The Secrets of Chinese Table Tennis
Larry Hodges/Cheng Yinghua (2007)
The Secrets of Chinese Table Tennis-- Part One
and What the Rest of the World Needs to Do to Catch Up By Larry Hodges and Cheng Yinghua
At the recent World Championships, China made a clean sweep of all five events – men’s and women’s singles & doubles and mixed doubles. In fact, all but the men’s doubles were all-Chinese finals. And yet, a number of cracks were apparent, especially on the men’s side.
Denmark’s Michael Maze, after losing the first three games and falling behind 7-3 in the fourth against China’s Hao Shuai, came back to win. Maze earlier had defeated Wang Hao very easily, 4-0. Czech Republic’s Petr Korbel led Ma Lin 7-3 in the seventh before losing that final game 11-9. Wang Liqin had to go the full seven against Hong Kong’s Li Ching. Korea’s Moon Hyun Jung defeated Wang Nan, who had won the women’s singles at the last three Worlds.
Yet, all in all, the Worlds were a demonstration of Chinese supremacy in the sport.
So what are the secrets of Chinese table tennis … and how can the rest of the world catch up?
The Chinese National Team
The Chinese team has more depth than any other team in the world. The primary training centre is in Beijing. The team is made up of 96 players – 24 men, 24 women, 24 boys and 24 girls.
Players are given “tryouts” early on, usually with trips to major tournaments in Europe or elsewhere, to see how they will perform internationally. From this, the Chinese judge if the player has the potential to become a star.
A huge advantage China has comes from her strength in depth. If a player on the national team isn’t working hard, doesn’t do well internationally, or has technical flaws limiting his/her progress, then there is always another “hungry” player with potential on the outside waiting to get in.
National Team Selection
In many countries (including USA), the national team is selected at the Team Trials. This may be the fairest way of choosing a team, but it may not be the best way to develop a dominant team. According to Cheng, in most countries – including USA – 90% of the training and the team funding goes to “flawed players” who have no chance of ever winning medals.
This is a real problem as team trials fit in with most people’s notion of fairness. Yet the players who make the team in such trials usually are not the players with the greatest potential for winning medals. Often players in their 40s make the team over promising players under 22. Exhibit “A” is the current U.S. National Team at the recent Worlds, chosen by team trials. Their ages were 46, 41, 41, 38, 37, 36, 34, 30, 19 and 18. (This is not to disparage the accomplishments of those who made the team at the trials, who indeed earned their positions.) Many of the top youth players in the U.S. however just missed making the team. Ironically, the youngest player to make the team, Han Xiao, aged 18, finished fifth, and only the top four spots are funded – so he had to pay his own way, even though he was the top player of his age in the country. The funding went instead to older players, mostly in their 30s and 40s. Players such as Mark Hazinski (20, U.S. #1 under 22), Adam Hugh (17, U.S. #1 under 18 boy), and Judy Hugh (15, U.S. #1 under 18 girl), did not go.
Was this the fairest way of choosing a team? Yes. Was it the best way to choose a team with the potential to develop into medal contenders? Probably not. Unless they were top world-ranked players, Chinese coaches probably wouldn’t have selected anyone over the age of 22. One option is to have a separate “youth” team made up of players aged 22 or under who train as part of the national team. Many countries already have these squads, but these players, along with older players who can challenge the best players in the world, need to be at the heart of the national squad.
The Chinese train long and hard. Typically they do seven hours of training each day – both table play and physical training away from the table. In the mornings, they normally do physical training away from the table, and serve practice. There is a morning and an afternoon training session, usually six days a week. (Training includes both regular practice with a partner, and multi-ball training with a coach. This is the same for most countries.) Some players play extra practice matches at night or on off days. Players generally get 12 days off per year, although they also get rest days after major tournaments (which are often travel days).
They normally focus on training from November to April and with more tournaments the rest of the year. During Cheng’s years on the team, this was more clear-cut, but now with the ITTF Pro Tour and various leagues, there is more and more year-round competition.
