Sunday 22 June 2014

How to Win Consistently Against Lower Players

This is a very good and typically asked question from Lachy Harris 'How do I consistently beat lower players than me?' A number of players find lower players harder to play against and you will often hear people saying they always play better against higher level players when there is no pressure to win than against lower players where they are expected to win the match. See more from my Coaching Blog.

How to Win Consistently Against Lower Players
So first of all it is important to recognise that it is mostly psychological and that being the 'higher player' generally implies that you have had better results and also have a more developed skillset. It is about how you use your skillset and/or greater experience to your advantage. Here are some of the biggest mistakes people make against lower players and how to avoid falling into the traps:

Don't Play Down to Them: A lot of players will try and make a match out of the occasion by playing down to the other player. In a competition you don't want to leave anything to chance and sometimes you will find yourself playing soft or giving easy balls, toying around a bit and not being very focused. This is an easy way to lose handfuls of points and a small shift in momentum can put a lot of pressure on you in the more important stages of the match. As with most of the psychological situations here and below, the best thing to do is to focus on winning at all times.

Don't Become Complacent: This can also be a big downfall, if you are leading by a long distance and decide to try some creative shots or start playing around then you may find yourself in trouble. A lead can be lost just as quickly as won so you could quickly find things changing direction.

The idea behind both of the two points above is this; often a match is just as much about you than it is about your opponent. Your mentality in a game can determine so much towards the result. This means that in any match situation you should be finding your full mental focus, regardless of who is at the other end. You should bring your A Game to a match with any player, higher or lower.

Here are some more ideas on the topic:

Exercise Efficient Tactics: Lower players can often give away easy points, you need to have tactics to exploit that fact up your sleeve just in case it gets tight and also be using them to build efficient point structures. Lower players will show their weaknesses more than higher players so you need to use your first few serves and receives to find out what those are. Lower players will also find it more difficult to adapt to tactical and variational changes in your game. You need to remain mentally alert during the game, if the opponent is winning points you need to shut down their tactics as early as possible. Remember a lower player is out to get a win against you so if they start winning strings of points then that gives them confidence and also deflates yours a bit.

Keep Positive: The worst thing that you can do against a lower player is get frustrated and negative. As in all situations doubt is the real enemy. If you start losing points or get behind in the match this is often the time when the pressure becomes very high and a player who usually suffers against lower players will start thinking a lot about the possibility of losing. This should never cross your mind. Playing to win is very important, if you get behind you need to focus on how you are losing points and how you are winning points, this is true of any match. Playing safe will only work if it is an effective tactic, some players lose confidence and start playing passively, if this is the wrong tactic then it will lead to defeat.

You should think more about each point and the tactics than the outcome of the match. With confidence you will know that if you play good table tennis and right tactics then you are capable of winning the match.

Practice Against Lower Players with Pressure: Handicap matches are a great way to practice against lower players, take the time to challenge lower players at your table tennis centre. It is good to help your lower level peers and also adds valuable experience against players of all abilities and styles. If you give them a headstart in the match it forces you to consider the most efficient way to win points and also lets you practice cutting down on easy unforced errors against lower level players.

It is important to focus on basic tactics and consistent execution, with both of these and a positive mindset you will perform much better against lower level players. Once you break through the negative barriers you will maintain this confidence and have more experience about how to consistently beat players who you are 'expected' to beat.

This is a great example of a higher level player (Ma Long) executing perfectly against a lower player
here he has great point structures and minimises the amount of energy consumption by efficiently winning points.

There are many other things which can help but the mentality and the execution of basic skills and tactics are the main points which will help you perform at the level you are capable of and let you focus on the higher level opponents you are really aiming to beat. Beating lower players is important for progressing in tournaments and in personal growth and development of your game. Hope this helps and answers your question Lachy! :)

Thursday 19 June 2014

How to Make the Most of Similar Level Training Partners

Before we get on to this topic make sure you don't miss out on my last blog on 'Building Depth Footwork Skills'! This question was submitted by Kris Sabas and is quite commonly asked in the online world of Table Tennis, 'How can I improve without playing significantly better players, training and playing with similar level players?' It's a great question. See more from my Coaching Blog.

