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An American in China: Two Weeks of Training With The Pros

By Jeff Pepper | June 18, 2015, 6:33 p.m. (ET)

An American in China:  Two Weeks of Training With The Pros

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to tell someone you play table tennis and not get that "oh, you mean like Forrest Gump" response? 

No problem.  Just go to China!  

I’ve been here for two weeks now, training at the Zhending Table Tennis Training Base (ZDTTB) located on the outskirts of the industrial city of Shiziazhuang, and about 200 miles southwest of Beijing.   I’m hot, I’m tired, and I’m having a great time. 

Table tennis is the national sport here, and players like Ma Long and Zhang Jike gets as much respect as Peyton Manning or LeBron James get in the U.S.  And so it’s no surprise that the top players in China are really, really good.  Chinese men hold all of the top four positions in the ITTF world rankings, while the top American, Timothy Wang ranks #292.  Among women, Chinese players hold the top three spots, while Lily Zhang is the top American at #80.  

And In the Olympics, Chinese players have won 8 of the last 10 gold medals.  

Fortunately, the Chinese are happy to share their expertise with players from around the world, by opening up their training centers to visitors.  

And so that's how I, an average American player in the far side of age 60, ended up training for two weeks with some of the best young players in the world.  

Setting it up was pretty easy. I did some googling and soon found out about the training base here in Zhending.  I skipped the travel agents and emailed the base directly, exchanging a series of emails with a very nice person named Julie (zdtttb@hotmail.com).  She sent me an invitation, I got a visa, and I was good to go.  A flight to Beijing, a taxi ride to the train station, a bullet train to Shijiazhuang and another taxi to Zhengding, and there I was at the front gate, 24 hours after leaving my house in Pittsburgh.  

ZDTTB is not the only training base in China of course. But it's where the Chinese National Team trained for the Beijing Olympics.  It's got a hotel, three gyms with maybe 100 tables, a huge fitness room, a couple of pool tables, and a cafeteria.  

This wasn’t a quick decision.  I’d planned the trip six months in advance, to allow enough time to work on my Mandarin language skills, get myself in reasonably good physical condition, and work on my basic footwork and other playing skills. It turned out that all these preparations were really important and helped me have a great experience here.  

So, what's it like at a Chinese training base?  First, some words of caution: this is not an American style resort by any stretch. The accommodations are very good by Chinese standards, but if you expect American food and hospitality you will be very disappointed and probably very unhappy. China is a wonderful country but their standards for customer service and general neatness are very different from in the U.S.  The key to enjoying ZTTTB is to go with a really flexible attitude. Think of it as a camping trip and you'll be really happy with what you get!  Expect a four star hotel and you'll be miserable.  

You should expect to work really hard every day in a hot and humid gym (in summer of course), sleep on a hard bed, eat ordinary Chinese food every day, and never have an English language conversation with anyone. 

So why go?  Go for the table tennis and you won't regret it. The level of play here is awesome. The kids at the base are some of the best young players in the country, and any one of them could probably tear up your local club. And the foreigners aren't bad either. Right now Suraju Saka, ranked #277 in the world, is here for a year training with the Congo national team. I’ve also trained with the #3 ranked Paralympic wheelchair Class 2 player, Nadejna Pushpasheva from Russia. And my coach is Zhang Rui Feng, a former player with the Chinese national team.  

The daily schedule is pretty simple. Breakfast is at 7:30. The morning training session runs from 8:30 till around 11:00, consisting of 15 minutes of jogging and stretching followed by intensive multiball drills. Lunch is at 11:30, then everyone gets a long break for walking around the neighborhood, napping, playing pool, working out, or just hanging out. The afternoon session runs 2:30 till about 5:00, starting with the same 15 minute warmup but then focusing more on single ball drills. Dinner is at 5:30. The rest of the evening is open. The gym is available for practice and pickup games, but the town of Zhending is right outside the centers gates and is utterly fascinating.  

My own routine is to eat breakfast at the center but get my other meals in the neighborhood. A big plate of steamed dumplings and a cold beer costs $3 at a local eatery, and a fancy (again, by local standards) dinner might be $10 or $12. 

The neighborhood around the base is an endless source of amazement.  Zhending is an ancient district settled 5,000 years ago.  Just around the block is a traditional street market that looks the same as it must have during the Ming Dynasty.  And all around the neighborhood are ancient temples and other remnants of the past, some carefully restored and some just crumbling ruins.  

My favorite local tourist experience is the Military Amusement Park (no, I'm not kidding, that's really the name).  Entrance fee is a few bucks.  The main building, a museum, is just a random collection of rusting weapons and little green plastic army men in various arrangements. But around the back is a theme-park style ride where you get into a rattling open cart that rumbles slowly along a track while you get to shoot at targets with a real paintball gun.  Not something you’d get a chance to do in an American theme park, and just the thing for unwinding after a day of training.  

A mile or so away is the town's movie theater that usually shows one film in English. And an hour's taxi ride ($16 fare) gets you to downtown Shijiazhuang’s Western style restaurants and clubs.  

You can also take a day off and go to Cangyan Mountain, an incredible mountainside temple complex where the final scenes in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon were filmed.  

Oh yeah, back to table tennis. One surprising aspect of the training base is that although they’re certainly willing to accept short term visitors like me, it’s really geared towards longer stays. The Chinese kids are here for years, and most of the foreign players also come to train for a year.  As a result there isn’t much focus on intensive hands-on instruction like you’d see in a one or two day clinic in America.  Instead, they learn by practicing the same things day after day with only minimal involvement from coaching staff. 

So if you’re only here for a week or two, it’s best to arrange private coaching. Otherwise you'll be placed in the general pool of players according to your skill level. This is certainly challenging but after a couple of days you'll probably wish you had some actual instruction.  

I can't say how much a coach costs, as there are no posted rates and I've heard prices ranging from $15/day to $40/hour. So like everything else in China, make sure you know the price in advance! 

The cost for a stay at ZDTTB, by the way, is very cheap. If you book direct instead of going through an agency, the complete package of room, board and full participation in the program is just $40 or $60 per day depending on the accommodation.  I’d strongly recommend the more expensive option which puts you in the nicer wing of the hotel.  It’s well worth the extra few bucks.  

Also, try to learn some Mandarin, even if it's just a bit. It's a very difficult language for an English speaker to master, but your visit will go much better if you can count, tell time, and can say a few common words and phrases.  

But no matter how long you study, you won’t be able to understand the speech of the local people. Chinese is difficult to understand as it is, and the local accent makes it just about impossible. I studied Mandarin for three years in the U.S. and still could not understand an ordinary conversation on the streets of Zhengding.  

Technology to the rescue, though.  I’ve become a regular user of SayHi, the realtime translation app for the iPhone.  I’ve used it every day to order meals, buy train tickets, talk with taxi drivers, and communicate with my coach. 

So... should you go to China for training?  Well, it’s China, which means it’s definitely not for everyone.  But if you’ve got at least a couple of weeks and you don’t mind being really tired and generally bewildered, it’s great! 

Jeff Pepper has started and built a couple of software companies, and is currently President of the Pittsburgh Regional Table Tennis Association.  You can reach him at jeff@touchtown.us.