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For several months, I trained intensely for the 2012 Olympic Table Tennis Trials. After working hard on a daily basis through drills and match play, I was ready for the big day. In the fourth game of my second match of the tournament, I lunged for a ball and severely injured my Latissimus Dorsi muscle. This was a bit discouraging to have this injury at such an important moment. This injury caused me to lose my next match and eliminated me from the competition. Looking back on my months of training, I would like to reflect back on several areas that I have improved the most and share my new knowledge with you.
During my training, I learned that I need to keep my body lower and lean forward more while looping topspin with my forehand. Staying lower allows me to swing forward more with my stroke. By starting my backswing above the table level, I’m able to generate more forward force instead of upward force. As long as I have enough spin on my loop, I never have a problem looping into the net because the spin gives my loop some arc – even on the fastest loop. Leaning forward helps to keep me closer to the table. After each shot, I try to stay about three feet from the table so that I can control the rally and not get pushed back. It took about two months to make this permanent change, but now I’m seeing that I have about twenty percent more power and I’m able to consistently stay closer to the table. Previously, my forehand was average for my level; now, my forehand speed and stability far exceeds most players at my level.
I also learned another tip for staying closer to the table – varying my backswing. During forehand warm-up, my opponent blocks at the same speed and to the same location; in this case, the length of my backswing is the same for every loop. However, in a game situation, blocks come at me from different angles and with different amounts of speed and spin. If I want to take the exact same backswing, I would need to backup and give myself more time. Because I want to stay close, I need to vary my backswing – shorter if the block is fast and longer if the ball is slow. Also, I need to adjust to the height of the ball. By adjusting both the height and length of my backswing, I’m able to stay close to the table and control my opponent. In order to practice this skill, I have my training partner block randomly to ¾ of the table at different speeds; I use my forehand to steadily loop to his backhand. This requires quick steps and a sharp mind to adjust to his varying blocks. In the next drill, my training partner will block ½ the table to my backhand with good variation. Both of these drills are game-like and force me to adjust for any variation. I also perform the same drills with the robot and with multi-ball. Using the Newgy Robo-Pong 2050 normal mode, I set the speed for 14, L position 5, R position 20, Wait 1.00, OSC ON, Speed random 4. I have been working on this skill for several months; improving this aspect of my game has helped me more than any other area.
Another weapon that I gained is the backhand banana flip. This shot looks more like a backhand loop, over-the-table. From playing many matches and practicing a lot of serve return, I gained confidence in using it effectively, even in tight situations. Serve return is the most difficult aspect of table tennis, especially when I need to decide if the serve is short or medium long. This receive is very effective because it can be used against both short and medium-long serves of all spins, especially sidespin. The benefits include: 1. Fewer errors on receiving serve 2. Stronger attack of my opponent’s serve 3. Better positioning for the remainder of the rally. Using my wrist and forearm, I can attack to any location on the table. In recent years, this receive has become increasingly popular as this is the main receive of Zhang Jike, the current world champion.
Another serve return that I improved was my short push, especially against short topspin serves. Most players serve short backspin and expect a push, or they serve short topspin and expect a flip. When I learned how to push the topspin serve short, it became an effective tool that allowed me to control the short game. Before, I stroked forward too much on the ball. Now, I close my angle and brush the ball to the side and down. With the ball bouncing very slowly, my main focus is brushing the ball so that the spin won’t bite hard into my rubber. This return has won many crucial points and stops my opponent’s attack. To make this return even more effective, I have also learned to pause slightly before contact. This short pause freezes my opponent and allows me time to make last second adjustments. This pause is only possible if I have good timing, I read the serve well, get my feet into position, and feel confident reading the spin.
With the help of some of my training partners, I was able to make a technique adjustment on my forehand counterloop. By starting my backswing higher, I’m able to cover over the ball better and still make good contact. Before, I started my racket too low causing me to lift the ball up too high. My counterloop was previously hitting about fifty percent of the time. Now, my counterloop is hitting about eighty percent of the time. In table tennis, whoever is more consistent generally wins; those numbers make a huge difference in the match. I also improved my counterloop by improving my blocking. In order to practice this skill, I would block to one location, while my training partner attacked anywhere on the table. By keeping my racket more in-front of my body and watching my opponent’s racket better, I was able to more quickly adjust to the location for his attack. By being better prepared, I had more time to counterloop.
The final tool that I gained during my training, was the ability to step-in for the slow ball. Most players practice side-to-side footwork against fast blocks, but few players practice moving forward. This skill is especially important when playing against a pip or anti player like Shao Yu, David Zhang, or Dan Seemiller. Before, I would try to step forward with both feet, be in perfect position, then swing. Now, I realize that I often don’t have that much time in a real game. My new technique involves making one lunge with the left foot. My center of gravity must be very low, my backswing must be fairly high, then my right leg pushes off as I move the left leg forward. This is very effective for a one-time loop kill on a slow block or miss-hit. I next need to quickly get my feet back into position for the next ball. Watching Joo Se Hyke has been very helpful in re-shaping my idea of how to best move forward. I am now able to move faster, attack the slow ball at the top of the bounce, and position the ball to the location that best suits me.
During the next several months, I’m going to take several skills and focus each session on improving those areas. Obviously, I won’t completely neglect the other areas; but if I want to reach the next level, I must make positive changes.
Yes, I am disappointed about my injury at the Olympic trials; but through the work and preparation, I have become a better player and hope to use my new skills to win titles in the coming months and years.