Coaching Articles

Training Partners and Rivals (8/15/2018)

Two of the things that can help a player improve the most and the most rapidly are a good Training Partner (TP) and a Rival.  Several of each is even better!  They can also be the same player, i.e. a TP/Rival.

Benefits of a Strong Rival:

  • Having a strong rival will provide a very clear target. Most people do better with a clear, focused goal.
  • The desire to beat – or avoid getting beat by- said rival will enhance focus and work rate during practice. Focus, both during training and during matches is critical to consistent, (relatively) rapid improvement.
  • A strong rival is also a moving target – or ideally should be. Your rival doesn’t want to lose to you either, so he or she will also train hard.  Since your rival is improving, your goals must be ever higher.  Instead of, for instance, having a goal to become a USATT 1800 player, you really need to focus on learning whatever it takes to compete with your rival.  This will often result in you both sailing past 1800 (or whatever level) on your way to glory!  It will (hopefully) also keep you from getting complacent.  If you get complacent at 1800 and your rival keeps working, he or she is likely to pass 1900 or even 2000 while you are basking in your “1800 glory”!

Note: If a Rival of similar experience and motivation is nowhere to be found, you may have to play “musical rivals”!  Pick someone a bit stronger than you to start with.  If they are an established (no longer training seriously or improving rapidly) player, you should be able to catch them and pass them.  Once you are stronger, pick a new rival!  Continue as required…

  • Having a great rival will also keep you honest.
    1. If you have a day when you are not focused you are very likely to get beat. Learning to focus is really important, and occasionally getting beat serves as a reminder.
    2. In the same vein, if you have a day when your timing is off a bit, or you just aren’t seeing the ball as well as usual, you’ll also be likely to lose. Having a rival that will punish you when your game is off is a not a bad thing. Hopefully you’ll also be learning to do the best you can with your “B” game.  Learning to win, or at least compete effectively when things aren’t going your way is important!

What is a Good Training Partner?

A good TP is someone available and willing to do drills and other practice regularly.  Ideally a TP should be of a level that allows them to push you (the player).  Unfortunately, perfect TP’s are often not available.  The good news is that a good TP doesn’t have to be a great player.  They do have to be good enough to do drills effectively, but even this isn’t etched in stone.  There are several ways for a willing, but slightly weak TP to be very useful.

  • Virtually all players have strengths and weaknesses; hence the stronger player can play to the weaker TP’s strength or to one of their strengths. This will result in them being “effectively stronger”.  A side bonus is than being forced to play to a certain specific location or one of a few locations – the TP’s strength – will force a player to improve their placement, control, and overall focus.
  • Regular drilling should help a weaker TP to improve at least some aspects of their game quite rapidly. Two examples of this are blocking and pushing.  Both skills can usually be improved fairly quickly with practice and both skills are critical for most advanced drills.  As the TP improves, the stronger player will be able to drill at an increasingly high level.  This, in turn, will keep pushing the TP towards continued improvement.
  • A weaker TP may force the stronger player to do drills at, for example, 50% speed. While this might not seem as obviously beneficial as doing the same drills at “full speed”, it is still great practice, and is well worth spending time on. The better player should really focus on consistency, balance, smoothness, technique, placement, depth, and control over spin and speed.  Even when a top notch TP is available, practicing these things is a great idea.
  • A weaker TP can learn to feed multi-ball, which can open up plenty of drill options for the stronger player.

Benefits of a Good Training Partner:

A good TP will allow a player practice regularly and effectively!  As players improve, their practice requirements increase rapidly.  In general, it is much harder to go from (for example) USATT 1900 to 2000 than from USATT 1400 to 1600.  Going from USATT 2100 to 2200 is much harder yet.  Steady improvement demands regular, focused practice.  As playing levels increase, more and better practice is required.  A good TP – or possible several good TP’s are absolutely critical for fast improvement.  The best coaching in the world is of limited use if the techniques taught cannot be practiced effectively and often.

Best of Both Worlds!

I think that having rivals be frequent training partners is almost always the best possible scenario for both.  This is true at all levels!!!

Some players worry that practicing with a rival will allow the rival to figure out or get comfortable with their game.  This is at least partly true, however this player will have the same opportunity to learn their rival’s game.  In the long run, both players will improve, and in the process, will push each other to improve faster than they would otherwise.  There is simply nothing like competition to improve focus and work rate!

I encourage everyone to appreciate their TP(s)!  Just as important though is to appreciate your rivals – without them, you would be less motivated and focused!

Righty playing Lefty (2/22/2015)

OKCTT is blessed (cursed?!) with a bunch of good and improving lefties.  Watching lots of Lefty vs Righty matches is very interesting.  This article details some tactical thoughts based on such observations.  To be fair, this isn’t a “how to beat a lefty” article.  I tried to include plenty of observations that can help lefties more effectively play righties.

