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Larry Hodges' daily blog will go up Mon-Fri by noon USA Eastern time (usually by 10 AM, a little later on Mondays when he does a Tip of the Week).
Larry is a member of the U.S. Table Tennis Hall of Fame, a USATT Certified National Coach, a professional coach at the Maryland Table Tennis Center (USA), and author of seven books and over 1400 articles on table tennis. Here is his bio

Make sure to order your copy of Larry's best-selling book, Table Tennis Tactics for Thinkers!
21 chapters, 240 pages, 102,000 words. Finally, a tactics book on this most tactical of sports!!!

His book, Table Tennis Tips, is also out - All 150 Tips of the Week from 2011-2013, in one volume, in logical progression!!!

His newest book, The Spirit of Pong, is also out - a fantasy story about an American who goes to China to learn the secrets of table tennis and ends up training with the spirits of past champions. Read the First Two Chapters for free!

July 21, 2016

Next Blog - Friday, Aug. 5

It’s been a great eleven days here at the USATT Supercamp, but now I’m off for my annual “vacation.” Normal people vacation at the beach, camping, Disneyworld, or some other sane thing. Me, I go to an annual science fiction writing workshop, July 22-30. So Friday morning, after taking Matt Hetherington to the airport at 7:15AM (see below), I’ll be driving up to Manchester, NH (four hours), for my “vacation.” I drive back to Maryland on Saturday afternoon, July 30 (I’m dreading the eight-hour drive), and flying out to Houston early the following morning to coach at the Junior Olympics, returning on Aug. 4. I’ll be back on my regular blogging schedule, Mon-Fri, starting Friday, Aug. 5, with the usual blog and other segments.

USATT Supercamp - Day Eleven
By Larry Hodges

This is my last day here; I’m leaving tomorrow morning for my annual vacation. But it was a really full day! We started with physical training - and today’s was short and simple. After jogging half a lap and walking the rest to loosen up, and some stretching, we did a timed mile. Below are the times. Nope, they aren’t good enough; we need more in the 5:30 range. We’ve been on the players about this, and expect to see improvement over time.

 

Name

Time

Age

1

Sharon Alguetti

5:54

14

1

Steven Chu

5:54

15

1

Andrew Song

5:54

16

4

Michael Tran

5:55

14

5

Rahul Acharya

6:08

17

6

Gal Alguetti

6:15

14

7

Klaus Wood

6:17

14

8

Matthew Lu

6:24

12

9

Adar Alguetti

6:26

16

10

Avery Chan

6:30

12

11

Sid Naresh

6:32

12

12

Roger Liu

6:42

15

13

Jessica Lin

6:50

12

13

Lisa Lin

6:50

12

15

Jeffrey Liu

7:04

12

16

Kai Zarehbin

7:07

12

17

Nandan Naresh

7:10

  9

18

Alan Wang

7:15

18

19

Jayden Zhou

7:16

11

20

Aziz Zarehbin

7:21

10

21

Faith Hu

7:38

10

22

Amy Wang

7:40

13

23

Daniel Tran

7:55

  9

24

Jaden Ly

8:01

11

Next up was the 12-2PM session. We started with a video from Brian Pace, “Table Tennis - A Lesson In "Work Ethic" from 5-time US Champion Sean O'Neill” (4:05). In it Brian, one of the fittest athletes in table tennis - also a professional cyclist - talks about how he learned what was really needed to reach the top, via the infamous “run” with Sean. We’re trying to get through to as many players as possible what it really takes to reach the top. Those who buy into it may be a part of a table tennis revolution in the U.S.

Sean said, “If you want to play internationally, you have to be physically fit.” He said that they needed to do physical training at a minimum three times a week, preferably more - running, sprints, jumping rope, weights, etc. “Keeping a journal that marks your progress helps.” He also spoke of the heart monitors that players had been required to wear, showing their heart rate and how hard they were pushing themselves when training.

Dan said of his own training, “I mostly concentrated on my legs. I lifted weights and wore ankle weights when walking around (not when running). I ran the hills around Pittsburgh. I also used a weighted pipe as a weighted racket to practice my strokes.” He added, “If you try to give 110%, you might be surprised to find you have more in you than you think.”

Dan continued on a related topic: “Never give up the table unless you absolutely have to.” He spoke of how this was central to top Chinese players. “Physical fitness helps you to stay at the table.”

Cory said, “It’s up to you to be disciplined enough to do the physical training. From now on it’s on you. There are no excuses. Physical fitness is a sign of desire.”

Sean said, “Physical training is so controllable. I was doing three miles a day before school when I was in eighth grade.”

Then the 12-2PM training began! Observing the session was Coach Pieke from the Alameda club in California (and a former National and Olympic coach for Holland), who had flown in to observe for a day - three of his players were here (Kai and Aziz Zarehbin, and Avery Chan). I spent the session with the upper group, run by Sean. He took a number of mini-videos of players to show them technique problems, from too-big or too-low backswings, overzealous follow-throughs, or backhands following through awkwardly to the side.

First drill was one player blocking, the other looping from the backhand side, covering 2/3 of the table as the blocker moved him around randomly.

Second drill was short serve, long push return to backhand, server backhand loops to three spots - wide forehand or backhand, or partner’s elbow. Partner had to block or sometimes counterloop each ball back to the server’s backhand, who continued to backhand loop.

Third drill was counterlooping - except instead of from forehand corner to forehand corner, it was middle to middle. “Players always counterloop paddle to paddle, corner to corner. Need to vary that. Need to loop from and to the middle.” And it’s true that most counterloopers just rip the ball crosscourt over and over.

Fourth drill was server tells receiver two spots he can return the ball to, one short, one long. Then server serves short, and receiver randomly places the ball to those two spots. For example, it could be a short push to forehand or long push to backhand, or short push to backhand or long push to middle.

Then they all played one best of five match - but each game starting at deuce. And then the session was over. Lunch was two types of fried rice, spaghetti, and the camp’s favorite - hot dogs! They were gone quickly. I gave Coach Pieke a ride to his hotel (15 min away), then returned to an empty house - all the kids were still at the club getting video interviewed by Matt Hetherington for USATT.

For the 5-8PM session, I was back with the lower group, but wasn’t needed as a practice partner, so I was a roving coach. After some easy jogging and stretching to warm up, Sean asked how many of them did this before every session, and stressed its importance.

Then, for warm-up, rather than the typical forehand to forehand and backhand to backhand, Sean had them warm up differently. Each player would hit a forehand from the forehand corner, the move to the middle and hit a forehand from the middle, then move to the backhand and hit a forehand from there. Then they’d continue, with a forehand from the middle, a forehand from the forehand, and so on, with both players moving across the table, hitting forehands from all three spots. The players quickly caught on - it’s not as tricky as it sounds.

To warm up the backhand, he had players hit about three backhands in a row, then one would go to the middle, and then they’d play out the point. Sean stressed balance and staying at the table.

Then we set up a two-person team competition. Sean strongly stressed the importance of fighting for every point, and I think the message was received - I saw no giveaways.

In the upper group, there was a “shocker.” Dan Seemiller (the legend at age 62, rated 2419) and USATT High Performance Director Cory Eider (rated 2504) teamed up and went 5-0, defeating the following teams: Klaus Wood and Rahul Acharya; Allen Wang and Adar Alguetti; Sharon Alguetti and Michael Tran; and Gal Alguetti and Jack Wang!!! Let’s just say that after watching them throughout this camp, they exposed their weaknesses, and Dan & Cory were unbeatable in doubles. In defense of the players, after two weeks of training, many were tired, and going up against Cory’s relentless topspins and Dan’s constant change of pace blocking and sudden loops can be a nightmare if you aren’t at 100%. That’s another reason they need more physical training.

In the lower group we had eight two-person teams, but because they started later, they each only played two teams. Let’s just say there were some incredible points. Lisa Lin may have been the night’s star, beating three higher-rated players, including one of the Chinese practice partners in a big upset, before losing to another Chinese practice partner, a chopper. Jaden Ly pulled off a 650-point upset - but her rating of 1149 is a joke (over 500 points lower than the next lowest), which was why she was allowed into the camp. She and her partner in the team competition, Faith Hu (1761 in new ratings, probably 100 points better) were perhaps the most under-rated players in the camp.

For dinner we had a huge pot of orange chicken (the camp’s favorite, gone like soap bubbles in a hurricane), beef with broccoli, regular and fried rice, a rice/sausage/egg dish, and vegetables and fruit. The amount of watermelon we’ve gone through in this camp would feed a large army.

And then it was clipboard time! (Plus others on other tables playing penhold or with mini-paddles.) Kai Zarehbin, 12, rated 2276, was demanding a match, so I brought out my clipboard and a “trillion dollar bill” (for the winner) and we played. Let’s just say it was culture shock as he tried to figure things out in game one and didn’t as I won 11-5. (I’m chopping and pick hitting.) We played a second game, and this time it was a battle. One point near the end went on forever, with him looping about 30 balls, and finally ended when he pushed and I made a running forehand clipboard smash! But then it was 10-all, 11-all, 12-all . . . and with some gutsy shots, he won, 14-12. There went a trillion dollars! But it wasn’t over - Sid Naresh (12, rated 2249) wanted some action. It was getting late and I had a lot to do, but I agreed to the challenge - and I pulled it out, also in deuce. I feel guilty that I didn’t give him a second try as I had with Kai, but I had to go - but we have a trillion-dollar challenge coming up at the U.S. Open in December. Tickets on sale soon.

Then it was back to the house to write this up, pack, and try to get to bed at a reasonable hour (I can dream) as I have to take Matt Hetherington to the airport at 7:15AM (he’s flying to Houston for an Olympic event), then get back in time to send the kids off to physical training - and then I’ll jump in my car and I’m off to vacation - a science fiction writing workshop in Manchester, NH, July 22-30 (my eighth time there). It’s been a great eleven days!

I was here as manager/coach/practice partner - but I was really here to be a part of the next and best generation of USA Table Tennis and its National Teams. Let me close by thanking those responsible for these incredible eleven days (with two more to come after I leave), mostly in alphabetical order.

