TableTennista

September 4, 2014

Where Do Top Players Come From?

I'm always hearing about how USATT leaders want to develop medal contenders and world-class players. When I hear this I have a simple set of questions for them, which leads to a conclusion that's sort of obvious.

  1. Where do the overwhelming majority of top players come from? (Answer: successful junior training programs.)
  2. Where do successful junior programs come from? (Answer: successful training centers.)
  3. Where do successful training centers come from? (Answer: coaches and directors who take the initiative to create them, where they have to reinvent the wheel over and over from scratch and figure out how to do this because there is no one helping them out, no manual or guidance, nothing from any organizing body for table tennis, and of course no one's recruiting them to do any of this.)
  4. What's the major stumbling block here?

That's why I strongly believe that one of USATT's top priorities should be to recruit and train coaches and directors to set up and run training centers with junior programs. This is not something that costs much. USATT is already running ITTF coaching courses. What's needed is to adjust the focus to recruiting and training those who wish to become full-time coaches or run junior training programs. If there are additional costs, the coaches in training would pay for them, just as they already pay for the ITTF coaching courses. The "hook" toward recruitment is that coaches can make a full-time living as coaches at these training centers, making $40-$50/hour. (I write about this quite a bit in my Professional Table Tennis Coaches Handbook, which I'd donate at cost to those who run such programs to recruit and train coaches.) I still have on the backburner the idea of starting up my own coaching academy where I recruit and train coaches, but right now I'm just too busy on other things.

Breaking the Upper Body Forehand Muscling Habit

A common problem for players is to try to muscle the ball when forehand looping. This means they try to produce most of their power with their upper body and arm rather than using the legs and rotating the body's weight into the shot. Normally a way to break this habit is to do lots of shadow-practicing where the player exaggerates the leg and body rotation, and then do lots of multiball. However, in a session with a kid this weekend I found a new way. I've always pointed out that a player should be able to loop with great power while carrying on a conversation, since the power mostly comes from the legs and weight transfer. Players who muscle the ball instead tense their upper body as they use that as the primary source for power. But it's almost impossible to do that if you are talking. The kid I was coaching was trying to rush the shot, and so was muscling the ball with his upper body instead of rotating into the ball properly. So while I fed him multiball so he could practice looping I had him tell me about school, about his favorite sports, or just count. Result? Once he got over giggling, he stopped muscling the ball.

International Table Tennis

Here's my periodic note that you can great international coverage at TableTennista (which especially covers the elite players well) and at the ITTF home page (which does great regional coverage).

6th Annual Ping Pong Charity Tournament

Here's the article and video (3:11) that'll take place in Virginia Beach, VA.

Turn Your Kitchen Table into a Ping-Pong Table!

Here's the article and video (2:37).

Kids Playing TT

Here's a video (47 sec) of a kid playing table tennis. Watch his reaction as he loses the first two points, and especially his celebration when he wins the third point! Here's another video (2:44) as Samson Dubina trains his daughter in on-table cross-legged Gatorade-bottle target practice. (Spoiler alert: she hits it at 2:22, and after celebrating gets to drink it.)

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May 16, 2014

What to Do at Age 18?

I've blogged in the past about how the level and depth of play in the U.S. at the cadet level (under 15) is the highest we've ever had, due to the rise of full-time training centers all over the country over the past eight years. It's gotten ridiculously good. It's a group that any country outside China could be proud of. And in three years this group of players will be competing as juniors (under 18), and the level and depth of play in the U.S. at the junior level will be the highest we've ever had. And a few years after that they'll hit their peak as players, and the level and depth of play in the U.S. will be the highest we've ever had, right? 

But there's one problem. What's going to happen when they all turn 18?

Case in point. Over the last few years we've watched Ariel Hsing and Lily Zhang develop as probably the two best junior girls in our modern history. Ariel is currently #81 in the world and has been as high as #73. She was the youngest USA Nationals Women's Singles Champion when she won in 2010, and she repeated in 2011 and 2013. She was on the 2012 USA Olympic Team. She was #4 in the world in both Under 15 and Under 18 Girls. Lily recently shot up to #66 in the world. She won women's singles at the 2012 USA Nationals at age 16. She was on the 2012 USA Olympic Team. She was #2 in the world in Under 15 Girls and #5 in Under 18 Girls. 

