Sean O'Neill - Interview

By Rahul Acharya | March 15, 2016, 12 a.m. (ET)

Sean O'Neill (OR, USA)

Anyone that has been affiliated with table tennis in the U.S. has heard about Hall of Famer Sean O'Neill. One can say that table tennis is in Sean's genes. He was introduced to the sport by his father, Patrick O'Neill, who was a nationally ranked junior player. Sean took to the sport in a big way, and in just a few years, he pretty much won every U.S. National Age Championship title including Under 11, 13, 15, 17 (5 times), 21. Sean also won not one, not two, but five Men's national championship titles. 

Upon retiring from full-time play, Sean began a coaching career both at the collegiate and national level. Besides playing and coaching, Sean has been instrumental in growing table tennis in the USA in numerous ways. Currently, Sean serves at the Director of Communications for USATT.

It is a real honor for me to interview Sean O'Neill, an American table tennis legend. I hope you enjoy getting to know him!

Quick facts about Sean O'Neill:
Highest USATT rating 2667
U.S. Men's National Team Member (1983 - 1995) 
Two time Olympian (1988, 1992)
5-time U.S. Men's Champion (1991, 1989, 1988, 1987, 1985)
U.S. Table Tennis Paralympic Team Coach (2004, 2008, 2012)
2006 World Para Championship Head Coach
2007 USATT Hall of Fame Inductee


With Sean O'Neill at Westchester TTC

Tell us about how you got started with table tennis.
My father Patrick who was a good junior from Ohio started me. We moved to Virginia in the early ‘70s and he made sure we had a table in our basement. I started playing when I was 8 at the Northern Virginia Table Tennis Club and spent the following summer in Magoo’s Table Tennis Center in Minneapolis learn the game from Chu Chai Chan, Charlie Wuvanich and Apichart Sears. I also spent quite a bit of time at the Angby Sport Klubb in Stockholm as a mini-cadet under the watchful eye of Nisse Sandberg while staying at the Mattsson family home. 

2. What equipment do you currently use?
Blade: Donic Senso Carbo
Forehand rubber: DHS Hurricane 3
Backhand rubber: Andro Rasant Powergrip

3. How often do you play?
I coach a few hours everyday except Tuesday and I try to practice with my Portland table tennis friends on a regular basis to stay active.

4. Tell us about your coaching career.
I have always enjoyed coaching and learning about the game. I was very fortunate to have a number of really strong coaches that helped me with my technique and tactics from a very young age. My first coaching assignment was the U.S. Cadet Team with players Justen Yao, AJ Brewer and Charles Wang. In 2002, I was hired by the U.S. Olympic Committee to be the Lead Coach for the US Para Team. I held that position from 2002 through 2008 and then I came back to help with London Para Games in 2012. Working with our best Para player is always a treat. I focus mostly on working with local players in Portland that are serious about their improvement. I feel working with new players is the fastest way to really understand the fundamentals. I also use a number of friends in others sports like tennis, volleyball, shooting and wheelchair basketball for advice and guidance in training and sports psychology.

5. If you had just one hour on given day, Jim Butler ready to train with you, and someone begging you for a lesson, would you rather train or coach? 
That is a tough call since I love coaching so much. I would probably choose Jimmy and work with him with his forehand loop so I would kill two birds with one stone. I might ask to do a number of backhand to backhand drills with him to challenge myself. Maybe Jimmy and I could do some damage in the World Vets when it comes to Vegas in 2018, but I have to get into real shape for that to occur.

6. You've accomplished so much in table tennis already. Do you still have goals? 
Everyday.  Some are for my students, some are for the national players I still work with, some are with the USATT website, some are focusing on grassroots development, and most importantly to play for exercise. I would like to see USATT adopt a fairer and more accurate ratings system ( which I helped co-create. The current USATT system is still has so many flaws that I believe a whole new system would help the sport tremendously from multiple fronts.

7. If you could go back in time and get a "do-over" for any one match from any tournament that you have ever played, which one would that be? Why?
1986 U.S. Nationals in Pittsburgh Finals. It was 20-20 in the third game and I was leading 2-0 in the match against my doubles partner Chartchai Teekaveerakit. I went too aggressive at deuce and it cost me the third game and eventually the match. I was two points away from winning a hat trick since Diana Gee and I had won mixed over Chartchai and Lisa Gee plus Chartchai and I won the men’s doubles.

As painful as it was to lose that match, it forced me to learn to play each and every point in practice as if my life depended on it. That one match made me 2-3 times better as a player as I learned the hard way how to create tournament conditions in practice on demand.

8. In your opinion, has the game changed for the better or worse since your prime time? If there is one aspect from today's game that you could incorporate into the time when you played, what would that be?
Far better in every way. The serves we had to deal with were insane compared to today, but at least everyone hid the ball equally. The bigger ball and scoring changes would have been something I would have embraced as a player.
9. Who is your favorite international table tennis player? Why? 
Jorgen Persson. Incredibly hard working. Great style with big forehand and bigger backhand. Controls the table and short game. Great record against his nemesis, JO Waldner. And most importantly is the nicest guy you will ever meet on or off the table. Other players I really respected for their play and fighting spirit: Wang Liqin, Kim Taek Soo, and Deng Yaping.

10. You've been able to stay connected and contribute to the growth of the sport in ways that may not be possible for an average player. Do you have any suggestions for the "Average Joe" on how they can contribute to the growth of the sport?
#1 start coaching – begin with kids and work your way up. 
#2 start a league or weekly round robin with friends – it can be at the office or at home. 
#3 – get involved locally – help out at your club with evening play, tournaments or promotion.  You really don’t need a national title to make a major difference. Just take your passion and share it with others on a regular basis. We need more help locally than we actually do nationally. Grassroots still needs a ton of work.

11. Is there one match that is permanently etched in your memory as the best table tennis that you've ever seen, live or in recording?
2001 World Team Final – China vs. Korea – Kim Taek Soo vs. Liu Guozheng - Outrageous intensity and shot making. Coach Cai Zhenhua almost had a heart attack!

12. Couple of rapid-fire questions:
Talent or hard work? Hard work – hands down
Best chance to win - player with skills or player with confidence? Confidence
21 point games or 11 point games? 11 points game
Poly ball or celluloid ball? Poly - Nittaku Premium 40+
More drills or more practice matches? When I was a player – more drills; today – more practice matches. Make sure your footwork and fundamentals are strong first.
More practice matches or more tournaments? Tournaments
To cho, or not to cho? Only on great points. No cho’ing prior to point when players are at the table.

13. What do you like to do in your spare time?
My daughter is my pride and joy and my daily focus. On the side, I do love gadgets - Apple, heart rate monitors and video equipment. I also love attending multi-sport events to get a chance to speak with athletes and coaches outside of table tennis about their paths to success.

14. Anything else that you would like to add? 
I will help NBC this summer with the Games of Rio with Ari Wolfe. Table tennis continues to grow in Portland, OR and it is exciting to see the potential. I hope to be more involved with the national coaching program as my daughter gets older. I love my Newgy Robot and use it weekly.   

Sean, I know you are immensely busy, so I really do appreciate the time that you have taken to answer so many questions. Learning from those who have tread down that path is always good. I'm sure you will inspire others to get involved in growing the sport we all love so much. Thanks again for your time!

Sean O'Neill (5-time U.S. Men's Champion)
Photo: Mal Anderson