I grew up in a club where the level was not so strong. By the age of 14 I had already won and defended the club's under 40 competition event and had the upper hand on most of the players there. I had no coach after a 2 year spell to the age of 13 when my coach left and it remained like that until I was 18 years old and left to a new city to start university. Towards the end the players were significantly lower than me, so this is a topic I can relate to quite well.

How to Make the Most of Similar Level Training Partners

Drill your partners' Weaknesses: When playing people similar or lower level than you, you really want to focus on setting yourself above that level (the act of doing so creates competition which raises the whole group of players). When playing matches you want to focus on building the most efficient ways to win points. Specifically target the weaknesses of your training partners, if they continue to lose points then they will feel forced to make changes to improve their weaknesses. You can also give them suggestions on how they can improve, or let them know perhaps these areas can be worked on as you were able to win many points from targeting them.

Solidify Basics: Technique and consistency and other basics like footwork and service are highly important in table tennis development. Regardless of level, maintaining a solid technique and consistency is important. No matter the level of your training partner, you need to focus on you. Make sure you are doing everything the best you can, make changes that you need to make so that you are playing the best strokes you can. Footwork is a big one, often if a player doesn't apply as much pressure in training or in a match we can get lazy. It is important to maintain focus against any level of player, high or low and to make sure you are 'going through the motions' correctly. This means winning points efficiently, moving into position, keeping body weight distributed low and not standing tall.

Identify an Outcome of Every Match: Often I come across players significantly below my level in competition. It is important to realise that they can help my game. Whether I choose to focus on good placement, perhaps just practicing my blocking or even setting up for high balls and finishing points. Each person can offer you some form of practice in a match. It can be as simple as playing someone 1000 points below you and still finding the focus to play as if you were playing someone 1000 points higher. Making the most of every occasion to play is one of the biggest factors to making improvements.

Practice Service: Service is not dependent upon anyone other than you. Of course peoples reactions to different serves is a pivotal part of the game, but improving service is down to hard work, discipline and commitment. Work on technical consistency, this means being able to serve short and low or long and fast with accuracy whenever you need to. Increase the contact to produce serves with more spin. A good service will quickly distinguish you from your peers as service is indeed a powerful weapon for any table tennis player and can be the key to winning easy points against some opponents.

Multiball: Even though a player may not be a high level training partner, they can still learn how to feed high quality multiball. Multiball allows you to increase the quantity of balls fed during a drill. You learn to react to a higher speed and anticipation skills build. A player may not be high level but if they can feed high quality multiball then they are a strong asset to any training group. I once heard of a player in New Zealand who lived a long distance out from any training centre, he had a table in his garage but nobody to play with. Over the course of a month he taught his mother to feed him multiball. As they repeated this her ability to feed multiball grew over time to the point where he was able to achieve good training sessions. His mother was not a table tennis player so if she can do it, a table tennis player definitely can!

Here is a video of me feeding a player from China, obvious level difference but he was still well out of 
breath by the end ;)

Play Handicap Matches: When playing lower players, put the pressure back on yourself by giving lower players point headstarts. This not only means you have to win points more frequently than you opponent, but also improves your ability to execute under pressure. You will put more focus on wiping out low level errors in your game and build consistency and strategic structuring of points in order to win points efficiently and with confidence. Set plays are an example, you can produce a serve which gives a high probability return and then in pressure situations you can use that serve, being confident of the return you 'should' get and commit to playing a planned out point with it.

