Two Weeks Training at the Samson Dubina Mega Camp in Ohio
By Larry Hodges
(USATT National Coaching Chairman and USATT Hall of Famer)
So what was I, at age 60 and out of shape, doing training with players one-fifth to one-half my age, including numerous footwork drills that left me gasping for air and my body screaming at me to have common sense and go home and watch TV?
Like many others, I was stuck at home for five months because of the pandemic, where I got way out of shape and gained weight. So I decided to do something about it. (My club, MDTTC, where I coach, was partly open, but all group sessions, including training camps, had been cancelled.) So I contacted Samson and arranged that I'd come as a player in the mornings, a practice partner in the afternoons. That would mean five hours of intense play each day, Aug. 10-14 and 17-21.
Then I hopped in my car and drove the five hours from Maryland to Akron, Ohio and the Samson Dubina TT Academy. It was a great decision, as I got exactly what I needed - two weeks of intensive training, bringing back memories of yesteryear when I regularly trained like this. Working with Samson and Chance Friend, I even improved my backhand loop to where it's better now than when I was at my peak!
The Mega Camp, with 20 tables, was three weeks long, but I'd missed week one. About 2/3 of the players were juniors - but there were others around my age. Each week had a theme:
- Week 1: Foundational strokes and footwork (the week I missed)
- Week 2: Tactics (37 players)
- Week 3: Serve and Receive (32 players)
It was ironic that I was there for the Tactics Week, since I wrote Table Tennis Tactics for Thinkers. But Samson covered the topic very well, often quoting from the book. On the very first day he wrote on the whiteboard the opening to the book: "Tactics isn’t about finding complex strategies to defeat an opponent; tactics is about sifting through all the zillions of possible tactics and finding a few simple ones that work." He also quoted the parts about developing a "tactical toolbox," where you develop various techniques that you can use in a match. The underlying assumption here is that they only work if you are consistent at them - but Samson expanded on that, stressing the importance of consistency or the techniques aren't helpful.
Masks were mandatory outside of the playing courts. There was a temperature check for everyone in the morning - I raised eyebrows because I always have an unusually low temperature, usually around 95, with my lowest at 94.1. I washed my hands with soap several times per day and maintained social distancing as best I could in a camp full of people.
The schedule each day was 10AM-12:30PM, 2:00-4:30PM. Each session started with stretching and easy jogging. Then Samson would give a short talk on the upcoming drills, where he'd stress consistency - sort of a secondary theme throughout the camp. Then we'd go to the tables and do a four-drill warmup. First, it's forehand to forehand, with one player looping or otherwise attacking, and the other blocking. Then the other had his turn. Then we did the same thing on the backhand side. Then we'd move on to other drills, which varied each day. The first week I was there many of the drills focused on tactical play, such as attacking the middle or corners. The second week focused on serve and receive, with a different serve emphasized each day. Between drills Samson would call us together and explain the upcoming drills. I often joined in with comments.
The others my age in the camp had an advantage on me - they were playing lower-rated players, while I was trying to keep up players from 1600 to 2700 in the morning sessions, and 1200 to 2700 in the afternoon sessions, many of them kids who played at cheetah speeds. I was worried my body couldn't take it, and it was often difficult to keep it up at high intensity. However, I had only two semi-minor injury problems. In the first week, I hurt my neck, and had some problems for a day and a half. In week two, I hurt my playing shoulder, and also had to go easy for a day and a half, mostly hitting instead of looping. But both problems eased away, and I was back to normal soon afterwards. One problem I ran into is that, even when I'm exhausted, I'm very consistent, and so some of the rallies go on for a long time, which is even more exhausting! (I kept arguing for a new "50-shot rule," where coaches and practice partners are required to miss after 50 shots. They refused.)
I had some nice practice sessions with lots of players, including some phenomenal rallies with the various practice partners. Often I'd start a session slow, with awkward and tight muscles; then I'd pick up steam and for a while I'd play like a champion; and then I'd tire and my muscles would become rebellious sloths and I'd struggle to keep it up. But I did! Here's video of one of the sessions. If you go to 1:14:25, you can see me blocking to 2700 Kai Zhang as he loops side to side. (I'm standing up too straight. I focused on staying low my second week there.)
The coaches/practice partners varied throughout the three weeks of the camp (including the first week when I wasn't there). Samson Dubina and Chance Friend were there all three weeks. Others that were there included Kai Zhang, Bruno Ventura, Sarah Hazinski, Mark Hendricks, AJ Carney, Maria Bogoeva, Derek May, Seth Pech, Anwen Harris, and Parth Nagpure. As noted, I was also a practice partner in the afternoons. My blocking really came alive during the camp, so I gave many players a nice workout. When it was my turn to drill, sometimes the kids would have to have mercy on me as I tried moving side-to-side at their pace. (It used to be much easier!) I had some vicious sessions with juniors Jacob Boyd, Rignesh Padamanur, Matthew Chamblee, Chester Taylor, Frank Yin, and many others. Other top juniors attending the camps included Sid & Nandan Naresh, and Sarah Jalli.
Besides getting back in shape, I worked a lot on my backhand hitting and looping. I've always tended to block too much on the backhand side (since I was mostly a forehand attacker), and so in many drills I focused on being more aggressive on that side, and it paid off. My backhand hitting got back to where it was decades ago, and my backhand loop improved enormously. I did many drills as a two-winged looper, something I never did in my peak years, where I mostly blocked and hit on the backhand side, with only occasional backhand loops. In my second week, when I began to focus on staying lower - something I physically wasn't ready for in week one - my forehand loop improved quite a bit.
During the lunch breaks I introduced the kids to mini-paddle table tennis - I brought five of them with me from Maryland, all with Tenergy on both sides. I also introduced them to the "Lob Game," where one player lobs, and the others line up, one at a time. If they win two points in a row, they become the lobber, and the lobbers goes to the end of the line. If the smasher loses a point, he goes to the end of the line. The kids had endless energy and never tired of these games. As I've pointed out, the kids who train hard during the sessions and then play hard during breaks are the ones who tend to learn to love the sport and stick with it long-term and become champions.
I stayed at the Red Roof Inn, the official Mega Camp Hotel, for the duration, a bargain at $49/night. It was right next door to a Walmart (which I visited every other day, mostly for snacks and drinks), as well as an IHOP, Denny's, and Applebee's, and numerous other restaurants within half a mile.
I managed to do some sightseeing. On Sunday night before the camp started, I drove 30 minutes north and walked the beaches of Lake Erie, and waded in a bit. That was the fifth and only one of the Great Lakes I'd never visited. We had the Saturday and Sunday between the weeks off, so I visited the Akron Zoo, and did a lot of reading and writing.
It was a great camp, and a great thanks goes to Samson and the other coaches/practice partners, and to all the players and extremely friendly locals. Samson has more "Mega Camps" coming up. Here's his Samson's Thank You Page, with more camp info and videos. As Samson wrote me about the camps, "Each of the Ohio Mega Camps coming up have a different theme. Throughout the 25 hours of training, each of the various drills links back to the main topic of the week. Some of his upcoming camps include match tactics, rallying tactics, foundational strokes, footwork, short game, serve variations, serve return variations, short game, and tournament preparation camps.