Disclaimer: As you read this post, it may seem like I’m receiving a financial benefit from the retailers mentioned. But I’m not. The following details are true. You are advised to do research before doing business with any retailer mentioned here.
You know, over the 3 or 4 years I’ve played table tennis in a serious way, I’ve spent tons of money on paddles. When I first started getting serious, I spent about $40 on 1 combo paddle. A few months later I spent another $50 on another paddle. And then my coach told me there’s better rubber out there. But I didn’t know where to look. In this post I discuss two retailers from which you can buy high-end table tennis equipment.
Paddle Palace website
One day I saw that my coach had many extra catalogs from a well-known table tennis retailer: Paddle Palace. So through them I bought my first pro-style racket. It was an all-around blade with control-type rubber, where the back-hand was slower than the forehand. And it was expensive. About $130. Then the rubber got worn out, and I bought more. That was another $80 or more just for 2 rubbers. Then I decided I needed different rubber. I was experimenting with the ideal combination for my style. Eventually I bought another blade – with carbon layers.
After a few years I got smart. Why buy new rubber so often? So I did research and bought two rubbers reputed to last 6 months or more with extremely heavy club use. The renanos and the acuda s3, both very fast rubbers. But they were still very expensive, about $40+ for each. Many people told me paddle Palace has a good selection – adn they do – but that they are expensive. Some of my table tennis collegues kept showing me the cheap Chinese rubber. One day I tried a guy’s paddle, which was the exact blade I used but with LKT Pro, a cheap rubber that’s slower and so offers good control of the ball. I liked it. So I went on Table Tennis DB to do research, as that website has links to retailers that sell specific rubbers.
Mega Spin website
That’s when I decided to try out another retailer, Mega Spin. They have a wide selection of popular Chinese rubbers as well as European manufacturers. I learned that if Paddle Palace doesn’t have it, Mega Spin probably does. And the Chinese rubbers are much cheaper but are still high-quality.
I wanted to mention that Mega Spin provided great customer service. The short story is that the company sent me the wrong product. Needless to say I was very pissed off. So I sent an email and within just a few hours I got a response. I even got a follow-up email from the representative and company owner letting me know that the correct product was being mailed and to contact them via email if I had further problems. The representative apologized and took steps to fix their mistake. I received the correct product one week later.
Mega Spin really went the extra mile to please me, to the point of pretty much losing money on me. I was happy with the resolution, and I’ll buy more products from them in the future.
Those are the only two online retailers from which I’ve bought table tennis equipment. In terms of shoes, I recommend buying from Zappos or at a brick & mortor store. Don’t buy table tennis-specific shoes, as they are over priced, and only if you’re at 2000+ rating should you even consider table tennis shoes. Even then, I saw a 2200 player with the shoes that I bought. He beat everyone he played. They’re actually volleyball court shoes made by Asics, for about $65. And they’re much cheaper while offering the same benefits as $100 table tennis shoes.
My sports shirts and shorts I bought at TJ Maxx. No reason spending tons of money on clothing when you can buy it on the cheap at discount stores, while getting the same benefit (staying cool and dry).
That’s about all I have to say about where to buy table tennis equipment.
The next post will address a question my friend asked recently. I had been talking about the benefits of table tennis, and she asked, “Presumably you can get those same benefits in other sports and activities. So, why table tennis?” That’s a very good question, and I’ve got an answer. Stay tuned.
There’s a debate in the table tennis world about whether the equipment you have matters. Does higher quality equipment improve your game? More often than not, the debate centers around the type of rubber you have on the table tennis racket, or blade. Unfortunately, manufacturers don’t make comparison easy. In this post I argue that rubber and blade types do matter, but only to a point.
In previous posts it may have seemed that I put my coach up on a pedestal. But while I have a great amount of respect for him, I don’t agree with everything he has told me. One of the key “lessons” in our conversations have been about rubber type. After asking him what kind of blade and rubber I should buy, he said the following:
IT DOESN’T MATTER. What matters is that you have a consistent technique that puts the ball over the net in the way that you intended. You can do that with any blade and rubber. Don’t concern yourself with spending hundreds of dollars on a lightning-fast racket. Instead, work on your strokes. What do you think? That your favorite champion Michael Maze can’t hit the ball like a champion with a $5 racket? Ma Long and Ma Lin can’t hit the ball with extreme top-spin with a $5 racket? They can’t hit the ball fast with a $1 racket? [I nod yes, and comment that they can't play well with cheap rackets.] You’re wrong! They can beat anyone in here or anywhere with $5 rackets if they had to. The key is in their consistent strokes, not in the rubbers and blades they use.
These manufacturers fool people into believing that it matters. They make you believe that this rubber has the qualities of a super hero. There are blades that are supposedly made with “musical” charateristics, made with the same wood as strativari violins! HAHAHAHAHA. AND PEOPLE BELIEVE IT!
And he’s mostly right. Consumers think one blade is better than another because of the nano technology. Or that a rubber has the advantage of “PureGripIT” or secret spy technology. Rubbers have names like “Evolution” or “bluefire” or “nanospin.” Others have “Active Charge” technology; an “ACS system” (Stiga); “active-tuning” technology. Product names have descriptors like “Big Slam” (Donic), “spinspiel” (Juic), “phantom infinity” (Yasaka). There are rubbers with “second generation high tension technology” (see Butterfly Sriver G2).
In other words, manufacturers make you believe that you’ll be a world champion if you buy their products. They make you feel like you’re buying a Ferrari rather than a Toyota Corolla. But be careful. These companies know what they’re doing – they’re using classic marketing tactics. They’re not making millions by saying you’re buying “basic” rubber. Who would buy basic rubber? No, we want to be superman or superwoman. We want to dominate.
The Hardcore Truth
My implied criticism of manufacturers begs the same question. Does it matter? I mean, if your game is better because you use the latest superman rubber, why not describe the rubbers the way they do? The answer is that the rubber and the blade don’t make a good player.
However, recall that I began this discussion by saying that I don’t agree with everything my coach says. So, why would I lend his argument credence? Well, when he said that the blade and rubber don’t matter, he was only half correct.
It is true that consistency trumps everything else. There are “hardbat” players that literally buy sandpaper at Home Depot and put that on their rackets, and wind up beating good players with expensive, fast rubber. Why? Because they’re more consistent. It does you no good to buy expensive rubber if you can’t control the ball. The ball may go fast, but that doesn’t matter if you can’t get it to land on the other side of the net. Just watch the slow-mo video below of Chinese female player Ding Ning play. Certainly she plays with speed. But she’s also deadly precise and consistent. She has extreme control of the ball.
I remember a couple months ago four muscular, white, young, cocky Russian guys walked into the club to play table tennis. They didn’t bring their own rackets (the first indication they’re amateurs…You don’t go to a table tennis club without the proper equipment!). So, they asked to borrow rackets. I found one in the storage room and gave it to one of them. He complained.
“This is it?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“Do you have one with thick and smooth rubber? Like really thick? I don’t like this one.”
“I don’t know,” I answered. “This is all I found. You’ll have to talk to the coach.”
Long story short, the coach gave all four of them rackets with very fast rubber. They were happy. But when I watched them play, I could tell immediately that they didn’t know how to deal with those rackets. Most of their shots went clear across the other side of the table without bouncing on the table. They overshot almost every shot. Amateurs are obvious. They would’ve played better with the cheap $5 racket. But no, they had to feel like superman and have lightning-fast rubber.
