Quality vs Consistency: The Key Trade-Off in Table Tennis

Quality vs ConsistencyI’ve been thinking a lot recently about the best strategies for playing table tennis.

In particular I’ve been focusing on the different styles of play and the game-plans we can implement when we come up against certain opponents.

In my mind there are two ways we can try to beat those we come up against.

The first is to rely on the quality of our shots. This is how we imagine the top players to think as they appear to win based on the high quality of their strokes that force errors in their opponents play.

The second is to rely on our consistency. This method of playing often gets a lot of stick for being too “passive” in its approach but I think there is a clear difference between the concepts of “consistency” and “passivity”.

This morning I quickly sketched out the graph you see below and this post will explain my thoughts…

Firstly, I’d like to point out that this is just an idea, just a concept. The numbers are not fixed or objective but they will give you a rough idea of what I am going on about.

The x-axis (the one along the bottom) displays the quality of shots you are going for. I struggled to think of a name for this variable (would intensity be better) but quality was the best I could think of. Imagine the kind of spectacular shot pulled off by the world best players as representing 100% quality. For such elite players these shots are their bread and butter but for the average player these shots are incredibly risky. Down towards the 10% range of quality are the kind of “ping-pong” shots played by the majority of beginners and social players where you hit the bottom of the ball and softly tap the ball over the net. Most players (even complete beginners) can play these types of shots with a relatively high level of consistency. And then of course there is everything in between the two.

The y-axis (the one going up the side) displays the level of consistency you can expect. Remember back to when you were a beginner and you first tried to play an open-up, loop shot off of a heavy backspin ball. What would happen? You’d miss everything! This is what 0% consistency feels like. As you improve as a player your consistency with a certain stroke should improve until you reach a point where you can play that shot over and over and theoretically should never make a mistake (100% consistency), or at least very rarely.

Quality vs Consistency Large

How to use the graph

Now that you understand the two axis let me explain what is going on with all the lines!

I’ve filled out the graph roughly for myself. So that curved dark line going from the top left to the bottom right theoretically represents my table tennis ability.

Let’s start from the left and work across…

  • At a quality level of 10%, playing those tap-tap shots I mentioned earlier, I reckon I can pretty much play at 100% consistency, meaning I should be able to keep playing forever.
  • At 20% I’m think of just being able to play the basic drives and loops we play as beginners. At school I challenge the boys to show me they have mastered a shot by playing 100 in a row without a mistake. If you can do this then you are surely close to 100% consistency at this 20% level.
  • At 30 and 40% quality I am thinking more about shots like a steady topspin loop, safe but appropriate returns of serve and the ability to play out a point standing up to the table and generally being positive. I think at this level I am still very close to 100% consistency.
  • At 50% quality you see that the consistency starts to drop-off a little. I am no longer able to maintain a 100% consistency at this intensity of play but my consistency is still pretty high. Here I am having to be more aggressive, play strokes at a much faster pace and be a lot more clever with my placement.

When playing matches I could play at these levels of quality/intensity (0-50%) and be a very consistent and steady player. I would make very few mistakes and beat anybody that didn’t have any major strengths. If I was playing at 50% I could even use a bit of my own aggression, speed and placement (in moderation) to prevent them from dominating the game while still maintaining a high level of consistency myself.

The next section along the graph is where it gets interesting as we enter the area marked “range”…

  • At 60% quality my game has upped to a level where I am only achieving about 85-90% consistency. This means that for every 10 shots I play I’m likely to make one error. This error will likely lead to my opponent receiving the point (either directly if I fail to return the ball or indirectly if I set them up for a kill). However, with rallies generally being quite short I should be able to play the majority of points without a mistake and not be giving away too many free points. On the graph I have drawn some dotted lines from this point and labelled it “favourite”. What I mean by this is that when I am the favourite (or stronger player) I should probably be playing in this zone as I don’t want to give my opponent too many free points by trying to play at too high an intensity. For example, if my opponent serves short and I’m struggling with my flicking (flipping) then it may be wise just to touch the ball over the net, a shot that I’m confident I can play with little chance of an error, instead of going for a big flick that is 50/50 as to whether it’ll go on or not.
  • At 70% quality you should see the label “normal”, meaning this should be my default zone of play. Perhaps it should be slightly closer to 65% intensity but you get the idea. At this level of quality I am seeing a consistency of about 75-80%. My own shots are now more risky (I’m more likely to make an unforced error) but I’m also playing stronger shots that are more likely to force an error in my opponent. Theoretically this is where I am trying to play in the majority of my matches. Here I have got a good balance between quality and consistency. Here the trade-off is probably working at it’s best for me and giving me the best chance of winning. If my quality was any lower I would be giving my opponent too many chances to dominate. If my quality was much higher I would probably end up making too many unforced error and simply giving them the game off of my mistakes.
  • At 80% quality is the label “under-dog”. In my eyes this is the intensity you should be playing at when you are up against a player that is stronger that yourself. Here I’m playing much more difficult and risky shots and my consistency has dropped to about 65%. I’m going to be making a lot of unforced errors (giving my opponent free points) but if I wasn’t making them he’d probably be dominating me anyway. I won’t get far trying to be consistent as he is probably more consistent that me at whatever level we play at. Therefore my strategy is to up my own level of quality/intensity in the hope of winning points outright by forcing my opponent to make mistakes that he wouldn’t be making if I was playing at a lower and more consistent level.

