December 2, 2016

Last Blog Until Wednesday, December 28
I'm going out of town almost continuously for the next three weeks. Here's my upcoming schedule.

  • Dec. 4-9: Science Fiction Writer's Workshop Cruise in Bahamas (sort of a working vacation)
  • Dec. 10-18: U.S. Open and USATT Board Meetings in Las Vegas
  • Dec. 20-25: Christmas in Eugene, Oregon
  • Dec. 26-31: MDTTC Christmas Camp in Maryland

USA Youth Team – Selections or Trials? – and the Missing Link
One of the interesting things about being on the USATT Board of Directors is that you hear all sorts of perspectives. Often there are "huge" controversies that go on and on, that few members of USATT actual even know about. The current example is the 2017-18 Youth National Team Trials Procedures Draft for Public Comment. We've received dozens of emails from concerned parents on this, and right now it's perhaps the biggest USATT issue. But the great mass of USATT members is mostly oblivious to this.

And yet this is a rather important issue. USATT is responsible for the selection process of USA Teams for table tennis, and getting this right is a rather touchy process. Alas, there's been more controversy on this over the past year then perhaps, well, ever. But again, the controversy only affects a few people directly, and so for most, it barely shows up on the table tennis radar.

The crux of the matter is two questions.

  1. Should USA youth teams be mostly chosen by Team Trials, or mostly Selected by committee? This is really two questions – the selection of the ten players that make up each national youth team (juniors, cadets, mini-cadets, for boys and girls), and the selection of which players go to specific major tournaments, such as the World Junior Championships.
  2. Should participation and performance in USATT Super Camps be used as a selection criteria?

Historically, youth teams have been selected mostly by Trials, with a small number of spots typically selected as a safety net for the truly elite players who were sick, injured, or just had a bad day at the Trials. For example, Kanak Jha was top ten in the world when he left the cadet age group, and with at least another year left in juniors, is ranked #30 in the world, well above other USA juniors. If he's sick, injured, or just has a bad day and is upset at the Team Trials, should he be left off the team for a year, probably missing international competitions? Probably not. So perhaps a few spots should be left aside for such cases. In my opinion, if the team has 4-5 players, then one spot should be selected. If a team has ten players, then perhaps two selected.

The argument for Selecting the team is that coaches can best judge who has potential, based not just on current level, but potential, attitude, etc. However, I'm leery of this, since there's just too much subjectivity. Waldner and Appelgren were both called "uncoachable," Deng Yaping was kicked off the Chinese national team at least once because the coaches didn't feel she was physically big enough to be a top player, and Wang Liqin was considered by some coaches as too "mentally weak" to be a great player. These are four of the greatest players of all time. Even Eric Boggan, the highest ranked USA player in modern history, going back to the 1950s (17th in the world) was thought by many coaches to have little world-class potential due to his playing style and attitude. Personally, I've disagreed with some of the selections already made, as have other coaches - meaning that the choice of who made the team was decided by who were the selectors, rather than the players themselves. 

So I'm firmly on the side of selecting the teams mostly by Trials. So far, of the dozens of emails and postings on the topic, that's been the strong preference of I believe 100% of the writers, most of them parents of top youth players. The main split in these letters is between those who want all the spots selected by Trials, and those who believe nearly all should be, as I do.

A complication here is that the Nationals and youth team trials are held in July. This is fine for that year, but only through Dec. 31. At that time, many team players age out, so who is on the team from Jan. 1 until the next Trials? We could have another Trials at the U.S. Open in December, but many can't make that because the timing usually conflicts with school and many finals. We could just take the players next in line from the July Trials, but those are a bit old at that time. Or we could just select the rest of them by committee. I'm flexible on this as there is no easy solution. At the moment I'm leaning toward having a second Trials in December, though it's too late for this year.

