May 1, 2023

Tip of the Week
Tactics at the End of a Close Game.

Weekend Coaching
Note to self: Never let kids you are practicing with know that you are recovering from a shoulder injury and can’t extend your arm to cover the wide forehand. If you do, guess where they’ll put every ball while gleefully laughing?

I coached in four group junior sessions over the weekend. Here are some of the things that came up.

  • Random drills placement. In the drill where one player plays backhand randomly anywhere while the other player keeps it to his backhand, the focus for the backhand player should be placement. (The drill can also be done to the forehand.) Specifically, every shot should go to one of three spots – wide forehand, wide backhand, or elbow (midway between forehand and backhand). But it’s not just randomly playing the three spots – this drill allows players to learn what combinations work. For example, when you go at the middle, it forces the opponent to move out of position to play forehand or backhand – and so one of the corners open up. Sometimes the player overreacts to cover the open corner, and so the other corner is the one that opens up. This drill allows the backhand player to learn how best to maneuver the opponent around. It allows the other player to learn how to recover from the three placements. (This might become a future Tip of the Week.)
  • Rally at a speed you are consistent at. One of the toughest things is convincing up-and-coming players to slow down for consistency. Too often they want to play at a rat-a-tat superspeed, and so end up practicing just spraying the ball everywhere and developing erratic shots. Instead, find the pace that you can rally at consistently, so you can actually develop that consistency. As you improve, you can increase the pace.
  • Back foot placement on forehands. Generally you play forehands with the right foot slightly back (for righties), but not always. In fast rallies near the table you don’t have time to do that, and so many players at higher levels learn to play these shots with their feet parallel. In general, if the ball is coming at you slow or if you are off the table and so have more time, bring the foot back. If you are closer to the table or rushed, keep the feet more parallel. In a specific case that came up during one session, one player – a fairly high-level one – was forehand blocking with his back foot way, way back, almost turning sideways for the shot. So we worked on blocking with the feet more parallel to the table. When moving to the wide forehand to block, you can bring the right foot back some, but not too much.
  • Five-minute rule. Few players become really good unless they hate losing, and to tell a kid who’s just lost to smile, no big deal, doesn’t work. One player had a practice match where he led 9-7 in the fifth, missed both his serves, and lost 11-9 in the fifth. He was almost inconsolable, even though he’d mostly played well and it was a practice match. So I explained the five-minute rule. It’s simple – after a “bad” loss, you have to recover from it and be ready to play with a clear mind in five minutes.
  • Doubles. We introduced some of the novice players to doubles. Some had played it before, but they didn’t really understand it that well. The funny part was how often they kept mistakenly serving from the backhand court (left-hand since they were righties)! They also struggled with the order of play. But they gradually figured it out.
  • Challenge the Player and Use Targets. It’s easy for a coach to just have players drill and Drill and DRILL like they are little machines that get better if forced to do non-stop repetition. But it rarely works that way. Instead, it’s better to constantly challenge the player. Often that means something like seeing how many shots they can do in a row – do this, and watch how focused they become. In multiball, it’s even more important as multiball drills can get rather boring. So I often put targets on the table – and the results are amazing. Three things happen when I have them aim for targets: 1) They become more focused and so improve faster; 2) They learn accuracy instead of scattering shots all over and so improve faster; and 3) They like doing it and so want o play more and so improve faster. Do you notice the consistent theme here?

The target might be my water bottle, where I’ll either say, “It takes skill to hit such a small target, and you’re just not good enough!” – and of course, they know that’s a challenge. Or I tell them the bottle is full of dog saliva, and if they hit it, I have to drink it – another challenge. (When they do, I make faces and tell them, “Friends don’t make friends drink dog saliva. You’re not my friend.” Then I make faces and drink it.) Or I just say, “Don’t you DARE hit it!” – and of course, that’s another challenge. Or I’ll put my water bottle upside down and put a ball that’s different on it, say it’s a rare ball worth a million dollars so please don’t knock it off the bottle and damage it. Yep, another challenge. Notice the consistent theme here?

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