THE SECRETS OF CHINESE TABLE TENNIS
And what the rest of the world needs to do to catch up
By Larry Hodges and Cheng Yinghua - USATT Magazine July/August 2005
At the recent World
Championships, China swept all five events â€“ menâ€™s and womenâ€™s singles &
doubles, and mixed doubles. In fact, all but menâ€™s doubles were all-Chinese
finals. And yet, a number of cracks were shown, especially on the menâ€™s side.
Denmarkâ€™s Michael Maze, after
losing the first three games and falling behind 7-3 in the fourth against
Chinaâ€™s Hao Shuai, came back to win. Maze earlier had defeated Wang Hao very
easily, 4-0. Czech Republicâ€™s Petr Korbel led Ma Lin 7-3 in the seventh before
losing that final game 11-9. Wang Liqin had to go the full seven against Hong
Kongâ€™s Li Ching. Koreaâ€™s Moon Hyun Jung defeated Wang Nan, whoâ€™d won womenâ€™s
singles at the last three Worlds.
Yet, all in all, the Worlds were
a demonstration of Chinese supremacy in the sport.
So what is the secret to Chinese
table tennis â€¦ and how can the rest of the world catch up?
Chinese Table Tennis
The Chinese National Team
The Chinese team has more depth
than any other team in the world. The primary training center is in Beijing. The
team is made up of 96 players â€“ 24 men, 24 women, 24 boys and 24 girls.
Players are given â€śtryoutsâ€ť
early on, usually with trips to major tournaments in Europe or elsewhere, to see
how they do internationally. From this, the Chinese judge if this player has
the potential to become a star.
A huge advantage China has comes
from their depth. If a player on the national team isnâ€™t working hard, doesnâ€™t
do well internationally, or has technical flaws hurting their progress, there is
always another â€śhungryâ€ť player with potential on the outside waiting to get in.
National Team Selection
In many countries (including
USA), the national team is selected in a Team Trials. This may be the fairest
way of choosing a team, but it may not the best way to develop a dominating
team. According to Cheng, in most countries â€“ including USA â€“ 90% of the
training and team funding goes to â€śflawed playersâ€ť who have no chance of ever
This is a true problem as a Team
Trials fits most peopleâ€™s notion of fairness. Yet the players who make the team
in such Trials usually do not match the players with the greatest potential for
winning medals. Often players in their 40s make the team over promising players
under 22. Exhibit â€śAâ€ť is the current U.S. National Team at the recent Worlds,
chosen by Team Trials. Their ages were 46, 41, 41, 38, 37, 36, 34, 30, 19 and
18. (This is not to disparage the accomplishments of those who made the team in
the Team Trials, who earned their positions.) Many of the top youth players in
the U.S. just missed making the team. Ironically, the youngest player to make
the team, Han Xiao, age 18, finished fifth, and only the top four spots are
funded â€“ so he had to pay his own way, even though he was the top player of his
age in the country. The funding went instead to older players, mostly in their
30s and 40s. Players such as Mark Hazinski (20, U.S. #1 under 22), Adam Hugh
(17, U.S. #1 under 18 boy), and Judy Hugh (15, U.S. #1 under 18 girl), did not
Was this the fairest way of
choosing a team? Yes. Was it the best way to choose a team with the potential to
develop into medal contenders? Probably not. Unless they were top world-ranked
players, Chinese coaches probably wouldnâ€™t have selected anyone over age 22. One
option is to have either a separate â€śyouthâ€ť team made up of under 22 players who
train as part of the national team. Many countries already have these, but these
players, along with older players who can challenge the best players in the
world, need to be the focus.
The Chinese train long and hard.
Typically they do seven hours of training each day â€“ both table play and
physical training away from the table. In the mornings, they normally do
physical training away from the table, and serve practice. There is a morning
and an afternoon training session, usually six days a week. (Training includes
both regular practice with a partner, and multiball training with a coach. This
is the same for most countries.) Some players play extra practice matches at
night or on off days. Players generally get 12 days off per year, although they
also get rest days after major tournaments (which often are travel days).
They normally focus on training
from November to April, and with more tournaments the rest of the year. During
Chengâ€™s years on the team, this was more clear-cut, but now with the ITTF Pro
Tour and various leagues, there is more and more year-round competition.
