We often speak of Chinese supremacy in broad terms. We commonly give importance to concepts like better training, better organization, better player technique, or even better physical ability, primarily their legs. Sometimes sociological explanations are offered such as the idea of school, politics, or even natural selection. But the question remains, elusive and trivial, “Why are Chinese players the best?” The question is posed as a postulate, expressed with resignation, by even the most acclaimed coaches in the world. Some who feel that Chinese players enter the arena with points already in their favor, before a match even begins.
The question deserves a technical explanation, not just the generalities cited above. In looking into the technicalities, perhaps a discussion can be fueled or answers sought which will ultimately prove helpful to our side of the equation. From a personal standpoint, I do not believe we give enough attention to the technique of the game. I am not exaggerating the point; we must think more on how to improve the physics of strokes, and the course and development of play. Training is usually oriented to improve a player’s personal ability, with emphasis on making fewer errors. But– the truer quality training would focus on deep analysis of fundamental technique.
Remember, ping pong is a technical sport, absolutely and extremely technical. So of course, the technical base and its evolution must be taken into very serious consideration for the duration of a player’s career, from the very first moments until the most professional ones. When we make an error, whatever it may be, we must quickly evaluate to correct it. The choices we make here — either in a match or in training– comes from a visual stimulus. The result of our choices depends upon what we see and perceive. But sometimes the wrong choice is made (the reasons could be two: wrong evaluation of the ball [objective]; or technical mistake [subjective]). The wrong choice can have negative consequences, the loss of a point. We must be very honest and admit that in most cases we didn’t actually see the ball.
The play, the training, the empirical experience and the daily routine allows us to automatically improve our perception (objectivity) and therefore improve evaluation of the opponent’s ball. We perform, from time to time, the most convenient choices on auto-pilot. This is the goal of training. Additionally, our active presence and our critical sense allow us to consider technical mistakes, to work on them with courage and decision and, from time to time, to enrich our technical experience. Underline these aspects, because, as we will see later, they will be the daily bread for improvement.
Europe is paying high for two mistakes– one severe and one light. The first concerns laziness which accumulated through the ’80s. Many foreign players were imported. Instead of enriching themselves by studying the technical point of view of the new players, allowing the local coaches to grow with a new style of training and education through study of the new player’s games. The bet was on the improvement of clubs and beyond that, the improvement of national teams. This cut the cycle of technical progress to its roots, so no progress and no improvement ensued. This was a lost opportunity; this was the severe mistake. (As an aside, it would be interesting to know the number of the Chinese players, or more generally, of the Asiatic players, that flowed into Europe, surely an enormous quantity.)
The second mistake, the light one, is the backhand stroke.
It’s unquestionable that in the last twenty years play has become not just faster, but also more powerful, thanks to glues (equipment), and thanks to better training methodologies too. But here in the last twenty years is where the gap between Asia and Europe became even more divergent, because the Chinese players (traditionally penholders that always played without backhand) developed the leg movement technique at the serve and a more effective forehand play while European players continued to pursue the balance between forehand and backhand, believing that a more centered position at the table would be competitive against the winning Asiatic table position. Thus, Europeans shifted more to the backhand angle of the table.
Exactly what kind of damage does the backhand produce? The maintenance of the arm position is almost always more bent. The waiting position, exalted for its features of balance between forehand and backhand play, actually creates reactivity problems. The consequence of an arm that is bent too much is that it leads to the execution of the forehand in a too blocked way: this doesn’t let the shoulder, which is the real propeller in ping-pong, do its work to push. Further, a bent arm robs the player of peripheral quickness, contracting the stroke and reducing it to something little more than a topspin opening of the game. If you cannot envision this, try to think about a discus thrower that makes his throw with the arm bent. The power of the throw will certainly be reduced at least 50%.
The Chinese occasionally also use a backhand, but it is vastly different than ours. In the moment when they play a block stroke, their arm spreads almost completely, preparing automatically the forehand stroke after making a step-around. The Europeans’ block is hardly ever played with a spread, the movement stops in advance and the opening of the arm for the forehand play will be more bent. Take a look at Samsonov’s positions and you will realize that his strokes rarely are played with power, but on the contrary, they are played with accuracy.
