The Ability That Creates Disability

21 Marzo 2014 da Ping Pong Italia · Lascia un commento 

An Idea For The European Table Tennis

A few years ago I highlighted, in an article from this blog, the technical differences still existing today between the Chinese and European school of table tennis. That article previous post received recognition from both the Chinese and German media. From this article I’d like to propose some suggestions that may help to narrow the performance gap existing between China and the rest of the World. To better define this subject, it’s necessary to do a short, but essential introduction about what ping pong actually is in it’s entirety.
Although ping pong, to many people may seem like a banal game (from a certain point of view it really is, one has to hit the ball back to the opposite side of the table and what’s done is done), but not to me. I strongly believe that the fundamental concepts of this sport should always be taken into account. Ping pong is action and reaction, it’s motion and coordination, it’s tactic and strategy, it’s technique and physical strength, it’s motivation and determination, and more. All these features are governed by ability. As one can see ability has multiple ways to express itself, I think that Europeans, and generally the rest of the World, except China, use ability in either a wrong or different way.
To better understand the meaning of this subject we have to talk about ability. European and the rest of the ping pong world is still suffering, and will do it for several years to come, for wanting to focus on “playing ability”, yet in various situations from time to time, their playing evolves into a type of defense. All this in addition to mistakes of technical planning as I mentioned in the previous article. The point in question I’d like to address is this one: The ability of a player to put into practice his/her best shots, skillfully.
One of the examples of “playing ability”, and probably the best ever, was J.O.Waldner. An unmatched talent capable of anything, envied as much as emulated by many followers. If on one side Waldner has been a role model, on the other side he created a situation for an abnormal technical and mental development, representing a playing style different from what is today the real concept of ping pong: fast rallies and continuity. I hope Waldner will forgive me, and far be it from me to acknowledge him for being somewhat responsible for the China-Europe gap (and the rest of the world). Furthermore, I have a deep respect for him as a person and for his accomplishments. Another influential player worthy of mention is Michael Maze. Unfortunately his victo- ry at the 2005 World Championship against Hao Shuai, playing high lobs, has set a negative precedent that contributed to the demise of European and Japanese ping pong players. The moral of the story: It’s possible to beat Chinese players with playing defense, yeah right.
Going back in time there are more examples, like French player Secretin and Liang Ge Liang, go figure the only Chinese, the so called “Allround” players, to put it better, the ability of playing with diverse style, in any situations. Again, I don’t think they are directly responsible, I’m only stating the facts, and the facts indicate that for about two decades European players haven’t been able to create a playing identity. The only exception comes from France which has excellent players (in the picture Mattenet FRA) with great potential but suffer from the drawbacks mentioned above, transforming the game into a sort of restrained action without being aggressive.
The 40mm ball has actually aided to support this negative tendency in Europe. The ball speed being slower, enticed us into even slower rallies succumbing players to play fancifully. While in China Liu Guoliang dictated the course of action for an aggressive power play, executed with ferocious tactic, (by the way, have you ever seen Liu Guoliang stepping back and playing defense?). Europeans stood by and watched hoping that a larger ball could facilitate them, wasting time and struggling against Chinese superpower, often clinging to their whimsical “playing ability”, rather than do it head to head, the ability in playing. It’s time to change attitude.

The real pioneer of modern play since the 70’s and 80’s is Hungarian Tibor Klampar. A real talent. In my opinion his play was effeminate, in the sense that today almost all women players play the same way, close to the table. They never step back, have fast action, precise ball trajectories, and spin variations. All the other players play a chopping-type defense. Among women, the playing ability at an international level has been represented only by the Hungarian Toth, often against the Asian fast play, when she would frequently play high looping lobs. I really appreciate the manner in which women play. It gives me the impression of being complementary to male play. Male players find it difficult to adopt theses strategies, they don’t even think to do these things. Can you imagine to play like women, very fast and at the same time powerfully? For sure, we have to adjust the foot work, no more crossovers, moving left and right, but with shuffle steps, and legs wide apart to maintain balance. This is essential for improving speed in the execution of strokes and explosiveness of the body, shoulder flexibility, mental speed, etc…
I’ve never attended a Chinese national championship but would really like to. I’d like to take this opportunity to recommend it to all coaches, especially European ones, to do it, there’s nothing wrong in doing it, no contraindications nor side effects, it would be just a positive thing. I’m convinced that matches between Chinese players are everything but a sort of defensive game. They face each other with head held high. One serves, the other returns the serve, does a top spin (loop) or opens up on the table, a block, and so on in an escalation of intense tactic.
To understand this concept better, I’ll give you an example that you may find very familiar. When we practice at the club, either by ourselves or in a training camp, we always end in the same situation, one player attacks, and the other defends at his/her best, withdrawing away from the table as fast as possible, often fishing with high lobs. I often see many young players stepping back from the table, with a quick sprint to get to a far position, like they were going to give up playing. How many times have we seen that scene? Many times. This strategy only stimulates the playing ability, a sort of ability that makes us weak, passive, technically and mentally vulnerable. Day after day the player develops defensive game conditions, hoping to reverse the quality of the rally hoping to resolve it with a recovering shot, a desperate counter loop, a heavy chop, and so on. It seems normal, who doesn’t do it nowadays? This is indeed the problem. We have to go back to playing fast rallies and scoring points and NOT raising the white flag, play defensively, returning the ball in the best possible way, hoping who knows what. This attitude creates weakness and mental dependence. Many times we score a point at the expense of a non-winning strategy. This gives us the illusion of being skilled, an illusion that fails fatally when playing against somebody with a solid and concrete style. Someone with speed and power, aggressiveness and determination, something that Chinese players know perfectly. Note, I’m not saying that we can’t play (ball) control, but being too passive shouldn’t be the main focus.
The Europeans are sharp, know tactics and technique and have creativity and talent. They don’t need all this, they already have it. Over time they have even improved, although they have lost the sense of playing, it’s dignity, fluidity, harmony and beauty.
I don’t like to take examples from other sports, but look at tennis, “our cousin.” Right now (Summer 2013), Wimbledon can inspire us. I’m not considering the show, I analyze the rally, the game itself. Play, rally, return the ball, if you can’t keep up, you can’t reach the ball, and you will lose. In Table Tennis it is not the same thing. If we can’t keep up, we step far from the table, retrieving, hoping not to get a final blow so we can catch up and maybe turn things around. To paraphrase tennis, I have the impression that the Chinese are phenomenal playing either on grass and on clay, while everybody else only on clay. And what about fencing, a sport resembling pingpong being a duel. In fencing one can win fighting, not stepping back. What is a duel if one runs away?