There are a great number of options for anyone to build their level even without the aid of a significantly higher player. Make the most of every opportunity, take the most from every playing occasion. The best way to improve in these situations is to work together as a group, help each other, if your training partners improve then you will all benefit and develop as a team. Hope this is a satisfactory answer to your question Kris! :)

Thursday 12 June 2014

Building Depth Footwork Skills

Alexandra Dimitrova has asked a great question, 'Can you recommend a good footwork drill for long and short play?' adding that the focus always seems to be on lateral movements and not so much on movement in and out of the table. Thanks for a great question Alexandra, as it happens I have a few great drills for this kind of footwork development! :) See more from my Coaching Blog.

Building Depth Footwork Skills
First of all let's discuss why depth footwork is important. Well for a start table tennis has evolved to such a state that most points begin with shortplay and a constant psychological and tactical battle of finding a chance to attack first and shutting down your opponents chance to do so. This means the emphasis on short serve and receiving has grown over the last decade and the points have become a lot tighter.

With the speed of the game, a ball placement can quite quickly transform from shortplay to a first attack, so there is a strong need to develop in and out footwork and to be able to execute it with speed. Often you may need to come in and short push a short serve and immediately recover to counter a flick or long push or some other scenario along those lines.

Topspin Depth Drill: This drill is used to combat varying pace in a topspin rally. One player simply controls the ball by blocking a ball soft and shallow, the attacking player must stay close to the table as the ball drops medium length. The blocker then blocks the next ball with a bit more pace and good long depth, the attacker has to move back to accommodate the deeper bounce. This alternates with the blocker placing the ball soft and shallow, faster and deep and the attacker is moving in and out alternately to match. You can vary this drill by allowing the blocker to randomise the pace of their blocking also.

Short Receive and Recover to Topspin: This drill is a reaction recovery and involves moving in and out with speed. The drilling player receives a short backspin serve by moving in and pushing the ball short, the server then flicks the ball (can be to a fixed point or random). The drilling player must recover quickly in order to attack or counter the flicked ball. This is a very important depth drill as it is becoming a more and more common scenario. The faster you can recover the more pressure you can put on your opponent, a slow recovery will not give you much time to attack and your receive of the flick may be passive. A fast recovery gives you time to be in position and execute more weight transfer and time to make strong placements. You can start practicing by recovering to block or small counter the flick then build into a fast recovery and a full counter or looping play on the flicked ball.

Short Receive and Recover to Underspin: This is similar to the above, you move in and short push off a backspin serve, the server then pushes long (most effective is to the backhand corner or body), to get the best speed development you should aim to open with a forehand loop no matter where the ball is on the table. This requires a fast recovery in order to execute the weight transfer necessary to produce enough topspin on the long push ball. This is a highly recommended drill for 3rd and 5th ball attacking players.

Flick Receive and Counter: This builds an even higher paced drill and allows you to deal with an offensive play from in-table. The server can essentially serve any spin short, you will move in and flip the ball. The server will then attack the ball you have just flipped. Once again you can start by recovering to block the ball and build up your footwork speed to counterattacking.

These drills form a good core to build the skills of depth footwork. There aren't many scenarios where you would have to go from out of the table in with the exception of dropshots on lobs or chopblocks on range loops so it is best to focus more on playing short then moving out to cover a long ball.

My favourite multiball drill for this skill was a short push wide on the forehand and a pivot loop from the backhand corner, this is possibly the biggest stretch in footwork you can achieve both in terms of depth and lateral movements.

Hope this answers your question well Alexandra and good look working on your depth footwork! :)

Thursday 5 June 2014

Tactics for Playing Backhand Dominant Players

A fresh question from Paul Shih, 'What type of strategies can be used against backhand dominant players?'. Great question, it's not often we come across these types of players as the forehand is so heavily favoured in table tennis so it pays to have an idea of what to do should you stumble across a strong backhand player. Here are some strategy ideas for playing backhand oriented players. See more from my Coaching Blog.

Find the Forehand: First piece of advice is to target the weaker stroke. Often on serve receive these backhand oriented players will flip across a wide proportion of the table with their backhand. These players usually have weaker forehand serve receives. This is a common tactic you would also use against players with pips on their backhand also. You need to find the point at which your opponent will receive with their forehand. Once you know that point, you can either drag your opponent all the way across to play a backhand on one side of the point and open up space on the table, or you can target their weaker forehand receive on the forehand side of the point.

