September 26, 2016 - How to Play Against a Player with a Coach

Imagine playing a tournament match. It’s you versus your opponent in this gladiatorial combat, with both players alone out there, on their own. Except . . . that’s not what happen when your opponent has a coach. It’s no longer you versus your opponent, it’s two against one, and you are the one. How can you best handle this? Here are some tips. (Note that at the time I’m writing this, USATT had just rejected, at least for the moment, the ITTF’s new coaching rule, whereby coaching is allowed at any time between points. If played under ITTF rules, where an opponent can receive coaching between points, some of the tactics change, especially #5 below.)

  1. Ignore the coach. If you let it get into your head and bother you, that will likely hurt you more than any golden words of advice the coach might say.
  2. Get your own coach. It evens the playing field, both tactically and psychologically. Often all you need is a sounding board between games, and even the appearance of having a coach can affect the opponent.
  3. Take advantage of it psychologically. You are thinking for yourself, while your opponent isn’t. This should give you confidence. Remember that the coach only gets to talk to the player between games and once for a timeout (assuming they are not playing under the ITTF’s coaching rule where coaches can coach between points), and so the rest of the time your opponent is out there alone, just like you. While he’s thinking, “What did my coach tell me to do?”, you are thinking, “What should I do tactically?” You have the superior thinking pattern here as you are thinking for yourself, and better able to adjust to changes in the game.
  4. Watch what your opponent does at the start of a new game and adjust. You figured out what your opponent is doing on your own; will your opponent be able to adjust to you without his coach?
  5. Play differently at the start of a new game. If you do this, your opponent, often a kid (or adult) who's just been told how to play against what you did in the previous game, will likely fall apart in frustration, since the tactics he was just given no longer work. You can literally alternate tactics each game. It's one of the reasons it's important to have a "B" game. This is probably the most important tactic when playing a player with a coach. Here’s an actual example of how I used this in a tournament match.

    In the first game, I mostly served backspin and looped his pushes. On his serve, I mostly forced rallies, often backhand-to-backhand, and out-steadied him. I won the game, but it was relatively close – the opponent was rated lower than me, but was competitive. I knew his coach would tell him to quick-push my serves to wide corners to stop my forehand attack, and to attack my middle in rallies. So in the second game I switched to serving mostly short side-top and no-spin serves (all disguised as backspin) that he proceeded to quick-push ten feet off the table. In rallies I went on the forehand attack and feasted on his balls to my middle. He got very frustrated and I won the second easily. In the third I went back to my first-game tactics and won all the points at the start. The coach called a timeout, but when they returned I switched to my second-game tactics, and went up 10-0. (I played a lobbing point there and sort of gave him a point, and then won 11-1.) After the match the poor kid threw a tantrum, blaming his coach for the loss.

So next time you play a match against someone with a coach, take advantage of the situation!