Whether you’re looking to beat that guy in the office who just always seems to dominate the ping-pong table, are in need of a great workout, or really want impress your clan with your table tennis skills at your upcoming family reunion, Matt Winkler can help. The 29-year-old Phoenix resident is the best table tennis player in the state, with the highest table tennis rating and having won the state table tennis championship six times in a row. He even got to teach Phoenix Suns point guard Goran Dragic a thing or two this year for a video for Sprint, and he hopes to train more professional athletes to help them with their coordination. He also counts comedian Frank Caliendo as a client he regularly coaches.
The USA Table Tennis-certified national level coach ranks in the top 200 of United States-born men, and he has competed in tournaments in California, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Florida, including the US National Table Tennis Championships in Las Vegas every year, and the US Open Table Tennis Championships. He teaches through his business Table Tennis & More, founded by his dad.
See him in action at his next tournament, Sunday, July 27 at Phoenix Table Tennis Club, which is open to the public. Winkler explains why he’s passionate about ping-pong, as well as names his five favorite reasons for loving living in the Valley, below.
What brought you to Arizona?
I was born and raised here. I went to Central High School and got a business management degree from ASU.
When did you first get into table tennis?
When I was 8 years old, my dad and I heard about an exhibition in a mall. My dad and I always loved playing recreationally, and I played in his garage when I was really small. We went to the mall and saw it, thought it was cool, and got into the Phoenix Table Tennis Club and started taking lessons from there.
How has your career with table tennis evolved?
I played until high school, when I had gotten to number two in the state at 14 years old. My dad had a club, and I quit when he closed his club and played baseball and golf in high school.
In college, my dad was coaching in the garage here and said, “If you want to make money on the weekend, you can coach on Sunday’s.” I started coaching, and when my dad decided to move to Hawaii, I took over coaching full-time in 2008.
What’s your typical week like?
I coach Monday through Saturday during the day. On Monday and Wednesday nights, I go to the Phoenix Table Tennis Club, where I run the leagues on Monday’s and play and help run the leagues on Wednesday’s. Saturday’s, I coach all juniors, which is great and what I really enjoy.
I’m also on the board of the Phoenix Club and a tournament referee.
What’s the table tennis competition scene like in the Valley?
There are only five tournaments a year that are sanctioned through the Phoenix Club, and I compete in every tournament.
Other than the tournaments, we have open play, where you can challenge a table, and league play, with some team leagues and individual matches. It’s all for about $5 a night or included in a membership.
What types of people do you coach throughout the week?
What’s interesting is everyone has their own reason for why they start. A lot of people come in because they have a friend or family member they want to beat. It’s fun to coach those, because they start out just wanting to beat their friend, and then they’re like, “Well, I’m addicted now. Now, I want to go to the clubs and play higher level people and in tournaments.”
Then, there are people who want to do it for exercise. You have to be able to do certain strokes before you get really good exercise out of it. Once you get into it, it’s great exercise. I have a guy who puts his phone out with his heart rate monitor, and he’s burned 1,200 calories in two hours. You can burn a lot of calories with this if you do it at a high level.
Most people aren’t too serious in the sense they want to become state or tournament champions. I do have a wheelchair student who is training four days a week with me, and he goes and plays in international tournaments. He’s recently been to Italy and Slovakia. I have a couple people who are really serious about it, but most of the adults are here to improve and exercise.
What’s your perception of table tennis in the U.S.?
It’s growing, but it’s not as big as we would like it. We’re not that competitive around the world, especially the men.
The women are actually becoming pretty competitive. This one woman, Lily Zhang, who just played in the World Team Table Tennis Championships, beat the number 11 woman in the world. She’s amazing, and she’s only 17 years old. Our number one woman in the country didn’t go with them, so we could have been in the top 10 teams in the world if all our best women were there.
For men, we’re not close. We’re top 300 in the world for best man. We have all these imported Chinese players who coach, and they could beat our best men easily. We’re just not there yet, but we’re getting more and more full-time clubs and importing more and more Chinese coaches, which hopefully will develop the juniors. With more full-time clubs, there will be more summer camps and more places for juniors to play. With more juniors, there’s more competition, and that’s hopefully the start of the growth.
What do you attribute to your success with table tennis?
It’s tough, because in Arizona, there’s one guy who keeps track of play and the best-in-the-state trophy. He’s been around since the ‘60s of table tennis in Arizona, and keeps track of who the best player of all-time is. I have just surpassed it now, winning six times, and he says, of Arizona-born players, I’m the best. It’s a good level. I think of myself as a pretty good player, but it’s nothing compared to the rest of the country.
To do it, I play a lot of matches, which isn’t the best way to get better, but it’s better than nothing. When I got to college, I started training a couple times a week with a friend of mine. Coaching actually helps me get better, because I’m always on the table and feeling the ball, so I can get better touch.
It’s playing a lot, a lot of table time. If you’re on the table, you’re going to get better. If you’re not touching a paddle three or four days a week, it’s going to be hard to improve much.
Is there a difference between table tennis and ping-pong?
No. There are quotes out there that ping-pong is the recreational game, and table tennis is a serious game, but the Chinese call it ping-pong, so I’m OK with it.
I know 2012 Olympian Ariel Hsing is quoted as saying, “You use your hands in ping-pong, but you use your feet to play table tennis.” It’s just what people associate ping-pong with, hitting the ball back and forth, with not much moving or athleticism to it. Table tennis is the “professional sport,” but I call it ping-pong now even though I used to call it table tennis.