But Ariel is now 18, and is attending Princeton. She didn't even try out for our last National Team because she was busy with school. Lily will be 18 next month, and is going to University of California at Berkeley. She didn't even attend our last USA Nationals because she was busy with school. They are still training, but let's face it; they are no longer training full-time as before. In contrast, all over Asia and Europe players like Ariel and Lily are training full-time. Part-time can't compete with full-time. 

The same has happened on the men's side. Michael Landers won men's singles at the 2009 USA Nationals at age 15, and improved dramatically in the three years after that. Peter Li won men's singles at the 2011 USA Nationals at age 17. Both of them hit age 18 and went to college, and their levels both dropped dramatically. The same is true of a long list of other elite juniors. I remember just a few years ago when three players from my club (MDTTC) were #1, #2, and #5 in the country in Under 18 Boys - Peter Li, Marcus Jackson, and Amaresh Sahu. All three went to college when they turned 18, and so none reached the level they might have reached if they'd continued a few more years.

Who knows how good these players might have been if they had continued training full-time into their 20s?

Unless something happens in the next few years, in about five years we will be looking back and asking ourselves, "What happened?" We had all these up-and-coming kids, and the future was bright. Instead, we'll have the strongest group of college table tennis players in our history. While that's a very good thing from one point of view (and it would be great if table tennis were to become a big college sport with scholarships in the best colleges all over the country, but that's a separate topic), it's not a good thing if we're trying to develop athletes who can compete at the highest levels. Excluding China, this generation really has the potential to someday compete with anyone. (Perhaps we'll be world college champions circa 2020?)

There is little money in our sport. So what's the long-term benefit for these kids to continue to train full-time? Sure, there's the usual incentives, such as being National Champion and making the U.S. Olympic Team, and . . . um . . . well, that's about it. (How much do these pay?) So yes, unless something changes, it'll be another "lost" generation. Sure, some will continue, and we'll almost for certain have stronger teams than we do now, but nothing like what it could be. Perhaps our men will improve from #53 in the world to top 20, but they could be top five or better. Perhaps our women will improve from #21 to top ten, but they could be top five or better. (With Ariel together with Lily and Prachi Jha, they already are close to top ten level - #16, according to the ITTF team rankings based on individual ranking.) And you know something? If you can reach top five, you can make the final of the World Championships. (We're not ready for China yet, but we'll worry about that when we actually have a top five team.) 

Ironically, in the past when we had fewer truly elite juniors, the ones that were elite were often more likely to focus on table tennis because, by U.S. standards, they were truly "elite." They would train full-time well into their twenties before moving on to college or other work. Now these same elite cadets and juniors are just another in a pack of them, and so they don't feel they are truly "elite," and so are less likely to continue training full-time. And so they go to college rather than train full-time for a few more years. (Just to be clear, I'd urge them all to go to college, but there's nothing wrong with putting it off a few years, even into their mid-20s for a truly elite player. Some might decide to stay with the sport and become professional coaches, which actually pays pretty well.) We have standouts like Kanak Jha and Crystal Wang and a few others, but will they continue when they hit college age? (The financial outlook for women players is even bleaker, since many tournaments have an open singles instead of men's and women's singles.)

What can we do? There has been regular discussions over the years on the idea of setting up professional leagues or circuits, and develop a core group of pro USA players who would travel about competing in these professional leagues or circuits. It's been a serious topic of discussion since I first got active in table tennis in 1976. And there have been attempts by a few to make something like this happen, from the American All-Star Circuit that we used to have in the U.S. to the current North American Tour. The latter has potential, but without major sponsors there isn't nearly enough money, and the money that is there mostly goes to players from China. There's nothing wrong with these Chinese players winning money, but it means there's little chance a U.S. player can make enough money to afford to play in such a circuit - especially since it's often part-time U.S. players pitted against full-time Chinese players.

