multiball training

February 19, 2014

USATT Membership and Mass Mailing

USATT has about 8000 members. That's pretty weak in a country of 314 million.

A few days ago I received another brochure in the mail (regular mail, not email) from USTA (U.S. Tennis Association). For many years I played tennis on the side (and had a heck of a forehand!), and used to go to group training sessions twice a week for many years. I also played in their doubles leagues, and joined USTA to do so. Being a smart organization with 700,000 members, which are overwhelmingly league members, they have been trying to get me back ever since. Which is why I regularly receive both mail and email from them.

Is it cost effective? Of course it is; they are not idiots. I still get mail from many other organizations I used to belong to (and I bet you do as well), always encouraging me to rejoin or re-subscribe. Former members are probably the single best group of people to target when trying to increase membership. USATT should target this group.

USATT has a membership of around 8000 or so. (If you include life members who are no longer active or even alive, organizational memberships which were mostly given out for free, and club memberships, the number may shoot to something like 9000, but I don't have up-to-date figures, and USATT doesn't seem to publish them as they used to do.)

How many is 8000? Let's see:

  • It's one out of every 40,000 people in the U.S.
  • It's about one out of every 1900 recreational players in the U.S., according to surveys.
  • It's 1/90th the membership of USTA (tennis), even though throughout Europe and Asia the number of table tennis members is almost always higher than the number for tennis.
  • It's 1/250th the number of members of U.S. bowling leagues.
  • When you go to a baseball game, the average person pays nearly the same amount as the USATT annual fee of $49. Teams play 162 games per year, plus playoff, and yet average about 30,000 spectators per game. 8000 of them can fit in just one large section of the park.
  • It's a round-off error.

So how do we fix this problem? For years I've argued the obvious, that we should do what nearly every successful table tennis country does and what other successful sports in the U.S. do - focus on leagues and training centers. Setting up a nationwide system of regional leagues is about as obvious as you can get, if you any knowledge of how table tennis and other sports develop, but we haven't even begun to do such things. I've blogged about setting up these nationwide regional leagues many times; I just did a search of my blog entries, and here's one example. Bowling in the U.S. has about two million annual paid members in their bowling leagues; can you imagine how fast that would drop if they did what USATT does, and only had tournaments? The same is true of tennis, which focuses on leagues. Take away those tennis leagues, and their membership wouldn't be much higher than table tennis - it too would become a "round-off" error.

As to setting up training centers, the key there is to promote, recruit, and train coaches to be professional coaches who will set up such training centers. That's why I wrote the Professional Table Tennis Coaches Handbook. We've gone from 10 to 70 of these in eight years, but it's happened because coaches saw it as a way to make a living. Many of them copied the success of my club, MDTTC, which pioneered such a training center when it opened in 1992, with me, Cheng Yinghua, and Jack Huang as the coaches. (We now have seven full-time coaches and a number of part-time ones, and other centers have similar success.) While the focus of training centers tends to be junior programs, it's for all ages and levels. Guess what happens? Coaching turns recreational players who come and go into serious players who stay.

But USATT is a bureaucracy, where doing the obvious things is often difficult. No one seems to have the vision or will to do these things. I think many are scared of trying because if they failed, they'd be blamed. (Perhaps they should read the "Man in the Arena" quote by Teddy Roosevelt. Many leaders think they are in the arena because they deal with the day-to-day issues, mostly putting out fires, doing reports, answering email, and doing the daily running of a status quo sport, instead of actually going into the arena and striving to build the sport.)

I'll continue to argue for these obvious things. But perhaps it's also time for a one-time fix to increase membership. Here's a suggestion to any board members or staff who want to take initiative.