Righties Playing Lefties (general principals)

  1. Each will be playing their forehand cross-court to opponent’s backhand.
    1. A dominant forehand should be a significant advantage
    2. A strong backhand block and counter is critical
    3. Having an excellent inside out (hitting a forehand to the (opposite handed) opponent’s wide forehand) is very important. Consistency and location are generally more important than speed.
  2. Each will be playing their backhand cross-court to opponent’s forehand.
    1. A powerful backhand (speed and spin) is often less of an advantage against an opposite handed player.
    2. A versatile backhand – one that can use sharp angles (even at the expense of some speed), varying speed and spin, and still go down the line (ideally also with some variations of speed and spin) – can be a very strong weapon.
  3. Lefties commonly play many righties.
    1. Lefties generally learn to control righty’s natural sidespin plus variations early.
    2. Lefties generally are forced to develop very good backhand blocks and counters from the beginning of their TT careers.
    3. Lefties generally have learned to accurately read righties body/shoulder/arm position and timing changes, hence are usually pretty good at anticipating shot locations.
    4. Lefties, especially once they reach a strong intermediate (or better) level can generally deal with fast and spinny shots to their backhand.
      1. Often they are less-strong generating their own power and spin from the backhand corner – at least at the “less elite” levels.
    5. Lefties (less than elite level) often tend to “camp out” in their backhand corner too much, i.e. they stay way over in the backhand corner and are often “looking” for balls to be returned/attacked there.
  4. Righties play lefties less commonly.
    1. Righties have to learn to comfortably deal with lefty’s natural sidespin and variations.
    2. Righties have to solidify their backhand block and counter game in general due to lefties forehand “natural” angles.
    3. Righties need to learn to “read” lefties and better anticipate shot locations.
    4. Righties tend to spend WAY too much time attacking lefties “fortified” backhand corner.
      1. this corner is a great place to attack, but only after moving the lefty out first, or by surprising them.
      2. If the lefty rarely turns the corner (steps around to hit forehand), attacks to lefties elbow – or even a bit farther right – can often cause problems.
      3. Attacks to a lefty’s wide forehand are rarely a bad idea. Even if the lefty has good footwork and a good moving or crossover forehand, they are now out of position for a block or counter towards their backhand corner.  Perhaps more importantly, they are now obligated to “respect” that shot and will often move out of their backhand corner a bit.
  5.  Forehand
    1. Both need to be able to play forehands down the line comfortably and with good pace.
    2. Both need to be able to also attack opponent’s backhand corner with a variety of speeds and spins to varying (wide, very wide, elbow, etc.) locations.
    3. Both need to be able to play inside-out (step around) forehands with varying speeds and locations. Example, very fast to corner, or spinnier and well wide of corner.  Note that a strong backhand can often replace some need to step around.
    4. Both need to remember to attack their opponents elbow (crossover point) ferociously and mercilessly. This point is often further right for (when attacking) lefties and more towards the belly for righties.  Naturally there are exceptions, but find the crossover point, then attack there!
  6. Backhand
    1. Both need to be able to play backhand down the line – either to win points when opponent has been moved wide to forehand, or simply as a variation.
    2. Both need to be able to play strong backhands at the opponent’s crossover point.
    3. Both need to be able to play wide and very wide backhands to opponent’s far forehand. A strong, spinny backhand can be a viable replacement for a step around forehand – especially if it is taken quickly off the bounce.
    4. Being able to hit a quality backhand to the opponent’s wide backhand (when hitting backhands from closer to middle of table) can be a great shot. If over-used, it can quickly loses effectiveness.  Attacking the elbow often, and the wide forehand consistently sets this shot up.

Tactical Observations (From Winter 2015 SSG)

I saw a lot of good Table Tennis.  I saw a lot of examples of solid tactical play, excellent mental toughness, and real focus too!  But I also saw a LOT of the opposite.

Tactically speaking, there were three skills that I saw used to great effect – particularly in the higher events – depth control, speed and spin variation, and attack locations.  I’ve covered some before, but will go over all three briefly.

Depth control is one of the less obvious, but critical skills of better players.  By depth control, I mean controlling your opponents depth, i.e. how far they are from the table.  Most good players are pretty solid and comfortable moving from left to right.  Some actually hit better on the move.  Very few seem to enjoy moving forwards and backwards as much.  Some otherwise very fluid and graceful players suddenly look fairly awkward when forced to do so.  This skill is obviously most useful for “at the table” players, but is something everyone should work on.  Also, it looks like we all should be doing serious practice that involves moving in and out.

Speed and spin are two very individual things.  Each player tends to develop their own favorite blends – and this is great.  One of the most obvious differences between “rough levels” of play are in their ability to control this.  At lower levels, many players struggle with control, hence often lack power.  At middle levels, players tend to split into two camps – one being control over power, and the other being power over control.  This continues at the upper levels too, but obviously with more control of the power shots and more power available on both power and control shots.  All this is normal.

What I see too much in the intermediate levels is poor (or no) decision making regarding power.  Way too many players have a pretty “set” reaction to opponents attacks.  Some players immediately and only block or “go defensive”, while others almost invariably try to “counter smash”.  I saw several matches, by several players lost – some comprehensively – due to the “counter smash” reaction.  This is a low percentage response and repeatedly missing these is costly.  Many of the players I saw doing this are very capable blockers, and some are more than capable of simply spinning the ball back.