Do the Chinese raise the level of play for USA players? Potentially yes. But if our top juniors quit and go to college right when they begin approaching the level needed to compete with these Chinese players, it's wasted. Equally important, when approaching college age, it's tough for a USA player to look at table tennis as a professional career when nearly all the money goes to foreign players living in the U.S., which doesn't leave much for prospective professional USA players. (Some argue that the USA players shouldn't avoid playing tournaments where they'd have to play these elite full-time foreign players, but that's easier to say when you aren't the one spending huge amounts of time and money on your training, and are looking at losing another $500 on a tournament just so you can lose to one of them. There needs to be a balance if we want to give USA players incentive.) 

Bottom line? "Serious talk" on this topic isn't really serious anymore until someone actually does something. Real action is needed. USATT wants to get sponsors but doesn't really have a serious product to sell. (They've tried for many years.) I've argued they should focus on developing our product with regional leagues (as is done all over Europe) and coaching programs, and sell that to sponsors, but that didn't interest them. Perhaps something a bit more elite-oriented would be more enticing, since USATT (with USOC encouragement and funding) is more focused on elite development than grassroots development. 

Why not have USATT partner with the North American Tour or some other group, and assign the incoming USATT CEO to focus on selling sponsorship for that Tour? Isn't the purpose of USATT to improve table tennis in the United States? USATT is the national governing body for the sport in this country, and so has a great platform to sell from, if they only had something lucrative to sell - and here's a natural product.

The goal would be to create a truly Professional Tour, where U.S. players could actually make a living, while bringing regular exposure to the sponsor. (Perhaps the circuit tournaments would have both an Open event and an All-Star American event for U.S. citizens. Or it could be citizens only.) The circuit is already there as a product, it just needs more money. Once we have such a professional circuit, there are other ways to bring in money - spectators, TV, and so on - and what sponsor wouldn't want to be the national sponsor for something like this if we show it has potential to truly take off?  We can do this, and have a good chance to dramatically improve table tennis in the United States. Or we can continue to talk and do the same old things we always do - nothing. 

U.S. Open Blog - Deadlines! Deadlines!

Here's the latest U.S. Open blog by Dell & Connie Sweeris. Want to play in the U.S. Open? Deadline without penalty is this Sunday, May 18. After that there's a $75 penalty, with no entries accepted after Sunday, May 25.

"The Ping Pong Man"

Here's an article and video (3:09) on table tennis Globetrotter Scott Preiss, and his visit to Beaverton, Oregon.

International News

Lots of articles at Tabletennista (including one on Ma Long undefeated at the last two World Team Championships) and at the ITTF page.

2014 U.S. Para European Update

Here's the video report (2:02), from the bus, by Tahl Leibovitz, with Wayne Lo and others.

The Best Scoring System for Table Tennis

Here's the video (3:39) from PingSkills in PingPod 38.

Round Table with Spinning Net

Here's the article and pictures from Table Tennis Nation

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May 12, 2014

Tip of the Week

Anyone Can Become Very Good at Something.

Youth Olympic Games Controversy

There's a controversy involving the training and coaching of the USA Youth Olympic Games athletes (Lily Zhang and Krish Avvari). Basically, USATT set up a training program for the two, then chose a coach. Since Massimo Costantini (from the ICC Table Tennis Center) is the coach for both players, it seemed logical to choose him, but since he wasn't available to go overseas for the entire training program planned (nearly two months), another coach was selected. Officials from ICC were not happy.

I too thought they should have hired the coach first, then have him develop the training program for the players, in particular since he was the coach of both players. From USATT's point of view, they were just incorporating the ITTF's YOG training program, which involves a lot of overseas training and in general is a good idea. It might have been better if they had not locked themselves into requiring the coach to be there the entire time, allowing some flexibility so someone else could substitute for the few weeks when the coach can't make it. Regardless, hopefully they will work something out where Massimo oversees most of their training while missing some of it because of his other commitments. There is lots of discussion of this at the USATT Facebook and ICC Facebook pages.

The coach who was hired (though the official announcement is not yet up) is the highly qualified Lily Yip. (I've known her for decades, and we even attended the same ITTF Level 2 Seminar, held at the Lily Yip TTC last year.) It's unfortunate there's any controversy on this as she's an excellent coach. The problem is that the two players in question just happened to both be students of Massimo, and this was known at the time Lily was hired. Massimo was USATT's first choice because of this, but because he couldn't commit to the entire overseas training program they went with Lily. If they hadn't apparently locked themselves into requiring the coach there the entire time, perhaps they could have hired Massimo, and hired Lily for the times when Massimo could not make it.

