Table Tennis Reportage: Liu Guoliang with the pressure as a head coach

May 2017
Longgang, Shenzhen
Training Base of the Closed Training for CNT men’s team An uncommon machine malfunction has delayed my trip. I spent 22 hours to come to Shenzhen. Frankly speaking, I wanted to give up for several times during the journey. Yet I have a strong desire to conduct this interview. I would like to take a look of this team. It seems that this table tennis hall has not much changes. However I see the word ‘reform’ in the slogan. It’s a very eye-attracting slogan. In the wave of reform, (we) go through hardship together. In the new quadrennium, The Chinese team will not only win champions but fame, new values and new rankings. If you’re on the right track, then don’t be afraid of the distance. It seems that we can ask for more from the Chinese table tennis team in the next few years. As I have seen from wechat (Chinese social media platform) you said you’ve gained 5.5 kg. I started comparing your tummy who has the biggest. Is this the result of being busy and anxious? When life carry much pressure, being busy and irregular, I gain weight easily. We, ordinary people, think the period before major competitions are times having the most pressure. This year (2017), after the Olympics, should be a year of transitioning. Why is there huge pressure in the transitional year? One reason is that the public has given this team a lot of honor after the Olympics and the team has joined many activities. These have taken us a lot of time. In the past it was a break. After the winter training, the new cycle starts. In the new era, the team rankings shuffle newcomers join the coaching team while some change their post In terms of athletes, we make some plans and adjustments. Therefore, the fist year is quite busy in terms of strategic development. The team faces its first year of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic cycle. Post-Rio, Liu Guoliang has entered his 7th Olympic cycle. From his first Olympics in 1996, to his first Olympics as the head coach in 2004 and Beijing, London, Rio Olympics, the Chinese team sweeps the podium. Coach Liu Guoliang was very excited he led the team to walk away with all the gold medals again after Beijing Olympics. And the team has never missed a champion of every major international meet under the leadership of Liu Guoliang since 2004. 2020 Tokyo Olympics will be his 5th Olympics as a coach. Have you ever felt that you have experienced too many Olympic cycles? And feels that you cannot withstand it anymore? Yes. And this feeling gets stronger and stronger. In the repetition, there is more and more pressure. Happiness and challenges are sometimes getting fewer gradually. I remember in the interviews of the past quads, my words and my thoughts were quite different in each quad. In 2011 you said a classic quote. (2011 interview) What is the pressure of this job? This pressure is a subtle excitement. (2017) The pressure at present is a bit depressing. What do you mean by depressing? Rio Olympics. Before and after Rio. What is the feeling of depressing? In the past when you interviewed me my answer was pressure gave me a sense of excitement and I need to work harder. I feel like I wanted to try. I would wish the challenges come sooner and my value revealed when I succeeded Gradually I feel that I am carrying a heavy burden. On the one hand, its the repetition of his 13 years of coaching career. On the other hand is the pressure from the Chinese expectation that, Team China can only win but not the other way round. Rio Olympics is Liu Guoliang’s first time to lead the team as the head coach. He felt unprecedented immense fear and pressure in Rio. I think the pressure of the Rio Olympics is the biggest among the past 6 Olympics that I participated. In the interviews before and after Rio, Liu Guoliang hinted his thoughts of leaving the post. What would you ask if you have a chance? (2016 interview) Would it be your (Liu Guuoliang’s) last Olympics? You asked straight to the point. Anything is possible. I have participated many Olympics. Others can hardly understand the pressure on my post. (2016 interview) Will this fat guy (Liu Guoliang) sit by the court next year? Frankly speaking, I’m still thinking of it. After Rio, I felt that I won’t be able to interview Liu Guoliang, the head coach. Perhaps Liu Guoliang with another title. I thought you were going to leave. Is this judgement correct? I have been struggling with these thoughts. Have you think of your future career path? My friends, the media and fans have been suggesting my future direction Some said my path would be similar to Cai Zhenhua, (the deputy director of the State General Sports Administration), after being the head coach, then a post in the table tennis center, and then a post in the CTTA (Chinese Table Tennis Association) and gradually I move up the ladder. Actually I do not like to be an official. I do not like to engage in politics. Administration work is not my strength. It’s not my interest. I’m more interested in what I’m capable of, interested in and willing to deal with and can be achieved. March 2017, in the recruitment meeting of the coaching team, Liu Guoliang made his decision. He stepped down as the chief-coach of the men’s team in the Tokyo quad. and continue to be the head coach of the Chinese team. There are many changes after Rio Olympics. The value (meaning) of this post is different from that in the past. What makes you think that you should stay in this post? I think that I’m the type of people who can’t stop working and I feel unsecured. I always think of the future. What’s next and plan for the next step. I love challenges, excitements, taking risks and do something meaningful. At the same time I face the same problems. What kind of problems? I want to retain these splendid achievements. In Rio Olympics, Liu Guoliang led the team to walk away with all 4 gold medals and more importantly the team won fame. The team which netizens joked about as the team of fatty. has made a blast on social media. It always conquers the headline and becomes an online great hit which attracted