October 6, 2014 - Should You Play Tournaments When Working on Something New?

To improve you need both good technique and match experience. You can get match experience at a club, but you get a lot more in tournaments, where you play new players and find out where your game really stands - feedback that helps you pinpoint what you need to work on. The question is what to do when you are working on new techniques. If you play tournaments - or matches, for that matter - you'll likely fall back into your old habits, and re-enforce them. So sometimes it's better to skip tournaments and matches for a time while you work on the new techniques.

But how long should you skip them? There's an easy measure. When you are changing techniques, it's best not to play matches - practice or tournaments - until you've mastered the new technique to the point where you'll reflexively use it in matches. This doesn't mean you should skip playing matches until the technique is perfect and you never get it wrong, but it means waiting until you can do it in a match situation most of the time. Otherwise you'll just be re-enforcing bad habits.

By playing matches when the technique is almost perfected, but not quite, you'll re-enforce your ability to do it under pressure - and that's half the problem with developing a new technique. In fact, the best measure of whether you have learned the new technique is to see if you use it not only under match pressure, but under the intense pressure of a close match. If you can do it at deuce, you can do it anytime.

A famous example of skipping tournaments and matches in general was Hungary's Istvan Jonyer. He made the Hungarian National Team in the early 1970s mostly by blocking. While on the team he developed his powerful forehand loop and became Hungarian National Champion. But he had a weak backhand, and couldn't really compete with the best players in the world. Then he spent six months up in a mountain training, where he did essentially nothing but backhand loop. He didn't play matches as he worked on this. When he finished, he had a great backhand loop - though other aspects of his game had deteriorated, and he had to practice them to get them back. About two years later he became the 1975 Men's World Champion, and was #1 in the world for two year and a dominant top ten (usually top five) player for over a decade.

So take a look at your game, and decide what techniques you need to fix. Then decide if it's worth spending a lot of time fixing it while skipping matches. In the short run it can be frustrating, as you are just dying to play matches. In the long run it'll pay off.