How to Move Up a Level

By Larry Hodges

What does it mean to move up a level in table tennis? I'd define two players to be on different levels if it would be a major upset if one defeated the other. Another way of looking at it would be to say that if the stronger player plays his normal level, he would win pretty much every time. Based on this, I'd say a level in table tennis ranges from about 300 points at the lower levels (under 1000 or so), to about 100 points at the higher levels (over 2500 or so). For most USATT members, a level would be about 200 rating points or so.

How can you move up a level in table tennis? It means improving all parts of your game, as one weak link in your game is like a weak link in a chain.

You could work hard, dramatically improve one aspect of your game, and hope to move up a level. But it's not that simple. Suppose you develop a really nice forehand loop. With this weapon, you would think that your level would go up dramatically. And sure enough, you will do better against players around your own level. But when you play players a level higher, their level is far enough ahead of yours that they'll simply do something to disarm your new weapon. They may serve short, push short, push very heavy, throw spinny or fast serves at you, use ball placement, block well, force backhand exchanges, play quick shots so you don't have time to loop, or simply attack first. In each case, they'll take your weapon away from you, and you still won't move up that coveted level. Often, a stronger player will seem to win on one of his strengths, when in fact he is winning by exploiting a weakness of yours that allows him to use his strength.

The lesson is that to move up a level, you need to improve your overall game, not just one aspect. A player who is a level stronger than you rarely defeats you on one aspect of his game (although many erroneously believe this to be true); he does so by improving the overall level of his game. (There are, of course, players who have improved all but one aspect of their game, and by improving that one final aspect, suddenly go up the coveted level!) A strength in your game can compensate for a weakness, but only to a certain extent.

So how do you go about improving the overall level of your game? To move up a level in table tennis, you have be able to match the players a level higher than you on five key things:

1. You have to return your opponents' serves as well as they return your serves.

2. You have to either rally as fast as your opponents can rally, or force your opponents to rally at your pace (by slowing the pace down with pushes, slow loops, controlled drives, etc.). Rallying at their pace means either hitting at their pace, or simply reacting to their pace (i.e. blocking or chopping). "Pace" means both speed and quickness.

3. You have to be able to react to your opponents' rallying spins (loops, pushes, chops, lobs, spins returned by long pips, etc.) as well as they react to yours.

4. You have to be able to end the point (i.e. smashing, loop kills) as well as your opponents do. This means either being able to end the point as well as your opponents, or being able to stop them from ending the point better than you can by not giving them shots where they can end the point. Ending the point does not always mean ending it with one shot - it can also mean a series of strong shots that win the point.

5. And finally, you have to have at least one strength that threatens your opponents as much as their strengths threaten you, and a way of getting your strength(s) into play.

You may have noted that tactics is not one of the five "keys." This is because tactics is part of all five keys. Stronger/weaker tactics simply make you stronger/weaker in each key.

Do some (but not all) of the above five keys, and your performance in a tournament will go up some, perhaps half a level, but not a full level. Developing a single "overpowering" strength won't raise your level as much as you'd think, as opponents a level higher will beat you on the less developed parts of your game. Even players at your "previous" level will still often beat you by exploiting these weaknesses. But ... if you improve all five things, even just a little bit, you'll go up dramatically.

What's stronger, a chain with four powerful links and one weak one, or a chain with five pretty strong ones?

Would it be right to say that in the chain, one strong link (very good serves) combined with the remaining weak links (other parts of the game) quickly allows "some" moving up?

Would it be right to say that in the chain, one strong link (short or long pips) combined with the remaining weak links (other parts of the game) quickly allows "some" moving up?

Would it be right to say that in the chain, one strong link (very good serves) combined with the remaining weak links (other parts of the game) quickly allows "some" moving up?

It definitely allows some moving up. In extremely rare cases, where a player has one shot or technique that's multiple levels above the rest of his game, it even allows the player to move up quite a bit - but that's extremely rare and can only happen in extreme circumstances. The problem is that developing only one item in the chain to a higher level does not allow you to move up a level. 

For example, let's assume a player is 1800. He improves his loop from 1800 to 2000 level. Will he compete with 2000 players? Not much more than before; he may now be 1850. If he continues to improve his loop, but not the rest of his game, he'll continue to improve marginally, but will he ever reach the point where he's playing even with 2000 players? Probably not, as 2000 players will prey on the 1800 aspects of his game. He'd need an incredible loop, plus footwork and techniques to get it into play, to reach 2000 if the rest of his game is 1800. Not likely. (Some claim this, but my experience is that for every player who truly has such a lopsided game, there are many dozens who think they do but don't.) This becomes even more pronounced at higher levels, where players really understand tactics. I've seen many a spectacular player look like a beginner when a stronger player went after their technical weaknesses.