The secrets of Chinese Table Tennis Part 2
... and What the Rest of the World Needs to Do to Catch Up
By Larry Hodges and Cheng Yinghua) Part Two (2007)
Challenging the Chinese: A Formidable Challenge
The result of all this training is that the Chinese tend to have the greatest fitness (along with the Koreans), the best basics, and the best serve & receive games. They often have the best techniques and strategy. And they have such depth that they always have a new player ready if one falters. How can the rest of the world challenge this?
There are basically two ways of attacking this problem. The first is simply to match the Chinese in as many of their strengths as possible. The second is to develop other strengths.
Other countries don’t have the depth the Chinese have. However, they can expand their national team to include more players, especially younger, up-and-coming players. One way is to allow the national team coaches to select promising players to join the team. This only makes sense, however, if the team trains together on a regular basis.
National Team Selection
This is problematic as it probably isn’t feasible to switch from team trials to the Chinese system of the coaches choosing the team. However, it is possible for countries to put age limits on their team members who don’t have minimal world rankings, or some version of this (perhaps only having the two top spots completely open). It’s also possible to have youth or junior teams that train with practice partners or national team members. Even this, however, would meet with huge opposition and may not be feasible.
The Chinese train nearly year-round together as a team. Few other countries do this. Most European countries only get together a few times each year to train as a team, as the players instead play in leagues and train with their team in the league. Many European countries get together for “Super Camps” before major competitions, but again it’s only a few weeks per year. This can’t compete with the best Chinese players training together full-time all year.
The USA team gets together only a few weeks per year, if that. It’s simply not enough.
To match the Chinese, other countries need to focus on year-round training, not just periodic training, combined with league-type play and competing in the ITTF Pro Tour. One way of doing this is to simply have the teams train at the location of the leagues, even if that means training in another country. If countries combine their practice sessions, then the best players can train together and pool their resources for practice partners (see below) as well as training centre expenses. Otherwise, the best players in, say Europe won’t get to train with the best players, as the Chinese do (since many of the best players are on the Chinese team).
1989 & 1997 World Champion Jan-Ove Waldner of Sweden attributes much of his success to training in China. Those who wish to challenge the Chinese should consider doing the same.
Most countries don’t have the resources to have as many practice partners as the Chinese. However, this is a must if they wish to challenge the Chinese.
Teams that are not among the best in the world need world-class practice partners to help them raise their level. It’s nearly impossible for 2600 and 2700 players to become 2900 players unless they train with 2900 players.
Teams that are among the best in the world need world-class practice partners which emulate players like Wang Liqin and Ma Lin. When Wang Liqin or Ma Lin play, say, Samsonov, they’ve been practicing with Samsonov-like players regularly, and so they’re ready. Meanwhile, Samsonov has been practicing with whoever he can get, meaning mostly weaker players and none who really play like Wang Liqin or Ma Lin. Anyone watching Michael Maze against Ma Lin in the semi-finals of the recent Worlds could see how uncomfortable he was against Ma’s game. Most likely, two years from now he’ll be equally uncomfortable as he won’t get to train against this style. Meanwhile, in China, there are players whose main job is to play like Maze and so Ma will be even more prepared.
It’s unlikely that other countries can regularly train with two practice partners in the way the Chinese do, at least in the foreseeable future, but the first step is just getting these practice partners. Surprisingly, the answer is to go right to the source: China itself. China has a huge number of top players who are not on the Chinese team, players who, if given the chance, would be among the top 50 in the world or even better. Since costs in China are cheap compared to most other countries (which is why USA was able to hire former Chinese team members Cheng Yinghua, Huang Tong “Jack” Huang and Huazhang Xu as practice partners in the late 1990s), they are affordable, if this becomes a priority. Countries can pool their resources and hire practice partners – and they can do so right from China!
Mental and Tactical Training
Many countries already have meetings with sports psychologists. It might be a good idea to combine this with tactical meetings, as the Chinese do.
Most countries have one or two coaches who develop most or all of the strategies for their team (along with the players themselves). There are many top coaches or former top players who can be brought in, often as volunteers, to help develop tactics. For teams that can’t yet challenge the top players, they should focus on the tactical and style development of their players. If they are at the level where they can challenge the best teams, moving toward specific strategies against specific players becomes a higher priority.