USATT has something like 50,000+ former members of USATT on the computer. That's a lot of mailing addresses just sitting there gathering computer dust. Why not do a one-time mass mailing to them all? Sure, it'd cost money, but takes money to make money, and you'd come out way ahead overall. Have it written by someone who knows how to write - for the love of God, do not have it written by a staffer without a strong writing background! Then have the letter come from a prominent U.S. table tennis star - a Dan Seemiller, Sean O'Neill, Jim Butler, or a Sweeris, for example, and include a picture. Have them personally invite these former members to rejoin USATT. Give specific reasons to rejoin. It's unfortunate we can't really offer them leagues as tennis can, and that we no longer offer the print magazine (!!!), but we can offer them tournaments, including the U.S. Open and Nationals. We can point out all the new full-time centers that have popped up.

As a side benefit, maybe, just maybe, as they create or think about this invitational letter, USATT leaders will realize that maybe, just maybe, we do need to think about what USATT really has to offer, and realize that we do, in fact, need that nationwide network of leagues and to start recruiting coaches to be full-time professional running junior and other training programs. These are the incentives you can use to attract members, and that's what we're aiming for, right? If you are aiming for Olympic medals and top players, then we have the same goals. Guess where they come from? Junior training centers. Guess where the money comes for USATT to develop them? Large members that come from leagues.

Multiball Training

Here's 25 sec of Stefan Fegerl doing multiball at the Werner Schlager Academy in Austria.

Slow Motion Table Tennis

Here's a video (4 min) of slow motion play of the top players. Great to watch and you can learn a lot from watching it this way.

Chinese National Team Show Up at Park

What would you do if you were playing ‎Table Tennis at your local park and the Chinese National Team turned up to play? Here's the video (1:32)!

Wide Stance

I've written about using a wider stance, but this is ridiculous!

Energizer Battery Table Tennis Commercial

Here's the video (31 sec) - this is hilarious! It just came out this past weekend.

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September 4, 2012

Tip of the Week

Multiball Training.

Coaching New Players

This past weekend had three new kids in the Beginning Junior Class I teach, Sat 10:30AM-Noon and Sun 4:30-6:00 PM. (All three came for the Sunday session.) All three started out really well. One of them picked up the strokes so fast she was doing footwork drills by the end of the session - and she's just six and a half! I've taught the class since it started in April, and about eight of the new players have gone on to take private lessons, including one who is starting with me this Wednesday.

One issue I still struggle with after all these years is how soon to bring on new techniques. Is it better to spend the first few sessions focusing on just the forehand, or spend time equally on forehand and backhand? When to introduce pushing? How much focus on serves? In a class situation, I generally focus more on the forehand early on, introducing the backhand perhaps in the second half of the second session. I introduce serves generally on the third session. I postpone pushing until the player can stroke effectively from both sides while doing footwork.

When doing private coaching, where you have more time, in a typical one-hour session I introduce the forehand, backhand, and serving in the first session, but again focus on the forehand more early on. The reasoning behind focusing on the forehand first (in both classes and private coaching) is that it's best to get one side really ingrained before focusing on the other side, and you have to choose one side - so I go with the forehand first. This would have been a no-brainer a few decades ago, when the game was somewhat dominated by forehand players, but now the game is more evenly divided between forehand players, backhand players, and those who do both equally. Another reason to focus on the forehand first is that it leads to more mobile footwork than if you focus on the backhand, where players tend to stand in one position more. (One remedy - have them do side-to-side backhand footwork, which most players neglect to do, instead focusing only on forehand footwork.)

Hardbatters of the Past, Present, and Future, part 2

In my blog on Friday, Aug. 31, I addressed the questions of how good were the best hardbat players of the past, compared to modern hardbat and sponge players, and where I also wrote about Cheng Yinghua playing hardbat. I wrote more about this yesterday in response to questions on the forum. Here's what I wrote, with a few changes so it won't seem out of context.

I remember watching a little bit of the hardbat doubles match where Cheng Yinghua played with Julian Waters [at a USA Nationals about ten years ago]. However, Cheng didn't really practice for that match, other than a short warm-up with Julian. As I mentioned in my blog, it was only after about half an hour of intense practice with me that a light bulb sort of went off in his head, and from there on he dominated. If Cheng at that moment had then played doubles with Julian, he would have dominated the match and you would have been duly impressed with his attacking and counterhitting.