I’d like to see some variation, tactics, and thought go into shot selection against strong shots.  Simply getting the ball on the table may not be enough at higher levels, but it can win matches at intermediate and lower levels.  Good blockers can make even “really good” attackers work hard.  Mixing soft blocks with medium or aggressive ones is important.  Same with spin variation and placement.

From off the table – even a bit – responses to attacks can also be varied.  If you are a strong counterlooper and are in position have at it.  If you aren’t, or aren’t quite in position, spin the ball back, fish, chop, or do whatever you can to stay in the point rather than trying low percentage “super attacks”.

I’ve covered attack locations before – look around below for a refresher – but want to stress that I see WAY too little in the way of attacks to the middle or elbow.  Some of the stronger players earn their keep with this shot.  Too many others rarely use it!

Think Like A Coach (3 Aug 2014)

Player Type A:

I’m going to define Player Type A as players who naturally and critically evaluate their games – both technically and tactically.  These players always are trying to find holes or weaknesses in their opponents game.  Type A players know their own issues and weakness and do everything they can to keep their opponent from exploiting them.  These players are great to coach and usually tough to play against.  Unfortunately, these players are also FAR from common.

Player Type B:

I’ll define Player Type B as players who never seem to consider much of anything.  These players manage to NOT learn from wins, losses, mistakes, or even brilliant decisions.  Although they are not that common either, they are not uncommon enough.  These players are TOUGH to coach, but can be pretty fun to play against.  Raise your hand if you’d like to play someone willing to make the same mistakes over and over?

Are you a Type A or Type B player?  I’d like everyone to really think about this and, if Player B is the answer – or even if Player A is NOT the answer – to give serious though to changing their thought patterns.

When you miss the third simple push in a game do you:

  1. Finally realize that your opponent has an uncommonly heavy push?
  2. Look at your rubber in disgust – maybe for the third time?
  3. Clean off your shoes, glare at your rubber, wipe your hand on the table like the pro’s, then mutter to yourself?
  4. Miss three simple pushes – after the first one caught the net, you really focused on their blade angle and acceleration through the ball and missed no more!
  5. Point out that you prefer a different brand and/or color ball and note that the lighting could be better.

If you answered 4, you are probably a Type A – congratulations!  If you answered 1, you are on the right track, but should pay more attention.  If you answered 2,3, or 5, your are almost certainly a Type B prospect…  Sorry!

When you get caught stepping around your backhand for the second time do you:

  1. Note that you need to stay more balanced and really watch your opponent’s body, foot, and shoulder positioning.
  2. Admit they caught you, and that you need to try not to telegraph your plans so much.
  3. Wipe your feet off in disgust, note that the jerk two tables down “Cho-ed” right when you were about to stroke, then assume your opponent just got lucky anyways.
  4. Note that your opponent made a nice shot, but realize you need to bring your forehand into play as soon and as often as possible, so you are bound to get caught now and then.
  5. Fall on the ground, writhe in faux pain, grab your head (or maybe your shin), and gesture that your opponent should be shown a card?

If you answered 1, 2, or 4, you might be a Type A player – at least you are thinking!  If you answered 3, you are firmly in the Type B zone!  If you answered 5, you are clearly playing the wrong game – or maybe you watched too much of the World Cup…

When your opponent blocks the fourth of your cross-court WINNER loops back – while you are still posing – do you:

  1. Wipe your rubber off in disgust and mutter about needing that $300 Super XYZ Blade?
  2. Decide to start varying the speed, spin, and trajectory of your loops?
  3. Mutter about bad karma, sleep patterns, biorhythms, solunar tables, then do some pseudo tai-chi (or yoga) stretches?
  4. Decide to REALLY unload on the next loop?
  5. Make a note to explore looping to your opponent’s elbow, or perhaps down the line?

If you answered 2 or 5, you have some definite Type A potential!  If you answered 1, 3, or 4, you have some significant Type B leanings!

When you lose a game or match do you:

  1. Think back through how you lost points and won points and try to figure out ways to prevent or minimize the lost points while maximizing the won points.
  2. Whine about how your opponent got all the edges and nets?
  3. Throw your stupid blade at the wall (or ground), curse like a sailor, then start hating life because you’ll surely be losing some ratings points?
  4. Note that you didn’t sleep well, your eyes were irritated, there were some weird air currents, the opponent’s rubber was likely illegally boosted, the barriers had distracting lettering, and the floor was sub standard?
  5. Assume the opponent got lucky or you just had the worst day ever?

If you answered 1, congratulations, you have Type A written all over you! (It is super important to REALLY evaluate what went wrong – especially if the answers are fixable mistakes.  Don’t shy away from tough self-evaluation – but don’t be too hard on yourself either.)  If you answered 2, 3, 4, or 5, your probably need to change your ways – you have Type B issues for sure!

