Wednesday 28 October 2015

Why Women's Table Tennis Deserves More Coverage

With hundreds of millions of participants worldwide, table tennis is one of the most popular sports on the planet today. Ranging from club members all the way to those who just have a casual game whilst on holiday, its simplicity and ease ensures all abilities are welcome and catered for.

But sadly the women’s professional game doesn’t receive the coverage that its popularity justifies. Whilst the sport in general lacks the figureheads that say, Victoria Pendleton and Jess Ennis provide for British cycling and athletics respectively, the women’s game in particular doesn’t find its way into mainstream media outside of huge events such as the Olympics in 2012. This under-representation in the public eye perpetuates a vicious circle, leading to less young, amateur girls getting involved competitively in a sport that they don’t perhaps realise offers a genuine career.

One clear advantage that the women have in table tennis is that the game takes sheer physicality out of the equation, meaning that technical ability does all of the talking. It follows that just like in tennis, when it comes to entertainment, the difference in quality between the men’s and women’s game is indistinguishable, perhaps even weighted toward the women given the competitiveness at the top of the rankings. Indeed, there’s no better time to get into watching table tennis, as the UK’s best women fight for a place on the Olympic team for Rio 2016, with the most recent qualifying tournament taking place in Brazzaville last month.

Whether you’re new to the women’s game or table tennis in general, things are changing. At the turn of the century several rule changes were enforced in an effort to make table tennis more spectator-friendly. First of all, any competitive women’s games that you do happen to catch on TV now, will be using a slightly larger ball than they did before 2001. This is in order to slow the game down a little, making matches more watchable for viewers at home. A second rule change enforced was that of shortening sets down from the first to 21 points to the first to 11. This has led to a lot more riding on every point, ramping up the in-game suspense and keeping viewers on the edge of their seats. There’s even talk of having boxing style walk on music for players, adding to the sense of occasion for a big match. 

In the past year, broadcasters BT Sport and Sky have included live coverage of international table tennis tournaments on their schedules, with British husband and wife duo Paul and Joanna Drinkall having a high profile interview on BT Sport, so perhaps things are looking bright for the women’s game. There’s no arguing that any extra coverage would be warranted as, one thing’s for sure, few other sports have made such an effort to appeal to spectators.

Sunday 18 October 2015

Ma Long Sets Wheels in Motion to Equal Grand Slam Record

Ma Long claimed victory in Halmstad, Sweden this evening at the 2015 ITTF World Cup. In doing so he acquired the second piece to potentially hold the Grand Slam simultaneously, a feat only achieved once before by his team mate Zhang Jike.

Joining the ranks of the Grand Slam winners would be sweet but to hold all 3 titles together would be an even greater career achievement for Ma Long and tonight he showed us again why he is on track to potential achieve that goal and become and Olympic Gold Medallist.

After the China Open in August I wrote about Ma Long's chances in Rio begging the question, could he be the favourite at the event? Read More.

Ma Long is 2015 World Cup Champion
Ma Long is on a stellar run, having won the World Championships, China Open and World Cup all in 2015. Given his current form he is looking strong for Rio. Fan Zhendong is seemingly under his thumb at major events after his two 4-0 thrashings at WTTC and in the World Cup final tonight. Zhang Jike is having the biggest form slump of his career and Xu Xin is trailing behind a little.

Now more than ever, Ma Long is the standout player of dominance. If he should win in Rio the wait for Ma Long fans would be over for the Grand Slam which we always thought he deserved since his first world champs in 2009. We can only hope his amazing form continues!

2015 China Open Final
Ma Long vs. Xu Xin

So where does your allegiance lie? Can Zhang Jike recover to pose a threat to the Olympic Crown? Can Fan Zhendong recover from his average performances in his early major experiences? Can Xu Xin rise to the occasion and claim the 2nd singles spot given the current situation?

Still many questions remain! What are your thoughts?

