Matthew Syed

February 1, 2012

Style and personality

Many years ago, while driving to a tournament with Dave Sakai (a top U.S. player for many decades) and Ron Lilly (one of the best pips-out penholders at the time), Dave pointed out that most players tend to develop playing styles that are opposite of their personalities. Dave likes to gamble (and in fact now has houses in both Maryland and Las Vegas, where he likes to spend much of his time), and can be pretty aggressive in arguments. And yet he plays a very safe pushing and blocking game. Ron is a very nice, non-confrontational type, and yet he plays an almost reckless all-out hitting game. And me? Most would say I'm the intellectual type, and yet in my early years, rather than developing some complicated tactical game, I worked hard to develop a pure all-out physical forehand attacking game. (However, as the years went by, my game evolved into a highly tactical game, though I still like all-out forehand attacking.)

Do aggressive people tend to develop passive styles, and vice versa? Do thinkers tend to develop non-thinking games, and vice versa? I think these observations apply to many players. I've found that the smartest people - scientists, doctors, computer programmers - often like to play table tennis mindlessly. I've also found that some of the best table tennis thinkers go home and watch reruns of "Two and a Half Men" or "American Idol." It's almost as if thinker types like to rest their brains and play mindless table tennis, while others who don't spend a lot of time thinking on the job do their thinking in table tennis.

I once coached a scientist who was one of the tops in his field. The guy was brilliant, and away from the table understood the game very well. But at the table he was about the most mindless player I've ever coached. He rarely noticed what worked or didn't work, and was oblivious to what his opponent was doing. He had no ability to adjust his game in a match, or even to follow advice giving between games. A typical 10-year-old would notice obvious things that this player was unable to see.

There is also the opposite - smart people who think tactically so much as they develop their game that they never develop high-level shots, since those shots were low percentage while being developed, and so were never developed. These players are good tacticians, but poor at long-term strategic thinking.

There are also hybrids, smart people who develop very physical attacking games (as opposed to a "tactical" style, usually more defensive), and apply their tactical thinking to developing that style. Often they play somewhat mindlessly while developing their games, and only start to really play a thinking game when they become advanced. Or they apply their thinking only to developing the style, and don't worry about tactics too much until later on. (If they do think about tactics too much early on, it often limits them.)

Among juniors, there are many really nice juniors with non-aggressive personalities who become offensive terrors at the table. Often the ones with more aggressive personalities become pushers and blockers at the table. On the other hand, there are many non-aggressive women, especially in Asia, who become passive choppers. It might be a cultural thing.

One other niche is what I'll call the Chinese penhold mystique style. The penhold grip allows easier maneuvering and variation over the table with pushes and blocks, which leads to tactical play, and my club has a number of older Chinese penholders who are both very smart and play smart tactics. I think it sort of goes with the penhold grip, while shakehanders often tend more toward physical rallying.

Many don't fit into these categories, of course. Where do you fit in?

Mind over Matter?

Here's an interesting article and video from CNN where former English champion Matthew Syed explains why an individual's ability is secondary to the level of coaching they receive and the facilities to which they have access. One thing that jumped out at me was this statement about how a small group of players became the best players in England: "We happened to have the best coach who gave us access to the only 24-hour club." This is similar to what is happening in the U.S., where a few clubs are developing most of the top cadets and juniors in the U.S. - because they are the ones that have full-time clubs and top-level coaches. This is why the level of play in the U.S. at the cadet and junior level is so much stronger than in the past. (I blogged about this on January 4, 2012.)

Chinese Women's Team

Here's an interesting article on the Chinese Team getting preparing for the World Team Championships.

Kim Gilbert coming back

Here's an article in the Los Angeles Daily News on Kim Gilbert's table tennis comeback. She'll be at the upcoming U.S. Olympic Trials in Cary, NC, Feb. 9-12.

Michael Maze versus Timo Boll

Here's a great point between the two

The scooping backspin bounceback return

I teach this to all my students (0:30).

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January 18, 2012

Down the line

Players do not practice down the line nearly enough. (Yes, I've blogged about this before, but it needs emphasis.) This means:

  1. They are inconsistent going that way since they aren't used to doing so;
  2. They are hesitant to go that way when it is the right tactical shot;
  3. Opponents only have to cover mostly crosscourt shots;
  4. Since they are drilling mostly crosscourt, so is their practice partner, and so they aren't used to down-the-line shots, and so are vulnerable to them in matches;
  5. They are losing the training benefits of hitting down the line.

