by Jinxin Wang (Men’s Singles winner 2015 United States Open)
Arguably the answer is to be found in China.
1. Comparison of the table tennis systems
The difference between the United States and China is one of systems and organizations.
China’s sports system is primarily government led with a focus on directing human, material and financial resources towards achieving results in international competitions. From local level organizations to city training schools, provincial teams and the national team, a pyramid shaped system is designed to produce players who can excel at high level.
Established daily training schedules, strict supervision and enforcement added to strategic training methods require not only the effort of players but also motivated coaches and knowledge; this is why in the modern era the results of the Chinese national team have been so consistently high.
In contrast, the United States model is very different. It does not have government support; it is self-funded and is very fragmented across the country. The control from the National Olympic Committee and from the national association is limited. Athletes pay for all training and competition; they practise in private clubs and can practise anywhere they wish.
Training for players in the United States is flexible since there is no set training schedule and no national or even state level supervision. The amount of days one practices in a week is determined individually. United States players spend much of their time on academics and other extra curricular activities or hobbies.
2. National policies for table tennis in the United States and China
Among table tennis players in the United States, children and parents emphasize academics values. During high school, table tennis is merely a secondary supplement for college applications.
There is no recruitment or examination exempting policy. Colleges favour sports like basketball, athletics and swimming over table tennis.
In China, table tennis is a highly valued national sport. Athletes in China can enjoy many benefits. If a person excels at table tennis, from elementary school through college, there will be many “bonuses” offered; for example, if an athlete has sound technique, good results in competitions, a high national ranking, colleges and universities will recruit without requiring a high school examination. In fact, in addition, some prestigious colleges provide free tuition and scholarship opportunities.
Conversely, in the United States, companies often focus more on the comprehensive abilities of an individual, the level of education and internship experience. United States college graduates must pass through detailed selection procedures before they can successfully be hired; no preference is given towards table tennis expertise.
In China, the level of play in table tennis and a national athletic certificate are both highly beneficial for finding a job. In some work departments, those with table tennis expertise receive priority. Sometimes, companies specifically seek national level table tennis players. Many table tennis players rely on their athletic skill to enter universities and companies.
3. Technical differences
3.1. Foundation training
Basic skills play a vital role in table tennis. Thus, Chinese junior players have strict training in order to learn basic skills. Any incorrect stroke will be corrected immediately.
Also there is a requirement for a certain number of rallies a player must accomplish within a window of time. In this kind of training, whether it is focused on quality or quantity, there will be great improvements. For example, there will be a requirement to achieve 50 forehand top spin strokes without error on three occasions. In this way, both the player attacking and the player blocking will improve their stability and consistency, gain greater feeling and miss less shots in their matches. A solid foundation is thus established.
During footwork training, Chinese junior players emphasize body flexibility and smooth transition during movements within a rally; without this element, they struggle to return to a ready position after each shot in order to maintain the rally.
Chinese junior players are taught to determine exactly which footwork corresponds to each incoming ball, whether it is a side-sliding step, cross-over, large step, side step, jumping step or small adjusting steps. In this way, depending on the ball, they can reasonably use the appropriate footwork.
They are very light and nimble in their in-and-out footwork as well as in their sideways footwork. Whether it is a cross-over step to the wide forehand or small adjusting steps returning to the backhand, the players can always be on the attack. Therefore, they can use their footwork to find the best timing and location to contact the ball.
3.2 Control and first three balls
Internationally, Chinese players always begin controlling the rally from the first three strokes; able attack from forehand and backhand, whilst possessing control in the short game, being precise with their timing. There is no apparent weakness.
For example, in short play, when the ball comes even slightly long, they will immediately seize the opportunity.
After service, they will directly flip aggressively. In other instances, they will receive a service with a fast push stroke, catching the opponent off guard and preparing to counter top spin.
Chinese players excellent quality on the first three attacks comes from their ability to recognize half-long returns; the main thing to remember is that in order to have outstanding ability for the first three strokes, service and service receive must be strong.
3.3 Areas for improvement
United States players’ services do not have enough variation. The sudden explosiveness at contact is not sufficient, the difference in spin is not significant; as a result, they are unable to create good opportunities to attack.
An athlete needs to learn to observe the opponent before serving, look at the opponent while serving and incorporate fake motions during contact of the service; as they serve, players need to learn to use their weight transfer to aid them. The placement of many serves requires not only the power of the wrists and fingers but also the body’s transfer of weight to complete the motion.
At the last moment of contact, the body’s weight can control the ball’s speed, power, placement, and trajectory.
It is worthy to note that relying solely on body weight transfer is not adequate and the spin will not be sufficient. Similarly, only using the fingers and wrist will result in a low quality serve. The hand and body must be used together; neither can be neglected.
