The Chinese National Team Training at the Werner Schlager Academy Blog

By Donn Olsen | May 05, 2013, 9 a.m. (ET)

Day 6 

Donn Olsen

The sixth day is the final training day on this trip by the Chinese National Team in their preparation for the LEIBHERR World Championships in Paris, France (Monday, 13th May to Monday, 20th May) at the Werner Schlager Academy in Schwechat, Austria, a suburb of Vienna. 

Tomorrow morning, 10th May, the full squad will be flying to Paris to show the world their standard.  Please be prepared to be impressed.

Mentoring Confirmation?

In yesterday’s report, we had some fun speculating on a possible Chinese mentoring program, with two candidate pairs specifically mentioned: Wang Hao/Fan Zhendong and Wang Liqin/Zhou Yu.

In the morning session, Wang Liqin took a rest, but right out of the gate we see again the Wang Hao and Fan Zhendong matchup!  We may be on to something here.

Just in this week’s time, it seems a greater camaraderie has developed between them, as well as a better sense of each other’s games, making for a spectacular display of power shot making that is almost impossible to look away from.

Boy, this is fun.

Introduction to the Big Time

We know the Chinese coaching staff is a shrewd bunch, with very analytical and thoughtful decisions.  Throughout the week, a consistently used matchup has been Ma Lin and one of the younger players, with an emphasis on playing games.

On each and every occasion, this has proved to be intriguing to watch, with one theme prominent in the results throughout the several players Ma Lin confronted.  With Ma Lin the clearly more effective player, the most distinguishing quality between him and them is play early in the point, particularly service return and initial attack.  At times, it was at a degree of challenge for the more junior players that it was a source of some considerable frustration, in one case to the extent where the younger player wanted to stop playing games.

This same phenomenon was seen with Wang Hao and Fan Zhendong.

From this is an opportunity for the young player to gain in appreciation of these aspects of the sport.  To tell a player of this importance is one method; to directly subject the player to the play dynamic experience is another level of learning absorption.

This is testimony to the great power of mentoring.

Bombs in the Morning; Silence in the Afternoon

Early in the morning session, I noticed a definite increase in the men’s offensive force on the ball when compared with other days.  In their standard drills, all were driving the ball above the customary standard they had used throughout the week, a curious change to note from this observer.

The mystery was solved in the afternoon session, for it was then indicated that the men were skipping this session to rest.

This simple episode has a number of interesting implications.  It is obvious the men pushed themselves even harder than their usual high standard due to the knowledge of the time off they were to receive.  Despite this extraordinary effort not being mandatory, their self-initiative drove them to a higher exertion and a more demanding mental and physical pressure.

Also suggested is a mature sense of the optimal exertion level expended over a given training time frame.  This is one of the noteworthy characteristics of top athletes in all sports; the knowledge and awareness of their optimal energy expenditures throughout a discrete training period. 

This stands as more testimony to the exceptional qualities of this team.

Another Training Theme

In every session of every day during this Werner Schlager Academy visit, and the other visits as well, there is one thread of training that is pervasive, that subtly yet powerfully is incorporated into much of the drill variations employed.  That skill quality is judging the length of the oncoming ball.  Early in the training point, the essential length categories of short, medium, and long are continually being used to test and to improve the judgment of the players.

It is obvious when a misjudgment is made, and it is in these situations that most often play is stopped by the coach for a comment to be made or a discussion is to be held.  Because specific techniques are used depending on the oncoming ball length, the accuracy of this judgment is of critically high importance.

Essentially, the player attribute under pressure is adaptability, first to make the correct judgment, then to select the proper technique and to execute.  This is one of the key elements in the multi-faceted domain of competencies associated with play early in the point, a time period forever in the forefront of the Chinese coaches’ minds.

A Few Fun Items

During the week some not-so-serious items came up.  Here are a few:

  • During the middle of his matchup with Wang Liqin, Ma Long commented to me he was having some problems seeing the ball clearly, noting Wang’s white shirt in their all-white ball environment.  I stated in response “Yes, Wang Liqin is very intelligent.”  Ma Long just laughed a bright laugh. The next day, who shows up in a white shirt? Ma Long, while being paired with Hao Shuai.  Too much to resist, I said “Ah, a white shirt” to which Ma Long said “He (Hao Shuai) is angry,” enjoying another good laugh.

