Phil Mickelson

October 4, 2013

Over the last few days I've joined in discussions at the forum. I've been in several threads, but the one I was most interested in was one titled "How should I coach someone in a match." I have a lot of experience there, so I posted some notes there, starting on page 5. (For a time the thread was basically hijacked by someone who put a "Hex" on it, but that person has since been banned, both for those postings and numerous postings in other threads.) Below are three postings I put up. Much of the discussion is on whether you should coach technique in a tournament match - which I consider a very bad idea, as my postings explain.

To learn to win close matches means playing lots of close and/or important matches where you develop the habit of tactically using all of your tools to win. To do so takes certain mental skills that can only be practiced at such times. So it's a highly effective time to develop tactical and mental skills, and not a very effective time to develop or fix technique. Some technique problems can be overcome indirectly in the course of a match - I gave examples in my Tip of the Week ("Mid-Match Technique Adjustments"), which was linked to above - but mental and tactical skills are what need to be emphasized in such matches. Hopefully you have far more time at the practice hall to work on the mechanical skills (i.e. technique) - and it is in important matches where you often find out what techniques you need to work on. 

(Addendum: much of this posting is about not worrying about technique in matches. However, you do want to focus on using the shots that you want to develop. If you are a looper, for example, you should generally try to win mostly by looping, not by pushing.) 

-Larry Hodges

Shortly after the above I posted a note about a pertinent Tip of the Week I'd recently done, "Real Tactics versus Parroting Tactics." Later, it was pointed out that there was one person arguing that you should coach technique in a match, while everyone else pretty much disagreed. Below is my response.

I would essentially never coach technique in a match, so I'm in the second category with most everyone else [about never coaching technique when coaching a tournament match]. However, there's a subcategory of the second version. The large majority of the time when coaching in a tournament I coach the player to win. But there are occasional times where you might coach a player to win a certain way. This is not coaching technique; this is coaching playing style. 

For example, I was coaching a kid named Tong Tong Gong (age 13) at the North American Teams a few years ago against Allen Wang. Tong Tong was about 2150 at the time, with a very good backhand and a quick but erratic forehand loop. Allen was about 2200, a pure two-winged looper from mid-distance, and about a foot taller. I believe Tong Tong was up 2-1 in games but lost the fourth game when he got into too many counterlooping duels with Allen, and Allen was a better counterlooper. I was all set to coach Tong Tong to stay at the table, and block and pick loop winners. Before I could say anything, Tong Tong said, "I can beat him counterlooping." It sort of floored me since he thought he could beat Allen at his own game. But I recovered, and made a snap decision to go with it. So I told him how best to win those counterlooping duels - get Allen off the table on the wide forehand, then counterloop off the bounce to the backhand; get the first attack so Allen has to go for the first difficult counterloop; etc. The whole game plan was on winning with counterlooping rather than just winning, which I thought he could do if he stayed right at the table. Anyway, Tong Tong won the match deuce in the fifth, counterlooping like a maniac. He might have won staying right at the table, but by doing it by counterlooping, he gained great confidence in that shot which would pay off later. One month later he'd pull off five upsets at the Nationals to make the National Cadet Team. (I coached all those matches, and they were ALL played strictly to win.) 

There have been a few other cases where I've coached a player to focus on playing the way he was developing as a player, such as looping when he might have won by pushing and blocking. But when I do so, I usually let the player know his options, and let him choose, and they choose both ways. It's good to develop the habit of trying to win with the shots you are developing. But these cases are infrequent; usually you coach to win, period, and usually that means using the shots the player is training to use. 

-Larry Hodges

After I posted this, someone posted the following:

larry, doesn't coaching about playing style involves technique also? i think i would rather coach about adaptation and it involves technique. as long as it it not too complicated and too long to execute just to win a point, there is nothing wrong with coaching technique. also, would you agree with me if for example in a match a player needs to adjust the angle of his bat to compensate for the incoming spin either against a heavy underspin or very light underspin, if you see your player commit errors against this wouldn't it better if you just told me him to compensate bat angle? IMHO, technique is important to coach as long as the player can adjust to it. also, not every player has a mental fortitude problem. i would rather coach the player as what is needed to be coached. i'm just confused where to draw the line between coaching technique and coaching playing style because both obviously involves technique to some point basing on your statement. 