The Coaches:

  • Samson Dubina
  • Cory Eider
  • Larry Hodges
  • Richard McAfee
  • Sean O’Neill
  • Dan Seemiller
  • Wang Qing “Leon” Liang
  • Han Xiao
  • Lily Yip

The Practice Partners:

  • Alex Ruichao Chen
  • Katie Chen
  • Wally Green
  • Matt Hetherington
  • Adam Hugh
  • Judy Hugh
  • Charley Jiang
  • Yuxing “James” Jin
  • Jason Li
  • Sherri Li
  • Kaden Xu
  • Jessica Young
  • Clarence Zhang
  • Leo Zhao

Others to thank:

  • High Performance Director Cory Eider
  • Videographer and photographer Matt Hetherington
  • USATT Director of Communications and Webmaster Sean O’Neill (who put up my daily reports and Matt’s videos and photos)
  • Manager and writer Larry Hodges (hey, that’s me!)
  • Cooks Lily Yip, Frank Chen, and Michael Wan
  • Groceries supplier extraordinaire Judy Hugh
  • House owner & disciplinarian Barry Dattel
  • House parents and “assistant” managers Hoang Tran, and Arcot & Sangita Naresh
  • USATT CEO Gordon Kaye
  • Lily Yip TTC
  • USA Table Tennis

And last - and Most Important - the Players! (With pre-Nationals ratings.)

Name

Rating

State

Age

Sharon Alguetti

2558

NJ

14

Allen Wang

2546

NJ

18

Jack Wang

2537

NJ

15

Adar Alguetti

2535

NJ

16

Gal Alguetti

2500

NJ

14

Michael Tran

2451

MN

14

Amy Wang

2416

NJ

13

Tina Lin

2354

NJ

17

Klaus Wood

2354

MD

14

Rahul Acharya

2329

NY

17

Kai Zarehbin

2276

CA

12

Roger Liu

2244

OH

15

Mathew Lu

2241

NJ

12

Sid Naresh

2191

IL

12

Steve Chu

2186

NJ

16

Rohan Acharya

2133

NY

13

Estee Ackerman

2103

NY

14

Jayden Zhou

2058

NJ

11

Andrew Song

2028

NJ

16

Avery Chan

2016

CA

12

Aziz Zarehbin

1998

CA

10

Lisa Lin

1986

MD

12

Jessica Lin

1906

MD

12

Jeffrey Liu

1866

NJ

12

Nandan Naresh

1830

IL

9

Sam Rockwell

1827

NJ

16

Daniel Tran

1801

MN

9

Shirley Hu

1800

NJ

17

Faith Hu

1703

NJ

10

Jaden Ly

1149 (hah!)

CO

11

July 20, 2016

USATT Supercamp - Day Ten
By Larry Hodges

[Here's the USATT Day Ten page, with video and photos by Matt Hetherington, and this article.]

Sometimes cold print like this doesn’t really do justice to all that’s happening. With luminaries like Dan Seemiller, Sean O’Neill, Lily Yip, Richard McAfee, Samson Dubina, Han Xiao, Wang Qing Liang, and Cory Eider, and with so many of the top juniors in the country, there are so many interactions going on that there’s no real way of reporting on them. For example, Lisa Lin has a really nice backhand serve, her best serve. I told her how Dan probably had the best backhand serve in U.S. history - incredibly spinny and deceptive, plus he knew how to follow it up - and suggested she talk to him about it. Five minutes later I find them in deep discussion as Dan’s demonstrating and explaining it for her. This is how knowledge is passed from one generation to the next.

The kids got to sleep late today - no physical training. (But we have evil plans for tomorrow - another timed mile run.) After a morning of video games on various devices (and a room inspection, followed by forced clean-ups as I stood guard, arms folded), we went over to the club at 11:30AM for a birthday party for Michael Tran (who turned 14 today) and his brother Daniel (who recently turned nine). We had lots of chocolate and vanilla cake.

Sean O’Neill had to leave for the day, driving back to Virginia for a funeral. He’ll be back tomorrow. Lily Yip ran the 12-2PM session for the lower group, with my assistance, while Dan and Cory were with the upper group. (Note that “upper group” refers to overall level; the kids in the “lower group” may be lower rated, but they are also mostly younger.)

Once again I was recruited as a practice partner. I warmed up for a while with Nandan Naresh (age 9, 1830). Then I blocked while he did side-to-side forehand looping footwork. Then Jessica Lin (12, 1906) took his place and we each did a serve and loop off backspin drill, playing out point after the loop. Then one of our practice partners had to leave, leaving us with an even number again, so I wasn’t needed as a practice partner, so I became a roving coach. The next drill was serve short backspin, receiver backhand banana flip, play out point (POP). They did a few other drills, and then they played 30 minutes of up-down tables, games to 11.

One problem - I spent the morning and much of the afternoon with severe indigestion. I also thought I had a slight fever and felt like I’d just run ten miles. I kept it to myself and struggled through the session. By the afternoon it had cleared up. However, I later found out that a couple other kids had the same symptoms. We all played through it.

We started the 5-8PM session with Dan Seemiller giving a short lecture on excelling in as many things as you can, reiterating what he’d spoken about yesterday. He went over each of the 15 items again - so here’s the list from yesterday, with a few notes from today:

  1. Serve - must set up your attack.
  2. Ball placement - learn to target the moving middle. It’s different for everyone.
  3. Power
  4. Consistency
  5. Footwork - must be in shape!
  6. Receive - you’ll make mistakes, so don’t worry about that.
  7. Deception (serves and strokes) - how much is in your game?
  8. Fundamentals - you should always be working on these, and will do so the rest of your playing career.
  9. Tactics
  10. Shot selection
  11. Rally ability
  12. Blocking
  13. Looping (forehand and backhand)
  14. Reading of spin
  15. Experience - When you lose a match, learn at least one thing, maybe two.

Once again I worked with Lily with the lower group. I started out hitting with Daniel Tran (9, 1801), doing the 2-1 footwork drill (backhand, forehand from backhand side, forehand from forehand side). Then we did a drill where we each spent ten minutes serving deep serves into each other’s backhands. (He’s a lefty, so we served down the line.) It took me a few minutes to convince myself that he really could tee off on my returns to his forehand, but once I began going into this backhand more, he started guarding that side, and I was able to go more into the forehand. We had some vicious rallies, including some nice counterlooping duels. (I may have had my most memorable backhand counterlooping rally ever, where he forehand looped to my backhand over and over and I did about ten backhand counterloops before winning the point.)

Then it was my turn; he had trouble when I kept varying the spin on my down-the-line fast serves, but gradually improved. When I served really fast, but with straight topspin, he’d just smack it in with his backhand. Since he liked going to my wide forehand and then step around to counterloop, we again had some vicious counterlooping duels. I threw everything at him when I served - fast topspin, breaking sidespin either way, fast and dead, and all sorts of fakes. Most worked the first time. Other than a deceptive forehand pendulum side-top serve that looks like backspin (and gets most people), he adjusted to them all.

Then, after a five-minute break, Lily took four girls for multiball while I took the seven boys plus Katie Chen (about 1900) and ran their drills. I called three drills, with each player doing it about 7 minutes. Before each drill I called them together to go over the purpose and focus on the drill.

  1. Forehand Random Looping Drill. One player blocks randomly to 60% of table, other player loops. Blocker has to jump on any loops that land short and block at very wide angles - so loopers needed to drive the ball deep. They also had to focus on balance - no off-balance follow-throughs that left them open on the next shot. I demonstrated the proper way loop and recover quickly - it’s all about proper rotation and balance.
  2. Short to Forehand/Long to Backhand. One player serves short backspin. Receiver either drops it short to the forehand or pushes quick to the backhand. Server has to forehand flip or backhand loop, then they play out the point. I stressed that the receiver should regularly aim one way, push the other - for example, start to push crosscourt deep to the backhand, but at the last second drop the racket tip and angle it to the left, and drop it short to the forehand. The goal on both sides was to mess up the opponent!
  3. Middle-Random Drill. One player alternates blocking to the middle and randomly to a corner. The other player forehand loops from the middle, then loops or drives from either wing against the random ball to the corner, with all of his shots going to the same side for the blocker. None had done this drill before, which I had learned from Stellan Bengtsson - the purpose was to learn to cover and dominate the table from the middle with the forehand, and react to random angled shots. The kids had trouble at first, but found it easier when I told them to alternate saying to themselves, “Middle, Random, Middle, Random…”

I then paired them up into six doubles teams - keeping players who play together regularly on a team together - and had a lecture/demo/discussion on doubles tactics. Then they played up-down tables that way, games to 11, on three tables.

Next was Brazilian teams, one game to 31. (Player from each team plays a point; winner stays on, loser goes to the end of his team’s line, and next player comes up. New player always serves.) I told them about one of my greatest memories, from the 1978 Seemiller camp in Pittsburgh, where I was on a six-person team, one game to 51, with our team down 48-33 when I went to the table. I was around 1800, and the other team had Perry Schwartzberg (2400+), Joe Rokop (2200+), a 2000 player, and three other players around my level. The rule there was new player received, so I got to serve each time I won a point - and I just served and forehand attacked over and over, and won 18 in a row to win 51-48!!! That was the moment when I realized these great players weren’t gods, that if you learned to play properly you could win against them. This is a lesson everyone should learn.

We chose up four three-person teams (the girls had rejoined us) and paired them up. They played one game to 31. Afterwards, we had five minutes, so I told the two losing teams they would now have their chance for revenge with one game to 11 - but everyone had to play penhold!!! (They were all shakehanders.) The kids loved it, and I think both losing teams won this time. Tomorrow I might have them play opposite hand, or perhaps Seemiller style!

And then it was dinner - orange chicken (gone in minutes), beef with broccoli, another chicken dish, some sort of egg and potato dish, fried rice, and lots of watermelon. And then - after an obligatory 30 minutes of penhold play! - we returned to the house.

NOTE - during my stay at the USATT Supercamp (July 11-22), I'll be blogging about it daily, but probably not including the other segments I normally include in the blog. I'm just too busy here coaching, managing, and chaperoning!

July 19, 2016

USATT Supercamp - Day Nine
By Larry Hodges

[Here's the USATT Day Nine page, with video and photos by Matt Hetherington, and this article. Here's a group shot taken today.) 

Never have I seen so many totally dedicated coaches working with so many talented players. Richard, Samson, Han, Leon, Dan, Sean, Lily, and Cory - they didn’t come here for work, they came excited to finally get so many top up-and-coming USA juniors training together with the opportunity to do something we haven’t done since the 1950s - take on the world with a chance to win. They are putting their all into this effort - not just by themselves, but as perhaps a spark to get it going. The final responsibility will rest with these kids, their parents, and their coaches, spread all over the U.S., as team spirit spreads and we transform from a bunch of clubs into Team USA, a rising worldwide table tennis power.