To contradict myself, while clearly it’s better to have a consistent stroke, equipment does matter. Think about it. We as humans have evolved as the dominant species on this planet, not because we’re strong, or fast, or nimble, and not because we have much of any advantage over any kind of other mammal. Caught in the middle of the African wilderness, some of the smaller, weaker animals can easily overcome us and have us for lunch. But put a gun in our hand, or a spear, or a knife, and instantly we become monsters that can easily outsmart and out-gun a lion, or a grizzly bear. We evolved because we make tools. Weapons are merely tools that allowed us to survive in the worst of environments. We have other tools. Hammers, computers, shovels, big gas-powered machines to dig huge underground mines, etc. etc.
Let’s look at this another way. If you wanted to hammer a small nail, say, 2 inches in length, into a wooden joist in your house, you’d use an average one-pound contractors hammer. But if you wanted to hammer in a large, thick ten-inch nail into pressure-treated wood for building a retaining wall, you couldn’t use a one-pound hammer. You’d use a heavier hammer, say, three-pounds. Occasionally you’d use a big sledge hammer if things got tough.
Same thing in table tennis. The rubber you use depends on your style and on how you want to hit the ball. If you want speed, and can control the ball, you wouldn’t buy a rubber designed for control. If you wanted a spinny rubber, you wouldn’t necessarily be concerned with speed. If you want a control rubber, you’d stay away from speed rubber. Similarly, if you want to hammer a quarter-inch tack nail, you would stay away from three-pound hammers. You see where I’m going with this?
So, do pay attention to arc angles, speed and the other characteristics. A high arc, fast rubber is best used away from the table, or if you have very good technique and consistency in terms of top-spin. If you know you overshoot the table, getting a rubber with high arc is not a good idea. I should know. I had one and lost my matches because of it. I thought I’d be superman. But if you know that you generally hit the ball into the net, getting a rubber with high arc characteristics might be a good idea.
Generally speaking, you should leave the fastest rubbers and blades to the professionals. Why buy a tenergy $80 rubber if you’re only rated at 1500? (With that said, I recently met a 14-yr old rated at 2200 who had Tenergy 05, one of the fastest and highest-quality rubbers on the market. But he knew how to control the ball.) It’s like those YouTube videos of rich guys who buy fancy sports cars. They want to feel like superman. So, you see them peel out when the light turns green, and what happens? You guessed it. They crash the $300k car. They make fools of themselves. They want the speed but don’t know how to control it. Same thing with table tennis. Why spend $200 on a racket if a 1300 player will kill your game? Yes, I should know. I have a carbon blade that I bought with fast rubber, and I lost every game I played. So I went back to my “control” blade and slightly slower rubber. I have since started winning games. But the rubber is still too fast to control. So I’ve recently bought an even slower rubber.
If you’re a player to about 1300 rating, don’t worry too much about the kind of rubber you get. Just make sure it’s not the fastest rubber on the market. If you have the technique and build consistency, you can derive speed from ANY rubber. I should know. I’ve hit the ball at very high speeds with very “slow” rubber.
I once put my coach to the test. I gave him a cheap blade to use, challenging him to play with it and win. He said, “No problem.” He kept the ball on the table. I could tell he changed his style somewhat. He became more defensive. By the end of the day, guess what…He no longer was using the racket! I caught him going back to his own racket.
So equipment does matter. But the other half of this test raised a different issue. It’s not so much that equipment matters per se for my coach. It merely that he wasn’t used to the racket I gave him. He liked his racket and his rubber. It’s like a musician. I play the charango. Sometimes I get the opportunity to play other charangos. One day I played one that was obviously better than mine. Not that much better, but definitely built better – more refined, even a better “raw” sound. Still, I didn’t like it. Though it was better than mine, I wasn’t used to it. The sound was different and I didn’t know how to bring out the subtleties. The strings had a different tension on them. The neck was wider. The sound didn’t reach my ears in the same way. I often feel the same about my house. I’ve walked into plenty of homes that were bigger, more modern, and much better-built than mine. But immediately the thought in my mind is, “I wouldn’t trade this house for mine. Mine is more cozy.” It’s not that it’s more cozy, it’s that my house has my own sweat literally soaked into some of the wood. Blood, sweat, and literally tears I’ve shed in my house. Why would I trade it for a stranger’s house?
In summary, don’t fall into the trap that the manufacturers set in their marketing. Their table tennis products won’t make you fly without wings like superman. First you must develop your wings, like a bird. Open your wings to the winds and warm-air updrafts. Exercise them. Flap them. Develop your muscle systems. Develop the mental attitude necessary to fly. (You think birds let fear take over the first time they fly?) Then fly. Make mistakes. Correct your mistakes. Lose the 500 games you’ll lose before you win that one match against an amateur who doesn’t know what he’s doing. Then lose 500 more games, and develop the experience you’ll need to beat someone who knows what he’s doing. And then lose 500 more games. Only then will you have the wherewithal to buy a rubber suited for your style.
Why don’t companies come up with some kind of industry standard that measures characteristics of blades (the actual racket without the rubber) and rubber? The simple answer is: to sell product.
Entire websites and YouTube videos abound with analyses and reviews of racket rubbers. But my favorite website is Table Tennis DB. The “DB” stands for “database,” as far as I understand it. I like it because it’s a database of blades and rubbers with reviews from actual players. Most of the reviews are brutally honest. If a rubber stinks, it’ll be obvious from the reviews. What I also like is that often the reviewers will state their specific style, and even compare rubbers of one brand with other brands. So if you’re familiar with a particular rubber, often you’ll notice someone will say, “BLANK rubber is similar to BLANK rubber, but slower,” or something similar to that. That gives you a very good idea of the quality of their reviews. See for instance the rubbers with the highest overall player ratings. Keep in mind these aren’t the manufacturers writing superman descriptions. These are plain-of-the-mill club and tournament players giving their opinions.
In the last post I talked about how confidence in table tennis can transfer to confidence in every day life. This post will discuss further benefits I’ve received from the game, as well as a cautionary tale.
Ups & Downs
As with anything in life, there are highs and lows in table tennis. The main thing any new player has to consider is that he/she will lose most if not all games, no matter how hard the person plays. Injuries are also common. And getting the body in shape for the game is very difficult.
One serious set back I encountered was a very painful injury. I was practicing with another person whom will remain nameless. The guy was telling me to hit it hard so I could learn how to smash the ball at my opponent. Meanwhile he was giving me tips on where I could hit the ball. I had taken a few classes w/ my coach, so I was a bit over-confident and hitting the ball as hard as I could, this after not playing much the previous week or so.
Two weeks later, my muscles atrophied from not playing at all and my right knee literally went out on me. It was quite painful. I couldn’t even walk. At first the doctor said let it rest a few months, that sometimes those things heal themselves. My knee got better, but a few months later it went out on me again. I swear it’s the 2nd worst pain I had ever experienced. I wound up having knee surgery a couple months later. The surgeon said half my meniscus folded over onto itself – a common sports injury – forcing him to cut out 50%. And thankfully he did, because ever since then my knee has been fine.