Specialized Practice Partners
One huge advantage China has
over the rest of the world is their practice partners. Typically, in most
countries, members of the national team train together. However, in China, much
of the training is with â€śprofessionalâ€ť practice partners. Instead of players
always taking turns on drills, all the training focuses on the one player. (This
is especially helpful for the women, who practice with male practice partners
who are usually stronger then the women players.)
Even more important, practice
partners mimic the styles of opposing players. The Chinese team includes
practice partners who have developed their games to match those of the best
foreign players â€“ men like Schlager, Samsonov, Kreanga, Waldner, Saive, Chuan,
Ryu and Oh, and women like Boros, Tie Yana, Li Jia Wei, Liu Jia, Kim Kyung Ah,
and Pavlovich. These practice partners study videos of the player they are
copying, and talk to players who have played them so as to better mimic them.
According to Duan Xiang, a
member of the Chinese Technical Committee of the Chinese Table Tennis
Association, â€śWe have a lot of Chinese Samsonovs and Waldners. Our players play
against them every day and that makes the real match day easier.â€ť
Cheng spent much of his time on
the Chinese team as a practice partner. During his early years, he was told to
copy Hungaryâ€™s Tibor Klampar. Later, when Klampar retired, he was told to mimic
Jan-Ove Waldner. Cheng even traveled to Europe to watch these players live in
tournaments, and would speak with players who played them to get insight on
their games and what made them so effective. Those who watch Cheng now can see
the mixture of Klampar and Waldner in his game.
Chinaâ€™s Jiang Jialiang, a
pips-out penholder, won the worlds in 1985. As the 1987 Worlds approached, it
became apparent that his main rival would be Swedenâ€™s Waldner. And so much of
his time training was with Cheng, who could mimic everything Waldner did, from
his serve and serve returns, to his forehand loops and drives, etc. As the â€™87
Worlds approached, they began playing many practice matches, with the loser
doing push-ups. Cheng won match after match, and after each match would stand
over Jiang as he did his push-ups, asking how heâ€™s going to win the Worlds if he
canâ€™t even beat him?!! The preparation worked; while Jiang didnâ€™t do so well
against Cheng before the Worlds, he became so used to the â€śWaldnerâ€ť game that he
was able to win the 1987 Worlds again.
Perhaps, if heâ€™d practiced with
players who mimicked the best Chinese, at the recent Worlds Maze wouldnâ€™t have
fallen behind 3-0 to Hao Shuai, and been more comfortable with Ma Linâ€™s game?
Perhaps he was just getting used to Ma when the match ended, as he did with Hao
Shuai? (He lost the match 11-7, 11-6, 11-9, 11-8, showing he was getting closer
at the end.) And the same thing to the other match-ups between Chinese players
Two-on-One Practice Partners
A common problem for the best
players in the world is finding a strong enough practice partner. During his
prime, Waldner once quipped to the Swedish coach, â€śWhen do I get to practice
with someone stronger?â€ť
China has more depth than any
country, but even there, the best players are the best players. Players like
Wang Liqin and Ma Lin canâ€™t find anyone better to practice with than themselves.
Or can they?
China has developed a way of
doing this. Cheng was hesitant about even talking about this, as this training
method has been relatively secret, even to this day. It is normally only used in
closed training sessions as they prepare for major tournaments. Cheng hinted
that at one time, if heâ€™d told â€śoutsidersâ€ť about this technique, heâ€™d have
gotten in trouble.
The technique involves having
two practice partners for one player. This is a luxury that other countries
canâ€™t afford, but that China, with their playing depth, can. Two practice
partners are selected, one with a very strong forehand, one with a very strong
backhand (but also a good forehand), and they learn to play together as a team.
Together, they do drills with the best Chinese players. With one player only
playing forehand from the forehand side, and the other only playing from the
backhand side (favoring backhand, but also playing forehand from backhand as top
players do), suddenly they become a â€śstronger playerâ€ť than even Wang Liqin! And
so even the best Chinese players are pushed to the limit, practicing with these
Mental and Tactical Training
The Chinese team meets at least
weekly with sports psychologists. (This is common practice in other countries as
well.) One aspect that is probably different is that these sessions are joint
psychology and tactical meetings. This is linked together as it takes proper
mental training to execute proper strategies under pressure.
