It’s been a while since I posted a diary entry. I’ve been concentrating on getting the highlights videos finished and they are all up to date now. You can see them all in the Expert in a Year playlist on YouTube.
We’ve had a really busy summer of training and Sam has been working pretty much non-stop to get as much improvement as possible during these last few months. He is currently on a week off, to recover and relax, but he was kind enough to take a couple of hours to write us another diary entry from his point of view.
I really enjoy reading these, and I know you do to, so I’ll hand over to Sam as he gives us an insight into his experience of the B75 International Table Tennis Camp, that we both visited in July 2014. The photo (above) was taken during the opening ceremony and features all of the English players in attendance during week one. We are in the back row, starting right to left, Steve Hirst, Ben Larcombe (me), Sam Priestley, Alex Forshaw, Dean Rose, Liam Grant, Nathan Butler. Now, if Sam mentions any other them you’ll know who he’s talking about. Quite a few other English players came to the camp but weren’t there during the first week.
Over to Sam…
Hello and welcome once again to a guest post by Sam, the Expert in a Year Padawan. It’s mid September and I’m currently enjoying a chilled out holiday in a little cottage in the Cotswolds. A holiday, a whole week off table tennis! Finally. This is my first week off since February and I am so ready for it. Over the last couple of months I have been to Denmark and Hungary, both training full-time, and since getting back I’ve been training as much as possible, normally twice day.
By the end of last week I was completely sick of table tennis! I was so drained that my training was slipping and I had lost almost all motivation. The aim of this break is to regain the drive and regenerate so that I can power through the final three months we have left. A good side effect though is that it has also proven to be a really good opportunity to reflect on the whirlwind, non-stop nine month journey we’ve had, and to finally let some of the many many lessons I’ve been taught, sink in. Denmark is certainly a highlight (perhaps the highlight) of the Expert in a Year challenge so far.
The camp ran for three weeks, of which we went from the 14th July to the 23rd, which is a long time! I reckon I played over 40 hours of table tennis while there. I learnt a huge amount, met some great people and experienced the range of emotions you get from playing too much table tennis; nervous, excited, frustrated, elated, exhausted and, as time went on, a bit crazy.
Pretty much since we started in January Ben has been telling me just how hardcore this camp is going to be. He went along a few years ago and described it as the best experience he has had in all the years he has been playing table tennis. He told me how each morning he would have to start warming-up half an hour early just to wear out all the aches and pains from the previous day. How everybody was super keen and would spend their spare time training and warming up. How there were only two English speakers on the camp including him and everything was in Danish. How they told him his technique was completely wrong and he had to relearn everything. How the quality of both the coaches and players was really high. All stuff which, although I’m sure he thought sounded fabulous and exciting, scared the bejesus out of me. I had been playing well and had improved a lot but I was still expecting to be a complete beginner compared to everyone at the camp.
Luckily most of my worries were unfounded. In the years since Ben last went to the camp it has become much more international. The language of the camp is now English and there were players from over 20 different countries, including a strong contingent from the UK. Everyone there was very keen about table tennis (you must be right, to go abroad for a week of intensive training?!), but the range of experience was really broad.
We were split into groups ranked A through to L, where A was the best group and L was the bottom group. I was in group K. I have been on a few other training camps, albeit much smaller in scale, and on them I often felt like an old fogie, surrounded by young teenagers who were much better than me. Although there were a lot of younger people on B75, there were also enough adults training that I didn’t look or feel out of place.
My first impression was of how impressive the calibre of the coaches were, the camp started with an opening ceremony where Lars Rokkjaer, who organised and ran the camp, introduced each coach and said a few words about them, a seemingly endless list which just got more and more impressive. There was an ex-world champion, many who had been in the top 100 in the world and there were many current national coaches. Heading up group K were Per Rosin (who is a full-time coach at Kungsängen BTK) and Lei Yang (who is a former Chinese National player, ie. he was once in the top 20 in the world, and is currently the technical coach for the German National team). So in other words I was going to be coached by someone who coaches Timo Boll!
It wasn’t said outright but I got the impression the focus of the camp was on self motivation and self management. You didn’t need to turn up to training sessions, it was your responsibility to warm up and prepare, and likewise it was your responsibility to manage your own training. There were lots of opportunities to choose your own exercises and there was plenty of feedback time to help the coaches mould the training around the players as much as possible. This sort of self-directed training suits me perfectly and I spent my free time hunting out other trainers to get some one-to-one coaching and pointers. Pretty much every coach was happy to help, and I really got the impression they wanted me to improve.
Each day was pretty similar. We had three sessions, a morning 2.5 hour session, an afternoon 2.5 hour session and then an evening 1 hour session. One multiball, one group exercise, and then something different like service practice or fitness.
