February 20, 2015

Ping Pong for Fighters

Ping Pong for Fighters by Tahl Leibovitz, a Paralympics gold medalist, is a relatively short read, which is both good and bad, i.e. reading it isn't a huge commitment, so don't expect War and Peace; it's a two-hour read, full of golden nuggets. It's available in paperback ($13.45, 152 pages) or Kindle ($9.95).

I've known Tahl since he was about 13 years old, when he was part of the New York Junior Team that competed with a Maryland Team in a ten-on-ten match. He was always a battler, but back then he didn't look special, other than a knack for pulling off spectacular shots. Well, he can still pull off spectacular shots, but as he relates in the book, he's learned patience and tactics, and knows how to use these shots - how to fight with what he's got. On the back cover I wrote, "Tahl Leibovitz has forever been overcoming the odds as he fought his way to the top, so it's only fitting that he wrote Ping Pong for Fighters - and if readers have even a fraction of his fight, they too can reach the top."

The book starts off with a foreword by Stellan Bengtsson and an introduction by Tahl. And then we get into the real text, divided into four parts: The Fight Against the Environment; the Fight Against the Opponent; the Fight Against the Ball; and the Fight Against Ourselves. Yes, this is truly a fighting book!

  • The Fight Against the Environment

Early on there's a quote from Samuel Jackson in the movie "The Negotiator": "You are not in control," where he explains the importance of knowing which factors are in our control and which are not, and that we should not worry about the ones we don't control.

Soon afterwards comes this nugget: "When most players talk about their successes, they equate their performance with amazing play. They talk about how incredible they played to win a match. This makes them feel good, thinking or knowing that they did something out of the ordinary to win the match. They believe they played better than usually expected. But this mentality ironically hinders our progress as players. We handicap ourselves by creating the false belief that we can only have great results when we are playing our very best table tennis. This is simply not true."

It goes on to cover other issues, such as the use of cue words, how to deal with extreme pressure, how to learn to play various equipment and styles by playing that way yourself (such as with long pips and chopping), and perhaps most important, "Never be afraid to fail." He also goes over his PEZ plan: Placement, Extend the Rally, and Zero Unforced Errors, with sections on each of these. 

  • The Fight Against the Opponent

Here he lists eight questions to ask yourself before a match. He then writes, "Many players want to focus on playing against people who are above their level, thinking that by beating those players, they will become much better themselves. It is important to play players above you and equal to you, but also those who are below you. Many players enter rating events above their level, hoping to be able to upset a higher rated player. They fail to realize that if they beat players at their level and below, they will improve much faster." He then expands on this.

He also writes about how to beat better players: "I began to understand that the way to beat better players was not to kill every single ball, but instead to control and redirect their power. Try to place the ball better and change the position, speed and spin of the ball constantly." He also wrote about imposing your will on their opponents. He finished the section by writing about scouting out opponents, and gave eight examples of tactical analysis.

  • The Fight Against the Ball

Here Tahl points out and discusses the three situations where we play the ball: when we don't impart speed on the ball, such as a chop or stop block; when most of the speed comes from the opponent, such as a counterloop off the bounce or a fast block; and when we attack and impart our own speed, such as looping against a regular block. Then he has a section on "Making the Ball Work for You," with sub-sections on Create the Proper Distance; Proper Ball Contact; Develop Good Ball Control; Reduce Mistakes; Change the Ball's Trajectory; Improve Shot Quality; and Location, Location, Location (where he emphasizes down the line and attacking the middle). Then there are sections on stroke mechanics, serving, receiving, and equipment.

  • The Fight Against Ourselves

Here he quotes Jan-Ove Waldner, who once said that the single most important factor to serving well in a tournament was confidence. Tahl adds that he was once told, "…there was never an athlete who won who did not believe they could win." There's a section on "Don't Build Yourselves Walls to Climb," and then he discusses various self-defeating behaviors and statements, such as:

  • "I have to play a specific way all the time."
  • "Results define who I am."
  • "I hate it when the games are close."
  • "I can compete, but not defeat…"
  • "I can't seem to close out the match."
  • "I have to play my 'A' game to win."

Then comes the section on Channeling the Right Mental State, where he talks about "Having an open mind"; "Paying attention to concentration levels"; "Anticipating your opponent"; and "Focusing on one task at a time."

Then come sections on "Know What You Do Well"; "The Fighter's Guide to Mental Resilience" (including an anecdote about his putting up daily affirmation index cards all over his house, with a listing of his seven main affirmations); a discussion of on setting goals and visualization (and the importance of metal imagery); "Five Deciding Factors" (for evaluating your performance - Physical Fitness, Tactical Fitness, Mental Fitness, Technical Fitness, and Execution); "Train Like You Play, Play Like You Train"; "Developing Your Own Training Plan"; and finally, "Advice from Champions" (with tips from Thomas Keinath, Atanda Musa, Mikael Appelgren, Werner Schlager, Sean O'Neill, and a final set of adages from Tahl.

The book is bookended by two powerful quotes. At the start is the Olympic Creed: "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is no the triumph, but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well." At the end is Theodore Roosevelt's "Man in the Arena" quote.

