Alex Polyakov

September 23, 2013

Tip of the Week

Saturation Training.

ITTF Level 2 Coaching Certification

Yesterday I completed all requirements for ITTF Level 2 Coaching Certification. I'd taken the six-day, 36-hour course at the Lily Yip TTC two weeks ago, but was also required to do 50 hours of coaching afterwards. I finished that yesterday. I sent the paperwork in last night, and shortly afterwards received notification that it had been approved. So I'm the 11th U.S. coach to achieve this, joining Roger Yuen (who took the Level 2 course with me) and Duane Gall, Mike Mui, Chong Ng, Juan Ly, Federico Bassetti, Iuliana Radu, Ray Pestridge, Jef Savage, Joel Mitchell, and Roger Dickson. Interestingly, I'm the first USATT certified National Coach (the highest U.S. level) to achieve this. There are no Level 3's in the U.S. yet; they haven't taught the course for it here yet, though I hear they are tentatively planning one next year.

Junior Class

We started a new season of our beginning junior class on Saturday morning (10:30AM-Noon) and Sunday afternoon (4:30-6:00PM). One new thing is that we now require all players to register in advance so we know (at least roughly) how many kids will show up, so we know how many coaches to have on hand. For the Sunday class, we only had six pre-registered, a disappointing number. So I arranged for one other coach (John Hsu) to assist. However, since people don't seem to listen (AAAAAHHHHH!!!!!), 16 showed up.

I quickly recruited Raghu Nadmichettu to help out. You need a higher coach to player ratio when working with beginners, especially beginning kids, since they don't yet have the racket skills to practice among themselves - and if they try to, they aren't going to have very good form so they'll be practicing bad habits. So I put them 16 in four groups, four each with me, John, and Raghu, and four on the robot, and did lots of multiball. I rotated the groups every 20 minutes or so. (Three of the four starting on the robot had had some coaching, but one was a complete beginner, so I spent some time jumping back and forth between my players and the robot table.) At the end of session I broke them up into three groups - those who wanted more practice with John (1 player), those who were more advanced and wanted to play "King of the Table" (6 players) and those who wanted to stack pyramids of paper cups and knock them down as I fed multiball (9 players).

Coconut Cup

On Saturday MDTTC had the Coconut Cup Under 1800 Tournament, which I believe they do twice a year. (Next Saturday is the Over 1800 Tournament.) It's a three-person team, non-USATT sanctioned event (no ratings), with all profits going for Chinese books for Chinese schools. I spent most of the day on a back table coaching. When I was done I watched some of the matches. The team that won included John Olsen, who's both a coach and a student of mine. (He's rated 1999, but the "Under 1800" is a team average, and John was the team's "ace.") If you are interested in playing the Over 1800 Coconut Cup next Saturday, email the organizer.  

I was watching one of our junior players in the fifth and final match of a team match. He won the first two games, but then lost the next two. He completely fell apart emotionally, and could barely play. One of his teammates asked me to coach him. So I called a timeout in the fifth game when he was down 2-6. He was breathing rapidly and could barely think straight at this point. I told him to just clear his mind, and think of it as just another match at the club. Don't even try to play; just be a spectator and watch as your subconscious takes over. It couldn't have been easy for him as once a player gets emotional they often lose the deep-down desire to win, or at least the ability to do what's necessary to do so. But he managed to take some deep breaths and cleared his mind. I told him not to play a single point until his mind was clear, which he would do. I did give him two tactical items, very generic ones as the key was mental focus, not tactics - I told him to serve long backspin and loop (opponent was pushing them all back), and to just control the serve back, don't try to attack it since the opponent was steady but passive. As he went back to the table I told him to ball up any nervousness inside him and spit it out, and leave it on the sideline. Anyway, except for an edge ball, he won the next eight points in a row and won the game 11-8. Many people don't understand that coaching between games is at least 50% sports psychology.

The Next Step

Alex Polyakov, author of "Breaking 2000," has come out with another book on table tennis, "The Next Step." Right now there's only a Kindle version, but Alex told me there's a paperback version coming in a month or so. Here's the book's description: "This book provides detailed insights on four essential parts of the game - technique, strategy, tactics, and the mental game. The aim of this book is to create a different type of an artifact and go beyond common basics. This book's goal is to describe numerous principles of table tennis and to show how to apply vast amount of table tennis knowledge to construct player’s most effective game using the skills that the player has already mastered as well as to describe many other skills that the player may choose to develop to take the next step onto higher levels."

More Tips of the Day

Here's a link to the numerous Tips of the Day of mine that USATT is putting up daily. These were all written from 1999-2004 for USATT under the pseudonym "Dr. Ping Pong." I'm a bit leery of this since I haven't seen some of these tips in over a decade, but so far my decade-old self hasn't embarrassed me. The last three tips: "Reading Spin," "Use Ball Placement and Variation Against Short Serves," and "Attack Deep Serves." The picture of me they use for the Tips is me coaching Seyed Hesam Hamrahian (2126, has been over 2250) and Derek Nie (2297 despite his size and age!) in doubles at the 2012 USA Nationals. (I coach Derek regularly at tournaments, but Seyed is normally a student of Samson Dubina.)