He also can chop surprisingly well, since he chops to students regularly with various rackets. However, one of the things I learned long ago about hardbat is that chopping hardbat to hardbat is very different than chopping against a sponge looper, which is what Cheng is used to. This is why Derek May's chopping with a hardbat isn't as effective as Steve Berger's, even though Derek is a far better chopper in the sponge game. While Cheng's hardbat chopping would dominate most players, the best hardbatters wouldn't have a lot of trouble with it. When you chop hardbat to hardbat, you have to learn to dig into the ball more aggressively than with sponge or against a loop, and you have to do a lot of spin variation. If you don't, the better attackers will go right through you. This is why, for example, Marty Reisman once beat a 2000 sponge chopper 21-0, since the chopper was only getting balls back without doing anything to make Reisman miss.

In a hypothetical match with Miles, assuming Cheng (at his peak) practiced for many months, I don't know what would happen. I do know that both players would have to work very hard for the match. In any hitting/counter-hitting duel at less than smashing speeds, Cheng would dominate. So Miles would be chopping and pick-hitting - no big deal, since that's primarily his game. When Miles pick-hits at full speed, that's where Cheng would be at a disadvantage as it is very difficult to counter-hit or even block against a smash with a hardbat, while it is surprisingly easy, for the best hardbatters, to chop them back from off the table - and Cheng doesn't really have that in his arsenal at a comparable level.

But Miles would have his hands full because Cheng's not going to have much trouble reading his changing spins, and would be attacking pretty hard with few mistakes. (But he won't have a devastating point-ending loop.) At his peak (i.e. when he was much younger), Cheng could hit as hard as the best. Of course Miles can return nearly everything, and the varied spin will force mistakes. If he does enough stiff chops, Cheng will eventually push or drive one soft, and that's when Miles might go for the smash. There would be great rallies because both of these players are incredibly consistent at what they do - Cheng attacking aggressively, Miles chopping aggressively.

One unknown is how well Cheng would develop his drop shot against Miles' chopping. Cheng has great touch in dropping spinny serves short with sponge, and showed nice touch with a hardbat when I played him, but we don't know how well his sponge touch, after a few months of practice, would convert to hardbat touch and instincts at the level needed. On the other hand, I have a feeling Cheng would play a patient topspin game, mixing in hard, medium, and soft topspins while he looks for a shot to put away, and so wouldn't drop shot too much.

Regarding serves, it's not just the hidden serves that'll give Miles trouble as much as the semi-circular serves, where Cheng can use a fast motion and give varied spins that are difficult to read, something that Miles not only said nobody did in his day but to the end told me he didn't believe it was possible to do. (I had a long argument with him on this, pointing out that many 1800 players can do this, but he really didn't believe me.) However, I'm sure that Miles would have adjusted and would have been able to chop most of the serves back effectively, though the serves would wear him down a bit for a few points at least each game. (If he had to attack the serves, then he would have had far greater difficulty, but chopping allows you to take the ball as late as possible and just float it back.)

It's sort of funny to me that most people are either on one "side" or the other - they either think Miles would kill Cheng, or that Cheng would kill Miles. I'm pretty sure it's somewhere in between. Miles has the advantage that he was about the best of the hardbat players in his era. Cheng has the advantage that he systematically trained his attacking strokes, footwork, and reflexes eight hours/day from age five to about 25, and has modern serving techniques Miles never saw. As good as Miles was, I don't think he could compete with the best out of thousands of kids training full-time from age five with a hardbat with top practice partners and under the tutelage of professional coaches (teaching both hardbat and modern techniques, such as modern serves), but of course Cheng did that training with sponge, and so never developed the hardbat defensive game, though his sponge attack and counter-hitting does convert rather well to hardbat. Overall, we're talking one heck of a nice match, and I would love to see it. Anyone got a time machine?

