Archives for category: coaching techniques

TABLE TENNIS TRIALS & TRIBULATIONS

 

 

I arrive early and the place is empty except for two middle-aged Chinese men sitting on a bench chatting in English.   I ask if either would like to hit, but both shake their heads “no.” In Chinese, they call over a younger man who has just entered the Triangle Table Tennis Center, a 30,000 square foot facility near the Raleigh Airport.   With forty tables, ball machines, a pro shop and coaching staff, it’s the largest such center in the nation. The men converse with him for a moment, then motion to me.

 

 

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“He will hit with you,” says one, a mischievous smile crinkling his eyes.

The pained expression on the face of my hitting partner indicates a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Basically, he’s been dragooned by the older men and thinks he has to waste his time for their amusement. Without speaking, he takes his spot across the table and serves a ball. Initially, I confirm his worst fears. My first three practice shots fly long. Each time, he trudges six or eight steps back to retrieve the ball as though he is walking through quicksand carrying a boulder.   I over-compensate and hit the next several shots into the net.

“You don’t hold the racquet right,” are his first words.

“No?” I say.

He shakes his head.

“You must have just started to play,” he says, miserably.

“Not really,” I say. “I’ve been playing for over fifty years.”

“Over fifty years holding it like that?” he says. He looks disgusted.

He serves a ball and, thank goodness, I return it onto the table and begin to sustain a rally. After half a century of play, I’m categorized as an “advanced beginner;” although a star against the general population, I’m but chopped liver against “serious” players.

 

 

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*****

 

If my game lacks proper technique, the fault lies with my older brothers, Barry and David. They taught me to play in our cramped basement sometime during the Kennedy administration. Any missed shot found it’s way behind lawn furniture or plumbing like a hide-and-seek professional. Spiders lurked in the corners amidst award-winning webs.   I suppose you could say there was a strong incentive not to miss. Owing to the fact I was about a decade younger than both of them, I never won. It all sounds miserable. Yet, I was thrilled when one of them agreed to play even though they repeatedly sent me into those awful corners chasing errant shots.

 

 

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Barry had a particularly annoying style. He played with a sandpaper paddle that made an unpleasant thwack with each shot. All of his serves went down the side of the table to my backhand so near the table edge that the ball often glanced off it, untouchable. Even knowing exactly where his shots would go, I couldn’t return them. David played with a conventional, rubberized paddle and clobbered me more conventionally.

By the time I was eight they were both away at college, and I practiced alone against the wooden wall of the closet adjacent to the table. Unfortunately, the top of the closet was open for a foot at ceiling height and high shots often disappeared into it. Once inside, they nestled amidst ancient household items that NEVER ONCE emerged, such as canvas awnings for the exterior of the house. There were also paint cans that had been fresh when the house was constructed thirty years earlier, dust and, presumably, more spiders. I rarely had enough courage to open the closet and retrieve the balls. Instead, I expended some of my miniscule baseball card budget at Woolworth’s for new balls. If only I’d thought to block the opening with cardboard. My father, who NEVER played ping pong, had an expression for such a lack of initiative: “Smart, smart, smart and then stupid.”

 

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*****

 

My opponent, who still does not tell me his name, suggests we play a match consisting of best-of-five games up to eleven points. After beating me, he will then be free to play with worthier opponents. He wins the first game 11-3, and appears relieved to be so near the end of his involuntary good-deed-of-the-day.

 

*****

 

Shortly after I learned about the Center last winter, I began to attend regularly. I play one or two mornings a week against opponents of similar ability. I played in a “beginners” league one night a week and did quite well. My strange, outdated grip and one-side-of-the-paddle style flummoxes fellow bottom feeders. I enjoy playing so much I break from my usual tendency to spend no money on myself and resolve to take lessons from a pro.

 

*****

 

A J is twenty-eight-years-old. His body is lean and sinewy. He’s made for speed and precision more than brute strength. Among the highest ranked of American-born players he makes his living as a table tennis coach. How often does the IRS see THAT on a tax form? First, he examines the paddle I’d been playing with for several years. As he holds it, his facial expression suggests he’s swallowed sour milk.

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“What is this?” he asks.

“My paddle?” I say, unsure.

“What rubber is it?” he asks.