  • Only one member of this Chinese National Team of 23 uses edge tape on the racket.  Who? Zhang Jike.  Asking a few of the coaches and players as to why the lack of popularity, no one had a good sense of it.  One player said edge tape was not popular in Asia.  One coach said it changed the feeling of the racket.  Coach Kong Linghui issued the most convincing argument “They don’t like it” with an accompanying big smile and a laugh.

  • Speaking of smiling, Wang Liqin is seemingly always smiling.  He smiles during the points, before the points, after the points, on the sidelines.  Undeniably he is very happy to be here.  This facial pose is distinct from prior times, when he was more cut from the Wang Hao cloth of an about-to-be-released scowl.  We are happy for his happiness.  

Team Solidarity

A definite pattern governs each training session.  

The men’s and women’s teams always arrive on time, promptly walks out to their designated playing area for a brief team meeting, then begin a disciplined session.

Once the formal agenda for the training is completed, the actual training just meanders to a close, with each player selecting one of many choices, from stopping to continuing as they please.  It is at this time that the team solidarity often becomes manifest, as the men begin playing with the women.  There is such a naturalness to this, such a comfortable engagement in the interaction.

In the final session of the final day, Wang Hao played with the women’s chopper Hu Limei, Liu Shiwen played with Fan Zhendong, and Yan An played with Wu Yang.  Both coaches and players very much enjoy watching these serious confrontations.  This is a team.

Final Thoughts

Werner Schlager Academy co-CEO Martin Soro never tires of expressing his admiration and appreciation for the Chinese National Team.  Recently he said this: “We have had players from 145 different countries here at the WSA.  There are times when things become difficult with some of our visitors.  With this Chinese team, there is never a problem.  Their professionalism in as aspects of their engagement here is impeccable.  Their behaviors and demeanor make it a dream for us when they are here.  It is always a great pleasure to be with them.”

Unquestionably, the Chinese National Table Tennis Team is one the greatest teams in all of sport.  Observing their standards of excellence is an exciting experience for those who hold deep regard for sport’s brilliance.  The privilege and honor of associating with this monument of the very finest is beyond expression.  As Martin Soro stated so directly “They have earned and deserve all the greatness that is theirs.”

Now, on to Paris!

Day 5

The fifth day of the Chinese National Team training preparation for the LEIBHERR World Championships in Paris, France (Monday, 13th May to Monday, 20th May) at the Werner Schlager Academy in Schwechat, Austria, on the outskirts of Vienna was back to the standard of two sessions. 

One variation in the schedule was the length of time between the sessions.  Many involved felt that a four to five hour break became a bit too much dead time as these highly conditioned athletes do not need that much time to recover.  Furthermore, with the new schedule being moved up two hours, the amount of evening free time is extended, allowing for more opportunities.

A Jolt to Start the Day?

Right at the beginning of the first session, a surprise occurrence: in walks the women’s team, but not a men’s member to be seen.  What could this be? Overslept?  Skipping the morning?  Oh no, they are all outside running.

Amelia Solja vs Li Xiaoxia

Yesterday I reported the highly demanding matchup of Fang Bo of the men’s team against Li Xiaoxia.  With Fang’s constant offensive pressure, Li was seemingly forever on the defensive, fast shot after fast shot slinging off of Fang’s racket to all places on the table.  So, as they say in America, this must be a setup, for Austria’s Amelia Solja equipment of anti-spin and short pimpled rubber is most often used to slow the game down, the direct opposite of what came from Fang.

No one understood this difference more than Li Xiaoxia.  Many points early in the interaction baffled Li to the point of her own humor.  Even with all she brings into the play, the contrast, executed beautifully by Amelia, was very challenging for Li for some not short period of time.

Eventually, as we all would expect, Li Xiaoxia got her groundings and made the points exciting and versatile.

One additional residual element Li brought into this match from the Fang Bo match was her defense.  Amelia, through much hard work, has developed a very strong forehand, used when the opportunities arise.  Particularly in the first half of the session, these opportunities most certainly did become available and Amelia frequently ripped forehands at Li.  What happened?  Well, Li has two speeds of quickness; very quick and extremely quick.  After the Fang experience, Li was extreme.

Chen Weixing vs Ma Long

Today’s match for Austria’s Chen Weixing, a good friend of the Chinese team and a former member, was against Ma Long.

