If you caught any of the table tennis at the recent London 2012 Olympic Games, you will have noticed that China completely dominated.
They completed their second straight clean sweep of the medals (they did it in Beijing too!), winning every gold and the two silver medals they could also win. So that’s gold in the men’s and women’s team events. A gold medal for Zhang Jike and Li Xiaoxia in the singles, and silvers for Wang Hao and Ding Ning.
Actually, the format of Olympic table tennis was changed after Beijing 2008, to stop China from being able to win all the medals. Countries can now only enter two players into the singles events, so it’s impossible to have just one country on the final podium. At the Beijing Games, China received gold, silver and bronze in both the men’s and women’s event!
The material in this post has come from many sources but I would like particularly thank Larry Hodges for his article from the USATT Magazine back in 2005, which proved extremely insightful.
So, why is China so good at table tennis?
There are obviously a large number of reasons why China is so good at table tennis. It can’t be put down to one single factor or secret that only the Chinese employ. It’s also worth pointing out that research investigating the role of genetics in sport has found no evidence of certain races being genetically predisposed to excel at a certain type of sport. So we can rule that out as well.
Here are some of the most compelling explanations for China’s table tennis dominance (in my opinion)…
- Huge depth of talent:
If you saw any of the recent Chinese National Championships (2012) you may have been surprised to see that the men’s final was between Zhou Yu and Fang Bo. Haven’t heard of them? Well that’s because they’re ranked 85th and 69th, in the world, respectively. Nineteen year old, Zhou Yu was the eventual winner, also beating Ma Lin and Zhang Jike on his way to the final.
The depth of talent available in the Chinese National Training Centre is unbelievable. Many European countries have one single truly ‘world-class’ player but China seem to have more than they can count. This leads to many moving abroad to play for other countries while some stay in China in the hope of one day getting their break into the national team.
This depth of talent creates an atmosphere where nobody is safe. The top players don’t have the option of being able to ‘take it easy’ or the security to know they will be selected, no matter how they are currently playing. Therefore all players are fighting to improve and excel. The top players are fighting to keep their spot in the team while the younger or lower ranked players are pushing for a place. This creates a massive ‘growth atmosphere’ and keeps all players motivated to work extremely hard.
- Ruthless selection methods:
China have a reputation for being absolutely ruthless when selecting players for their national team. If older players are not performing they can be thrown out and replaced by younger talent almost immediately. I’ve met one international (ex-Chinese) player who grew up in the Chinese national system only to be discarded on becoming a senior as his “body composition made him likely to struggle with injuries”.
Their methods have been likened to those used by Soviet countries twenty or thirty years ago, but they work! The Chinese national programme does not waste time or money on players that are unlikely to make it. Whether that is because they are injury-ridden, lack mental toughness or just don’t get on with the other players and coaches. Their resources are distributed to the players that are currently the best in the world, or those with the potential to reach that one day. Players that are good but unlikely to ever really ‘make it’ are removed from the process.
- Intensive training
I guess this is slightly less important as all top international players are training full-time and working very hard but it’s still worth mentioning. The Chinese table tennis team work extremely hard. Ultimately that is why they are the best. They put in a huge amount of quantity and quality practice. This usually takes the form of seven hour days, six days a week. Training incorporates regular practice with a partner, multiball training, service practice and physical (off-table) training.
- Individual practice partners
In most national set-ups the players practice together in their teams. It wasn’t until I read Larry Hodges’ post that I realised that this isn’t the case in China. In China, the players all have individual practice partners to work with. This means that instead of having to share exercises, the players can spend the whole session working solely on the things they need to improve.
Apparently, these professional practice partners go even further and train themselves to mimic the styles of other international players. So one practice partner may spend hours watching Timo Boll in an attempt to play in his style and then when a member of the Chinese team has Timo Boll to play they choose to practice with the ‘Timo-style’ practice partner. Pretty unbelievable really.
If that’s not enough, they also sometimes have two practice partners working as a team against one player. If you’re the best player in the world, then it’s going to be hard (actually impossible) to find someone to practice with who is better than you. Well, the Chinese have found a way, by getting two practice partners to form a team. One plays forehand, the other backhand. After lots of practice working together they become stronger, as a team, than even the best player in the world! Now you can ‘play up’ even if you’re the world number 1!
- Psychological and tactical support staff
All national set-ups will have sport psychologists that are able to work with the athletes to help them improve their mental game. However, in China this is taken to a whole different level. The psychologists are table tennis experts. This enables them to link their mental skills training programmes with tactical plans, making it all completely relevant to table tennis.
The Chinese also have a huge team of analysts and support staff whose job it is to watch the best, non-Chinese, players in the world and find the weaknesses in their games. They analyse all day, every day and the information is given to the coaches, players and practice partners to use in training.
- Early-specialization and talent identification
Chinese children are tested for sports skills at a very young age. If they appear particularly talented they are moved to specialist sports schools for table tennis and badminton from the age of 5. From as young as twelve, Chinese players can become full-time sportspeople and drop out of school altogether.
Whether this type of selection at such a young age is ethical, or even possible in other countries is a different question, but you can’t disagree that it’s working.
- The Chinese technique
A huge emphasis is put on learning ‘correct technique’ in China. Young players will do the same basic strokes over and over again until they are almost robotic. This type of practice may seem ‘boring’ but it is so important to get all the basics in place first.
I was coached by a number of Chinese coaches on a summer training camp and I was surprised by how much time they spent going over the basics with us. I thought that we would be learning all about tactics, advanced shots and patterns of play but instead we spent most of our time learning how to play forehands and backhands ‘better’. By the end of the week we were much stronger players because of it, may I add.
So there are seven reasons why China is so good at table tennis. I’m sure there are more that I’ve missed. Leave a comment if you spot anything. I think it’s good to see the ‘Chinese method’ affecting all levels of development. From learning correct technique and moving to a specialist sports school as a child, to receiving an individual practice partner as a senior national player. They really are great strides ahead of the rest of the world, in all areas.
Can we ever catch up the Chinese? That’s another question.
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