It took a full year to recover, and even then I had minor discomfort when playing table tennis or walking for long periods. It took two years to build up my leg muscle again. But the whole time I had wondered, “What caused the injury?” And the answer was that day I was hitting the ball as hard as I could. What went wrong?
My mistake was hitting the ball with the classic twisting motion without allowing my feet and legs to move with my upper torso. Naturally, the body wants to give, like a shock absorber. Instead, I planted my feet solidly and flat on the ground, and twisted my upper body, so as to put extreme twisting pressure on both my knees. My knees were absorbing the entire shock, and knee joints weren’t designed to twist left and right! It’s a hinge, not a rotator cuff!
But now my knee is fine. I’ve improved my skills and am now more careful. My muscles have developed much more, which helps prevent further injury. But let this be a cautionary tale. First you must develop technique while also developing the proper muscle tone. Then and only then should you intensify your game.
Of course, you can’t build proper muscle tone without intensifying your game. It’s one of those contradictions you must learn how to deal with. As my coach said recently after noticing my lack of energy:
Taking more classes with me will prepare your body for the rigors of the game.
And he works his students really hard. But he also teaches them to be assertive about taking breaks when we need it.
That’s another benefit: I got to know my body’s limits. I tend to be like a hound dog – the dog that’s often used for crime investigations to sniff out suspects’ movements. The dog will literally work itself to death, so the trainer/owner has to force the dog to take a break every few hours. Similarly, I will push myself to exhaustion and then continue to push my body to its limits even after that. But my coach often stops feeding me the balls and gives me a 30 second break when he sees I’m struggling to take a breath. Then he forms a “T” with his hands and says, “You know what this means? [I nod yes.] Okay. TELL ME WHEN YOU NEED A BREAK. Or give me some kind of sign that you need a break.”
While knowing my body’s limits is definitely a benefit, it’s working my body to those limits that helps me stay in shape. In fact, weight loss was a benefit. I realized long ago that if I am to move quickly I must lose weight while also building muscle. That’s not easy, as muscle is heavier than fat, so as you lose fat and gain muscle, a person might actually gain weight. But there are tricks I learned.
The main difference between my system and most others is that I don’t count calories. Instead I focus on healthy eating with snacks. And I’m mostly vegetarian, so I don’t worry about saturated fat from meat. I stay away from beef entirely, though I’ve been known to eat ham. Chicken is also good. But for me meat is a luxury. My meals usually consist of a starch (pasta, rice, bread) with vegetables, and sometimes a protein like beans. I eat a light breakfast consisting of a bowl of cereal with soy milk. I NEVER eat a heavy breakfast. And I try not to eat between meals as much.
Psychologically, playing table tennis regularly helps remind me of healthy eating. In fact, when I don’t play the game for a week, I go back to eating potato chips and heavy snacks. But when I play regularly, it’s like my mind shifts as I tell myself, “Eating snacks is fine, but not too much…”
Plus, I follow an adapted version of the Chinese system that I learned from an article about a guy (Christopher Beam) who went to China and took table tennis lessons (see pg. 4). Before playing in a tournament or at the club, I eat dinner only to about 60% of my stomach capacity. So I may in fact still be hungry while playing. And when I get back home I eat a medium to heavy snack – but not a full meal – so that my stomach is satisfied. I’ve discovered that sometimes when my stomach growls in the middle of the night, that’s a good sign. That means I followed my system correctly.
But being hungry is not a good feeling, so I often eat more than I should. I notice my abdomen protruding somewhat, so I reduce my food consumption slightly. And the pattern goes back and forth. The key is to stay active and watch what you eat. Don’t count calories! That only makes you obsessive. Isn’t it obvious you shouldn’t eat half a bag of potato chips in one sitting? Isn’t it obvious you shouldn’t eat hamburger meat and huge steaks for almost every meal every day of the week? Why count how many calories one doughnut is versus two doughnuts when you know you shouldn’t any doughnuts at all?
One person explained it in this way: That fat you see on your body is also occurring INSIDE your body. When you see your abdomen get larger, your heart actually gets larger too, and that extra fat on your heart makes it more difficult for your heart to pump blood. So, when you find yourself breathless after only ten minutes of table tennis, your heart is suffering as well. Why not make it easier for yourself?
I lost a good 7 or 8 pounds, but it took me 3-4 years to do that. You’d be surprised how 5 fewer pounds helped me to move and jump like a kangaroo. Keep in mind I also built muscle while losing those pounds. So while I got stronger, my muscles didn’t have to move as much weight. That’s a win-win if you ask me.
I’ll continue talking about the benefits of table tennis in another post. Really though, the key is doing any sport and staying active. If you play football, or run, or mountain bike, whatever it is, keep moving your body. I have a female cousin who teaches Zumba, and her abs are much more toned than mine. Others do yoga. Whatever it is, as long as it’s a mix of cardiovascular and strength training, you’ll tone up your muscles and keep your weight in check.
This is Part 3 of the benefits of table tennis. In the previous two posts, I detailed the history of how I was first introduced to high-level table tennis. Part 2 dealt with facing my demons in the game. But really, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. In this post I’ll take a forty-five degree turn and talk about what makes table tennis different from ping pong.
Classes: The Fundamentals Continued
So, in the first six classes I took with my coach Mozart, I started learning the fundamentals of table tennis. Ironically, hitting the ball effectively starts with your mind, not your body. Being more aggressive is the way to go. Good ping pong players are more offensive than defensive. Back in the fifties and sixties, world champions could get away with being defensive. (Even then it began to change.) Not anymore. Most top players on the international scene are almost purely offensive. There are a few good defensive players in the top 50 of the world, but so few that you don’t even need all the fingers of one hand to count them. And the top players from China can beat them, albeit with a lot of trouble.
However, there’s a certain mindset that’s required to be that aggressive. And it has less to do with being afraid of the ball than being afraid of yourself. Forget about selecting the right shot at the right time, or reading the amount of spin thrown at you, or having fast reflexes, or having the rubber and blade that the champions use. None of that matters if you don’t have one quality that’s required to play any game well.
Confidence is the first ingredient to playing ping pong. Many people lose due to lack of confidence. If you don’t think that hitting the ball in a certain way will get it over the net, if you don’t trust yourself, you will lose. Being the sort of guy who has lost in just about everything important in life – confidence is not my middle name. Heck, I was lucky to find a wife…
So when I found out that confidence was the key ingredient to playing ping pong well, I faltered. I had to fix my own mind, fix some of the things in my life outside of the game, so that I could learn to play at a higher level. There’s no way around that. If your life sucks, and you let that fact pound you into the ground the way it did me, forget about being good at anything. It turned out that getting better at table tennis was for me an uphill battle that I finally won. I gained confidence at the table, which led to more confidence in real life, and vice versa. More confidence in life led to more confidence behind the table.
Therein Lies the Major Difference
So, having enough confidence about your shots and the way you play the game is probably the main difference between “ping pong” and “table tennis.” It’s the personal decision someone makes to care enough about the game and to be a good player that leads to increasing confidence. But the process takes years, or at least it did with me.
At first I went to have fun, “for the exercise.” I laughed at everyone at the club for being so serious. I thought the guy Al, whom I call the “crocodile,” was rude…I mean, who cares about taking lessons? “I’m just here to have fun. Not to win.” But I soon realized that in order to have fun, I’d have to get better. Otherwise, all these old, nerdy white guys, some of them way past retirement age, would make me look like an idiot. And that they did for many years.