We, the rest of the World, know two methods (Dr Jekyll & Mr. Hyde), one for training schemes, the other for free playing. During training we are excellent, making very few errors, and playing regular rallies with continuous high-quality stroke execution. We are persistent, enduring, and well predisposed mentally. In free playing we change the way we play, almost hiding our ability, we get unrecognizable, then we stop the continuity, our playing gets imprecise, the strokes are less effective, we are doubtful, with a defensive attitude. All this happen during training, imagine it during a competition. Europeans need playing coherence, meaning continuity during fast rallies, reactivity of the legs, and the ability to repeat the same actions in the same way, naturally, continuously, constantly, without interruptions whatsoever, almost like playing a game. Any time we move away from this method, it means weakness. A tiny crack which, in the long run, destabilizes the whole structure, until it will collapse.
To get to a stage of real competitiveness, we have to strengthen the mentality for a consistent playing. We have to be able to keep up the rally, become more powerful, adopt tactics and strategies in a obsessive disciplined way, To achieve this, ideas are not enough, we must work, with constancy and discipline.
We need awareness to be ready to take a step backward in order to take two steps forward. We need dedication and willpower. We need physical and mental training. We have to give up the “playing ability” to leave room for coherent playing, which is the real ability playing the one with capitol A,. The one that supervises everything, the boss. We must start with the new generation of players and educate them in regard to coherent playing: the continuity of playing rallies close to the table, to open up with a flick or any spinning ball before our opponent does, not being afraid to block on the table or counter-hitting with a loop, placing the ball, and not being passive during a confrontation.
I’m sure that China is not invincible. Most players have resigned themselves to the fact that China will win. Well I’d like to go against the majority. I believe in the willpower of Europeans and the rest of the World. I’ve seen the Chinese training as well as the Europeans, The Chinese are continuous, constant, they don’t give up, we do. Even in China there’s something similar, the ones that fall into temptation with the playing ability, fatally succumb.
And us, what don’t we have that we can’t accomplish the same results?
Let’s go Rest of the World!!!

Thanks to Alex Rossi and his wife for being so helpful in translating this post. Grazie Alex

The original italian post

Un’idea per l’Europa pongistica.
Alcuni anni fa avevo evidenziato in un articolo apparso proprio su questo blog le differenze tecniche fondamentali che c’erano e che ci sono tutt’oggi tra la scuola cosiddetta cinese e quella europea. L’articolo precedente post era stato poi ripreso dalla rivista cinese e anche da quella tedesca riscuotendo notevoli apprezzamenti. Con questo pezzo invece vorrei formulare delle proposte di lavoro che potrebbero consentire di ridurre il divario qualitativo che c’è tra la Cina e il resto del mondo. Per definire meglio il contenuto di questo pezzo è importante fare una breve ma essenziale introduzione su che cos’è effettivamente il pingpong nella sua interezza.
Sebbene il gioco del pingpong per molta gente possa apparire banale (da un certo punto di vista lo è sul serio, basta rimandare la palla nell’altro lato del campo ed il gioco è fatto), per me non lo è, perché credo profondamente che i concetti fondanti del nostro sport debbano essere tenuti sempre in considerazione. Il pingpong è azione e reazione, è movimento e coordinazione, è tattica e strategia, è tecnica e prestanza fisica, è motivazione e determinazione, e altro ancora, tutte queste caratteristiche fanno riferimento a un capo, a un soprintendente: l’abilità. Come vedete l’abilità ha molti modi di esprimersi, molte sfaccettature, penso che noi europei e, più in generale, il resto del mondo eccetto Cina, faccia un uso sbagliato e/o diverso dell’abilità.

Quindi per capire meglio il senso del discorso dobbiamo partire dall’abilità.
L’Europa paga ancora oggi e per svariati anni a venire, oltre per gli errori sull’impostazione tecnica di cui parlavo nel precedente articolo, anche per il voler giocare concentrandosi sul gioco di abilità nelle varie situazioni che si presentano di volta in volta, situazioni che si evolvono in una sorta di difesa. Il punto su cui vorrei porre l’attenzione è proprio questo: l’abilità all’interno del sistema di gioco.
Uno dei più grandi maestri dell’abilità di gioco, se non il più grande di sempre è J.O. Waldner, un talento unico capace di tutto, tanto invidiato quanto emulato da moltissimi seguaci. Se da una parte Waldner ha fatto scuola, dall’altra ha creato le condizioni per una crescita tecnica e mentale anomala rappresentando un modello di gioco distante da quello che oggi è il concetto vero del pingpong ossia lo scambio rapido e la sua continuità. Spero Waldner non me ne voglia e lungi da me nel riconoscergli una qualche responsabilità diretta sul gap Cina/Europa e Resto del Mondo, inoltre nutro una profonda stima per la persona e grande ammirazione per le sue imprese. Un altro esponente da menzionare è senz’altro Michael Maze, purtroppo la sua partita dei Mondiali di Shanghai 2005 contro Hao Shuai vinta in difesa alta ha creato un precedente negativo che ha contribuito a deprimere ulteriormente il gioco europeo e in alcuni casi anche quello giapponese. Morale della favola: i cinesi si possono battere giocando in modo difensivo, furbetto.
 Andando ancora indietro nel tempo abbiamo avuto altri esempi illustri come il francese Secretin per l’Europa e, pensate, un unico cinese, uno solo Liang Ge Liang, i cosiddetti giocatori “Allround”, ossia l’abilità di gioco fatta a persona. Ripeto, ancora una volta, che non ci sono responsabilità dirette, espongo solamente la verità dei fatti. I fatti indicano che per quasi due decadi, i giocatori Europei non sono riusciti a creare una propria identità di gioco. Un’unica eccezione viene dalla Francia che ha ottimi giocatori ( nella foto Mattenet FRA) con grandi potenzialità ma che risentono di quel background che menzionavo poco fa, sviluppando il proprio gioco in una sorta di azione di controllo senza graffiare più di tanto.
La palla da 40mm ha di fatto contribuito a consolidare questa tendenza negativa dell’Europa. Il fatto che la palla vada più lenta ci ha indotto a considerare lo scambio più lento, ci siamo quindi adagiati a fare un gioco di abilità. Mentre in Cina Liu Guoliang dettava le linee guida per un gioco muscolare, aggressivo e potente eseguito con tattica feroce, (a proposito, avete mai visto Liu Guoliang indietreggiare e giocare di rimessa?) In Europa si stava a guardare sperando che quella palla ci potesse davvero favorire e quindi abbiamo perso ulteriore tempo.