When you win a game or match do you:

  1. Nearly throw your shoulder out patting yourself on the back, yell I’m the KING, and assume that this proves you have nothing left to learn?
  2. Taunt your opponent and rejoice in the fact that you made a 9 year old girl cry?
  3. Think back over what worked for you, what didn’t, and why so that you’ll be better in the next match?
  4. Try to remember the serve, then opening sequences that you were most comfortable with and that gave our opponent the most trouble.  Also think about why it gave them trouble.
  5. Start thinking about how many ratings points you are likely to gain this tournament if you keep winning?

If you answered 3 or 4, you have some strong Type A tendencies!  If you answered 1, you have some Type B issues.  If you answered 2, you will probably learn to regret it – 9 year old ~1200 girls all-too-often turn into 12 year old ~1900+ girls.  If that isn’t enough, consider 14 year old 23oo girls!  If you answered 5, you have deeper issues than I’m prepared to talk about here…

Big Picture – it is really critical that you LEARN!  Learn from your mistakes!  Learn from your successes!  Just Learn!

Learning from mistakes is a bit painful and generally requires admitting  to and identifying shortcomings.  Nobody really likes this, but is it super important.  The better you are at this, the quicker you will improve.  KNOWING how you lose points, games, or matches is the first step towards finding a way to fix your game.

Learning from successes (wins) is far less painful, but seems to be equally uncommon.  Too many players seem to think their wins were “inevitable”, “justified”, or simply “proof of their awesomeness”.  These players generally LEARN nothing from these wins, which is bad practice and simply a shame.  Instead of simply enjoying their wins, they should analyze their match to figure out EXACTLY what is was that they did right, what their opponents disliked, and preferred successful tactics and patterns.  They should also think back to things their opponent did that they didn’t like or that put them in a tough spot.

While immediately becoming a Type A is out of reach for most (me too!), I’d like to see folks at least try to minimize their Type B tendencies and work towards developing more Type A thought processes…

Practice With Effort and Focus (4 June 2014)

Disclaimer:  This tip is really just paraphrasing and repeating a VERY important tip that recently appeared on Table Tennis Coaching and several other places.

Make sure that you practice with intensity and focus.  If you practice at ~75% effort, ~75% focus, or both, you are not putting enough pressure on yourself.  Since many real matches will require your full attention and effort, it is important to get used to working hard in practice.

A related point is that drills SHOULD be challenging.  If you are comfortable doing drills, they probably need to be “dialed up a bit”.  Excessively hard drills are not the answer, but you need to be pressured and at least somewhat uncomfortable, challenged, and off balanced.  As “Difficulty Level X” becomes relatively comfortable, it is important that the drills are altered to yield a higher “Difficulty Level X+1”.  The difficulty can be increased by raising the frequency, speed, spin, randomness, or amplitude – or a mixture of any of them.  Frequency is number of balls per minute.  Speed is simple the velocity of the fed balls.  Amplitude is width or range covered by the drill, i.e. balls fed to wider areas.

Don’t Lose Track of the Basics (5 May 2014)

I love to see players working on their games.  Whether they are doing drills, playing “special[1]” games, practicing serves, or just discussing or watching TT, players improve both by doing, and by thinking.

Lately I’ve seen two particular issues that are of concern.  Not “end of the world” concerned, but still worrisome.  I’ve seen both issues with a number of players ranging from beginners to “pretty darn good”.  The first issue is with failure to focus on fundamentals.  The second is with drill selection or design.

Focus on Fundamentals

Every coach repeats this over and over and over and over…  I know it gets tiresome to hear, but it is SO important.  Getting lazy with fundamentals is a quick way to start backsliding.  It is definitely a way to slow down progress.  If you are doing a specific drill to work on one specific shot, do not simply “go through the motions” on the other portions of the drill.  Every drill repetition matters, and lackadaisical serves, pushes, footwork, blocks, etc. will be ingrained just as easily as the new skill you are working on.

I really like to see third, fourth, and fifth ball drills.  Building skills into “realistic” situations is great and so is the fact that both players HAVE to do several specific things accurately and repeatably (is that a word?).

Example Drill – for Player A to work on his fifth ball attack:

Player A serves short backspin, Player B pushes long, “A” loops to the “B” backhand, “B” blocks anywhere, then “A” attacks.  This is a fine drill.  Player A gets to work on serve, opening loop off a push, then on anticipation, footwork, and attack of the block.  Player B gets to work on his serve return, pushes, and on his blocking.

Problems I see too often are one or both players just “going through the motions” until the “fun part”.  Player B issues commonly include being too lazy with his pushes while waiting for his chance to block a loop.  Player A issues include neglecting his serve or opening loop.

Unfortunately, they are all intertwined.  If Player A doesn’t serve well, it is harder for Player B to push well.  If Player A serves very poorly, Player B ends up actually practicing poor tactics and shot selection by not attacking the weak serve.  If Player B doesn’t focus on making good, low, spinny pushes, Player A will likely be only learning to loop weak pushes – he could end up struggling when he plays players that have good, spinny pushes.  If Player A doesn’t open with a nice, deep loop, Player B’s block will not be very challenging.  Also, if the loop is VERY weak (and maybe high and short), Player B is learning to block balls that should be attacked.  If Player B doesn’t focus on his blocks, he can miss entirely, or simply fail to adequately challenge Player A.