Regarding the Super Camps, I attended the first one this past summer (as a coach, chaperone, and writer), and it was great. This may come under the category of "You had to be there," but the perspectives given to the players by our National Coaches, including champions like five-time U.S. Men's Champions Dan Seemiller and Sean O'Neill, plus Sampson Dubina, Richard McAfee, Wang Qing Liang, Cory Eider, Lily Yip, and others, was incredibly valuable, and I wish all our team members, or potential team members, could have been there.

But should the Super Camp have been used to select the players? I think the primary purpose of Super Camps should be to make the players better. If we can't do that, or convince the players we are doing that, then they aren't working. If we can fund them, then they can be part of the selection process. If not, then probably not. (Another purpose of the Super Camps is to turn them into team players, instead of individuals playing for themselves, but that's another subject.)

A core problem with the Super Camps is that USATT cannot fully fund them at this time, meaning that attendees – even members of National Teams – often have to pay at least some of their expenses. That's a major problem as it means it favors those with greater financial support from parents. I don't think we want to go in that direction when it comes to selecting players. Plus those two weeks or so is only 4% of the year. At the last camp, players who worked hard during those camps often were ranked the same or ahead of players who were obviously in better shape, i.e. players who had been doing this training year round. (I've already brought his up as an issue with the coaches involved.)

I'm trying to find the actual costs of these camps, and how much money would be needed to make the free for youth team members. I think there's a simple solution – people are often very quick to help out kids, so I think USATT should do a direct funding request to members, starting with a recurring news item that solicits such funding, and with specifics on how much is needed and what it will be used for. Perhaps we'll find one wealthy donor who will sponsor the whole thing.

One thing I left out in the above is that even before the Trials or Selections, a small number of players make the team automatically, based on world ranking. At first, this is an obvious thing, but after thinking it over, it's completely unnecessary. I believe those players should take part in the Trials anyway, with the Trials combined as the National Championship or similar national title (as it's already done), so they have strong incentive to win. If a truly high-ranking junior doesn't make the team, he'd get selected by committee with one of the few spots I believe should be left open for this.

So here's what I'd like to see regarding youth team trials – and note that I'm flexible on specifics.

  1. Of the ten on each team, the top eight come from the Team Trials in July.
  2. Two of the ten selected by committee, with a strong emphasis on selecting the strongest players, not just those who they believe have potential. If a player has potential, they'll become good enough to make the team on their own, so we don't need to just give it to them. It has to be earned. If, say, Kanak Jha or Crystal Wang, the top ranked junior boy and girl in the U.S., don't make the team, they'd be put on the team, as long as they went through the Trials/Age Championship (or had a medical waiver if they couldn't).
  3. On Jan. 1 after the Trials, when players age out, they should be replaced either by a new Trials in December, or in order of finish at the previous Trials in July. But this should start next year, not this year. At this point, we'll have to live with selections to fill out the team for the first half of 2017.

One problem with all this is simple reality: a number of people, many of them unpaid volunteers, spent a lot of time and effort putting together the current rather complicated procedures. After all that work, they are going to be resistant to it all being wasted if we go back to a much simpler process with Trials. But Trials have worked historically, and I think they are the primary way to go.

There is one other major issue that I think USATT needs to focus on, the "Missing Link" in our elite pipeline. For many years, USA hasn't had many top juniors or much depth. In recent years, due to the growth of full-time training centers and huge escalation in the number of top coaches, we have riches beyond what we'd have dreamed of just eight years ago. At all levels of our youth teams we can now battle with just about any team in the world, other than perhaps China and perhaps one or two others.

But we keep losing our top juniors when they reach age 18. So the obvious thing to do is to fix the problem, which is keeping our top juniors active and training after age 18. So what are we doing? Now that we are successful at developing top player under age 18, but have been unsuccessful at keeping them after age 18, the obvious thing is to focus on the latter – but instead we seem to be focusing on the former, which we're already doing well. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and we seem to be trying to make the stronger links stronger while ignoring the one that's broken.

