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Visiting China

Revisiting China with the Palo Alto Youth Team

July 31-August 17 - Shanghai

Early this summer I received a phone call from Dennis Davis, the head coach of the Palo Alto Table Tennis Club, asking if I might be interested in leading a group of junior players to Shanghai for a couple of weeks. My first question was if the trip was for serious training or simply a vacation for the kids. Dennis assured me that each member was there for one reason and one reason only: to improve as much as possible. I then asked if I had his permission to push the kids as hard as I was pushed when I trained in China, to which he replied, "Of course. Just please don't kill them the first week!"

After speaking with my wife and a number of web clients, I sent Dennis my passport and started packing for what was to be 18 days of intense training. We decided I would come out to San Francisco a couple of days earlier to meet with the kids, their parents, and to coach a training session at the club. One of the primary reasons for agreeing to the trip on such short notice was to show my support for all the hard work that Dennis has provided the kids at the Palo Alto Club. For me to be able to show up on a Saturday morning and find over 30 juniors in a structured program with coaches dedicated to their improvement was a real treat. Although Dennis isn't able to spend as much time coaching as he did when he was the USATT Coaching Committee Chair, his influence on the program and the kids remains apparent.

The Malek family hosted me for my two nights before we took off for China. I had wonderful Persian food and battled with Auria's younger brother, Shayon, on their new pool table. On the way to the airport, we stopped at Chevy's Mexican Restaurant for our last meal before heading westward. I was completely caught off guard when, as we were about to leave, all the waiters began singing, "Happy Birthday!", while they planted a straw sombrero on my head and presented me with some ice cream on my 34th birthday.

I could see that our youth team of Jackie Lee (15), Michelle Hu (18), Auria Malek (15), Danny Bruno (14), and David Rudesill (20) were seasoned travelers as each had summer school books or plenty of batteries (for their CD players) for the flight. Everyone had been to China before with Dennis which made the trip much easier as everyone knew what to expect from food to training to even how to deal with mosquitoes.

We arrived in Shanghai close to 10 p.m., and were greeted by Coach Ai, Ms. Wang (a former Shanghai University player), and Xu Jia (a top Shanghai player playing in Slovenia) after clearing immigration. Coach Ai remembered me as a player from the 1991 World Championships when he was Japan's head coach. He also worked with many of the Palo Alto players on their last trip to China.

The newly built Pudong airport is quite possibly one of the nicest airports I have ever visited. Hi-tech signs, modern luggage systems, and spotless marble floors greeted us after our 13 hour flight. This was a clear sign that Beijing will be ready to host the world in 2008 for the Olympics. We took a 45 minute bus ride in the dark and checked into our hotel next to the Shanghai University. Color TV with remote, AC, filtered water dispensers, phone, firm mattresses, modern bathroom, and no mosquitoes! We were all quite impressed!

Our first practice started at 8:30 a.m. the next morning and everyone woke up prior to sunrise still on Pacific Coast time. Wide-eyed and ready to play the kids wolfed down their scrambled eggs and French fries before heading over to the training hall next to our temporary dining hall. During breakfast it became apparent that Michelle's Mandarin translation skills would be a life saver as the phrase, "Michelle, how do you say...", became our team's catch phrase.

The training hall was ideal. Twenty Double Happiness tables spaciously laid out on a beautiful wooden floor, perfect lighting, and air-conditioning. Dennis had told me that he expected they might have air-conditioning, but didn't mention it to the team, just in case they didn't. As a coach, I had everything I could ask for: western living conditions, edible food, a great playing hall, excellent practice partners, two well respected coaches from Shanghai, and five American kids ready to train their butts off!

Our daily schedule from Monday to Saturday was:

7:30

-

8:00

a.m.

 Breakfast

8:30

-

11:15

a.m.

 Morning practice

12:00

-

12:45

p.m.

 Lunch

1:00

-

2:15

p.m.

 Rest

2:30

-

5:00

p.m.

 Afternoon practice (multi-ball)

6:00

-

6:45

p.m.

 Dinner

7:00

-

8:00

p.m.

 Serve practice

10:00 

-

11:00

p.m.

 Bedtime

Sunday was our day off to relax, shop, and to go sightseeing.

The morning sessions began with all the Shanghai players getting a pep talk from their coach prior to some basic stretching exercises. Each day our players were paired with different opponents with varying styles of play. Choppers, loopers, pips-out hitters, and counter-drivers between the ages of 9 and 20 showed our team what it meant to be professional junior players in China. The University of Shanghai is somewhat unusual as it also allows Chinese parents to enroll their children in the program for a fee along with others that are selected based on their level of play. This was obvious as some of the very youngest 7 and 8 year olds seemed easily distracted while playing.