The camp was really amazing. I had expected to find it really tough, I normally don’t enjoy roughing it, having cold showers and not sleeping properly (see my bedroom below), but strangely I found invigorating. Each day I was aching and tired but there was something very good about being focused so narrowly on one thing. I didn’t mind being sweaty. I didn’t think about work. While at home I normally get up and play table tennis, then do a full day’s work, and then play table tennis again. The split focus is exhausting and by the end of the day I need my bed. I came home from the camp refreshed emotionally for work and excited to play more table tennis and show off my new skills.
Don’t get me wrong, physically the camp was really tough. After a few days my whole body constantly ached and by the time I left my iliopsoas muscles (the ones at the top front of your legs, by your hips) were so destroyed I couldn’t raise my legs. While boarding the the plane I had to physically lift my legs with my hands to get up each step! About four days into the camp the injuries started. Firstly, Ben hurt his back, getting the same injury I had had a few months earlier. Just from our small group of seven; Steve hurt his wrist, Frederick bit through his tongue, Alexander hurt his back, as did a few of the others too. Oh, and here’s a video of Ben being ‘fixed’.
I also found some of the training very difficult. If you read my diary from our trip to Swerve you may remember that I have a fear of having to control the ball for other people in practice. This is still very much the case! I could hold my own in the group in everything except blocking. There was one particularly traumatic time when I was blacking the ball for Hrefna, an Icelandic girl who had just joined our group. She was doing the Heisenberg (Ben: read ‘Falkneberg’. I’m not sure if Sam is simply choosing to get it wrong on purpose now for comedy value or if he still can’t remember the proper name) and over the half an hour we did the exercise I don’t think we ever got beyond the third block. I’m so sorry!
Some key lessons and tips
For my game I identified that, true to what Ben had predicted, I was doing everything wrong. My technique was far from perfect, or “bullshit”, as Lei Yang occasionally said. But luckily for me I don’t need the level of technique needed for the German national team. Here are the major points that by working on, will have a huge impact on my play:
- I didn’t use my wrist at all on my forehand before the camp. (Ben: me neither) By adding it to my loop and open up I immediately added a lot more spin.
- On short balls I would step in early, wait, hit the ball and then step out. This wastes a lot of time and means I need to move too early. Instead I learnt to step in so that my foot would land just as I hit the ball allowing me to immediately push off and out.
- On my backhand I needed to raise my elbow, this meant that the power would naturally flow forwards rather than sideways. A small change to technique but a massive change to the power and spin on the ball
- My shoulders tense up too much (Ben: same for me), I need to have chimpanzee/gorilla shoulders that hang forwards and move from the elbow rather than from the shoulder.
- I often dropped my arm down between shots, I need to keep it in front of me so there is the shortest distance possible between finishing one shot and starting a new one.
- My shots are too big, meaning that I have hardly any time to recover. I need smaller sharper shots.
- I need more aggressive digs. A common theme among a lot of the Danish and Swedish players was they could use a strong aggressive dig very effectively.
- My backhand serve was all from the forearm, by using my body and wrist as well I could get a deceptive amount of spin. By the end of the camps I was winning whole games based on varying the spin on my backspin serve. I’d win a lot of points by my opponent misreading the spin and putting the return in the net.
One of the biggest improvements that we took from the camp was in our attitude towards my training. There was a massive difference between my level of play in practice and during match situations. This is because traditionally you learn technique, footwork, situational tactics from doing lots and lots of regular exercises. But once you’ve mastered how to play table tennis in a regular situation, where you know exactly what is happening next, you’ve got to learn how to do it in irregular settings. It’s a big step that takes a lot of practice. We have a very short time-frame, how can we eliminate the step between practice play and match-play?
After discussing with various coaches and in particular with some good advice from Istvan Moldovan, a world-class table tennis player turned sports psychologist, we decided that from now on all of our practicing would be directly relevant to match-play. For instance, if I wanted to train my backhand open up, instead of just receiving a lot of backspin balls to the backhand. We would start by me doing a short serve and then Ben doing either a short touch or a long push to my backhand. It’s a situation that will often happen in a game so is directly relevant. There is also some decision making needed on my behalf, as I don’t know whether the next ball will be short or long, but the number of options is limited enough that I can focus most of my attention on improving my backhand open up. You can watch some of our latest videos to see how we’ve implemented this philosophy.
So would I recommend B75?
The camp is probably too advanced for a complete beginner but for anyone who has an idea of the fundamentals and really wants to improve it would be ideal. This is equally true if you’re a local league player who has been playing a few years but hasn’t received any formal training, or if you’re number 100 in England and looking to step your game up a level. On top of the high quality of the coaches you’re also constantly surrounded by very good players who are passionate about the game. I reckon that even without the training I would have improved just by the osmosis, watching so many top players all day everyday, seeing the correct technique and learning about the mental challenges and solutions.
It really was an amazing experience and a big thank you to Lars Rokkjaer and Nicolai Cok for organising the camp. Also another special thanks to Per for taking so much of his free time to give me extra training and multiball sessions. Thank you for having us!
Reflecting on Denmark is getting me psyched up again. Bring on the Bristol Grand Prix, the ranking list here I come!