Today’s physical training started with everyone jogging half a lap, and then walking the rest of the lap. Then they did four types of plank exercises (on back, stomach, and each side), then pushups, then lay on back with feet slightly off the ground. They did each of these twice each, the timed ones for 30 seconds. Then it was three laps (3/4 mile) - and we were done! The kids are pretty tired from so many days of training, with three workouts/day, so we went easy today, and they are off from physical training tomorrow. During the session we were amazed as three men ran lap after lap during all this, at blazing speeds. I spoke with one, and he said they were “post collegiate professionals.” His best mile time was 3:58, which puts into perspective my 4:53 from 40 years ago. Sharon Alguetti and Nandon Naresh independently tried to “race” with them, but that’s like a club player taking on the Chinese National Team.

And then it was back to the club. This week’s lectures are tag-team affairs with Dan Seemiller and Sean O’Neill speaking on multiple topics, with the other jumping in for their input. Dan started today’s lecture by re-iterating something he’d talked about the day before - the need to excel in many areas. You can’t just be a blocker or a looper; you have to be great at a number of things if you want to be great. He then asked the players to self-grade themselves on 15 different things against other players your level, all of which could be broken down into many sub-parts:

  1. Serve
  2. Ball placement
  3. Power
  4. Consistency
  5. Footwork
  6. Receive
  7. Deception (serves and strokes)
  8. Fundamentals
  9. Tactics
  10. Shot selection
  11. Rally ability
  12. Blocking
  13. Looping (forehand and backhand)
  14. Reading of spin
  15. Experience

He said of experience, “You have to be in the ring, have enough tough losses, enough tournaments,” and “We can’t teach you this one.”

Sean said that the players should be doing self-evaluations at least every three months. It’s the only way to really track your progress and see where you stand. For his own students, he said that after every tournament he asks them five questions: How were your techniques, your footwork, your tactics, your mental game, and your hustle.

Sean pointed out a problem in our country. Many coaches show you what to do, but often they do not give the type of talk needed for players to understand what’s necessary to reach the top. He said that if any of the players here later on have a technical question or video of themselves they want analyzed, send it to the coach and they’ll look at it and get back to you.

Sean also spoke of how often USA Team members (Men’s, Women’s, various junior teams) would sometimes show up at top tournament not really in practice or in their best physical shape. “That won’t happen anymore,” he said.

He said that players shouldn’t worry about losing, that they should play tournaments for experience. “There is no such thing as a bad loss. Learn from them.”

He said, “Stop thinking about ratings. If you are focused on your rating, it’s game over. If you worry about rating, you’re not a competitor.”

Dan added, “When working hard, don’t worry about your level. Focus on what you are working on.”

They both spoke about confidence, about believing in yourself. Dan said, “If you are on a USA Team and don’t think you can beat a top Chinese player, we won’t send you out there. You have to believe you can.” He added, “It’s great to daydream about what you can do. Every one of you should believe you can be World Champion.”

Sean then spoke about visualization. “Visualize what you want to do. Then do what’s needed to make it happen.”

Dan and Sean both stressed that making the USA Team is only the first step. If the goal is to take on the world, then you need players who are ready to take on the world, not ones who are solely focused on beating other USA players.

Dan said, “Be the best you can be. Those who want to do this, put the hammer down and do it.”

And then it was time for the 12-2PM session. I was in the lower group, with Dan running the session. He warned them in advance that today there’d be a lot of footwork. They started with shadow stroking - side-to-side forehands, in-and-out forehands, and forehand-backhand from the backhand corner. They did each of these twice for about 30 seconds.

Then it was on to the tables - where these were the first three drills, except this time with the ball. There were 15 players, so I joined in as a practice partner. During the session I hit with Sam Rockwell, Estee Ackerman, and Daniel Tran.

The next drill was pushing - and we played up-down all-pushing games. As noted yesterday, Dan’s version of this is player play until any player on any table wins a game to 11, and yells stop, and then whoever is in the lead wins. (If it’s tied, there’s a tie-breaker, which everyone watches.) After a time Dan switched the rules to two pushes and then either player could loop. Finally he switched to regular games. I did pretty well until near the end, when I faced two players with (illegal) hidden serves that I simply couldn’t make good returns on, missing about half of them outright.

Then they did more shadow practice, this time forehand looping against topspin; forehand looping against backspin; backhand looping against topspin; backhand looping against backspin. For the forehands, Dan stressed going in a circle, i.e. (as I teach it), imagining a pole in your head and circling the pole. This allows you to put great power on the ball and still remain balanced and recover quickly for the next shot. They then did a quickness drill where everyone (without their rackets), went to the side of a table and had to sidestep quickly from one net post to the other, going around half the table, and then return, over and over as fast as they could for 30 seconds, twice. The two standouts in this that I saw were Jayden Zhou, Avery Chan, and Faith Hu.

And then it was lunchtime! (Hot dogs, spaghetti, fried rice, roast chicken, watermelon.)

After the break we returned for the 5-8PM session, which started with another talk by Sean and Dan. Sean started by pointing out to the group the opportunities they have that we didn’t have in our day - far more camps, full-time clubs and coaches. Then he went into a talk on contingency plans. He asked how many players had backup rackets. (About half.) How many practiced with their backup rackets so they’d feel confident in it if they had to use it in a tournament? Very few raised their hands. (As a professional coach, I was able to raise my hand - I use my backup racket regularly against players under 1600 or so, and switch to my regular playing racket against stronger players. That way I don’t wear the latter down as fast.)

Dan told the story of how he had shown up at the last Nationals with a legal racket - but because the antispin he uses on one side is rare, the acting referee somehow didn’t see it, and ruled the racket illegal - as well as the backup. He was forced to use an unfamiliar racket. But right at the start of his match against Lijuan Feng, the head referee showed up, realized they’d made a mistake and that the racket was legal - but since they had already started, it would be illegal to change rackets, even though they had only played about four points. So Dan had to play with the unfamiliar racket. It was a unique situation, but is the type of thing that can happen.

They then discussed the various things that can go wrong so you can prepare for it. These included your sponge tearing or bubbling (so have backup sponge and racket); shoes (some like grippier ones on slippery floors); and food (you don’t want to get stuck eating unfamiliar food at a tournament, so if you don’t know what’s available there, bring your own food). Sean even mentioned it’s helpful to get to know the umpires, even by name - if you do, maybe they’d be less likely to fault you!

On the topic of being prepared, I jumped in and pointed out the importance of practicing your fast, deep serves before a big match. It’s easy doing most short or spin serves, but it is fast, deep serves that are most often missed, usually off the end or sometimes into the net - and so in the pressure of a match, if you haven’t warmed them up as you would any other stroke, you won’t be able to pull them off at normal speed, and so you either slow them down (less effective) or miss too often. Imagine playing some forehand looper who keeps stepping around his backhand to loop your serve with his forehand, leaving his forehand wide open to a fast, down-the-line serve - but you haven’t warmed up the serve, and so you either miss it, do it too slow, or are simply afraid to try!

Both Dan and Sean stressed that you have to treat everyone as if they can beat you. That way you can’t be caught off guard. Focus on playing your best, regardless of the opponent’s level. “When you compete, don’t think about winning or losing,” Dan said. “think about performing well. Keep your focus, scout your opponents, control what you can control. If you are nervous, think about tactics to get your mind off winning and losing.”

Sean said, “Don’t think about the outcome. Think about what you want to do.” He added, “You can’t be afraid to lose in this sport.”

Dan said, “When competing, enjoy the competition.”

And then the training began. Once again I was with the lower group, again run by Dan. Once again we had an odd number of players - that seemed to be happening a lot - so I hit with Avery Chan. We started with ten minutes warm-up and then ten minutes of counterlooping. Avery loves to hook the ball with lots of sidespin, so we had some nice sidespin counterlooping duels.

And then it was multiball time. I had four players in my group - Avery Chan (12, rated 2016); Aziz Zarehbin (10, rated 1998); Nandan Naresh (9, rated 1830); and Daniel Tran (9, rated 1801). Yep, I just gave out their ratings - what did Sean say about that? (But ratings are okay as a rough indicator of level.) I did five multiball drills with them:

  1. I feed backspin side to side and they forehand and backhand loop.
  2. I feed backspin to backhand, they backhand loop, I give quick topspin to forehand, they forehand loop.
  3. I feed backspin to forehand, they forehand loop, then I give five quick random topspins.
  4. I feed two topspins to forehand, they forehand loop, then I feed two topspins to backhand, and they backhand loop or hit.
  5.  I step back some and feed them loops to their forehand, moving them around a bit. They forehand counterloop off bounce.

Then we had service practice. Dan started with a talk and demo of short serves (backspin, no-spin, side-top), stressing low contact, with second bounce on far side near the end-line. Then he demoed long serves. Then the players went to the tables, one per table, and worked on serves for perhaps 20 minutes. Serves and tactics are my favorite topics, so I had fun roving about helping with serves. I ended up gathering three together who were just learning reverse pendulum serves and worked with them on that. I worked with another on fast, deep serves, with another on depth control of short serves, with another on maximizing spin, and with another on deceptive side-top forehand pendulum serves.

And then we had up-down tables 11-point games - but they were backhand-to-backhand games! The rallies here are vicious. As I explained to some, you play to win, but the importance here is developing the ability to rally hard for many shots. I had some huge battles with Lisa Lin and Estee Ackerman, both of whom have tremendous backhands, but managed to stay at the first table most of the time. (Aziz Zarehbin was also tough, but seemed to lose patience and get careless.) The others? They weren’t able to get through the wall of Lisa, Estee, and Aziz, so I didn’t play any others.

Then Dan switched it to where we hid the ball, and whoever won got to either forehand loop or forehand block. This time I had titanic battles again with Lisa as well as Jessica Lin, but managed to finish on the first table, despite losses (and wins!) against both of them. I thought I’d be able to block Lisa down, but that’s where she beat me; when I looped against her great blocking, somehow I won. Jessica had a different tactic - she kept hook looping to my wide forehand, and I fell behind quickly. (But I won against her when I looped.) The other surprise here was Faith Hu, the second lowest rated in the group, who managed to reach the second table (out of eight, with 16 players) near the end.  

