In The Valley Below

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Welcome to Silicon Valley, California, USA.  It is here that the future of human behavior is shaped. Home to almost ten million people living their busy lives around the Bay – working – studying -spending -rushing and exploring this place comes up as GO – GO and GO most of the time  . However there is a natural beauty all around, beautiful hills perfect for hiking and other adventures . The only problem you may have is to find the time to enjoy it.

Not more than a stone throw from my hotel here in Fremont, California, you will find the TESLA factory producing the new wonders to the world; Electric cars, faster, better and more loaded than you can imagine.  Then you have the IT search technology looking to find you, me and everything. It also origins from here. Software giants like Oracle or Facebook has made it a mission to keep track of people’s habits.  Put something out there on the internet and screens will start too lit up all over North America to monitor bad wording about brands and products. Tracking opinions – mapping it all out, this is the new world of social media technology, quietly doing things very far from what we ever believed was possible to do.

I first came to the Bay Area in the year 2004 to meet up with Anne Cribbs and Dennis Davis. Dennis had at the first world junior championships in Chile 2003, mumbled something at the dinner table along the lines of “This is nothing. We can do this event in the Bay area”

Spurred I guess by the ever present  Go for it mentality  existing in this part of the world  , Dennis went ahead and in Shanghai 2005,  we had a USA bid for the world junior championships , to be held at one of the most decorated places in the world ; the   Stanford university presented and approved.

stanfordThe rest is history. If you want to relive the days at Stanford, by all means go to the event website that still is very much alive. A very good read is actually the official program that you will find here http://www.ittf.com/juniors/2007/wjttc_Palo_Alto/WJTTC_WEB_small.pdf

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Hard to believe that eight years have passed since the 2007 World Juniors.  What is clear however is that seeds planted back then, now are not only growing but also developing into fine healthy plants? We thought that our sport could grow, strive in the Bay area. We believed that the demographics were right – huge blend of people with kids growing up to pick up not only traditional sports, but also non-American sporting habits.

Let me tell you that we – the drivers of those ideas also were bang on. Today you have Table Tennis clubs opening almost by the minute in the USA as a general reference and especially here in the Bay area that suddenly harbours more full time clubs than the market most likely can take. 

The positive part of all this is of course to have young kids attracted to the sport.  How rewarding is it not to interact with some of the twelve year old talents attending the CTTC training camp that I represent this time. They have an appetite for our sport and are looking for every opportunity to squeeze in extra hours of play. Parents are alive and present. Often eager to learn about the sport and its dynamics, steadily evaluating both progress and the cost of progress – the latter part often intimately connected with private coaching offered by the hour.  All over the USA – but specifically here, in the hot bed of table tennis, you will have to cough up anything from 35 to 85 dollars per hour for private coaching done by various types of individuals.

Some with a great track-record of coaching, even internationally decorated like the ICC Head coach Massimo Constantini and the WCTTA group lead by master coach  Li Zhenshi and the USA National coach  Stefan Feth.

Others ,let’s label them more players that works as coaches, mostly from China ,  may charge less in a more private sparring style  of setting  . Success right there will depend on motivation and the intensity provided from both sides. Player’s willingness to work hard is still the determining factor and the coaching mentality, if the focus is there can help of course. Best is if the coaches can understand the importance of international success and opportunities. Very often however this is not always the case and with that the model of work so present in the Bay area must be questioned from an athlete’s development point of view. Private coaching will take you thus far – but never all the way to international success.

Fourteen year old Kanak JHA fighting face.

Fourteen year old Kanak JHA fighting face.

Another interesting and like-able part of the whole development process is the ongoing step by step rise of US players internationally.  Suddenly the small ICC kids are training side by side with athletes that actually are starting to put US Table Tennis on the world map with real results – winning events and medals. Well you have to admit that we are actually developing players that can have success even at well attended international events these days.   said coach Massimo when we were in Sweden together to follow the action at the Safir International event.  Rightly so, and I think it can even get better than that should the system somehow refine itself.  Because in my mind icebreaking success always include  a different set of priorities – people searching and finding new ways as they go along with pursuing their mission and dreams.

In many ways our sport is so fitting for the mentality that most people have   in the Bay Area.  We are a sport best lived – best viewed – best experienced with INTENSITY, the very same attribute that quickly surrounds you in the Silicon Valley. Highly educated people – living and working in a competitive environment where opportunities better are taken before someone else snitches it away right in front of your nose. Most of the parents involved not only in Table Tennis, but any other sport as well will do whatever it takes to provide their children with a meaningful, healthy activity. At the same time they are looking for instant results – they want to see return of invested time and efforts and are not afraid of asking questions. What if the grass indeed is greener on the other side?

