Playing Style

October 20, 2011

Playing Style and Identity

Yesterday, "R8ng_stinks" posted on the subject of a player's "identity":

"I've been curious about this subject for quite awhile.  When I started playing a few years ago I simply tried to keep the ball on the table.  The best solution, I found, was to glue the ball to the table.  Okay...that really didn't allow play to flow very well.  I played aggressively, had very little control, then moved to a somewhat defensive style.  While trying that, I became aggressively defensive, which, depending on the situation, was not all bad.  But then passive mistakes started killing me.  I switched to an offensive style with slower inverted rubber, but still had control issues and then wanted to "baby" the ball in certain situations.  Control: ZERO.  Passive mistakes seemed burned into my long and short-term memory.  So I dumped the inverted and moved to short pips forehand and backhand.  I have plenty of speed and enough spin, and I can get defensive when necessary.  I'm still a below-average player, but my lack of skill is mostly due to my current inability to maintain focus and mental control."

Then he asked:

"To make a L   O   N   G story short, does a player really need to have an "identity", offensive or defensive?  How about "can't decide," or "I have no idea"?  Does the style define the player, or does the player define the style?  Does it matter at all, as long as the play is effective?"

When he writes of a player's "identity," I think that roughly means his playing style. I think the key question is the last line: "Does it matter at all, as long as the play is effective?" If the play is effective, then that play, whatever it is, is the playing style. The player must be doing something to win the points, whether it is looping, hitting, blocking, all-around consistent play, serve & attack, etc. Whatever ingredients being used to make this play effective, taken together is the playing style, i.e. the player's identity.

There are no two identical styles, though they can be similar and to some, seemingly identical. The pieces come together in different ways. For example, if you watch Cheng Yinghua, who was the U.S. #1 player for ten years and a former member of the Chinese National Team, you'll see three distinct styles meshed together - two-winged looping, all-out forehand looping, and a blocking game - as well as many aspects of former greats Jan-Ove Waldner and Tibor Klampar, since early on Cheng copied their games as a practice partner for the Chinese National Team. And so all these parts of Cheng's game came together into a distinct playing style, his playing identity.

How do you develop your own playing style or identity? It's a combination of three things - things that work for you, things that you or your coach believe will work for you if you develop them, and things you want to be part of your game. Put these things together, practice them, get lots of match experience, and gradually you will develop a playing style.

And what is this playing style? It's whatever you do that makes your play effective.

The other question was, "Does the style define the player, or does the player define the style?" I think he is asking whether a player's style develops on its own and defines the player, or whether the player decide on his style and define himself. (If this isn't the question, it's still a great question to answer!) It works both ways. For example, early on I developed a nice forehand tomahawk serve. Because players kept popping it up, I developed good footwork and a nice forehand smash. And so my playing style developed on its own, based on certain strengths (the serve) and the corresponding strengths that developed because of this (footwork and a forehand smash). But I decided I needed a strong forehand loop, and so spent a huge amount of time developing that, as well as a forehand pendulum serve that would set up my loop. And so a big part of my game became serve & loop - and so I defined my own style by developing this.

Interview with Barney J. Reed

Here's an interesting interview with Barney J. Reed on the forum. And for those not in the know, Barney J. Reed is the one who was on the U.S. National Team for a number of years (is now coaching), while Barney D. Reed is the father and table tennis coach. How can you keep track? "J" for Junior and "D" for Dad.

Did you practice your serves this week?

Just askin'.

Who are the original pictures of?

Here's the poster for the satirical movie based on my book, Table Tennis Tales & Techniques, with Brad Pitt and Michael Cera photoshopped onto two table tennis players. Anyone recognize the pictures and know who the players were before their heads were replaced by Pitt's and Cera's? (If you want more info on this poster, see my blog this week on Monday and Tuesday, and the original article.)

USA Nationals

Today is the deadline for entering the USA Nationals without a late fee (Virginia Beach, Dec. 13-17). After today, and through Nov. 1, you can still enter, but with a $75 late fee. So enter now! I'll be there, coaching and playing in three hardbat events. (I normally use sponge, but don't like to play sponge events in tournaments where I'm primarily coaching. I'm the defending and four-time champion in Over 40 Hardbat and defending and ten-time champion in Hardbat Doubles with Ty Hoff, my partner last year and in six of the ten doubles titles).

Tomorrow I'm writing about the rise and fall in the number of entries at the USA Nationals (though there was a small uptick last year), including a graph, with the big question: What will the final numbers be for this year's Nationals? Stay tuned!

Rafael Nadal

Here's 15 seconds of tennis star Rafael Nadal playing table tennis. Someone get him a shirt.

Yoda's Ping-Pong School

To a young Luke Skywalker, table tennis Yoda teaches (1:13). Or something like that.


