USA Athletes to Advance Development and Experience in Europe

By Matt Hetherington | May 30, 2018, 1:16 a.m. (ET)

Nick Tio Table Tennis USA

In a pivotal move to enhance the international competitiveness of US National Team players, USATT High Performance Director Joerg Bitzigeio has arranged for top national team contenders to compete in European leagues next season. Aside from Kanak Jha, who is already living in Grenzau and will move up to represent 1.FSV Mainz 05 in the 2nd Bundesliga (2nd division) next season, Nick Tio and Jennifer (Yue) Wu will also move to Europe to live, train and compete in the league. 

Tio will join Kanak in Grenzau, whilst competing in 3rd Division North for TTC Lampertheim, while Wu will join the prestigious Froschberg Linz in the first Division of the Austrian League. The permanent move made by Kanak Jha has lit the way for US athletes and has shown what can be accomplished with the right amount of dedication. Since relocating to Europe, Jha, just 17 years of age, has entered the top 100 players in the world and become World Junior Number 1. 

Speaking with USATT High Performance Director about the importance of the international experience to the team, he had this to say:

"This is a very important part in a player's development and to keep them up to date, also in the past one of our major shortcomings. Due to the fact that we have no leagues and teams here in the US and our country is far away from most other nations, our players have far too little experience on international court. A Continental Championship or a World Title event can’t be the first and only appearance and participation for our athletes in the year. Most of our players are practicing only with partners and coaches from Asia, most likely from China, which has for sure some advantages, but at the same time it’s a disadvantage because they are just used to one playing style - especially since we don’t really play against the Asians at the moment, because at our level we first have to fight and eventually defeat all other nations outside of Asia.

Furthermore, this has the negative effect that many players don’t really learn to compete, because this particular situation and tension can’t be learned so in training with these partners.

Kanak Jha, who made the step abroad already 3 years ago at the age of 14 years and who is currently living and practicing in an absolutely professional environment at one of the German top clubs with a professional coach, can be used as a role model and example here and he shows that this courageous step can pay off in the current and future." 

Along with the three permanent fixtures from USA to live abroad, there will be opportunities for many more players to compete for overseas teams. 

Tom (Yijun) Feng will continue to compete in Austria, he joins TTC Wiener Neustadt in the Austrian First League again next season. In his three appearances in the previous season he was able to win all of his matches and gain some valuable experience. 

Heading to Croatia are Amy Wang and Kai Zhang. Zhang will play in the Croatian Superleague with STK Starr Varazdin, while Amy is signed with STK Aquaestil Duga Resa for the Super League and Europe Cup.

Two-time US Olympian Lily Zhang will have the chance to compete in the1st Bundesliga for TTG Bingen/Munster-Sarmsheim, this level of competition could be just what the 21 year old US star needs to break into the top 50 in the world, a milestone she has sat on the fringe of on a few occasions, including presently. 

Nikhil Kumar and Victor Liu will enter the Regionalliga Southwest (4th Division), while Gal Alguetti and Michael Tran join teams in the 3rd Bundesliga North (3rd Division) and Adar Alguetti in 3rd Bundesliga South (3rd Division).

Sharon Alguetti joins Kanak in the 2nd Bundesliga (2nd division) for TTC OE Bad Homburg. 

Last year at the JOOLA North American Team Championships in Washington, the players had the pleasure of experiencing the intensity of a top German League match. 

The new arrangements are among a number of advancements for the US team since last year when USATT High Performance Director came on board with his experience from being German National Women's Team Coach for many years. His vision for the US team's development is based on longer-term goals.

"I have been here just for 11 months, means not a whole year yet, and as I said right from the beginning, the idea behind my commitment to USATT and my support for table tennis in this country is based on long-term goals and on the desire to bring this sport together with our athletes, colleagues and supporters like the USOC, sponsors, donors and the USATT community to a much higher level in the adult category on international court and to help our lovely sport to get a higher priority in this country. At first, we need a structure and a system which give us the opportunity in the long run to make such progress later and to build this a lot of changes have been already necessary and are still needed. Before I signed for the position I have made it clear that I have to get the opportunity and the absolute confidence to change everything and so far I can only thank our committees, our community and also our CEO for it. The high performance area and the National Team have had a different status in the past, the goals of all those involved and also the conditions and requirements weren’t really geared to big international successes in the adult sector and in advance, we first had and still have to work hard to change the culture, raise the understanding and get the respect and trust, too.