What I’d like to see from Player A:

Player A should serve like they are in an important match EVERY TIME.  I want to see them take their service stance, focus, make a good, legal toss, make as good of a serve as possible, then move into a real, match-quality ready position.  When the push comes back, I want to see them move quickly and smoothly into the correct position, wait on the ball, then use their best form to loop the ball deep to Player B’s backhand.   They should immediately return to a neutral, ready position and watch to see where Player B’s block is going.  Then they should quickly and smoothly move into position and attack (naturally with perfect form!).

Player B should start out in a match-like service return position – no standing up with feet together, and definitely not with his blade held next to his knee.  He should move into proper position after the serve, then focus on making a good, low push to wherever the drill requires.  For advanced drills, he could vary the spin, speed, depth, and location to challenge Player A.  After pushing, he should immediately return to a balanced  ready position – athletic stance, elbow forward, and blade high – in anticipation of Player A’s loop.  Naturally he should focus on moving into position to block, and on making a consistent, effective block.  Again, if this is a higher level drill, he can and should vary the speed, spin, depth, and location of the block as necessary to challenge Player A.  For lower level drills, he should focus on consistent, accurately placed blocks.

In summary, there are details that must be attended to when doing even the most basic drills.  Critical ones include balance, positioning, contact point, contact type, and recovery to a balanced ready position.

Drill Selection or Design

It is important to realize that everything you do in a drill is absorbed or recorded on your “internal memory”.  This is why the above “fundamentals” stuff is important.  It is also why you have to be careful about how you drill and what drills you do.  Most commonly used TT drills are commonly used for a reason.  All higher level drills are intended to both work on fundamentals and to simulate match flow or conditions.  A good example is the Falkenberg Drill.  It involves one player blocking (or feeding multi-ball) and the other attacking (driving or looping).  The feeder sends two sequential balls to the backhand corner.  The attacker plays the first with his backhand, then steps around and plays the second with his forehand.  The feeder then sends the third ball to the wide (how wide is determined by player level) forehand.  The attacker moves quickly across the table and plays the third ball with his forehand.  The feeder then starts the cycle over by sending a ball to the backhand corner.  This drill gives the attacker practice on his backhand after coming from the forehand side, stepping around and hitting his forehand from the backhand corner, then recovering and moving across the table to play a ball to his wide forehand.  All these are important skills AND are game related skills.  In other words, every portion of the drill serves a real purpose.

Trouble Drills:  I’ve seen a variety of players who, while practicing one skill, do drills that are only half (or one third) productive.  One recent example is two advanced players who were deleting the wide forehand ball from the Falkenberg drill to (I suppose) get more practice stepping around to use the forehand from the backhand corner.  While I’m all for practicing this step around, the second half of the drill troubles me.  Instead of moving to hit a wide forehand, the players were stepping BACK around (once they had already turned the corner and played a forehand) and hitting a backhand from the backhand corner.  While I’m not against hitting backhands, I’m very much against hitting backhands on balls better attacked with the forehand.  I really don’t like it when players essentially step around a forehand to hit a backhand.  Whether the players realize it or not, they are (in my opinion) unintentionally training themselves to step around and hit backhands when in position to hit a forehand.  I’m sure the players thought they would learn the first part, but never use the second.  This MAY be the case, but I strongly prefer not practicing bad habits.

[1] “Special” games can be any format where you are doing something special to get some specific practice.  This includes playing while using one shot as much as possible, playing while using the same serve, or even playing without a certain favorite shot or two.  An example would be playing a weaker player, but using only topspin serves, never pushing, and never looping your forehand.  Another example for blocking practice would be to play a weaker player, serve and push long to their best side (or whichever side they want to work on their loop), then play out the point with blocking only.

Excellent Article by Larry Hodges (4 Mar 2014)

Larry Hodges (Top notch coach, author of numerous books on TT (and Science Fiction), and the guy behind the excellent Table Tennis Coaching Site posted a very interesting article about changing/fixing bad habits and technique.  HERE IS THE LINK  I’ve discussed some of this before, but this is a nice, concise summary.  I recommend that everyone look it over and give it some thought.  As a coach, fixing existing, ingrained bad habits is probably the toughest thing to do.  Basically, it can’t be done without serious commitment from the player.  They not only have to commit fully to the idea of change, they have to be willing to do the work – get coaching, practice, practice, practice some more, do shadow strokes, do lots more shadow strokes, and avoid situations (competitive matches primarily) where they will immediately revert back to their previous habits.

Tournament Event Selection (Why you shouldn’t avoid YOUR events) (27 Feb 2014)

Tournament Event Choices, by Britt Salter, Mike Lauro, and Marguerite Cheung – ITTF level 2 certified coaches.

In this article, we examine an issue that, from our experience, is common with table tennis players below 2000.  Far too often we see these players enter only rated events that are much higher than their current USATT rating.  The players we’ve talked are mainly motivated to protect their current rating points and to sidestep the danger of losing points to players with the same or lower ratings.  By entering only high rated events, they hope to gain rating points with a lucky win against a much higher rated opponent.  As coaches, we believe that this practice presents obstacles to improvement.