The Chinese team has a tactical
support staff that develops these strategies. According to Zhou Zuyi of the
Shanghai Daily (May 7, 2005), â€śInsiders give credit to the backroom staff
that devote themselves to analyzing the opponentsâ€™ games and developing new
techniques and strategies. The technicians work out a game pattern for each
major foreign player, which is in turn followed by training partners whose only
job is to emulate different stars from around the world.â€ť
The Development of a Chinese Player
Chinese children are tested at a
very early age for sports skills. Those that test well are often put into
special sports schools. Cheng was tested at age 5, and tested highly for racket
sport skills, and so was put into a special sports school. From age 5 to about
12, he was trained in both table tennis and badminton. From age 12 on, he was
essentially a full-time table tennis player, dropping out of school to focus
solely on table tennis. Most other top Chinese players have similar stories.
Others come from regular
schools. Essentially every school in China has a table tennis team that trains
regularly. In a country of 1.3 billion, thatâ€™s a huge number of teams! According
to the Shanghai Daily (May 7, 2005), â€ś10 million players play regularly.
These are players who are exposed regularly to what high-level play is like, not
the basement players that make up the masses in the U.S. and many other
Some say China is good at table
tennis only because of sheer numbers. There is, of course, a degree of truth to
this. However, as shown by Europeâ€™s (especially Swedenâ€™s) rise in the early
1990s, and Chinaâ€™s decline, numbers cannot overcome poor technique. In the late
1980â€™s/early 1990s, China was slow to adjust to changing technique, sticking too
long with most pips-out style games while the rest of the world was changing to
inverted looping, especially shakehand style. China has learned from that
experience, and now leads the world in this very style. Wang Liqin was recently
re-crowned as world menâ€™s champion (he also won in 2001). On the womenâ€™s side,
Zhang Yining just won the Worlds; she was preceded by Wang Nan, who won three
straight. All three of these players are shakehand loopers, and are probably the
most emulated players in the world.
What happens in China is that
the players with the best technique, talent, and mental & physical skills tend
to rise to the top. Where before some of these players might have been kept out
because they didnâ€™t play the â€śrightâ€ť playing style (with most shakehand loopers
relegated to becoming practice partners who copied the European loopers, like
Cheng), now they become regular Chinese team members. Because there are so many
Chinese players, they are loaded with skilled and hard-working players. And so
the best Chinese players tend to be the ones with the best technique.
New techniques are regularly
coming out. Probably the most noticeable is the â€śreverse penhold backhand,â€ť best
exemplified by Olympic Silver Medalist Wang Hao and World Menâ€™s Singles Finalist
(and recently ranked #1 in the world) Ma Lin. Historically, penholders use the
same side of the racket for both forehand and backhand. In the 1990s, a number
of Chinese players began using the reverse side of the racket to attack on the
backhand, most prominently by Liu Guoliang (1996 Olympic Gold Medalist, 1999
World Champion), who used it mostly as a variation. Ma Lin raised it to a new
level, using it as a primary shot. Wang Hao raised it to an even higher level,
making it his primary backhand shot.
While Europeans pioneered
backhand looping, the Chinese have developed over-the-table backhand looping to
a higher degree. Europeans like Klampar developed this technique in the 1970s,
but few others developed this style. China did. Now Chinese players like Wang
Liqin, Kong Linghui and Zhang Yining are among the best in the world at this
(along with Austriaâ€™s Werner Schlager and Koreaâ€™s Oh Sang Eun).
Above all, Chinese players
dominate with serve & receive techniques. Other countries have closed the gap in
serve techniques, yet most consider Ma Linâ€™s serves the best among world-class
players, and before him, Liu Guoliangâ€™s â€“ both Chinese players. But it is return
of serve where the Chinese really dominate. Where other countries learn to
return serves to neutralize the serve, the Chinese return serves to throw
opponents off and take the initiative. Ma Lin is probably best at this, tying
opponents in knots with his returns, but all the Chinese players train many
hours at this, and so have few peers at receive. Outside China, Waldner may be
the only one who can do this at the Chinese level.
There is another â€śsecretâ€ť
strength of Chinese technique, except itâ€™s not really a secret: they have the
best basics. They spend huge amounts of time on the â€śboringâ€ť basics, and so are
nearly machine-like in their efficiency. You rarely see a Chinese player miss an
easy shot. Cheng said of his winning the USA Nationals in 2004 at age 46 that
most of his opponents simply didnâ€™t have good basics. (This is relative, of
course â€“ good basics at the world-class level are pretty advanced for most of
Challenging the Chinese: A
The result of all this training
is that the Chinese tend to have the greatest fitness (along with the Koreans),
the best basics, and the best serve & receive games. They often have the best
techniques and strategy. And they have such depth that they always have a new
player ready if one falters. How can the rest of the world challenge this?
