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TTTeam USA Training Camp at MDTTC

By Larry Hodges | Nov. 29, 2019, 10:25 a.m. (ET)

TTTeam USA Training Camp at MDTTC

Wang Qingliang was the head coach for the TTTeam USA Training Camp held at the Maryland Table Tennis Center, Nov. 23-28. He's one of the USATT National Development Team Coaches. The rest of the coaching staff was myself, Cheng Yinghua, Jack Huang, and Alex Ruichao Chen. Vikash Sahu, and brothers Khoi & Khai Dinh, were practice partners (with Vikash leading the warmup routines in the morning - jogging and stretching).

Wang's a strict disciplinarian and has the players' respect, but he still has fun with the kids - some mornings, before practice, he joined the kids in winner-stay-on battles on the mini-table with mini-paddles. But woe be any player who wasn't ready on time for practice or forgot what the next drill was after Wang explained them!

I spent about half the sessions as a practice partner - I may be getting older, but I can still block pretty consistently. (And I can still loop and counterloop!) Wen Hsu, Coach Wang, and I also helped with airport pickups from BWI, Dulles, and National airports - all are about 50 minutes away, with MDTTC almost in the dead middle of this airport triangle.

The camp was at full capacity with 27 junior players, most of them ages 10-15, and five of the top eight were girls. The strongest included Aziz Zarehbin (13, 2432), Sarah Jalli (13, 2305), Sabrina Zhu (15, 2270), Lavanya Maruthapandian (16, 2240), Andrew Cao (12, 2208), Stanley Hsu (10, 2204), Nicole Deng (13, 2176, and Emily Quan (12, 2156).

Here's a picture during a lecture/demo by Carolyn Klinger. (Here's the non-Facebook version. The Facebook version has several other pictures, including this one of Aziz backswinging on his forehand loop, where the picture caught multiple images of his racket throughout the stroke. Here's the non-Facebook version of that one.)

Here is a short video (13 sec) taken by Wen Hsu. Here's another video (3:04) taken by Coach Cheng.

There was a two-hour session on the first day (Saturday night), then two three-hour sessions per day for the next four days (plus 30 minutes physical training each morning), an extra one-hour video session on Wednesday, and one last 10AM - 1PM session on Thanksgiving morning. Some would then be able to celebrate Thanksgiving, but for most, it was time to drive over to the Gaylord National Resort Convention Center in southern Washington DC for practice for the North American Teams, Fri-Sun (Nov. 29-Dec. 1) - with 1080 players in 271 teams! (I tried but failed to convince the kids I'm having roast puppy for Thanksgiving.)

As usual, there were lots of footwork drills, serve & receive drills, serve practice, and lots of fun counterlooping. (Wang had detailed plans in advance.) When I was a practice partner, I always let the other player go first. When it was my turn, I generally did only half my time, then let the other player do the rest. When I coached, I got to walk around, much of it watching players' feet and reminding them to move them. (They all move them, but some less than others. We wanted lively feet!) I also reminded many of them about balance - often players couldn't get to balls because of how they finished the previous shot, either off-balance or out of position. Wang, Cheng, Jack, and Alex also walked around, keeping the players on their toes - literally and figuratively.

When practicing short pushes, I kept harping on stepping back between each push, so you are prepared to loop the next ball if it goes deep, as you would (or should!) do in a match. Many players tend to just stand there, jammed to the table, playing foot under the table, and just push the ball back each time without moving back, which isn't realistic. I've heard top players say that practicing their short push, with all the in-and-out, is the most physically demanding drill in table tennis.

I had my most fun during service practice, where I reminded players that they needed to be aware of the entire trajectory taken by their serves - where it bounced on their side of the table, how it curved through the air, how low, where the first bounce on the other side was, and where the second bounce would be if it were short. (The best short serves are "half-long," where the second bounce was right near the end-line.) Long serves needed to be just that, hitting near the receiver's end-line, with speed, breaking spin, or both, and of course well placed.

Many of the drills Wang had them do took the players outside of their "comfort zone." At least one player was heard saying, "My brain can't handle this." But they all adapted, which was half the point. There are drills that started off with up to five set shots. There were serve and receive drills with restrictions - for example, the server could only serve short, while the receiver had to return long (either flip or long push). Or the server had to serve long. Or the receiver had to receive to the server's middle. And so on. The point was to allow players to focus on specific aspects of an otherwise complicated situation so they could become proficient at each part, making it easier to do any of them when needed.

Most sessions ended with up-down tables (winners move up, losers move down), where some of these rules were in place. At the end, they usually played regular games, but often starting at various scores, such as with the server down 7-9 - but if he won the first two points, he won the game. Some afternoons we finished the camp with improvised versions of Brazilian Teams, where each team sent two players at a time to two tables. If both players from a team scored the point, their team won a point. If they split, no points for either team. We also did it with three tables, where each team sent up three players, and if one team scored two of the three points, they got one point; if they got all three, they got two points. (I acted as umpire. Keeping score was tough!)

On Wednesday morning we had a video session where we watched and analyzed two videos: USA' Lily Zhang's upset win over Japan's Miu Hirano at the 2019 Women's World Cup, and Ma Long's deuce-in-the-seventh win over Fan Zhendong in the Men's Singles Final at the 2017 World Championships. As we watched both matches, Wang periodically stopped the video to quiz the players on what they were seeing, and gradually the players got more and more into the seeing the tactics. Here are the two videos, with time between points removed:

Hirano won Women's Singles at the 2016 Women's World Cup and the 2017 Asian Championships, and made the semifinals of the 2017 World Championships. She's been ranked in the top ten in the world most of the last three years, with a high of #5. She's only 5'1", 99 lbs, but extremely quick, with a strong two-winged attack, especially on the backhand side. Lily's bigger, at 5'6" and 117lbs, and plays a similar two-winged attacking game. (Both like to topspin close to the table on both wings.) Zhang was ranked #48 in the world at the time - she's now #33. In generally, Zhang won the first two games by giving half-long serves to the middle, often side-top serves, and attacking, or even pushing, to the middle, and Hirano tried to play too much backhand. This was sometimes awkward, so she missed too often, plus it drew her out of position, leading to mistakes in the rally. In the next three games, Hirano attacked more with her forehand from the middle, and won all three. In the last two games, Zhang attacked the corners more, and when she went to the middle, Hirano often fell back into backhand play. Also, the taller Zhang stopped trying to always match Hirano in speed and sometimes played a half-step back, spinning more, with her longer arms and legs making it easier to cover the corners. Match to Zhang, 11-5 in the seventh.

Ma Long is generally considered the best player in the world, and many now consider him the greatest all-time. But he's getting older, and Fan is younger and, according to Wang, now a slightly stronger player, shot for shot. But over and over you could see how Ma controlled the start of the points, either opening strong first, or letting Fan open with a weaker first shot so Ma could counter-attack. It was a dead-even match, with Fan leading 9-7 in the seventh before Ma wins, 12-10.

During breaks, the kids often played opposite hand or opposite grip, with mini- and over-sized paddles, and on the mini-table. And in what may be the single strangest occurrence in my 44 years of table tennis and 200+ training camps, during one break eight of them put together a circle of chairs, got a laptop computer that played music, and played an impromptu game of Musical Chairs!

Special thanks to USATT and Interim High Performance Director Sean O'Neill, MDTTC, Wen Hsu, and all the coaches, players, and parents who helped make this happen!