I’ve had quite a few people tell me that they are really enjoying following along with Sam’s progress and reading my weekly diary entries.
A couple of you guys suggested Sam should keep a diary. I thought that was an excellent idea and I will be encouraging him to keep some kind of shorthand personal training diary for the rest of the challenge to help him remember what he’s been working on and what he wants to improve.
Occasionally I’ll ask him to produce a more in depth diary that I’ll publish on the blog. I think these posts will give you a great insight into how Sam views the whole learning experience and where he currently feels he’s at.
Today’s post is the first of these “Sam’s Diary” posts. It covers the three days we spent at the Swerve TTC Half Term Training Camp up in Middlesbrough from Monday 17th – Wednesday 19th February 2014.
Over to Sam…
Hello and welcome to both my first diary entry and my first ever attempt at writing something for public consumption! How exciting. If you’re new to the blog you can catch up and check out what we’re aiming to do at expertinayear.com.
You’re joining us at a very exciting point. We’ve done 40 hours of coaching, in just over a month, and now it’s time to leave my kitchen setup for a trip out into the big scary world of serious table tennis. Our destination is the Swerve Table Tennis Centre in Middlesbrough where we’re to attend a three day training camp.
Run by Steve Brunskill and Paul Warters, Swerve is a dedicated table tennis centre that was opened in September 2013.
Monday 17th February 2014
Let’s start with Ben and me sitting on a train pulling out of London at the horrific time of 7am. In front of me is Bounce, by Matthew Syed, but I’m not reading much of it. Running through me is a cocktail of conflicting emotions; I’m both terrified and excited. All my training so far has been in private and with Ben but now I’m getting thrown into the deep end.
Most people at the camp will be top juniors and cadets who are already at or near my top 250 target. Then there’s little old me, only a month in and expected to be responsible for making sure my partners can perform the exercises. On this camp, and for the first time, I will be expected to take my turn being the controller. Now to the uninitiated or pro player this doesn’t sound too bad. How hard can it be directing a ball for someone? HA…
On the other hand I have three full days of pure table tennis ahead and looking back at how much I’ve improved since starting in January I’m fully expecting to improve loads. Maybe by the end of the camp I’ll finally be able to beat my housemates!
We arrive at the club and meet Steve, Paul and the other attendees. The centre has a really great feel, there’s a café with some chill out sofas, a recreational room with a pool table, and a mini table tennis table. There’s a large hall full of table tennis tables. Each table has a box next to it with an assortment of equipment: a box of balls, two skipping ropes, an agility ladder, a pickup net and a tension cord. I can’t think of an environment that would be more conducive to good quality training. (Ben: Me neither, Swerve is awesome!)
Steve Brunskill is the head coach and an inspirational man. He’s forward thinking and is constantly researching or thinking up out-of-the-box ways to improve his players. The group was pretty mixed, most were top cadets and juniors but there were a few other newish players (yes!). Of all the people doing the full three day course I was the oldest by quite some way, but let’s skip past that.
The camp started with a seminar on John Wooden’s pyramid of success. The focus was on mindset and it was clear that Steve believed the corner stones of success were industriousness (hard work) and enthusiasm; two things that I was determined to beat everyone else at.
Down in the hall we started with a warm up (although in my unfit state it felt more like rigorous physical training). Three minutes of skipping followed by shadow play to the sound of a metronome. We were told to imagine the metronome as representing the contact point with the ball, aiming to time our movements and in our mind visualise hitting the ball. Personally, I reckon this is a great exercise. I’ve found shadow play very useful but I don’t half feel like an idiot when doing it. Here you’re totally focused on keeping in time with the metronome and don’t get a chance to reflect on how ridiculous you look swinging your body and waving your arms about.
Then it was into some actual table tennis. My nightmare really came true here. After a quick knock up we were set straight into regular exercises where we regularly changed partners and took turns with one person doing the exercise and the other controlling the ball. To make it worse for me the controller was always to use a backhand block. Now my backhand is questionable at the best of times – throw in a block I’d only tried once or twice before and a top player blasting balls at me with varying levels of spin – I was left without a hope. Thinking back I consider myself lucky I didn’t get a punch in the face, it must have been so frustrating for my practice partners. Luckily everyone was very supportive; one of Steve’s mantras, that was echoed by the players, was that everyone helps each other and that everyone was once a beginner.
