Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A lesson with Crystal Huang: structural reform

This is the first of a long series of posts about improving my table tennis. This is not about beautiful technique. There are plenty of videos on youtube for that. It's about my struggle and probably quixotic quest for better technique. More precisely, it's about structural reform. In other words, engineering out already-learned but ultimately flawed and limited strokes. Undo, then redo. The goal is to override muscle memory and replace with better programming.

Structural reform is a term I hear a lot nowadays: especially, with respect to the current eurozone crisis. Old habits die hard but countries have to change their ways. Growth, if possible, is the preferred way out. If not, austerity to shrink the economy is the only option left. Seems like it's either grow or wither away and lose maybe decades.

The same seems to be true in table tennis. We have a few tenths of a second (usually around 1/3 of a second) to react to the incoming ball and do something about it. Therefore, a lot is dependent on muscle memory. Human muscle memory is reliable and responses can be deployed almost without conscious thought. This is all and good given proper training and conditioning.

Unfortunately, some amateurs such as myself, without someone to nip flaws in the bud so to speak, spent years hitting balls incorrectly. This not only looks bad but also limits performance. After improving muscle memory through repetition, the amateur improves until he/she plateaus, unable to break through to the next level no matter how often they practice.

The next logical step then is to employ a professional coach who can highlight weaknesses and point the student in the right direction. A good coach can both demonstrate proper technique and explain why and how to execute the proper stroke. Unfortunately, the amateur has spent considerable time "grooving" his strokes and that subconscious muscle memory that enabled him/her to respond in 1/3 second is now a huge barrier to change. Reprogramming muscle memory is incredibly difficult.

The amateur then rues not employing a proper coach from the first day he/she picked up a paddle. Short of being reborn and learning proper technique under close supervision as a child, the amateur faces a long and frustratingly difficult road in overcoming his initial self-learning or natural programming. Watching videos of world champions with beautiful technique doesn't really help. The gap is too large. Even seeing what seems like humanly possible proper technique up close and live, subtleties escape the observer and attempted replication results in just a pale and unreliable facsimile of what he/she just saw.

The amateur may be missing crucial knowledge. But even possessing the correct knowledge doesn't seem to help as much as he/she thought. Low level programming seems unavailable or strangely elusive to conscious thought processes.

On this beautifully sunny past weekend in Los Angeles, I decided to spend 15 hours indoors at the LATTA to take lessons with Crystal Huang, a professional who went to the Beijing Olympics on the USA national team. Retired from competition, she is a coach. (I've blogged about the club before here.)

I decided to get more serious about structural reform, so I recorded a lot of video over a weekend. Just merely taping a coaching session doesn't really do much. So I started editing the videos into clips to remind myself of what to do (as well as what to not do). It became a labor intensive process because I found myself adding captioning as an aid to understanding. So I thought I might as well share. Perhaps some of these may be of use to others, spark a change or two, or at the very least make the reader feel thankful their game doesn't include my huge set of flaws.

Next time, we'll look at how Crystal tries to point out and correct my many flaws. This time, I'd like to show how even the warm-up (before the lesson truly begins) can be very revealing.

This first video is of my forehand block. Crystal is gently topspinning (or looping) the ball to my forehand. The rate is almost exactly 1 ball per second. I know precisely which quadrant the balls will fall in. In fact, I only have to worry about blocking that ball diagonally back to her forehand (she is a lefty). I block the ball back 33 times consecutively in the following clip but, as you can see, I still manage to screw things up.

Link: here

The fundamental problem is I'm not constantly moving to track the ball. I'm reacting too late (ball is about to arrive), and having to move off-balance and attempt to correct and rebalance in record time. By block #34, I've lost track of my center of gravity and clearly it looks rather ugly.

Slow motion of block #15 is rather revealing and will make the problem clear. See captions in the clip below.

Link: here

Tellingly, because I had to lunge I was unable to block the ball back to her forehand corner. Instead, notice the ball went to the middle of the table. You may not have noticed that she smoothly moved across and still looped the ball to my corner so I could continue.

Here's what went wrong.

(a) (b) (c)

In (a), the ball is looped. I haven't yet noticed the ball will end up out of reach. (I should have observed the angle of the paddle and reacted by shuffling to the right. In fact, it's critical I do so.)

In (b), 0.26 seconds later, the ball is landing on my side. Too late, I realize it's out of reach. I've wasted 0.26 seconds without moving my feet.

In another 1/10th of a second, I lunge with my arm as the ball arrives. Although I get to the ball and return it, it's just a mere band-aid. Actually, the situation is quite dire.

As a result of the lunge, I'm way off balance as shown in (c). Instead of sensibly moving sideways to the right earlier, now I've created an unnecessarily enormous backlog of work for the next 0.6 seconds.

I have to land away from the table, regain balance, push off again and hop back towards the centerline, rebalance myself and hope I get there before the ball arrives again. Despite the leisurely 1 second interval between balls, I barely got back in time.

And of course, my mistake is actually deadly in practice. Had the drill been not just to my forehand, the ball could have been looped to my backhand corner. In that case, there is no way in hell I could have gotten back in time of course.

A keen observer will notice there are other systemic problems that I haven't mentioned. For example, notice I automatically drop my arm after each block. This is another very bad habit that will cost valuable tenths of a second.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Hong Kong wishes

There is a certain beauty and a romantic feel to Hong Kong, especially in the relative cool of winter. I can't be sure I'd ever want to live there, but a visit can be simply sublime.

Tonight and every night
Let's go walking down this empty street
Let's walk in the cool evening night
Wrong or right, be at my side
The downtown lights...

I need a good walk after dinner; this is from an uncrowded Avenue of the Stars (星光大道) around 10:45pm. I was very lucky indeed; I had just seconds to compose this as one of the few (fake) junks still in existence came into view and made a brief stop.