I don't think most current world-class players could convert to hardbat and challenge the very best hardbatters of the past. Every one is different, and some are more adaptable to change than others. A player like Cheng, whose game is based on control, is better at adapting then, say, an all-out two-winged power looper. But any world-class player, with practice, is going to dominate with a hardbat against all but the best current hardbat players.

Liu Guoliang's Love Story

Here's an article about Liu Guoliang falling in love at age 16, and the problems that ensued since the Chinese team had strict rules about this type of thing. Liu's most romantic memory? "Walking in the rain." 

SportsCenter's Top Ten Plays

David Wetherill of Great Britain made #1 on SportsCenter's Top 10 Plays with a diving shot off a crutch. Here's a link to the video of the match (42:49), which should take you straight to the where the shot takes place, just after 37:30.


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July 22, 2011

Topspinny backhands (Topspinny ®2011 by Larry Hodges)

Yes, I'm trademarking the term "topspinny." Any time you say it, you have to pay me a quarter. (To the humor-challenged: I'm joking.) I like to use the term to describe players who use a lot of topspin on their backhands, as opposed to others who hit flatter, such as myself. Flat backhands used to be the norm, but these up-and-coming junior players are mostly taught topspinny backhands, sort of half drive, half loop, right off the bounce. I can demonstrate the shot easily, but I don't naturally use it in a match, not after 35 years of hitting "normal" backhands. The shot is highly effective; the ball just jumps at you like a normal backhand loop, with all the quickness of an off-the-bounce flat backhand.

Adjustable height device

On Wednesday, I blogged about new training tools, including a serving height device made by local player and coach John Olsen, with adjustable brackets that hold a pole over the net. We've used it as an exercise both for serving and stroking low to the net. Here are two pictures, set high and set low.

100 degrees

That's how hot it got yesterday here in Maryland, and it's supposed to get a touch hotter today. Aren't we glad table tennis is an indoor sport, and that the Maryland Table Tennis Center bought a new $8000 air conditioning system a month ago? For the last twenty years our air conditioning left something to be desired, but now it's nice and cool inside. Then you step outside and it's like walking into a furnace.

When humidity strikes

However, with lots of players training, it still gets a bit humid inside sometimes, and of course it often does so at tournaments. What does one do when their inverted sheet becomes slick with moisture? First, always have two towels - one for you, and one for the racket and ball only. (Hitchhiker's Guide had that half right.) You could just wipe the racket off every six points or so, and you'd get most of the moisture off. However, since the moisture doesn't form evenly over the surface, I've found that you can dry it off better by first blowing on the racket surface, giving the entire surface a light moisture. Then the towel slides evenly over the surface, drying it much more thoroughly. Yes, it sounds counter-productive to blow on the surface, adding moisture when the goal is to remove moisture, but I've found that it works. This is also good for general cleaning of your racket. 

Xu Xin multiball training

Here's a 39 second segment of Chinese Team Member Xu Xin doing multiball. He makes it look so easy; try this yourself.

First back, then neck

In my ongoing attempts to find a comfortable position to sleep at night with my back problems (I blogged about that yesterday), all I've managed to do is hurt my neck. (I think I slept on my stomach, with my head on its side on a pillow.) When I woke up on Wednesday, it was hurting, but it gradually went away. This morning I woke up in agony; I can't turn or tilt my neck in either direction. So today I answer the age-old question that's been pondered since the time of Aristotle and Confucius: Can one feed multiball in a table tennis training camp when he can't move his back or neck and is in constant agony? (Today's the last day of the two-week MDTTC training camp.)

Confluence (non-table tennis)

Tomorrow morning at around 5AM I'm hopping into my car (or rather gingerly lowering myself into the driver's seat after a bowl of Ibuprofen and milk for breakfast, due to back and neck problems) and driving to Pittsburgh (four hours away) for the Confluence Science Fiction Convention. They seem to have two websites, this and that. I'll return late that night. The guest of honor is Robert J. Sawyer, who was the writer in residence at the Odyssey Writer's Workshop I went to in 2006, and a best-selling SF writer. (Here's my SF writing page.)


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