There are basically two ways of
attacking this problem. The first is simply to match the Chinese in as many of
their strengths as possible. The second is to develop other strengths.
Other countries donâ€™t have the
depth the Chinese have. However, they can expand their national team to include
more players, especially younger, up-and-coming players. One way is to allow the
national team coaches to select promising players to join the team. This only
makes sense, however, if the team trains together on a regular basis.
National Team Selection
This is problematic as it
probably isnâ€™t feasible to switch from team trials to the Chinese system of the
coaches choosing the team. However, it is possible for countries to put age
limits on their team members who donâ€™t have minimal world rankings, or some
version of this (perhaps only having the two top spots completely open). Itâ€™s
also possible to have youth or junior teams that train with practice partners or
national team members. Even this, however, would meet with huge opposition, and
may not be feasible.
The Chinese train nearly
year-round together as a team. Few other countries do this. Most European
countries only get together a few times each year to train as a team, as the
players instead play in leagues, and train with their team in the league. Many
European countries get together for â€śSuper Campsâ€ť before major competitions, but
again itâ€™s only a few weeks per year. It canâ€™t compete with the best Chinese
players training together full-time all year.
The USA team gets together only
a few weeks per year, if that. Itâ€™s simply not enough.
To match the Chinese, other
countries need to focus on year-round training, not just periodic training,
combined with league-type play and competing in the ITTF Pro Tour. One way of
doing this is to simply have the teams train at the location of the leagues,
even if that means training in another country. If countries combine their
practice sessions, then the best players can train together, and pool their
resources for practice partners (see below) as well as training center expenses.
Otherwise, the best players in, say, Europe wonâ€™t get to train with the best
players, as the Chinese do (since many of the best players are on the Chinese
1989 & 1987 World Champion
Jan-Ove Waldner of Sweden attributes much of his success to training in China.
Those who wish to challenge the Chinese should consider doing the same.
Most countries donâ€™t have the
resources to have as many practice partners as the Chinese. However, this is a
must if they wish to challenge the Chinese.
Teams that are not among the
best in the world need world-class practice partners to help them raise their
level. Itâ€™s nearly impossible for 2600 and 2700 players to become 2900 players
unless they train with 2900 players.
Teams that are among the best in
the world need world-class practice partners that emulate players like Wang
Liqin and Ma Lin. When Wang Liqin or Ma Lin plays, say, Samsonov, theyâ€™ve been
practicing with Samsonov-like players regularly, and so theyâ€™re ready.
Meanwhile, Samsonov has been practicing with whoever he can get, meaning mostly
weaker players, and none who really play like Wang Liqin or Ma Lin. Anyone
watching Michael Maze against Ma Lin in the semifinals of the recent Worlds can
see how uncomfortable he was against Maâ€™s game. Most likely, two years from now
heâ€™ll be equally uncomfortable as he wonâ€™t get to train against this style.
Meanwhile, in China, there are players whose main job is to play like Maze, and
so Ma will be even more prepared.
Itâ€™s unlikely that other
countries can regularly train with two practice partners in the way the Chinese
do, at least in the foreseeable future, but the first step is just getting these
practice partners. Surprisingly, the answer is to go right to the source: China
itself. China has a huge number of top players who are not on the Chinese team,
players who, if given the chance, would be among the top 50 in the world or even
better. Since costs in China are cheap compared to most other countries (which
is why USA was able to hire former Chinese team members Cheng Yinghua, Huang
Tong â€śJackâ€ť Huang and Huazhang Xu as practice partners in the late 1990s), they
are affordable, if this becomes a priority. Countries can pool their resources
and hire practice partners â€“ and they can do so right from China!
Mental and Tactical Training
Many countries already have
meetings with sports psychologists. It might be a good idea to combine this with
tactical meetings, as the Chinese do.
Most countries have one or two
coaches who develop most or all of the strategies for their team (along with the
players themselves). There are many top coaches or former top players who can be
brought in, often as volunteers, to help develop tactics. For teams that canâ€™t
yet challenge the top players, they should focus on the tactical and style
development of their players. If they are at the level where they can challenge
the best teams, more toward specific strategies against specific players becomes
Again, other countries donâ€™t
have the depth the Chinese have. They can, however, close the gap with more
grass-roots development. Germany, for example, has a huge number of players due
to their league system.