Two Table Tennis Obsessives Go Back and Forth

Here's an article in the NY Times where crossword editor and table tennis aficionado Will Shortz interviews photographer and fellow TT aficionado and Alec Soth about his new book, "Ping Pong," which features table tennis photographs.

How Ping Pong Saved the World

Here's info on the film, including a trailer, 1:53. "How Ping-Pong Saved the World is a feature length documentary that recounts the events of April 1971 when a US Table Tennis team became the first Americans invited into communist China in more than two decades. For eight days 15 Ping-Pong diplomats captivated the world with their visit behind the Bamboo Curtain and in the process helped reshape world history. Ping-Pong Diplomacy soon became a metaphor for the on-going difficult relations between two ideological opposites on the brink of détente. Their unlikely invitation paved the way for President Richard Nixon's landmark visit to China just eight months later in February of 1972."

Late Note - here's the entire How Ping Pong Saved the World Documentary online (74 min). I actually linked to this last Tuesday but forgot about it.

Table Tennis - Simply the Best Sport

Here's a highlights and motivational table tennis video (7:53) that came out a year ago that I somehow never saw before. It features

Pittsburgh Steelers Decide Only Vets Can Play Ping Pong in Locker Room

Here's the story from Table Tennis Nation! This is one of the great injustices of the century . . . we shall march on Pittsburgh, and we shall overcome, because I dream of a time when ping-pong players will be judged by their ratings and not by their football seniority.

Jimmy Fallon on Playing Table Tennis with Prince

Here's a video (4:58) of Fallon telling a funny story on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno about playing table tennis with Prince. "It's like spinning, it's like flames are coming out!"

The Ping Pong King Kong

Here's a video (1:51) that shows some of the fastest and best table tennis I've ever seen! (And the facial expressions are great.) Watching this video will wake you up - it's fast and hilarious.

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September 13, 2013

Friday the 13th and a Cold

I've still got my cold, and was tempted to skip the blog again this morning. After all, what worse combination is there than a cold on Friday the 13th? Alas, I dragged myself out of bed and forced myself to do this. Let's all have a round of pity for poor, poor me. (Anybody know where I can get cheap Kleenex? I'm going through a lot.) I managed to do my two hours of coaching last night, but am not sure about tonight's 2.5 hours scheduled.

Wallet and Other Old Stuff

Since I'm feeling very old right now due to my cold, I thought I'd tell the story of my wallet, which turns 32 years old this month. This is only peripherally table tennis related, but since it's a source of legend among the locals, I might as well tell the story.

 In September of 1981, when I was 21 years old, I started classes at University of Maryland. (I'd taken two years off to train for table tennis in North Carolina.) On the very first day I went to the Student Union for lunch, where there were a number of restaurants. I went to the pizza place. When I reached the front of the line I ordered a pepperoni pizza, pulled out my wallet, and paid. As I handed the cashier the cash, I placed the wallet on the counter for a few seconds. When I reached for it, it was gone. I looked around, but couldn't find it. Someone behind me said, "Excuse me, was that your wallet on the counter?" I said yes. The person said someone had just picked it up and left. I ran out into the hallway, but I never saw the wallet again.

That afternoon I bought a new one, and vowed it would last me a lifetime. That was 32 years ago, and I still have the same wallet. It's rather beat up, with several holes, including one in the change purse. (I have to be careful or coins fall out.) The Velcro that closes it is almost gone, but there's still a tiny bit that sort of keeps it closed. Anyway, this month is the 32nd anniversary of someone stealing my wallet, and it's never happened again. Here are two pictures of this ancient wallet, top and bottom.

Unfortunately, while my wallet has remained safe, a lot of other stuff has gotten stolen, mostly in table tennis tournaments. My playing bag was stolen at a U.S. Open or Nationals back in the early 1990s; it not only had my rackets, but also all of my coaching files as the then-chair of the USATT coaching committee. I've had my laptop computer stolen twice, once right off the USATT desk at an Open or Nationals in the 1990s, where I was doing coverage, and once at a tournament in Philadelphia in the 1990s. (That time I made the mistake of leaving the laptop in the back seat of my car, and someone broke a window to get in and steal it. Always leave your laptop in the trunk!!!) Surprisingly, I've never had a racket stolen, though I once had my hardbat racket "borrowed" - just before my Hardbat Singles Final at the Nationals against Marty Reisman in 1997, forcing me to borrow a racket for the match (I lost), with the racket later returned anonymously. (But that's another story.)

Actually, it's been a long time since I've had anything stolen - the playing bag and laptops were both stolen in the 1990s. Maybe I've learned to be more protective of my stuff.