I’ve always found Chen an interesting fellow.  Often he starts matches with a very customary style that he plays, then, if needed, adapts to the play dynamics that develop.  Not this time, for Chen is way too smart for that.  He knows who he’s playing, and that he cannot waste one point if he hopes to perform well.

From the very beginning, Chen Weixing maximized the variability of his game, constantly changing shot types and spins and locations.  It is not too crazy to say that he may be the only table tennis player in the world that could execute with this much diversity with this much skill.  Pick a technique, any technique, and he used it at a world class capability.  It was absolutely stunning to watch.

The first game result?  Playing to 11 points: 19 -17 to Ma Long.  You get the idea.

Ma Long won the match 4 – 0.  Chen Weixing summarized for me his analysis of his play: “Very bad”.  Trust me on this one, dear audience, he is completely wrong.

Mentoring

One of the correct observations about the Chinese National Team is its remarkable ability to, generation after generation, stay dominant in the sport, developing top players to replace top players.  There are many elements in their system that contribute to this continuity, including means to transfer hard earned player insights to the next generation of players.  As with many other disciplines, an exceptional method of achieving this is with mentoring, understood as a relationship and process between a dedicated senior and a developing associate wherein the senior helps guide the associate’s growth.

With the outstanding success of this team, we must suspect just such a program is active within their system.  In my view, watching closely the day-to-day coaching decisions, this trip has revealed two very good candidate possibilities.

The first is Wang Liqin and Zhou Yu.  Both as doubles partners and as a singles training pair, there is a very clear nature of mentorship to Wang’s interaction with Zhou.  In a highly respectful and warm manner, Wang often advices Zhou on a very wide range of circumstances encountered, demonstrating proper approaches and promoting repeated attempts. 

The Chinese coaching staff is wise; Wang Liqin is a perfect selection for this; and Zhou Yu is blessed.

The second mentoring prospect is a pairing mentioned in a previous report: Wang Hao and Fan Zhendong.  Again today they were put together, the veteran and the junior.  There is some naturalness to this coupling, as both the physical appearance and the spirit and style of play resemblance cannot be missed.  The mentoring approach certainly differs from Wang’s; less talk, more as a functioning role model.  Watching them play you can see the difference in their levels.  Each session with the great Wang Hao is a Fan Zhendong lesson, growing step by step.

Something New for Ma Lin?

There seems to have developed an understanding of a tactic against Ma Lin that the coaching staff wants to address.  Ma continues to feature his traditional backhand penholder style for defensive blocking purposes (he uses his reverse penholder style for creating offensive shots).  If an opponent can topspin into Ma’s backhand with sufficient ball speed to prevent Ma from turning to play his forehand, Ma often commits to his traditional racket side and is quite restricted at that point in playing aggressively against that ball because of the blocking racket angle he has selected.

What seems new is an effort, upon recognizing this specific circumstance, to switch to a more offensive oriented racket angle (with his traditional racket side) and to more strongly topspin (versus block) against this shot, thus increasing the speed and spin quality of the response.  Some considerable training is devoted to this. 

Even at this point of his career, we continue to see the standards of professionalism come through.

Welcome Visitors to the Hall

A crew of journalists and video/photography personnel from the international XINHUA News Agency arrived today to capture much of the Chinese Team’s action.  Included in their activities were interviews with the Head Coaches Liu Guoliang and Kong Linghui.

Introducing the New Family Member

Werner Schlager’s beautiful new daughter, Nea Nika, is 10 months old.  Because the Chinese team has not paid a visit here in a year, introductions were in order, with Werner himself presiding, to the delight of all.

Ma Long

Ma Long made his first big mark on the international stage at a scary young age, winning the World Junior title (Under age 18) when he was 14.  To say he is special is to speak the obvious to an unnecessary degree.

In watching him closely over the years in training contexts, interacting with the multi-generational best, he retains his distinct specialness among these special players. 

He spends more time on new features than anyone else.  He trains ball contacts over the table more than anyone else.  He more frequently plays subsets of his complete style to increase the challenge and difficulty of the routine than anyone else.  He is the greatest serve returner on earth.

In today’s afternoon session, he wore a cartoon t-shirt with the statement “The King of Table Tennis.”  I agree. 

Ma Long is my pick for the Men’s Singles World Champion in Paris.

