The End of the Beginning

Submitted by stephen on Sat, 12/10/2011 - 11:35

       “Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world.”


When I first migrated to the United States thirty years ago I worked as a furniture mover for six months to get by. Opportunity knocked when I answered an ad in the Los Angeles Times offering $30 for an A grade tennis player to fill in for a doubles match. I had been a highly-trained prospect as a teenager but I had not picked up a racket in a decade. With just a little trepidation I borrowed a pair of white shorts and a friend’s racket, and arrived at a billionaire’s mansion in Brentwood prepared to perpetrate a great fraud.

It’s amazing what muscle memory can do! Apparently I actually still resembled someone who could play tennis adequately. At the end of the match, a little stunned that I’d gotten away with my ruse, I awaited my $30. My gracious host paid me and asked if I coached professionally. I was tongue-tied for a moment but then thought to myself, “This is Hollywood!”

I spun my racket confidently and smiled. “Sure I coach.”

“Well, we’d like to hire you.”

What a ruse I had pulled! I had a job which paid better than furniture moving and hurt a lot less. I became tennis pro to the ultra-wealthy, imitating a tennis coach in much the same spirit that I had imitated a great player: Some strokes, a little footwork, a few strategies–people bought it. I felt like the great imposter, Frank Abagnale Jr. mimicking an airline pilot or a surgeon. My clientele expanded and within a year I was offered a full-time coaching position at the Masters on Maui.

“Is that all there is to being a coach?”I wondered. Maybe I wasn’t really a fraud? I had been a good player with fine training. Maybe that was all it took. But spending my life plodding up and down on a tennis court schmoozing with movie stars held no real appeal for me. I refused the job on Maui and soon quit coaching completely. I used my earnings to establish myself in the field of my professional interest–no, not furniture moving–I am a sculptor.  


Decades later, once again searching for the joy of competitive sport, but in a much older body, I took up the game of table tennis. Seeking improvement, the mentors I found were people much like I had been in tennis, able players past their prime, willing to share some insights. I improved quickly but then plateaued at a moderate level. The complexity of the sport was overwhelming. It didn’t seem to matter how much I practiced, I just could not improve.

There were strokes, footwork, and a certain amount of strategy, just like with tennis. But the effect of spin on the light ball and frictional rubber surface of the racket, plus the speed of the game within close quarters created complicating variables that drove me to distraction. In every complex field of endeavor we search for principles hoping to find that elusive Theory of Everything (TOE).

What might the equivalent of a General Theory of Relativity look like for ping pong?

The ideas people shared were simplistic: “Enough spin will overcome everything!” or “If you don’t miss the last shot you’ll never lose!” or “More drills, more practice!” or even better, “Don’t think so much and your play will improve!”

Each imperative matched the style of the advisor. Each piece of advice opened one door but closed another. The game remained an impenetrable web to me. Understanding failed to emerge. When beginners asked me for guidance I was reluctant to speak. It had become clear to me that pretending to be a table tennis coach was much harder than pretending to be a tennis coach!

Then I stumbled upon the book PATT–A Principles Approach to Table Tennis. I was intrigued. So here was an author who contended that his 523 page book described the underlying principles to the game. I struggled through definitions and concepts and began to develop a sense of place within a complex world of moving parts.

Over the ensuing year the puzzle of table tennis began to unravel. Like a chaotic equation, multiple variables were isolated and recombined into deterministic patterns. The complexity of the game retained its transcendent capacity to create unexpected, novel circumstances, but the principles began to predict lucid explanations for outcomes.

Applying the principles, my play began to improve. I started to understand the limitations that had plagued the effort of trying to “invent” the game without guiding principles. I communicated with author Donn Olsen, and he offered guidance in understanding and applying the principles to the mechanics of play.

As the principles of physics both explain and predict the cycling of the planets, so my improvement and the lack of improvement in players around me began to make a greater sense. Donn began to train me as a coach. When applied to coaching, the principles resulted in rapid improvement in performance of players despite my own lack of experience and hands-on training.

After two years, several hundred detailed emails, practice on and off the court, plus multiple video analyses, I have finally arrived at the very beginning of an understanding of how a person might coach in this amazing sport.

I once played the part of tennis teacher. Everyone looks for the comfort of an accomplished guide–someone with good stories, some footwork and a few drills–but great coaching is measured in player improvement and true improvement in this sport springs from principles. The ability to create real change, like Archimedes said requires “a place to stand and a lever.”

Thanks for the leverage, Donn.