These are the three key areas for me. The main zone of play is the normal line where you are playing at a whatever level you can maintain about 80% consistency. The others are based around this. If you are the stronger player you can drop your quality slightly to increase your consistency to the 90% level. If you are the weaker player then you can increase your quality slightly but this will drop your consistency to the 70% level.

Zhang Jike CounterBack to the chart and you’ll see that, for me, once I reach the 90 and 100% levels of quality my consistency has plummeted.

If we take 100% as something like a Zhang Jike-style super-fast counter loop off an aggressive topspin then you’ll understand that I could try to play these shots in my matches but I’d probably only get 1 out of 100 actually on the table!

Thinking about your game

If you were to plot yourself on these axis your graph should look similar but different to mine. I suspect that everyone would have a similar looking curve (I tried to Google the actual name of this type of curve but alas I couldn’t find anything) but it’s position on the graph would certainly vary depending on your level of ability.

Take a completely beginner for example. Perhaps they can play tap-tap ping pong (10% quality) at close to 100% consistency but I suspect that their level of consistency would drop quite sharply after that and they would be close to zero by the time they get to 30% quality/intensity.

Your typical intermediate player that has been playing and receiving coaching for a year or so may be close to 100% consistency for 10% and 20% quality but then start to fall off from there. By the time they got to 50% quality they would probably be making an awful lot of errors and their line would finish there.

A top players like Ma Long or Zhang Jike would probably be close to 100% consistency all the way into the 80’s for quality. Then perhaps once they reached the top-end of the quality axis (90-100%) they would see a drop down to the 50% mark, or something like that.

But the numbers aren’t important…

What’s important is that you associate these levels with a certain way of playing, for you at your current level, and then remember that level and implement it in your matches!

Playing too tight or too loose

My last points relate to the “too tight” and “too loose” comments I’ve added to the chart.

For me, If I’m only playing at 50% quality then I am probably being too tight. I am being consistent but not playing at a high enough level. For you the quality level may be different but the idea is the same. It’s no good just trying to get everything on the table while taking no risk yourself to try and win the point by playing more challenging shots. You may beat weaker players this way but once you start to encounter players your own level you’ll find you are losing to them much more often that you should.

I think I particularly struggled with this as a junior. By the time I was 16/17 I think I had the shots to play at a higher level and win but often I would be so worried about missing that I’d end up just focusing on keeping my consistency up and not pushing the quality of my play.

On the flip-side, when I’m at tournaments coaching I often see kids doing the opposite. They have a pretty solid game, you can see that when they are knocking up, but then when the game starts they begin going for all these wild shots that are only rarely going to go on. If you look at the chart this is what would be happening if I was playing at the 85% quality level or above. Yes, I can still play these shots and appear aggressive, pro-active in the game but if I’m missing 50%+ then I’m not going to beat anyone.

If these kids played a little more consistently, still playing positive table tennis but staying within their current limits, then they’d see much better results.

Now go and change your graph!

The only way to change your graph is to practice.

At the moment if I kept going to backspin loops right off the bounce then I’d probably end up making mistakes 50%+ of the time. This is a bad idea!

But if I worked on that shot over and over in practice eventually I would get to a point where I could play those shots with 80% consistency and all of a sudden my graph would have shifted to the right and that level of play would now be inside my “normal” zone.

So in conclusion…

  1. Understand roughly what level of play you are able to execute at a consistency level of 70, 80 and 90%.
  2. Decide which level of play to use based on who you are up against. Are you a similar standard, the favourite or the under-dog?
  3. Start practicing those shots that you are not consistent enough at until you reach a level where you can start bringing them into your repertoire in competitive situations.