(Handheld pictures at night can be tough to nail. You need a fast lens (here, wide-open at f/1.7) and as slow a shutter speed as you dare: a potentially blurry 1/30s was used here. Fortunately, the Olympus E-P1 has in-body sensor stabilization. Still, this exposure required a speed of 3200 ISO! No EV compensation. My EP-1 is truly marginal at high ISO. Hmm, a good excuse to get that new world-class Olympus OM-D.)

Not being much of a tourist, my ideal day in Hong Kong would revolve around guilt-free food and exercise. The idea being to pay one's dues before taking in a calorifically significant repetition, for example, of this:

Add in some shark fin soup beforehand, and ahem, you see the need to walk it off a bit before I can fit in that relaxing drink, maybe at the nearby and classy Intercontinental Hotel Lobby Lounge (Link: here)?

Or for a view from on high and a different ambiance, maybe the inside/outside Cocky Bar up on the 18th floor at The One? (Link: here.)

Of course, to ensure that one should be feeling absolutely guilt-free about the after-dinner Mojito, I'd suggest sweating a bit for a few hours before dinner: for example, I'm partial to exercise of the kind shown here. Your mileage may vary.

Win a few, lose a few, don't play too hard and make some friends. And, before that, if I manage to catch up on a few hours of work on the laptop in the early afternoon, then Life with a capital L is good (at least for today).

Unfortunately, there is a different kind of price to be paid for those sublime evenings.

The problem with travel across time zones is jet lag. I wake up early. There's nothing I can do about that.

Since I'm up early, I might as well take out the iPod and running shoes that I've brought along.

Hit the hotel gym for a light 30 minute workout before first light, as the city is still sleeping. If I time this right, by the time I finish, dawn's light has transformed my view of the cityscape from 45 floors up.

It's 7:30am and I'm 450 kcal to the good already.

A cooldown swim in the deliciously deserted 20m long roof-top heated pool. I can concentrate on my technique as I swim slow lazy laps:

I skip the whirlpool for the (Japanese-style serious) 43C water temperature of the indoor spa:

It's not onsen (温泉) water with mineral content, but as my leg muscles warm back up, I feel them slowly unwind. I may also use the steam room. In the USA, they may use peppermint in a plastic spray bottle, in Hong Kong it's Cassia bark bundles on the heater in the steam room. (Therapeudic effects are claimed. Balances ying and yang. Restores energy, improves the digestive system and eyesight. Or so it says. I'm sold. It feels good.)

(Nearly perfection, much classier than what I'm used to normally, I do wish they had laundry service for my running gear while I swam and unwound in the spa.)

By the time I shower, it has been an indulgent two hours since I got up. But hey, the silver lining with jet lag is that time is on my side in the mornings. With additional good timing, I'm ready for dim sum breakfast as soon as a decent restaurant opens.

I love to be first in a nearly empty restaurant. You see, near emptiness and tranquility is at a premium in Hong Kong. Congee (粥) accompanied by deep-fried, and slightly salted breadstick (油條), aka colloquially as 油炸鬼 (oil-fried devil), really hits the spot after the run.

Plus my favorite char-siu steamed rice flour rolls (豬腸粉) beautifully presented, and I'm good to go (back to sleep).

It's okay. It's only 9am, even if I nap, I've accomplished something today even if I'm feeling deliciously decadent.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Ping Pong in Hong Kong

I've never played ping pong in Hong Kong before: basically because I don't know anyone there. Instead, I've always gone into Shenzhen next door to play and get coaching as documented elsewhere in this blog.

(I know there are private clubs and municipal gyms for those who can book tables in advance, but I'm not plugged into the Hong Kong table table community.)

Well, all that changed this winter. Through networking, I managed to visit facilities at two universities in Hong Kong. In future, I'll definitely be playing at these locations whenever I get the chance.

City University

As the name suggests, this is in the "city" so to speak. Easily reached by MTR train (East Rail line) or subway (Kwun Tong line, 觀塘綫), Kowloon Tong (九龍塘) station, I played here twice.

My contact and generous host was Prof. Leon Zhao, head of MIS at CityU (pictured here on the left). Incidentally, I have met Leon previously in a professional capacity as we served together on a Ph.D exam committee, though I never knew he was a ping pong player. It's a small, small world, isn't it?

You need a guest pass and someone affiliated with CityU (in my case, Leon) to get into their sports centre. Cost is HK$20. There is a dedicated room for ping pong and nice new-looking tables.

They have a club and CityU team. Plus a semi-professional coach, Eddie Wei, standing to the right of me below:

(From left to right: Ye Liu (Ph.D student), Yikshing Yeung (CityU TT team member), me, Eddie Wei (coach), Haibin Yang (Professor), Wansan Lee (high school student who trains there, seems like 2500 level player) and Enyu Zhuang (Ph.D student).)

I had a lot of fun playing there playing with as many people as possible. Very cool bunch of guys.

Chinese University of Hong Kong

I also had the opportunity to play at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. With a large uncrowded campus up on a hill, this is not in the city by any means. It has a MTR train (not subway) station, simply called University (大學), on the East Rail Line.

So it's not surprising they have a larger gym with very high ceilings and good lighting. 6 tables.

Very spacious by Hong Kong standards, it's a nice facility with room to back up and lob a bit.

I played a bunch of professors but this guy pictured below is the staff champion. He's a PE instructor at the university. I tried hard but he beat me 3-0 convincingly.

You need to be affiliated with the university to play here. My contact and host here was Jimmy Lee, professor of computer science.

Like me, he is a computer science professor. We both play ping pong and train to run marathons. I even own the same exact ping pong shirt he is wearing. Obviously, a great guy with the right set of hobbies! :)