And here's my response:

Coaching playing style and coaching technique are two different things, at least the way I define them. So is telling a player to adjust his racket, which isn't really technique. 

If the player I'm coaching isn't looping enough, I would likely tell him to loop more, and give tactics to help set it up. But if his looping technique were off, there's not much you can do in the match, with occasional exceptions. The technique is done subconsciously, and it's not likely you can change that in the short course of a match. You can do a lot more by scheduling a practice session afterwards where you can focus on fixing the problem. 

You can remind someone in the middle of a match to, say, adjust their racket angle against incoming spin, but that rarely makes a big difference. When someone loops at you, your subconscious sets the racket angle reflexively. If you try to do it consciously, you're not going to do well. However, the subconscious is constantly making adjustments, and will normally adjust by closing the racket regardless of whether a coach tells the player to do so. (Though of course the coach might take credit afterwards for it, even though the player's subconscious was already working on the problem!) It's usually better to use various workarounds, such as one I posted about earlier. Instead of telling them to close the racket against a spinny loop that they keep blocking off, tell them to block more aggressively. Then the spin will take on it less. Adjusting the racket angle to incoming heavy topspin that you are not used to is tricky to do, but blocking more aggressively is much simpler. The player might still have to close the racket more, but it's a less drastic change, and the subconscious can adjust quicker, and then the player can play free, i.e. let the subconscious take over. 

Here's an easy test I've done many times. When I coach a complete beginner if I give him a heavy backspin serve, he goes right into the net. However, it doesn't take long for him to learn to open his racket to return it. But that's because I'm giving it to him over and over, and so he can consciously open the racket. If I then start varying the serves, and come back to the heavy backspin serve every third serve or so, even if I make it obvious that it's a backspin serve (and make it obvious the others are not), the player can no longer react consciously, and goes right back into the net again, over and over. It takes some training to learn to react properly in a game situation, where you don't know what's coming until the ball's coming at you and you have little time to react consciously. That's why telling a player to adjust his racket angle during a match usually won't work because his conscious mind isn't what's setting the angle in the match. (But as noted, the player's subconscious is already making adjustments, and perhaps might make the adjustment before the match is over.) An exception might be if the opponent is, say, giving the same serve every single time (say a heavy backspin serve), in which case you can tell your player to open his racket - and hope the opponent doesn't start changing his serve. 

-Larry Hodges

The Speed of Fan Zhendong

Here's the video (34 sec) of the Chinese 16-year-old, already #10 in the world. He's doing a random footwork drill with a coach feeding multiball. The key to his speed? Much of it comes from his balance. He's balanced even in his follow-throughs, and that is key to his being almost instantly ready for the next shot. His head remains almost still during his shots, even on the forehand. His feet are wide and parallel to the table, allowing great stability and quick transition from forehand to backhand and back.  

Coach Wanted in Northern California

Established Club in northern California is accepting applications for a full time coaching position. Compensation is 30-60K depending on level and experience. The ideal candidate plays at a level of 2500 or higher, has multiple years coaching experience, and speaks English. Mandarin and Cantonese are a plus. Less coaching experience will be accepted from those who currently play at a very high level. You must be able to document your playing and coaching history. Match video is helpful. For more information send your resume to

Improve Your Serve

Here's the new article and video (1:28) from Killerspin.

Phil Mickelson Hires TT Coach

Here's the story from Table Tennis Nation - who is the mystery coach? Mickelson resides in Rancho Santa Fe, California. Any guesses? Or will the mystery coach please stand up?

The Ultimate Trick Shot

Here's a hilarious video (3:18) that shows the tribulations of two players apparently attempting to create a video for the ITTF Trickshot competition, and failing miserably - until something happens at the very end.

