November 3, 2021

Back from Ecuador
I was coaching in Ecuador for nearly three weeks, and it's been a month since I last blogged. And boy, is there a lot to cover! Here's a quick Table of Contents.

Tip of the Week
Use Practice Matches to Practice.

19 Days Coaching in Ecuador
I returned last week from almost three weeks coaching in Cuenca, Ecuador. I could write a book on it!!! So much happened. For all their help in these events, I want to thank USA Table Tennis, High Performance Director Sean O'Neill, Team Leader Daniel Rutenberg, the players and parents, and my three fellow coaches - Thilina Piyadasa, Qiumars Hedayatian ("Q"), and Wei Qi. I also went to thank Ecuador Table Tennis for the excellent job they did in putting together these events. I also want to thank the umpires and referees for the professional jobs they did - I had no problems with them throughout.

While in Ecuador, I went on a diet. First, I tried to limit my calory intake. Second, I stopped drinking soft drinks, in particular Dr Pepper, my go-to drink. Result? I lost eight pounds. But Stanley Hsu lost five, and he had less to lose - some of this due to getting sick. More on that below.

Here's a summary, with great apologies to anyone or anything left out.

PART 1 - Oct. 10: Arrival. There were a number of complications in getting to Cuenca. I was on a flight with Ryan Lin and his dad, Hung, connecting in Miami. But the flight to Miami was delayed, and we wouldn't have been able to make the flight to Cuenca. So we had to cancel that entire flight and get a new flight - this time connecting in Panama City, Panama!!! I have fond memories of my 61 minutes in Panama - 15 minutes sitting on the plane waiting to get off; 15 minutes speed walking through the airport and barely making it to our connection just minutes before they closed the door; and about half an hour sitting on the plane waiting to take off. Ah, the sites of Panama!!! (I told Ryan the famous palindrome about the Panama Canal and Teddy Roosevelt: "A Man, a Plan, a Canal . . . Panama!" (Of course, there's a bit more to the story, but I won't get into that.) Here's a good place to thank Steve Hsu (Stanley's dad) and Hung Ling (Ryan Lin's dad) for their help in arranging my flights - which seemingly had to be changed every day due to changing circumstances.

Then it was a 3.5-hour wild ride from sea level to Cuenca at 8400 feet altitude, a roller-coaster ride that went on and On and ON! I got pretty nauseous. Next time, on the way back, I remembered to take Dramamine.

PART 2 - Oct. 11-16: Hopes Week. This involved a four-day camp and a two-day tournament. The camp was run by head coach Zoltan Batorfi and assistant coach Rafael Armendariz - and they did an excellent job. The top ten boys and girls from the Americas (under age 12 as of Jan. 1) took part. The four US players were Ryan Lin, Charles Shen, Manda Yu, and Tashiya Piyadasa. The two US coaches were myself (working with Ryan and Charles) and Thilina Piyadasa (working with Mandy and daughter Tashiya). I could write a book about this week alone!!! They trained six hours/day for four days, training with others in the group and multiball with the coaches. A key thing was adjusting to the thin air, where the ball travels differently than at sea level. (Most players were in this same situation, but some opponents were used to training at high altitude.)

One of the boys in the camp wasn't eligible for Hopes (but was allowed to train with them), so there were nine boys and ten girls in the Hopes tournament. On the first day of the camp, I remember the smallest kid in the camp, Emanuel Otalvaro from Columbia, as he went about his training, seemingly always smiling, and often doing "silly" things like throwing weird experimental serves at people, or bouncing the ball against the side of the table over and over. He didn't seem to stand out in practice. But when the tournament began, that's when we discovered how consistent he was. He plays a soft, mostly off-table spinning, fishing, and lobbing game, about 2250 level. He dominated the Hopes on the boys' side, going 8-0.