A player hones multiple skills by playing competitive matches against opponents with like ratings.  Winning tough, competitive matches will give the player confidence in future matches.  Learning how to win, especially close matches, and learning why a match was won or lost are critically important skills.  The player may have to make adjustments and change tactics in order to win a match.  Properly evaluating the reasons behind a win or a “winnable loss” in a competitive match is a tool that will better serve the player’s future development than evaluating a loss against an opponent who vastly outclasses the player.

Playing only opponents rated 250 points or more above a player’s rating does not simulate competitive match play.  Because the player is not expected to win and may be hoping to gain a rare upset, the player may not approach the match in the same way they would against an opponent of similar level.  The prospects of a low rated player winning matches in higher rated events are usually not good, hence the player’s tournament experience may consist mostly of losing.  Coming close to winning a game (or match) against a much higher rated player is not the same as winning a competitive match against a similarly rated opponent.  The much higher rated opponent may be treating the duel as a warm up match, conserving energy and using the player to set up shots they want to practice for later matches against more challenging opponents.  The lower rated player is neither dictating the action nor likely to even see the opponents real game.

As an example, consider the following scenario.  Let’s say a player with a rating of 1680 decides to go to a tournament offering the following events:  U1100, U1300, U1500, U1700, U1900, U2100, U2300, and “Open” singles events.  The player enters only the U2100, U2300, and Open events.  Because this tournament will have competitive 2000+ and 2200+ opponents, the chances that the player will advance out of an initial round robin group are slim.  The player is likely to run into other like-minded and similarly-rated players where they will have to engage in a competitive match.

What does the player learn from these matches that can be applied to future individual development and tournament competitions?  Basically, not much.  Few of their matches will be competitive.  Against much higher rated opponents, the player may not actually experience a competitive match because they are dominated by the opponent’s higher skill.  Wins will likely come from like-rated players and lower rated players.  If the player is entering these events mainly to gain rating points, they may not be focused on learning from these more competitive matches.

As coaches, we feel that this 1680 player should first enter the U1700 event.  We advise our students to enter the lowest rated event that they are eligible for.  We want them to go into the event fully intending to win it!  If they come up short but gave it their best effort, we are satisfied that we can use the results to improve the player’s development.  We will modify training sessions as needed to address issues presented from the competitive matches.  As the player continues to play in tournaments, they may see their rating go up and down.  But if we are doing our job as coaches, and the players are working hard to improve, then the overall trend of their rating will be UP!

We also suggest entering the U1900 event.  The player should be moderately competitive and is likely to have at least one or two tough matches.  This will give them a first-hand look at “the next level”.  Even if they lose most of their matches in this event, they will have the opportunity to learn what is required to compete at that level.  If the player has boundless energy and is really ambitious, we’d be fine with them entering the U2100 event as well.  They will probably get less benefit from this event, but it should be fun and they may play at least one competitive match.

We recommend that players ALWAYS enter the lowest rated event for which they qualify.  Rating points may be won and lost, but the primary reason for playing in the lowest rated event is not related to rating points; it is to learn to build skills from playing competitive matches.

We want our students to learn to handle match pressure, fight for points, stay focused, maintain their composure, control their emotions, and adapt to players with different styles.  We want them to learn how to find and exploit weakness of their opponent and to make appropriate adjustments in order to overcome tough opponents.  In these tight matches, the difference between winning and losing may be miniscule.  Small adjustments in serving, returning, placement, anticipation, balance, patience, consistency, or general shot selection are often the difference between a meaningful win and an agonizing loss.  These skills are critical to building a solid foundation to advance to the next level. All of these skills matter!  They matter at this level, the next, and the next…

Our advice to ambitious tournament players is fairly simple:  DO NOT STRESS OR OBSESS OVER RATINGS POINTS!!!  As coaches, we are more impressed with experience that an event championship brings rather than sudden jumps in ratings points.  As players improve their skills and match playing ability, the ratings points will surely follow. Link to PDF File

TT Robots…  Good or Evil? (13 Jan 2014)

I think TT Robots are wonderful inventions and can lots of fun.  They can also be great tools for training.  On the other hand, they can also be horrible.

We occasionally set up our trusty Newgy 2050 for doing specific exercises during group lessons.  I’ll also occasionally use it for individual lessons.  BUT I no longer encourage relative beginning players to hit against the robot unless they have some supervision.  By supervision, I mean someone to make sure they are “doing no harm”.

“Robots are Evil” Thoughts:

Common Robot Enhanced Problems (things I’ve seen over and over and over….)

1)The robot throws balls very consistently – essentially the same speed, spin, depth and location.  Most new players need to keep it simple, hence set the robot up to, for example, send all balls to their forehand sweet spot.  This is fine if done with supervision.  When done on their own (no supervision), it is VERYcommon for these players to  adjust their shaky, bad, or even fairly terrible strokes (or even non-strokes) to hit the ball back on to the table.  Doing this 40 to 60 times per minute for 5 to 15 minutes is a FABULOUS way to ingrain those bad strokes and habits.  Most relative beginners have no idea what their strokes are doing, and it is easy to undo hours of careful coaching in no time flat.  Reality sets in once they play a real opponent and find that they are worse off then when they started.