Tactics for Playing Backhand Dominant Players
Target the Forehand: A seemingly obvious tactic here, if the backhand is much stronger, then target the forehand. You also need to understand more about the strengths and weaknesses of the strokes. Your opponent may be weaker at opening with the forehand but strong in a rally, hence you would put extra pressure on service and receive to the forehand in order to force errors on the forehand ball. This is important because a stronger backhand doesn't necessarily mean a weak forehand, it's all comparative.

Where is the Strength in the Backhand: Is your opponent strong across the whole backhand side? Do they play backhands across the middle of the table? Are they effective at covering their whole backhand half, how strong are they on the wide backhand? Remember a player can be strong within their comfort zone, test the limits. A backhand oriented player must always position themselves behind the ball for a stable, well controlled stroke, this means they have to be fast and always in the right place. Test wide balls and body shots and see how effectively your opponent deals with them.

Tighten Up Shots to the Backhand: When playing to the backhand, make sure you play high quality strokes. Take away as much comfort as you can. Play long pushes with heavy spin, short pushes short and low to prevent full attacking strokes. Loop with good depth and good spin and play with lots of variation so as the opponent cannot build rhythm.

Open The Forehand Corner: The wide forehand needs to be a big target in this scenario. Not only does it target a big movement to play the opponent's weaker stroke, but it opens up a large distance to recover and guard the space created on the backhand. Forcing the opposition into the corner or off the table on their backhand side will open up more space across the forehand. If you can exploit that and play wide to the forehand, the opponent will have a large space to cover. If their weight is not balanced when they arrive at that forehand shot, they may keep moving out on their forehand side after their stroke, opening up even more space on their backhand.

These are only small tips, each player is different and a backhand player could be dominant or weak in a multitude of different areas of the game. The main tactics really are to target away from the backhand in order to create a situation where the backhand cannot be covered, at which point you have opened up a defensive gap and can exploit it to win points.

Tuesday 3 June 2014

Tips for Effective Service Receiving

The next question wasn't far away, hopefully you find my last article on 'How to Deal with Heavy Topspin Opponents' useful! The next question was from Arjun Sreekumar who asked for some advice on receiving various services effectively. Serves come in many different forms and variations so it's quite a broad topic to cover but hopefully I can give you some useful advice on how best to deal with returning serves. See more from my Coaching Blog.

Tips for Effective Service Receiving

Learn to Read The Ball Contact: Reading service will ultimately provide you with the best idea of how to return the ball most effectively. Watching the moment of ball contact and the opponent's service action will give you a lot of information as to what they are serving. Also remember the first bounce on the table will give you information on the length of the serve, more often than not a bounce closer to the net is characteristic of a short serve and closer to the server, a longer serve.

Also pay special note as to how much contact the opponent makes on the ball, you can observe their brushing action on the ball, or the 'dwell time' which indicates the amount of spin on the ball. Including service receive against different service types in training is very important as it is one of the 4 key skills to master in order to become a well rounded player and to win matches.

Be Decisive: Hesitance is often your worst enemy when it comes to service receive. Table Tennis can be a very touchy game, alongside it's high speed reputation. Spin is difficult to control and often a soft or uncertain return of service will play right into the hands of your opponent. The best thing to do when receiving serve is to make an assertive stroke once you have decided how to receive serve. Even if it is not the correct shot selection, your chances are much better of making a quality receive of serve if you are making a shot with full confidence. This also includes having decisive placement, this is a crucial part of your return as a well placed and high quality receive can be devastating to your opponent.

