October 4, 2013


Over the last few days I've joined in discussions at the MyTableTennis.com forum. I've been in several threads, but the one I was most interested in was one titled "How should I coach someone in a match." I have a lot of experience there, so I posted some notes there, starting on page 5. (For a time the thread was basically hijacked by someone who put a "Hex" on it, but that person has since been banned, both for those postings and numerous postings in other threads.) Below are three postings I put up. Much of the discussion is on whether you should coach technique in a tournament match - which I consider a very bad idea, as my postings explain.

To learn to win close matches means playing lots of close and/or important matches where you develop the habit of tactically using all of your tools to win. To do so takes certain mental skills that can only be practiced at such times. So it's a highly effective time to develop tactical and mental skills, and not a very effective time to develop or fix technique. Some technique problems can be overcome indirectly in the course of a match - I gave examples in my Tip of the Week ("Mid-Match Technique Adjustments"), which was linked to above - but mental and tactical skills are what need to be emphasized in such matches. Hopefully you have far more time at the practice hall to work on the mechanical skills (i.e. technique) - and it is in important matches where you often find out what techniques you need to work on. 

(Addendum: much of this posting is about not worrying about technique in matches. However, you do want to focus on using the shots that you want to develop. If you are a looper, for example, you should generally try to win mostly by looping, not by pushing.) 

-Larry Hodges

Shortly after the above I posted a note about a pertinent Tip of the Week I'd recently done, "Real Tactics versus Parroting Tactics." Later, it was pointed out that there was one person arguing that you should coach technique in a match, while everyone else pretty much disagreed. Below is my response.

I would essentially never coach technique in a match, so I'm in the second category with most everyone else [about never coaching technique when coaching a tournament match]. However, there's a subcategory of the second version. The large majority of the time when coaching in a tournament I coach the player to win. But there are occasional times where you might coach a player to win a certain way. This is not coaching technique; this is coaching playing style. 

For example, I was coaching a kid named Tong Tong Gong (age 13) at the North American Teams a few years ago against Allen Wang. Tong Tong was about 2150 at the time, with a very good backhand and a quick but erratic forehand loop. Allen was about 2200, a pure two-winged looper from mid-distance, and about a foot taller. I believe Tong Tong was up 2-1 in games but lost the fourth game when he got into too many counterlooping duels with Allen, and Allen was a better counterlooper. I was all set to coach Tong Tong to stay at the table, and block and pick loop winners. Before I could say anything, Tong Tong said, "I can beat him counterlooping." It sort of floored me since he thought he could beat Allen at his own game. But I recovered, and made a snap decision to go with it. So I told him how best to win those counterlooping duels - get Allen off the table on the wide forehand, then counterloop off the bounce to the backhand; get the first attack so Allen has to go for the first difficult counterloop; etc. The whole game plan was on winning with counterlooping rather than just winning, which I thought he could do if he stayed right at the table. Anyway, Tong Tong won the match deuce in the fifth, counterlooping like a maniac. He might have won staying right at the table, but by doing it by counterlooping, he gained great confidence in that shot which would pay off later. One month later he'd pull off five upsets at the Nationals to make the National Cadet Team. (I coached all those matches, and they were ALL played strictly to win.) 

There have been a few other cases where I've coached a player to focus on playing the way he was developing as a player, such as looping when he might have won by pushing and blocking. But when I do so, I usually let the player know his options, and let him choose, and they choose both ways. It's good to develop the habit of trying to win with the shots you are developing. But these cases are infrequent; usually you coach to win, period, and usually that means using the shots the player is training to use. 

-Larry Hodges

After I posted this, someone posted the following:

larry, doesn't coaching about playing style involves technique also? i think i would rather coach about adaptation and it involves technique. as long as it it not too complicated and too long to execute just to win a point, there is nothing wrong with coaching technique. also, would you agree with me if for example in a match a player needs to adjust the angle of his bat to compensate for the incoming spin either against a heavy underspin or very light underspin, if you see your player commit errors against this wouldn't it better if you just told me him to compensate bat angle? IMHO, technique is important to coach as long as the player can adjust to it. also, not every player has a mental fortitude problem. i would rather coach the player as what is needed to be coached. i'm just confused where to draw the line between coaching technique and coaching playing style because both obviously involves technique to some point basing on your statement. 

And here's my response:

Coaching playing style and coaching technique are two different things, at least the way I define them. So is telling a player to adjust his racket, which isn't really technique. 