The solution? We need some sort of professional league for our top players. I blogged about this on November 18, but I'm going to repost some of it. How do we set up such a pro league in time for this generation of up-and-coming USA junior stars? I see three options:

  • USATT develops such a pro league. It would most likely be a team league, where clubs buy franchises, and compete regionally. There'd be a limit of probably one non-citizen per team. The key here is money, which USATT doesn't really have, so it would have to work with sponsors or major table tennis companies.
  • USATT sends our top juniors and players to overseas leagues. There are very strong leagues all over Europe and Asia. Many of our past top players played and developed their games in the German leagues, such as Dan Seemiller and Eric Boggan.
  • USATT or someone else organizes a Players Association. They would have incentive to set up such a league. They'd probably have to pool resources in some way to hire an Executive Director, or find one who works right from the start on commissions. If we don't do #1 or #2 above, I might have to push for this one.

In closing, I'm hoping as many as you as possible will attend the USATT Assembly at the U.S. Open in Las Vegas, on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 8-10PM. The primary topic there will be open discussion about youth team selections.

Table Tennis Books for Christmas!
Here's a selection by me, and by others over the past two years.

Table Tennis Books by Larry Hodges

Table Tennis Books by Others, 2015-2016

World Junior Championships
Here's the ITTF home page for the event, in Cape Town, South Africa, Nov. 30 – Dec. 7. Here's the USATT page, with results, schedule, pictures, and other info on the USA Team. The Butterfly News Page has been linking to ITTF articles that features USA or Canada. The USA Boys' Team is Adar Alguetti, Kanak Jha, Victor Liu, and Jack Wang; the Girls' Team is Angela Guan, Amy Wang, Crystal Wang, and Grace Yang. (These are listed alphabetically.) Here's video (34 sec) of the USA Junior Girls' Team marching in to play a team match. (I've probably spent 500 hours hitting with Crystal Wang, and have coached against Amy Wang a number of times. Sorry Amy!)

Your Grip
Here's the new coaching article and five videos by Samson Dubina.

USATT Insider
Here's the new issue that came out Wednesday morning.

The Ghostly Dab Serve - Revisited
Yesterday I linked to this video (14 sec) of U.S. Junior Team Member Allen Wang doing a heavy backspin high-toss serve – so that it comes back into the net, i.e. the "ghost" serve – with a quick neck dab during the toss. It had gone viral, with 559,000 views (!), 4700 likes (!) and 4600 comments (!) – but those numbers have continued to skyrocket in the one day since then. It now has 705,000 views, 5800 likes, and 5600 comments!!!

Foot Injury Forces Zhang Jike to Withdraw from Grand Finals
Here's the ITTF press release.

Ma Long: Best Table Tennis Matches
Here's the new video (10 min).

Kenta Matsudaira – Incredible
Here's the video (5:27).

Jan-Ove Waldner | The Serve Legend
Here's the music video (2:43).

Attack vs. Defense!
Here's video (22 sec) from the chopper's perspective.

Around-the-Net Looping Multiball Training
Here's the video (73 sec). Now we know the real reason top players are able to pull off these types of shots!

Wang Liqin vs. an Australian Football (Soccer) Team
Here's the video (42 sec) as the three-time World Men's Singles Champion takes on the Port Adelaide Football Club.

Final Update of the Club Sport US Warmup and Turkey Trot Doubles Tournament
Here's the info page on the recent tournament in the Bay Area, "perhaps the biggest small tournament in the US - only two events." The two events were Under 4200 and Under 3200 Teams.

No Need to Have a Racket If Your Name is Zhang Jike
Here's the picture as the Chinese superstar plays with a mirror. (Here's the non-Facebook version.)

Tyrannosaurus Rex Playing Table Tennis Jigsaw Puzzle
Here's the picture of this 70-piece puzzle. If you are into Tyrannosaurs playing table tennis pictures and videos, then see the last item in my Feb. 12, 2016 blog.

Table Tennis Mannequin Challenges

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