And then it was dinner time, with fried rice, spaghetti, roasted chicken, potatoes, vegetables . . . and a huge pot of orange chicken that lasted about three seconds. I was near the front of the line, and was about to get it, but with all eyes on me and the quickly diminishing orange chicken, I didn’t take any and settled on roast chicken and fried rice. There was some fun trash-talking during dinner from the older players from the upper group, who had apparently had some titanic matches going on in their own up-down table competition.

Dinner was followed by the almost ritual penhold matches afterwards - many of the kids stay at least 30 minutes late for this. Sharon Alguetti especially likes to take on the younger kids, penhold to their shakehands. On the way back to the house, I once again treated the kids to Slurpees - a habit that’s getting increasingly expensive. Later I had to run back to the club to get something, and ended up taxiing two groups of the older kids to the house they are staying at - Adam Hugh’s house - a 15 minute walk but a three-minute drive.

And Now Some Fun Stuff
The following videos were taken by Arcot Naresh, father of Sid and Nandan.

  • Here’s video (30 sec) of me (“by the powers invested in me as a National Coach”) boldly predicting a strike last week when we took the kids bowling.
  • Here’s video (33 sec) of 9-year-old Nandan Naresh doing the Bowling Dance.
  • Here’s video (1:45) of me taking the kids out for ice cream - and trying to pay for it with a trillion dollar bill!

NOTE - during my stay at the USATT Supercamp (July 11-22), I'll be blogging about it daily, but probably not including the other segments I normally include in the blog. I'm just too busy here coaching, managing, and chaperoning!

July 18, 2016

USATT Supercamp - Day Eight
By Larry Hodges

[Here's the USATT Day Eight page, with video and photos by Matt Hetherington, and this article.]

The physical training this morning was the most grueling yet, though this was partly because of the heat - already into the 80s at 9:30AM. After a quarter mile warm-up run and a number of warm-up exercises, the wind springs began. We started with 100-yard sprints, six players at a time, with the next group starting as soon as the previous one finished. Then they did it again, going back. They did about 6-8 at this distance, then continued with 50-yard sprints, and then 40 yards. We kept pushing them to accelerate as they reach the end, since many would slow down instead. We also had to keep pushing them to pump their arms as they ran.

At first it was almost fun, as they raced each other, but gradually they got more and more tired, and many began to struggle - “It’s just as I suspected,” said coach Dan Seemiller about our lack of fitness. Two players were so exhausted they had to stop. One hard-working one hurt his leg, but it was minor, and he was back in action that afternoon. We finished with another quarter-mile jog, and then we were done with the physical.

New players joining us were three local New Jersey juniors; Tina Lin (17, 2354), Stephen Chu (16, 2108), and Sam Rockwell (16, 1854). This gave us 28 juniors for the day, including five over 2500 and ten over 2300 - and an impressive number of up-and-comers ages 10 to 12 with ratings from 1900 to nearly 2300, plus a pair of nine-year-olds over 1800.

Next came the best part of the day (for me) as Dan Seemiller and Sean O’Neill gave a 50-minute talk on a number issues, mostly on ball placement and other tactics, and stroke mechanics. Dan led the discussion, with Sean joining in with comments. Here’s a sampling.

  • Dan gave the example of a past top U.S. player, who he thought had the potential to be top twenty in the world. But Coach Li Zhenshi said no, it was too late, the player too old to learn proper ball placement. Good ball placement needs to be learned early or it’s nearly impossible to get right. You may know off the table where the ball should be placed, but to reflexively do so at the table in a fast rally, and to accurately hit the target? That’s hard to teach or to learn unless you start early.
  • Dan and Sean both spoke extensively about the importance of attacking the middle, i.e. the opponent’s playing elbow. This was ironic as I’d been pushing this same thing to a number of players here who didn’t seem to get its importance, and continued to attack the corners, which at the higher levels is often like banging one’s head on a wall. Dan said, “The middle opens up everything.” It forces the opponent to decide between forehand and backhand; into often awkward footwork; often a weak return; usually makes him play the shot later than usual so he can’t rush you; gives him no angle; and puts him out of position, which opens up the corners. This is one of those simple concepts that so many just don’t understand or take seriously. I’ve thrown up my hands at time with the number of kids I’ve coached that simply do not have this ingrained in them. As Dan said, “Became a master at finding the middle.”
  • Regarding placement mistakes, Dan said, “These are not mistakes you can make if you want to be great.” He added, “If I make the right choice and miss, that’s okay. It’s when I make the wrong choice that I get mad and want to break my paddle.” He said that few players can hit their targets half the time. If you hit it 80%, that’s good, but 90% is needed.
  • Sean said, “Players think the biggest difference between a weaker player and a top player is the top player rips everything. This cannot be farther from the truth. They place the ball better.” They both spoke about how Americans often try to just rip the ball instead of being willing to rally longer and get a better ball to rip, as most top players do. This doesn’t mean they don’t rip the ball; it means they rip the right ones, whether it’s the first or seventh shot in the rally.
  • Dan talked about finding the center of your swing. This means making sure your backswing and forward swing are about the same length, and the contact point on your forward swing midway through the forward swing. “This makes timing and adjustments easier,” said Dan. “Center your stroke around your contact point.”
  • Dan also spoke about being able to both hook and fade your loops, i.e. sidespin either direction.
  • Next they talked about balance at the end of the stroke. If you are off balance at the end of a shot, you cannot recover for the next shot. This also means using your free arm for balance, as well as pulling with it for greater power on forehand shots. It means staying on your toes.
  • Dan and Sean both harped on making your technique great. Sean spoke about how his coach sent him to Dan Seemiller camps to help develop his technique and get a different perspective. Sean’s coach was more of a hitter, while Sean more of a looper, so by going to the Seemiller camps he learned from Dan, who is also a looper.
  • Dan spoke about mastering the things you can control, citing three: fitness, dynamic serves, and mental.
  • On the mental game, Dan said, “Believe in yourself or you can’t be mentally strong.” “Everyone has a different route to being mentally strong. Find yours.”
  • Both harped on excelling in as many things as possible - the more weapons you have the better. “You have to understand your game,” Dan said, and keep developing it. He said that even at 62 years old he believe he can improve by learning new things. Examples of things you might excel at include serve, ball placement, power, consistency, footwork, receive, deception, fundamentals, strategy, shot selection, rally ability, blocking, looping, and reading of spin - and that’s just the beginning!
  • They spoke more about the free arm and its importance for both balance and adding power to forehand shots by pulling with it. They cited a Chinese coach who said that the racket speed of most American players was too slow, and considered the poor usage of the free arm and the rest of the body a reason for this. Said Sean, “If you don’t use your whole body you cannot get good power.” He then explained that by having such power means you don’t have to force the power, i.e. you can more easily go at any speed with less strain.
  • Dan spoke about how players can learn by gathering ideas and skills like “nuggets,” such as playing the middle, centering your stroke, or using the free arm properly. As you gather these nuggets you improve. He said, “Be more than what you are now. If you’re a blocker, then developing the rest of your game, or your good blocking will become a trap, keeping you from developing the rest of your game. You’ll always have your blocking skills, so add to them.”
  • Sean spoke of how losses are an opportunity. “They give you a report card on your game.” Sean told the story losing in the final of Men’s Singles at the USA Nationals in 1986 against Chartchai “Hank” Teekaveerakit, who was a live-in practice partner for him at the time. Going into the Nationals Sean was the defending champion, and had beaten Hank in practice over and over. In the final Sean was up 2-0 in games and at deuce in the third. He lost his focus, lost two careless points, and next thing he knew he lost the match in five. He had to spend the next year seeing the Men’s Singles trophy in Hank’s room, and it gave him determination never to give away free points again, whether in practice or tournaments - and a year later he won the title back. He said that if you adopt the attitude in practice of no free points, it’ll carry over into tournaments. “Never let up in a point. If you want to make the World Team, no free points.”
  • They spoke of making tactical adjustments. Going into one Nationals Sean had never beaten Eric Boggan. He’s always tried to attack through him, since that’s Sean’s game, but Eric’s blocking was too good. When they met in the Men’s Final, Sean decided to just push and block, which threw Eric off, and Sean won the first two games. When Eric adjusted, Sean went back to attacking, which again threw Eric off his game - and by going back and forth, he won the match and the championship.

The kids then got a ten-minute break (and pigged out on watermelon, blueberries, and bananas), and then we started the afternoon 12-2 session. I wasn’t needed as a practice partner this session, and so roved between the two groups, with the upper group upstairs, the lower group downstairs. (Usually it’s the reverse.) This meant I missed about half of what happened in each group, alas.

Sean and Richard McAfee (his last session) ran the lower group, with 16 players. They started by challenging the players to his as many forehands as possible, and then backhands. The “winners” were Aziz Zarehbin (age 10, rated 1998) from the Alameda TTC in California, with 321 in a row, and Lisa Lin (age 12, rated 1986) from MDTTC in Maryland (my club), with 376. Sean then issued a challenge to them to go home and hit 1000 in a row - and promised some sort of prize to whoever did it first. He cited how his coach made him do this when he was nine years old, and how Dan Seemiller also had stroking consistency battles at his camps - with former start Jimmy Lane once getting over 5000 in a row. (At the 1978 Seemiller Camp, when I was 18, I hit 2755 backhands in a row to win the camp contest! My partner was lefty Ben Nisbet, who was hitting forehands and I think missed only three times along the way.)

Sean called and explained the drills, and pointed out that both players are doing each drill, that if one player is blocking, his feet should constantly be moving. “Blocking drills should be tiring - they are footwork drills,” he said. Throughout the session he harped on players to move their feet and to use their non-playing arm. (One player kept forgetting this, and each time he did, Sean would call out, “Lefty!”) He said, “Heels on ground - game over.” He also talked about one of his favorite terms: “Brain dead shots,” which come in many varieties. Examples he cited here were when feet stop moving but arms continue to move, and swinging wildly.

Two drills called by Sean while I was there stressed pushing short - though I’m guessing they did a lot of other drills while I was with the other group. They were:

  • Serve short, receiver push short, play out point. Sean stressed the importance of moving in and out.
  • Serve short, push 4-5 balls short, and then server pushes long, receiver attacks, play out point. The drills were similar, but subtlety different.

In the upper group, run by Dan (who called the drills) and Cory (with Lily Yip roving around both), some of the drills called included:

  • Serve topspin, and play only backhand, blocking or looping, to the opponent’s middle, who had to return to the server’s backhand. The purpose of the drill was to learn to accurately go after the middle, which is a rather small, moving target.
  • Same drill, except now server plays only forehand.
  • Game drill: server serves until he loses two in a row, then the receiver becomes the server.