Where other countries can top
the Chinese is in more match practice, especially in competitive situations. A
Chinese strength is their actual training. However, many Europeans players have
more effective match practice, due to the many European leagues. This makes them
â€śmatch tough,â€ť and this allows them to be at their best in big matches as they
become used to developing flexible tactics for their matches. If they are able
to combine this with playing practice partners who emulate top Chinese players,
they can be even better prepared for the match than the Chinese player, who may
have more and better training, but not as much match play in competitive
situations against different players (since much of their match play is in
practice sessions against other Chinese players).
To get this match practice,
players can play in various leagues, such as the German Leagues, considered by
many the best in the world, as well as the ITTF Pro Tour. This, combined with
matching the Chinese in other aspects of their development, can make them
competitive with the Chinese.
Technique is an open thing, as
you can learn the most modern technique by just watching the best players.
However, if you do it that way, you are always years behind those who develop
This is where careful planning
of coaching methods becomes important. Teams need to emulate the best techniques
by the best players (both Chinese and non-Chinese), and add their own
When Hungary defeated China to
win the 1979 World Team Championships, they dominated mostly on the strength of
their flip returns of serves and backhand loops. When Sweden dominated China in
the early 1990s, they did so with their shakehand inverted games with speed
glue. In both cases, the Chinese were caught off guard, and lost due to the new
USA is also a good example here.
In the modern sponge era, roughly the past 40 years, only two players have
reached the top twenty level in the world â€“ Dan Seemiller (now the USA Menâ€™s
Coach) and Eric Boggan. Both copied the most advanced techniques in the world,
and added them to their own new techniques. Both of these players played with
the â€śSeemillerâ€ť grip, first developed at a high level by Seemiller himself,
whereby one side of the racket was used for both forehand and backhand (sort of
a windshield-wiper grip), with antispin rubber on the other side as a variation.
At the 1985 Worlds, four of the five USA team members used this grip! (Dan &
Rick Seemiller, Eric Boggan and Brian Masters, with Sean Oâ€™Neill the sole
shakehander.) The new technique help bring USA to its highest level in four
decades, where they could actually challenge all but perhaps the top four
countries in the world.
This doesnâ€™t mean USA or other
countries should start switching to the Seemiller grip. It means that to really
challenge the Chinese, other countries need not only to copy their technique,
but develop new ones, as the Hungarians and Swedes did. Or, doing as the Chinese
did by copying Klamparâ€™s technique and improving on it, other countries can
improve or develop current techniques. Somewhere out there are players using new
techniques that few have noticed, but which may be the next big breakthrough.
Europe already has one possible
advantage of China, and that is their rallying techniques. China may dominate at
the start of the rally, but the Europeans, who spend more time training their
rallying techniques (primarily counterlooping), and tend to use softer sponges
(better for counterlooping) often have an advantage here. This is something they
can develop, if combined with tactics to get into these types of rallies.
Challenging the Chinese in table
tennis is a formidable task, similar to the rest of the world challenging USA in
basketball. A few years ago, USA basketball seemed invincible, and now they are
not. The Chinese are much more challengeable now than USA basketball was, but it
wonâ€™t be an easy task. Basically, itâ€™ll take a combination of matching Chinese
strengths, while developing other strengths. Can it be done? Yes. Will it be
done? That remains to be seen.
who is sponsored by Butterfly, is
the current and four-time U.S. Menâ€™s Singles Champion. He was a member of the
Chinese National Team from 1977-87. He was the 1985 and 1993 U.S. Open Menâ€™s
Singles Champion, along with many other national and international titles. When
he won Menâ€™s Singles at the 2004 USA Nationals at age 46, he became the oldest
ever to do so. He is certified as a National Coach by USATT, the highest level.
He was named USATT Coach of the Year in 1996. He is a member of the
USATT Hall of
Fame, and a full-time coach at the Maryland
Table Tennis Center.
is editor of USA Table Tennis Magazine, a long-time coach and player, and author
of over 300 table tennis coaching articles and the book, Table Tennis: Steps
to Success. He is certified as a National Coach by USATT, and was named
USATT Developmental Coach of the Year in 2003. He is a member of the
USATT Hall of
Fame, and a coach at the Maryland Table Tennis Center.
USA Table Tennis - Larry Hodges
and Cneng Yinghua