Finally, here's what Tahl himself wrote of the book and its title:

"This book is called Ping Pong for Fighters, and it’s about fighting all the different elements that are attached to table tennis. The fight starts inward and eventually moves outward, from within ourselves, to the ball, to our opponents, to the environment and the external conditions. I think what’s interesting about this book is that the reader takes the journey with me. All that I learned in over 20 years of competing in table tennis, is in this book. The goal of this book is to try and get the reader to approach the game differently. The book is basically a philosophy for the thinking and feeling player. A philosophy that encourages one to stay in the present moment, have self confidence and compete to the best of their ability. This book is also very direct and very easy to understand. It is not an intellectual discourse of any kind. The book reads more like a conversation consisting of helpful direction through experience and a philosophy of table tennis that is concerned more with experiencing what it feels like to think and play table tennis like a top table tennis player."

I'd recommend this book for any serious table tennis player - but read it with a highlighter or colored pen so you can mark off the best nuggets!

Other Table Tennis Books

While we're on the topic of books, here are some others.

How the Game Has Changed/Not Changed

Just a few things to muse over. Any big ones I've missed since about 2000?

=>The Game Has Changed

  • Games to 11, no hidden serves, and a bigger, non-celluloid ball.
  • Almost no more pips-out penholders or even conventional penhold backhands (except aging players). Just about everyone is two-winged inverted and (at higher levels) topspinning everything. 
  • I'm coaching 7-year-olds who spin their backhands off the bounce with tensor-type sponges.
  • Full-time clubs popping up all over the country.
  • More and more kids getting better and better at younger and younger ages.
  • USATT Magazine replaced by USATT Insider.

=>The Game Hasn't Changed (in the U.S.)

  • USATT membership is still a "round-off error" of around 8000.
  • Most clubs are still "winner stay on."
  • No serious system of regional team leagues.
  • Top players unable to really make a living in the U.S. unless they also coach.
  • It's still a small white or orange ball that you hit back and forth on a green or blue 9'x5', 30" tall table with a six-inch net.

ITTF Coaching Courses in the U.S.

Here's a listing.

Excuse Monsters: Learn About Taking the Blame

Here's the new coaching article by Samson Dubina.

Basic Exercises in Table Tennis Training

Here's the video (40:45) from Tibhar.

Ask the Coach

Episode #80 - Choosing your serves

  • Yesterday’s #PQOTD  - 0:53: What are the critical factors for running a successful club?
  • #PQOTD  - 9:11: Who is hungriest for the World Championships 2015?
  • Brock vs Tall Guy - 9:32: Brock: I played with the tall guy earlier today and he won 2-0 in matches, match 1: 21- 15 and Match 2: 21-17 so I'm really close now and I think I might beat him next week :) just so you know ;)
  • Stopping the attack - 10:05: Daniel Lim: I recently played a player who had a very strong and accurate third ball attack and lost badly. Are there any general tips you could give to discourage or even prevent a third ball attack from an opponent?
  • Cutting rubber - 13:02: Daniel Coto: I am able to glue the rubber correctly to the blade, but I am having nightmares getting a clean cut. I've seen people cut the sponge with the first motion and then the sheet with the second pass. I don't know what knife I should use.
  • Serve choices - 15:33: Geoff: I have settled on the backhand serve for my "bread and butter" serve as it is successful. If my other serve is the tomahawk serve, the sidespin element on all my services would be in the same direction.  Do you feel like this a drawback?
  • Contact point on your bat - 18:03: Phil: For maximum topspin should you contact the ball with the top half or bottom half of the paddle?
  • Fake Rubbers - 19:30: Christopher: What is your experience with fake blades/rubbers?
  • Returning with Backhand - 20:24: Sasha: I have got a tournament on Sunday and I am concerned about an opponent's serve. He does a sidespin backspin serve to my forehand, I can't topspin. Should I play the backhand from the forehand corner.
  • Stronger Wrist - 22:24: Brock: If I would train my wrist and forearm in a gym, would I get more spin then?

Canadian and US Collegiate Teams Meet

Here's the USATT article.

USA Team Leader and Coaches Selection Procedures for Pan Am Games

Here's the info, and how you can be a part of it!

ITTF Legends Tour

Here's a new highlights video (44 sec).

Amazing Rally at 2014 Chile Open Final

Here's the video (44 sec).

Ma Lin, "The Dragon"

Here's a stylish picture of him - he turned 35 yesterday.

Beach Dreams

As we freeze inside (if you are in certain parts of the U.S.), this paddle has the right idea. This morning it's 4°F outside, and it dropped to -1°F last night, breaking the all-time record for lowest temperature on this date in Maryland, which had been 7°F in 1959. I hear Boston's had a few weather problems as well.

Pro Kills It at Table Tennis With a Samsung Phone for a Paddle

Here's the video (3:16) of Matt Hetherington taking on challenges!

Ping Pong Trick Shots 2

Here's the new video (5:56) from Dude Perfect, as well as Trick Shots 2 Bonus Video (1:47). In case you missed it, here's Trick Shots 1 (6:04), as well as Behind the Scenes Ping Pong Trick Shots (2:56).

World's Best Blocker

Here's the video (21 sec) where we meet Maggie in Balls of Fury.


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