2) When doing drills where the robot throws balls to one spot, most beginners, and many intermediates completely forget things like stance, ready position, return to ready, and, since there is no moving required, footwork.  I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve turned away for a while, then turned back to see a student simply holding their blade where the ball will (eventually) come.  Not helpful!

3) Consistent balls make some players over aggressive and often over confident.  Being able to consistently rip a ball that comes every 1.35 seconds at 38 mph and with 2200 rpms is not really all that impressive.  If done with good technique, it likely can translate to game situations.  If done with pure timing – and shaky technique – it is probably of little or no use.

Ways to avoid or minimize the above issues.

1) If you are relatively new, please, please, PLEASE get coaching.  If possible, have the coach keep an eye on you while you learn and ingrain the basic strokes.  If this is not possible, video tape yourself – or have someone else do it – and keep an eye on yourself.  If your strokes don’t look like those of better players – or what can be found in books or training videos – stop and try to straighten them out.  Don’t be pig-headed and hope they will get better with repetition.  They might, but more likely they will simply get ingrained.

2) If your strokes are fairly sound and you just want to practice, do so, but make sure you start in a balanced “ready position” for every stroke and finish in one as well.  If you add movement – either random or programmed – to your drills, all the better.

“Robots are Great” Thoughts:

When used properly, robots can be a great training aid.  They never get tired and will play any time you want.  Some things I love about robots.

1) Weirdly perhaps, I spent more time practicing serves – my serves – on my robot than actually hitting balls.  The catch net makes this far less back-breaking!  To get the most out of service practice, I strongly recommend that you grab one ball at a time, take your “real” stance, toss the ball legally, serve, then move into a balanced “ready” position.  If you use a “pinch” grip, change to your regular grip as you move to ready.  I didn’t do this and taught myself to serve, admire my fine serve, then lurch awkwardly at the ball when my opponent rudely returned them.  It took me a long time to fix this problem…  Don’t do it!

2) Do drills that are at least a little uncomfortable.  It is common to drill on your best shots, but this probably isn’t time best spent.  Work on things you don’t like or are slightly uncomfortable with most of the time.  Push yourself…  When using programmed drills, start slow by all means, but, once familiar, make them harder.  Have the balls sent  more frequently, faster, or to wider spots.  Or all three.  You don’t want to miss half the balls, but you aren’t working hard enough if you hit over 90% of them.  It is GREAT when drills that once seemed stupidly difficult become fairly routine.  But once that happens crank it up more, add complexity, or start with a new drill.

3) Add randomness!  Once you start really getting good at programmed drills or multiple locations, add some randomness.  The randomness can be lateral location, speed and depth, or delivery timing.  Actually, it could be all three.  When you start getting comfortable doing drills at a fairly high level – with randomness – expect to see your game go up a notch.  Not all of this translates to REAL opponents, but you should have developed a solid ready position, good balance, and some footwork – all of which are super important.

Balance (Refresher)

There is a link below to an older article about balance, footwork, and anticipation, and it is worth reading – or re-reading!  My students get sick of hearing me tell them to work on their balance, return to ready, and move their feet first.  But doing those things is absolutely required if you want to play table tennis well.  Footwork and balance are the easiest ways to spot a good player.

Don’t Overlook the Basics (12 Jan 2014)

One of the things that I have noticed lately is that a lot of players neglect the basics and spend the bulk of their time working on assorted loops, kills, and counters.  Don’t get me wrong – those shots are something you need to develop and are well worth spending time on.  They are also pretty fun to work on.   The trouble is, unless you have a really solid foundation of the basics, they really aren’t something you can consistently use.

Primary Basics (Serve and Return)

I consider serve and service return to be the two primary basics, and I emphasize them early.  This makes sense, since EVERY point begins this way.

Serve:   If your serves aren’t adequate or consistent, your opponent will get lots of chances to work on their “fun shots”.  If your opponent is hitting, strongly looping, or  easily placing your serves where you can’t attack, you will have little control of the point.  Additional Note:  Being able to consistently execute various “flavors” of serve is super important when drilling.  Example:  For Player “A” to work on looping underspin, a normal drill would be to either have Player “B” serve underspin (long enough to loop) or to serve underspin to Player “B” and have them push it back long.  If either player is unable to serve (or push) adequately, the drill is FAR less effective and efficient.  Rather than getting to attempt to loop (virtually) every ball, lots of time will be wasted picking up missed serves, missed pushes, or dealing with bad serves or pushes.  It is tough to make a good, consistent push off a high-ish, dead-ish, inconsistent serve.

Serve Return:  More of the same…  If you miss or pop up a lot of your returns – or even just place them poorly – your opponent will third ball attack (more fun shots for them!) you to death.