Sunday 11 October 2015

Pro Tip Blog: Omar Assar on Keeping a Routine

It's been a while since I managed to complete a Pro Tip Blog post, mainly due to not really getting the information I wanted (in terms of depth) from some of the players in my interviews. Luckily Omar was really helpful in providing good detail and so I can write a post on the importance of a routine in training and tournaments with some help from the African Champion from Egypt, Omar Assar!

ITTF African Champion Omar Assar (Egypt)
Image from ITTF Africa
Routine is one of the often overlooked parts of the game and in many sports. While you may not pay it any particular attention, when you think about it we all have some forms of routine. I took the opportunity to talk more with Omar about his routine and what gets him in the zone for training and for tournaments.

"I try and stay in the hall as much as I can. Not less than 6 hours in training hall whether it is normal training or multiball or just sitting on the sideline watching match videos" Omar Assar. 

So Omar likes to immerse himself in the training and match venue and environment. It is normal for professional players to dedicate at least 6 hours per day to practice. Staying in the venue can help bring your complete focus to your training or matches, for this reason some players arrive at the playing area well ahead of time to mentally prepare for matches.

Physical Training Element

Omar also dedicates a fairly stringent physical training routine as part of his sessions. "Usually at least 3 times a week of mixed physical, running or gym training. Sometimes can be 4 or 5 depending on how much time I spend on the table. I continue to do strength building exercises during tournaments also." Omar.

Getting into a physical training routine requires a lot of discipline, especially when you are tired from training on the table. You need to find the right balance of physical and table training and find the best times to suit your energy level patterns. I for example prefer to train mostly in the morning and go to the gym in the evenings.

"I always run in the morning before my tournament matches, this is something I like to do. I wake up 3 hours before my match and go for a run. This helps to make me as fresh as possible." Omar.

Why Discipline is Important for a Routine

Like any repetitive task, strong self discipline is key. High repetition can get boring and once we lose interest it becomes difficult to maintain momentum. This is also where service practice comes to the foray as part of training. This can be one of the most monotonous areas of training, thankfully I wrote a post earlier on 'How to Make Service Practice More Engaging'

Without discipline and desire to succeed keeping a steady routine becomes a mammoth task, so this is really the first task in completing a routine and schedule plan, being able to keep it going.

Sometimes you will have a coach to motivate you, Omar was very quick to credit his coaches in aiding his routine and results. His coaches Ulf Carlsson and Fredrik Hakkanson in Sweden, Erik in France his coach in the Egyptian National Team and also in China. Having external forces to keep you on track is never a bad thing.

Is Diet Also a Part of Routine?

Yes, diet plays a strong part in the life of any athlete. What you eat and when you eat can be imperative to you performance.

Omar likes to keep a strict diet especially in tournaments. "I don't like to eat too much sweet food, I like to eat things which help me keep a balanced energy level like salads and olive oils. It's important to keep my energy as stable as possible during a tournament."

The Key Tip Omar Gives

Omar's biggest tip is simple. Create your own routine. "I recommend to any player to make a routine that works for them and keep it. Something that is special to them."

Omar likes to pray before his matches and read some lines from his special book. Some players like to read lines from sporting books or inspirational quotes. Some players like to listen to soft music, fast music, energetic music, all different kinds. Some players like to stretch for half an hour.

A few years ago I asked some international players what their pre-match preparations involved and if they had any superstitions. Here is the article: Pre-Match Preparations: For Luck's Sake!

Omar also likes to keep his shirts on if he is winning important matches, this is something I like to do also. If I am not playing well sometimes I change my shirt to try and reset and start fresh.

What do you do in your routine which is unique? :) Thanks Omar for the great information! :D

Saturday 10 October 2015

What I Learnt from 'Winning Ugly'

Winning Ugly is the masterpiece book written by Brad Gilbert, a great tennis player and well known as Andre Agassi's coach during his career explosion. Now I'm no tennis player, but the ideas fit really well with table tennis across about 90% of the book. I had the National Team Trial coming up and someone suggested to me that I should read the book as it may help me with my table tennis and sporting mentality.