Day 4

Only a morning session was held on Day Four of the Chinese National Team training preparation for the LEIBHERR World Championships in Paris, France (Monday, 13th May to Monday, 20th May) at the Werner Schlager Academy in Schwechat, Austria, on the outskirts of Vienna.  This schedule matches the team’s prior visits, as a well deserved mid-week break for sightseeing positions them comfortably for a quality effort in the few training days remaining.  Of course, the use of the term “break” must be understood in the context of the standards of this great team.  It means they train hard only once in the day, not twice. This pause will allow us to catch up on a few things. 

Indications of the Competition Nearing

As with the prior day, the men completed an abbreviated warm-up followed by a 15 minute period of point playing at a 70% level of intensity.  The next activity was counter looping off the table, with a point-like disposition of moving the shot placement randomly in an attempt to win the point.

In addition, beginning yesterday and expanded upon today, more points were played among the players, emphasizing game situations.  One of the features of this change is the use of only a single ball per table, again an effort to simulate competition environments.

It is clear these changes indicate the competition is nearing.

Fastest Multi-ball

In yesterday’s session, Li Xiaoxia was subjected to the fastest multi-ball session of this team’s visit—fastest both in ball speed and the frequency of the balls fed.  Perhaps today’s pairing was the reason for the extra pressure the prior day, for Li was matched up with Fang Bo to play points against. 

If the intention of the coaches was for Fang Bo to emulate the pressure of the multi-ball session, they were definitely not disappointed, for from the first point to the last, he was really going after the ball.  As Li is known for her own formidable power in initiating and sustaining the attack, it was an abrupt and not completely comfortable role to constantly be in a responsive and reactive mode.  I speculated it may have been the most defense she has ever played.  Fang, in offense, was relentless as Li was relentless in defense.  It was an exhilarating battle of remarkable athletes.

Most Improved

It is always interesting to watch players evolve and mature their games.  Even in the cases of these very advanced Chinese team members, year over year advancements are evident.  This year, my vote for most improved from the prior year is Yan An.  Although he was a terrific player last year, there were features of his play not fully solid at the edges of high stress.  These all seem gone now, replaced by a poised and confident playing stature indistinguishable from the best in the hall.

Bananas – Now and Then

With an accelerating popularity resembling the youthful attention bestowed upon the latest Justin Bieber-like new performer, the so-called banana flip or flick is all the rage in table tennis circles.  It is a bit difficult to describe: It is a backhand technique that seems to be used primarily in service return, particularly against underspin serves with a compatible sidespin to the motion of the stroke.  Its name comes from the curvature of the racket movement that resembles in the mind’s eye the curvature of a banana.  With the tip of the racket under the ball, the racket moves up and around the ball in a curved manner.

During last year’s team visit, the two players most devoted to developing the banana were Wang Hao and Zhang Jike.  Interestingly, while all the men have a form of it in their repertoire, its presence is far less pronounced with the women.

This year, in contrast with the concerted efforts to develop this technique last year, the team has evolved to a greater focus of responding to the banana of the opponent.  A number of training methods are used to accomplish this. 

Two elements of the banana technique, in particular, are well understood by the coaches and reflected in the responses developed to it.  The first element is that, upon its initiation, it is very obvious it is being executed.  Whereas other techniques have optional selections that may be used from a baseline approach to the ball, with the banana you see immediately you are getting the banana.  Secondly, the technique always produces long length shots that travel a considerable distance off the table, a very valuable understanding to have.

The highly intelligent Chinese approach to the response to this technique has incorporated an awareness of both of these elements.  The key quality both elements share that is so effectively exploited is the opportunity of anticipation.  Much is well known prior to the actual need to respond to the ball.  This anticipation creates a time period that may be used to enhance the responsiveness to the shot.

In one part of yesterday’s session that was directed to this matter, Wang Hao demonstrated precisely how it is to be done, as he strongly drove each and every high quality banana thrown at him.

These Chinese coaches are very smart.

Chen Weixing versus Xu Xin

In what is a daily highlight, Chen Weixing, the former Chinese national team player and long time top international representing Austria, plays a series of games against a Chinese team member.  Today it was Xu Xin, who at the moment is ranked number one in the world.

This match was much different than yesterday’s against 16 year old Fan Zhendong, a right handed power player.  Xu Xin is left handed and has a much more developed touch and spin game than his younger mate.  Xu used this to great effect, winning 4 – 1, with all the games tight affairs.  A critical determining factor in the match was the wide range of options Xu had at his disposal in response to the very great variation Chen is expert in creating.  With these skills available on key points, he held a slight advantage.