Ping Pong Origins
Let’s backtrack. The origins of the term “ping pong” go way back to the early 1900s (the actual game even before that), when a company decided to copyright the term “ping pong,” according to a recent quarterly magazine publication by the United States Table Tennis Association. Very good article. In fact, to this day, I think it’s still trademarked. Recently I saw paddles under the brand “ping pong” being sold at a sports store. Before that, the game was first introduced in the late 19th century for the upper-class as a way to play tennis indoors. It got really popular and spread quickly in England and around the world.
Anyway, pretty soon afterwards a large number of people in this country (the U.S.) started getting serious about the “ping pong” sport, and it appears they got a kind of Socialist perspective (that’s MY interpretation). They didn’t like being forced to use and buy equipment by whatever company owned the trademark (which changed hands a few times, including the Parker Brothers) in order to have official tournaments. They wanted to use their own equipment, much of which was higher quality, but even homemade equipment infringed on the trademark.
As a website for the International Table Tennis Federation museum states:
They [Hamley Brothers in England] rigorously enforced the Ping Pong trademark, requiring use of their Ping Pong equipment in tournaments and clubs [emphasis mine]. Parker Brothers, who acquired the American rights to the name Ping Pong, similarly enforced the trademark. Eventually it became clear that for the sport to move forward, the commercial ties had to be severed. (ITTF Museum. http://www.ittf.com/museum/history.html. No pub date. Last accessed 15 April 2013.)
Long story short, players adopted the name “table tennis,” and the rest is history. In fact, official table tennis rules even allow players to make their own rackets and equipment, as long as they follow certain conditions defined in those rules.
That is how to break a monopoly…Just change the name and use the exact same equipment! Now, clubs around the country could have tournaments and not have to worry about corporate thugs and executives sending their attorneys!
The change of the name to table tennis notwithstanding, there’s more to it than that. As I said, confidence is important. But there’s a certain “aesthetic” that all “table tennis” players have. One of them is fairly strictly using the term “table tennis” at tournaments. If you go around in a tournament saying you play ping pong, no one will take you seriously, and it will show in the way you play. I have yet to lose to anyone who said they play ping pong. (ok, I’ve lost once to a guy from India who said he played ping pong, but that’s an exception.) At local clubs you’ll still hear people say “ping pong,” but that’s considered informal chatting among friends. That said, you could be devious: if you’re an excellent, unrated player, go to a tournament and say you play ping pong and kick everyone’s arse!
A few years ago it was explained to me that there are three types of table tennis players:
The so-called “basement players.” These are people who play informally with friends at parties or just to hang out. Often, they have tables in the basement. If you’re in Arizona, you’d put the table in the backyard, as homes out there don’t have basements. These people play “ping pong,” and often I meet some who don’t even know that “table tennis” refers to “ping pong.” They think it’s a different game. But no, it’s the same exact game.
Tournament players. I’m included in this group, and I’m on the (VERY) low end of it. These are people who study the game, learn strategy, take lessons with professional coaches, all of which leads to playing tournaments. In other words, they practice until they feel confident (there’s that word again) enough, and then they play tournaments semi-regularly. Or, they can be people who are simply serious about the game and regularly play at clubs. Usually people do it to stay active and for mental stimulation, as the game is more mental than physical. (Remember, it doesn’t matter how strong or how fast you are, because you’ll lose without confidence. ARGH! There’s that word again!)
International, full-time players. These are the cream of the crop. The top players in each country fit into this category, except in the United States. The players devote their lives to the game, very much like a professional football player, or basketball or baseball player. Picture Michael Jordan, or Tom Brady. These people compete internationally, are often sponsored by multinational corporations, and don’t do anything else except train all day every day, with the goal of becoming a top world player. Notice I said except the United States. Few players in this country can actually get enough sponsors and win enough tournaments to make the game worthwhile. Even the top players on the U.S. National Team have distractions such as high school and college. Though Tim Wang is one of very few exceptions, whose father told him to devote his time to the game while he’s young, according to a recent article by Sheri Soderberg Cioroslan in the USATT magazine (March/April 2013, pg. 22-23).
I’ve actually met people in all three categories. Let’s just say that the Danish National Team has excellent players. I actually played one of the top female players. Maybe someday I’ll feel confident (that word again?) enough to post the video on Youtube. She kicked my butt of course, but in my defense I was still learning the fundamental shots. And she wasn’t the top-rated female either. But I did watch the #2 female in the country practice with male players in the top 10 or 20 of the country.
So, that’s the short version of knowing the difference between “ping pong” and “table tennis.” If you want the long story, jump into the #2 category with me and play some tournaments.
In the next post you’ll read some of my opinions based on negative and positive experiences about why table tennis is not taken seriously by people in the U.S., and why table tennis advocates often hit brick walls.
This is the second part of the series on how table tennis changed my life. Previously, I had written about how I was introduced to higher level ping pong at a games club in the university. At that time I wanted to learn more but was limited financially. I’d get another chance, in Boston.
The desire to play ping pong eventually started to fissile out of me. I went on to other things, like majoring in ethnomusicology at Indiana University at Bloomington, after having a big breakdown when failing a piano exam. Not that I didn’t want to play ping pong – just that nobody else around me even cared for the game. Far away from my family roots in Arizona, it took a while to acclimate to Indiana and to graduate school. I remember laughing my first summer in Indiana when the news said there was a state-wide drought – and it was pouring rain outside.
In 2004, I graduated with a 3.95 GPA and started looking for a job. I never found one better than a cashier position at Barnes and Noble. It was a brutal awakening for me. Here I am, graduate degree in hand, and no decent job. So the emphasis was in hoping that my wife would find a good job, and she did – in Boston. And moving to Boston was like moving to another country. People don’t realize how distinct cultures and people are from one region to the next in the United States. Every now and then I’d do some spring cleaning and find that high-quality paddle (or so I thought) I bought years ago in Tucson, made by the Kimyoshi company.
Over time I grew depressed after not being able to find a decent job. So I went ahead and got an MBA to become more marketable. (It was a nonchalant decision: “Ok, time for an MBA.”) I became business savvy, but was still unsuccessful with my job search. I started gaining weight due to my sedentary lifestyle – I was no longer racing on my bike in between college classes – and losing confidence. All my life I had been extremely skinny and bony. Strong legs, yes, but toothpick thin. Now my legs had fat on them.
At first I wasn’t worried. But one day I decided to weigh myself. In one year I had gone from underweight to slightly overweight and sluggish, having gained about twenty pounds, and still gaining. I officially had a small beer belly, but I didn’t drink much beer, and I’m mostly vegetarian. I needed exercise. The first thing that came to mind was ping pong.
In the summer of 2009 I reasoned, and correctly so, “This is Boston. It’s a big, overcrowded metropolitan area. There’s got to be ping pong clubs dotted throughout this area!” I lucked out. There was one in the very city in which I lived, held at a dilapidated complex previously criticized as a defunct crazy house, an asylum where by the mid-nineteen hundreds people with mental and physical disabilities were abused by their caretakers. Conditions later improved in the ’70s and ’80s. It was the Fernald Center.