Ironically, I also considered applying for the YOG coach position, but since I haven't worked directly with these players (other than a week about four years ago when I practiced daily with Krish during a Stellan Bengtsson camp, plus coaching against him in tournaments a few times), and since I figured Massimo or someone else who worked more regularly with these players was applying, I decided not to. (Plus it's a big commitment for a full-time coach with lots of students.) Perhaps another time, when an MDTTC player is on the team in question. MDTTC's Crystal Wang is already on the USA Women's Team and Cadet Girls' team, and we have a number of other up-and-coming players. But what happens if I or some other coach also can't commit to the entire "required" time? The irony is that coaches who are in demand are usually the ones who will often have the most trouble taking time off - and they are often the ones we'd want to hire.

This isn't the first time ICC has felt burned by USATT. As I blogged about Jan. 24, 2014, the ICC Director, Rajul Sheth, wanted to run for the USATT Board, but the USATT Nominating and Governance Committee refused to put him on the ballot, with no reason ever given. I still find this unbelievable, both that they wouldn't put him on the ballot and that they have the power to do so, with no recourse such as getting on by petition - and no one from USATT has shown any interest in changing these silly dictatorial rules. It's an easy fix, as I pointed out in the blog. Which USATT board member will become a hero and make the motion to change this rule? 

USATT Launches New Membership System - RailStation

Here's the announcement. Could be helpful. It definitely gets our membership system into the modern age! A key phrase from the announcement: "USATT members with a current email on file will be sent instructions on how to log in and activate their account.  If you have not provided an email address to USATT or need to update it, please contact Andy Horn at admin@usatt.org."

U.S. Open Entry Deadline Extended to May 18

This year's U.S. Open is in Grand Rapids, Michigan, June 30-July 4. The deadline to enter without a $75 late fee was Saturday (two days ago), but they've extended it to May 18 (next Sunday). Here's a listing of players currently entered, and of entries by event. (There are 381 players listed as entered as I write this, but I'm sure there are still a lot of paper entries not uploaded yet, plus the extended deadline should bring in some more.) Here's more info:

MDTTC - the Laughingstock of Table Tennis

Yes, it's true. On Friday and Saturday, famous stand-up comedian Frank Caliendo spent several hours at MDTTC playing. (He was in town for some local shows.) He has a rating of 1658, but that was from three years ago - he appears about 1800 now. Between coaching sessions I even got to play doubles with him on my team. (Alas, I coach too much and play too little, and so my receive was way off, and we lost to Julian Waters and Steve Hochman. But then Julian and I took down Steve and Frank!) Then on Sunday another famous stand-up comedian came in to play for a few hours, Judah Friedlander, who is rated 1565 (and who've I've coached before), though as his home page says, he's the World Champion. (Judah grew up locally, and while he spends most of his time in New York City doing stand-up, he comes to Maryland often to visit his family.)

ITTF Athletes Commission

Vladimir Samsonov was re-elected as Chair. Others elected or appointed were Jean-Michel Saive (BEL), Zoran Primorac (CRO), Krisztina Toth (HUN), David Powell (AUS), Angela Mori (PER), Elsayed Lashin (EGY), Yu Kwok See April (HKG), Wang Liqin (CHN), and USA's own Ashu Jain.

ITTF Legends Tour

I wrote about the Legends Tour last Thursday. Here are more pictures.

International News

As usual, there are lots and lots of international news items up at Tabletennista.

Matthew Syed Launches New Table Tennis Academy in England

Here's the story. (Syed is a former English table tennis champion, one of the best defensive players in the world.)

Shot of the Day

Here's video (46 sec) of a very strange rally at the recent World Championships between China's Ding Ning and Japan's Yuka Ishigaki in the Women's Team Final.

Ibrahim Hamato - Nothing is Impossible

Here's more video (2:43) of the famous armless Egyptian player from the ITTF. Includes interviews (with English translation) and showing him hitting with the best players in the world. I've actually put a racket in my mouth like he does to rally in exhibitions, but not at this level!

Happy Mother's Day (one day late)

Here's the Table Tennis Mother's Day Graphic by Mike Mezyan.

