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USATT Super Camp - Day 9

By Videos/Images by Matt Hetherington & Story by Larry Hodges | July 19, 2016, 1:16 p.m. (ET)

USATT Super Camp - Day Nine by Larry Hodges
Never have I seen so many totally dedicated coaches working with so many talented players. Richard, Samson, Han, Leon, Dan, Sean, Lily Yip and Cory - they didn’t come here for work, they came excited to finally get so many top up-and-coming USA juniors training together with the opportunity to do something we haven’t done since the 1950s - take on the world with a chance to win. They are putting their all into this effort - not just by themselves, but as perhaps a spark to get it going. The final responsibility will rest with these kids, their parents, and their coaches, spread all over the U.S., as team spirit spreads and we transform from a bunch of clubs into Team USA, a rising worldwide table tennis power. 

Today’s physical training started with everyone jogging half a lap, and then walking the rest of the lap. Then they did four types of plank exercises (on back, stomach, and each side), then pushups, then lay on back with feet slightly off the ground. They did each of these twice each, the timed ones for 30 seconds. Then it was three laps (3/4 mile) - and we were done! The kids are pretty tired from so many days of training, with three workouts/day, so we went easy today, and they are off from physical training tomorrow. During the session we were amazed as three men ran lap after lap during all this, at blazing speeds. I spoke with one, and he said they were “post collegiate professionals.” His best mile time was 3:58, which puts into perspective my 4:53 from 40 years ago. Sharon Alguetti and Nandon Naresh independently tried to “race” with them, but that’s like a club player taking on the Chinese National Team. 

And then it was back to the club. This week’s lectures are tag-team affairs with Dan Seemiller and Sean O’Neill speaking on multiple topics, with the other jumping in for their input. Dan started today’s lecture by re-iterating something he’d talked about the day before - the need to excel in many areas. You can’t just be a blocker or a looper; you have to be great at a number of things if you want to be great. He then asked the players to self-grade themselves on 15 different things against other players your level, all of which could be broken down into many sub-parts:

  1. Serve
  2. Ball placement
  3. Power
  4. Consistency
  5. Footwork
  6. Receive
  7. Deception (serves and strokes)
  8. Fundamentals
  9. Tactics
  10. Shot selection
  11. Rally ability
  12. Blocking
  13. Looping (forehand and backhand)
  14. Reading of spin
  15. Experience
He said of experience, “You have to be in the ring, have enough tough losses, enough tournaments,” and “We can’t teach you this one.”

Sean said that the players should be doing self-evaluations at least every three months. It’s the only way to really track your progress and see where you stand. For his own students, he said that after every tournament he asks them five questions: How were your techniques, your footwork, your tactics, your mental game, and your hustle. 

Sean pointed out a problem in our country. Many coaches show you what to do, but often they do not give the type of talk needed for players to understand what’s necessary to reach the top. He said that if any of the players here later on have a technical question or video of themselves they want analyzed, send it to the coach and they’ll look at it and get back to you. 

Sean also spoke of how often USA Team members (Men’s, Women’s, various junior teams) would sometimes show up at top tournament not really in practice or in their best physical shape. “That won’t happen anymore,” he said. 

He said that players shouldn’t worry about losing, that they should play tournaments for experience. “There is no such thing as a bad loss. Learn from them.” 

He said, “Stop thinking about ratings. If you are focused on your rating, it’s game over. If you worry about rating, you’re not a competitor.” 

Dan added, “When working hard, don’t worry about your level. Focus on what you are working on.”

They both spoke about confidence, about believing in yourself. Dan said, “If you are on a USA Team and don’t think you can beat a top Chinese player, we won’t send you out there. You have to believe you can.” He added, “It’s great to daydream about what you can do. Every one of you should believe you can be World Champion.”

Sean then spoke about visualization. “Visualize what you want to do. Then do what’s needed to make it happen.”

Dan and Sean both stressed that making the USA Team is only the first step. If the goal is to take on the world, then you need players who are ready to take on the world, not ones who are solely focused on beating other USA players. 

Dan said, “Be the best you can be. Those who want to do this, put the hammer down and do it.” 