Again, other countries don’t have the depth the Chinese have. They can, however, close the gap with more grass-roots development. Germany, for example, has a huge number of players due to their league system.
Where other countries can outdo the Chinese is in match practice, especially in competitive situations. A Chinese strength is their actual training. However, many Europeans players have more effective match practice, due to the many European leagues. This makes them “match tough” and allows them to be at their best in big matches as they become used to developing flexible tactics for their matches. If they are able to combine this with playing practice partners who emulate top Chinese players, they can be even better prepared for the match than the Chinese player, who may have more and better training, but not as much match play in competitive situations against different players (since much of their match play is in practice sessions against other Chinese players).
To get this match practice, players can play in various leagues, such as the German Leagues, considered by many the best in the world, as well as the ITTF Pro Tour. This, combined with matching the Chinese in other aspects of their development, can make them competitive with the Chinese.
Technique is an open thing, as you can learn the most modern technique by just watching the best players. However, if you do it this way, you are always years behind those who develop these techniques.
This is where the careful planning of coaching methods becomes important. Teams need to emulate the best techniques of the best players (both Chinese and non-Chinese), and add their own techniques.
When Hungary defeated China to win the 1979 World Team Championships, they dominated mostly on the strength of their flick return of serves and backhand loops. When Sweden dominated China in the early 1990s, they did so with their shake-hands reverse rubber game with the addition of speed glue. In both cases, the Chinese were caught off guard and lost due to the new techniques.
USA is also a good example here. In the modern sponge era, roughly the past 40 years, only two players have reached the top twenty level in the world – Dan Seemiller (now the USA Men’s Coach) and Eric Boggan. Both copied the most advanced techniques in the world, and added them to their own new techniques. Both of these players played with the “Seemiller” grip, first developed at a high level by Seemiller himself, whereby one side of the racket was used for both forehand and backhand (a sort of windshield-wiper grip), with anti-spin rubber on the other side as a variation. At the 1985 Worlds, four of the five USA team members used this grip! (Dan & Rick Seemiller, Eric Boggan and Brian Masters, with Sean O’Neill the sole shake-hands player.) The new technique helped bring USA to its highest level in four decades, where they could actually challenge all but perhaps the top four countries in the world.
This doesn’t mean USA or other countries should start switching to the Seemiller grip. It means that to really challenge the Chinese, other countries need not only to copy their technique, but to develop new ones, as the Hungarians and Swedes did. Or doing as the Chinese did by copying Klampar’s technique and improving on it, other countries can improve or develop current techniques. Somewhere out there are players using new techniques that few have noticed, but which may be the next big break-through.
Europe already has one possible advantage over China and that is their rallying techniques. China may dominate at the start of the rally, but the Europeans, who spend more time training their rallying techniques (primarily counter-looping), and tend to use softer sponges (better for counter-looping) often have an advantage here. This is something they can develop, if combined with tactics to get into these types of rallies.
Challenging the Chinese in table tennis is a formidable task, similar to the rest of the world challenging USA in basketball. A few years ago, USA basketball seemed invincible and now they are not. The Chinese are much more challengeable now than USA basketball was, but it won’t be an easy task. Basically, it’ll take a combination of matching Chinese strengths, while developing other strengths. Can it be done? Yes. Will it be done? That remains to be seen.
Cheng Yinghua, who is sponsored by Butterfly, is the current and four-time U.S. Men’s Singles Champion. He was a member of the Chinese National Team from 1977-87. He was the 1985 and 1993 U.S. Open Men’s Singles Champion, along with many other national and international titles. When he won the Men’s Singles at the 2004 USA Nationals at aged 46, he became the oldest ever to do so. He is certified as a National Coach by USATT, the highest level. He was named USATT Coach of the Year in 1996. He is a member of the USATT Hall of Fame and a full-time coach at the Maryland Table Tennis Centre.
Larry Hodges is editor of USA Table Tennis Magazine, a long-time coach and player, and author of over 300 table tennis coaching articles and the book, Table Tennis: Steps to Success. He is certified as a National Coach by USATT, and was named USATT Developmental Coach of the Year in 2003. He is a member of the USATT Hall of Fame and a coach at the Maryland Table Tennis Centre.