Abbiamo annaspato e stiamo ancora annaspando come meglio possiamo contro lo strapotere cinese aggrappandoci il più delle volte al gioco di abilità piuttosto che andare al confronto diretto, all’abilità del gioco. È ora di cambiare registro.
Il vero precursore del gioco moderno, almeno quello che intendo io, è stato l’ungherese Tibor Klampar, considerato negli anni 70/80 un autentico talento. Mi verrebbe di dire che il suo gioco era molto femminile nel senso che oggi quasi tutte le donne giocano con quel sistema, ossia vicino al tavolo senza indietreggiare mai, puntando sull’azione rapida, il piazzamento della palla e sulla variazione di rotazioni, tutte le altre, giocano in difesa tagliata. In questo settore l’eccezionalità del gioco abile sui livelli internazionali è stata rappresentata solo dall’ungherese Toth, molto spesso, contro lo velocità asiatica, volentieri si rifugiava nella difesa alta. Io ammiro moltissimo il gioco femminile, mi dà l’impressione che sia una sorta di complemento a quello maschile a cui gli uomini fanno fatica ad adottare, anzi non ci pensano nemmeno di farlo. Ve lo immaginate giocare come le femmine ossia veloce ma allo stesso tempo esprimere potenza dei colpi. Certo occorre fare alcuni aggiustamenti sul lavoro di gambe, cambiare l’idea dei passi: non più passo incrociato per muoversi da una parte all’altra ma salto laterale mantenendo l’apertura delle gambe così da non perdere l’equilibrio. Occorre migliorare la velocità di esecuzione dei colpi e la lunghezza dei colpi, l’esplosività del corpo, la flessibilità della spalla, la velocità mentale etc.

Non ho mai assistito a un campionato nazionale cinese e vorrei tanto farlo, anzi colgo l’occasione (lo avevo già fatto in passato) per esortare i tecnici europei o qualunque tecnico ad assistere i campionati cinesi, non c’è nulla di male, non ci sono controindicazioni né effetti collaterali negativi, farebbe solo bene. Dicevo, sono convinto che le partite tra cinesi siano tutto fuorché ripararsi in una sorta di difesa di gioco. Ci si affronta a testa alta. Si fa il servizio, si risponde a un servizio, si esegue un topspin o un’apertura sul tavolo, si blocca e via continuando in un crescendo esasperatamente tattico
. Per capire meglio questo concetto devo portare un semplice esempio che a voi risulterà molto familiare, quasi quotidiano. Quando giochiamo in società, ci alleniamo per conto nostro o siamo addirittura in uno stage collettivo, ci si ritrova sempre nella stessa situazione: una parte attacca, l’altra si difende come può barricandosi spesso nel gioco da lontano, ossia indietreggiando il più velocemente possibile, e in molti casi continuando con una difesa  (fishing) anche alta (lobbing). Mi capita di girovagare qua e là per la “rete” e devo dire che ci sono molti giovani giocatori davvero veloci a prendere la posizione lontano dal tavolo, un mirabile sprint all’indietro, quasi fosse una rinuncia al gioco. Quante volte abbiamo visto questa scena? Moltissime. Questo modo di agire altro non fa che stimolare il gioco abile, quello furbo, un tipo di abilità che ci rende deboli, passivi, vulnerabili tecnicamente e mentalmente. Giorno dopo giorno il giocatore tende a creare e sviluppare situazioni di gioco difensive dove poter ribaltare la qualità dello scambio sperando appunto di risolvere il problema con un colpo di recupero, una difesa, un controtop disperato, a volte un taglio da lontano e così via. Detto così sembra normale, chi è che non lo fa al giorno d’oggi. Il problema è proprio questo, occorre tornare a giocare, a sostenere lo scambio veloce, a vincere il punto perché si è più capaci e non dichiarare bandiera bianca andando a giocare in difesa ributtando la palla alla meno peggio nella speranza di chissà che cosa. Ripeto, questo modo di fare crea dipendenza e debolezza mentale. Molte volte vinciamo il punto ma a scapito di un sistema che non è vincente dandoci l’illusione di poter competere, illusione che poi si infrange fatalmente quando si ha a che fare con un gioco, robusto, concreto, fatto di velocità e potenza, aggressività e determinazione, cose che i cinesi fanno in modo perfetto. Attenzione, non voglio dire che non dobbiamo difendere, dico solo che la difesa non deve prendere il sopravvento sul gioco aperto, di confronto. 
Noi europei siamo scaltri, conosciamo la tattica e conosciamo la tecnica, abbiamo fantasia e inventiva, non abbiamo bisogno di queste cose, ce le abbiamo già. Con il passare del tempo le abbiamo addirittura affinate, ma abbiamo perso il senso del gioco e la sua dignità, la sua fluidità, l’armonia e la bellezza. 
Non mi piace fare esempi di altri sport, ma guardiamo il tennis, “nostro cugino”, proprio in questi giorni Wimbledon ci può ispirare. Non prendo in considerazione la spettacolarità, prendo in esame lo scambio, il gioco in sé per sé. Giochi, scambi, ribatti la palla, se non sei all’altezza, niente da fare, la palla non la raggiungi e perdi. Nel pingpong non avviene la stessa cosa, se non siamo all’altezza ci rifugiamo nel gioco da lontano, andiamo in recupero, speriamo che l’avversario non ci dia il colpo di grazia così possiamo rientrare nel gioco e magari invertire la rotta. Parafrasando il tennis, ho come l’impressione che i cinesi siano fenomenali tanto nell’erba quanto nella terra rossa e tutti gli altri se la giocano solo nella terra rossa. E che dire della scherma, uno sport spesso paragonato al nostro per via dell’idea di duello. Nella scherma si vince combattendo non indietreggiando. Ma che duello è se uno tende a scappare?

