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USATT Super Camp - Day 4

By Videos/Images by Matt Hetherington & Story by Larry Hodges | July 14, 2016, 1:16 p.m. (ET)

USATT Super Camp - Day Four - by Larry Hodges

It’s 9PM, and the training ended an hour before - and nearly half of the 27 players are still at the club. They are playing penhold, doubles, opposite hand, and against my clipboard. They don’t want to go home, they want to keep playing, just in different ways. Cory Eider and I both agreed that this is why some players develop such a feel for the ball, by constantly trying new things, just as generations of past players with great control did. (Waldner was infamous for that, and it seems to have paid off for him. The Alguettis seem to be following in his path.) This doesn’t mean you replace practice with such “goofing off” - it means you have fun with it while developing that feel.

Several new players joined us today - Allen Wang (18, 2546), Amy Wang (13, 2416), Matthew Lu (12, 2241), and Jack Wang (15, 2537). Jack was there only for the day, but might rejoin us next week. Alex Ruichao (2699) Adam Hugh (2582) also spent the day training with us. 

The big breakfast discussion for today was how each player got started in table tennis. Most got started by their parents or older brothers. I told the group I went to the library to get a book on track and field, and looked left, and that changed my life - and Rohan Acharya (13, 2133) correctly guessed I saw a book on table tennis, which is alphabetically just to the left of track and field. (The book was “The Money Player” by Marty Reisman - and when I recited the story to Marty many years later, his response was, “Great; another life I’ve ruined.”) 

For physical training (9:30-11:00 AM), the players were divided into four stations. Each station had a different set of exercises. My group had to: 1) jump high into the air five times; 2) sidestep rapidly across the exercise ladder on the ground; 3) jump high in the air five more times; 4) sidestep rapidly across another exercise ladder on the ground; and 5) jog back rapidly to the end of their line, where they’d have a few seconds of rest, and then go again. Each group did each station for five minutes continuously, took a short break, and then moved to the next station. Michael Tran was the best at my station, with Allen Wang and Aziz Zarehbin also standouts, though plenty others were good at it. 

Some people probably still don’t buy into the idea of the importance of physical training at the higher levels in table tennis. Let’s take a look at world-class players. See how fast they are, and how they generate so much force on each shot seemingly effortlessly? Listen closely: This Doesn’t Just Happen!!! It comes from years of such physical training. It’s the norm for overseas countries that regularly produce top players; it’s not the norm in countries that don’t regularly produce top players. 

I spent the afternoon session (12-2PM) with the lower group, where we did something you rarely see in a table tennis camp: we spent the entire two hours working on serves. This doesn’t mean they went out there and practiced serves for 120 minutes; it was broken up by numerous lectures on specific serves (mostly by Richard McAfee, with Cory and I joining in with comments). They had segments where they worked on heavy backspin serves; sidespin serves; corkscrewspin (sometimes called deviation spin) serves; and others. 

During a break I introduced them to the “Comeback Serve” game. Each player gets five serves. They serve the ball high with backspin, trying to make it bounce backwards. If it hits their side, goes over the net, and bounced directly back to their side on one bounce without hitting the net, they get three points. If it hits the net in either direction or takes more than one bounce before bouncing back, two points. If it bounces back into the net, one point. Several players were able to do three-pointers. 

In the night session (5-8PM), I went back and forth a few times between the lower and higher groups. In the lower group, the focus the first hour was short pushes, long pushes, and then flipping, with lectures/demos on each, and then drills (with each drill starting with the focus and ending with free play). Richard ran this group, with Cory assisting. Richard stressed the importance of the fingers positioning and pressure to control short pushes. He also gave us a Chinese saying about the importance of the various parts of the arm, which goes roughly like this: “The shoulder is kindergarten; the elbow is elementary school; the wrist is high school; and the fingers are college.”

Samson Dubina ran the higher group, with practice partners like Alex Ruichao and Adam Hugh helping out. The first drill had the server serving medium long and the receiver looped anywhere. If it went to the backhand, the server blocked; if it went to the middle or forehand, the server counterlooped. Then they played out the point - or as I put in my notes, POP. 

Then the focus went to tactics. They were paired up and each played an 11-point game. Samson asked them to make notes afterwards about what tactics worked and which didn’t. Many of the players couldn’t remember. (Adam Hugh was able to recite nearly every point of his game with Michael Tran.) Then they went out and played again, this time focusing on trying to remember what happened. Afterwards they wrote out notes on what worked and what didn’t. (Here’s a picture of some of them writing out their notes.) Then they did the “20-second between points” drill - they played a game to 11, and had to think about the point for 20 seconds before they could play the next point. Once again they wrote out afterwards what worked and what didn’t. I had some discussions with players on these tactics - tactics and serving are my favorite table tennis topics. 

One player was struggling against another player, who was good at quick angle blocking. He kept attacking the corners (giving the blocker a wide angle to block into), and kept going out of position to forehand loop from the backhand side (and got killed over and over on the wide forehand). A better tactic would be a strong backhand attack to the blocker’s middle (elbow), forcing a weaker return with less angle, with the attacker in position and ready to attack from both wings. 

I’m having a great time working with these kids. In most camps, there’s a mix of players from goof-offs to serious, and everything in between. Here, everyone is serious about their game and improving. (As I explained to one of them, you have to be serious about both your table tennis game and your table tennis goofing off.) One of the things I’m stressing in these sessions is that you don’t just tell players what they are doing wrong; you also tell them what they are doing right, so they can re-enforce good habits. 

The kids are in high spirits tonight - there’s a tournament here on Saturday, so the Friday training will be light. Instead of 9:30AM, we’ll do physical training, lecture, and table training from 11AM to 2PM - and then, from 5-7PM, we’re going bowling! 

And just for the record, Sharon Alguetti appears to be the penhold champion; 9-year-olds Nandan Naresh and Daniel Tran (both over 1800) lost a close five-gamer to their dads (they are in the 1800-2000 range), and only Aziz Zarehbin and Avery Chan have gotten games against my clipboard this week - and each was awarded a trillion dollar bill as a prize.