“Um, the kind they put on at the factory, I guess,” I say, trying to be respectful but wondering about how to answer such a question.

“You can’t play with this,” he says.

“It’s illegal?” I ask.

“It’s just, you know, dead,” he says.

My silence indicates to him that I don’t “know” what “dead” means.

“We’ll get you fixed up with a real racquet,” he says. “Let’s just hit a few balls so I can figure out what you need.”

As a sports participant and fan, I’ve always been skeptical of the validity of improvement via equipment. If a golfer, for instance, buys a newfangled, over-sized driver and, as a result, can hit thirty yards longer, is he a better golfer? If a tennis player buys space-age string that increases the spin or speed of his shots by twenty percent, is he a better player?

Due in part to my moral ambivalence and also to my frugality, I’ve never focused on equipment. Unlike my buddies who dissect the relative merits of one tennis string versus another ad nauseum, I’m proud to adjust to even a borrowed racquet after just a few swings. My racquets are usually bought on-line and arrive, already strung with basic material, via UPS.

But ping pong is different, according to A J: “You can keep your weird grip,” he says, as we gently rally. “It might even be an advantage against people who have never seen it before. But your skins will have to be better, as well as your blade.”

Skins? Blade? Yes, skins are what real players call the black and red rubber surfaces on opposite sides of their paddles. Before I arrived at the Center, I didn’t know that the two sides could be different. Naturally, real players don’t call a paddle a paddle but, rather, a “racquet.” And they don’t call a handle a handle but, rather, a “blade.” And when they refer to skins, they don’t mean the pimply rubber surfaces that come in a set from Walmart but, rather, highly specialized, customized surfaces that range from $50-$200 a skin. By the way, these “skins” must be replaced every several months for optimal performance.

 

 

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After hitting with A J for a few minutes, it occurs to me he never misses. Whatever random shot I hit, he calmly returns at the same pace and location. It’s uncanny. It’s impressive. I think to myself: “I’d like to be A J – still in his twenties and terrific at what he does.” At that moment, he says: “It must be great to be retired and have time to do whatever you want. I’m jealous.”

I suppose the grass is always greener….

 

*****

 

In the second game I realize my opponent’s backhand, whatever his name is, is much weaker than his forehand. Also, the new “anti-spin” skin that A J had recommended for my red side is ruining his timing, just as A J promised it would. When I remember to use it, the livelier skin on my black side creates enough spin to frustrate him. When he swings and misses for the second point in a row, I’ve won 11-9. I repeat the result in the third game. My opponent is now sweating profusely. He curses in Chinese. His friends say something to him and laugh. He is stone-faced.

 

*****

 

Ping pong actually figures in family history prior to my brothers and me. I’m told the school nurse circa 1935 thought my mother had a weak heart. As a result, she couldn’t partake in strenuous activities and spent gym classes playing ping pong. I rallied with her in my basement five years ago. She hit pretty well! And she’s still alive and well – you do the math – the nurse was wrong.

 

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*****

 

I lose the fourth game. My mind is cluttered with doubt that I can win the match against such a strong opponent. I certainly have his full attention now. “It’d still be a moral victory,” I think, as the fifth and deciding game begins. “Forget that,” I correct myself. “Don’t settle for a moral victory. Do what A J would do. Batter his backhand. Stay calm. Concentrate. Don’t concentrate too hard. Relax. Don’t relax too much. Move your feet. Follow through, etc.” The mind can harbor a lot of thoughts, some contradictory, at the same time.

 

*****

 

In an early lesson, except for my grip, A J criticized every aspect of my game. It turns out I’d been improvising every shot I’d ever hit. “You have to have a consistent swing,” he said. “Don’t worry about the result,” he continued. “Do it properly.” He’s retraining me against numerous long-developed bad habits and several habits that are good, if only I were playing tennis. It surprises me to realize that the two sports, though similar on the surface, require distinctly different swings.

At one point during my first lesson, I recall, I said to A J: “There are twenty things I have to remember on each shot. This is almost as bad as golf.” At the time, he didn’t respond. During this morning’s lesson, A J told me what I can expect after several more months of lessons and, in so doing, used the terms “hook” and “slice.” A cold shiver ran down my spine.