What are the training benefits of hitting down the line (#5 above)? First, if you can control your shots down the line, then going crosscourt is easy. (It's 9 feet down the line, 10.3 feet crosscourt, which is 10 feet 3.5 inches, or about 15.5 inches more table, meaning nearly 8 more inches on the far side, your target.) Second, hitting down the line with the forehand from the forehand side forces you to turn your shoulders (if done properly), which is a good habit to develop.

At the cadet trials at the USA Nationals in December, a player I coached went up against a higher-ranked player. I'd watched the player on video in advance, and realized he was a vintage crosscourt player. The primary rallying strategy was to go down the line every chance. The opponent struggled with this, which help lead to an upset.

Lagging rackets

An intermediate player I coached yesterday for the first time had difficulty hitting balls crosscourt, both forehand or backhand. His shots tended to stray in to the middle. The problem? "Lagging racket syndrome"! On both forehands and backhands his racket tip lagged behind when it should drive through the ball. (This also leads to a lack of power.) The cure is to really focus on the racket tip leading the stroke. It took him only minutes to fix this problem, at least in drills. I think this is a relatively easy fix, and he should be able to do this in matches quickly.

USA Table Tennis minutes

The minutes of the USATT Board meeting at the USA Nationals, Dec. 15-16, 2011, are now online.

Help Wanted - Paralympic Program Manager

USA Table Tennis has posted a help wanted news item, for Paralympic Program Manager. Position pays $1600/month.

Train your brain with pong

Here's a video from "Fitness on the Run" (1:56) that emphasizes the benefits of table tennis for the brain. Some quotes:

  • "If you want to be your best, you need to train your brain."
  • "Ping Pong is actually the number one thing you can do for your brain. The constant calculations your brain needs to make in order to identify different spins, angles, attacks and defense are just like doing a math equation with the added benefit of the blood flow from all the agility and movement."

Table tennis 2012

Here's a highlights reel (3:45) that features "players who are likely to dominate table tennis in the coming season."

Serena Williams versus Matthew Syed

Here's a video (1:31) of tennis star Serena Williams introducing you to her table tennis game as she takes on English star Matthew Syed.

Non-Table Tennis: My movie rankings

I saw exactly 52 movies in theaters in 2011. Below is my ranking of how I liked them. Let me emphasize - this is not a critical listing, but a listing of my personal preferences. One listing might need explaining - I put "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" dead last. Why? I'm guessing that I was daydreaming a bit at the start, and missed important dialogue, but halfway through I realized I had no idea what was going on, and almost walked out. I stayed, but even now I'm completely lost. Others say it's a great movie. (NOTE - I'm told that the numbering below isn't working for Explorer 9, alas. I don't know why. It works for Chrome, Firefox, and Explorer 8.)

  1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
  2. Rango
  3. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
  4. Hugo
  5. Moneyball
  6. War Horse
  7. X-Men: First Class
  8. Puss in Boots
  9. The Adventures of Tintin
  10. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  11. Captain America: The First Avenger
  12. Paul
  13. Arthur Christmas
  14. Super 8
  15. The Thing
  16. Thor
  17. The King's Speech
  18. Cowboys & Aliens
  19. Water for Elephants
  20. Kung Fu Panda 2
  21. Real Steel
  22. The Three Musketeers
  23. Source Code
  24. Contagion
  25. The Ides of March
  26. Hanna
  27. We Bought a Zoo
  28. Horrible Bosses
  29. Green Hornet
  30. Mr. Popper's Penguins
  31. Conan the Barbarian
  32. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules
  33. Warrior
  34. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
  35. Drive
  36. Tower Heist
  37. 50/50
  38. Battle: Los Angeles
  39. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
  40. Cars2
  41. Apollo 18
  42. The Muppets
  43. 30 Minutes or Less
  44. Limitless
  45. The Debt
  46. Green Lantern
  47. J. Edgar
  48. Unknown
  49. Arthur
  50. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
  51. Your Highness
  52. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

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