Finishing tied for second were Enrique Rios of Puerto Rico (with a 2274 USATT rating) and Ryan Lin, both 6-2. (Charles came in fifth, just missing the playoffs.) But since Ryan had defeated Rios head-to-head (deuce in the fourth), Ryan finished second in the RR, Enrique third. However, there was a secondary stage, where the players who finished first and fourth, and second and third, played semifinals. And so Ryan played Enrique again. This time he was down 0-2 in games, but fought back to 8-all in the fifth. We had a timeout, I called two serves - and Enrique missed both! So Ryan won again, 11-8 in the fifth. In the final against Emanuel, Ryan lost the first badly, but made it to deuce the next two games (leading 10-8 in the third), but lost both. Here's a picture of Ryan and Emanuel. Ironically, they were the two smallest players in the camp.

On the girls' side, coached by Thilina, Mandy Yu came back in the final from down 0-2 to win against Dafne Sosa of Dominican Republic, while Tashiya finished third. Here's Mandy and Dafne. And so USA came first and third on the girls' side, and second and fifth on the boys' side.

CHEESEBURGER SPECIAL - Alas, I had made a promise that if a USA player came in first, I'd eat a cheeseburger. (Here's the story behind that.) And so, afterwards, they ordered a quarter pounder with cheese from McDonalds, and while everyone watched and cheered, I was forced to eat it!!! Thanks a bunch, Mandy!!! Here's the video (8:19) - don't you dare watch it!!!

Meanwhile, the Pan Am Youth players arrived on Thursday, Oct. 14, and began training on Friday (getting used to the air) for the Pan Am Under 11 and Under 13 Championships. How does the air affect players? On the first day, in the first five minutes of counterlooping, Xianyao broke four balls, Mu Du three, all off the edge of their rackets as the balls came in higher than expected.

PART 3 - Oct. 18-24 - Pan Am Under 11 and Under 13 Championships. Now USA had 16 players, 4 coaches, a team leader (Daniel Rutenberg), and 17 parents. We went from the 20 players in the Hopes to over 160 players from countries all over the Americas. Here's the ITTF page, with complete results and other info. (This page is probably better for results.) Here are ITTF News stories, many of them featuring USA players. Here are pictures taken by Daniel. Here's the entire entourage!

Officially, I was in charge of Under 13 Boys (Stanley Hsu, Mu Du, He Xianyao, and Krish Gandhi); "Q" was in charge of Under 11 Boys (Kef Noorani, Brian Wu, Max Mouchinski, and Kyler Chen); Wei Qi in charge of Under 13 Girls (Amber Liu, Yishiuan Lin, Mandy Yu, and Aria Shi); and Thilina Piyadasa in charge of Under 11 Girls (Tashiya Piyadasa, Geetha Krishna, Abigail Yu, and Tiana Piyadasa). We each oversaw the training and daily schedule of the four in our charge. But for the tournament, where players in the same event would go out together, we coached players from outside our group. I ended up coaching mostly Stanley, Mu Du, Kyle, Max, Brian, Mandy, and one huge key match for Geetha.

I could write another book on this week. Instead, here are bullet points.

