Foreigners benefit from nation's table tennis expertise

By Lin Shujuan (China Daily) 13:47, November 24, 2023

Former Olympic and world champion Zhang Yining coaches students at Shanghai University of Sport's China Table Tennis College. GAO ERQIANG/CHINA DAILY

Shanghai college at the forefront of coaching efforts

For the past five years, Geoffrey Loi has been living his dream of being coached by his sports idol.

Loi, 23, a keen table tennis player from Papua New Guinea, has been under the watchful eye of Olympic and world champion Zhang Yining at Shanghai University of Sport's China Table Tennis College, or CTTC.

Jointly established by China's General Administration of Sport and the Shanghai Municipal Government in 2010, the CTTC is the only sports college in the world to focus on table tennis by emphasizing training, teaching and scientific research.

In November 2018, the college set up a training center in Papua New Guinea. To mark its establishment, Grand Slam winner Zhang and world champion Shi Zhihao visited the center to coach local players. During the visit, Loi, a player on the Papua New Guinea national team, had his first in-person meeting with Zhang.

Loi, who started to play table tennis as an 8-year-old in 2008, when Zhang was in her prime sweeping gold medals at the Beijing Olympics, said he grew up watching videos of Zhang and her national teammates playing the sport.

"I liked the way she played, and was inspired by her skills and technique. Everything she did was just wonderful," he said.

Loi added that he was so nervous during his first encounter with Zhang, that he struggled to show how he played. Zhang recalls Loi being shy on the occasion, but she saw that he had a passion for table tennis and was eager to improve his game.


Zhang coaches Geoffrey Loi, a player from Papua New Guinea. GAO ERQIANG/CHINA DAILY

Soon after this encounter, Loi and his teammates visited the CTTC in Shanghai to receive training as part of their preparations for the Pacific Games in 2019, at which the Papua New Guinea table tennis team won two silver medals, the best result to date in its history.

Since then, Loi has continued to travel to the Shanghai college to be trained by Zhang and several other former world champions. In the past five years, his world ranking has risen from below 600 to about 160th.

"I'm lucky to be trained by the Chinese champions," said Loi, who is not the only foreigner to be given such an opportunity.

Regular visitor

Layan Neumann, a professional table tennis player from Mexico, has also been a regular visitor to the Shanghai center, where training sessions are taken by world and national champions such as Yan Sen and Feng Zhe, and Chen Bing, deputy dean of the CTTC and coach to world champion Ding Ning, among others.

Neumann, 23, who lives in Mexico City, had longed to come to China, where table tennis is the national sport, since he was 14, when he experienced his first major defeat — by an 11-year-old Chinese girl.

"She looked so young, and her height barely reached my shoulder," he said.

Despite being a frequent winner at international tournaments, Neumann received the same advice every time he lost: "You should go to China!"

When international borders reopened after the COVID-19 pandemic, he seized the first opportunity he could to travel to the country.

He practices three to four days a week at the CTTC, mostly with the 20 or so school-age players at the institution, who come from across the country and are aiming to excel at the sport.

Most of them are about the same age as the Chinese girl who defeated Neumann nine years ago, but some are even younger — the youngest is still 6.


Layan Neumann (right), a player from Mexico, Wang Tianrui (center), a player from Nantong, Jiangsu province, and a fellow student listen to instructions from Zhang. GAO ERQIANG/CHINA DAILY

However, Neumann said he has nothing to complain about.

"I've learned more from the young kids than from older, experienced players. It's really helpful to see how the coach teaches these kids and helps them practice new skills," he said.

"It is no exaggeration to say that three minutes' advice from a coach on a certain skill can save me two years of practice time," he said.

The college training camp is also open to international students such as Kristof Taubert, who is studying for a master's in sport, business and law at the University of Bayreuth in Germany.

Taubert is also undertaking a six-month exchange program at Shanghai University. He was introduced to the training program at the CTTC by his coach on a basic table tennis course at Shanghai University.

Training with the young CTTC players twice a week, Taubert said: "The training is very professional. We train longer and harder in Shanghai than back in Germany, which is very motivating for me."