Noi, inteso come resto del mondo abbiamo due modi di fare (Dott. Jekill & Mr. Hyde), uno negli schemi di allenamento e uno nelle situazioni di gioco libero. Negli schemi di allenamento siamo eccellenti, pochi errori, la continuità dei colpi, la regolarità nello scambio, esecuzione dei colpi di notevole qualità, siamo persistenti, duraturi, mentalmente ben predisposti. Quando ci troviamo in situazioni di gioco libero allora cambiamo il nostro modo di giocare, quasi a nascondere le nostre capacità, diventiamo irriconoscibili, ecco che non siamo più continui, il nostro gioco diventa confuso, i colpi sono meno efficaci, abbiamo mille dubbi e mentalmente diventiamo difensivi. Tutto questo quando siamo in allenamento, ora, figuriamoci in una competizione vera e propria.

Ai giocatori europei serve la coerenza di gioco, la continuità dell’azione veloce, la reattività delle gambe e la capacità di ripetere le stesse azioni in modo uguale, naturale, continuo, costante senza interruzioni di sorta, quasi non pensando alla partita ma giocando la partita. Ogni volta che ci si discosta da questo sistema significa debolezza. Una piccola crepa che a lungo andare destabilizza l’intera struttura fino a farla cedere del tutto. 
Per arrivare a uno stadio di vera competitività dobbiamo rafforzare la mentalità di un gioco costante, dobbiamo essere capaci di sostenere lo scambio, diventare più potenti, adottare tattica e strategia in modo disciplinato, maniacale aggiungerei. Per fare ciò le idee non bastano, serve il lavoro, la costanza del lavoro, la disciplina del lavoro. Serve una consapevolezza che ti fa essere pronto a fare un passo indietro per farne due avanti. Serve determinazione e forza di volontà. Serve preparazione fisica e mentale. Dobbiamo rinunciare al gioco abile per lasciare spazio alla coerenza di gioco, all’abilità con la A maiuscola, quella che sovrintende tutto, il capo. Dobbiamo partire con le nuove generazioni e educarle alla coerenza di gioco, alla continuità dello scambio da vicino, ad aprire il gioco prima che lo faccia l’altro con un flic o una palla di rotazione, a non aver paura di difendere bloccando sul tavolo o contrattaccare con un controtop, a piazzare la palla, a non subire quando ci si deve confrontare.

Sono convinto che la Cina non è imbattibile, forse sono in controtendenza anche perché pare che ci sia molta rassegnazione. Ho fiducia nella forza di volontà degli europei e del resto del mondo. Ho visto gli allenamenti cinesi come quelli europei, i cinesi sono continui, costanti, non cedono, noi si. Anche in Cina succede una cosa simile, tutti quelli che cedono al gioco abile fatalmente soccombono. E allora, noi, che cosa abbiamo che non possiamo fare?
Forza resto del mondo!!!

Why Chinese players are the best ones?

20 Ottobre 2008 da Ping Pong Italia · 2 Commenti 

By Massimo Costantini

Beyond political matters, that are influenced by economic matters, that are in its turn influenced by matters of sponsoring, and so on.. I just want to analyse what is the most important to me, that is the technical matter.
We always spoke about Chinese supremacy in general terms, sometimes trying to give importance and sense to concepts like better training, better organization, better technique, better legs, and so on, sometimes trying to give sociological explanations to this phenomenon: natural selection, school, political system. But after all, I never heard or read why Chinese players are the best ones. It’s always the same, trivial question, that outsiders make: why Chinese players are the best ones? We discuss like we were in front of a sort of postulate, a fact, almost a resignation. I felt this feeling also talking with the most appreciated coaches of the world: the European players enter in the field with some points behind before the beginning of the match.
That’s why now I’ll try to give a technical explanation, hoping that in this way I can feed a discussion that can just reveal itself to be helpful to our movement.

First of all, I’m convinced that we never think enough over how to improve the technique of the strokes and the development of the play. It could seem exagerate, but it is so. That’s why many times the training is oriented to improve the ability to make as less mistakes as possible, forgetting that, also in routine trainings, the true quality to research is the technique and its deep analysis.

Before studying in depth this matter, we must give a brief introduction to better deal with this subject.

Ping-pong is a technical sport, absolutely and extremely technical.
The technical base and its evolution must be taken into a very serious consideration for all the lehgth of a player’s career, from the very first moments of the play until the most professional ones.

When we get into a mistake, whatever it may be, the reasons could be two: wrong evaluation of the ball (objective) or technical mistake (subjective). The choices we make in a match, or in the training too, come always from a visual stimulus, and that’s why the result of our choices depends exactly on what we really see and perceive. We must be very honest to affirm that in the most cases we didn’t see the ball, so we made a wrong evaluation with a negative consequence, that is the loss of the point.

The play, the training, the empirical experience and the daily routine allow us to automatically improve the perception (objectivity) and so the evaluation of the opponent’s ball, making us perform, from time to time, the most convenient choices.
Our active presence and our critical sense will allow us to consider the technical mistakes, to work on them with courage and decision, and, from time to time, to enrich our technical experience.

It was very important to underline those aspects, because, as we will se later, they will be the daily bread of our improvement.

Europe is paying high for two mistakes: one severe and one light: the severe one concerns the laziness at work, that accumulated from the half 80’s. The importation of many foreign players weakened the continental history instead of enriching the technical rate, as the Europeans thought. It should be interesting to know the number of the Chinese players, or more generally, of  the Asiatic players that flowed into Europe: an enormous quantity. Instead of enriching themselves from the technical point of view, allowing the local choaches to grow for a new training education and study of the technique, they prefered to bet on the improvement of many clubs and afterwards on the improvement of national teams, shearing in fact the cycle of the technical progress of the players at its roots. Today we are living the drama of the illusion, that is following us from more than 20 years.

The second mistake, the light one, is the backhand stroke.