Review of Table Tennis Tactics for Thinkers

Here's a review of the book by Alex Polyakov, the author of "Breaking 2000." And if you want to improve your game (as opposed to its smoldering away like a burning ember that'll never quite catch fire), then buy the book! (While debating whether to buy the book or allow your game to never reach its potential, you can read the other 22 reviews there.)

Interview with Ferenc Karsai

Here's a video interview (8:57) with Coach Karsai, coach of 2003 World Champion Werner Schlager of Austria, the last European World Singles Champion. He talks about talent in table tennis and working with Schlager.

Creepy Pong

In honor of Friday the 13th, here's Creepy Pong - see how many Halloween ghouls you can beat at table tennis! I couldn't get it to work in Chrome, but it worked fine in Explorer. It starts with an irritating 30-second Power Rangers ad. Note that when you do play, you can hit the ball harder by moving the cursor in as you hit; otherwise you'll just rally and never score.

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February 3, 2012

Breaking 2000

I just finished reading the excellent book Breaking 2000, by Alex Polyakov. The book is a first-hand step-by-step look at the strategic development of a player from near beginner to an advanced level. I don't think I've seen it covered like this anywhere else. Instructional books generally do a good job in teaching how to do each technique; this book shows the actual events taking place as the techniques were learned, how they were learned, and most important, why. (And on a related note, Alex's coach, Gerald Reid, who is mentioned throughout the book, came to several of our training camps back in the 1990s!)

Improvement in table tennis is rarely a steady upward progression; as you learn new things, your game often temporarily "regresses" as you learn the new technique, and so rapidly-improving players often go up a bunch, then down a little, then up, then down. If you chart their improvement, it's more of an upward staircase. And that proves to be the case with Alex - see his rating chart. (I created the graphic from the USATT ratings page. If you have a rating, just put in your name, and then click on "Chart Ratings" on the right.)

Here are some interesting quotes from the book. There are many more that are specific to the techniques he is working on, but these are some of the more general ones that caught my eye. I especially love the "I did not know what I did not know" statement - this is the bane of so many players, who often do not know that they do not know what they do not know.

  • "I know exactly how I was losing my matches during the tournament. I simply did not know what I did not know. My game consisted of simply reacting to the ball and hitting it if the opportunity came up. I had no strategy, no clear and concise thinking; all I had was simple brute force."
  • "Coaching has been the major factor in my success and is the biggest reason why I have been able to achieve my goals."
  • "Gerald proposed to start by shaping my game in such a way that would allow me to develop certain undeniable strengths which would never fail me. He called it a 'base.' Having this base would mean that these basic skills would in time become a power that would tilt the pendulum during my matches against 95% of opponents of my level. This so-called base was meant to establish a set of technically correct strokes, which I could execute flawlessly and with consistency."

Table Tennis Tactics: A Thinker's Guide

Just when I thought the book was nearing completion, it got less competed. After going over the critiques and comments from six pre-readers (my thanks again to Scott Gordon, Chris Grace, USATT Coaching Chair Richard McAfee, John Olsen, Dennis Taylor, and Kevin Walton), plus my own growing notes since writing the first draft, I keep finding new sections that need to be written or old ones to be rewritten. I'd really hoped to have it pretty much finalized before I leave to coach at the U.S. Olympic Trials next Wednesday. There's little chance of that now. (I'll be spending much of my time between now and then watching videos of opposing players to prepare for the Trials, plus a busy coaching schedule since I'm also subbing for Coach Jeffrey Zheng, who's in China for a few weeks.) On the other hand, in my completely unbiased opinion, the book keeps getting better and better!

Serving low

Here's a video from PingSkills (1:05) that explains how to keep the tomahawk serve low, but the explanation is applicable for all serves. (Basically, to serve low, you need to contact the ball low.) Serving low is one of those keys to serving that players often do not appreciate because you can get away with slightly high serves at the intermediate level. As you advance, stronger players either jump all over these serves, or (more likely) simply have no trouble making effective returns. The server never understands that if they learned to serve very low to the net, the opponent would have to lift up on the ball, making it harder to attack or control the return.

Table tennis jewelry

Here's a place that sells some very nice table tennis jewelry. Yes, you too can show up at the club bedecked with table tennis ornamentation! Check out all four pages. (There should be a way to view all on one page, but I don't see a way.)

Let's pay our respects to the dying

Let's all take a moment and pay our respects to some of those who may soon no longer be with us. May they rest in peace. (Am I missing any?) There are still many practitioners of these "dying arts," but they are getting older and fewer.

  • Forehand flat hit against backspin
  • Forehand chop
  • Conventional penhold backhand
  • Pips-out sponge
  • Antispin (except perhaps the new "frictionless" varieties)
  • Seemiller grip

Jamie at One

Here's future world champion Jamie, age one, demonstrating his futuristic forehand as he does multiball training. Afterwards he'll do some counterlooping, some footwork drills, half an hour of serve practice, and then pushups, sit-ups, and a five-mile run. (See the seven pages of comments on this video.)

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