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September 26, 2011

Tip of the Week

Develop Your Game Around Your Playing Style.

Two-Year Anniversary of September 26, 2009 - the USATT Strategic Meeting

What's so big about this date from exactly two years ago? It's when USATT completed its 2009 Strategic Meeting in Colorado Springs, Sept. 26, 2009. I was one of the 26 participants at the meeting. The biggest discussion point at the meeting was the consensus that USATT's 8000 members was basically a "round-off error." So what programs have since been implemented to increase membership and solve this problem?

We came up with three "priorities," with a task force for each - "Juniors," "Grow Membership Through Added Value" and "Communication." (The "Grow Membership Through Added Value" was verbally said would include setting up regional associations and leagues, but nothing specific was listed on this.) Despite having 26 experts in the room, no specific plans or goals were created. 

I strongly disagreed with much of this - I believed that we needed specific goals and timelines, with specific plans and timelines to meet those goals. The task forces would then work out the specifics, including recommended changes, and then the plans would be implemented. Others believed that the task forces would do all this, and so the only purpose of the 26 attendees (many of them flown in at USATT expense) was to come up with these vague priorities and slogans.

I believed that the Junior priority (way too vague) should be "Club-based Junior Programs," since that's how the most successful table tennis countries do it. You recruit and train coaches to be full-time coaches and to set up and run junior programs. Independently of USATT, a number of full-time training centers have been popping up around the country, leading to junior programs and an increase in the number of active junior players, and a noticeable increase in the number of "elite" juniors. It would have been helpful if USATT were involved in this by recruiting and training those who wish to create full-time centers and junior programs, but there seemed little interest in this at the Strategic Meeting and by the junior task force. 

I also very strongly believed that the so-called "Grow Membership Through Added Value" priority was also way too vague, and that it should have instead been "Nationwide Leagues," with the goal to set up a model that could be turned into a nationwide network of leagues, expanding on the success of current leagues in regions such as the bay area (San Francisco/San Jose), Los Angeles, and New York. Alas, I was voted down. As I've blogged about a number of times (see especially my Sept. 22, 2011 blog), this is how table tennis and other sports all over the world do this successfully. I am completely clueless as to why we ignore these successful models that show a well-trod path to success. (How's that for a slogan?) I also thought that the prevoius Club Catalyst and Creation Program (to have a club in every moderately large city), Coaches National Network (a coaching program in every club), and other state-based programs should have been re-incorporated. 

I think Communications could be important, but I discount its value until we have something to communicate about. For example, the U.S. Tennis Association (700,000 members) regularly sends out email newsletters that focus on their leagues, grassroots junior programs, and the U.S. Open Tennis Championships. What does USATT have to communicate about? It is not particularly involved in leagues or grassroots junior development, and has made no serious effort to increase participation in the U.S. Open or USA Nationals. (Participation is actually down from past years.) The point of a newsletter is to promote the sport, but if you don't have any programs to promote the sport, there's nothing serious to communicate about. Player profiles and other news items make the newsletter interesting, but the central focus must be about central programs that are being promoted. USATT now does a monthly newsletter and even has a new alternate website, but few programs to promote.

There was also a lot of discussion about the USATT's webpage, with a consensus that it was dated and redesigned. We did a lot of brainstorming on what should be on the new webpage. About half the participants wanted to take it down immediately, with a new one designed and created within a week! (Not too likely.) The end result was that it would be redesigned as soon as possible. Two years later, there's been little change. There is the new alternate Team Table Tennis website, but that's not the USATT's primary site. (Do a Google search for "table tennis," and the first thing that comes up is the USATT website. The alternate one doesn't show up on the first page.)

I've been to five of these USATT "Strategic meetings" (plus numerous smaller meetings where the board broke into small groups to do "strategic thinking" on various topics, such as regionalization), and each of which followed the same script, leading to lots of slogans and vague priorities. The problem is that slogans and vague priorities don't bring in membership, develop junior programs, create elite athletes, etc. They simply make the participants feel good about themselves. At the time of the Strategic Meeting, I was ready to volunteer with USATT, but I've sort of lost interest until they show they are ready to take their game to the next level (see their "Brand Promise"). I was asked to be on the USATT Coaching and Club Committee earlier this year, and agreed, but I'm undecided whether there's any point in that - the USATT board and task forces simply have different ideas on how to accomplish things.