One interesting feature of the match was the frequency that Chen, customarily with his pimpled rubber on his backhand, would switch to use his inverted forehand rubber for backhand techniques.  Xu’s lefty forehand frequently goes diagonally across the table to Chen’s backhand court.  Although Chen is great at responding with a defensive shot over and over again, he was never able, by just defensively chopping the ball, to break the point to his advantage.  Xu’s forehands just kept coming until the point tilted to Xu’s favor.  To remedy this, Chen switched to his inverted rubber on intermittent occasions to counter attack, changing significantly the rhythm of the point to a much more disrupted state.  It was this one change that evened the match considerably.

A Full Team Meeting

At the conclusion of training session, Head Coach Liu Guoliang held a joint meeting with the men’s and women’s team.  He spoke in sober tones for 20 minutes then, without comments or questions, the meeting was adjourned.

A Very Special Visitor

1993 Men’s World Champion Jean-Philippe Gatien is in the house!  Mr. Gatien is working on a table tennis documentary for French television to be broadcast during the upcoming LEIBHERR World Championships in Paris.  His team is video recording some of the Chinese training as well as other activities in the Academy.  Furthermore, he certainly would not miss the chance to inquire into the thoughts of Werner Schlager, which he did at length.  

It was another great training day at the Werner Schlager Academy.

Day 3

Day three of the Chinese National Team training at the Austrian-based Werner Schlager Academy in preparation for the LEIBHERR World Championships in Paris, France (Monday, 13th May to Monday, 20th May) was divided into the typical morning and afternoon sessions.  The morning session was further divided between table time and gym time, with approximately equal allocations between them.  The team was in the gym on Day one, so it was time to return, for their pattern in prior visits is to never do gym work on consecutive days.  It is also to be mentioned that they make clear distinctions between the type and severity of their training between off-season and in-season work.  Essentially, the in-season work, as is being done here, is to maintain the exceptionally fine conditioning they developed in rigorous off-season strivings, a time when playing is reduced and physical conditioning is emphasized.

A Warm-up Variation

The men in the morning used a new variation in getting the day started.  After an abnormally brief warm-up, they played points for 15 minutes at about 70% speed.  A wise coach knows that in the day-to-day schedule that this team keeps, it is very easy to become a bit stale if the process becomes too routine.  Adding this variety helps with the focus and enthusiasm.

Spectacular Counter Looping Display

Following this period, the men completed the warm-up stage with counter looping at a typical counter looping distance from the table.  Although each table was a beautiful display of the highest caliber, for this observer there was specialness with the Xu Xin-Wang Liqin pairing.  The descriptive word that comes to mind is spectacular, for the dosage of flair and fire made them catch the most eyes.

The Austrian Contingent

The Chinese coaches have a clear approach to incorporating the invited Austrian players Liu Jia, Amelia Solja, and Chen Weixing into the proceedings.  The purpose of this training trip is preparation for the competition at the LEIBHERR World Championships, so the most mutually beneficial tactic would be to use these fine players for match experience, as was the decision.  On each and every occasion, the Austrians performed with high level competencies, to the obviously impressed and pleased Chinese coaches.  [On a side note: Amelia plays with short pimpled rubber on the forehand and anti-spin rubber on the backhand.  Upon inquiring, I was told that in the full group of Chinese Women’s Team players in China, there are short and long pimpled rubber players, but no anti-spin rubber players.  Amelia is a special opportunity for them.]

Among these players’ matches today, of particular interest was the contest between 16 year old World Junior Champion Fan Zhendong and the very veteran Chen Weixing, age 41.  A number of observations come to mind in watching the match, the first from this observer is that Chen Weixing certainly did not look or play old and Fan Zhendong certainly did not look or play young.  I love this sport.

The match started not so well for Chen, as his initial approach placed way too little pressure on this big gun.  In long points and short points, Fan was comfortable orchestrating the proceedings to his favor. 

In response to this, Chen Weixing, who is nothing if not adaptable, forthrightly changed the point patterns considerably.  He stopped his chopping defense on his forehand, choosing to counter loop on every opportunity to his forehand side.  Most often this tactic did not score the point outright, but forced Fan to reply to a shot type of high contrast to the extreme underspin coming from Chen’s backhand defense.  One consequence of this change was that Fan was now less well positioned to play as strongly against Chen’s backhand defense, resulting in a greatly reduced number of winners against the chop.