Drills were 10 minutes per person and focused on serve, serve attack, looping, blocking, and footwork. After the first 30 minutes we found out that due to an upcoming team match with the Beijing women's team, the AC wouldn't be used since the playing conditions for the local match would be sans AC. David got the Mr. Sweat award as his shirt was often soaked by the second drill.

While everyone did basically the same drills, in the morning Danny focused on his forehand and backhand loops, while Michelle worked on her smash and loop off underspin. David paid special attention to tempo and controlling the rallies. Auria's goal was to wait longer for the ball on his backhand and to keep his elbow down on his forehand loop. Jackie spent most of her time improving her loop drive and smash, especially against underspin. My job was to supplement the advice from Coach Ai and to keep the intensity high during each drill. One thing that I have noticed with many of our younger players in the US is that they raise their elbows too early when looping and thus eliminate any type of forearm snap from their stroke. I've seen almost no Chinese players that have this problem. Possible reasons for this difference could be due to the lighter rackets that we use and the lack of importance placed on creating maximum spin.

Often the last 30 minutes of morning practice included games where the winners would move up and the losers would move down on the tables. Beating the 10-12 year olds (est. rating of 2000) became the measuring stick and any wins over the 13-15 year olds (est. rating of 2350) got high-fives. Michelle had a number of great battles with some of the youngest practice partners in which it was common to hear her say, "You're all mine now!"

A real big treat for our team was to see US and North American Champ. Gao Jun training with the Shanghai University Team. Due to husband Frank's recent business venture in Shanghai, the two of them had an apartment only a subway ride away. Gao mentioned that she was offered a spot on the Shanghai University team next year to play in China's Super League, but hadn't made up her mind. Clearly, her outstanding results in the recent World Cup were based on her rigorous practice in Shanghai.

Afternoon practice was brutal as half of it was multi-ball. Each table had three to four players, so you only had a brief rest before you were back up for 250 balls of looping or random placement drills. Both Coach Ai and Ms. Wang were experts in delivering the perfect tempo to force Auria, Jackie, and David to push themselves for each shot. I worked closely with Danny and Michelle to deal with timing and technique issues. Picking up the balls with the two-stick and pillow strip Ball Grabber became quite fun exercises, as well as watching Danny do his bent knee shoeless shimmy shuffle.

On Saturday night of the first week, we got a chance to see the Shanghai University Women's team beat a very strong Beijing team in a Super League match. The spectators were as wet as the players when the match was finished due to the extreme heat. The absence of AC during the training session really seemed to pay off. Two of the Beijing players were on the national team, so it was quite an upset. After getting back to the room, we were quite surprised to see men's matches on TV. Table tennis is shown weekly on television in China, including challenge matches, league matches, and international opens. The most amazing thing we saw on TV were the commercials with Kong Linghua, Wang Liqin, Liu Guozheng, Cai Zhenhua, and Wang Nan all endorsing different sport shoes.

Our first Sunday off found us at the open market in Shanghai where we got to barter for many Chinese-made American goods. Backpacks, wallets, jackets, pens, lighters, and of course CDs, VCDs, and DVDs were the main attraction. Auria showed his negotiating ability along with Danny and David while I showed Jackie and Michelle the finer points of knowing when to walk away during the final bid. Everyone got plenty of gifts for their relatives, and Danny definitely got the award for purchasing the most CDs. KFC and Pizza Hut helped make our day off feel like home, and hosts Chen Bin and Ms. Wang helped us with all of our tourist needs.

Week two went as fast as the first week, and I had a chance to fill in when we were a player short for some of our round robin competitions. The first thing I noticed when playing our practice partners was the importance of keeping one's serve short and being able to finish the ball. I got beaten often enough to convince me it might be a good idea to start running in the morning prior to breakfast and to work on some new short serves during evening serve practice. I was quite pleased to see our players hanging tough and fighting for each point during the competition.

On our second and final day off, we visited Tiger Hill and did some more shopping. Although I know it was painful for the kids not to be bartering for VCDs downtown, I am sure the cultural experience will be appreciated later in life, or at least when they use those teapots we purchased! By the end of the day everyone was really pooped out and ready for bed.

The last four days featured more match play, multi-ball drills, and a growing desire to return home to show everyone what we had learned from the trip. Apart from a somewhat interesting departure at the airport, I can say I too was happy to be returning to the good old U.S. of A. We landed back at San Francisco airport as we had left--maybe a few points lighter, but definitely wiser and ready for 11 point games.

I would like to publicly thank our hosts, the University of Shanghai, Coach Ai, Ms. Wang, and our practice partners. Dennis Davis and Coach Zhi-Yong Wang get all the credit stateside for making this trip happen. My team of Auria, Danny, Jackie, Michelle, and David were a pleasure to work with and I wouldn't hesitate in taking this group of great kids back again.

Courtesy of About.com and Sean O'Neill

 

Last Update : 06 November, 2002

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