*****

 

The fifth game goes back and forth. I’m ahead 4-3, then behind 7-6. A late string of good luck treats me to a Hollywood ending, albeit low budget. I win 11-9. I expect my opponent to be angry. Instead, he puts down his racquet and comes to me with sweaty hand out-stretched. “Good game,” he says. “My name is James. Let’s play again now.”

I’m honored. I’ve passed a test. I can’t wait to tell A J.

 

 

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SPORTSMANSHIP

Sportsmanship evolves with society. We’d be shocked, for instance, to hear verbal abuse, based upon race or ethnicity that was routine at professional sporting events one hundred years ago. Players tolerated and participated in behaviors we’d find abhorrent today. Yet, they also enforced a code of conduct that’s now violated on a constant basis. For instance, imagine a football player dancing in the end zone following a touchdown in 1964?   The only suspense might have been who would beat him up first, the opposing team or his own.

A professional tennis player named Genie Bouchard recently ignited a kerfuffle when she refused to shake hands and wish her opponent good luck before a match. Her refusal represented a departure from tennis etiquette as old as tennis itself. Said Bouchard, in paraphrase: “I’m trying to beat her. I don’t wish for her to have good luck. Why should I fake it?” I find Bouchard’s honesty jarring. Yet, in a sense, it also makes sense.

My early encounters with sportsmanship issues varied. When I was about eight, I witnessed my aunt fling the board across the room following a defeat in Scrabble. Without ambivalence, I knew that that behavior was unacceptable. I also knew of an opponent who’d hid an “S” in her hand throughout the game so that she’d have it available in a crucial moment. That also was clearly wrong. (Who knew Scrabble could be so treacherous?)

While I was an early and enthusiastic participant in word games, it was baseball that consumed most of my thoughts during my first decade. And it was through a baseball game that I first encountered the moral question that confronts people on a constant basis, on issues big and small: “Does the end justify the means?”   Then as now, the answer is often unclear.

*****

“We need a pitcher,” said my wife, Katie, as we prepared to host some friends for a casual dinner party, “for iced tea.”

This innocuous statement, at once true and mundane, dislodged a brain cell that hadn’t stirred for nearly half-a-century. I played second base on a summer Little League team named the Pirates. Since my neighborhood was devoid of athletic facilities, the team played in a league in the neighboring community of Overbrook Park.

Most of my teammates are lost to the haze of memory. But I do remember the excitement of Saturday mornings at the playground, the feel of the sunshine, the smell of fresh-cut grass and the satisfying sounds: a baseball landing in a leather mitt or popping off a wooden bat.

Creating a less satisfying sound, throughout the games, each team serenaded the opposing pitcher in a manner I can’t imagine being allowed in 2015: “We need a pitcher, not a belly itcher.” This saying passed for wit among 8 and 9-year-olds in 1965. The fact that both teams used the same chant, in the same flat tones of voice, didn’t diminish its constancy.  The taunts continued even when the opposing pitcher performed superbly; in that case, the losing team simply sounded more mean-spirited, more desperate. (Picture Ted Cruz after the recent Supreme Court rulings).

*****

I lived for those games with the Pirates. Our coach was a middle-aged man named Mr. Greenfield. Almost unimaginably, in retrospect, he didn’t have a child on the team. I don’t know if he had children of his own. He simply volunteered his time to coach other people’s kids in Little League. Nowadays, sadly, I suspect we’d question his motives.

I wanted to play shortstop, the premier infield position. But during my time on the Pirates, we had a shortstop named Scott whose seemingly advanced puberty made him our unquestioned star. Still, I styled dark glasses on the field, even when it was cloudy. And when I batted, I held my bat at a jaunty angle, pointed down instead of up. Bashful and retiring in every other aspect of life, I craved attention on the baseball field.

Similarly, our team fashioned itself as front-runners. It was as though historical records were posted and the Pirates were always at the top of the Overbrook Park standings. Of course, that was not the case – to my knowledge, no one tracked historical records of local Little League teams; I’m not even certain anyone tracked ongoing standings in the league. Perhaps, drawing on his years of volunteer coaching, Mr. Greenfield imbued us with our sense of superiority. I can’t recall.