many fans. Fans of the young age group, which the team used to lack the most, boom rapidly. Table tennis fever has reached its height among the past Olympics. After Rio Olympics, table tennis gets extremely popular. Its popularity and the social reaction are unpredictable. Once said to be the most boring team as it keeps on winning champion repeatedly, it’s now the most popular and most-concerned team. Is this by coincidence or you foresee that? I think we deserve that. Such popularity. Yet I never thought of having it that early, that extreme. We did not feel that in Rio, maybe we did not pay attention to that. When we came back and landed, I was shocked. What’s happening? It’s totally different from when we left. There were drastic changes after Rio. Our team has been working hard over the years. We want to achieve this. Other than winning honor and defending the national glory, we gain society’s recognition and our values. The way to prove our values. This matches us. The support from the public and the more influential of the team, it seems to be the unexpected achievements of the Rio Olympics. Actually since London Olympics, winning champions and promoting the sport are the 2 main jobs of the team. Liu Guoliang led the team numerous times to promote the sport in schools, and train foreign coaches and athletes. and encourage cross-nationality doubles. After the promotional work in 2 Olympic cycles, and create table tennis stars, we see the team full of personalities and emotions in Rio. This popularity poses new challenges to the team. Many concerned that the popularity of the Chinese team would be short-lived after Rio. In the past, people are concerned about the unsustainable great achievements. But to the Chinese table tennis team, people are not worried about the achievements, but its popularity. The value of the team. Yep. I want to prove the team deserves such popularity. It is the start of its popularity. I want to maximize the value of the coaches and the athletes under my leadership. which can support and motivate the tea to do better. If we cannot make good use of the trend, it will be very difficult to have another chance, another platform. We achieve great results like the past and the team has not changed. However the environment has changed. The platform has changed. Therefore the popularity changes. This also implies we are facing much more pressure. Including the athletes. Despite they faced the same pressure in the past, it’s more about fulfilling their own dream. At present, the up side is having more motivations, your value has been proven but you carry more burden. Can Zhang Jike go out easily? Or dine out? Ma Long as well. They either play competitions or stay at their room. It’s not easy to manage a team with such value. There might be some inconvenience and problems which you need to deal with these in an innovative way. So true. I’ve been thinking of that after the Olympics. There are some changes in the team. Their age, their positions and their influential power have changed. It’s impossible to manage the team in the past ways. These are some new challenges. How can we gathered the team’s unity and competitiveness in training and competitions? Other than competitions and training, how are we going to prove their market value and their social values? This benefits the market and society, as well as good for the athletes themselves. Yet to what extent? There are no standard answer. It depends on different people at different positions with different requirements. But if you are not fair, people will make comparison, this is another problem. One-pill-fits-all is too rigid. If you are too flexible, it’s not fair. I think management should adjust according to reality and the needs. Longgang, Shenzhen in May 2017 The same as every WTTC preparation, the team organize a 1-month closed training prior to WTTC. Every main player has 3 sessions of training per day. No exceptions. Liu Guoliang who has stepped down from the chief-coach of men’s team, monitors the training as usual. The difference is the coaching team has some familiar newcomers. The change of the coaching team is a big adjustment. It is bigger than other times. What are the causes of such change? Is it because of a certain defeat? Nope. I think this is inevitable. The team always need newcomers. The change of athletes is more often than that of the coaches. The athletes have subtle replacements. The coaching team also needs that. My position has changed. There are more vacancy for other coaches, the young coaches. There’s a need of refreshing the team. it’s not just about 2020 Olympics, but the 3 Olympic Games following Rio. Ma Lin, Wang Hao, the 2 post-80 Olympic champions has joined the team. They rejuvenate the coaching team. They become the coach of Ma Long and Fan Zhendong respectively. The coach of Ma Lin and Wang Hao, Wu Jingping, was re-invited to coach Xu Xin after his retirement. Liu Guozheng, who used to be the chief-coach of the men’s B team, becomes Zhang Jike’s coach. Liu Heng is responsible for Lin Gaoyuan. The age structure of the current coaching team is much younger. If we do not allow coaches at this age to serve the national team, and provide them such platform, their passion, their motivation, their aspiration and their goal will be hard to release. As Liu Guoliang stepped down, the new coach comes. According to CTTA recruitment regulations, the chief-coach has to meet 3 requirements. The coach himself has won and coached World champion or Olympic champion. and participated World championships or Olympics as a coach. The former world champion, Qin Zhijian who has coached grand-slam player, Ma Long, becomes the only contender of the chief-coach of the men’s team. What are your shortcomings that Qin Zhijian will compensate on? You are very successful but their must be some shortcomings. He is very capable of executing tasks. All I need is to give him some directions, he will do them perfectly. He is persistent, patient. He can get the job done perfectly and patiently. His EQ is high. He cares about the others. I target on the objectives. I focus on the key point but