Liu Guoliang on Psychology, Tactics and Player Development

Liu GuoliangLiu Guoliang is the head coach of the Chinese Men’s National Table Tennis Team, probably making him the most important and influential table tennis coach in the world. He is ultimately responsible for the performances of all of the top Chinese players including; Zhang Jike, Ma Long, Xu Xin, Wang Hao and all of the others that are involved in the top-tier of Chinese table tennis.

It is often quite difficult to get a glimpse into the world of Chinese table tennis. They are rightly secretive about what they get up to in an attempt to stay one-step-ahead of the rest of the world. Then, of course, there’s the language barrier which makes it even more difficult to glean information from then when they do speak out publicly.

Fortunately, YouTubers like Peko Sukeiras and, in particular, JaggedTranslates are doing a good job finding and translating useful videos from the Chinese team. I don’t usually write posts just linking to external content I’ve found on the internet but I feel, in this case, it’s well worth it.

Here are four videos that give you a great insight into the mind of Liu Guoliang, with English subtitles so we are able to understand him! I’ve spent the last couple of days watching these and as a table tennis coach have found them very insightful. Whether you’re a coach or a player I’m sure you’ll learn a thing or two from the words of Liu!

The Liu Guoliang Documentary

This documentary gives you Liu Guoliang’s opinion on three of his players; Ma Lin, Wang Hao and Zhang Jike. It particularly focuses on their mental training and preparation. Have a watch (it’s well worth it) and I’ve transcribed a few of his key messages and other points I found interesting.

  1. Ma Lin was struggling with motivation and the desire to win. He wasn’t getting the results even in his training matches. Liu Guoliang organised a match between Ma Lin and one of his sparring partners, to be played in tournament conditions. If Ma Lin lost the match, Ma Long and Liu Guoliang would have to pay the trainer 10,000 Yuan (about £1,000) each!This not only gave Ma Lin the motivation to prepare and win but it also increase the bond and cohesion between Ma Lin and coach Liu Guoliang.
  2. Liu Guoliang describes how both Ma Lin and Wang Hao have, at times, been paralysed by nerves and experienced somatic anxiety. We often believe that the top Chinese players are pretty much table tennis machines, programmed to perform and without fear but apparently even the Chinese national team struggle with butterflies in their stomach!
  3. When Wang Hao was struggling with pressure in the lead up to a major event Liu Guoliang set him the target of simply reaching the first round. It wasn’t a joke, that was his genuine target and if he achieved it the coach would be happy. This removed all pressure from Wang Hao. He relaxed, played well, and even rediscovered his love of winning. Liu Guoliang made success easy to remove the pressure.
  4. Most of the top Chinese players began training at six years old and once they start they seem to go straight into training several times a week. They then progress from smaller clubs to local, regional and national training centers.

WTTC China Trials 2013

The China Trials were set up to select the players that would represent China in the World Table Tennis Championships. In the following three matches Liu Guoliang offers tactical advice and recommendations that are very interesting. I’ve picked a few of my favourite pieces of advice and posted them below the videos.

How to improve your serves

Talent is important, even more so in serving. You need imagination and visualisation, you serve with your mind. Visualise and then practice. Good service is 80% visualisation and only 20% practice. Liu Guoliang has spoken to Werner Schlager who’s known for his strong serves and he confirmed the importance of the imagination.

What to do when playing up

If you are playing somebody you believe is better than you and are placing yourself at a lower level then it is very important to get to 1-1. You are very unlikely to get back if you go 0-2 down. Therefore, use your timeout early on and do all you can to make it to 1-1 at least.

A big emphasis should be placed on using variation when you are struggling. If you are not good enough to beat them with your shots then variation is your friend. Try serving from a different position, for example. A simple but unfamiliar serve will often give you a simple return shot.

If you feel like you are in a passive position then Liu Guoliang would not recommend you to try and return serve short. You’ll likely end up on the back foot and your return might drift long. Instead, commit and play a tough dig or try and get in yourself.

3rd, 5th and 7th balls

Your 3rd ball (the first stroke you play as the server) is very important and must be strong because a weak 3rd ball will be attacked and you will be in a bad position. However, you don’t need to go mad on the 5th ball. If your opponent returns your 3rd ball strongly or difficultly you can play a slightly slower 5th ball and use positioning but then you must go strong again on the 7th ball. Otherwise, you will begin to let your opponent dominate the rally.

Seizing opportunities

A person that actively seizes the opportunities will be very successful. Those that squander them are often punished and do receive further opportunities. This appears to be an underlying philosophy in China.

Unorthodox strokes

In table tennis shots are not always pretty. Players have to move and react quickly to their opponents shots and are not always able to play technically correct strokes. True quality players are able to find a way to get the ball back on the table, somehow.

Comments on the players

Zhang Jike is able to generate a lot of explosive power. This is one of his main strengths but it is also a weakness because it means that he often gets injured.

“You can see that Wang Hao has a rather short arm”. On the other hand Xu Xin has long limbs.

Changing the tempo

After executing a good or poor point you should slow the pace of the game down. Take a long pause and collect your thoughts. You can also spend a moment to regulate your breathing and refocus.

How to play based on the score

table tennis scoreLiu Guoliang speaks a lot about how to play in particular situations based on the current games and points score. For example, when you are up in a particular set or the match in general you should relax and not put pressure on yourself, regardless of whether you’re playing up or down. He also emphasises certain key points where you must fight 100% to win the point. For example, if the score is 7-8 you must get back to 8-8 because 7-9 is very bad for you psychologically.

When Ma Long was 0-2 down against Yan An and got back to 2-2 Liu Guoliang kept making the point that Ma Long needs to present himself aggressively more now than ever because that will put even more pressure on Yan An and making him more likely to crumble.

If you are 8-7 up in a set it isn’t crucial that you win the next point so you should continue to apply pressure  and play the point aggressive to continue to apply pressure.

If you are 10-8 up then you should take a gamble with one point and try to win it straight away. At 10-9 then you might need to play a little less aggressively and use positioning because you don’t want to give away free chances.

Stepping around the corner

Don’t just automatically step around the corner to play a forehand from your backhand side. Remember that this shot can leave you very exposed! First, you need to work out if you have the advantage in a backhand to backhand rally. If you do then keep it backhand to backhand and force them to turn. If they have a stronger backhand then you may need to side-step round the corner or try and create a forehand to forehand rally instead.

Thank you so much for reading. I think that the advice in this post is really interesting both for table tennis coaches and players. If you would like more advice like this, from myself and a handful of other top coaches, then you might be interested in the message below…