When we speak about the progress so far, for me the results themselves are secondary, although good results obviously help and changes made are accepted more quickly, but I'm more interested in what we'll achieve in a few years because of where I would like to go with our athletes, we are at least in the adult category still far away, even though our teams recently played incredibly well and successfully at the Worlds for our level by finishing 13thwith the women and 33rdwith the men, btwwith the youngest team of the Worlds.One of the biggest and most important progress for me is that our athletes started to grow together as a team, an example is the implementation of our unified TTTeam USA, that we could create the understanding that much more is necessary for all the big goals and the true table tennis starts by playing successfully in the adult category and doesn’t end with the junior category."

So just what are those longer-term goals for the team?

"The transition from being an internationally successful youth player to a competitive adult player on world class level is a challenge I would like face with our players in the futureeven if this will not be possible in the short term and for this we need a few years of development, construction and growth in all areas. The difference between being “just an Olympian” and “a successful Olympian” is huge and the understanding for this must first be created. If you ask our young athletes, then all of them want to become Olympians and, with all due respect, to qualify for the USA is much easier than in other countries. If you manage that in China, Japan or Germany, then you are immediately a candidate for a medal, but most of our participants were in the past more so-called Olympic tourists, even if that should not belittle my respect for their achievements. Nevertheless, we have to be honest here and this level can’t be our future goal and at least by 2024, we should be much better positioned here."

"Our goal for the next years should be to improve the training and competition conditions here in our own country step by step, even if, at the same time, we have to have our best athletes trained abroad from a certain level on. On the one hand, we want to support our clubs and coaches which right now build the foundation and we should improve the training system together. In the midterm, I also consider a National Training Center to be worthwhile, with some prerequisites to be created, including mainly full-time national coaches which would need to be hired. A professional league or even better a nationwide league system should be aimed for and implemented, first approaches are in the planning. Of course we are talking here about wishful thinking, but we are currently taking the first steps and need to be aware that without these further steps, we will automatically reach the limits someday…..and I don’t like to be limited."

For now, the wheels are in motion and members of the US national team will gain some valuable exposure as they become involved in foreign leagues in Europe, no doubt these experiences will be valuable for international competition and will help their individual development and also contribute back to the sport in the US and the National Team as a whole. 

As to what differences to expect between playing the US and being abroad, Joerg stated that the two were not comparable.

"The two training systems are currently not comparable with each other for several reasons. To show it by a simple current example: One of our junior players, who has been able to train here in the US for two hours daily with his coach beside going to school by paying monthly a not insignificant amount of money for the private coaching, is now graduating from high school here this month and will then go to Germany to join the same professional training place as Kanak Jha where he will train daily up to 6 hours on a very strong group with different partners. The expenses for rooming, food and the training itself at the training location will be covered by his German club which I arranged for our player, for which he will compete in their team in a German league and which is a 1.5 hour drive away from the training place. The expenses for his family or the athlete himself are thus reduced to a minimum, means much more and better training for significantly less expenses.

Basically, I’ve the opinion that we here in the USA should have the goal to provide our players a diversified and wide basic education till a certain level and then in one moment we have to help them to make the next step by going abroad because in the near future we will not be able to set up a training environment in our country which leads to international top level in the adult category. Currently our education for the players is too specific mostly based on playing a lot at the table with private coaches and with this system our players are relatively quickly reaching a certain level in young years, but at the same time they are overtaken by other players who have received broader, longer-term education and training in the transition to adults.Furthermore, the system here in our country based on private training is very expensive and at the same time the school burden also means that our athletes can’t train enough amounts of hours. Only home schooling could be a solution here to raise the training amount to the needed volume during senior high school age."

Certainly we look forward to seeing our players in action abroad and hope to share some of those experiences through the website and our social platforms as they work hard away from home.