And then it was time for the 12-2PM session. I was in the lower group, with Dan running the session. He warned them in advance that today there’d be a lot of footwork. They started with shadow stroking - side-to-side forehands, in-and-out forehands, and forehand-backhand from the backhand corner. They did each of these twice for about 30 seconds. 

Then it was on to the tables - where these were the first three drills, except this time with the ball. There were 15 players, so I joined in as a practice partner. During the session I hit with Sam Rockwell, Estee Ackerman, and Daniel Tran. 

The next drill was pushing - and we played up-down all-pushing games. As noted yesterday, Dan’s version of this is player play until any player on any table wins a game to 11, and yells stop, and then whoever is in the lead wins. (If it’s tied, there’s a tie-breaker, which everyone watches.) After a time Dan switched the rules to two pushes and then either player could loop. Finally he switched to regular games. I did pretty well until near the end, when I faced two players with (illegal) hidden serves that I simply couldn’t make good returns on, missing about half of them outright. 

Then they did more shadow practice, this time forehand looping against topspin; forehand looping against backspin; backhand looping against topspin; backhand looping against backspin. For the forehands, Dan stressed going in a circle, i.e. (as I teach it), imagining a pole in your head and circling the pole. This allows you to put great power on the ball and still remain balanced and recover quickly for the next shot. They then did a quickness drill where everyone (without their rackets), went to the side of a table and had to sidestep quickly from one net post to the other, going around half the table, and then return, over and over as fast as they could for 30 seconds, twice. The two standouts in this that I saw were Jayden Zhou, Avery Chan, and Faith Hu. 

And then it was lunchtime! (Hot dogs, spaghetti, fried rice, roast chicken, watermelon.) 

After the break we returned for the 5-8PM session, which started with another talk by Sean and Dan. Sean started by pointing out to the group the opportunities they have that we didn’t have in our day - far more camps, full-time clubs and coaches. Then he went into a talk on contingency plans. He asked how many players had backup rackets. (About half.) How many practiced with their backup rackets so they’d feel confident in it if they had to use it in a tournament? Very few raised their hands. (As a professional coach, I was able to raise my hand - I use my backup racket regularly against players under 1600 or so, and switch to my regular playing racket against stronger players. That way I don’t wear the latter down as fast.) 

Dan told the story of how he had shown up at the last Nationals with a legal racket - but because the antispin he uses on one side is rare, the acting referee somehow didn’t see it, and ruled the racket illegal - as well as the backup. He was forced to use an unfamiliar racket. But right at the start of his match against Lijuan Feng, the head referee showed up, realized they’d made a mistake and that the racket was legal - but since they had already started, it would be illegal to change rackets, even though they had only played about four points. So Dan had to play with the unfamiliar racket. It was a unique situation, but is the type of thing that can happen. 

They then discussed the various things that can go wrong so you can prepare for it. These included your sponge tearing or bubbling (so have backup sponge and racket); shoes (some like grippier ones on slippery floors); and food (you don’t want to get stuck eating unfamiliar food at a tournament, so if you don’t know what’s available there, bring your own food). Sean even mentioned it’s helpful to get to know the umpires, even by name - if you do, maybe they’d be less likely to fault you!

On the topic of being prepared, I jumped in and pointed out the importance of practicing your fast, deep serves before a big match. It’s easy doing most short or spin serves, but it is fast, deep serves that are most often missed, usually off the end or sometimes into the net - and so in the pressure of a match, if you haven’t warmed them up as you would any other stroke, you won’t be able to pull them off at normal speed, and so you either slow them down (less effective) or miss too often. Imagine playing some forehand looper who keeps stepping around his backhand to loop your serve with his forehand, leaving his forehand wide open to a fast, down-the-line serve - but you haven’t warmed up the serve, and so you either miss it, do it too slow, or are simply afraid to try!

Both Dan and Sean stressed that you have to treat everyone as if they can beat you. That way you can’t be caught off guard. Focus on playing your best, regardless of the opponent’s level. “When you compete, don’t think about winning or losing,” Dan said. “think about performing well. Keep your focus, scout your opponents, control what you can control. If you are nervous, think about tactics to get your mind off winning and losing.”

Sean said, “Don’t think about the outcome. Think about what you want to do.” He added, “You can’t be afraid to lose in this sport.”