The common technical feature of the European players is a position of the arm too bent to allow the use of the maximum power, and that’s why this action could not be performed if we are thinking about the possibility of playing a backhand stroke. As well, exactly because of the bent position, the shoulder operates as a lifting factor of the arm, and not as a push factor. So, the Chinese tradition of forehand play over the last twenty years brought, and continues to bring, an enormous advantage in those situations in which power is paramount for success. Further, we can affirm that the European player’s backhand stroke has been a limit of their play instead of being a resource.
Today Europe has no chances against Asia. We have short, limited movements, with a very small participation of the shoulder and of the trunk; they have large movements with a total support of the shoulder and with the push of the body. We work with short steps and when we jump on the ball our body is too faded to transfer energy and power. They work on large movements and when they jump on the ball their body helps them to hit with more power and decision.
Those Europeans who went against the mainstream were rewarded. In 1979 the Hungarian players promoted a short play and powerful backhand and forehand strokes with an almost extended arm. During the following years, the Swedish players developed a psychologically perfect management of the game together with really unique individual features (Waldner, Appelgren, Lindh, Persson), and Gatien and his excessively forehand play. As a last example, we can mention J.M. Saive, at 40 years he still continues with his preponderant forehand play.
In the Chinese system, huge loads of the physical work at the table had two different ameliorative targets, specialization and willpower. Specialization means to operate a system of training in which the first target is to end the play with a forehand stroke. To reach this target we must have excellent legs, not just power, muscle tone, reactiveness, or explosiveness; but rather a precise action of what we want to do, that is, the correct steps. (It doesn’t matter in what kind of situation we find ourselves, neither in which game context, the backhand stroke is considered an extension of the play and a bother for the opponent.)
A simple example.
A European player is recovering a ball on his forehand. After hitting, the ball comes back on his backhand three-quarters side of the table. The player will certainly return to the table with the backhand, working the ball and returning it with spin, or maybe he will decide to risk a power stroke (unlikely). A Chinese player, in the same situation, will seek for another forehand stroke and, if possible, he will play it with even more power. To do this, as we said before, we need excellent legs and correct steps, but this is not enough. Besides the legs and their technique we need an additional psychological strength that only a specific training can give us. That is the aforementioned willpower.
I said previously that the European backhand stroke brings as a consequence a preparation of the forehand stroke with a more bent arm position. How can we come out from this handicap? There are two possibilities, the first one is try to unbalance the body, stretching out to the backhand angle and increase the ability to cover more than three-fourths of the table with the forehand. The second way is more technical (the way I prefer). We must try to extend the backhand stroke as it was a preparation of the forehand stroke (keeping in mind that when we extend the stroke we also suffer a loss of time, so we must also improve the quickness in executing the stroke).
To economize the strokes and to make use of a better quickness, we might use the backhand stroke in an active way, almost as a contrast. Not with a soft arm ready to spring, but an arm that has such a muscular tension to be itself an opposing power. In this way we find ourselves with an almost extended arm, with the shoulder-elbow-wrist block as they were one single piece. In the moment that we are with a half-extended arm we’ll just need to make a quick twisting of the trunk and then get ready to play a forehand stroke.
I want to explain a question. When I talk about a forehand stroke that exploits the peripheral power, I don’t mean a completely extended arm position, (i.e. the “extended arm” that came in fashion, not just in Italy, in the 1970’s) but I mean about a position in which the push of the body and of the shoulder are a sort of pre-stroke, that anticipate the action, loading the arm further.
To hit the ball with more power we need an arm that moves after the body and the shoulder moved against the ball. In all the cases in which the arm executes a stroke without the aid of the body, we’ll find ourselves in front of a braked stroke. To make this concept clearer, here you can see a small photo gallery of Asiatic player. Looking at the pictures, it is important to underline how the position of the legs, of the trunk and of the shoulder, in the Chinese play, are basic components to release as much power as possible. There are some examples in which the ball seems to go even beyond the axis of the body: in fact, it’s a way to prepare the body for a pure power action, using the whip effect of the body.