With this concept on a technical base I’ll start my analysis.
I had the idea to write on this post looking at the Drago Rosso’s pictures and, of course, reading his   article.
It’s unquestionable that in the last 20 years the play became not just more fast, but also more powerful, thanks to glues and thanks to more and more perfect training methodologies, too. And that’s why the gap between Asia and Europe become even more clear, because, whereas the Chinese players, traditionally penholders that always played without backhand, developed the legs movement technique at the serve and an effective forehand play, the European players, on the contrary, continued to pursue the balance between forehand and backhand, thinking that a more centred position at the table should be more winning in comparison with the Asiatic one, definitely more shifted to the backhand angle of the table.
Of course, also in Europe we can talk about tradition, but just those who went against the mainstream, encouraging different situations of the play, were rewarded: in 1979 the Hungarian players promoted a short play and powerful backhand and forehand strokes with an almost extended arm. During the following years, the Swedish players developed a psychologically perfect management of the game together with really unique individual features (Waldner, Appelgren, Lindh, Persson). And more: Gatien and his excessively forehand play. As last example, between the European players that resisted to the Asiatic power, we can mention J.M. Saive: at 40 years he still continues with his preponderant forehand play.

What kind of damage does the backhand produce? The maintenance of the position of the arm almost always more bent than it’s correct. The waiting position, exactly for its features of balance between forehand and backhand play, creates reactivity problems.
The consequence of a too much bent arm leads to the execution of the forehand in a too blocked way: this doesn’t let the shoulder, that is the real propeller in ping-pong, do his work of push. Besides, a bent arm impoverish the peripheral quickness, contracting the stroke and reducing it to something more than a topspin opening of the game.
Try to think about a discus thrower that makes his throw with the arm bent: the power of the throw will certainly reduce at least 50%.
I ask you to examine the moments of the impact with the ball in Chinese players, but also in Korean players. I don’t mention the Chinese players from Hong Kong and Singapore, because they all have the same origin. These players are characterized by a common technical feature, that is the absence of the backhand in all its ping-pong history. I shall leave out the Japanese players, that in the last years Europeanized maybe too much, in virtue of the work performed by Mario Amizic.
Turning now your attention to the pictures, that from my point of view are more educational than videos, it is important to underline how the position of the legs, of the trunk and of the shoulder, in the Chinese play, are basic components to release as more power as possible. There are some examples in which the ball seems to go even beyond the axis of the body: in fact, it’s a way to prepare the body for a pure power action, using the whip effect of the body.
On the contrary, the common technical feature of the European players is a position of the arm  too bent to allow the use of the maximum power, and that’s why this action could not be performed if we are thinking about the possibility of playing a backhand stroke. As well, exactly because of the bent position, the shoulder operates as a lifting factor of the arm, and not as a push factor.

There is one more thing to say about the Chinese players’ backhand. We must not forget that in the moment when they play a block stroke, their arm spreads almost completely, preparing automatically the forehand stroke after making a step-around. The Europeans’ block is hardly ever played with a spread, the movement stops in advance and the opening of the arm for the forehand play will be more bent. Take a look at Samsonov’s positions an you will realize that his strokes rarely are played with power, but on the contrary, they are played with accuracy.

So, the tradition of the forehand play brought and is bringing an enormous advantage in all those situations in which power results dicisive for the success, that is in the last 20 years of play. Coming back to the main motivation, we can affirm that for the European players the backhand stroke has been a limit of the play instead of being a resource, just talking about the time they must dedicate to every single exercise in a training session: but passing over this point, as we have seen before, it is just a technical matter.

Although the olympic champion and the finalist are penholders, but with the possibility of hitting the ball with both faces of the bat, we can think that their play is more balanced, more european. We can consider even more players like Wang Liqin or Chen Qi, or even Ma Long: well, in all cases the Chinese play has a low backhand strokes percentage in comparison with the forehand ones. As well, if we make a calculation of every single point won, we’ll see that on 11 point won, the 60% at least results from a forehand stroke, the 15% from a backhand stroke and the 25% from the opponents’ errors.

Europe stayed behind, because it was not able, or it didn’t want, to sense that that was the easier and simple way to gain the point, that is hitting the ball with a forehand stroke. A forehand play requires of course a huge physical effort. In this case I’d want to include even Italy. Neither we had the right spirit to follow the Chinese ideas. Maybe in the 80’s they seemed too exagerate for our playing system.
Actually, today Europe has no chances against Asia. We have short, limited movements, with a very small participation of the shoulder and of the trunk; they have large movements with a total support of the shoulder and with the push of the body. We work with short steps and when we jump on the ball our body is too faded to transfer energy and power. They work on large movings and when they jump on the ball their body helps them to hit with more power and decision.

In the Chinese system, and also in other ones, huge loads of the physical work at the table had 2 different ameliorative targets: specialization and willpower.

Let’s explane this concept. Specialization means to operate a system of training in which the first target is to end the play with a forehand stroke, and it doesn’t matter in what kind of situation we find ourselves, neither in which game context, the backhand stroke is considered an exception of the play and a bother for the opponent. To reach this target we must have excellent legs, not just talking about power, muscle tone, reactiveness or explosiveness, but most af all as a precise action of what we want to do, that is the correct steps.

A simple example.

A European player is recovering a ball on his forehand. After hitting, the ball comes back on his backhand ¾ side of the table: the player will certainly decide for a return to the table with the backhand, working the ball and returning it with spin, or maybe he will decide to risk a power stroke (unlikely). A Chinese player, in the same situation, will seek for another forehand stroke and, if possible, he will play it with even more power. To do this, as we said before, we need excellent legs and correct steps: but this is not enough. Besides the legs and their technique we need an additional psychological strength, that only a specific training can give us. In the final part of this post I’ll come back to the psychological factor.

We said that the european backhand stroke brings as a consequence a preparation of the forehand stroke with a more bent arm position: how can we come out from this handicap? From my personal point of view we have 2 possibilities: the first one is try to unbalance the body, streching out to the backhand angle and increase the ability to cover more than ¾ of the table with the forehand. The second way is more tachnical (the way I prefer): we must try to extend the backhand stroke as it was a preparation of the forehand stroke, keeping in mind that when we extend the stroke we also suffer a loss of time, so that’s why we must also improve the quickness in executing the stroke.
To econimize the strokes and to make use of a better quickness, we might use the backhand stroke in an active way, almost as a contrast. Not with a soft arm ready to spring, but an arm that has such a muscular tension to be itself an opposing power. In this way we find ourselves with an almost extended arm, with the shoulder-elbow-wrist block as they were one single piece. In the moment that we are with a half-extended arm we’ll just need to make a quick twisting of the trunk and then get ready to play a forehand stroke. I want to explain a question: when I talk about a forehand stroke that exploits the peripheral power, I don’t mean a completely extended arm position, the “extended arm” that went in fashion, not just in Italy, in the first 70’s, but I talk about  a position in which the push of the body and of the shoulder are a sort of pre-stroke, that anticipate the action, loading further the arm.
To hit the ball with more power we need an arm that moves after that the body and the shoulder moved against the ball. In all the cases in which the arm executes a stroke without the aid of the body, we’ll find ourselves in front of a braked stroke. To make this concept more clear, here you can see a small photogallery of Asiatic players.

photos by Drago Rosso

Afterwards I suggest you another photogallery of European players: between all of them you will certainly notice Kreanga: his forehand strokes are similar to the Chinese players’ ones, but they are empty of the power of the body and of the legs.