Winning Ugly by Brad Gilbert
The book itself contains a lot of tennis related ideas and techniques but its main focus is on the mentality and psychological elements of competing in any sport. I read the book twice before my build-up to the National Trial and it made a huge number of differences to my mental game. The player that stepped out to the table on that day was a different player to the one I had been in the past.

I think the great thing about Brad's book is that there are such relatable stories from his playing career and he describes the mental way some players approach the game and you can really picture players you compete with in table tennis who are similar.

Reading the book really made me reflect on my match mentality in previous years and at that point I knew I needed to start making changes if I wanted to see better results. One of his best metaphors in the book is to play like a boa constrictor. A boa constrictor is a snake which wraps around it's prey and tightens it's hold each time it's prey exhales, eventually the prey suffocates. He uses the constrictor to demonstrate pressure in sports. Apply pressure to your opponents weak areas continuously and eventually they will make enough errors for you to win the match. The real moral is not to squeeze your opponent to death, but to apply just enough pressure so they can no longer do anything.

I learnt more about not overplaying shots and I definitely became more tactically aware of what I was doing in matches, I took more time to cement my gameplan and just worked away at hammering my opponents weak areas and locking down their strengths as best I could.

This book is a must read for anyone who wants to improve their mental game in any sport. After reading it I was able to achieve good results at my warmup tournaments, the team trial and the national championships. Arguably I had my best run ever and I definitely give credit to 'Winning Ugly' for its part in the process!

Key Ideas in the Book

  • Types of players and how to combat their mental tactics
  • How to control the pace of the game
  • Knowing which points are most crucial in a match
  • Preparation for matches and tournaments
  • Learning how to analyse your opponent and take advantage
Be sure to check it out!

Wednesday 7 October 2015

The Comeback King: Interview with Jimmy Butler

Jimmy Butler is the comeback king and possibly the greatest comeback story in the sport of table tennis. A former top 100 international player shows us that determination goes a long way, coming back after 8 and a half years to become US National Champion 21 years after his last title. One of my favourite success stories in table tennis, thanks so much Jimmy! :)

Full Name: Jimmy Butler
Date Of Birth: 2-15-71
Nation represented: USA
Highest World Ranking: 70
Victory at the 2015 North American Cup for Comeback King, Jimmy Butler of the USA

 Your Career

When did you start playing table tennis? What was your influence to begin playing?

Started playing at age 5. My father started me in the basement of our home.

What were some of your best career wins in your earlier career? You had a number of top level wins with the US Team at the 1995 World Cup in particular. Which wins stand out as being the ones you are most proud of?

Top win-  Jan-Ove Waldner when he was world champion

Most memorable win-  Defeating Damien Eloi in 5th and deciding match of World Team Cup quarter-finals in 1995 in my home state(at the time) of Atlanta, Georgia.  The energy of the American crowd was amazing and they inspired all three of us on the team to play over our heads.

What were your major goals in that stage of your career before you were forced into retirement?

Goals at that stage of career was to become a world top 20 player.

How did it feel to be forced into retirement so early in your promising career?

My forced early retirement was heart breaking only because it happened so suddenly as I was beginning to attain my best results.

How did the big comeback begin after 8 and a half years out of the sport? What was it that kickstarted the momentum?

Comeback began at the beginning of 2012.  I was watching the U.S. Championships final live online and that gave me an itch to pick up a racket.  I didn't intend on returning at that moment...just wanted to play once as I had not touched a racket in 8.5 years.  Once I picked up a racket for the first time it was like a drug...I wanted more.

Jimmy Butler in his early career
When you first returned did you see yourself as having a chance of making a big comeback again?

My first return to Nationals was 2012.  I knew I couldn't win there, I just wanted to see how far I could go.

I had a desire to see how good I could get again within the first two weeks of playing at my club in 2012.

 Your major breakthrough was winning the 2014 US National Championships, 21 years since your last victory at that event. Did the possibility of that happening ever cross your mind during the event? How did you feel level-wise in comparison with the rest of the field at that event?