  • The coaches often worked one-on-one with the players. I had brought along my "racket bag," a huge racket case with four rackets - long pips with sponge (for choppers); long pips without sponge (for blockers); short pips; and antispin. Throughout the tournament I and other coaches would pull them out so players prepare for a player using that equipment. For example, Geetha had to play the second seed in Under 11 Girls' Singles, Paola Zerpa Flores of Venezuela, a chopper with long pips. I brought out the chopping blade and chopped to her for 45 minutes. We devised a tactical plan involving her using her short backhand pips to alternate driving and pushing, with mixed in forehand loops and smashes. Geetha then executed the tactics brilliantly and pulled off the upset, 3-2!!! Which led to her getting the bronze in singles.
  • In the final of Under 11 Girls' Singles, Tashiya was down 1-2 in games and 0-5 in the fourth against Karolayn Maldonado of Ecuador. Tashiya won the next 15 points in a row (!), winning game five 11-4. Fourteen of those points came exactly the same way - she slow looped against a push, and the opponent blocked off. At high altitude, slow, spinny loops are deadly - they just shoot off the end when you block. The irony is that at high altitude, pushes are deadly as they jump at you and have more spin then expected (since there's less air resistance to take off the spin). But if a player just drops the racket and spins, the push becomes a trap, as they have to face that spinny loop. This tournament was Tashiya's coming out party - she swept Under 11 Girls' Singles, Doubles, Mixed Doubles, and Teams!
  • In Under 11 Boys' Doubles, Brian and Max faced the top-seeded and seemingly overwhelming favorites from Columbia, Emanuel Otalvaro and his partner, Juan Mineros. Emanuel swept singles in the Hopes and Pan Am Hopes Under 11. But Brian/Max pulled off the upset in the quarterfinals. Alas, in the semifinals, up 9-7 in the fifth, they lost to a pair from Guatemala. Kyler and Kef won the final over the Guatemalans.
  • We had downpours nearly every day. This led to some problems with humidity. Most were minor. But just before the Under 13 Boys' Team final (Stanley & Mu Du vs. Puerto Rico), it not only downpoured, but it poured in through leaks in the roof onto the playing area. They postponed the final for an hour. But due to the essentially 100% humidity and the water pouring in, the players found their rackets were slick, and no amount of drying seemed to help more than temporarily. And so ball after ball slid off their rackets. This especially hurt Stanley and Mu Du, who play aggressive close-to-table looping games, and had to change their games dramatically. Stanley barely pulled out his two matches, but we lost the final 3-2. But the conditions simply weren't realistic - you won't play in humidity like that at the Olympics, Pan Ams, Worlds, Team Trials for any of these, the US Open, Nationals, or other major tournaments.
  • We also had a problem with noise, but that we need to get used to, as that's the norm at many tournaments, including the Worlds. During many matches people in the crowd chanted and played musical instruments during points. This meant the players couldn't hear the ball hit the table, a key part to timing. I'm told this is the norm in Latin American tournaments, and so our opponents were more used to this. It's not the norm in the US, so we weren't as prepared for it. I told the players to focus on watching the ball hit the table, which helped some. As with humidity, the noise affected certain players more than others.
  • The high altitude also caused problems. While the Hopes players had 24 hours of training to prepare for their tournament, the Pan Am Youth players only had ten hours, since we had to share the tables with other countries and so there was limited table time.
  • Another interesting dynamic we faced was the language. Latin American coaches called out advise between nearly every point, mostly in Spanish (the Brazilians in Portuguese). We couldn't do the same in English since many of the opposing coaches and players understood English. (I toyed with talking very fast!) Having Wei Qi coach our Chinese-speaking players (10 out of 16!) was an advantage as few, if any of the opponents understood Chinese.
  • And then the stomach virus struck. It started with Xianyao He, who came down sick just before the singles, with a 102 fever. (A doctor came in and diagnosed it.) He had to drop out of singles. Then we found out several of the parents had also come down with it. Then Stanley Hsu came down with it - not as bad as Xianyao's, but it put him in great discomfort. He tried to play singles - he was likely the favorite - but wasn't able to play effectively and lost to Sebastian Bedoya of Columbia, who Stanley had beaten 3-1 in the Teams. (Sebastian went on to win Under 13 over Enrique Rios.) And then I came down with the virus. I spent three days coaching while grabbing my stomach. It wasn't fun.
  • A serious topic of discussion were the many "13-year-olds" who towered over me and looked like high school seniors. But they all had passports that "proved" they were 13. This was ironic, considering the two top Hopes players were the two smallest players, with the smallest winning.
  • With all these tribulations, all 16 USA players won a medal!

PART 4 - October 25-27: ITTF Contender. Most of the USA contingent left after the Pan Ams. But three players stayed for the final event - Stanley, Mu Du, and Kef. Also joining us was USA's Nathaniel Hwang and his dad, former USA junior star Dennis Hwang, now a medical doctor. Kef was in Under 11 and Under 13 Boys', the other three in Under 13 and Under 15 Boys. Here's the ITTF page, with complete results and other info. Here's the ITTF News Page.