Specialized Practice Partners
One huge advantage China has over the rest of the world is their practice partners. Typically, in most countries, members of the national team train together. However, in China, much of the training is with “professional” practice partners. Instead of players always taking turns on drills, all the training focuses on the one player. (This is especially helpful for the women, who practice with male practice partners who are usually stronger then the women players.)
Even more important, practice partners mimic the styles of opposing players. The Chinese team includes practice partners who have developed their games to match those of the best foreign players – men like Schlager, Samsonov, Kreanga, Waldner, Saive, Chuan, Ryu and Oh, and women like Boros, Tie Yana, Li Jia Wei, Liu Jia, Kim Kyung Ah, and Pavlovich. These practice partners study videos of the player they are copying, and talk to players who have played them so as to better mimic them.
According to Duan Xiang, a member of the Chinese Technical Committee of the Chinese Table Tennis Association, “We have a lot of Chinese Samsonovs and Waldners. Our players play against them every day and that makes the real match easier.”
Cheng spent much of his time on the Chinese team as a practice partner. During his early years, he was told to copy Hungary’s Tibor Klampar. Later, when Klampar retired, he was told to mimic Jan-Ove Waldner. Cheng even travelled to Europe to watch these players live in tournaments and would speak with players who played against them to get an insight into their games and what made them so effective. Those who watch Cheng now can see the mixture of Klampar and Waldner in his game.
China’s Jiang Jialiang, a pips-out penholder, won the worlds in 1985. As the 1987 Worlds approached, it became apparent that his main rival would be Sweden’s Waldner. Therefore much of his training time was with Cheng, who could mimic everything Waldner did, from his serve and serve returns, to his forehand loops and drives, etc. As the ’87 Worlds approached, they began playing many practice matches, with the loser doing push-ups. Cheng won match after match, and after each match would stand over Jiang as he did his push-ups, asking how he’s going to win the Worlds if he can’t even beat him? The preparation worked; while Jiang didn’t do so well against Cheng before the Worlds, he became so used to the “Waldner” game that he was able to win the 1987 Worlds again.
Perhaps, if he’d practised with players who mimicked the best Chinese, at the recent Worlds, Maze wouldn’t have fallen behind 3-0 to Hao Shuai and would have been more comfortable with Ma Lin’s game. Perhaps he was just getting used to Ma as he did with Hao Shuai when the match ended. (He lost the match 11-7, 11-6, 11-9, 11-8, showing he was getting closer towards the end.)
Two-on-One Practice Partners
A common problem for the best players in the world is finding a strong enough practice partner. During his prime, Waldner once quipped to the Swedish coach, “When do I get to practise with someone stronger?”
China has more depth than any country, but even there, the best players are the best players. Players like Wang Liqin and Ma Lin can’t find anyone better to practise with than themselves. Or can they?
China has developed a way of doing this. Cheng was hesitant about even talking about this, as this training method has been relatively secret, even to this day. It is normally only used in closed training sessions as they prepare for major tournaments. Cheng hinted that at one time, if he’d told “outsiders” about this technique, he would have been in trouble.
The technique involves having two practice partners for one player. This is a luxury that other countries can’t afford, but that China, with their playing depth, can. Two practice partners are selected, one with a very strong forehand, one with a very strong backhand (but also a good forehand), and they learn to play together as a team. Together, they do drills against the best Chinese players. With one player only playing forehand from the forehand side, and the other only playing from the backhand side (favouring the backhand, but also playing forehands from the backhand as top players do), suddenly the two become a “stronger player” than even Wang Liqin! Thus even the best Chinese players are pushed to the limit, practising with these “stronger pairs.”
Mental and Tactical Training
The Chinese team meets at least weekly with sports psychologists. (This is common practice in other countries as well.) One aspect that is probably different is that these sessions are joint psychology and tactical meetings. This is linked together as it takes proper mental training to execute proper strategies under pressure.
The Chinese team has a tactical support staff which develops these strategies. According to Zhou Zuyi of the Shanghai Daily (May 7, 2005), “Insiders give credit to the backroom staff who devote themselves to analyzing the opponents’ games and developing new techniques and strategies. The technicians work out a game pattern for each major foreign player, which is in turn followed by training partners whose only job is to emulate different stars from around the world.”