At the 2014 Nationals I felt I had a punchers chance.  I wasn't the favorite, but I knew I was one of the best 4 players there, even though my US Rating claimed otherwise.  I was very disappointed in my previous (2013) Nationals result losing in the round of 16 to Yu Shao.  That fueled me to see if I could perform better...I was humble but hungry.  I had a good draw due to top seeds losing early...I took advantage of it.

You won a bronze medal at the North American Cup in 2014, did you feel that was a significant factor in your comeback. Returning to the North American Cup in 2015 where you won the gold medal, did you believe you could achieve that result?

I'll tell you a story of the 2014 North American Cup that I believe helped me win in the 2014 NA Cup the Canada organizers made a very bad and unfair schedule.  Initially everything was fine, but they decided sunlight was affecting play through some high windows, so they changed the schedule and made me play 4 matches in a row with zero rest(in order to finish all matches while sun low in sky).

 The sunlight problem was fixed before the tourney started (they put shades over windows)but the organizers decided to not change the schedule back to normal because they didn't want to put in the effort to correct things back to the original times.

 In my group I lost 1-3, then I won 3-2 and advanced to round of 16.  Immediately I played a 4-3 match, then immediately they made me play the quarters where I won 4-3.  That's 23 games in a row.  I was 43 at the time, and that is too much for me, and unfair to make any athlete do that.  It caused me to cramp badly and the organizers then made me play the first semi final (instead of the 2nd)  in the evening against my teammate Kanak Jha.  I pleaded to let me play 2nd, as I was cramping so bad I could barely move and any extra time would be helpful.  The organizers agreed, but said I must ask a Canadian in the other semi if it's ok( I wont name his name).  The Canadian knew I was hurting and said no.  I was forced to play the semis first, and I could barely move and was humiliated losing easily 4-0 to Kanak Jha.  I asked to default before the match due to cramping but I was told I'd get no prize money.

I sucked it all up after losing in the semis, but I was mad inside, and I felt like I was treated unfairly and was disrespected as an athlete.  I never forgot that, and in 2015 I had a chip on my shoulder.  I did not feel I played well up until the final, but I had great fight and played with all the energy I could muster.  Things went my way in 2015.

In the modern era of the game and with the introduction of the plastic ball how do you feel your style fits in, mainly in terms of effectiveness? Have you made any major adaptations to the way your play since coming out of retirement?

The new ball has had no effect on me personally.  The game is more advanced with the bh banana flip, inside out service and the powerful bh looping game of so many athletes.  I have adapted by learning how to do these things, although I don't do them well enough yet.  In terms of effectiveness with my game, I'm old school on my bh side off topspin as I like to flat hit everything.  Although looping is better, I naturally hit better and have no choice but to do that...if I'm doing it well it is effective.

The Story of Jimmy Butler on USA Today

Your return to the US Team and successful run straight from the word go on your comeback mission has really spurred a lot of attention to your story. How would you sum up the journey back from injury so far?

My journey back from injury has been very fun and inspiring for me.  I was at a big disadvantage early on because all aspects of my game were so bad and rusty.  I did nothing well, and it was going to take a lot of effort to regain a decent base to start with.  However, I have a big advantage in that I am very good at not only fixing injury, but at reversing muscular tightness...a form of de-aging of the body from a muscular point of view.  Although it takes time to do this, it gives me the ability to play on into my 40's, and 50's if I choose.  I will not get slower as I play, rather I continue to get healthier and a little faster each year.   This can be done to anyone...eventually more athletes will discover this, and the future of all sports will see guys playing into their 40's and 50's with a great degree of health. 

Where to from here? There are endless possibilities given your current platform and results so far. What are you aiming for? You have to World Cup soon, what are you hoping for there?

From here I will continue to make my body healthier, and I will continue to put in time in the practice hall.  I want to keep getting better.  If I work hard and stick with it, I know the results will come.  I always try and follow my Coach Stellan Bengtsson's advice..."If you do everything you can to improve in the practice hall, then no matter what happens in competition, you can hold your head high afterwards knowing you did all you can do."

I have no high expectations at the World Cup.  I am the last seed, and my goal is to put up a fight and not get embarrassed.