The legs work involves the most wearing part of the training and also involves the psychological one. This is a purely Asiatic prerogative, because with this typology of training we must also include the Japanese, the real masters. The training of the legs influences the psychological condition, because it requires the body to “look for” the ball. Legs are the decisive factors of the strokes we want to play. Become protagonists of a match means develop an enormous potential of the legs work. Things happen because we want them to happen, so we talk about active, and not about passive, protagonists of the game. Afer making legs trainings with heavy loads we’ll have the feeling that we dominate the space around us with maximum confidence.

I’ll end this post saying that Europe must make a serious self-criticism. Europe must learn from the defeats it suffered and recover the management of the technique. How? Utilizing a good opportunity for a comparison, that are not the matches between European and Asiatic players, but being spectators at the Chinese National Championships, being curious, being acute observers and, most of all, being never pleased with what we think to already know.

translation by Denisa Zancaner

The service in tabletennis

6 Ottobre 2008 da Ping Pong Italia · Lascia un commento 

By Massimo Costantini

The service represents an important stage of the game, maybe the most important, because from it depends his own process, that is the strategy of the game.

The serve is a factor of a dynamic and vivid technical knowledge, and never as in this stage the player has a complete control of his own skills. The peculiarity of being vivid and dynamic means that the serve permits many variations in terms of spin, speed, direction, position, length, and, in opposition to other strokes, serve is influenced by nothing but the own player, in the instant when he throws the ball.
The serve is strictly connected with technical, tactical and psychological factors. In many occasions I expressed this definition: the serve is a mental condition. Actually, the psychological factor, extremely present in ping-pong, finds here his extreme expression. Just think at those particularly delicate moments of the match as, for example, the final points of a game or of a match.
Before analysing the serve from a technical and tactical point of view, it will be useful to remember that ping-pong rules impose a correct execution of the serve, otherwise punished with a warning, or worse, with the assignment of the point to the opponent.
Features of a correct serve are:

— the ball must be placed in the centre of the hand, with a completely opened palm;

— in the moment when the ball is hit, it must rebound first in the server’s side of table, and then, once it gets over the net, it must rebound in the opponent’s side of the table;

— the ball must be thrown up in a vertical line without giving any kind of spin, and must be thrown up to a minimal height of 16 cm;

— from the starting moment of the serve, the ball must not be hidden in any way;

— as soon as the ball is thrown up, the free server’s hand must not be placed between the ball and the net, so that the ball can be clearly visible to the opponent.
Technical features of the serve:
Whether the serve is played with backhand, or with forehand, it is a stroke like any other, that’s why, to improve it, we must train it well, such as we train topspin or other parts of the game; for a good technical execution, serve follows the same technical rules like the other strokes, such as preparation, approach to the ball, acceleration and final movement.
There are many ways to execute an effective serve: one of them is the ability to conceal different spins with as similar as possible movements.
To execute an effective serve we must also think about some technical and tactical aims: next we’ll see how much the psychological aspect will influence the quality of the serve.
The throwing of the ball must be precise and without hesitations. A wrong throw could compromise a good result.
Particularly important is the moment of the contact with the ball. Many players aim to throw the ball much over 16 cm, and sometimes they make throws high 2 – 2.50 meters (since from the early ‘70, Chinese players are leaders in this kind of throw). The goal is twofold: extend the opponent’s observation time, in order to take off his attention and to take advantage of the fall of the ball, which, together with the quickness of the technical act, makes the ball even harder to “read”. In this way, in the moment of the contact of the racket with the ball, we can improve the quality of the serve.
The importance of the moment of the contact with the ball is given by the quickness with which we hit the ball: more the contact and the movement are quick, more difficult is understand the kind of spin from the opponent’s point of view. Who serves will try, as we said before, to confuse the opponent, leading him to make a mistake or to return an easily playable ball.
If it is true that the opponent can be confused by the quality (kind of spin), it is as much true that he can be confused also by the quantity (of spin). And more: hit the ball quickly allows also to send the ball in an unexpected way into one or into another part of the table. As last feature, give more or less length to this stroke.
In any case, serve has two aims: try to win the point straight with the mistake on the opponent’s receive, and lay out the server’s play.
To obtain the best as possible serve, it is very important the use of the wrist. Right for his very flexible feature, the wrist is fit for the necessary quickness we spoke above: actually, in the moment of the contact with the ball, the wrist can be an additional variation of the quality of the serve, and make it definitely effective.
So, to handle the strategy of play, we can avail ourselves with an enormous tactical potential, that is precisely the serve with all of its variations.
Psychological influence plays an important part in the execution of the serve, because it could make fruitless the serve’s effectiveness in terms of quality, quantity of spin, length and direction.
Of course, training the act of the serve, we create a sort of muscular conditioning, but, in any way, the nervous aspect, and so a high psychological pressure, very often makes us behave ourselves in the less appropriate way or, at least, reduces in terms of efficacy the own qualities of the serve.
Just above I mentioned that a serve must not show hesitations: consequence, in addition to the ineffectiveness, that is low quality, is to make easier to the opponent  to take the initiative of the play.
Train the serve is very important. The serve allows us to express ourselves in the as more as possible exclusive and imaginative way. Without looking at the pure technical action, my suggestion is, at least at the beginning, to focus on two aspects, or qualitative aims: the intensity of the serve in terms of spin and the length of the serve in terms of the length on the table.
Together with those two aspects we must think, organize and train the serve, contextualizing it in the play that we decided to follow. A non-useful or partially useful way to train is to train the serve as an action apart, separately from the rest of the play.
To make go together the action of the serve with the next actions, that means with the development of the game, the role of the legs and the action they follow just after serving, become basic. Actually, just after serving, becomes necessary to keep the correct position at the table and prepare ourselves to be immediately reactive, depending on the opponent’s receive and on the intentions we fixed in advance.
Here below you can see the photographic sequence from Table Tennis Illustrated of ITTF. You can easily see that who serves, in this case the Korean player Oh Sang Eun, even before his opponent hits the ball, stays already in the waiting position, ready to make the necessary decisions.