My first observation: I walked in and saw a bunch of old, white guys and some Asian guys smashing the ball at their opponents. My second observation: they all were in better shape than me…The first guy I met, that I remember, was Al. He was chubby, somewhat tall at around 5′ 7″ or so, retired, wore large glasses, slow and very intimidating. It was like seeing a Florida crocodile: big, slow as can be, but if it gets a hold of you you’d find out how strong it actually is. We played a few rallies and talked.
“How long you been playing?” He asked.
“Last time I played was in college, with friends,” I answered.
“But your friends weren’t serious players, were they? Or just hitting the ball around?”
“No, just hitting the ball around.”
Al shrugged, hit the ball to me, I returned his serve, and he slammed it back at me, easily scoring the point. “Well,” he remarked, “then you ought to play more serious players. I suggest you go meet Mozart. Take some classes with him. He’s a good coach.”
I thought he was kidding about meeting a guy named Mozart. He wasn’t. You see, years before I made a name for myself as a pianist. I learned very difficult works by the standard composers: Beethoven (yes, including the “Moonlight sonata,” 1st and 3rd movements), Mozart, Bach, Kabalevsky, even Liszt (“St. Francis Walking On the Water”); you name him, I probably played something he composed. I was headed towards stardom: I was going to be a concert pianist. I studied under Dr. Paula Fan, a tough woman who scared the crap out of me. Then under Dr. Rex Woods, who eventually made me see the light – I was not prepared for stardom. I failed a piano exam, and was heart broken. It was like losing a family member. I carried that failure for years, until about a year ago – a story I may tell later. Suffice to say that I quit. I haven’t touched a piano in the same way again.
But music stuck with me. While studying piano I also learned Andean music in my mother’s group, Bwiya-toli. And after leaving her group I continued to improve by learning the charango, an instrument traditionally made out of the back of an armadillo.
Comparison of Music Mozart vs. Table Tennis Mozart. Photoshop composite by Ramón Bannister.
So, when Al told me about a guy named Mozart, it was like I was facing my fears and demons yet again. I figured that was his nickname. Wrong. I learned that Mozart was the man who ran the club, and that was his name – Mozart. Was this fate? Probably not. I don’t believe in that stuff. Or…maybe it was…
Mozart Francois, coaching. Screen shot from video produced by Nitya Rao.
Mozart is a proud black Haitian, skinny, tall, dark and, eh, you know the rest. I found out later he goes back to Haiti a few times per year to teach kids table tennis. He sees table tennis as a stepping stone to greater things in life. It’s also in his blood. Though he beats most people he plays, he’s not a world champion; but he’s a champion coach who lives by that old Army mantra, “Be the best that you can be.” I respect him for that.
I introduced myself and he was his usual, happy self. He welcomed me to the club like I was his brother.
Classes: The Fundamentals
One day I decided to hustle the coach. I asked him how much he charged. He stated an amount. Having taken a negotiation class in business school recently, I started bargaining. I thought I was tough. But he immediately told me, “I’m not bargaining with you. My price is my price.” So I tried to play a psychological game on him, often done by good negotiators. I said, “ok,” and stopped asking him about taking classes for the next couple weeks.
Then there was the day Mozart had me play an ad-hoc round robin tournament with two other guys. One of them was his student – a young Indian guy who had beautiful table tennis form. Mozart laughed at me in the last round, noticing that I was very nervous. “You’re shaking! You don’t realize that everyone can see it! hahahahahaha!” He was right.
I wound up beating his student and winning the round-robin. Mozart gave me a small “trophy,” a key chain with a tiny, wooden ping pong racket. But I knew my win was pure luck. So I agreed to his price, and we set a schedule for six lessons.
That All Important First Class
The first class was amazing. He set in motion many things on that day. But probably the single most important thing he told me was this:
Ramon, why do you block? [I gave him an "I don't know" shrug.] You play defense, and that’s good, but that’s not how you win. From now on, I want you to be more aggressive. Hit the ball. Show me some energy. Ramon, you don’t have any drive. Why not? You don’t have drive, my friend. Did you hear me? I said you don’t have drive. I want to see more. I expect more from you. More offense. More drive. More energy. You’ve been playing for only one hour. And you’re already huffing and puffing like you’ve run a marathon. You’re leaning on the table because your legs are about to give. I’ve been here all day, ALL DAY, and I’ve just gotten started. I’m like twenty years older than you, and look at you! You need more drive. I’m not going to waste my time. Put your whole body into it and I’ll keep showing you the fundamentals. But don’t waste my time.
I was shocked. No one had ever pushed me physically that hard before that day, and yet demanded more out of me. No previous employer, not even my piano teachers. He began to prepare me for the battle to get my body and mind in shape for the game.
Unbeknownst to him, I had already equated learning ping pong to learning music. I knew I could do it by applying the concepts I learned in those long, grueling hours in front of the magic of the piano. I also learned the difference between “ping pong” and “table tennis.”
To be continued…The next post will discuss the difference between “ping pong” and “table tennis” as well as look at how table tennis is not unlike music.
I know this will sound “sentimental” to some, but in the last few years table tennis has changed my life. I’ve gotten control over my strange and unexpected weight gain, and I’m in the best shape of my life. I’ve developed much more confidence and much higher self-esteem. This is the first in a series about my history with table tennis. Later I’ll discuss its similarities with professional piano performance training.
Part 1: How table tennis grew in me
Back in high school I stayed away from sports. Though I was fast, I was physically weak, skinny, and was that guy who always got picked last on teams. I never really was given a chance to excel at sports, except maybe soccer during P.E. class, when I was one of the stars due to being one of the fastest in the school.
After high school and during college, I pretty much rejected sports except for biking through campus, where I was majoring in piano performance. I prided myself on having explosive energy on a bike, though had nowhere to apply that energy productively – aside from abusing the piano when I’d make a mistake.
For a while, maybe a couple years, my friends and I went to a games club at the university student union. It had arcade, nice pool tables, and…lo and behold, ping pong tables. Over the years I met various decent players. 2 guys in particular still stick out in my mind. 1 guy was older than me. He was a little, well, socially strange. I could tell he didn’t have it all together up there in his head, like maybe was autistic or something. He was very tall, white, and bragged about having played ping pong in China. He told a story multiple times about when he went to China and played a ten-yr old. It went something like this.
I mean, you wouldn’t think a 10-yr old would be any good. So when I saw him I kind of laughed. This little kid, barely even born, playing an adult who was trained in the game and has won tournaments. But then I played him and man could he play. He beat me very easily.
And he dominated the game in that university games club. Oh, he was REALLY good. I mean, even now I don’t normally play people as good as him. He could easily beat my ping pong coach today. I’m sure of it. This was back when ping pong was still played to 21 points. He’d serve the ball with heavy top spin, a serve I didn’t experience again until about a year ago when I played a guy rated at around 2100. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
This guy beat everyone in the club. Of course. I mean, no one at the club was trained and coached like he was. And the good thing was…he gave me pointers. “Hit the ball like this. You want your paddle to come up as you hit the ball.” Or, “A good paddle has smooth rubber on both sides. And it’s very sticky, and thick so the ball can bounce off it.” That kind of stuff. Just basic advice.