Non-Table Tennis: Sheeba and Bacon

I'm told that if one puts up a picture of a cat eating bacon, you'll triple your hits. Well, I don't have a cat, but I do have Sheeba, a corgi mix I got at a shelter 12 years ago. She'll be 16 in February, but still loves her bacon snacks. Here's a picture of her desperately trying to get that yummy bacon at the bottom of a large bacon snack jar. Yeah, I torture her this way - but she did get it! (Here's a head shot.)

Yesterday I did a scientific experiment.
Hypothesis: Dogs don't need their eyes to find food.
Methodology: I blindfolded Sheeba (she went along willingly), then waved a bacon treat under her nose.
Result: She snapped it up instantly.
Conclusion: Hypothesis proven correct. Also, dogs apparently love bacon, but this will require further testing.


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July 29, 2013

Tip of the Week

Topspinny Backhands.

Last Week's Tip of the Week

I put up a Tip of the Week last Monday, but since I was out of town and not blogging, some of you may have missed it. If so, you get a special double-tip week! So here's the July 22 Tip of the Week: Pushing Change of Direction.

I'm Back!

It's been eleven days. I doubt if you missed me more than my dog, who went berserk at my return. (I had people taking care of her, but she tends not to eat much when I'm away.) As noted below, I was at a writers workshop in Manchester, NH, July 19-27. See segment on this below. And right after I finish this morning's blog I'm off to coach at the MDTTC camp. (We have ten consecutive camps this summer, each Mon-Fri; this is week seven. I should be at the rest of them - I missed two weeks, one for the writers workshop, one for the U.S. Open.)

Table Tennis Fitness

I just returned from nine days at a writers workshop (see below). While there was no table tennis there - other than my showing off my "blowing the ball in the air" trick, and one time showing off my ability to bounce a ping-pong ball up and down on a cell phone over and over - I did notice something related to table tennis.

The biggest difference between writers (as well as people I observed at the airport) and table tennis players, as well as people I observed at the airport, was the fitness level. There is a fitness epidemic in this country, and it's very noticeable at airports, and even more so at writers workshops. This isn't meant as an actual criticism of being overweight - to each his own - just an observation. But table tennis players in general are much more fit than the general population. Perhaps part of this is that there are so many Asian players, and they seem fitter than typical Americans. Or perhaps it's all those calories burned playing table tennis. Or perhaps it's fitness for the express purposes of improving their table tennis. Or perhaps it's because fitter people tend to seek out sports. Whichever it is, table tennis players, in general, and at all levels (at least beyond the beginning state) are far more fit than the average population.

At my worse, I once reached 196 pounds, and I currently am at 185. I'm now determined to get back to 175. Here's an article from Pongworld on training and fitness. Here's an article on table tennis and fitness by Australian star Greg Letts.

Non-Table Tennis - TNEO

TNEO is "The Never-Ending Odyssey," an annual gathering in Manchester, NH, of graduates of the six-week Odyssey Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Workshop. (I'm class of '06.) I just spent nine days there, July 19-27, where I was immersed with 27 others with story critiques, classes & lectures, readings, and lots of reading and writing. Three of my stories were critiqued; I've already rewritten them, and will be submitting them soon. Two other stories I have planned were plotted out, plus I wrote a brand new humorous story, "The Bat Nerd," which I read at the annual story reading at the local Barnes and Noble. Here's a Facebook picture (with comments) of the group in the workshop.

Flight Back from Manchester

The flights home were a disaster. Here's a short synopsis. I was scheduled for a 6:10PM flight Saturday night (July 27) on U.S. Air from Manchester to Philadelphia, with a connection to National Airport in Washington DC, arriving at 10:11PM. From there I'd take the subway to Shady Grove Metro Station where I had someone picking me up.

The 6:10PM flight was delayed to around 7:30PM due to both a crew problem (lack of a pilot) and weather. It became obvious I wouldn't be able to make my connection in Philadelphia, and there were no other non-full flights out of Philly that night. The earliest available flight the following morning was around 9AM. (Apparently U.S. Air wasn't able to get me on flights with other airlines.) They said they'd put me up in a hotel in Philly. However, a better option they said would be for me to spend the night in Manchester (again, they'd pay for the room), and catch a direct flight at 6AM the next morning. So I was sent back across the airport to the U.S. Air ticket office to get the hotel voucher and catch a shuttle to the hotel. However, after arriving there, they told me there were no available hotel rooms in Manchester! So they rushed me through security again so I could catch the delayed flight at 7:30PM. I reached Philly around 9PM. However, due to another glitch, they had trouble finding my checked-in bag, and it took them over 90 minutes before it was located. Then I took the shuttle to the hotel, arriving there around 11:15PM.

