I’ve been wanting to start interviewing table tennis players and coaches for a while now and I finally took the leap and went for it. This is the first Expert Table Tennis Interview and I hope to do many more. I’ve got a great guest for my first interview… Swedish table tennis player, Kristian Karlsson!
Kristian is the #5 player in Sweden and has enjoyed a fantastic 2012, winning the U21 event at the Korean Open and beating some top players, including none other than Kalinikos Kreanga back in February! Not surprisingly, he has shot up the ranking list moving from 424th to 133rd in just 21 months. In the interview, I ask Kristian about everything he’s learnt during his development and pick his brain for some top tips for recreating his rapid table tennis improvement.
Enjoy the interview! If there is anybody you would like me to interview in particular feel free to send me a message and I’ll do my best to get hold of them.
Ben: Hi Kristian and welcome to Expert Table Tennis.
Kristian: Hi Ben!
Ben: For the benefit of those who don’t know much about you Kristian, could you tell us a bit about yourself. Stuff like, how and when you started playing table tennis and any key milestones that set you on the path to becoming a professional.
Kristian: Sure! My name is Kristian Karlsson and I started playing table tennis when I was 8 years old. The reason I started was that a friend of mine wanted to start again (he had previously quitted). The main milestone for me as to becoming a professional was moving to a new city when I started high school. It required me to move away from my family and friends but I’m very proud and happy that I made it.
Ben: And how old were you when you moved away from your family?
Kristian: I was 16.
Ben: I see. I know a few guys in England that did the same thing at 16 to join one of the two academies. So thinking about your development from 8-16…Where were you playing? How many hours a week did you practice? And what was your ranking like in Sweden?
Kristian: Well I was playing in my home club called Trollhättan. During my first few years I was nothing special. I practiced just two times a week for my first three or four years. Then I started to progress as a player. When I was 14 I joined my first national training camp and since then I’ve practiced a lot more. I don’t know exactly how many hours in those early years. My ranking in Sweden was around the top ten, from age 10 to 14.
Ben: Ok! So when you were a younger player you were never the superstar, always winning the tournaments. What do you think were the key factors that helped you rise to your current position and succeed over the other top ten players from back then?
Kristian: Mostly my own mind and that I could take those important steps (moving away from home). Also I started to practice with much more quantity and quality.
Ben: Out of interest, what are your thoughts on quantity vs. quality of practice? Is it more important to train for 6-8 hours a day or to train less but with really good players and coaches?
Kristian: Quality is far more superior, in my opinion.
Ben: So were you able to practice with players that were of a higher standard than yourself? Would you say that had a big impact on your development, being able to learn from them and model them?
Kristian: Yes, definitely. Alongside listening to your coaches, if you trust them and know them well enough, which I had the fortune of doing.
Ben: When you were developing as a teenager what was the main focus of your training?
Kristian: My focus was to learn how to move properly and my backhand, since that was my biggest weakness.
Ben: So I assume you were doing a lot of footwork drills to try and improve your movement. Did you do much work away from the table? And if so, what kinds of things did you do?
Kristian: I have always tried to be a very aggressive player so I never really learned the “far away from the table” stuff. But I did a lot of footwork drills close to the table.
Ben: Ah, sorry. I think a little bit has been lost in translation. When I say “away from the table” I mean training in the gym, training off the table or physical training.
Kristian: Ah, well. I should have got that. :P Well, not really too much. I’ve always learned a lot from watching table tennis in videos, so there’s my source of inspiration away from the table tennis hall. I did some gym training in the later years but not that early.
Ben: I ask because I know in China they are quite heavy with the gym work and do lots of jumping drills and physical training from an early age. Are you saying you didn’t experience much of that until you were older?
Kristian: The sport itself has gotten much more physical over the last few years, but myself, no. I started serious gym practice after a knee injury, which put me away from tournaments for eight months, at the age of 17.
Ben: I see. Ok. Can we move on to your development from 16-19, as a junior and young senior. Had you finished school by then and how much were you training?
Kristian: I finished high school when I was 20. I started to practice much more at the age of 16 and it was ten sessions a week.
Ben: So you continued with your studies the whole way through until you were 20! How did you manage to balance school and table tennis? Surely many of your competitors were full time table tennis players by that point?
Kristian: Well to be honest, I didn’t manage it that well! I’m doing some complementary courses right now (high school ones) to compensate the lack of graduation. So in a year I’ll be eligible to go to university. :)
Ben: Haha, oh right. Well, fair play to you because it can’t be easy trying to do well at both and I guess that most of the people you were playing against would have dropped out altogether.
Kristian: Some of my colleagues did, yes.
Ben: Am I right in thinking you’re 21 years old now?
Kristian: Yes, indeed!
Ben: I had a look through your recent history and saw that about two years ago you were ranked just outside the top 400 in the world men’s list but now you’re 129th! You obviously had a fantastic 2012, winning the Korean U21 event in May and recording some great wins against Kreanga (#52), Jeong (#67), Alamiyan (#78) and Gauzy (#79). What do you think caused this huge increase in performance? How did you go from being ranked about 400th, to just outside the top 100?
Kristian: Hmm, that question has pondered in my head for a long time and I think I only have some of the full answer. I received a great deal of good training in my new club (I changed in 2011) and a great job by both me and my fantastic coaches (Ulf Carlsson and Fredrik Håkansson).
Ben: Which club did you join in 2011?
Kristian: Halmstad BTK.
Ben: Ok, cool. And what are your personal plans/goals for the next few years?
Kristian: My plans are, if things don’t get better in Sweden (we have a lot of good players but they are too divided in small groups, I’d like to see a centre in Sweden), I’ll most likely move to either France or Germany. A personal goal of mine is to play the singles event in the Olympic Games in Rio de Janerio 2016.
Ben: So it looks like you may well be forced to move abroad! It’s a shame table tennis in Sweden appears to be slipping a bit. I hope you make it to Rio! I’ll certainly be cheering you on and I wish you every success in the future. My final questions are really to help out my readers. I know a lot of them will be able to relate to your situation as a young teenager. Perhaps they are good players (in the top 10 or 20 for their age group) but they really want to improve rapidly and make it as a professional. What advice would you give them? Do you have any tips from your own experience?
Kristian: My first piece of advice would be to play table tennis because you want to for yourself, not for anybody else. If you’re doing it for somebody else (parent, coach etc.) you’ll not be able to practice as well as you’d like or feel the happiness you deserve to feel. Secondly, my strongest piece of practice advice is that the tough training sessions are the ones that matter the most, at the end of the day. The practices when you feel like everything works, it’s not very hard to fight in those sessions. To fight with yourself when things don’t feel so good, that’s key! Thirdly, believe in yourself. You are much better than you think and you are capable of doing things you don’t even know of. Stay humble but never lose track of what you can do.
Ben: Excellent advice! Thanks a lot Kristian and thanks for taking the time out to do the interview.
Kristian: Thank you very much for the interview!
Ben: If any of my readers would like to find out more about you or get in touch with you, what would be the best way to do that?
Kristian: You can always contact me on my Twitter, @KristianK91, for any questions. :)
Ben: Cheers Kristian and good luck for the future.
Kristian: Cheerio Ben!
If you would like to be interviewed on Expert Table Tennis, or if there’s anybody in particular you would like me to interview, then please get in touch and let me know.