My best moment of the day came when one of the exercises involved doing a backhand open up. Now I’ve never done one before but by happy coincidence I was back partnered with Ben. We only had 7 minutes. Ben would make small adjustments and then Steve would point out something we’d both missed and very quickly I was getting most balls on the table. It’s amazing what having someone pointing out little problems can do for learning a shot. And conversely, it must be so difficult to get good technique without someone picking up on all your little flaws.
Just before lunch we had a physical session. How do I describe this except by saying ouch! Lots of jumping around, explosive movement drills and it ended by playing the song ‘Bring Sally Up’ while doing squats in time. This sort of thing:
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to hear that song again without feeling ill!
After lunch we had another seminar all about mental toughness. These seminars are something that I think as an adult student I have a real advantage in. We often hear, “If I could do school again I wouldn’t waste it” or “I’d appreciate that advice so much more if I heard it now”, and I think the same is true for table tennis. When you’re young it’s so easy to take opportunities and wisdom for granted. Steve was giving some great advice and I was determined to soak up all the knowledge I could.
The day ended with a game of top table. Each time you win a game you move up to the next table, and each time you lose you move down. There were 9 tables in the main room and another 3 in the beginner’s room. I managed to keep myself out of the beginner’s room but my technique was really terrible. I can look good during regular practice but once the variance of match play is thrown in I just revert to the complete novice I was back in December.
The day ended with sports massages from a professional physio – more pain, but good pain.
After the official day was over I did another hour with Ben. I learnt how to smash (which is great fun and impossible to do in the kitchen) and we did lots of multiball practice.
Day one was over and shattered we left the centre, had dinner, a well-deserved beer and then went straight to bed.
Tuesday 18th February 2014
True to our plan to work harder than everyone else we were up bright and early in the morning. After breakfast we waddled into the centre with stiff legs for half an hour of pre-camp training. I was in so much pain and I felt like the worst player in the world. My legs just wouldn’t work, I couldn’t return anything and our knocking up was laughable. But half an hour later I was back. Ben even gave me a compliment…
“When we’re knocking up someone might almost mistake you for a table tennis player! As long as they didn’t watch anything else.”
Today all nerves were gone. I’d gotten to know quite a lot of the group and knew what to expect. The day followed the same pattern; a warm up, followed by table tennis drills, physical training, lunch, another seminar and an afternoon of more training and match play.
The main content of the morning involved spending five minutes on each table and then moving to a different table with a different exercise. We then rotated partners and got to choose our own exercises. We were told to work on our strengths so I chose a simple regular routine of forehand middle, forehand wide. A routine where I could put some real power into my shots with a decent level of consistency. One of my proudest moments of the trip was during this session where I was able to finally use my forehand block and actually managed to return some forehand loops that Joe Pilkington, currently ranked around 200th in the seniors (Ben: and on his way up), blasted my way.
The afternoons tournament play was just as bad as the day before. My last game was a whitewash against a young girl who had a bonkers serve and a forehand loop that was so fast I could barely see the ball.
After the official training was over, Ben and I spent the evening working on my forehand and backhand open up. We also had a go, for the first time, at the 3rd ball attack (what a great name). This was a really great session and ended with two more compliments from Ben…
“If you don’t make it into the top 250 by December people are going to look back at this video dated February 18th and ask ‘What went wrong?!’”
“I may have to retract my comments about you being untalented.”
I ended the day playing top table with some of the adult club regulars. Although I lost every game I found it very encouraging. Playing against the top juniors I was losing every point, unless they made an unforced error, but here I was scoring some legitimately good points. I don’t think it’ll take me too long for me to reach their level, a lot of my regular drills look better than their match play and once I can consistently translate that technique into games I should be in with a real fighting chance.
Wednesday 19th February 2014
Another half asleep breakfast, with stiff legs, followed by another half an hour of pre-camp training with Ben. This followed the same curve as yesterday; from being stiff and terrible to the best forehands I’ve ever done.
Into the warm up, with more skipping and metronome. I’m already finding them easier and can now skip for more than 5 seconds without getting my feet tangled.