Furthermore, Fan’s drop in the speed shot quality against the backhand chop permitted Chen much more opportunity to turn to his forehand with a strong offensive shot on Fan’s shots that came to the middle and backhand courts of Chen’s.  The result of this was not only more strong Chen offensive forehands, but big forehands coming from all different angles, a much more difficult proposition for this young star.

The final chapter?  Chen Weixing wins 3 – 1.

The One and Only

A most favored drill on this team is a pattern of one player blocking with the backhand all over the table and the other player attempting to play forehand attacking shots on all occasions back to the backhand.  Although all the players are exceptionally good in both roles, from a viewing perspective there is little that distinguishes the players in this drill, with the one great exception of Ma Lin in the blocking role.  No one on this great team has anything that approaches the magnificent diversity of blocking techniques of Ma Lin.  The highly experienced in this sport will remember these techniques emphasized during the prominent short pips penholder player days of the past but, alas, it seems to be, very soon, a lost art.  Now, the blocking choices seem to be limited to hard and harder.  I’m very happy and privileged to be watching Ma Lin.

A Concern Eliminated?

In the first five minutes of the first day’s first session I noticed all was not right with Liu Shiwen.  Although in good spirits, she was playing less time than the other players, playing less hard, playing sometimes only with the coaches, and leading all team members in time spent with the physiotherapist.  With the LEIBHERR World’s soon to be, this did not look promising. 

Happily it may now be reported that she seems to be at full speed, her accustomed self strong in both singles and doubles work.  May good fortune permit this to continue (plus, she’s my pick for the Women’s singles title in Paris).

In the Afternoon

The women stayed focused on hard, demanding drills through most of the session, interspersed with some doubles preparation.  My doubles favorite here on the Women’s side is Ding Ning and Liu Shiwen.  Maybe the coaches agree with this view of their strength, for today they were matched against Wang Liqin and Zhou Yu and brilliantly fought the men all the way.

The men did something very interesting all afternoon; they played matches.  With score cards manned by the coaches so that all could follow the action, most of the top players in the world interspersed with the most of the top junior players in the world did battle.  What a show it was!  All the best-of-three-games matches were close, the outcomes in question until the end.

From the caliber of play on display, you could not distinguish the experienced from the youngsters.  Very impressive.

A Very Fun Yet Meaningful Conclusion

As things were winding down for the day, head coaches Kong Linghui and Liu Guoliang set up a serving contest – the boys against the girls.  Placing nine sheets of paper on the table to create target areas, the coaches would select areas for each player to serve to.  The laughter and applause rang out as player after player stepped up to accept the challenge.  To the great delight of all, the greatest players on earth had “variable” results.

What matters not at all are the details of this, but what it symbolizes and represents.  Rare is the opportunity to see expressed within a group, in the most genuine way, the unqualified camaraderie, closeness, and affection each person has for all the others.  The thoroughness and authenticity of this heartfelt spirit could never be surpassed.  As captivating, awe-inspiring, and great as this team’s table tennis play is, this team’s human expression toward each other is even greater.

Day 2

The city of Vienna, Austria has a history of brilliance coming in many forms.  Whether it is a symphony orchestra, a classical music composer, an Alpine skier, or a scientist, the shining historic brightness of this city makes it a very special place.  To pick just one example as an illustration, there is Wolfgang Pauli, the theoretical physicist.  While still only in his early twenties, he produced a highly technical account of the theory of relativity which expressed insights that were beyond even Einstein’s knowledge of the details of the theory, a fact that Einstein admitted with enthusiasm.  Later, in one of the greatest advancements in quantum physics, he developed the exclusion principle, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1945.

The sport of table tennis has its own proud history of brilliance which, when we pause for a moment to think about it, makes us stand a little bit taller.  It comes in the form of both individual and team performances.  On the individual stage, another resident of Vienna has been to the mountain top: Werner Schlager, the 2003 Men’s World Champion.  With challenges coming from all directions, he delivered to be above all the rest, in a thrilling display.  On the team stage, in the most recent phase of the modern era the discussion begins and ends with the great Chinese teams.  One of those teams is with us today, here at the eponymous Werner Schlager Academy in the outskirts of Vienna, a center of excellence ranked at the top by the ITTF and recognized by no other than the great individual Chinese player Liu Guoliang who, as now head coach of this team, declared the Academy to be the best in Europe.