What advice do you have for beginner players?
Hit the ball on the table. Just keep it on the table, and get it consistent. You can’t lose if you never miss a shot. There is no reason to overpower the ball or anything.
If you want to learn how to really win, you have to learn how to spin the ball. Spin is the number one focus in table tennis. That’s what people don’t understand, is that a lot of paddles at Sports Authority and Big 5 can’t produce the type of spin we get with professional paddles.
How do you recommend people get the right equipment?
I sell equipment. I’m the only professional equipment dealer in Arizona, and you can always buy stuff online. I sell all types of equipment, from cheaper Chinese stuff, which is still pretty good and a good way to start, especially because of the prices, to more expensive companies, like Butterfly and Xiom. They’re very expensive, but very good equipment.
Does playing other sports affect table tennis-playing ability?
I think they can help, but I actually think table tennis helps other sports because you need the hand-eye coordination and reflexes in table tennis. I heard a stat you have 0.2 seconds at the top level sometimes to react between table tennis shots. In baseball, when a 95 mile-per-hour pitch is coming to you, you have 0.4 seconds, double the amount of time as ping-pong.
It’s a fast sport here. Developing the reflexes, really developing the understanding of the game and the ability to think and react, then developing your spin are all key. Reflex, hand-eye coordination and the footwork all help.
I’m a small guy, so I never had any power in baseball, but I had a decent batting average because I could see the rotation on the ball and field ground balls well. I could read the ball off the bat and get good jumps on the ball, I believe, from table tennis.
A lot of sports all require the same type of rotation of the body and transferring of the weight, but there are little differences. I’m coaching a golf pro right now who teaches golf, and he’s actually pretty good for a beginner and is better than most recreational players I coach, because he understands spin and how to rotate the body. Sports do translate to each other.
It’s really about hand-eye coordination. Michael Jordan used to say he would play ping-pong before every basketball game because it helped his hand-eye coordination.
You got to play with Phoenix Suns point guard Goran Dragic this year. What was that like?
It was awesome. I love sports, and I love the Suns, and Goran was the top player in my head. It was so cool to meet him. He was so down-to-earth and a really cool guy, very genuine. He’s an athletic guy, and it’s great to coach athletes.
I want to coach more athletes. I want to get to the Suns or the Diamondbacks, because I hear all baseball clubhouses have table tennis tables, and I’d love to get in there and coach and hit with them. It was really neat to experience getting to play with one of those guys.
What’s it like coaching Frank Caliendo?
He’s great. He’s not funny when he takes lessons, though, he’s serious. You can see why he’s gotten so good at impressions, because he has to repeat them over and over again, and it’s helped his game a lot. He’s a very good player and better than the average tournament player.
What are your goals?
My goal is not to be coaching in a garage my whole life. I want to open up my own table tennis club and full–time facility. I want to really improve the sport and get the kids involved. I would want to open up more full-time, dedicated table tennis training center types of places, which are becoming bigger, which is helping the sport.
I really love coaching juniors, so for me, the only way these juniors are going to get better, and to get more juniors, is I need more tables. I can’t do group training or summer camps with one table. I want a full-time club where I have eight-12 tables, and it’s open seven days a week, 10 hours a day, with after-school programs and summer camps to get the juniors playing five days a week.
By getting more and more full-time clubs around the country, the sport is going to grow. I know there are clubs that are bar-type clubs, such as SPiN New York and SpiN LA, so I’ve thought about opening one of those, but I’m not a big drinker. It’s really hard to coach juniors in a bar setting. Sure, I’d make more money, but for me, that’s not my biggest thing.
Do you have any aspirations as a player?
I would love to get better and try to make the Olympic team, but unless I can get a club and import Chinese players and train with them, it would require me leaving the state for awhile and training elsewhere.
It’s just not that motivational to me. I don’t see it helping my business. I always train currently just to continue to get better, but with the amount of training I’m doing with the people I’m doing it with, there’s no way to make it to that level. The only way I could is if I went to California or China to train. As I get older, it gets harder.
Why should people give table tennis a try?
First of all, it’s a great workout. You’re going to burn calories, and it’s a great way to lose weight. I coached a guy who lost 50 pounds in a year and a half, and all he did was come twice a week, plus play in the club a couple times a week. He just added that to his lifestyle and lost 50 pounds in a year and a half.
You can definitely have fun with it. It’s going to help your brain and keep you active. It can prevent Alzheimer’s disease. For older people, it really keeps the brain active. Table tennis helps every part of your brain.
It works hand-eye coordination. It works reflexes. It works your footwork. It keeps you moving. It’s a full-body workout and a full brain workout.
You can’t really get anything better than that. You go hiking, and it’s a good workout, but this can be more effective exercise than hiking. And, I personally enjoy this more.
Why should people use you as a coach?
If they want to get better and learn more about the sport, I’m the one to help them. I study up. I continue to learn the techniques around the world so I continue to teach the proper techniques used around the world currently. I try to teach based on the world-class players.
We have a world champion named Stellan Bengtsson in San Diego right now who coached some of the best players, so I try to coach a lot of what he talks about. Plus, if you want to really understand the game strategy-wise, I can do it. If you want to just get exercise in, I can make you move.
You can do one-on-one lessons, you can do two people at a time. I can put you both on one side of the table and have you do drills together, or you can take turns hitting.