Kef got second in Under 11, losing the final to Emanuel. Once again Stanley seemed the favorite - and now he was healthy and pretty much used to the air! In the quarterfinals, he played Hamilton Hato Yamane of Brazil, a chopper/looper who Stanley and Mu Du had both beaten somewhat easily in the Pan Ams. At the Pan Ams, Hato had played very aggressively - so aggressive that I told Stanley and Mu Du to play him as an attacker who sometimes chopped. However, in the ITTF Contender, he switched to a steadier chopping game, and attacked less - but more effectively when he did. He caught Stanley off guard, winning the first two games at 4 and 8. Stanley won the next two easily at 4 and 5, and led 7-5 in the fifth. But he made some mistakes, and Hato attacked more, and Hato led 10-8 match point. Stanley deuced it but lost 12-10 in the fifth. Hato went on to win the event, defeating Enrique Rios in the final, 3-0. (Hato essentially came out of nowhere - nobody was looking at him as a contender.) There's a key tactical thing we'll need to work on next time the two play, but I can't really go over it here. Mu Du made the quarterfinals of Under 15, losing to Enrique.

And then it was time to leave - or was it? Kef, Nathaniel, and their dads had already left, but Stanley and his dad, Mu Du and his mom, and I were the last to leave, with a 4 AM pickup for the 3.5 hour ride to the airport. At 11:25 PM, there was a knock on my door, the panicked van driver. It turns out a nationwide anti-government protest had just erupted, and that we needed to leave immediately. We quickly got our things together and went to the lobby. Unfortunately, the word came back that all the roads out of Cuenca were blocked by protesters, with fires, barricades, and rioters. We were shown images and video - it was pretty nasty. So, the five of us, and dozens of other players/coaches/parents from all over South America and elsewhere were stranded in the hotel. We couldn't even step outside due to the violence. Here's video (2:33).

So we went back to bed and awaited our fate. At about 8AM, there was another knock on my door, and it was driver, saying the roads were now open. So we got into the van and took the 3.5 hour ride to the airport, just making our flight. (Others were not so lucky, and missed theirs.) And then, late that night, I was home!!!

USATT Bylaws Problems
Last week, while I was in Ecuador, the USATT board passed a series of bylaws. There are a number of problems with them, but I'm going to focus on one of them in this blog, buried in 106 pages of bylaw revisions. (I'll likely write about other problems in next week's blog.)

7.5: The Board, in its sole discretion, may also appoint an Interim Director until 2024. The Interim Director shall be either the Chair of the AAC or another member of the AAC as selected by the Board in its sole discretion.

What does this mean? It means a majority of the board can now pad its majority by simply appointing another voting member (from anyone they choose from the Athletes Advisory Council) who fits in with their majority, thereby increasing their majority (for the next three years) by 1/11, or 9%. This is just wrong.

The US Senate is currently split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, with Vice President Kamala Harris the tie-deciding vote giving the Democrats the majority. Suppose the Democrats decided to appoint nine new members to the Senate (9%), thereby increasing their majority to 59-50. Or if they decided to increase their current 220-212 lead in the House (three vacancies) by 39 (9%), thereby increasing their lead to 259-212. Do you think Republicans would object? The same if the Republicans held the majority and padded their majority. Allowing a majority to arbitrarily increase their majority by 9% changes a small majority into a nearly insurmountable majority. And that's the point! They are literally appointing a majority representative to increase that majority.

Some will try to make the argument that, "We need this person on the board!" You can make the same argument for many people. Since the person they appoint will be an athlete from the AAC, that person will have the opportunity to run for not one, not two, not three, but four athlete rep positions on the board this fall. (See 7.6.4, the election of the four athlete representatives, and the USATT news item on the elections.) If they need a specific person's advice, that person doesn't need to be on the board for that. But here's the key part - the USOPC has mandated that all Olympic sports have boards composed of at least 1/3 athletes, and so USATT will now have four athletes representing them - and yet, the USATT board wants to appoint another. Does USATT believe they know better than the athletes over who should represent them?

I hope the USATT board will rethink this one, and take out that provision.

US Open Volunteers
Here's the USATT News Item. I'm singling this one out for a reason - they no longer are offering hotel or partial air fare for volunteers. Normally, all volunteers get half a room and up to about $250 in air fare, along with two free events. This year - neither, just the two free events and a t-shirt for five days work. Presumably, this is because USATT is nearly broke, due to the pandemic and the roughly $200,000 lost in the (former high performance director) Joerg Bitzigeio arbitration case. But seriously, they really need to offer volunteers more than this. Five days of work, and to do so, you have to pay for your own flight and hotel?

