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.

No comments:

Post a Comment