Learning to Win

By Larry Hodges

One of the most common problems players face in their table tennis is the inability to recognize the difference between learning the shots, and learning to win. There's a big difference.

Many players have a good idea of what to do out at the table—but just don't have the strokes. This article is not directed toward these players, who generally know who they are. These players need to see a coach to fix up their strokes, and will improve as fast as their strokes develop.

An equal number of players have good strokes, but don't know how to put them together to win matches. Players like this can spend years perfecting shots, but never improve as fast as they should—and often quit the game in disgust as others pass them in ranking.
This article is directed toward these players.

To get the maximum out of whatever shots you have, you have to combine the shots in various combinations. For example, a player with a great loop against backspin won't get the most out of his game if he constantly serves topspin. Similarly, a player who counterdrives well may not get the most out of his game if he mostly serves backspin.

(Keep in mind that a player who is weak at one area of his game should often play to use that weakness in practice matches to make it stronger—and develop a more powerful game.)

It goes beyond just serve and receive, of course. A player with a good loop kill may regularly go for a winner on the first shot in the rally, and although he may get away with it sometimes, he'd do far better if he set himself up better with other shots. He may end up winning by ripping every shot—but he'd be even a better player if he learned to pick his shots.

How does one learn to win? There are two variables in this:

I. Developing the right shots;
II. Knowing how to use those shots.

Let's examine these two variables.

I. Developing the right shots.
Many players develop their games with no real thought behind it. As mentioned previously, it doesn't make sense for a player who loops backspin well to constantly serve topspin. (Unless, of course, this player is trying to improve this part of his game.) Instead, a player such as this should develop the shots that set up his loop against backspin—a short backspin serve, perhaps a short push to force a pushed return. Similarly, you should develop your game to favor the shots you do well.

Take the time to think out what type of game you best play:

1. Strengthen Your Strengths
• What type of rallies are you best at?
• What shots and techniques should you develop to get yourself into that type of rally?
• What shots and techniques should you develop to become even stronger in that type of rally?

2. Strengthen Your Weaknesses
• What types of rallies are you weak at?
• What shots and techniques can you develop that will strengthen yourself in the rallies that you are weak at?
• What shots and techniques can you develop that will keep you out of the rallies that you are weak at?

II. Knowing how to use those shots.
Table tennis is very similar to chess. A top chess player can spot a weaker player a few pieces, perhaps even the queen, and still win because he knows how to use the pieces better. Similarly, a table tennis player will often win against a player with better shots if he knows how to use the shots he does have more effectively.

How many times have you heard someone say, "I could have won except for..." Shouldn't that player learn to handle or avoid that one "except for" shot?

Learning to Win
How does one take what has been given above and apply it to match situations?

If you only play against stronger players, you will most often be forced to react to your opponent's shot, rather than forcing your shots and combinations on your opponent. On the other hand, if you play players who are weaker, you will force your game on your opponent—and instead of reacting to your opponent's shots, you will be practicing your own combinations.

Players who rarely have the opportunity to play stronger players are severely handicapped in their development. But so too are players who only play players who are stronger. To reach your maximum potential, you need both. A player with a rating, say, 100 points lower than yours is perfect for developing your own combinations.

So, develop the shots you need to win and learn how to use those shots. Develop your shots by playing stronger players when you can. But stop avoiding those weaker players. Turn them into practice fodder, rather then be fodder yourself.