And my game improved so that I actually got points off this guy. I started dominating the games club myself. Occasionally there’d be others giving me advice. Like I remember this Chinese guy who couldn’t speak English, and every time I hit the ball and missed the table he’d motion with his paddle and his other hand, showing me how to hit the ball. But I could never beat the weird guy.
On one occasion at this games club, my friend and I went with a girl we were both interested in [haha, oh, to be young again...], a pretty Chinese girl named Mandy who also played ping pong. The three of us saw an old guy there playing and noticed he had good skills at the game. Long story short, he gave us pointers. He said he was from a table tennis club and that he was a coach. He was trying to hustle us to go and get lessons. Meanwhile, he’d show us:
See guys, when I give lessons I feed you the balls, I smash it to you, and you stay at the other side of the table and hold your paddle at a sharp angle near the table like this [shows us]. Then you block it. And BOOM! You miss. So you adjust the angle. We repeat that until you get it right. Then I smash the ball to another place on the table, and you learn how to block that one too! BOOM! BOOM!”
I was fascinated. Felt like I was in a dream world.
I grew up poor. I mean, not like in poverty. But I was one of many kids on free and reduced lunch in school. My parents never had a decent car. I shared a room with my sister until I was about twelve (and she’s almost two years older than me) because my parents couldn’t afford anything bigger. My grandma lived in a guest house in the backyard. We lived in a poor barrio in South Tucson. Lundy Ave was the street. In junior high we finally moved to a nice, middle-class neighborhood. But through high school there was still this notion in my head that we didn’t have much extra cash on hand. We moved around here and there, until I was in college. I moved out on my own in a small, very cheap studio that was converted from a two-car garage and located in an alley. But it was convenient, as I could walk to campus, where I also had a part-time job.
Out on my own and having grown up low-income, I had this notion in my head that I couldn’t afford extras, like ping pong lessons. In fact, I didn’t even ask how much he charged when that coach in the games club was trying to get us to be his students. I later met my wife-to-be, and focused on other priorities. But I always had this desire, a fire within me, an innocent wonder about what I could have learned about table tennis if I had just taken a few classes. The strange-likely-autistic guy and the coach planted a seed, which would germinate almost fifteen years later…in Boston.
to be continued…Stay tuned next week, when I will talk about the first day I met Mozart Francois, table tennis coach extraordinaire.
Just last night I read an inspiring poem by Adrienne Rich, a lesbian feminist from the 1970s who passed away earlier this year. It’s in a book that I bought at a memorial/commemoration of her achievements in the women’s rights movement and as a poet-activist. Later Poems: Selected and New: 1971-2012, celebrates her intelligent and thoughtful words, her philosophical insight into the human being and the nature of gender, of woman and man, of marriage, of her own plight as she discovered the reasons behind her relationship problems and her anger. It is a book that uncovers her poetic trajectory into the unknown, that forever search for the soul.
“For the Dead” (1972) is marvelous in its description and imagery, remarkable for a high-profile woman seeking herself while exploring the tie between her body and emotion:
I dreamed I called you on the telephone
to say: Be kinder to yourself
but you were sick and would not answer
The waste of my love goes on this way
trying to save you from yourself
I have always wondered about the leftover
energy, water rushing down a hill
long after the rains have stopped
or the fire you want to go to bed from
but cannot leave, burning-down but not burnt-down
the red coals more extreme, more curious
in their flashing and dying
than you wish they were
sitting there long after midnight
I asked myself, “To whom is this poem written?” Perhaps, I theorized, it was written to her late husband, a tragic story in itself. They divorced in 1970, and later that year, unable to come to terms with their separation and Adrienne’s discovery and revelation that she was gay, he committed suicide. Could this poem be about her pain?
It’s a complex poem. Could she be hurting about the love she felt was wasted on her husband? About her guilt that she could not provide what her husband needed? About his indifference and inability to accept her gender identity? Could it be a critique of her own self-denial for so many years?
Whatever the case, I interpret she feels her love was wasted in so many ways. She’s not blaming anyone. But she feels a “leftover energy,” something inside, like a clock ticking, forever present. It’s burning inside her like a fire in a fireplace. It wants to shine but it doesn’t – it is kept at bay. It’s an amazing energy, powered by as of yet undiscovered natural forces.
I love the imagery here, that of water flowing down a hill even after it rains. That happens all the time here in Massachusetts. Those “forever-rains” that pour so much water on the streets that you still see that magical, clear substance leaking into street drains. And how about “the red coals,” the wood that keeps burning in the black, fire ash of leftover logs in the fireplace that you wish you could put out so that you can close the flue damper and not waste energy when your heater kicks on; coals that take 2-3 hours to burn through even after you let the fire burn itself out, and, still, they smoke their last breath and leave your nostrils dry with the ever-present presence of their ember smell.
The poem is a fascinating glimpse into Adrienne Rich’s life, her mind, into the blood that flows through her pain. It is inspiring. I think, I hope, she’d be happy about my reading. I only just discovered her a couple weeks ago, if that, yet her words awaken a tranquil fire within me. Thank you, Adrienne.
It’s been a loooooooooooooong time since I last blogged. Let’s just say I got bored of Robotech and went to bigger and better things, like music, creative fiction and table tennis. Suffice to say rumors of a live action flick about Robotech are just that – rumors. Yes, I interviewed the director of a famous Robotech animation film, who said that a live action movie was in the works.
But where’s the movie. The proof is in the pudding, and I haven’t seen or eaten any recently. So I gave up on it. Yes, the cartoon from the 80s is interesting and enjoyable. It reveals and mirrors cultural patterns within our society, many of which most people don’t want to admit they live by. But honestly I ran out of things to say. The episodes pick up the same themes as previous episodes, etc.
So I moved on to writing about table tennis. Occasionally I may analyze a poem, maybe even write one.
In his third contribution to Kena Cubed, Geoff L. discusses Robotech’s hero Rick Hunter. A complex character for sure, Rick matures very quickly in the midst of a seemingly unending war with a super alien race.
Geoff L., Kena Cubed Contributor
In Robotech: Macross Saga, the main character in which most of the story revolves around is our hero Rick Hunter. From the beginning of the series, we see that Rick is a civilian stunt pilot who flies for his father’s air circus. He is there on the first episode to visit his adoptive “big brother,” LCDR Roy Fokker (a veteran naval aviator and ranking squadron commander) during the ribbon-cutting launch ceremony of the SDF-1. On approach to Macross Island in his tricked out “Mockingbird” racer plane, Rick arrives in the middle of an aerobatics demonstration by a group of transformable VF-1 Veritech fighters. So what does this crazy guy do? He joins the demonstration as the fighters are in a vertical Immelmann climb, passing just a few feet from them! Naturally, this enrages Roy while the crowd watching the air show cheers in light of the spectacle.
…he was swept into the war for humanity’s survival.
As they are meeting on the tarmac and reacquainting after a long time apart, we see that Rick holds a little resentment towards Roy for staying in the military (this time for the Robotech Defense Forces) and not returning to his father’s aerobatic circus. In an attempt to impress young Rick with Roy’s line of work, he puts him in the front seat of a Veritech trainer. But while all this is happening, the Zentraedi appear in Earth orbit. The previously unknown “boobytrap” on the SDF-1 fires its main gun at the Zentraedi. Roy leaves Rick in the trainer plane to investigate the sudden firing. Roy is informed that aliens have arrived and that all fighters need to scramble to meet the incoming threat. As all of this commotion is happening, Rick manages to doze off in the trainer plane cockpit.
