Lily Zhang's 6 Tips For Improving Your Table Tennis Game

Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports

2012 Olympian Lily Zhang will compete in the European professional table tennis league on her way to prepare for the 2016 Olympic trials.

The Rio Olympics are less than a year away, and 19-year-old table tennis ace Lily Zhang is taking a completely different approach to what she hopes will be her second Olympic team.

At 12, Zhang became the youngest player ever to make the U.S. national team. At 14, she was ranked No. 2 in the world for her age. But at 15, she was about to lose her final match of the 2012 Olympic trials. She came from behind, however, to win the game and eventually a berth at the London Olympics during her sophomore year at Palo Alto High School in California.

In London, Zhang was the third-youngest member of the U.S. Olympic team. And while the two younger Americans came home with gold medals (15-year old swimmer Katie Ledecky won the 800-meter freestyle and 16-year-old Kyla Ross helped the "Fierce Five" win the gymnastics team title), Zhang placed 49th in singles and ninth in the team event, as the U.S. failed to win its first Olympic table tennis medal.

Since then, Zhang's competitive resume has grown to include two national titles, a North American championship and a bronze medal at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games. The teenager also co-stars in the table tennis documentary "Topspin," which makes its world theatrical premiere in Pasadena, California, on Aug. 21.

But now, the Stanford math professor's daughter is making a big change. She's putting school on hold. Instead of entering her sophomore year at the University of California Berkeley this fall, she will compete in the European professional league, representing an Austrian club called SVNO Strock. That means more match play against better competition to prepare for the 2016 Olympic trials.

"I'm really excited," Zhang said on a recent trip to New York City -- especially because last year, the rigors of table tennis and college proved to be a tough mix. "It's not an NCAA sport, so [teachers] didn't give a lot of leniency to training or tournament [schedules]. It was really hard trying to get professors to understand."

Now Zhang is free to train four to seven hours a day. And when she does, six habits stand out -- habits you can adopt to reach the top of your game.

AP Photo/Gerry Broome

Wrist curls and lateral-movement drills are part of Lily Zhang's training.

1. Drills

Zhang routinely does four hours of table drills, followed by one hour of serves.

The first drill, she says, has three targets: forehand, middle and backhand. Your coach or partner hits to those three spots -- in that order -- repeatedly. "You use the entire table. It's all about the footwork and repetition and technique, she said. "This is very physical.

"The second drill is usually a bit more random. Your coach or partner might hit to the middle of the table, then a random spot on the table, middle, random, middle, random "so you kind of know where the ball is going, but you're also working on your reaction," she said.

"Or another typical drill is [for your partner] to hit random, and you return only to the backhand."

After that, try to work on strategy, by playing practice matches or points. Then, do serving drills for an hour -- any kind of serve. "You can practice by yourself. You just need a bucket of balls."

2. Footwork

Since table tennis requires so much lateral movement, Zhang said, "We do side-step drills as fast as we can. There are a bunch of tables and you can just side-step around them like a snake. Or you can use those little ladder things on the floor and step in and out, in and out, in and out."

3. Wrist Curls

"There's a lot of wrist action so we do small dumbbell curls. Rest the back of your wrist on a table and curl up. Do five sets of 20 reps, with 2- or 3-pound weights, after practice or whenever you can."

4. Ignore The Score

"I always think of the score as 0-0, even if I'm leading 10-5, or if I'm behind. I do that so I don't get too bogged up in the results. Everything has to be very present. I need to think about the moment so I just repeat zero-zero in my head. Otherwise, every time I'm close to winning, I start thinking about it, I get tight, and I can't play my normal game; I start waiting for my opponent to miss."

When Zhang does finally peek at the score -- on the towel break every six points -- she's often surprised.

"Sometimes I think: Oh, I'm leading that much? Or, I caught up that much? Zero-zero just helps me really stay in the moment."

5. Check The Phone

Since Zhang's club coach rarely comes to her tournaments, he emails her reminders to stay focused and calm, or tips about her opponents' strengths and weaknesses after scouting them on YouTube or on tape.

"So I always have my phone open between matches," she said, "and the [team] coach is always like, 'Stop looking at your phone.'"

6. Run!

"Stamina is an extremely important part of table tennis," she said. "A lot of people think it's just standing there, swinging your arms around. But games can go on for hours, especially if you play choppers. They chop your ball back to you and wait for you to miss. It's a defensive style.

"My coach makes me run at least a half hour a day. I actually hate running," she said. "Then, every month, we have a test to run as far as you can for 12 minutes. I'm really slow."

How slow is a woman who can fire off 70 mph serves that spin about 3,000 revolutions per minute? "This is embarrassing. The last one was five or five 1/2 laps" around a 400-meter track.

"For a year, I haven't been training so much," she said.

Now that school's on hold and the pro tour beckons, she hopes those lap times will fall as quickly as her serves.

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