Then it was lunch - spaghetti, chicken, and various side dishes. Then we were off until 5PM.

I spent the 5-8PM session with the upper group. At first I was going to take notes and be a roving coach, but something opened up - and I spent most of the session practicing with Sid Naresh, 12, rated 2191. We had a great session. I was a bit leery at first as back home I spent so much time practicing with players under 1800 I wasn’t sure I could still handle 2200-level shots - but guess what? As I objectively (but not subjectively) knew, stronger players have more consistent shots, and so you get into a groove with them. With Sid, I got into a groove, as did he, and we had some really memorable rallies. He did a number of drills into my forehand and backhand block, and the rallies were fast and yet neither of us could miss (much). Dan worked with him several times on extending his backswing on his backhand loop for more power, and he practiced this for about 20 minutes into my backhand block.

We also did a forehand drill where one loops five in a row (forehand to forehand), and then free play - and all heck broke loose as the rallies were ferocious. When it was my turn, he had a lot of trouble at first with my forehand, which is hard to read - I can make it look like I’m going crosscourt, and then go down the line at the last second, and vice versa - but he gradually adjusted. Meanwhile, my forehand looping felt like it was 1990 again! Again, a lot of this was because of Sid’s consistency.

Toward the end of the session I practice with Matthew Lu (12, 2241), and once again we had some nice rallies. Like the lower group, they were focusing a lot on short push today, and so we did a drill where one served either backspin or no-spin, and the other mostly pushed short - but if they saw the no-spin, they attacked. Then we got to each choose our own drill. I went with serve backspin, Matt pushes long anywhere, and I forehand loop - an “easy” drill for me in 1990, but now that I’m 56 . . . but I held my own, even as I coached Mart to make things difficult by often aiming one way, going the other, and pushing aggressively to the corners. For his drill, he did a similar serve and attack drill, where he served short, I mostly pushed and sometimes flipped, and he attacked.

Then we played up-down tables, but with Dan’s variation. Everyone played until one player on any table won a game to 11. Then the winner would yell “Stop!”, and whoever led at that point won. If it was tied, they played one point to see who would move up. I did pretty well in these games, beating five players rated from 2180 to about 2250, and losing a tie-breaker with Gal Alguetti. Finally the 5-8PM session came to an end, I hobbled out, exhausted but happy with my play - and with my opponents’!

Next was dinner - sesame chicken, barbecued ribs, fried and white rice, spaghetti, broccoli, and various fruits. And then we were done! Well, sort of; about ten of the kids wanted to stay and play penhold and other matches. And so the night at the club didn’t end until past 9PM. On the way back I treated some of the kids to drinks and snacks at the local convenience store. And then a strange thing happened. With the sprints in the morning, and a rather vigorous day of training, the kids went to bed without argument!

Two Mysteries
This is a good spot to talk about the two camp mysteries.

  • The Mystery of the Broken Front Door. Earlier in the camp the front door to the house many of us are staying at jammed, and wouldn’t open. It wasn’t an emergency since we had a back door. Barry Dattel came over that night to try and fix it, but needed more tools. He promised to come back the following morning. When he left, he’d taken the lower door knob off the door. The following morning we went to physical training as usual. When we returned, the door had been repaired, with the know replaced and everything. I thanked Barry - but he was confused, saying he hadn’t fixed it yet. We asked everyone, and we still haven’t figured out who fixed the door. I believe it was the Broken Door Fairy.
  • The Mystery of the Ice Cream Sandwiches. This morning we discovered two boxes of ice cream sandwiches in the freezer. Some of the older kids (who were staying at another house) came over and took most of them, which made the younger kids at the house rather unhappy. But then the question arose - whose ice cream sandwiches were they? I’d assumed Judy Hugh, who has been buying groceries for us (cereal milk, snacks, etc.) had bought them, but she said no - which made sense as she always buys large quantities of various foods, not just one item. We’ve asked around, but we can’t figure out where the ice cream sandwiches came from. I believe it was the Ice Cream Sandwich Fairy. 

NOTE - during my stay at the USATT Supercamp (July 11-22), I'll be blogging about it daily, but probably not including the other segments I normally include in the blog. I'm just too busy here coaching, managing, and chaperoning!

July 17, 2016

USATT Supercamp - Day Seven
By Larry Hodges

[Here's the USATT Day Seven page, with video and photos by Matt Hetherington, and this article.]

We’ve had sad farewells for the Week One coaches leaving us - Samson Dubina, Han Xiao, and Wang Qing “Leon” Liang, with Richard McAfee leaving on Monday night. But this morning we welcomed Sean O’Neill, with Dan Seemiller coming in tonight. Sean and Dan have each won five USA Men’s Singles titles - or as I put it to the kids, “Dan, Sean, and I have combined for ten Men’s Singles titles.” Lily Yip is also joining us, but she’s been here all along doing her own coaching here at the Lily Yip TTC. Sean and Lily give us two Olympians - and since about half the kids have put making the Olympics their primary goal, perhaps they’ll get some Olympic stories. They join Cory Eider and I for the second week.

Today was an “off” day, with no table tennis training as they rested from a week of training and the tournament on Saturday. Instead, an even 30 of us made the trip to Lancaster, PA, 2.5 hours away, where Peter Scudner (chair of the USATT Board of Directors) and his son Evan Scudner, and the staff at the Triode Media Group, Ltd., gave the 23 kids a day of media practice. They did this for free - what would normally have cost many thousands of dollars. So a great thanks to them! These kids are elite up-and-coming players who may be looking for sponsors and get interviewed by the media - and now they are a lot more ready than before.

We had two vans, a 15-passenger one we rented for the day (driven by Sean), and an eight-passenger one (driven by Cory), plus Arcot Naresh and I driving our cars. We left around 11:15 AM, with the various vehicles arriving between 1:30 and 2:00PM. There were many adventures along the way, in both directions, but we’ll stick to table tennis!

The kids were divided into three groups - roughly the 13 and over boys, the 12 and under boys, and the girls. They each spent up to an hour at each of three stations, which I will call the Sponsorship Talk, the Interview Room, and the Table Tennis Studio.

The Sponsorship Talk was given by Sean O’Neill, who, besides coaching at the camp this week, is the USATT Director of Communications and Webmaster. He kept much of it interactive, asking questions to bring the kids into the discussion. Some of the main points - and it’s impossible to really condense an hour-long talk/discussion here, but I’ll try:

  • The four major media groups are TV, radio, newspaper, and social media. The kids guessed the first three, didn’t get the fourth.
  • Why do companies sponsor players? Many players, including most of the kids here, thought it was to reward performance. As Sean pointed out, players are sponsored to help the company sell their product. It has to be a two-way thing - something for the player and something for the company. The best player often doesn’t get the best sponsorships; winning and losing isn’t as important as some think as companies would rather sponsor a player with a good attitude who is more saleable and willing to help promote their products while proudly wearing their uniforms and using their equipment. So players who wish to be sponsored need visibility and salability in order to be marketable.
  • Do you have a story your sponsor can sell? For example, Sean gave the example of Dan Seemiller, who was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates as a baseball player - but chose table tennis instead. That’s a story! Everyone has a story; it’s just a matter of finding it. A good story sells products.
  • You have to sell yourself if you want to get sponsored. Sean told the story of how he contacted the makers of Power Bars about his training and dreams of being an Olympian. They sent him thousands of bars!!! Since it was too many for him, he gave them out at a tournament. When the Power Bar company heard this, they sent him even more, with the idea being they’d hook all these people on Power Bars and sell more of them.
  • When you lose a match, you can’t act like a turkey. It gets back to the sponsor. To reiterate, they want the guy with the great attitude, the one who, when he loses, does so graciously, complimenting his opponent for his play, not the one who whines and makes excuses.

The second station was the Interview Room. The players stood in front of a white background with a microphone, and practiced introducing themselves on camera. A woman from Triode Media did the camera work while Peter Scudner coached the kids on their responses. The typical introduction was in this format: “I’m [NAME], I play at the [NAME OF CLUB], I’ve played [YEARS PLAYED], and my goal is to [GOAL - normally make Olympic Team, or USA or World Men’s Singles Champion.

The third station was the Table Tennis Studio. They’d set up a table tennis court with great lighting, and huge cameras. Each player went up and would introduce themselves, explain a technique they were about to demonstrate, then demonstrate it (with USATT High Performance Director and 2013 USA Men’s Singles Finalist Cory Eider as playing partner and coach), and then look into the camera and say, “To learn more, go to USATT.org.” (I got to help out some in choosing some of the techniques to be covered and how to introduce them. We had to come up with 23 topics! All will go online sometime soon.) The kids had fun watching each other do their routines, and there will probably be a “bloopers” reel coming out along with the professional version. The kids explained and demoed essentially every major stroke and serve.

Afterwards we all went to the Dragon Hibachi for dinner, and then came the 2.5 hour return trip. And then it was off to bed to rest of for another week of training!

NOTE - during my stay at the USATT Supercamp (July 11-22), I'll be blogging about it daily, but probably not including the other segments I normally include in the blog. I'm just too busy here coaching, managing, and chaperoning!

July 16, 2016

USATT Supercamp - Day Six
By Larry Hodges

[Here's the USATT Day Six page, with video and photos by Matt Hetherington, and this article.]

I thought I’d start this with something we can all use - the “Think Circle.” On Thursday I wrote about Coach Samson Dubina’s lecture and game drills on tactics. He emailed me the following as an elaboration, which he spoke about in the lecture.

The Think Circle
Between pitches in baseball, the batter steps out of the batter’s box to re-focus. The same thing is true in table tennis; the pros often call this the “Think Circle.”

Between points, step back about 4-6 feet away from the table and draw an imaginary circle around yourself and collect your thoughts in your think circle.  Every pro athlete has a different method of processing the points, relaxing, and gearing up for the next point, but I’m going to give you the method that I personally use.

  1. Ask yourself the question, “What just happened?”
    While the point is fresh in your mind, you should replay the details of each hit.  If you can’t remember how you messed up, you will likely make the same mistake again.  If you can’t remember how you scored, then you won’t likely be able to capitalize on your opponent’s weak points.
  2. Remind yourself of your primary tactics.
    From the first few points of the match, you should be forming some specific tactics based on your strengths and the opponent’s weaknesses.  Point by point, you should be willing to adjust your primary tactics, especially if you are losing.
  3. Breathe deeply.
    Deep breathing has a calming effect allowing you to forget about that missed smash, calm your anger, and come back focused for the next point. 
  4. Ask yourself the question, “What’s next?”
    If you are serving, first determine exactly what you plan to serve and what the possible returns will be.  If you are receiving, then ask yourself how you plan to deal with fast serve, how you plan to deal with short backspin serves, how you plan to deal with no-spin serves.  Remember, you must stay fairly neutral when receiving and be ready for anything, while at the same time having general tactics against various serves.

