no question that talent exists - we are not all born with identical brains. However, as argued in "Bounce," it's not that there's no such thing as talent, it's that, at the world-class level, it's only a small aspect. I believe that at the beginning stages, talent does dominate, but if you start early enough with good coaching, and work hard, then deliberate practice dominates. I'm still on the fence as to whether an "untalented" player who starts very early - say, age 4 or 5 - and undergoes such deliberate practice can become one of the best in the world, but they can definitely become very good.

For Crystal specifically, she's been taking regular lessons from Coach Jack Huang since she started playing in the summer of 2008 at age six. Is she talented? For a six-year-old, she definitely had nice hand-eye coordination from the start, and yet in April of 2010 (when she turned 8) she was still rated "only" 1013. I put "only" in quotes because a 1000+ rating for a 7-year-old is still pretty good. However, it takes time for all the basics to really get ingrained.

Here's where the mental game counts. For her age, she's very focused and hard-working. Few players under age 10 (or older) have the focus and work ethic she had from the beginning. And so much of her first two years were spent building a formidable foundation. When you see her strokes and other techniques, they aren't something she just "picked up" because of talent. They were meticulously developed, one training session at a time, until they became the fearsome combos that now strike fear into anyone rated under 2300. Forehands and backhands? Forehand and backhand loops off underspin? Pushing and blocking? Serve and receive? Footwork? None of it came about without incredibly hard work and excellent coaching.

Was she more talented than most? She seemed that way. But two points on this.

First, a "less talented" player might do the same thing if they started even younger, i.e. age four or so. This is problematic in the U.S., since the tables are too high. In China and other countries, kids often start out on shortened tables. If we did the same, then by the time they are age six they could already have a few years of playing. I used to take tennis lessons, and was amazed to discover they have tennis sessions for three-year-olds. You don't need to be older than that to hit a ball - you just need a table that fits your size.

Second, there's little doubt that since Crystal seemed to pick things up early, it inspired her and her parents to really focus on table tennis. And now that she's really taking off, it's not only paying off, but now they are probably inspired to go all the way, and see just how good Crystal can be.

Here's a picture of an unsmiling Crystal after losing the final of Under 1600 in the May, 2010 MDTTC Open. Coming into the tournament, she was rated 1013, but she beat players rated 1381 and 1424 to reach the final before losing to Mort Greenberg in the final. I don't think Mort wants a rematch!!!

Chinese Immigrants

Here's a front page (sports section) story that ran in the New York Times on May 14, about Chinese players coming to the U.S. and other countries and dominating. (I'm quoted and mentioned in the article.) 

Space and Time Magazine

In non-table tennis news, my science fiction story "The Awakening" is in the upcoming issue of Space and Time Magazine, with my name on the cover. The story was the Grand Prize winner at the 16th Annual 2010 Garden State Horror Writers Short Story Contest in November. It was a unanimous choice of the judges!!! Here's the trophy. Here's a description: "A 4-D being plays around with the 3-D universe (ours), and just for fun, makes a fly super intelligent. The fly goes to war first with a woman who tries to swat it, then with the 4-D being, and eventually with the entire 4-D and 3-D universes. You don't want to know where it lays its eggs!!!" (Here's my science fiction and fantasy page.)

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March 11, 2011

Talent versus hard work

There's much debate these days about whether table tennis players need talent to reach the highest levels, or if hard work will overcome it. The debate is often dominated by those who believe something toward the extremes as dogma. To be the very best, most seem to believe one of the following:

1) You have to have talent, and if you have that, hard work will pay off; or

2) There's no such thing as talent; it's all about working hard, plus proper circumstances (starting early, good coaching and competition, etc.).

Some look at just the best players, see that they work hard, and conclude it's all about hard work. They are not looking at the people who work hard don't become the best. Others see that some are more talented than others - we've all seen this type of thing in grade school - and conclude it's all about talent, and that if you don't have it, you can't be great.

Here's my take (short version). There's no question that there is such a thing as talent. Some kids simply pick things up very fast, others struggle. We're not all born with exactly the same brain structure. As early as a kid can crawl you can see differences in their skills - just toss a ball at them and you'll some can grab it, others can barely hold onto it. Even the book "Bounce" by former world-class chopper Matthew Syed of England, which argues that players reach the highest levels by hard work and proper circumstances, doesn't argue there is no such thing as talent. It simply argues (roughly speaking) that hard work and proper circumstances will overcome that. It might be right.

Can those with low talent become the best? I've coached kids and seen kids coached who were so low on the talent spectrum that I just don't see them ever becoming world-class table tennis players, no matter what they did. I can't think of a single example of someone like this who eventually became a truly elite player. But I have seen players like this struggle for years, work at it, and eventually become very good. (You often read of elite players who apparently struggled for years before reaching the highest levels, and then you realize that while they were "struggling," they were already among the best, and that their struggles were against the very best.)

I can think of many examples of top players who didn't work hard for years and still pulled away from much harder-working peers - apparently, they were simply more talented. But they would often fall behind their harder-working peers in the long run, and in the end, the very best players were always hard workers.

Having said all this, I tend to think that if you start early, work extremely hard, have good circumstances (start early, coaching, competition, etc.), you can become extremely good - maybe even the best in the U.S. The jury is still out for me on whether you can be the best in the world (which is several levels above best in the U.S.) at table tennis without talent - and I mean that as I said it; I'm really not sure, though I'm doubtful for those who truly start out on the lower end of the talent spectrum. But who knows? Far too many people are sure of the answer here when there's no basis for such certainty.

What is talent for table tennis? Roughly speaking, I'd say it's a combination of the following - and I'm sure I'm missing other aspects:

  1. Hand-eye coordination
  2. Ability to control body
  3. Ability to make smooth and controlled movements
  4. Ability to track the ball with the eyes
  5. Mental skills (many)
  6. Ability to mimic
  7. Ability to repeat a motion
  8. Reflexes
  9. Speed (fast twitch muscles)

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