I now had a 7:55AM flight from Philly to DC. I got up a 5AM, was at the airport at 6:30AM, only to discover that due to another crew issue, the flight had been delayed to 9:40AM! Then it was delayed to 10:45AM. And then, at around 9:30 AM, it was cancelled! They put me on a different flight leaving at 11:30 AM. So I sat around the airport for about five hours before leaving. I arrived in DC at about 12:40 PM, took the subway to Shady Grove, arriving around 2:00 PM for my pickup. (The one who was going to pick me could no longer do so; Derek Nie's mom picked me up.)

Meanwhile, every step of the way as my flights changed I was calling the person who was to pick me up at Shady Grove. It got really frustrating as my schedule changed seemingly every ten minutes. On top of this, I had a 10AM coaching session scheduled for Sunday, which I had to miss. (It was a double - once a week on Sunday mornings I drive out to Virginia to coach, and they pay me double. So I'm out about $100 on top of everything else, plus a disappointed student.)

My Coaching Columns in USA Table Tennis Magazine

I've been submitting the best of my Tips of the Week to USATT Magazine, and they've been publishing them since January of 2012. Recently they've put together a page dedicated to them, with links to each article. If you've been reading my weekly Tips (every Monday morning) then you've read these.

Building Power and Weight Transfer

Here's a coaching article from Table Tennis Master.

Two Insane Pieces Of Luck Behind China’s Current Dominance

Here's an article from Table Tennis Master on how China's dominance in table tennis may have come about due to two great pieces of luck!

Kenta Matsudaira's Show

Here are video highlights of the Japanese star (4:08).

The New Yorker

Here's the table tennis cover of this week's The New Yorker, which is dated today, though it came out a few days ago. I saw a copy at the airport, and paging through it, couldn't find anything on table tennis on the inside. Apparently the table tennis cover is an independent cover and doesn't actually illustrate anything from the inside.

Stéphane Veilleux Wins Smashfest

Here's a picture of the Minnesota Wild Hockey player holding up the huge table tennis trophy he won. Click on the picture and you'll see other pictures from the event.

Phil Mickelson Plays Matt Lauer on the Today Show

Here's the video and article from Table Tennis Nation.

Dragon on a Ping-Pong Table

Here's the latest artwork from Mike Mezyan. The title I've given it sort of tells you what it is - sort of like the movie Snakes on a Plane!!!

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October 2, 2012

Table Tennis Centers in Maryland, the U.S., and Belgium

On Friday at the Maryland Table Tennis Center I was wondering how USATT would be different if all their board members were required to spend a week at one of the "elite" training centers. Their perspective on table tennis in the U.S., and where it could go, might be a bit different from what they are used to.

There are about 50 full-time table tennis centers in the U.S. (Current count: 53; let me know if I'm missing any.) Of these, perhaps 5-8 can be considered "elite," i.e. ones with large junior development programs that consistently develop strong players. Key here is both the elite aspect and the large number of players they have.

Recently someone posted on a table tennis forum that "The USA has 50+ full time clubs." Someone responded, "Are you serious about the 50+ or do you mean 500+? In Belgium, there are about 50 clubs for each of the ten regions." Yes, that's 500 full-time clubs in Belgium, which has an area slightly smaller than Maryland (both about 12 thousand square miles), with a population about double Maryland's (about 11 million vs. 5.8 million). (And Belgium's numbers are dwarfed by Germany, England, and of course China and most Asian countries.) Now Maryland is, size for size and population for population, probably the most successful table tennis state in the U.S., with a higher percentage of its population USATT members than any other state. (They have 263 members out of a population of 5.8 million, or one member for every 22,053 people. Only New Jersey is close, with 351 members out of 8.8 million, or one for every 25,071.) Maryland also has one of the most successful junior programs in the country. And yet Maryland has only two full-time training centers to Belgium's 500! They have a full-time center for every 22,000 people, while Maryland has one for every 2.9 million. The U.S. has one for every 5.9 million people.

