What to Do at Age 18?
I've blogged in the past about how the level and depth of play in the U.S. at the cadet level (under 15) is the highest we've ever had, due to the rise of full-time training centers all over the country over the past eight years. It's gotten ridiculously good. It's a group that any country outside China could be proud of. And in three years this group of players will be competing as juniors (under 18), and the level and depth of play in the U.S. at the junior level will be the highest we've ever had. And a few years after that they'll hit their peak as players, and the level and depth of play in the U.S. will be the highest we've ever had, right?
But there's one problem. What's going to happen when they all turn 18?
Case in point. Over the last few years we've watched Ariel Hsing and Lily Zhang develop as probably the two best junior girls in our modern history. Ariel is currently #81 in the world and has been as high as #73. She was the youngest USA Nationals Women's Singles Champion when she won in 2010, and she repeated in 2011 and 2013. She was on the 2012 USA Olympic Team. She was #4 in the world in both Under 15 and Under 18 Girls. Lily recently shot up to #66 in the world. She won women's singles at the 2012 USA Nationals at age 16. She was on the 2012 USA Olympic Team. She was #2 in the world in Under 15 Girls and #5 in Under 18 Girls.
But Ariel is now 18, and is attending Princeton. She didn't even try out for our last National Team because she was busy with school. Lily will be 18 next month, and is going to University of California at Berkeley. She didn't even attend our last USA Nationals because she was busy with school. They are still training, but let's face it; they are no longer training full-time as before. In contrast, all over Asia and Europe players like Ariel and Lily are training full-time. Part-time can't compete with full-time.
The same has happened on the men's side. Michael Landers won men's singles at the 2009 USA Nationals at age 15, and improved dramatically in the three years after that. Peter Li won men's singles at the 2011 USA Nationals at age 17. Both of them hit age 18 and went to college, and their levels both dropped dramatically. The same is true of a long list of other elite juniors. I remember just a few years ago when three players from my club (MDTTC) were #1, #2, and #5 in the country in Under 18 Boys - Peter Li, Marcus Jackson, and Amaresh Sahu. All three went to college when they turned 18, and so none reached the level they might have reached if they'd continued a few more years.
Who knows how good these players might have been if they had continued training full-time into their 20s?
Unless something happens in the next few years, in about five years we will be looking back and asking ourselves, "What happened?" We had all these up-and-coming kids, and the future was bright. Instead, we'll have the strongest group of college table tennis players in our history. While that's a very good thing from one point of view (and it would be great if table tennis were to become a big college sport with scholarships in the best colleges all over the country, but that's a separate topic), it's not a good thing if we're trying to develop athletes who can compete at the highest levels. Excluding China, this generation really has the potential to someday compete with anyone. (Perhaps we'll be world college champions circa 2020?)
There is little money in our sport. So what's the long-term benefit for these kids to continue to train full-time? Sure, there's the usual incentives, such as being National Champion and making the U.S. Olympic Team, and . . . um . . . well, that's about it. (How much do these pay?) So yes, unless something changes, it'll be another "lost" generation. Sure, some will continue, and we'll almost for certain have stronger teams than we do now, but nothing like what it could be. Perhaps our men will improve from #53 in the world to top 20, but they could be top five or better. Perhaps our women will improve from #21 to top ten, but they could be top five or better. (With Ariel together with Lily and Prachi Jha, they already are close to top ten level - #16, according to the ITTF team rankings based on individual ranking.) And you know something? If you can reach top five, you can make the final of the World Championships. (We're not ready for China yet, but we'll worry about that when we actually have a top five team.)
Ironically, in the past when we had fewer truly elite juniors, the ones that were elite were often more likely to focus on table tennis because, by U.S. standards, they were truly "elite." They would train full-time well into their twenties before moving on to college or other work. Now these same elite cadets and juniors are just another in a pack of them, and so they don't feel they are truly "elite," and so are less likely to continue training full-time. And so they go to college rather than train full-time for a few more years. (Just to be clear, I'd urge them all to go to college, but there's nothing wrong with putting it off a few years, even into their mid-20s for a truly elite player. Some might decide to stay with the sport and become professional coaches, which actually pays pretty well.) We have standouts like Kanak Jha and Crystal Wang and a few others, but will they continue when they hit college age? (The financial outlook for women players is even bleaker, since many tournaments have an open singles instead of men's and women's singles.)
What can we do? There has been regular discussions over the years on the idea of setting up professional leagues or circuits, and develop a core group of pro USA players who would travel about competing in these professional leagues or circuits. It's been a serious topic of discussion since I first got active in table tennis in 1976. And there have been attempts by a few to make something like this happen, from the American All-Star Circuit that we used to have in the U.S. to the current North American Tour. The latter has potential, but without major sponsors there isn't nearly enough money, and the money that is there mostly goes to players from China. There's nothing wrong with these Chinese players winning money, but it means there's little chance a U.S. player can make enough money to afford to play in such a circuit - especially since it's often part-time U.S. players pitted against full-time Chinese players.
Do the Chinese raise the level of play for USA players? Potentially yes. But if our top juniors quit and go to college right when they begin approaching the level needed to compete with these Chinese players, it's wasted. Equally important, when approaching college age, it's tough for a USA player to look at table tennis as a professional career when nearly all the money goes to foreign players living in the U.S., which doesn't leave much for prospective professional USA players. (Some argue that the USA players shouldn't avoid playing tournaments where they'd have to play these elite full-time foreign players, but that's easier to say when you aren't the one spending huge amounts of time and money on your training, and are looking at losing another $500 on a tournament just so you can lose to one of them. There needs to be a balance if we want to give USA players incentive.)
Bottom line? "Serious talk" on this topic isn't really serious anymore until someone actually does something. Real action is needed. USATT wants to get sponsors but doesn't really have a serious product to sell. (They've tried for many years.) I've argued they should focus on developing our product with regional leagues (as is done all over Europe) and coaching programs, and sell that to sponsors, but that didn't interest them. Perhaps something a bit more elite-oriented would be more enticing, since USATT (with USOC encouragement and funding) is more focused on elite development than grassroots development.
Why not have USATT partner with the North American Tour or some other group, and assign the incoming USATT CEO to focus on selling sponsorship for that Tour? Isn't the purpose of USATT to improve table tennis in the United States? USATT is the national governing body for the sport in this country, and so has a great platform to sell from, if they only had something lucrative to sell - and here's a natural product.
The goal would be to create a truly Professional Tour, where U.S. players could actually make a living, while bringing regular exposure to the sponsor. (Perhaps the circuit tournaments would have both an Open event and an All-Star American event for U.S. citizens. Or it could be citizens only.) The circuit is already there as a product, it just needs more money. Once we have such a professional circuit, there are other ways to bring in money - spectators, TV, and so on - and what sponsor wouldn't want to be the national sponsor for something like this if we show it has potential to truly take off? We can do this, and have a good chance to dramatically improve table tennis in the United States. Or we can continue to talk and do the same old things we always do - nothing.
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