Multiball is a training technique used frequently by top performing Asian and European nations in table tennis, but has most commonly become a staple diet for the Chinese province and national teams. The feeding of different balls at often extreme paces has helped the Chinese fine-tune and perfect their technical games, footwork and reaction speeds, across the repetition of thousands upon thousands of stroke repetitions.
To get a good look into how important a role multiball can play in developing table tennis skills, we asked someone who had done more than their fair share across their youth, Bojun Zhangliang.
Bojun - "Bryan" to most locals - was born in the Hunan Province of China in 1997. When he was three, his dad, a semi-professional table tennis player, gave him a ping-pong ball to play with. He'd throw it against a well over and over. That began his nineteen years - so far - in the world of table tennis. Later he'd move up to using a racket and a table.
When his dad saw that he had talent, he sent him to the local table tennis club for serious training. From age 5-8 he was training 4-5 hours/day. When he was eight he was chosen by head coach Liu Wen Hua for the Hunan Provincial Team. To join the team, he had to leave his family behind and go out on his own - at age eight. This is surprising to Americans, but is somewhat common in China for those who aspire to athletic heights.
From there on he was a full-time player - though in reality, he had essentially been full-time since age five. During his eight years on the Hunan Provincial Team he was selected to the Chinese Teenage National Team twice (2010 and 2012) and made the "A" Division in 2012. Along the way he won a number of local and national titles.
When he was sixteen he was invited to the U.S. to join the Maryland Table Tennis Center as a player/practice partner/coach. And from that point on, as he put it, "My life in the U.S has definitely become more interesting and productive."
During his time in China as a player, multiball was a daily exercise for them, they drilled buckets upon buckets of balls - an exhausting routine. It was a central tool to become a top player, one which Zhangliang believes is overlooked too much here in the USA.
Often in China, the 6 hour days of training are divided into 2 sessions, in many high level training centers, one of those sessions each day will focus on multiball training. Players not only get very proficient at the many table tennis skills, but also become very good at feeding the multiball, making them valuable practice partners and coaches later in their careers.
Multiball can be used for a variety of different training drills and is often much more intensive than singular ball drills, which Zhangliang believes has much more focus across players in the USA. Where multiball made up a large proportion of training sessions in China, in the USA it seemed to be more of a tool on the side, used less often.
That was something he hoped to change, by getting more involved as a volunteer coach and offering his advice as a training partner during practice sessions.
He says his favorite multiball training drills is two point forehand, where the player hits forehand from the forehand and the backhand side alternating. He says that drills which involve multiball and lots of forehand footwork have many benefits for players and help with positioning, fast reaction speed, footwork movement and forehand techniques.
Another of his favorites is the short push on the forehand, followed by a step around forehand opening from the backhand corner, this works extreme recovery and footwork, stretching from behind in close to the table on the short forehand side, needing to recover rapidly and get around the corner with enough time to execute good technique on the forehand pivot loop.
Zhangliang hopes to bring some of these methods to teaching here in the USA in the future, but the road hasn't been easy.
Some excellent multiball training examples from reigning World and Olympic Champion Ma Long (China)
When he first arrived in the USA, the only English words he knew were "thank you." Coaching was difficult because of the language problem, except when coaching Chinese players, which fortunately made up a lot of his coaching, plus he couldn't really communicate with other players when he trained unless they were Chinese. So he decided that he needed to go to school to learn English. As he put it, "I hope I can contribute to the table tennis field with my playing." His English is now somewhat fluent - and it needs to be, as he hopes to become a U.S. citizen, and maybe represent the U.S. at the Olympics and world competitions.
He now coaches part-time as a volunteer at the Northern Virginia Table Tennis Club, and on weekends at the Maryland Table Tennis Center, where he is one of the coaches for the Talent Development Program, which trains at MDTTC. "I enjoy it very much when I see people are improving with my help." A student of his, Michelle Kang, won the Maryland Regional Hopes Girls' Title in March, 2019.
He says that he has noticed that players in the U.S. do not train efficiently enough. He said, "I think that Chinese are the best in table tennis not because they are the most talented ones, it is because the way we train that is different from the rest of the world."
One of the areas he believes is lacking is in 'fundamental skills', he was quick to note - "China have reached a much higher level because of their foundations, their fundamental skills. Multiball is a very good type of practice to help build those skills, with a stronger foundation and focus on this in the USA, we would be able to reach higher levels."
Zhangliang was also a bit out of practice when he first came to the U.S., and acted as a training partner for others at times when he would have preferred to train. And yet, he's won quite a few high level titles during his USA years:
· 2018 Smash Winter Open semifinalist
· 2018 America Championships 1st
· 2017 U.S Open Adult Teams semifinalist
· 2017 Triangle Summer Teams tournament 3rd
· 2016 Potomac Fall Open 3rd
· 2016 Cassel’s Giant RR Open 2rd
· 2015 Butterfly MDTTC Open semifinalist
· 2015 Virginia State Championships 1st
· 2015 XIOM Open RR single 1st
· 2014 Potomac spring open semifinalist
· 2013 Butterfly MDTTC open semifinalist
His goals are now focused on helping a new generation of US players follow in those footsteps, going after the big titles in the USA and perhaps becoming great international players.
Outside of table tennis he likes to go to gym and hiking. He likes outdoor activities, which is ironic for a table tennis player.
What are his plans for the future? "Eventually, I want to open my own table tennis club to help develop table tennis in the USA. I want to bring Chinese table tennis training method to the U.S."