Mistaking him to be a military pilot, the Battle Coordinator, Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) Lisa Hayes, gives Rick a rude awakening over the radio. While he was snoozing in the cockpit, the very Veritech fighter he is sitting in is now being armed and his engines are jump started. With LCDR Hayes screaming at him to take off, and the ground crew not letting him get out of the cockpit, Rick complies. Little did Rick realize that this marked the beginning of his odyssey; he was swept into the war for humanity’s survival. His life would be forever changed in these next five years of his life.
To me, Rick seems to represent the very best in society who join the military.
We first see Rick Hunter as a cocky, free-spirited young man who really wants nothing to do with the military. However, he changes due to the catastrophic events he finds himself in. When he’s stuck on board the SDF-1 in the outer reaches of the solar system, it dawns on him he’ll be doing nothing for the next year or more as they journey back to Earth. Roy ignites Rick’s sense of duty by convincing him to join the Robotech Defense Force (RDF). Rick then grows from what some might consider being an unruly punk to a responsible service member in the RDF with subordinates to look after.
From what I’ve seen, people join the military for a wide variety of reasons. Some do it out of a need to belong to some kind of a team. Some do it to prove something to themselves. Some might join the military to run away from something in their past. Some do it strictly out of pragmatic reasons (finding a stable job in a bad economy, money for college, etc.). Some do it simply because they have nothing else going on in their lives. Some do it for idealistic reasons. In the cartoon Robotech, Rick probably did it for all of these things. However, it is clear that the one that resonates the most with him is protecting those he cares about.
To me, Rick seems to represent the very best in society who join the military. With the outbreak of WWII, many able-bodied young men put their lives on hold and volunteered. Many of them figured that is was their duty. To top it off, many came into the military already with useful skills that were in heavy demand by the military. Similarly, Rick could have easily joined the ranks of the 70,000 non-combatants on board the SDF-1 and probably could have found some way to stay productive and have no involvement in the Robotech War. However, with Roy’s encouragement, the idealist in Rick decides to go into the RDF because he felt it was his duty. He was an experienced pilot who had something to offer.
Rick's Stunt Plane
It is without a doubt that Rick had a leg up on the other recruits during his pilot training. For someone who grew up flying in an aerobatic circus and winning eight international racing championships, I’d say he probably already had an impressive record of flying hours, being already instrument-rated, and was predisposed to pushing aircraft to the edge of its performance envelope. The technical aspects, however, can only teach so much.
Consequently, Rick was shocked by the brutal realities of war. In one particular battle, he found himself face to face with a Zentraedi soldier. When Rick raised his weapon at the soldier, all he saw was the stark terror in the eyes of the enemy alien, and found it difficult to shoot someone that appeared human. In other situations, he found himself narrowly cheating death on a regular basis. It affected him the most when some of his closest friends died in combat. Reasonably, anyone would find it difficult to put up with all of this if they didn’t have something to hope for.
Rick & Minmei
To speak of Rick Hunter’s life in this saga would be incomplete without mentioning the romance in his life. From near the beginning of the saga, Rick was infatuated with Miss Lynn Minmei after meeting her and sharing moments of survival and laughter. Minmei was a source of joy for him, yet also a source of frustration as it seemed that she didn’t always reciprocate his feelings. This was further complicated by the fact that she became a local starlet and recording artist after winning a beauty pageant. You could say that she was like an on-again/off-again girlfriend with an ambiguously defined relationship with him. With this being a source of angst, he unexpectedly found solace in the woman who would later be the love of his life: Lisa Hayes.
When you’re deployed, you sometimes wonder about what you could be doing if you weren’t at war. For myself, I wondered what else I could have been doing if I wasn’t in Iraq.
As the romance between Rick and Lisa develops, we see a difficult courtship to say the least. Yes, opposites can attract but not without some rough and tumble moments. Both Rick and Lisa are passionate about their jobs. What this really means was that there were occasional argumentative flare ups. There’s no avoiding this, as a pilot needs to adhere to the instructions of the battle coordinator. Rick is responsible for the tactical arena in the field, while Lisa is responsible for the overall strategic picture in the bridge. Rick is unruly in that he operated on instinct alone. Lisa is more prone to follow planning and procedure. Rick is brash. Lisa is cultured. In other words, they are polar opposites. However, Robotech was a dynamic drama in that characters changed over time.
Rick Hunter embracing Lisa Hayes
Rick and Lisa’s relationship develops throughout the episodes as they find themselves sharing similar struggles in the line of duty. In one episode, he saves her life on a Mars base. She saves Rick from drowning while they were POWs with the Zentraedi. Lisa muses to Rick about the state of humanity and its uncertain future. They eventually find some comfort with each other as they lament over lost loves. She feels responsible for his safety when she accidentally has Rick fired upon. He heroically saves her yet again from a base in Alaska. As these events unfold, their relationship grows from annoyance, to begrudging respect, to a close friendship, to an uncertain cat and mouse game of attraction, to finally acknowledging their love for each other. Although seemingly straight-forward, none of this is without the complication of Rick needing to sort out whatever remaining feelings he may have for Minmei.
In the Robotech story, it could be said that Rick Hunter has a bit of a Hero Complex. He likely has an inherent deep-rooted desire to help others in need. This is part of the impetus that compels him to enlist. We also see this in how he idealizes his rescuing of Minmei or his willingness to undergo any risk to save Lisa. While this seems to be an inherently good thing, this is also his weakness. It is for this reason that he is caught up in the euphoria of Minmei and finds it difficult to let her go even while he and Lisa were dating. He’s a nice guy to the point where he seems like he can’t be decisive and set a boundary. It’s a love triangle that distracts him.
When you’re deployed, you sometimes wonder about what you could be doing if you weren’t at war. For myself, I wondered what else I could have been doing if I wasn’t in Iraq. In a similar way, Rick wondered what he would do if the Robotech War never happened. Given his independent nature, I can imagine that he would have wanted to be his own boss or have a job with a great amount of latitude. He would have eventually taken over his father’s flying circus. As he got older, he would be flying a Gulfstream jet, meeting rockstars, actors, and talk show hosts. With enough contacts, Rick would probably be flying between major international cities, making the world his sort of oyster. At some point between all of this jet-setting, he’d probably be asked to be a catalogue cover model for Breitling watches, sporting some Ray Ban wireframe sunglasses, a leather jacket, that famous ascot, and prominently displaying a $7000 watch named after his famous “Mockingbird” racer. However, this war with the Zentraedi took him to a different destiny.
During the exploits of the 1st Robotech War, Rick Hunter became a major figure in the RDF. We see that he’s a complicated man but holds to simple ideals. He grows as a person, marked by the responsibilities he bears and for the people he held in high esteem. He never wanted to be a military man. He was a man seemingly forever young, yet thrust into a circumstance in which he would have to be mature beyond his age. Those circumstances that he found himself in demanded people who had the right qualities to fulfill this role. In the cartoon, humanity gained hope by having Rick and countless others fight on behalf of them.
