With the coronavirus pandemic, the world changed for everyone - but one group affected in particular are sports groups. The Maryland Table Tennis Center has one of the strongest junior programs in the United States, the "Talent Development Program" (TDP), with many of them among the top players in the country for their age. They include players from Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. But how can they work with a coach when you can't go near your coaches?
Then Stephanie Zhang, 16, the team captain and a junior at Thomas Wootton High School in Rockville, had an idea. Why not do it online? She was the 2019 Maryland State Women's Singles Champion and the top-ranked junior girl in Maryland, with a defensive style that focuses on returning attacking shots with backspin, with occasional sudden attacks. She's also the treasurer for the National Chinese Honor Society and will be president this fall. She's also an award-winning artist!
Stephanie had heard the CEO of her mom's company give a speech online about staying connected. (Her mom now works at home.) She started thinking, "How can I stay connected with the other TDP athletes?" Wen Hsu, the Director of HW Global Foundation that supports MDTTC's Talent Development Program, had told Stephanie she should be doing physical training (such as "wall sits"), and she started doing it together with her brother, James, and another player, Gloria Jeng. That's when Stephanie thought, "Why can't we get more of us together doing this, online?" She discussed the idea with Wen and coaches Wang Qingliang (head coach and one of the National Team Development Coaches for USA Table Tennis) and John Hsu. They were excited about the idea.
James, 13, from Takoma Park Middle School, was also interested and wanted to see what his friends in the TDP were doing. (He was a member of last year's USA Hopes Team, the top four 12 and under players in the country.) He suggested using Zoom as their platform, which was what they were using for online school classes. Coach John worked out some of the technical issues. They started with a test session on April 20, and have since been doing it twice a week, Wednesdays and Saturdays, 5-6:15PM, with the possibility of expanding. For some, these sessions were some of the happiest days since the shutdown began.
It started out mostly as a way to do physical training together, but quickly evolved into table tennis stroking and footwork drills. Coach Wang consulted with coaches from the Singapore National Team in creating an online training program. (The players are also assigned a weekly video of top players to watch and analyze, with their analysis turned in to the coaches as homework.) Most of the players have tables in their houses, and many have family members who play, such as Stephanie and James. So, using Zoom, with smart phones videotaping each player, they were able to do regular table tennis drills under the supervision of Coach Wang and Coach John, who watch the players onscreen, calling out drills and instruction. Those who don't have tables or partners do shadow-practice - which meant practicing the strokes and footwork without a ball or table.
The program is sponsored by JOOLA and HW Global Foundation, a non-profit 501c3 educational organization whose funding makes the program possible. Many of the players in the program are among the best in the country. Besides Stephanie and James (currently #10 Under 13 in the US), others participating include Winston Wu (#1 Under 11 in the US), Ryan Lin (#3 Under 11), Stanley Hsu (#1 Under 12), Mu Du (#4 Under 12), Lance Wei (#17 Under 13), and Ryan Lee (#20 Under 13).