Be Assertive: In table tennis the first attacker usually holds an advantage. Taking the initiative where opportunities lie is a crucial step in taking control of a point. When returning serve it is important not to be too passive when the chance arises to make an offensive play. Often we see players tripping up over medium long serves and pushing the ball back long (as a medium long serve can be difficult to play short), this gives their opponent the first chance to attack. In reality if a serve will only bounce once, it is important to develop the mentality to make an attacking stroke. This often requires a player to have an attacking mindset. Be assertive, recognise each and every chance to take the initiative.

Avoid Big Stroke Actions: Service receive is often well controlled with concise strokes. A large swing can be inaccurate or ineffective. Keeping shorter and more controlled strokes is often a better option for efficiently returning most serves. This minimises the level of risk involved, this is important as service receive is your first foot in the door into a point.

Hopefully these key pointers are enough for you to work with and focus on for increasing the effectiveness of your service receiving, even though it was quite a brief outline of the large topic of service receive. Thanks for your question Arjun! :)

Monday 2 June 2014

How to Deal With Heavy Topspin Opponents

I decided to get some more input from the dedicated readers out there so I will now be writing posts to help solve your worldly table tennis dilemmas! The first question submitted was from Ruth Woodhams, "How do you deal with heavy topspinners?" So my first 'response' post will answer just that, thanks for your question Ruth! :) See more from my Coaching Blog.

How to Deal with Heavy Topspin Opponents
There are a few approaches, we can split it into 2 big tactics. You can either prevent the problem, or learn to deal with it.


If heavy topspin balls are out of your comfort zone, your first step is to try and stop your opponent from being able to make that play. There are a number of options there (combinations of the three are ideal):

Play Heavy Backspin: Make the opening ball as difficult as possible, the heavier and deeper on the table you can play the better. If they want to play heavy topspin then make it as difficult as possible for them, if you do this effectively then you may cause some of those opening balls to land in the net.

Play No Spin: A heavy topspin opponent is usually generating a lot of topspin to counter heavy backspin. So what if there is no spin on the ball? The ball will be high or go over the end of the table. Mixing heavy spin and no spin can help work against a heavy topspin player, especially if they struggle to read the oncoming ball. Even half long no spin serves can be effective especially when they break the side of the table.

Place the Ball Strongly: Heavy topspin often relies on good weight transfer from the legs, which means good balance is necessary and a solid base and centre of gravity to work with. Strong placement can take your opponent out of position, aim to make them less comfortable, play to the body or wide or into space on the table. If they aren't able to keep stable then generating spin and power becomes more challenging.

Open First: Making the first attack often presents a good advantage for any player. If you are calling the shots then your opponent has a little more added pressure on them. If you open with good topspin then it may force your opponent to use more defensive or passive options.

Dealing with Heavy Topspin:

Heavy topspin can cause a lot of trouble for a lot of players, that's why table tennis is so difficult, it's high speed and lots of ball rotations per minute. So how can you deal with the spin?

Angle Adjustment: Learning to read a ball and adjust to it can be a long process and requires a lot of practice. Whether blocking or countering a heavy topspin ball it is important to close the bat angle to cover the ball more. An open angle will fail to control a high amount of topspin. The best way to improve is to practice against the technique more, so practice more against heavy topspin balls, some fast, some slow, because pace also affects your options and reaction.

Don't Overplay: Often heavy topspin balls can cause errors when the receiving player overplays their stroke. Topspin actually gives you something to work with. When blocking ensure your weight creates a stable base and have a firm grip on your bat and a closed angle to cover the spin. Players sometimes feel the need to punch at or drive through their blocking strokes when dealing with heavier topspin balls, while this can work sometimes it increases the risk level of the return and can cause a loss of control. This is the same with countering shots, be careful not to overswing or apply too much power to the ball.

Counterloop: Precise timing can result in very effective counterloop shots. You can play the ball early in the bounce which requires a strong idea of the required timing and angle, or you can counterloop top or later in the bounce and play a loop to loop style instead. Both have their merits. Again important not to overplay strokes here.

So I hope that has given you some more ideas on how to deal with heavy topspin opponents and I hope the answer was satisfactory Ruth! :)