Additionally, players should try employing fake motions in their services. For example, a slight flip of the wrist could give the impression of a short backspin serve when you are actually serving a long, no spin service.
3.4 Flip technique is insufficient
Firstly, the accuracy of the backhand flip is not high enough during training, which results in athletes not using the flip enough in matches.
They are often hesitant and afraid to go for a flip. The main reason is that they do not spin the ball enough or they do not understand how to spin. To master the backhand flip, it is necessary to add spin in a way to cancel out the spin of the incoming ball; this way, any ball can be flipped.
Furthermore, the ball will be loaded with spin and highly consistent. In order to create enough spin, watch the ball, determine its placement and adjust the feet to find the ball. Transfer the body weight towards the front leg and be sure that the distance to draw the racket inward is not too short. Using the elbow as an axis, draw the wrist inward towards its maximum angle and adjust the angle of the racket.
For returning top spin, have a more closed racket angle and contact the middle upper part of the ball. For backspin, contact the middle lower part of the ball and have a more open racket angle; then look for the highest points of contact. Use the wrist, fingers, and forearm together to hit the ball.
Importantly, be sure not to raise your shoulders and elbow in a position that is too stiff or too high. Also, remember that you cannot contact the ball too early and that you must have enough distance to spin the ball.
Secondly, some players lack the ability to connect the follow up rally after a backhand flip, especially from the short forehand side of the table. After a backhand flip, the opponent often returns to top spinning fast to the backhand corner; this compels the player to follow a passive game as they are unable to counter topspin. They are unable to connect into an attacking game.
Although the backhand flip technique is the most positive technique, it often does not win the point immediately; so players need to make good preparations for the follow up. After flipping a short backhand from the forehand, immediately return to the backhand side, quickly adjust the footwork and have the arm and legs return to ready position simultaneously.
Do not separate the arm and leg movement; when returning to the backhand position, keep in mind that the body should remain leaning forward, the wrist should not be loose. Also, use the spin and power of the opponent’s backhand return to counter. Fast counter attacking play is executed close to the table, so it is best to contact the ball at the highest peak.
Nowadays, the trend is to gain an advantage with the backhand and win the point with the forehand. Therefore, players need to try to take an upper hand right from the start on the serve return; whether it is a long ball or short ball, the backhand needs to be aggressive. Only if the backhand flip technique is practised enough during training will players be able to apply it during matches.
3.5 The Importance of footwork and weight transfer
During a backhand rally, if the opponent changes to the forehand suddenly, the player often uses inappropriate footwork. During a competition, players need to use side step and small adjusting steps more often. The crossover step will be used only after a forehand step around attack from the backhand.
Stabilization of weight is important after using the crossover step to prepare for the next shot. During a rally, the distance between the two feet should not be too wide, as it affects the use of effective footwork. During consecutive forehand attacks, turning the body and transferring weight are essential for improving the quality of the attack.
Players need to learn to lean forward to have more responsive footwork, especially for the in-and-out movement; this can be seen during competition where many players are unable to move inward in time for the short pushes. Footwork is the soul of table tennis and without the use of weight transfer, players are unable to bring their skills to a higher level.
3.6 Awareness of consecutive short pushes
It is important to master the skill of using consecutive short pushes. Not only does it create opportunities to attack; also it interrupts the opponent’s attacking tactics. Most of the United States junior players only manage to use a short push and fail to keep the ball short after the opponent returns the ball; this creates attacking opportunities for opponents.
- The main points for short pushes are:
- The feet must move with the arm
- Do not pull back the arm first, do not reach
- Make adjustments for in-and-out footwork
- Take note of timing for contacting the ball
- Use power from fingers and wrist appropriately to increase the spin of the short push
- Observe the opponent for appropriate return placement
One thing to note when using a short push is to observe the returns. If the ball comes back long, initiate the attack immediately. Position the hand higher, and if the return is high, use a flick to attack over the table.
It is also important to adjust the rhythm in short push rallies. Using long pushes can be effective to change the rhythm.
3.7 United States female players lack of initiative to step around
United States female players are too dependent on their backhand during competition; this style is too conservative as many opportunities to step around with the forehand are missed.
During a rally, players often use backhand for strokes in the middle or even towards the forehand side. The forehand is the primary way to win a rally, this style often puts players at a disadvantage. The player will not be able to use the forehand to put pressure on the opponent.
Therefore, female players must seize the initiative to step around more and establish effective attacks by using the forehand.
I hope that the United States junior players can learn from Chinese players and their training methods; whether it is on a technical level or mental level. I hope that such knowledge can help table tennis in the United States reach the world stage quicker and the development can be even greater.
My wish is for table tennis to continue to thrive throughout the world and more people to experience the sport.