It is with these warm thoughts that we start Day Two of the Chinese National Team training at the Academy as they prepare to defend their historic results at the LEIBHERR World Championships in Paris, France (Monday, 13th May to Monday, 20th May).

An Absence and an Addition

Transitions should be noted, for it helps us with our bearings; where we have been and where we are going.  On this Chinese team, Guo Yan is not here.  In thinking about what a truly great performer she has been in her illustrious career, we will remember her quiet leadership and impeccable character that stood as a constant role model for table tennis players on her team and around the world.  On a personal note, I recall her here one night in a past visit as the last standing in the hall, just her, performing those ridiculously difficult forward giant frog leaps over and over until she could not do another.  She would rest for a minute, and then begin again.  When we look at Guo Yan, we must all look up to see her.

On the brighter side, former Chinese team member and now fully Austrian, Chen Weixing joined the training for the first time this trip.  He is integrated into the activities as he should be, using his exceptional defensive chopping skills to help the others sharpen their game.  He is a contributor appreciated by his training partners.

Clothing

The most popular training shirt for this team says on the front: “I Love Table Tennis”, with the symbol of a heart representing the Love.  We should surely not be surprised at the popularity of this slogan with this team, for at their level of expertise, there is indeed very much to love.

Perhaps another training shirt I spotted may be even more insightful.  It said on the front “Feel your heart beat”.  Remarkable are the number of times a training point is completed not by the usual means of an error or a stumble but by the sheer exhaustion of the amazingly consistent players involved.  On these occasions, they most certainly can hear their hearts beat.

Youth Integration

Seven players on this team—four boys and three girls—are ranked in the top ten of the ITTF Under 21 category.  That is a large number of comparatively inexperienced players to incorporate within the finest table tennis team in the world.  By observing closely the pairings of players, it seems clear there are two guiding principles the Chinese coaching staff are following when selecting training partners.  The first principle is the need for mentoring the youth.  This is accomplished by matching a young player with a veteran.  This exposure will promote the proper enculturation as well as an opportunity for a very formidable playing standard.  The second principle is the recognition that the young players are not yet at the senior level capability, thus the matchup of young player with a veteran often results in a somewhat lower standard of training than a veteran-to-veteran pairing.  This is managed by moving the younger players frequently among the veterans, thereby spreading the mentoring function equitably and allowing sufficient veteran-standard training for the most developed.

There is always thoughtfulness with the Chinese coaching staff.

First Impressions of the Youth

The future seems always to be of interest, so observations on the next generation of players are topical. 

First it must be said that all of the seven Top 10 Under 21 ranked players here are very impressive players at their current state of development.  Their rankings are correct.  Among the girls, all three play a comparable standard in the work they are doing here.  On the boys’ side, the standout is Fan Zhendong.  In watching him train with much more experienced players, I now know why he won the World Junior title.  Judgment should be reserved in comparing him with Ma Long at the same age, for Ma Long at that time was off the scale with his own personal standard that shouldn’t be arbitrarily applied to others.  With that cautionary comment made, we may with confidence anticipate stardom for Fan Zhendong.

A Lesson in Serving

At the end of the morning session, an interesting serve training engagement occurred.  With the formal morning period completed, Head Coach Liu Guoliang, typically concentrating on the Men’s side, began assisting Ding Ning in her service motions.  He was soon assisted by Ma Lin.

The direction he was providing corresponded to the tradition use of a service model that is helpful in thinking about how to serve.  In this model, there are three distinct motion phases, performed in sequence.  The middle (or second) motion is the movement that contacts the ball and is the only mandatory phase among the three.  The first motion is a fake motion, used to distract the opponent from correctly observing the second motion that actually contacts the ball.  The third motion is a fake motion too, with the intention of harming the opponent’s understanding of the second motion that just occurred.

From the demonstrations of both Mr. Liu and Mr. Ma, it was clear the emphasis they place on the second and third motion phases, with little to no regard for the use of the first phase (using the traditional model terminology).  The key to the deceptive effect in their approach is very quick racket movements that transition, at lightning speed, from the motion that contacts the ball to the following fake motion intended to deceive the opponent.  It was a fascinating 30 minutes of instruction.

To manage the length of this article, I will conclude coverage of the second day of training now.  Much more that was interesting surfaced today.  What was not included here will be incorporated into the other days’ discussions.