The Development of a Chinese Player
Chinese children are tested at a very early age for sports skills. Those who test well are often put into special sports schools. Cheng was tested at aged 5 and tested highly for racket sport skills, so was put into a special sports school. From age 5 to about 12, he was trained in both table tennis and badminton. From age 12 on, he was essentially a full-time table tennis player, dropping out of school to focus solely on table tennis. Most other top Chinese players have similar stories.
Others come from regular schools. Essentially every school in China has a table tennis team that trains regularly. In a country of 1.3 billion, that’s a huge number of teams! According to the Shanghai Daily (May 7, 2005), “10 million players play on a regular basis. These are players who are exposed regularly to high-level play, not the basement players that make up the masses in the U.S. and many other countries.”
Some say China is good at table tennis only because of sheer numbers. There is, of course, a degree of truth in this. However, as shown by Europe’s (especially Sweden’s) rise in the early 1990s and China’s decline, numbers cannot overcome poor technique. In the late 1980’s/early 1990s, China was slow to adjust to changing techniques, persevering too long with mostly pimples-out style play while the rest of the world was changing to looping with reverse rubber and especially with the shake-hands style. China has learned from that experience and now leads the world in this very style. Wang Liqin was recently re-crowned as world men’s champion (he also won in 2001). On the women’s side, Zhang Yining has just won the Worlds; she was preceded by Wang Nan, who won three straight Worlds. All three of these players are shake-hands loopers and are probably the most emulated players in the world.
What happens in China is that the players with the best technique, talent, and mental and physical skills tend to rise to the top. Where before some of these players might have been kept out because they didn’t play the “right” playing style (with many shake-hands loopers relegated to becoming practice partners who copied the European loopers, like Cheng), now they become regular Chinese team members. Because there are so many Chinese players, training squads are filled with skilled and hard-working players. The best Chinese players too tend to be the ones with the best technique.
New techniques are regularly appearing. Probably the most noticeable is the “reverse pen-hold backhand,” best exemplified by Olympic Silver Medallist Wang Hao and the World Men’s Singles Finalist (and recently ranked #1 in the world) Ma Lin. Historically, penholders use the same side of the racket for both forehand and backhand. In the 1990s, a number of Chinese players began using the reverse side of the racket to attack on the backhand, most prominently Liu Guoliang (1996 Olympic Gold Medallist, 1999 World Champion), who used it mostly as a variation. Ma Lin raised it to a new level, using it as a major shot. Wang Hao raised it to an even higher level, making it his primary backhand stroke.
While Europeans pioneered backhand looping, the Chinese have developed over-the-table backhand looping to a higher degree. Europeans like Klampar developed this technique in the 1970s, but few others developed this style. China did. Now Chinese players like Wang Liqin, Kong Linghui and Zhang Yining are among the best in the world at this (along with Austria’s Werner Schlager and Korea’s Oh Sang Eun).
Above all, Chinese players dominate with serve & receive techniques. Other countries have closed the gap in serve techniques, yet most consider Ma Lin’s serves the best among world-class players, and before him, Liu Guoliang’s – both Chinese players. But it is the return of serve where the Chinese really dominate. Where other countries learn to return to neutralize the serve, the Chinese return to throw opponents off and to take the initiative. Ma Lin is probably best at this, tying opponents up in knots with his returns, but all the Chinese players train many hours at this and so have few peers at receive. Outside China, Waldner may be the only one who can do this at the Chinese level.
There is another “secret” strength of Chinese technique, except it’s not really a secret: they have the best basics. They spend huge amounts of time on the “boring” basics, and so are nearly machine-like in their efficiency. You rarely see a Chinese player miss an easy shot. Cheng said of his winning the USA Nationals in 2004 at the age of 46 that most of his opponents simply didn’t have good enough basics. (This is relative, of course – good basics at world-class level are pretty advanced for most of us.)