Non-Table Tennis - Bram Stoker Award

"After Death" just won Best Horror Anthology at the Bram Stoker Awards, which is sort of the Academy Awards for written horror. It includes a story of mine, "The Devil's Backbone." You can buy the anthology at Amazon. And here's a review of the book, which says, "… and “The Devil’s Backbone” by Larry Hodges, which I found to be well-conceived, well-executed, and well-written, my favorite in the anthology."

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August 1, 2013

MDTTC Camp

Yesterday's focus was on forehand looping. We didn't have most of the beginners do this, though a couple of them badly wanted to and so I taught them the shot. Normally you give players at least a few weeks at least of regular forehand and backhand drives before introducing them to looping. The six-year-old I blogged about yesterday who had a pretty good backhand loop (at least in multiball) had an even better forehand loop! Very smooth and rather consistent. However, he's not ready to do this effectively in a game yet - he still loses head-to-head to other beginners who don't have his techniques, but are a couple years older and are more consistent.

One of the important points that came up several times yesterday is the importance of rotating mostly in a circle when forehand looping. Imagine a rod going through your head; you should rotate around it. The left side (for righties) should pull back and around as much as the right side goes forward. This doesn't mean you never move your head and upper body (i.e. follow through sideways), but that's usually done to create power when rushed, especially when stepping around the backhand corner. By rotating mostly in a circle you stay balanced and immediately ready for the next shot - which is how top players can pull off a series of powerful loops in quick succession, while intermediate players often struggle to do two in a row.

The younger kids in this week's camp absolutely have gone bonkers over Froggy. All they want to do is put it on the table so they can try hitting it while I feed multiball. I'm starting half the sessions by saying various versions of, "If you work hard for the first hour, I'll bring out Froggy and you can take turns hurting the poor amphibian." It's good target practice, as long as they use good form when hitting.

Over break I was challenged by a 2139 player to a clipboard match. We played best of three to 11. I won the first, 11-9. He won the second, 11-8. He was leading 6-4 in the third when we ran out of time and had to go off break. We plan to finish the match at break today. We're having great points - wish this were on video. (There are a couple videos of me playing clipboard matches on youtube, but neither are among my better-played matches.) Earlier that morning, before we started, another junior (about 1100) also challenged me to a match, so I played him with my cell phone, and won, 11-9.  He wants to play me again today - rematch!

(Note - I have to run over to the club an hour and a half earlier this morning for something, so this blog is shorter than normal - not as much time to scan the Internet for interesting articles and videos.)

The Art of Decisiveness

Here's the article from Table Tennis Master.

International Articles

Here's my periodic reminder that there are lots and lots of international articles at the ITTF and TableTennista sites!

Junior Olympic Results

I've been unable to find any online results from the Junior Olympic Games, which were held the last three days in Detroit, finishing yesterday. One of the parents there put together this listing of medalists from my club (MDTTC). I have a listing now of the results and if I can't find an online listing soon I'll probably format and post that. (They normally put the results online.) So . . . Congratulations to the following MDTTC'ers at the 2013 Junior Olympics!

GOLD
Girls U10 Singles - Lisa Lin
Girls U10 Doubles - Lisa Lin & Jessica Lin
Girls U10 Team - Lisa Lin, Jessica Lin & Helen Yao
Boys U12 Singles - Adam Yao
Girls U16 Doubles - Kaylee Zou & Shirley Hu
Boys U18 Doubles - Chen Bowen & Nathan Hsu
Division I - Sameer Shaikh
Division J - Jessica Lin
SILVER 
Girls U10 Singles - Jessica Lin
Boys U16 Singles - Chen Bowen
Girls U18 Singles - Lilly Lin
Boys U18 Team - Leon Bi, Chen Bowen, Nathan Hsu
Division H - Lisa Lin
BRONZE 
Girls U12 Singles - Helen Yao
Girls U14 Singles - Amy Lu
Girls U18 Doubles - Lilly Lin & Amy Lu
Girls U18 Team - Amy Lu, Kaylee Zou & Lilly Lin
Boys U16 Team - Jason Wei & Adam Yao

Table Tennis Balls - Never Leave Home Without 'Em!

Like this. (No, it's not my car!)

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