It would be interesting to ask the 26 participants to honestly access the success of programs implemented since the Strategic Meeting, and see whether there wpuld be an honest assessment, or the "circle the wagons" response we so often get. (The first one who talks about "what we will do," as we've done for 78 years, instead of "what we've done," gets jettisoned off the planet. Sure, we need to talk about "what we will do," but not until we've had an honest assessment of "What we've done," and figure out how we can do better.) The problem is that there really haven't been any programs implemented. They created a monthly newsletter (like nearly all other sports already were doing, except we don't really have anything to communicate about) and a new logo (which a board member told me symbolizes a "new USATT"), but that's about it. The coaching committee adopted the ITTF coaching program and that has led to a number of ITTF coaching seminars in the U.S. (I ran one), but that was planned by coaching chair Richard McAfee before the strategic meeting, and had little to do with the "priorities" developed. (I also think that program needs more emphasis on recruiting full-time coaches and on teaching how to set up and run club-based junior programs.)

As noted, at the Strategic Meeting we came up with lots of slogans. Since we spent nearly half the meeting on these, I couldn't decide whether to laugh or cry. Here are the things we came up with. Have we fulfilled any of this? Has any of this made us a better organization, gained us new members, or developed elite athletes? My comments are in brackets, but they are rather repetitive as I keep asking what programs have been implemented to accomplish the statement. If nothing is being done to fulfill the words, then they are empty words.

Brand Promise
USATT: Taking our Game to the Next Level 

[Has USATT taken its game to the next level? Has it implemented any programs to accomplish this?]

Brand Vision
We will introduce a new generation of youth to a new generation of Table Tennis.  We will ignite a grassroots movement that connects the fun of basement ping pong to the awesome intensity of Olympic competition.

[Has USATT implemented any programs that will introduce a new generation of youth to a new generation of Table Tennis? Has it implemented any programs that will ignite this grassroots movement?]

Club and league directors will see us as their trusted ally in engaging the masses and nurturing talent.

[Has USATT implemented any programs that will cause Club and League directors to see them as a trusted ally in engaging the masses and nurturing talent? Has it implemented any programs that even involve Club and League directors?]

Colleges will offer Table Tennis scholarships and attendance at intramural competitions will be standing room only.  Table Tennis will become a varsity high school sport.  Corporate sponsors we now seek will instead seek us out.

[Has USATT implemented any programs that will lead to colleges offering scholarships, with standing room attendance at intramural competitions? Have corporate sponsors begun to seek us out?]

We will be known as innovators and agents of change.  Ten years from now, other sports’ NGBs [National Governing Bodies] will meet and ask themselves, “How can we grow our sport like Table Tennis did?”

[Has USATT implemented any programs that merit it being known, or will lead toward it being known, as innovators or agents of change?]

Brand Values

  • We believe that working together, we can accomplish far more than working alone.
  • We welcome players from the basement to the Olympic arena.
  • Respect and integrity will not be sacrificed for results.  We call our own faults.
  • It is better to serve than to receive

[Has any of this led to anything?]

I'll end this diatribe with this.

How to set up a fourth-ball attack

Coach Li explains and demonstrates this in the latest video from Table Tennis University (4:18). This means how to return serves to set up an attack on the next shot.

Loss of power

This past weekend I realized I was losing power on my forehand loop from the backhand corner - a cornerstone of my game - for a reason that is probably common to others. As I've gotten older, my feet have slowed a bit, and I realized that I wasn't going around quite as far as before. And so I was looping while standing closer to the ball, and so wasn't really using any arm extension while looping. Once I realized this, I made a conscious effort to exaggerate the step around movement so I was almost reaching for the ball on those shots, forcing me to fuller arm extension - and the rest of the night I had the most potent forehand loop from the backhand corner I've had in perhaps years.

Going to the well too often on serves

Sometimes it's easy to fall into the trap of trying to win too much from a few tricky serves. The problem is that if you use the same tricky serves too often, opponents get used to them. To use an experience I just had as an example, I played one of our top juniors this past weekend. I had three specific serves that the junior had problems with (all from a forehand pendulum motion) - a breaking side-top serve deep to the backhand, a fast, dead serve to the elbow, and a short side-top serve to the forehand. Rather than vary these serves in along with other, simpler third-ball serves (i.e. short backspin and no-spin serves followed with loops), I tried to win the match on free points from these serves. It worked in game one (11-4), but the junior got used to the serves, and by game two was hammering them. I lost the next two games. Realizing that the time of trickery was over, and that I'd have to earn the win, I convinced myself I had the greatest serve & attack in the world (it's a nice sports psychology trick), and won the next two games almost exclusively by serving short and looping the next ball. Imagine how much easier things would have been if I'd done that from the start, while mixing in the trick serves to get 3-4 "free" points per game? (An extended version of this will probably become a Tip of the Week.)

Note to Kevin

Do your ellipticals! Yeah, Kevin's a student of mine getting in shape for the North American Teams, Nov. 25-27. You and others also training for that - as of today, you have exactly 60 days to prepare. Hup, hup, hup!

Truly spectacular table tennis - with a moral

This video (1:42) has a moral - no matter how badly things are going, you can battle and come back. But you have to take action to make it happen. Are you listening, USATT?


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