(This article appears in the October issue of Table Tennis World. Ex-ITTF President spoke to Dong Yang, a graduate student who specializes in the sport of table-tennis, on the status of youth development in China, and some of the common problems in the training methods used.)
Reporter Dong Yang: Please give us an overview of our youth training.
Our youths start very early, usually at 5 or 6 years old. The various sports and education departments put emphasis on the development of table-tennis, so they look for talent and they coordinate their efforts. There are many tournaments that focus on the young players, and some of these tournaments have become very well established traditions. Many teachers and coaches have made great contribution to developing talent.
Because of our long extensive training and tournament opportunities, we have a great supply of young players. This is our biggest advantage compared to other countries. Now these other countries are also paying attention to developing players early. For example, there is a little girl Ai Fukuhara in Japan who has been playing since she was very young. Because she is so cute, especially the way she cries after a loss, she has attracted the attention of major clothing sponsors, and she appears regularly on TV. She has become a well-known sports star, and that has promoted the sport in Japan.
Reporter: What are the problems in our youth training methods?
Number 1: Our youth training stresses close to the table fast attack. In early training, because the players are so short, our coaches ask them to stay close to the table. When they learn the forehand attack, they are told to lower the elbow, with the hand holding the racket in an elevated position. They are taught to hit the ball on the rise or at the top of the bounce, and use their wrist and forearm to generate power. This leads to a relatively easier way of hitting the ball, without having to rub the ball to control the flight of the ball, and therefore increasing accuracy. After some amount of time, these players have developed a very stable way of attacking and they are accustomed to it. But the problems are (1) we have not taught them how to use the upper arm and to twist the waist to generate power, and (2) when the ball is descending and is lower than the net or even the table-top, they do not how to attack the ball and often hit into the net.
Number 2: We stress hand-work and overlook footwork. We seldom ask our players to hit the ball while they are moving. They often stand near the middle and do not move much. Their steps are slow, and that affects their step-around attacks. This is especially noticeable among our girls.
Number 3: We stress the speed of our players and we ask that they have quick and short arm motions. They use their forearm and wrists on forehand attacks. I often notice that when I teach them to use their upper arms, they often feel that their arms are very sore after practice. This shows that even though these players have played the sport for a long time, they have never learned how to use their upper arms to generate power. Our young players have small swing amplitudes and insufficient attack power.
Number 4: We stress accuracy but overlook ferocity. When we teach the very young, we pay attention to the fundamentals, and we want them to attack with very high success percentage. This is necessary, of course. For example, some coaches demand their players to be able to hit 10 or even 100 shots in a row without error. But these young players were afraid to hit hard because it may reduce accuarcy. After a while, they would develop a weak attack. That, coupled with the small swing amplitide, results in our players lacking power and ferocity.
The technical level of our sport keeps improving, especially after the switch to the big ball, and we need to update our youth training methods. We should develop new objectives and add new contents. If we continue our old way of asking for simplistic speed, accuracy, small motion, and ignoring footwork and power, these problems will be very hard to cure once the young players have been accustomed to those methods.
Reporter: How should we change our training methods?
1. We should still insist that our very young players learn to attack close-to-the-table. As they grow older, these players should be asked to move a little away from the table and attack the ball when it is descending. We should teach them to lower their forearms, and swing the racket upwards and from the side to generate friction so as to produce curve trajectories to make the ball go over the net.
As the players get older and stronger, they will be taught looping techniques. Now the swing amplitudes have to be bigger, and we will teach them to rub the upper part of the ball to produce strong top-spin.
2. We should increase footwork training. Table tennis has developed in the direction of more power and speed. The step-around forehand attack is very powerful, so many players depend on it to seize the initiative. This requires excellent footwork, and we have to teach this very early. We have to develop the instinct of the step-around attack very early. We should teach them to hit the ball while they are moving, and we should gradually increase the difficulty. We should also add doubles training so as to increase interest and to further improve footwork. This also helps alleviate the problem of not having enough tables.
3. We should increase training on smash-kills of semi-high balls and lobs. We should demand that the young players learn how to use their upper arms and their waists. They need to swing their upper arms and rotate their waists to loop.
4. Youth training should emphasize fundamentals. But we should also teach them the importance of taking initiatives and integrating speed and power (for defensive players it is integrating aggressive defense with attacks). We have to make the players understand that while the fundamentals give them consistency, it is important to be able to make the powerful point-ending kill-shots.
We have traditionally stress "speed, accuracy, ferocity, variations and spin". These five things are inter-related. Speed is first, but power should be the foundation.
Reporter: Would teaching our youth to hit on the balls descent reduce the speed of their attacks?
I mentioned first the close-to-table fast attack training. They should master that at an early age. When they are older, then they should learn how to attack a little further away from the table and hitting the ball while it is descending.