Additional Basics (Push and Block)

Pushing:  Pushing is the next shot that needs to be added to every player’s arsenal.  Pushing is a relatively simple shot in its most basic form, but there are quite a few variations.  While I don’t expect new , or even “aspiring intermediate” players to know a lot of variations, they HAVE to be able to consistently push low and to a variety of locations.  As they approach the intermediate level, they need a wide variety of locations (short through long) and some spin variation.  At the lower levels, a low spinny push – even to the opponent’s power zone – is often a “safe enough” shot.  You are likely to get a push back  a fair percentage of the time.  The rest of the time they will try to loop it.  At lower levels, they will likely miss about as many loops as they make, and many of the ones they do hit can be easily blocked or countered.   Basic, consistent pushes are also REALLY important for drilling.  Like serves, they are featured in many intermediate and better drill schemes.  If both practice partners can’t push consistently, many drills become relatively unproductive.  Example:  Without a partner that can accurately and consistently push, it is very tough (and frustrating) to practice your opening loop vs push.

Blocking:  Basic blocking, like pushing, is a simple shot in its most basic form.  Also like pushing, there are many variations that advanced players can use.  Blocking is important at the lower levels and gets more and more important at higher levels.  (Slight disclaimer:  These days relatively little blocking is done at the VERY highest levels.  That being said, rest assured that every player in the top hundred in the world is AT LEAST a very, very good blocker.)  Blocking is important for several reasons.  During a match, blocking is often the best (easiest and most consistent) way to return your opponent’s strong shots.  Obviously, this is a good thing!  Good blockers do a LOT more that simply return the ball.  They place the ball accurately and to spots most likely to stop the opponent’s attack – or at least make it difficult.  Good blockers often win points by making their opponent work hard and by returning the ball more consistently than their opponent can attack.  Well-placed blocks can win points outright, but, more frequently, they force a weak return that can be attacked.  More advanced players use variations including sidespin, extra topspin, dead, or even backspin blocks.  They can generally block fast, medium, slow, or really slow.

Lower level players should try to master the basic block before getting too creative.  The basic block returns a loop as a light to medium topspin with the  speed mostly dictated by the incoming shot.  The next progression is to either add or remove some speed – which can throw off the attacker’s timing.

Again, like with pushing, consistent blocking is absolutely necessary for “more advanced” drills.  If both partners can’t block adequately, many drills are impossible or must be done with multi-ball .  Having two players drilling is efficient – they both are constantly working on something – but both players have to have solid blocks.  Example:  5-ball drill with attacking player looping push then looping topspin.  The attacker will serve backspin, his practice partner will push back (to designated area), attacker will loop (to designated area), practice partner will block or counter (to designated area), then the attacker will attack the ball.  Without consistent serves, pushes, and blocks, this type drill is nearly useless.  With good basics, the drill is an excellent learning too.

Spin, Spin, Spin! (30 Sept 2013)

A couple of our very promising young players seem to be struggling to spin the ball.  They seem to be having trouble with consistently applying spin AND with understanding that they NEED to spin the ball more and more often.

We are working on the techniques and timing, but I still see too many attempts to flat smash from well below the net.  Quite a few are even attempted from  below table level.  These very rarely hit, and lots of opportunities are missed.

As a side note, I’m also working to teach that a boring block, soft counter, or slow spinny loop to where the opponent isn’t, or at least where they don’t expect it, is almost always a better plan than trying a 1 out of 5 “hero” shot.

I think (hope?) that once they get comfortable with the technique for spin looping – and practiced till it becomes a “normal” shot – that they will start using it consistently.  Once they can loop heavy and slow, we’ll work on mixing the spin and speed.  Having a large number of “speeds” or “variations” is a good thing!

Please Click on the Links Below to read more…

Simplicity is Bliss (August 10, 2013)

Match Play Tips (July 2013)

In honor of starting our Pyramid Challenge Board and our good league numbers recently,  some basic match tips, thoughts, and tactics are in order.

Balance, Anticipate, Move Your Feets! (Jan 14, 2013)

Play a Variety of Players (Dec 16, 2012)

Serving (Part 1 Dec. 3, 2012)

Doubles vs Single (Nov 27, 2012)

4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Harold Masters on July 17, 2013 at 1:25 pm

    Great info for a beginner. Enough to work on for the 1st yr. or so!
    Thanks for taking the time and making the effort.


  2. A couple of oddball random thoughts:
    * Too often I have heard players say “I only want to play people who are better than me.” This is wrong for a couple of reasons:
    1.If those better players think the same thing, why would they play *you*?
    2. There are reasons to play people of all levels. You play people of lesser skills to give you the confidence to try new shots. You play better players to see what can be done, and to learn to play with the best. And you play with those close to your ability to allow you to push yourself and gauge your progress.

    * As Britt noted above, a shot doesn’t have to be a kill to be a winner. I win more with placement than I do with power. Learn touch, and learn to put the ball where you want when you want, and you’ll beat the vast majority of power players.

    * The two most important shots in the game – serve and serve return – are the two least practiced. And service motion should be a violent motion. 15-20 minutes of serve practice should leave you seriously tired.

    * Down the line! Most people hit their shots cross-court. I hit over half my shots down the line. It’s not the anticipated shot, and it is a shorter distance, giving your opponent less time to react.


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