This method that I briefly explained is the method that I use to analyze the point, remind myself of the plan, calm myself down, and get to the specifics.  I would encourage you to develop your own method and be consistent at using it during drills, club play, leagues, and tournaments.  As with any skill, it takes time to develop, but it is definitely worth the effort!

So (and this is Larry asking) . . . do you do anything like this?

Today was tournament day, with nearly all the kids competing in the New Jersey Chinese Festival Olympic Cup, held at the Lily Yip TTC - the same place we’ve been training at. The tournament was primarily run by Barry Dattel, with assistance from Lily Yip and Judy Hugh. Camp players won all the junior events: Michael Tran won Under 18 Boys; Klaus Wood won Under 15 Boys over Michael Tran; Jaden Zhou won Under 12 Boys over Aziz Zarehbin; Amy Wang won Under 18 Girls, and also won Under 15 Girls over Lisa Lin. Meanwhile, Avery Chan (12) made the final of Under 2000. (Here are complete results.)

Richard McAfee, Wang Qing Liang, Cory Eider, and I spent the day watching and coaching the players. (I ended up taking more notes than coaching matches - many of the matches I watched were between players in the camp, and so we couldn’t coach those.) Here are a few observations, with names not mentioned.

  • One player almost lost to a lower player because over and over his first attack would be to the opponent’s middle forehand or backhand, giving the player an easy counter-attack. The opening shot should almost always go to the opponent’s middle (elbow) or wide angles. On the other hand, the player showed great variety and tactical skills with his serves.
  • Another player went flat-flip crazy, smacking shots all over the place (rarely on the table), and almost lost the match because of it. Near the end he got a bit more consistent, flipping with topspin, especially backhand banana flips, and it was the primary reason he pulled out the match. Topspin gives control in two ways. First, of course, the topspin pulls it down. Second, when you flip flat, it’s very hard to make last second adjustments. With a topspin flip, where you stroke at least slightly up, you can more easily adjust how much you swing upwards, giving you control over the flip.
  • In this match, the lower-rated player showed great variety and tactics with his serves, while the other mostly used the same simple serve over and over - and the result was almost an upset. Then, near the end, the higher-rated player pulled out some serves and won a close one. But if he’d used his better serves earlier, it wouldn’t have been so close.
  • One player showed great anticipation and so was usually in position, but when players were deceptive with last-second changes of direction, especially to the wide forehand, he had trouble - his footwork wasn’t quite strong enough, and his forehand stroke a bit too long. He needs to work on both. But he had nice serves and variation, and a nice attack from both sides, though the backhand attack almost always was crosscourt.
  • One player has a very nice forehand tomahawk serve - but imagine how good he’d be if he added a reverse forehand tomahawk serve! The serve gave opponents trouble, but they got used to it.
  • One player showed great attacking skills, especially on his serve, and rallied very well. But he kept pushing serves back long, rarely attacking them or pushing them short. He even pushed long serves back, which is usually a no-no at higher levels. The passive pushing cost him. In a later match, he got more aggressive and pulled off a nice win.
  • One player had only one good serve, and used it way too much. The only other serve used was what looked like the beginnings of a reverse pendulum serve, but it needed work - it had little spin. This cost the player as the receiver kept getting the initiative. Also, the player looked tentative looping against backspin, despite making these shots with ease in practice. Conclusion - table tennis is a very mental game. You have to be able to do in matches what you do in practice, and just let the shot go rather than try to guide it.
  • In general, too many players relied on forehand pendulum serves without reverse pendulum or some other effective backup serve variation; players played way too much crosscourt, not enough down the line; and opening attacks were too often crosscourt to the opponent’s middle forehand or backhand, rather than at elbow or to wide angles. There were exceptions to all of these, of course.

After the tournament was done, I called a meeting to go over tomorrow’s schedule and events. We’re going to Lancaster, PA, a 2.5 hour drive - about 30 of us in all. It’s for a media training program - I’ll write about this tomorrow. Sean O’Neill is joining us in the morning, and will be driving a 15-passenger van; Cory Eider has an eight-passenger van; plus we have two cars going.

Then twelve of us walked five minutes to the ice cream shop! Some didn’t have money, so I treated six kids, while getting two scoops of Rocky Road for myself. I paid for it with another of my “trillion dollar bills,” but when they couldn’t make change, I grudgingly paid for it with smaller bills. (But I tipped the girl at the cash register the entire trillion.) I did this twice - at the ice cream shop and at a convenience store. Video coming tomorrow!

NOTE - during my stay at the USATT Supercamp (July 11-22), I'll be blogging about it daily, but probably not including the other segments I normally include in the blog. I'm just too busy here coaching, managing, and chaperoning!

July 15, 2016

USATT Supercamp - Day Five
By Larry Hodges

[Here's the USATT Day Five page, with video and photos by Matt Hetherington, and this article.]

Today was rather a fun day. First, because the kids are all playing in a tournament tomorrow, they only had one three-hour session instead of the usual 6.5 hours in three sessions. They also got to sleep late, since the session didn’t begin until 11AM. There were some very happy kids, especially since I relaxed curfew, allowing them to have some late-night powwows. But we’re back on curfew on Friday.

We started the three-hour session with a 35-minute lecture and demo by Han Xiao on serving and then receiving, with Wang Qing “Leon” Liang assisting. (This was for the entire camp, both upper and lower groups.) Here are some of the major points he went over:

  1. When serving you use body, arm, and wrist, in that order. There is also a weight transfer, at least for forehand pendulum serves.
  2. The importance of a proper serving grip.
  3. The service swing starts by building up momentum with the bigger muscles, accelerating just before contact.
  4. Controlling the first bounce (on your side of the table) is key. It allows depth control of short and long serves.
  5. The various ways to create deception - semi-circular motions, spin/no-spin by varying the contact point or the grazing/non-grazing contact, and fast, varying follow-throughs to mislead the receiver.

Here are some of the major points on receive he went over:

  1. Know the target areas of the far side of the table, and make sure to serve into them.
  2. Develop a receive that fits your game.
  3. Develop the three main receives against short serves: a flip, followed by continuous attack; a short push, where you usually look to attack the next ball; and the long push, if you have a strong block or counterloop.
  4. Against deep serves, you attack - the main question is forehand or backhand, how hard, and placement.

Here’s where I’m disgusted with myself. I had three items I wanted to elaborate on, but when Han finished, I hesitated - and they went out to the tables before I spoke up. Perhaps next week . . . I was going to go over 1) Trick Serves and Third-Ball Serves (and why you need both, but should favor third-ball serves); 2) Some examples of semi-circular and other “trick” serves; and 3) Serving Low (in particular, how to make the ball bounce low on the far side, #4 in the link - the “Waldner” part).

Next up was physical training, led by Samson Dubina. The following is from the lesson plan he created in advance, which I believe we roughly followed.

5 min Dynamic Stretching
5 min jog
15 min core strength, flexibility, speed

  • 30 seconds hands and feet extension
  • 30 seconds leg flutters
  • 30 sec Russian twists
  • 30 sec forward plank
  • 30 sec R plank
  • 30 sec L plank
  • 30 sec back plank
  • Rest about 10 seconds between each exercise
  • Do 2 rounds

5 min break
15 min core strength, flexibility, speed

  • Same routine as seen above

5 min static stretching

We finished with table drills. My group focused on a number of drills that started with serves - we wanted to isolate match-type rallies, since they have a tournament the next day. Here are some - in the first three, we played actual games, but with the score starting at 8-all.

  • Short serve, short push return, Play Out Point (POP)
  • Short serve, short push or flip return, POP
  • Serve anything to backhand, POP
  • Best of five match, with every game starting at deuce!

We finished with a discussion of service tactics for the following day’s tournament. And then we were through for the day - or were we?

Nope - we all wanted a Strike!!! As in - we took the kids bowling! The entire camp and coaches went, over 30 of us. We bowled for two hours, and the kids had a great time, and are now relaxed and ready for the tournament. For the record, Matt Hetherington was the best among the adults (with a 173 game); Michael Tran was the best of the players - and he’s only 13; and Matthew Luo (12) was the best of the non-teenagers. As to me, after shooting in the triple digits (110!), I’ve made the tough, life-changing decision to give up my professional table tennis career and become a professional bowler. (For the record, the last time I went bowling was when my grandparents used to take me bowling when I was a kid - during the Nixon Administration.) I had no legal strikes, but I had a pair of “Larry strikes” - a gutter ball followed by a strike (i.e. a spare, alas).

Dinner was served back at the club, once again cooked by Lily and volunteers. It was great - a huge pot of orange chicken (gone in seconds - the kids really are piranhas) and two other types of chicken dishes; that great fried rice with onions, eggs, and some sort of spices; spaghetti; and various vegetables and fruit. I had all three chicken dishes, fried rice, and a bowl of watermelon and strawberries. And on the way home, I had a Mountain Dew. What a great day!

We’re back at the house now, with the kids split between video games on various devices, and Pokémon Go, which is all the kids (and some of the coaches) seem to talk about - it’s an obsession that’s swept the camp, leading to constant, “Larry, can we go outside? We need to catch a [unintelligible name of some Pokémon creature].” If they spent as much time on their table tennis as they did on this, they’d - oh wait, they do!!! That’s why they’re here. Meanwhile, I’ve already made the rounds, making sure they all know tomorrow’s tournament schedule, what time each has to ready to play, tonight’s curfew, etc. Fortunately, the playing site is only a five-minute walk away. The  players will go over in groups, with each group walking to the club 70 minutes before their first match so they have an hour to warm up and prepare. (I have a list and I’m checking it twice over and over and over.)

Today also marks a transition. Samson Dubina, Han Xiao, and Wang Qing Liang are all leaving tonight or tomorrow, with Richard McAfee staying until Monday night. Coming in this Sunday will be three new coaches for the rest of the camp - Dan Seemiller and Sean O’Neill, and Lily Yip - who is already here, of course, since this is the Lily Yip TTC! Cory Eider will stay to the end of the camp (July 24), while I have to leave two days early.