We stress speed, but that cannot be unilateral. They should be quick when it is right to be quick. One cannot attack every ball with speed: that is just impractical. When the incoming ball is difficult to be hit quickly, and you force yourself to hit it quick, you are forcing yourself to make errors. You have to adjust your speed. It may appear that you are slower, but you are giving yourself a better way of attacking. When you cannot fast-attack, you should have a way to transition and not let your opponents attack. Being a little slower is a way to increase your chances of attacking the next shot.
We should stress that the inverted rubber is good for generating friction and producing loops. In these aspects, it is superior to pips-out rubber. One can produce speedy and spinny loops even when the incoming ball is very low. Even though it appears that the tempo is not as quick, this still produces high quality attacks.
We should teach our youth to be able to attack both high and low balls. This is an important foundation for our developing players.
(This appears in the October issue of Table-Tennis World. Part 1 was translated earlier. Reporters comments in italics.)
While Ma was eating his lunch, he was commenting that the food in China was so good, and that he was still not used to the food in Europe.
It is hard to find Peking duck in Europe. When I was at the Ochsenhausen club, we went to another city for a match, and we found a Chinese restaurant there. We were told that it had excellent Peking duck so we went in. It was a nice restaurant, and they even had an Indian doorman. The food was quite good, but so expensive! We only ordered the duck and a couple of dishes, and we had a good time. I looked at the menu and I thought it would cost at least 500 marks. Our meal allowance was 300 marks when we played away. Our manager got a little nervous after I told him my estimate, and when the final bill totaled over 700 marks, he called the club owner right away. When the boss heard that we spent over 700 marks on a meal, he was not happy, and said "Lets wait until the match is over". We thought this was bad news, since our opponent was the champion club with Samsonov, Rosskopf and other top players. And we did lose that match. As soon as the match was over, our boss telephoned us and said that since we did not win, we had to pay for our dinner ourselves. We were shocked.
Some of the club owners are like that. They do not care if the players play well or not, or who the opponents are. They only care about winning or losing. Some owners make their money by trading players. Grenzau is diffierent, though. There is a school and a hotel next to the club. The income from the school covers the clubs expense plus the hotels tax bill, so the hotels revenue is profit. Our boss is loyal to the players, and seldom trade a player away after the player has been with the club for a couple of years. This is unusual in Germany.
(Chungs notes: Ma then talks about some of the problems between the club coach and the players. I will bypass that section and also the next section where he talks about his wife and the childbirth experience. Now we come to the end of the article where he answers questions from readers.)
When I announced on the internet that we will be interviewing Ma Wenge, we received questions addresses to Ma from our friends on the net. Ma now answers them.
Question: Who are some of the better known players in Germany?
Samsonov was in Germany last year, but has gone to Belgium this year. We have Boll, Rosskopf, and . (Ma scratched his head: "How come I have been back only for a little over a month, and I have forgotten everything?"). Not much has changed from last year. On our team, the number two player is Korbel, third is Chen Zhibin and fourth is Blaszczyk. We are a strong club. The second place club has Boll as number 1, Rosskopf number 2, Heister number 3 and Tasaki number 4. In the coming season, there is a club with Legout, Kreanga, Feng Zhe and a young Russian player.
Question: Is there good coverage of the Bundesliga in the German newspapers?
Not much. In Germany table-tennis is not a big sport.
Question: Is there good coverage in Germany during the Olympics?
No, but I was able to watch the Kong-Waldner match on tape later.
Question: What do you think about the young players in Europe? How many of them can compete against the Chinese?
I think their level is only average, and only Boll can compete against the Chinese. Last year he beat me twice. This year, we split the two matches.
Question: Were there any problems when you changed from pips-out to inverted?
I played pips-out on my backhand for a long time. After the 1989 Worlds, coach Xu Shaofa asked me to switch to inverted. My style undertook a major change after the switch. Most people would take time to adjust, or would have worse results initially, after a style change. I had a very smooth transition, however. I won the World Cup in October of that year. So I made the right change.
Question: I think you have the best mid to distant loop in the world. After watching you, I realized that the Chinese could combine great looping with fast attack. How did you develop your skills?
I cant say I am the best at that shot. When I played with pips, I emphasized speed. After switching to inverted, I stressed my forehand power, and worked on my footwork. My better skills are on my forehand, including close-table and distant-table counter-looping. Perhaps more close-table.
Question: Waldner said that he has the best relations with you among the Chinese players.
Yes, but we seldom see each other now. Kong plays much more against him, so he sees him more.
Question: Would you come back as a coach?
That is not very likely. I believe I will later work in a different field than table-tennis.
The CTTA announced on October 26 that the Dawai Cup 2001 ITTF Pro-Tour Grand Final will be held in Tianjin on January 10-13, 2002. The commercial rights to this event have been assigned to Dawei Company. The top 16 men and 16 women on the Pro-Tour ranking list will be invited to the tournament, as well as the top 8 men's and top 8 womem's doubles teams. See www.ittfprotour.com for the latest ranking list.
(Chung's Notes: There was an earlier article on the Chinese sites stating that the ITTF was going to hold the Grand Finals in Las Vegas, USA. Because of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, the ITTF decided to change the venue to Tianjin.)
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