Dan said, “When competing, enjoy the competition.” 

And then the training began. Once again I was with the lower group, again run by Dan. Once again we had an odd number of players - that seemed to be happening a lot - so I hit with Avery Chan. We started with ten minutes warm-up and then ten minutes of counterlooping. Avery loves to hook the ball with lots of sidespin, so we had some nice sidespin counterlooping duels. 

And then it was multiball time. I had four players in my group - Avery Chan (12, rated 2016); Aziz Zarehbin (10, rated 1998); Nandan Naresh (9, rated 1830); and Daniel Tran (9, rated 1801). Yep, I just gave out their ratings - what did Sean say about that? (But ratings are okay as a rough indicator of level.) I did five multiball drills with them:

1. I feed backspin side to side and they forehand and backhand loop.
2. I feed backspin to backhand, they backhand loop, I give quick topspin to forehand, they forehand loop.
3. I feed backspin to forehand, they forehand loop, then I give five quick random topspins. 
4. I feed two topspins to forehand, they forehand loop, then I feed two topspins to backhand, and they backhand loop or hit. 
5. I step back some and feed them loops to their forehand, moving them around a bit. They forehand counterloop off bounce. 

Then we had service practice. Dan started with a talk and demo of short serves (backspin, no-spin, side-top), stressing low contact, with second bounce on far side near the end-line. Then he demoed long serves. Then the players went to the tables, one per table, and worked on serves for perhaps 20 minutes. Serves and tactics are my favorite topics, so I had fun roving about helping with serves. I ended up gathering three together who were just learning reverse pendulum serves and worked with them on that. I worked with another on fast, deep serves, with another on depth control of short serves, with another on maximizing spin, and with another on deceptive side-top forehand pendulum serves. 

And then we had up-down tables 11-point games - but they were backhand-to-backhand games! The rallies here are vicious. As I explained to some, you play to win, but the importance here is developing the ability to rally hard for many shots. I had some huge battles with Lisa Lin and Estee Ackerman, both of whom have tremendous backhands, but managed to stay at the first table most of the time. (Aziz Zarehbin was also tough, but seemed to lose patience and get careless.) The others? They weren’t able to get through the wall of Lisa, Estee, and Aziz, so I didn’t play any others. 

Then Dan switched it to where we hid the ball, and whoever won got to either forehand loop or forehand block. This time I had titanic battles again with Lisa as well as Jessica Lin, but managed to finish on the first table, despite losses (and wins!) against both of them. I thought I’d be able to block Lisa down, but that’s where she beat me; when I looped against her great blocking, somehow I won. Jessica had a different tactic - she kept hook looping to my wide forehand, and I fell behind quickly. (But I won against her when I looped.) The other surprise here was Faith Hu, the second lowest rated in the group, who managed to reach the second table (out of eight, with 16 players) near the end.  

And then it was dinner time, with fried rice, spaghetti, roasted chicken, potatoes, vegetables . . . and a huge pot of orange chicken that lasted about three seconds. I was near the front of the line, and was about to get it, but with all eyes on me and the quickly diminishing orange chicken, I didn’t take any and settled on roast chicken and fried rice. There was some fun trash-talking during dinner from the older players from the upper group, who had apparently had some titanic matches going on in their own up-down table competition. 

Dinner was followed by the almost ritual penhold matches afterwards - many of the kids stay at least 30 minutes late for this. Sharon Alguetti especially likes to take on the younger kids, penhold to their shakehands. On the way back to the house, I once again treated the kids to Slurpees - a habit that’s getting increasingly expensive. Later I had to run back to the club to get something, and ended up taxiing two groups of the older kids to the house they are staying at - Adam Hugh’s house - a 15 minute walk but a three-minute drive.

And Now Some Fun Stuff
The following videos were taken by Arcot Naresh, father of Sid and Nandan. 
• Here’s video (30 sec) of me (“by the powers invested in me as a National Coach”) boldly predicting a strike last week when we took the kids bowling. 
• Here’s video (33 sec) of 9-year-old Nandan Naresh doing the Bowling Dance. 
• Here’s video (1:45) of me taking the kids out for ice cream - and trying to pay for it with a trillion dollar bill