NOTE - during my stay at the USATT Supercamp (July 11-22), I'll be blogging about it daily, but probably not including the other segments I normally include in the blog. I'm just too busy here coaching, managing, and chaperoning!

July 14, 2016

USATT Supercamp - Day Four
By Larry Hodges

[Here's the USATT Day Four page, with video and photos by Matt Hetherington, and this article.]

It’s 9PM, and the training ended an hour before - and nearly half of the 27 players are still at the club. They are playing penhold, doubles, and against my clipboard. They don’t want to go home, they want to keep playing, just in different ways. Cory Eider and I both agreed that this is why some players develop such a feel for the ball, by constantly trying new things, just as generations of past players with great control did. (Waldner was infamous for that, and it seems to have paid off for him. The Alguettis seem to be following in his path.) This doesn’t mean you replace practice with such “goofing off” - it means you have fun with it while developing that feel.

Several new players joined us today - Allen Wang (18, 2546), Amy Wang (13, 2416), Matthew Lu (12, 2241), and Jack Wang (15, 2537). Jack was there only for the day, but might rejoin us next week. Alex Ruichao (2699) Adam Hugh (2582) also spent the day training with us.

The big breakfast discussion for today was how each player got started in table tennis. Most got started by their parents or older brothers. I told the group I went to the library to get a book on track and field, and looked left, and that changed my life - and Rohan Acharya (13, 2133) correctly guessed I saw a book on table tennis, which is alphabetically just to the left of track and field. (The book was “The Money Player” by Marty Reisman - and when I recited the story to Marty many years later, his response was, “Great; another life I’ve ruined.”)

For physical training (9:30-11:00 AM), the players were divided into four stations. Each station had a different set of exercises. My group had to: 1) jump high into the air five times; 2) sidestep rapidly across the exercise ladder on the ground; 3) jump high in the air five more times; 4) sidestep rapidly across another exercise ladder on the ground; and 5) jog back rapidly to the end of their line, where they’d have a few seconds of rest, and then go again. Each group did each station for five minutes continuously, took a short break, and then moved to the next station. Michael Tran was the best at my station, with Allen Wang and Aziz Zarehbin also standouts, though plenty others were good at it.

Some people probably still don’t buy into the idea of the importance of physical training at the higher levels in table tennis. Let’s take a look at world-class players. See how fast they are, and how they generate so much force on each shot seemingly effortlessly? Listen closely: This Doesn’t Just Happen!!! It comes from years of such physical training. It’s the norm for overseas countries that regularly produce top players; it’s not the norm in countries that don’t regularly produce top players.

I spent the afternoon session (12-2PM) with the lower group, where we did something you rarely see in a table tennis camp: we spent the entire two hours working on serves. This doesn’t mean they went out there and practiced serves for 120 minutes; it was broken up by numerous lectures on specific serves (mostly by Richard McAfee, with Cory and I joining in with comments). They had segments where they worked on heavy backspin serves; sidespin serves; corkscrewspin (sometimes called deviation spin) serves; and others.

During a break I introduced them to the “Comeback Serve” game. Each player gets five serves. They serve the ball high with backspin, trying to make it bounce backwards. If it hits their side, goes over the net, and bounced directly back to their side on one bounce without hitting the net, they get three points. If it hits the net in either direction or takes more than one bounce before bouncing back, two points. If it bounces back into the net, one point. Several players were able to do three-pointers.

In the night session (5-8PM), I went back and forth a few times between the lower and higher groups. In the lower group, the focus the first hour was short pushes, long pushes, and then flipping, with lectures/demos on each, and then drills (with each drill starting with the focus and ending with free play). Richard ran this group, with Cory assisting. Richard stressed the importance of the fingers positioning and pressure to control short pushes. He also gave us a Chinese saying about the importance of the various parts of the arm, which goes roughly like this: “The shoulder is kindergarten; the elbow is elementary school; the wrist is high school; and the fingers are college.”

Samson Dubina ran the higher group, with practice partners like Alex Ruichao and Adam Hugh helping out. The first drill had the server serving medium long and the receiver looped anywhere. If it went to the backhand, the server blocked; if it went to the middle or forehand, the server counterlooped. Then they played out the point - or as I put in my notes, POP.

Then the focus went to tactics. They were paired up and each played an 11-point game. Samson asked them to make notes afterwards about what tactics worked and which didn’t. Many of the players couldn’t remember. (Adam Hugh was able to recite nearly every point of his game with Michael Tran.) Then they went out and played again, this time focusing on trying to remember what happened. Afterwards they wrote out notes on what worked and what didn’t. (Here’s a picture of some of them writing out their notes.) Then they did the “20-second between points” drill - they played a game to 11, and had to think about the point for 20 seconds before they could play the next point. Once again they wrote out afterwards what worked and what didn’t. I had some discussions with players on these tactics - tactics and serving are my favorite table tennis topics.

One player was struggling against another player, who was good at quick angle blocking. He kept attacking the corners (giving the blocker a wide angle to block into), and kept going out of position to forehand loop from the backhand side (and got killed over and over on the wide forehand). A better tactic would be a strong backhand attack to the blocker’s middle (elbow), forcing a weaker return with less angle, with the attacker in position and ready to attack from both wings.

I’m having a great time working with these kids. In most camps, there’s a mix of players from goof-offs to serious, and everything in between. Here, everyone is serious about their game and improving. (As I explained to one of them, you have to be serious about both your table tennis game and your table tennis goofing off.) One of the things I’m stressing in these sessions is that you don’t just tell players what they are doing wrong; you also tell them what they are doing right, so they can re-enforce good habits.

The kids are in high spirits tonight - there’s a tournament here on Saturday, so the Friday training will be light. Instead of 9:30AM, we’ll do physical training, lecture, and table training from 11AM to 2PM - and then, from 5-7PM, we’re going bowling!

And just for the record, Sharon Alguetti appears to be the penhold champion (everyone in the camp plays shakehands); 9-year-olds Nandan Naresh and Daniel Tran (both over 1800) lost a close five-gamer to their dads (they are in the 1800-2000 range), and only Aziz Zarehbin and Avery Chan have gotten games against my clipboard this week - and each was awarded a trillion dollar bill as a prize.

NOTE - during my stay at the USATT Supercamp (July 11-22), I'll be blogging about it daily, but probably not including the other segments I normally include in the blog. I'm just too busy here coaching, managing, and chaperoning!

July 13, 2016

USATT Supercamp - Day Three
By Larry Hodges

[Here's the USATT Day Three page, with video and photos by Matt Hetherington, and this article.]

I started off the morning telling horror stories over breakfast: the player who, after a loss, utterly destroyed a bathroom (something like $5000 in damages); in another match, the same player broke his racket after losing a few points, tried playing with the broken paddle for a while and lost more points, borrowed a friend’s paddle near the end (it was legal back then), but ended up losing an 800-point upset - and broke the friend’s racket; the player who ate half a notebook of paper after a loss; and yes, me, who once bought ten cheap sandpaper paddles and broke them all, one by one, during a tournament. (It was a long time ago, and I was only 17!)

As usual, we started off with physical training - but this was a short session. After jogging to the track (1/2 mile), and some stretching, we gathered the players together. I gave a few tips on distance running - proper breathing (through mouth, deep into belly), proper form (upper body relaxed, especially jaw and shoulders, leaning slightly forward, elbows at 90 degrees and pumping straight forward, light steps, and not overstepping by trying to step forward of body), and pace (steady for most of run, faster at the end). Then they jogged one lap for practice.

After some calisthenics and a short rest, it was the main event - a timed one mile, four laps around the track. I’m not going to give out the times - some of the kids would be rather unhappy if I did - but they ranged from about 5:45 to over eight minutes. A number of our top juniors were a little over six minutes. Conclusion: most were in pretty good shape, but for athletes trying to be the best in a sport like table tennis, not that good. Cory Eider and I agreed that by age 14 or 15, our best juniors should be breaking 5:30 - otherwise, how can they train as long and hard as their overseas rivals? (For perspective, when I was a miler in high school - 40 years ago - my best was 4:53. I ran the mile with the others, but let's just say it's been 30 years since I ran regularly...) Coach Samson Dubina came in first, with Andrew Song and Michael Tran giving him a good run for it at the end.

Then it was back to the club for a 45-minute lecture/slide show/video on Body Movement by Richard McAfee. Here are some of the main topics from my notes.

  1. The Base. Wide stance, knees bent, low center of gravity. Stability vs. ability to move - need to find a balance.
  2. Core Strength. This is the area between arms and legs. Without a strong core, it’s impossible to play high-level table tennis. It’s one of the focuses of the physical training.
  3. The Strength Addition. This is about how movement should start and the sequence of muscles, from big and slow to small and fast: Legs and knees, hips, trunk, shoulders, elbow, wrist.
  4. The Supports. “A chain is only as strong as its weakest length.” So if one muscle is underdeveloped, everything falls down to that level. Some ideas here;
    •    Transmission of forces: “The faster the athlete has to go, the more his stance is bent.”
    •    Proprioceptivity - yes, that’s a word! It means “the sense of the relative position of neighboring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement.” One device that helps in this type of training is a BOSU training device, which we have here. During break, it’s in constant use.
    •    Release. This involves lightening of the supports. If your weight is on a foot, you can’t move it, so you have to get the weight off the foot first.
    •    Landing.  How you land when moving.
  5. Basic Position. The receive position is generally lower than the playing position.
  6. Body Adjustments. These are often less conventional adjustments, often to cover the middle. Lots of examples were shown with video, such as 1993 world champion Jean-Philippe Gatien, who popularized “draw” footwork, where one covers more of the table with the forehand by essentially leaning away from the ball and powering it more with the upper body (though done properly, you also use lower body).
  7. Lateral footwork, pivot footwork, depth footwork. Moving in different directions!
  8. Games - footwork adjustment. “Players with good footwork in drill can be bad in games. They need game-type drills (random) and off-table training.”
  9. Watching the feet. Overseas, especially in China, coaches are notorious for looking down much of the time, the idea being that 90% of problems involve the feet and lower body.

Afterwards we spent some time watching an ITTF training video created by Tibhar. We will likely watch more of it later. I’m especially interested in the one on multiball drills, which we’ll likely view later.

Then came the 12-2 table session. Once again I was with the lower group. Since we had an odd number, I was once again a practice partner for much of the session. Samson Dubina and Richard McAfee ran the session for this group. Here are three of the drills we did.