might miss other details. He can take care of every details. From the chief-coach perspective, I should think of balancing and motivating the team. If there are things that I do not understand, I will ask Liu Guoliang. The new chief coach needs time to get used to the post, he needs help tho blend into the team. I told coach Qin that he must pay more attention to Zhang Jike. Even more than Ma Long. But he still get criticism after doing that. If he treats both players the same. That’s it. I think it is inevitable for a chief coach. Some coaches have also switched their posts, such as Xiao Zhan. Once I received the list. I questioned doesn’t Zhang Jike need Xiao Zhan? Or the women’s team needs him more? In the new Olympic cycle, every athlete and coach has his own plan for the new quad. I talked to Xiao Zhan before the Chinese New Year, I asked about his plan in 2020 Olympic cycle. He said he’s not sure. What’s his concern? He’s thinking about the new quad. There are many uncertainties, whether Zhang Jike continues his career. In the past responds, Zhang Jike had a high possibility of not competing. He needs determination to continue. Whether he can go through another 4 years? His body condition, his persistence, his combativeness. And his ability. In Chinese table tennis team, it’s not a must that you can play as you want to play. With so many young players and competitive athletes, no matter Zhang Jike or Ma Long, they have to consider the same problem. Whether they can make to Tokyo Olympics after 4 years of hard work. It’s not the case that they must make to Tokyo Olympics after the 4 years of determination. There is a risk. Therefore the coaches and athletes are thinking of it. Xiao Zhan has told me about his concernm. In the women’s team, Kong Linghui talked to him too. Xiao Zhan has communicated with Kong Linghui many times in the past. Xiao Zhan has the passion and persistence. He will bring the experience and thoughts from the men’s team to the women’s team. I must facilitate coach Kong Linghui after re-positioning to the women’s team. The way of communication in these 20-ish days, frankly speaking, I have not found a good way yet. Arranging the coaching team is an essential job for the head coach. I think in many preparation work especially Xiao Zhan’s re-positioning, you must have talked to Zhang Jike. Is it hard to talk to him? I think it’s okay. Not difficult at all. Once Zhang Jike heard the news, he was not used to it. He didn’t mention anything. As we had experienced that. After I achieved the grand-slam, my coach Yin Xiao, had left the national team. The coaching team is a team. It’s not specially for a particular athlete. If it’s specially for an athlete, you can pick a certain coach for him. This big change, is not just because of one particular athlete. It is for the strategic development of the next few Olympics. Zhang Jike at this stage should be mature enough to manage this. Changes kill the trees but keep people alive. The change is to strengthen the team. So that there is mobility in the team and we can discover those with potential. Whether they can maintain their positions after 4 years. There are a lot of uncertainties. If I did not make changes, I definitely won’t make to 4 years later. I think I get along with the new coach pretty well. I think I get used to this pretty quickly. It is impossible that 1 coach would affect all your things. I think athletes and coaches need communications. You can’t rely on your coaches but yourselves in competitions. The new coaches and athletes arrangements are pushing the team to change. The strategic planning sounds great and is forward-looking. How do you stimulate yourself? I think it’s responsibility. The head coach is the first man to bear the responsibility. There is 1 significant condition to make the team improve. The result. The ability. They represents your say. Would the importance of the 4 gold medals in Tokyo Olympics limit the development of the sport? Maybe. From my strategic planning and thoughts, I think the table tennis team has proved themselves in the past few Olympics. At present, the team has 2 missions, one is to defend national glory, while another one is to promote the sport to the world so that more people can participate and like this sport. From the competitive sport point of view, the more uncertainties, the more attractive the sport is. But as the head coach, if everyone asks me and the team to win 4 gold medals it is hard to move forward. Yet I want to move forward. So it is confusing. 4 gold medals equal to splendid achievements. What if taking 3 out of 4 gold, isn’t that splendid as well? The public might say 3 is good. But if we take 3 can people really satisfy with that? In Rio, the men’s team and men’s singles champion were not secured at all. If we lost the men’s team could we be that influential and valuable? I think the answer is a no for sure. So winning the competitions is still the no.1 goal of the team? Yes In terms of athletes, the team and the coaches, it’s our responsibility. Yet the development of the sport if we are just aiming at champion It’s very easy. Repeat what we did will do. I do not need to bother with these things. I do not need to think of that. I do not need to face these challenges, pressure and criticism. Ups and downs, all sorts of anxiety. On the one hand, is the goal of winning that must be achieved on the other hand is to promote the sport to maximize its value. The new quad, the new mission. Liu Guoliang and his team set new goals under this circumstances. As we ask for reform in sports, then we walk the talk but not leave it as slogan. We make it one step at a time. If we stop when we encounter difficulties, we might make no progress. We need to find ways that suit the development of making sports professional. This is a huge challenge. I want to sustain the popularity of table tennis after Rio. Make improvements on it. And take Tokyo Olympic as the opportunity to change the team. (The new quad, the new missions. Search for the path with Chinese characteristics to professionalized sports.)

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