Overall this creates a high pressure environment for coaches who on a daily basis will have to deliver – especially leading up to the USATT trials happening nowadays two times per year with the US Open providing the opportunity to make up for any lack of success at the USA Nationals held in December each year .

LilyThose competitive elements – the USA National team trials in particular drives the high performance part of USA Table Tennis. Not much creativity – nor developing work is invested into national team programs. No, it’s more like this is the planning and we stick with that. You could say that in a sense that things are improving for USA Table Tennis. Small steps, some success here and there with key players like Lily Zhang and Kanak JHA is kind of driving the hope for long term international success.

Lily, like many of her national team players will consider one year off from the taxing college studies to try for the Olympics. It will not be an easy ride for her – but supported by the many hours she logged as a very young player, Lily can swing herself into form and confident mood like very few others. Other players in the mix will most likely also make an effort to be in Rio.  So – if you want some drama to go along with the daily routines – by all means consider the USA Olympic trials as one of your calendar stops early 2016.

If Lily will face some tough opposition Kanak JHA is on the other hand, in my humble opinion the real deal.  Watching him practice is always a treat for any coach that instantly will commit time and advice for a player willing to work hard. There are plenty of things that the soon to be fifteen years old youngster from Milpitas should learn about this game to be successful with  his newly adopted  mission to become a “top 20 player in the world”  – and..Why not go all the way Kanak? Dreams cost nothing you know.

Game awareness is nr one.. What happens out there in tight situations is important to understand and learn. All great players do more than spectacular shot making.. They play smart – tight and serve if not always perfect, at least with a tactical purpose.  You have to make yourself hard to play against. Although I do love that relentless style of play that you represent when your head is right – you need to have a sharp service and the necessary toughness to succeed.  The combination of respect for the game and true solid self-confidence is another fine alley to explore. Talk about others and their skills – but put yourself into the mix as well.  To carry the flame for USA Table Tennis all alone will be tough. Expectations from a loyal underground style of fan base will be there – but better sail above the clouds for that one – USA Nationals is what it is.. A very unique playground much unlike anything in the world of table tennis. Important is – to lift yourself above that and enjoy the many opportunities that will come your way.

As we go along with the Zhang Yining branded training camp at the ICC  – people and players kind of come and go . Is it a great success for either party – the CTTC or the ICC ? – Perhaps not !? But still what we are achieving here is to create a solid opportunity for young players to log the necessary volume of play just some three weeks prior to the world championships.  I am sure that the top players will benefit. We have also shown that the outside world is kind of watching with interest to get involved. This should lift the standards and add pressure to a situation that by all means cannot only be by the $$$ made available for private coaches.

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When I take one free morning to enjoy the surrounding impressive hills,   I catch myself thinking overlooking the valley below – is all the talk of rapid growth of Table Tennis for real ? ?  The other day I did interact with some of the guys belonging to the core group of everyday adult open players as most people call them. In fact this is the group that for so many years fought for a decent place to play. These days you could say that they are in the driver’s seat with new clubs throwing good offers to come and play.

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For 160- to 200 dollars per year you will get them to sign a membership to come to your club. Incredible cheap if you ask me. If you are a deep pocket parent you will not get more than four private lessons for that price  …” You know – the really cost us money said Rajul Seth at the ICC. It’s very hard to move that group really – even asking five dollars of increase you will get a hard time.

IMG_1770I wish the ICC and Rajul good luck with that challenge .It seems however that the business can grow if more adult players takes a liking to our sport.  Improvements are needed also for the competition and league play part . It seems to me that the adult’s leagues – corporate events are somehow underdeveloped .The new ICC state of the art facility with more than twenty tables does provide some opportunities for growth. But the direction – the dynamics offered, present philosophy is another story.  As an organization, ICC also has to develop and find new ways to conduct business.  International programs with solid partners could be one way to go. Clearly the players need the outside world – the same goes for the coaches by the way. Isolation is not good – and if you do happen to live 11 hours flight from any decent powers of Table Tennis you are under scrutiny.

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Lots of stuff that goes around in the Table Tennis intense Tri city area starts and ends with the ICC. Anyone is of course entitled to their own opinion about the Indian Community Center and I do respect that.  What is to be understood is that the ICC is the root of mostly good stuff. They have opened the doors for seven straight years for young kids to get involved. 1800 kids pass by during the summer period. Many come back for private lessons when the fall comes – others may go to different clubs and the seeds are then spread.  The problem for the ICC is to avoid getting burned in both ends. It is a tough challenge to provide services for all types of players – young kids, progressing talents and elite level players.. This is the true cold fact – not only in the Bay area but also all over the world.

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