The legs movement, and the correct steps to make, is considered really important, because a wrong step leads to lose a loss of balance, that is a wrong position in comparison with the development of the game.
Preparing yourselves to train the serve, you can use all your imagination, paying attention on the basic aspects you learned above.
Try to recreate the stages of the serve, its brakes, the considerations you make during the match: this will help you to make as profitable as possible the training of the serve.
From the tactical point of view, serve can be used to force or oblige the opponent to open the game, for example making a serve with a positive spin (topspin). Another possibility is to serve with negative spin (backspin), aimed to avoid your opponent’s opening of the game, or to stimulate a short receive from your opponent. In any case, the length of the ball is basic: is clear that a serve is effective if the second rebound on the opponent’s side of the table is nearly close to the bottom line. Another terminology of the same action is when we say that a serve is half long, or just out. This kind of serve, apart from the kind of spin, doesn’t allow your opponent to take the initiative with a topspin, and forces him to a push or, in case, to a flip.
Here you can see a simple drawing for right-handed and for left-handed players, that can suggest you some ideas:
Another tactical use could be represented by a long-fast serve. This kind of serve has two aims: force the opponent to an immediately open play, and surprise your opponent with an unexpected, quick, fast and long serve. Many players use this tactical component close to the end of a set, when the nervous strain is at its maximum degree and the psychological pressure could play bad jokes.
For all tactical applications, we can say that the kind of spin is caused by the impact of the racket on the ball. Iconographical description of the kind of spin is given by imagining the ball as a watch: when the ball is hit at 4,5 or 6, it means that the kind of spin given is a backspin, with different degrees of intensity of the spin.
If the ball is hit at 3, the ball will have a null or neutral spin.
Another description can be given imagining the ball as a globe (children like more the watch example). So we can say that if the racket hits the Equator, we’ll have an almost null spin, while if it hits the South Pole, the ball will have a lot of backspin.
When you will train the serve in an individual and analytical way, avoid to play more and more serves, as if the improvement was due to the quantity, or rather to the number of the serves played. Try to play the serve with the stages and the movements that you’ll do in the match. It is better to train less but quality serves, instead of many but low quality serves.
The next article focused on the technical aspect will be dedicated to the receive.

Have a good training.

translation by Denisa Zancaner

Preparation for National Championships (part 2)

8 Maggio 2008 da Ping Pong Italia · Lascia un commento 

by Massimo Costantini

Well, I wish that my short suggestions helped you as an outline in your work of physical conditioning. I received several e-mails from sportsmen that asked me a personalized training progamme, so I would like to thank them for this sort of preference.
Now we will talk about the approach to the table.
As we already said, many and different are our needs, that’s why I’ll resctrict myself to give you some general suggestions about the kind of play, the time to dedicate to the training, and as always, I’m available for any through analysis.

It’s very important to organize our time: only in this way we can reach a working method.

We have one month before the beginning of the championship, so we have enough time to prepare our 3 most important targets, that are:

1- Technique
2- Confidence in strokes
3- Confidence in the game

Every single training session is directed to the reaching of this 3 targets.

TECHNIQUE

How to proceed?

As we already said, we must try to share the training session according to our needs. It doesn’t matter how long you play every session, but suppose that it can last about 1h30’ – 2 hours every time you play.
The first thing to do is find a part of our play, a particular stroke, or a specific action, that doesn’t work well. To do this evaluation you must be very honest with yourselves.
Said like that, it seems trivial: you can affirm that there are so many things that don’t work, that you don’t have enough time to preparate them.
I believe that everyone of us has something that recurrently make us lose a point or the clearness, a mistake that constantly recurs. When we practice, we never think enough about our faults and difficulties. In fact, we want to train what we do easierly, what we instinctively do better, almost to convince ourselves that we can play those strokes very good, and show them to the others.
To improve our skills and step up to a higher level, from the technical point of view, we have to renounce something, even if just for a while. We must force ourselves to play even in less “comfortable” situations.
I give you a short, but useful rule: “What the instinct commends you to do, has absolutely no need to be trained, because it’s a part of you and of your being table tennis players”.
I give you an example from my 3 years experience as the men’s national team coach. You all know the exceptional Massimiliano Mondello’s backhand, a very risky and difficult stroke. Usually he plays it when he receives a long and non very tight push. This backhand allows him to earn 2-3 points every set. I never trained him on this kind of stroke, this specific such well built action, effective and organized, but purely instinctive action. It’s useless to train it: why train a stroke that comes naturally from your repertoire? I toke the same decision for Giardina’s counterspin and for Spinicchia’s block. For every guy with who I had the honour to work with, basicly there was one specific idea of every single kind of play and definite targets.
To close this concept, let’s resume the meaning of “training”: make a specific action in order that, changing it, it is possible to do it with more confidence and effectiveness. I guarantee that in the whole player’s career there is always something to improve, especially in table tennis.
One time we found our faults, we will prepare our training session playing 5-7 minutes for each exercise. This lapse of time is purely approximate: from my personal point of view is an average length to keep your concentration always ready and to remain in the limits of the physical effort that you’re doing.
This technical training keeps us busy for 1/3 of the whole training time.
After a specific work on a particular technical side, we have to organize our training session time to give a part of it to the confidence in strokes.