From there we moved onto some quick movement drills, trying to get us to cover the whole table very quickly. I’m sure this would have been very useful but due to the questionable blocking skills of my partner and I we never really got past the returning the ball part.
During the seminar we did an interesting study on one point that turned into epic 31 rally dual between Chuang and Samsonov (4:40 on the video below).
Then we were set the seemingly impossible task of trying to recreate it. I chose to be Chuang because of my killer forehand open up! At a snail’s pace we started. A half long serve to the crossover, returned with a forehand open up to the crossover, a block back to the crossover, a forehand loop to the crossover, a block wide to the backhand, a backhand loop to the backhand, a forehand loop to the middle and then a forehand loop cross court. In our 15 minutes or so practice that’s as far as we got. When you watch these world class players as an outsider they look impressive, but now that I know just how difficult to execute and return each shot is they are even more amazing!
More physical training, this time in a circuit. Lots of explosive movement drills and very heavy on the legs. Then a well needed lunch followed by an afternoon of matches where I managed a very respectable 14th out of 18th (Ben: I finished 2nd losing 3-1 to Joe Pilkington. He is super sharp at the moment and surely under ranked). If you’re lucky, and he’s feeling cruel, Ben may upload a video of me getting stomped by a 10 year old.
And that was the end of a very tough but enjoyable camp.
After everyone else had left Ben and I sat down with Steve to talk about strategy and how we’re going to achieve this top 250 ranking. Steve made some very good points, one of which was to reinforce just how important the serve is. 50% of the points in a game are going to involve me serving. It’s something that I have complete control of, it’s not reactive, and the serve will be just as good whether the opponent is there or not. What other skill is there that is used as much or that I have so much control over?
One thing we’ve been slightly worried about is that a lack of match experience will be a difficult hurdle in getting very good in a short space of time. Well, a lot can be forgiven with a world class serve. Steve went as far as to say, half-jokingly, that I should do an hour and a half of service practice for each 30 minutes of other training. If there are any world class servers out there reading this please get in touch, we need your help! (Ben: We really do… I’m a terrible server)
After this, Ben and I did another one-to-one training session. Here we were trying to get my feet moving, so he mixed up blasting multiball at me in both regular and irregular drills. This was also when I discovered my new favourite hobby, picking up balls with the fishing net in between boxes. It’s incredibly therapeutic! After finishing some horrible drill, where I miss the table 8 out of 10 times, I get to go fishing. Each ball you nudge the net with pops up without complaining and lands inside.
Some Concluding Thoughts…
Have I improved over the camp?
Definitely, but some skills are improving much faster than others. What I’d describe as my ‘blank canvas skills’ are getting very good. In fact on the final day two spectators on separate occasions mistook me for Ben, thinking that I was the coach and he was the student! But my backhand drive is still as bad as ever (Ben: This isn’t true but it is still his least solid shot). Ben describes it as being a ‘splat’ shot where instead of following through I just flop my hand over. It feels like my matchplay is worse or at the same level to when I began. I’m not yet translating the skills I’m learning to the crucial games. I’m sure that’ll come…
What about the other players?
The good top 250 level players aren’t perfect, they all make plenty of unforced errors and have weaknesses. Practicing with Ben, he’s able to place the ball exactly where he wants to, regardless of how annoying a shot I do. That wasn’t the case with some of the other strong players on the camp.
But they are still very good. I keep telling myself that it’s all down to lots of practice and many many hours of play and that at one point they were just as ‘beginnery’ as me, but even so it’s hard not to be awestruck by their sheer level of skill. I watch them play and bolt around the court like rockets, pulling off technically perfect shots, on balls moving at 70 mph, with imperceptible subtleties of spin and I can’t help but think that they must be super-humanly talented.
We’ve had a lot of seminars on mental toughness and hard work. Everyone here was very committed and working hard to improve, which means that I have to work harder and I will work harder. If I can’t beat them at talent I will beat them at hard work. I’m off to a good start being first on the court and last off it each day and I’m determined to continue.
So now that I know what we’re up against, can we do it?
Will I make the top 250? Yes. We will. There is no room in my mind for doubt. Will it be tough? Definitely. But I will work harder and smarter than anyone else, I will learn from my mistakes and failures. With Ben, Steve Brunskill, Mark Simpson, and many others helping, we’ll do it!