  1. Two Loops, Two Blocks. Either player serves topspin, other player loops two balls in a row to the other player’s block; then the looper blocks back, and the other player loops two in a row, and then they switch again, and so on. I did this drill for a time with Jayden Zhou, 11, rated 2060, and we really went at it! Many great rallies.
  2. Short Push, Receiver Attacks. Server serves short backspin, they push short twice each, then receiver attacks, and play out point.
  3. Close and Far Counterlooping. One player serves backspin and loops off the push return. Then the two counterloop, with the server looping from close to the table, the receiver looping from off the table. (One of the players had to leave, so I didn’t do this drill - but I worked with several of the players on it, demonstrating how to loop quick off the bounce with a hooking sidespin at a wide angle.)

Then it was lunch time - spaghetti; rice, sausage & egg dish; and a few side items. And then, while everyone was eating, they brought in one more dish. I yelled out, “We have orange chicken!” - and there was a stampede as most of the camp came running. It was a huge pot, but they cleaned it out in minutes like a pack of piranhas. Note to self: never get between a group of hungry athletes and orange chicken. After lunch was a break until 5pm - and what did most of the kids do? There's some sort of Pokemon Go craze, and that's how many spent the afternoon and again that night. 

Up until now I’d worked almost exclusively with the lower group (younger and lower rated) because with them, I can be a pretty good practice partner and work one-on-one, plus for this group we had more lectures and demos, which I sometimes gave. But for this night session (5-8PM) I was able to join the higher group. I coached some as well as taking notes. Han Xiao mostly ran the session, with Wang Qing Liang, Alex Ruichao, and Jin Yuxiang as practice partners. (Samson and Richard ran the lower group, with Cory acting as a practice partner and one-on-one coach.) Han and I had some good discussions and analysis of some of the players. Here are two of the drills they did:

  1. Server serves backspin, receiver pushes back long to backhand, server loop (forehand or backhand), receiver blocks to backhand only while server loops consistently anywhere with forehand or backhand. After about five shots, the server tries to end the point.
  2. Server served long or medium-long, receiver attached anywhere, and rally continued with receiver attacking and server blocking. After about five shots, the server could counter-attack, and they’d play out the point.

Then they did about an hour of multiball, with the players in groups of three, with one player feeding multiball to another, and the third doing ball pickup. (This allowed the coaches to focus on coaching.) It was interesting to see how some of the players were highly proficient at feeding multiball, while others were not. Players in the group were the three Alguettis (Sharon, 14, 2558; Adar, 16, 2535; Gal, 14, 2500); Michael Tran (13, 2451); Klaus Wood (14, 2354), Rahul Acharya (17, 2320), Kai Zarehbin (12, 2261), Sid Naresh (12, 21910, and Roger Liu (15, 2163). Did I mention these players were good?!!! I especially enjoyed watching Michael Tran and Sharon Alguetti go at it in drills - super speed vs. super control. Now, if we could just combine these two, maybe we’d have something like this.

Then it was dinner time! Sesame chicken, curry chicken, soup, dumplings, broccoli, fried rice, and fruit. (I was in a spaghetti mood.) Then it was back to the house to rest up for the next day.

Allen Wang (18, 2546) and Amy Wang (13, 2416) arrived last night and will be with us the rest of the camp (July 11-24). Arriving Thursday are Tina Lin (17, 2354) and Matthew Lu (12, 2241). The 27 players in the camp range from age 9 to 18, and about 1800 to 2550, with a whole pack of kids in the 10-12 range rated between 1900 and 2100.

NOTE - during my stay at the USATT Supercamp (July 11-22), I'll be blogging about it daily, but probably not including the other segments I normally include in the blog. I'm just too busy here coaching, managing, and chaperoning!

July 12, 2016

USATT Supercamp - Day Two
By Larry Hodges

How do you spell exhaustion? U-S-A-T-T-S-U-P-E-R-C-A-M-P! No, not exhausted kids - how about us older coaches trying to keep up with these energized looping machines? Yes, they get tired during training, especially the physical training, but minutes later they are bouncing around like hungry Tasmanian Devils. (They never stop moving and eating. Even during breaks they are hitting with mini-paddles; playing doubles; lobbing to each other; or dragging me onto the table to challenge me where I chop and pick hit with a clipboard.)

Here's the USATT Day 2 Page, with video and photos by Matt Hetherington, as well as this article.

The physical training may be the most important aspect of the camp, which is taking place July 11-24 at the Lily Yip TTC in New Jersey, with 27 of the top juniors from around the country taking part. Compared to overseas players, top U.S. players and juniors are way behind in physical training. The stuff we’re doing here is new to nearly all U.S. juniors; it’s routine overseas. The Chinese players and coaches all say this is standard, and are always surprised top U.S. juniors don’t also do it regularly.

But the camp is also about other things. Along with the physical training, perhaps the other camp pillar is developing USA Team unity. Overseas, players train as part of a team, and the best countries are focused on beating the other top countries. Yes, they also want to be the best themselves, but they train and compete as a team, whether it’s the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Germans, or past great countries like Sweden and Hungary.

But in the U.S. it’s mostly individual players or clubs competing against other players and clubs. We need our players to train and compete as a team, working together to reach the top. That means often getting them together where they train and compete together, each pushing the others to be better, both in the camp and year round. It also means having USA National coaches look at the players - i.e. a different perspective - and make suggestions to the players’ coaches on things they can do to improve - not to supersede those coaches, but to work together with them to bring their players to their maximum potential, and thereby Team USA as well. Changing the culture of table tennis in the U.S. in these ways are key ingredients to bringing Team USA to the next level, and are perhaps the biggest focus of USATT High Performance Director Cory Eider.

To be specific, the actual listed camp goals are the following - with elaboration on each of these points:

  1. Create “Team USA” spirit;
  2. Send all players home with an “Action Plan”;
  3. Education of the importance of physical fitness training;
  4. Movement education;
  5. Evaluation of all participants both technically and during competition;
  6. Improvement of serve and serve return;
  7. Improvement of first 5 balls;
  8. Tactical education.

Many of us have been to table tennis camps, and this camp is not attempting to take away from other camps. But there are a few key things that make this camp different from most. Since all these players are aiming to be the best, they have to understand what it takes to be the best. That means not just doing drills, but understanding the purpose of each drill, and how it will help them move to a higher level. So before all drills the players are called together so we can explain the drill and its purpose, and what they should be focusing on when they do it. Similarly, after practice matches the coaches often meet with the players to discuss the tactics in the match - what worked, what didn’t, and what they need to work on to improve.

Physical training was once again from 9:30-11:00 AM at a local quarter mile track. Samson Dubina and Richard McAfee led the training, with Cory Eider, Wang Qing Liang, Han Xiao, and me assisting. We started with three laps, and then stretching. Then they were divided into two groups by age and size. One group went first to Richard to work with the medicine balls and bands. The other group went to Samson to work on planks. Most of the exercises were done for 30 seconds, three to four times each.

The medicine balls came in four, six, and eight-pound types, about 8-9” wide. They did four exercises with them.

  1. “Side-to-Side,” where they swung the balls side to side in a circle, so the balls went way to their left and behind them, and then way to their right and behind them.
  2. “Over head,” where they swung the balls over their heads, also side-to-side.
  3. “Chopping Wood,” where they swung the balls down between their legs, and then back up again.
  4. “Circles,” where they sat on the ground and twisted to the right, putting the ball behind them - and then twisted to the left so they could grab the ball and bring it around their body to their right again, so the ball circled their body. Then they did the same thing in the opposite direction.

There were three band exercises. (The bands are strips of stretchy rubber.)

  1. The first was simple arm curls, where they held one end of the bands on the ground with their foot, and did curls with each arm.
  2. Then came the triceps pull, where a partner held the band behind them and they pulled the bands forward, like throwing a ball.
  3. Then they did the same thing (with partner holding the band), and did forehand strokes.

There were six “plank” exercises. These are exercises where the athlete typically lies on the ground and then lifts himself in the air in various ways with his arms or legs, and holds it there for 30 seconds, with body relatively straight. (The first two aren’t really plank exercises.)

  1. Hand and leg extensions (Go on hands and knees and extend left arm and right leg; repeat with the reverse)
  2. Russian twists (Sit on ground, leaning backwards, and rapidly touch each side, rotating body side to side)
  3. Forward plank (Lie on stomach, and raise body on elbows/forearms and legs)
  4. Right plank (Lie on right side and raise body with right arm and leg)
  5. Left plank (Lie on left side and raise body with left arm and leg)
  6. Back plank (Lie on back and raise body off ground with arms and legs)

Table training was from 12-2PM and 5-8PM, with the camp divided into two groups by levels. (I was with the lower, mostly younger group.) I was a practice partner for the first session, where we did a number of blocking and looping drills. One drill focused on looping with sidespin both ways, both hooking and fading, with both forehand and backhand loops. I helped run the second session, along with Han Xiao and Wang Qing Liang, and gave several lectures/demos on third-ball attack against pushes; third-ball attack against flips; serving short with sidespin and following with a loop; and random drills that start with various deep serves, with the receiver attacking the serve and then rallying as the server blocks side to side at random. We constantly harped on ball placement. For example, when third-ball attacking from backhand side, there are four placements - down line; to opponent’s elbow; crosscourt to corner; and crosscourt outside corner. There are advantages and disadvantages to each. Meanwhile, Richard McAfee and Samson Dubina ran the higher group, with Cory Eider taking a turn with each group, often acting as a 2500+ practice partner.

We finished with up-down tables, where winners move up, losers move down, and everyone tries to reach the first table, with single games to 11 (no deuce - 11-10 wins). The twist - if you won on your serve or third-ball, you got two points. One other twist - if it reached deuce, you had to yell “Deuce!” and the whole camp stopped to watch the next point. Players need to learn to play under pressure with people watching!

Once again lunch and dinner were cooked by Lily Yip and a pair of volunteers. Lunch included a Chinese dish of rice, sausage, scrambled eggs, and spices; clam chowder; spaghetti; and the usual assortment of fruit. Dinner was sesame chicken; two types of ribs; fried rice; potato soup; and fruit.

What did I do in between the two sessions? I have no idea; I finally took a nap and slept through it. (How do you spell exhaustion?) 

NOTE - during my stay at the USATT Supercamp (July 11-22), I'll be blogging about it daily, but probably not including the other segments I normally include in the blog. I'm just too busy here coaching, managing, and chaperoning!

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