There's another serious problem that I've already heard grumbling about. It says that the two events they play in cannot conflict with their shifts. But since they only know the starting time of their two events, how can they schedule their events and shifts so as to not conflict? This is the obvious question that the Volunteer form should have addressed. USATT needs to have someone oversee this, so volunteers can trade time slots or times so as to complete their events. 

George Brathwaite Tribute

Peak Performance Table Tennis: Unlock Your Potential and Play Like the Pros
Here's the new book that just came out by Kevin Finn, table tennis player and strength training and nutritional consultant. From the opening of the back cover: "What athlete hasn't become frustrated at losing a game, not because they were outplayed or outmatched, but because they gassed out, had a mental lapse, or just couldn't get in the zone? Peak Performance Table Tennis comprehensively covers those game aspects needed for peak performance and provides actionable steps for athletes to ensure they are in the best possible position to perform at their peak when it matters most."  

I haven't had a chance to read it - my reading queue is rather long - but I like the opening to the chapter on Tactical Skills on page 48: "When I first sat down to write this chapter, I unironically explored the possibility of simply making it one sentence long: 'Go buy Larry Hodges' Table Tennis Tactics for Thinkers.' If you are at all interested in improving your game via tactics, that book is your one-stop shop!"

Weekend Coaching and the MDTTC Halloween Party
After 19 days in Ecuador, it was great to be back coaching at MDTTC! It took only minutes to adjust to playing at sea level again - going up is hard, coming down is easy. (Of course, I didn't really train much at high altitude, so unlike the players, I didn't really get as used to playing in the thin air.) On Saturday, Oct. 30, we had the Halloween party - not at MDTTC, but at a local park, where we had a barbecue (hamburgers and hot dogs) and a huge number of other food dishes brought in by players and parents, about 70 of us in all. The kids came in costume. Lots of games were played, from beanbag toss to throwing a football and frisbee around.

Then it was back to MDTTC. My first session back was with the Beginning kids, where we did (as usual) lots of stroking and footwork drills. Then came the advanced group (1800-2350), where I fed multiball for about 90 minutes. On Sunday and Monday, I worked with the advanced group again - including much of the sessions as a practice partner. One drill involved a player serving long to backhand, receiver backhand looping it back, and then into a footwork drill - but the kids had a hard time returning my tricky long serves, where I vary the spin and serving motion. I do need to spend some time just serving to some of them.

News of the Last Month
If I were to comprehensively cover every table tennis news item that went up this past month, as I often do, this blog would be rather looooong. Instead, here are some links to browse.

Ma Long Multiball Looping
He makes it look so easy! (46 sec)

Dimitrij Ovtcharov Finding Ways to Play Table Tennis After Surgery
Here's the video (5:53)!

Marvel and Table Tennis
They seem to like table tennis! In Ant-Man, at 1:33:40, Ant-Man swats the evil enemy Yellowjacket with a ping-pong paddle! In Spider-Man: Homecoming, at 34:40, here are two pictures of Spider-Man running past a pair playing table tennis in a garage:

Here are some others, mostly copied and pasted from a past blog:

There's No Crying in Table Tennis
Here's the shirt!

Large Objects for Paddles Pong
Here's the video (36 sec)!

Many Objects Pong
Here's the video (41 sec)!

The Other 12 Ways of Playing Table Tennis
Here's the video (69 sec)!

Non-Table Tennis - SF Stories
On November 1 (Monday), I had two new science fiction stories published. (Alas, I think you have to buy the magazine to read them.) With five other stories coming out in December, it's going to be a fun Christmas! Here are the two that just came out:

  • "99 Sextillion Souls in a Ball" in Dark Matter Magazine. What happens if a religious world government (helped by advanced computers) takes "Be fruitful and multiply" to its logical conclusion, ending in the complete conversion of the earth's mass into humans?
  • "The Purple Rose of Retribution" in Utopia Science Fiction. What happens when an elderly luddite is forced to live in a virus-filled virtual world?

Send us your own coaching news!