Day 1

For the third time, the Chinese National Table Tennis Team has selected the Werner Schlager Academy on the outskirts of Vienna, Austria for its final preparation phase prior to the World Championships, this time specifically the LIEBHERR World Champions to be held in Paris (Monday, 13th May to Monday, 20th May).  A full team contingent is on hand – 38 persons strong, including 23 players, 5 officials, 8 coaches, and 2 medical personnel.  Arriving on 3rd May, they depart 10th May.

All who know this team knows they waste no time so, despite an 11:09 p.m. arrival in Vienna (Bejiing to Frankfurt to Vienna) on Friday night, the next morning they were in the hall at 11 a.m. showing no signs of a weariness one might expect.  A true professionalism and commitment on display, with both good humor and strong strivings in the mix.

The first day was split into two sessions, the morning devoted exclusively to work in the gym using the top-of-the-line exercise equipment, while the afternoon was all on the table tennis tables.

In the afternoon session, being consistently gracious visitors as they always are, the Chinese team welcomes a number of players not on their team into the training sessions, with a particular favoring of those affiliated with Werner Schlager Academy and the Austrian national association.  One conspicuous change from last year is the absence of Daniela Dodean as her recovery from a medical procedure, though proceeding very well, is not yet complete.   Also missing is Li Qiangbing due to the condition of her pending motherhood.  From the Austrian group of last year, the most-likeable-and-ever-sunny Lui Jia and the very special anti-spin rubber player Amelia Solja are on duty.

New to these proceedings is the fast rising young Austrian Sofia Polcanova.  In watching her first few minutes on the table, it would be far to say that training with the formidable Chinese was initially an emotionally challenging task, but this soon passed and she was at her very best the rest of the way.   

Different Groups – Different Approaches – Same Spirit: The standard model for the training sessions puts the men on one row of tables and the women on the other.  Each group is directed differently, with distinct approaches evident.  For instance, the men stretch, then run, while the women run, then stretch.  As each session proceeds, it is evident the activities of men and the women are not interrelated.

With those differences noted, it is the similarities that one finds most striking.  With all the players, a spirit of full involvement in mind and body is pervasive.  In every dimension the quality is the very highest; in skill, in effort, in commitment to the objective of each drill.  This team has evolved a culture of excellence the standard of which is to be aspired to by those that seek to be the best they can be.

From Last Year to This Year: Some definite points of individual player developmental emphasis were evident during last year’s visit that again showed up during the first table tennis training session this year.  Here are some examples.

Ma Long continues to lead all team members in time spent training attacking shots over the table against serves and short control shots, with a continually expanding set of techniques of higher and higher quality.  New to this year is a greater emphasis on shot placement to compliment his unrivaled ball speed and spin.

Ma Lin has no team peer in his time spent training 3rd ball attack, striking strongly against his opponent’s passive serve return.  He starts this training earlier than the others and does it longer than anyone else.  His adaptability in this circumstance seems unparalleled.

Xu Xin had two points of emphasis last year; maturing his reverse penholder backhand techniques, particularly defensively, and sustaining his offensive play closer to the table than had been his tendency in the past.  In this first day this year, it was clear the significant progress in both areas, as little traditional backhand was seen and most of his time was spent closer to the table in both offensive and defensive postures.

Wang Hao showed great efforts last year in striving to improve his backhand reverse penholder opening attack against underspin balls.  In observing today, it is accurate to say that not only has he succeeded here, he has also added the dimension of shot placement with a high degree of proficiency. 

Someone Familiar – Someone Not: For those who have followed the highest heights of table tennis in recent times, it still remains a great thrill to see Wang Liqin.  We know the generational transformations that are inevitable and that the time with Wang Liqin into the future will be shorter than the time we have had with him in the past.  That makes each of these moments that much more special, as our last lion of table tennis graces our confines with his continuing brilliance.  We will cherish this time with him.

On the unfamiliar side is Fan Zhendong, the youngest on the team at age 16.  With his great success in the junior ranks, he is now with the biggest guns around to test his mettle.  This first day he was paired with Wang Hao, leaving the impression that coach Liu Guoliang desired one table to be designated the “table of the brutes” for in style and spirit, neither plays shy.  What fun to watch!  It is clear from this first day that the coaches are right: Fan Zhendong belongs on the team.

That’s it for the first day.
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