If the player I'm coaching isn't looping enough, I would likely tell him to loop more, and give tactics to help set it up. But if his looping technique were off, there's not much you can do in the match, with occasional exceptions. The technique is done subconsciously, and it's not likely you can change that in the short course of a match. You can do a lot more by scheduling a practice session afterwards where you can focus on fixing the problem. 

You can remind someone in the middle of a match to, say, adjust their racket angle against incoming spin, but that rarely makes a big difference. When someone loops at you, your subconscious sets the racket angle reflexively. If you try to do it consciously, you're not going to do well. However, the subconscious is constantly making adjustments, and will normally adjust by closing the racket regardless of whether a coach tells the player to do so. (Though of course the coach might take credit afterwards for it, even though the player's subconscious was already working on the problem!) It's usually better to use various workarounds, such as one I posted about earlier. Instead of telling them to close the racket against a spinny loop that they keep blocking off, tell them to block more aggressively. Then the spin will take on it less. Adjusting the racket angle to incoming heavy topspin that you are not used to is tricky to do, but blocking more aggressively is much simpler. The player might still have to close the racket more, but it's a less drastic change, and the subconscious can adjust quicker, and then the player can play free, i.e. let the subconscious take over. 

Here's an easy test I've done many times. When I coach a complete beginner if I give him a heavy backspin serve, he goes right into the net. However, it doesn't take long for him to learn to open his racket to return it. But that's because I'm giving it to him over and over, and so he can consciously open the racket. If I then start varying the serves, and come back to the heavy backspin serve every third serve or so, even if I make it obvious that it's a backspin serve (and make it obvious the others are not), the player can no longer react consciously, and goes right back into the net again, over and over. It takes some training to learn to react properly in a game situation, where you don't know what's coming until the ball's coming at you and you have little time to react consciously. That's why telling a player to adjust his racket angle during a match usually won't work because his conscious mind isn't what's setting the angle in the match. (But as noted, the player's subconscious is already making adjustments, and perhaps might make the adjustment before the match is over.) An exception might be if the opponent is, say, giving the same serve every single time (say a heavy backspin serve), in which case you can tell your player to open his racket - and hope the opponent doesn't start changing his serve. 

-Larry Hodges

The Speed of Fan Zhendong

Here's the video (34 sec) of the Chinese 16-year-old, already #10 in the world. He's doing a random footwork drill with a coach feeding multiball. The key to his speed? Much of it comes from his balance. He's balanced even in his follow-throughs, and that is key to his being almost instantly ready for the next shot. His head remains almost still during his shots, even on the forehand. His feet are wide and parallel to the table, allowing great stability and quick transition from forehand to backhand and back.  

Coach Wanted in Northern California

Established Club in northern California is accepting applications for a full time coaching position. Compensation is 30-60K depending on level and experience. The ideal candidate plays at a level of 2500 or higher, has multiple years coaching experience, and speaks English. Mandarin and Cantonese are a plus. Less coaching experience will be accepted from those who currently play at a very high level. You must be able to document your playing and coaching history. Match video is helpful. For more information send your resume to norcalttclub@yahoo.com.

Improve Your Serve

Here's the new article and video (1:28) from Killerspin.

Phil Mickelson Hires TT Coach

Here's the story from Table Tennis Nation - who is the mystery coach? Mickelson resides in Rancho Santa Fe, California. Any guesses? Or will the mystery coach please stand up?

The Ultimate Trick Shot

Here's a hilarious video (3:18) that shows the tribulations of two players apparently attempting to create a video for the ITTF Trickshot competition, and failing miserably - until something happens at the very end.

Non-Table Tennis: Sheeba and Bacon

I'm told that if one puts up a picture of a cat eating bacon, you'll triple your hits. Well, I don't have a cat, but I do have Sheeba, a corgi mix I got at a shelter 12 years ago. She'll be 16 in February, but still loves her bacon snacks. Here's a picture of her desperately trying to get that yummy bacon at the bottom of a large bacon snack jar. Yeah, I torture her this way - but she did get it! (Here's a head shot.)

Yesterday I did a scientific experiment.
Hypothesis: Dogs don't need their eyes to find food.
Methodology: I blindfolded Sheeba (she went along willingly), then waved a bacon treat under her nose.
Result: She snapped it up instantly.
Conclusion: Hypothesis proven correct. Also, dogs apparently love bacon, but this will require further testing.


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