I know our bête noir, the rival we loved to hate, was the team sponsored by the local Italian church, St. Donato’s. In a world of Jewish kids, they represented the mysterious “other.” Since their players all attended parochial school and my teammates attended public school, they were, indeed, unknown to us. Objective facts may have fallen to stereotypes and the vagaries of memory, but my recollection is that they appeared bigger and tougher than my teammates. Their pitcher always inspired whispered speculation among my teammates: “How old do you think he really is?”

*****

Following my first two seasons under Mr. Greenfield’s direction, I aged out of the “minor league” and moved into the “major league” for ten and eleven-year-old players. Mr. Greenfield remained with the younger players, and I heard that if we couldn’t find another coach, the Pirates would disband. I agonized over this possibility.

Into the breach, like a savior, came my older brother, David, home from college for the summer. Not only did he save the team, my own status rose: Brother of the Coach! To his credit, David didn’t practice nepotism. I was still the second baseman, subordinate to the vaunted Scott. But it was immensely satisfying to have David there; though the youngest coach in the league, by far, he had a firm grip on strategies and techniques. Practices were fun and we won most, if not all, of our games. Crucially, David treated as many of us as could fit in his red Camaro to water ice after every win.

The season proceeded routinely as we whipped teams named after the Mets and the Cubs and a team sponsored by an undertaker. Boy, did that strike us funny! We had no trouble beating a poor team wearing tee shirts instead of real uniforms and trounced a team drawn from a local religious school – they made US look tough, by comparison. Looming for the last game, however, was St. Donato’s, with their big kids in their green-trimmed uniforms.

From the moment we arrived at the field, it was clear we were in trouble. Their pitcher, who we speculated was growing a mustache, was half a head taller than our biggest player, Scott. During warm-ups, we watched slack-jawed as he threw faster than anyone we’d ever seen. Though only ten, I could sense the smugness in the expression on St. Donato’s coaches (they had several) as they loomed over David in the pre-game meeting with the umpire.

Once the game began, our pitching and defense performed well. But we were totally cowed in the batter’s box. We sat silently on our bench between innings. We didn’t dare taunt the pitcher with our chant. From my first at-bat, I recall seeing him wind-up and then hearing a thump in the catcher’s mitt behind me. What had happened to the ball? How fast was this supposed eleven-year-old throwing? As the innings flew by we’d only surrendered two runs but our chance of scoring seemed nil. We couldn’t even get a base runner.

“Gather around,” said David, when we came in from the field before our last at-bat. “I have an idea.”

Following David’s instructions, our first batter sidled up to the plate barely concealing a smile. Though we were all right-handed, he took a spot on the LEFT side of the plate. He crowded into the space just inches from the plate. As a final touch, he crouched so tightly that his strike zone, the area between his knees and his chest, could not have been more than a few inches.

The pitcher looked confused. Left-handed batters were rarities. He threw his first pitch in the dirt. The next pitch flew over the catcher and bounced off the batting cage.

“Hey ump,” shouted St. Donato’s head coach. “That kid’s not left-handed!”

The umpire shrugged.

“How close to the plate can he get?” continued the coach.

“As close as he wants,” said the umpire, “so long as he’s in the batting box.”

Our first batter walked. Our second hitter took the same left-handed crouch and walked.

“Hey,” shouted the coach. “You gotta call some of these strikes! They’re bending over. This ain’t fair.”

The umpire turned to David, who shrugged innocently.   David said to us: “Hey, how ‘bout some life around here!”

We started our chant: “We want a pitcher, not a belly itcher!” The pitcher regarded us with a combination of anger, despair and humiliation. He walked the next batter to load the bases and hit the next batter with a pitch to score a run. By this time, in the effort to throw strikes, he threw so slowly the plunked batter barely flinched.

St. Donato’s coach glared at David with contempt. He walked to the mound to calm his pitcher, and we saw the kid wipe his eyes. After a moment’s discussion, the coach walked off the field with the big pitcher, now sobbing, and replaced him. Scott was our next batter. He hit the reliever’s first, ordinary pitch for a double and we’d won the game.

*****

Was it the right thing to do? Was it good sportsmanship? Did the end justify the means? I do know this: we celebrated that day without any ambivalence whatsoever, the day our coach David helped us beat Goliath.