Of course the biggest difference is Belgium and other successful countries focus on leagues and junior programs. So does Maryland. Here's a rundown of the strongest of the 40+ junior players at MDTTC on Friday during a junior training session and the Friday night league (name, age, rating):

  • Wang Qing Liang, 16, 2644
  • Chen Bo Wen, 14, 2441
  • Tong Tong Gong, 14, 2334
  • Nathan Hsu, 2296 (was recently 2356)
  • Anthony Qu, 12, 2194
  • Roy Ke, 13, 2188
  • Derek Nie, 11, 2149
  • Crystal Wang, 10, 2099 (was 2166 before playing a tournament with a fracture wrist!)
  • Michael Ding, 13, 1989
  • David Varkey, 17, 1882
  • Lilly Lin, 15, 1874
  • Amy Lu, 11, 1852
  • Lisa Cui, 13, 1804
  • Princess Ke, 12, 1776
  • Jason Wei, 14, 1768
  • Adam Yao, 10, 1739
  • Wesley Duan, 12, 1685
  • Tony Li, 11, 1618

Between these, and all the little kids smacking forehands and backhand back and forth (not to mention all the non-juniors in the league - it's not just juniors), it's a different environment than what most in the U.S. sees unless they are at one of these "elite" training centers . . . or perhaps in Belgium.

$100,000 World Championship of Ping-Pong

The inaugural event will be held in London on Jan. 5-6, 2013. Players are required to use sandpaper rackets. $100,000 for sandpaper table tennis - yes, my friends, the world is changing.

ITTF Inaugural Level 3 Course

Here's an ITTF article about the first ITTF Level 3 Coaching Course, held in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, Sept. 21-28. It was immediately followed by a two-day Level Three Course Conductor Training Seminar. Attending both were USATT Coaching Chair Richard McAfee.

Table Tennis Artwork

Here is more table tennis art by Mike Mezyan. The four here are labeled "Earth, Fire, Water, and Wind," and feature Chen Qi, Wang Hao, Ma Lin, and Wang Liqin. Here's a larger version. And here's his Facebook page for all his artwork.

Orioles Make Table Tennis a Priority

Here's an article from Table Tennis Nation on how the Baltimore Orioles baseball team (and their manager, Buck Showalter) made table tennis a priority. "Where is the ping-pong table?" Showalter asked when he showed up in spring training. Meanwhile, you can read my "Top Twelve Things Happening the Last Time the Orioles Had a Winning Season" article at Orioles Hangout, where it's a featured front-page story. I've had eight front-page articles there. My favorites are "You're No Good, Baltimore Orioles" and "The Wonderful World of O's."

Phil Mickelson and Table Tennis at the Ryder Cup

Here's an article on golfer Phil Mickelson and table tennis at the Ryder Cup. Here's the table tennis excerpt:

Ask anyone about the team room, and Mickelson's name invariably comes up. He talked of his and Woods' dominance on the Ping-Pong table Wednesday, boasting that few of their U.S. teammates can touch them.

''Put us together on that table, and we're rocking it,'' Mickelson said.

(That's only partly true, Steve Stricker said. Matt Kuchar is actually the Roger Federer of the U.S. Ping-Pong table, and Stricker said Mickelson is putting off that matchup until Sunday. ''He doesn't want to get any bad mojo going before the tournament starts.'')

Top Ten Points

Here's a Top Ten Points video (6:12) from recent years (Worlds, Olympics, World Cup). Includes lots of slow motion.

The Amazing Race - Downgrading to a Sauce Pan

As near as I can tell, "The Amazing Race" is a Chinese show where people compete for prizes. In this segment (1:37), they had to score a point - a single point! - against a little girl who was obviously an elite junior. She played them using a sauce pan and a tambourine, and rarely lost a point.


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