Kena Cubed contributor Geoff L. discusses how Lisa’s character is very realistic, in part to contrast her with the alien Zentraedi race, but also to enhance the story of Robotech…
Geoff L., Kena Cubed Contributor
Lisa Hayes is the unforgettable First Officer aboard the SDF-1. We know her from the Macross Saga episodes as a bridge officer whose primary responsibility is to direct air combat operations and maintain situational awareness for the command elements. As required by her position, she is strong-minded and able to exert command presence when required. As most good officers go, she is also very eloquent, being able to interface with and apprise senior government officials with her reporting. She’s a capable person and a dedicated Robetech Defense Force (RDF) officer who comes from a long lineage of distinguished military officers. And we eventually learn in later episodes that she becomes Rick Hunter’s love interest and wife.
Lisa Hayes with uniform
At first glance she’s a rather attractive lady. The way she tosses her hair about in some episodes, without the uniform, one could probably mistake her for being a hair shampoo model. She seems rather fit as she is able to wear that cat-suit of a uniform and appear like a sculpted figure. To top it off, the inadvertently sultry yet regal voice would have most guys captivated by her even though she’s a cartoon character (well, at least for me it’s true).
However, I think the most endearing trait underneath all of the more superficial ones is that she has a tremendous amount of compassion. This is something that Rick is drawn to when it came to a long schedule of combat patrols, his dealings with his ambiguously defined relationship with Minmei, or just commiserating over shared hardship from their struggle against the Zentraedi. If not just for Rick, Lisa feels a sense of responsibility in protecting not only the SDF-1 or its crew, but also the 70,000 civilians aboard it.
All of these things above may equate to a well-drawn up character. However, I would further say that she could easily be a real-life person given her background. For instance, what makes her tick is largely influenced by events in her childhood and as a young adult. To me, it would seem uncanny and perhaps be very surprising if she were not modeled after a real person of a similar demeanor and background. Contrasting with some of my experiences in the officer corps, it begins to make sense why she may be more realistic than the general populace may see.
It would be very surprising if she were not modeled after a real person.
Some of Lisa’s personality traits are very apparent in the TV series. As noted, she’s very strong-minded and professional. Since she is a flight crew officer, she probably needs to have a number of flight hours to maintain that type of certification. Perhaps this adds to her larger-than-life heroine mystique. At times, she may come across as an “ice queen” of sorts with many subordinates and pilots alike who are intimidated by her. But beneath that facade we see some contradictions. By this I mean the type of contradictions that make us very much human. Underneath that shell of professionalism and emotional distance, we see that she has a strong capacity for compassion. We also see an immense amount of insecurity when it comes to personal relationships. In order to understand why, we should look briefly into her past.
Growing up as a child in an Active Duty military environment has its pros and cons.
What we know of Lisa’s background is that she’s the daughter of a prominent U.S. Navy Admiral (well before the SDF-1 incident and formation of the United Earth Government). Growing up as a child in an Active Duty military environment has its pros and cons. Lisa probably saw different places around the world, going wherever her father would be posted. I can imagine that she probably lived in places like the Chesapeake Bay Area, Pearl Harbor, Japan, San Diego, and Washington DC for 3-5 years at each location. While some people could only dream of being so well travelled, the drawback here is that there isn’t much opportunity to form lasting friendships. You grow up going to school with the kids of Active Duty parents for a few years and then you move, likely to not see them again. Then you start over at putting down whatever roots you can at the next location. Over time, she probably grew to not be attached to anyone so as to mitigate the loss of being uprooted, thereby emotionally shielding herself.
As if growing up in those environs wasn’t hard enough, Lisa also suffered from the death of her mother while she was at an early age. That kind of loss would be painful for anyone. But with the added challenges of having a father whose job could take him to different remote assignments for weeks or months at a time, she would have to be strong, if only for herself and her own well-being. Needless to say, she had to learn how to be self-reliant at an early age.
Later in life, Lisa would obtain a commission by attending the Robotech Academy, perhaps the futuristic equivalent of a military service academy (e.g. Annapolis, West Point, etc.). However, since she’s the daughter of a prominent Admiral in the newly formed RDF, her peers and perhaps her instructors might have perceived her to have gained admittance solely through her father’s connections. She had to have realized that in order to gain respect she would have to dispel this perception. Subsequently, she had to pursue a very high degree of academic and physical excellence to prove that she can succeed on her own merit and not through her family’s namesake.
With all of these things in her past, you might imagine that Lisa Hayes grew up as a strong, emotionally detached person. However, it doesn’t necessarily explain how she would later be attracted to the fighter pilot, Rick Hunter. In order to make any real sense of it, we have to examine her past attempt at love: Carl Riber.
Lisa isn’t without her faults. After all, humans aren’t perfect.
Carl Riber was an upperclassman that she knew from the Robotech Academy. Those in the military would have to agree that it can be a very insular environment. You live in an environment where you have appearance standards to adhere to. On top of that, you are looked upon favorably if you maintain high physical fitness or aspire to combat arms type professions. In short, being sort of a “jock”. However, Carl probably stood out to Lisa as being different than most of the other cadets. She felt safe enough to be vulnerable with him, as he showed a special sensitivity towards her. Carl was also different in that he felt apprehension about the Unification wars that were still being waged around some parts of the globe. Some of his peers might perceive that as being a coward. However, Lisa likely saw it differently as him speaking his conscience. It was for this reason that Carl wanted to avoid the UN war with anti-unificationists and requested to be posted at a research installation on Mars. Sadly, this was to be ill-fated as the Mars base would later be attacked by those anti-unificationist factions, likely killing Carl and the other inhabitants of the base.
Rick Hunter embracing Lisa Hayes
So then: why Rick Hunter? She would later be drawn to him for similar reasons: 1) He was not your typical career military officer; 2) Rick developed a soft-spot for Lisa, recognizing her finer qualities; and 3) she felt safe enough to be vulnerable with him. In short, he was different. Rick wasn’t someone who was looking for a career in the RDF, climbing the ranks and impressing his superiors with glowing OERs (Officer Evaluation Reports), jockeying for key positions, or retiring with a comfortable pension. Rick joined out of near child-like innocence and wanted to protect other people. Although it would take some warming up for Lisa to appreciate this, she would eventually recognize him as a bright spot in her life.
Despite all of the above, Lisa isn’t without her faults. After all, humans aren’t perfect. Understandably, she is a jealous woman when it came to Rick and his residual feelings for Minmei. After resolving a hostage rescue scenario with Minmei and Lynn Kyle being held captive by Zentraedi holdouts, we see Rick and Minmei embracing as if rekindling their relationship. Upon seeing this, a jealous Lisa pulls rank without hesitation and orders Rick back on patrol, ending the tender spectacle. Later on, faced with the prospect of losing Rick to Minmei and suffering through a lonely Christmas, she drowns her sorrow in alcohol, as if to concede defeat. For someone so strong, even Lisa has her weaker, darker moments. But despite all of this, both Lisa and Rick would eventually confess their love as they realize how much lonelier they are without each other.
Lisa Hayes is a celebrated character in the Macross Saga of Robotech. It’s not very difficult to see why. She is a strong-willed, attractive woman with the qualities of a heroine. Yet despite this facade we also appreciate the fact that she’s only human, plagued with her own frailties and faults. Regardless, she is admired by fans on many dimensions; remarkable to say the least.