CONFIDENCE IN STROKES

How to proceed?
Let’s start considering which strokes are played with more attendance:
- Service 50%
- Receive 50%
- Flip (not often)
- Push (often)
- Forehand topspin (often) and backhand topspin (not often)
- Backhand blok (often) and forehand block (not often)
- Counterspin (occasionally)
- Smash (occasionally)

Let’s start ruling out what we don’t need. Countespin, for example: don’t spend too much time on a situation that sure, could happen, but that is not decisive in the mach. The smash on a high ball, even if occurs occasionally, is a stroke that you can’t mistake. That’s why I suggest to you to play it several minutes in every training session, but to pay to this stroke much attention, like in a real mach. Don’t think that you are good enough to evaluate a high ball as a simple situation, because the smash is not easy.
Let’s concentrate now on the other srokes. Make a specific work to train an action which involves a particular position of your body behind the table.
Now I’ll give you a trivial example, but anyway, in this phase you can ask your partner to give you the kind of ball that you would like to play. Let’s start from the service.
Play the service and ask your partner a receive that permits you to play a forehand topspin, or if you like it more, a push. Make sure that his receives are as more as possible similar one to each other, with almost no variations in spin and length on the table. The target of this simple exercise is to get used to control your position immediately after the service and at the same time to start the game. After your first topspin you can ask your partner to make a specific block (long-line, in the middle): in this way you can play one more offensive stroke, progressively in spin or power.
In this phase of the exercise we reach another target: we know where will the ball fall, and we get used to move consequently, in advance and correctly, that is to move with the right steps.
As I said, this is just an example, but you can invent many other situations: it will just be important to plan every single stroke, to reach enough confidence. Also for this part of the training we must play for 1/3 of the total time.
So, during our training session we tried to improve our technical side, then we tried to improve the confidence in the 4-5 strokes that we play more frequently in a mach. Now we must go thoroughly into the more tactic phase, that means put in the real game context the strokes that we trained analytically with specific exercises.
This kind of training will allow us to improve the confidence in our game, that is the last of our 3 targets.
CONFIDENCE IN THE GAME

How to proceed?

We gave 2/3 of the whole training session to the first 2 targets: we have just the final target left. Now we must make reference to what we have just trained and contextualize it in the game and in all its variables. In this moments, of course, we’ll play “all free” situations.
My suggestion is to reach by degrees a completely all free game.
For example, you can start with your service and tell your partner that you need the ball to return into a specific area of the table, so you can play a particular stroke, and then you’ll decide if you will also play the ball in a specific area of the table or if you’ll start an all free play. Why this way? Because we must remember that we must improve our potential of ideas, our plans. That’s why we must organize mentally a tactic idea starting from our service. It’s true, that mach is an unforseeable situation, but in any case the planning process of the strokes must be prepaired if you want it to realize.
We will end our training with an all free play, playing 2 services by side, and if you want, some maches too.

It’s not important to follow this plan for the entire month, but day by day we’ll have to adjust the time according to the results that we reached during the training.
We can say that this kind of training must be followed for 15-20 days. In 20 days I’ll come back to this topic to see how to refine your preparation in the close to the mach trainings.
Last but not the least, at the end of every training session ask yourselves if you gave the best of you, and the next time try to do something more than that.

I wish you a good training!

translation by Denisa Zancaner

Preparation for National Championships (part 1)

7 Maggio 2008 da Ping Pong Italia · Lascia un commento 

by Massimo Costantini

I would like to give you some instructions about which is the best way to preparate yourself in occasion of the National Championship considering the event would take place in one month.

First of all, it will be different for those who will have the opportunity to play every single day and for those who will play 2-3 times a week. However, there are some common aspects that I will report later.

Today we will be interested in physical conditioning.

Physical conditioning: yes or no?

Physical conditioning is one of the common aspects and also an essential part of the training. Considering that we have enough time to get trained, we might be interested in physical conditioning the first 15-20 days.
Supposing that we never stopped training during the season, we don’t have to work from the same beginning. That’s why it will not be necessary to work on the resistance to effort, that is basic aerobic training (oxygen use). For having a more precise idea of what I mean, I ask you to think about the length of a table tennis rally. We can say that the average length, statistics can usefully help us in this case, goes from 1” to 3”, with exeptions which arrive to 5”- 6”. I can say that 5 seconds in table-tennis is a really long time.
Our trainings at the table will be more than enough to be part of this trivial statistic, the only requirement, or difference, is that the match, that is those few seconds of rally, is played with maximal muscular and nervous effort, together with generation of adrenaline in particular moments of the match. These are situations that hardly can be rebuilt in practice. I will suddenly come back to talk about the intensity of the training at the table.
So, what we have to require from our body is more reactivity.
When you say to a friend that you play table tennis, he will certainly answer that in this sport you need a lot of reflexes, and this is absolutely true. It takes at least 15 minutes of physical conditioning directed to the reactivity of our body.
Every physical education teacher can give you some suggestions in this sphere. In any case, as always, if you need more details, I’m here for you.
There is no limit to our fantasy in creating different situations in which we ask reactivity from our bodies. In fact, in a different context, you do it everyday: when you drive a car, or when you ride a motorbike or a bicycle, which are all situations full of unforeseen events. So, table tennis is an unforeseen event too.
If you could make a connection between car accidents and the sport that you practice, I’m convinced that table tennis players have almost no chances to be part of the percentage involved in car accidents, simply because they are well prepared. Also this aspect could be subject of new studies.
Let’s come back to our discussion now.
So, sudden situations that give you the chance to improve you reactivity, that is the ability to be more prepared in every situation that you have to face with. These situations can be organized in and out of a match-like context.
Talking about the physical conditioning: let’s make side to side movements with sudden directional changes; if you can, make this exercise with a partner, so you can help each other. By the way, sharing a work makes this training easier and more pleasant. Then let’s make very short sprints, 10 – maximum 20 meters long, with sudden start, from different positions. Then jump and, touching the ground, sprint several meters in the direction indicated by your partner. The target? Create a different and sudden situation in comparison with organized actions. Your sparring partner’s role in physical conditioning is very important, because he has to share the training with you. Remember to use different communication systems:
Voice
Sounds
Visual signals

Communication has to be simple and clear, made of few, but direct words, well audible sounds, clear visual signals.
At the end of every training don’t give up to make some exercises for all your abdominal muscles. None wants you beat press-ups records, but it will be enough if you make few, but well done press-ups every time you practice. By the way, if you reduce your paunch, that won’t do any harm!

When train physical conditioning?
As I said at the beginning of this post, there are many situations to analyse. I indicate you maybe the two most common of them.
1- The best situation is to alternate between practice at the table and physical conditioning. For those who play at the table 3 times a week, I suggest to do physical conditioning 3 more times, and to dedicate to it 40 minutes.
2- For those who practice at the table every day, I suggest to dedicate to physical conditioning 20-30 minutes at the end of every training session at the table.
Last indication: physical conditioning is a serious thing, so remember to pay much attention when you practice it.
Enough for today. For any questions, I’ll be glad to help you.

I wish you a good training!

translation by Denisa Zancaner

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