Talent cultivation

Shi, citing a quote from the sport's legendary player Liu Guoliang after Liu's appointment as World Table Tennis Council chair in 2020, said, "Chinese table tennis is shared with the world." Shi, a former head coach of the Chinese women's national team, has been dean of the CTTC since 2012.

When the college was established, its main aim was to cultivate talent for competitive table tennis and promote Chinese table tennis overseas, Shi said.

"Chinese table tennis has a good tradition of facilitating international exchanges. For example, Ping-Pong Diplomacy contributed to the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States in 1972. We consider it a responsibility to carry forward this fine tradition of ours," Shi added.


A training session is held at the college. GAO ERQIANG/CHINA DAILY

The college has explored many forms of cooperation over the past 13 years. It has established a European branch in Luxembourg, a training center in Croatia, and another in Papua New Guinea. Each year, the college's Shanghai base also receives about 200 foreign players for training.

Shi said Chinese table tennis extends beyond the sports excellence to the reasons behind this high level of ability.

"While table tennis was invented by the British, it is the Chinese who have been playing it so well, so there must be some element of Chinese culture in the sport," Shi said.

Cultural factors may influence the different ways in which Asian and Western players hold a table tennis bat. Most Western players prefer the handshake grip, but find the pen-holding style challenging, while many Asian players find the latter grip more natural, he added.

"We consider the use of chopsticks as a possible reason for this," Shi said.

Neumann's eyes lit up when he heard Shi's explanation.

The Mexican player, who learned to use chopsticks during his early childhood in Japan, has long wondered why — much to the astonishment of most of his peers and coaches in Mexico — he prefers the pen-holding grip.

Shi said that above all, Chinese table tennis is focused on innovation, which is key to sustaining the continued excellence of the national sport.

Although Neumann has trained at the CTTC for only four months, he said he is most impressed by the team unity of the key young players at the college, which has resulted in collective excellence and innovation. He has previously traveled to many countries for training, including Germany, Japan and the United States.


Kristof Taubert from Germany trains at the college. GAO ERQIANG/CHINA DAILY

Training camp

The young players Neumann and Taubert train with are members of the training camp that the CTTC runs for aspiring young hopefuls from across the country. While they continue their education in nearby primary or secondary schools, they spend four hours training at the college after school.

Wang Tianrui, 12, who moved from his hometown of Nantong, Jiangsu province, to live with his grandparents in a rented apartment in Shanghai, said: "I won three championships in my hometown last year, but suddenly felt it was no longer fun to win any more matches in Nantong. In Shanghai, the level of competition is much higher and the training is far more efficient."

He and his teammates have regular matches with Neumann, who doesn't always win.

Neumann said: "The young players are very competitive, focused, and always willing to improve. They sometimes fight with each other, but in the end they're family. They strive to improve together, and the best eventually emerge. This also explains why China is always producing something new.

"This kind of team unity and collective benefits do not exist back in Mexico, or in Europe, where more emphasis is placed on self effort and individual achievement."

Neumann said he sometimes envies the opportunity the young players have at the CTTC.

"They have the talent, the coaches, and do the hard work. You can't beat a team like that," he said.

He added that he originally planned to stay in China for a few months and then secure a contract with a European club. However, he has now decided to remain for at least three to four years — maybe more — because while he is improving his table tennis skills, he has also become so attracted to Chinese culture that he is reluctant to leave.

Zhang, the sport's dominant female player throughout the 2000s, has served as assistant dean of the CTTC since the college was established. She said she relishes the opportunity to share her expertise with table tennis enthusiasts from across the world.

In recent decades, Zhang has focused on the CTTC's international exchanges by coaching players such as Loi, from Papua New Guinea, and his teammates, who attend the college and its overseas branches for training.

"Even though I've been retired for years, I'm delighted to still play a part in the development of table tennis careers," Zhang said.

Shi, the dean, said: "It is not only the good results we've achieved that have given me so much pride as a table tennis professional. It is also the fact that table tennis has made great contributions to Chinese diplomacy and people-to-people exchanges with other countries and regions."

(Web editor: Tian Yi, Liang Jun)


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