Off the Topic Questions

Who’s your favourite sportsperson of all time?
Michael Jordan when I was a kid.

Favourite food?

Dream Car
One with a pretty girl inside it ;)

Ideal holiday destination?
I love Las Vegas

Thanks Jimmy! :)

Tuesday 6 October 2015

The World's Best Modern Defence: Interview with Joo Sae Hyuk

I had the pleasure of meeting the world's best modern defender on a bus in Chengdu on the way back to the player hotel. I had a nice talk with him and organised an interview, it's great for him to get back to me and here it is below! :)

Name: Joo Sae Hyuk
Date of Birth: 1980 01 20
Country Represented: Korea
Highest World Ranking: 5

Joo Sae Hyuk, The World's leading Modern Defender
Equipment Used:
FH Rubber: tenergy05
BH Rubber: curl-p1R
Blade:   joosaehyuk

When and how did you start playing table tennis? Who was the biggest influence on you to begin playing?
I started ping pong when I was in 2nd grade because my parents told me to do so. I also did not like to study.
What was it that made you want to learn the defensive style and become a chopper?
I was a penholder at first for the first 6 months, but my coach told me to change to a chopper.  He believed that I would play better as a chopper due to my calmness.

What kind of things make it difficult to compete at international level as a defensive player? Do you feel like it is a more difficult style to win with?
 Since I was young, I tried to become an aggressive chopper, and practiced a lot how to make points as a chopper. It would be hard to win a tournament, but Yes, I definitely believe that it is still possible to win if you can put pressure on your opponent, and lead the game.

In 2003 you had an outstanding World Championships and made the final against Werner Schlager. What did that mean for you? Do you think this was your best playing level at this time?
The final round at 2003 WTTC was the best tournament for me. I became pretty popular after the tournament and I developed a lot since then.

Do you think choosing the right equipment is very important for a player who learns to chop?
Of course it is important everybody needs different feelings and characteristics.

If you could go back and change things in your career, what could you have done to break higher into the top 5 players in the world?
I don't know. It isn't that easy. If I really need something? Maybe youth again.

Many players now begin to favour short pimple rubber for disguising spin variation, what is your opinion on long and short pimples and which do you feel is better?
In my opinion, since the ball has been changed, short pips are better because you may put more variation with it. Of course controlling with short pips is difficult.

Your forehand is as formidable as any attacking player among the best in the world, how hard is it to balance defence and finding the right time to attack?
First of all, you need to be quick. You also need to analyze your opponent well.  Then you can get a chance to attack

Who would you say has been your biggest rival over the span of your career?   
Ryu Seung Min, Oh Sang Eun.  We have been growing up together and competing each other since young.

What is the biggest thing which Korea can improve in order to become more competitive with China?  
Money and motivation.

Joo Sae Hyuk in the Chinese Super League

Now, like me, you also have some autoimmune problems. What impact has that had on your ability to train and play matches?      
My personality, such as patience, passion, and a strong desire for winning, made me to overcome all those hard trainings and difficult times

What are some specialist tips you can offer on making heavy spin chop for defensive players out there?
You need to have your own stroke/swings.

What other goals do you have for the rest of your career now?
I want to get a medal at Rio 2016 Olympics. I still want to play my best, and show great performance to audience until I retire my career.

Fun Questions

What is your favourite:
Sport Other than Table Tennis: Soccer

Sportsperson: Ronaldo, because he performs good deeds all his life

Movie: As one (a move named "Korea" in Korean)

Food: I am not a picky eater. I basically eat anything

Car: Bentley, Maserati

Holiday Destination: family trip (either domestic or international travel)

If you could restart your table tennis career what style would you choose? Penhold/Shakehand, Left/Right hand, Attacker/Defender, Pips etc.  
shakehand, aggressive attacker

If you won $1million tomorrow what would you do?    
Investment in stocks

Thank you! :)

Want to read more great interviews with other former World Champions, Cup Winners and Number 1's? Click for MORE INTERVIEWS.