Tactics are an often neglected area of table tennis training. It’s easy to get stuck in the technical training, become obsessed with perfecting your technique, and forget all about how you are going to use your technically brilliant strokes to actually win matches.
If you’re the kind of player who feels like you should be performing at a higher level than you are, then there’s a good chance that it’s your tactical game that is holding you back.
My experience (or lack of experience) with tactical training
For much of my table tennis career I fell into this category. I’d been playing the sport for a number of years, the majority of my strokes were well developed, accurate and consistent, I was fairly fit and agile compared to most of my opponents, I was very good in practice and could practice with some of the best players in the country for my age group.
It all sounded like a recipe for success, but something was holding me back. My results at tournaments were never as good as I hoped they would be. I kept going to different tournaments, most weekends, thinking next time will be my break-through where I finally perform as well as I know I can. The problem was… it didn’t happen.
The guys I was training with were just as confused. They’d see my draw, and my seeding as one of the top players in the band, and say, “You should win that group, those guys aren’t very strong.” Then we’d all go our separate ways to play our groups and bump into each other again a couple of hours later. And how did it go? They’d get through their groups as winner or runner-up, in higher bands than me, playing better opponents. I would have had “another nightmare”, or something similar, and gone out on count-back after losing a match to a player I should never lose to, and failing to beat the only half-decent player in my group. It would happen over-and-over and I didn’t know why.
Eventually, after giving it plenty of thought and speaking with a number of coaches, I figured it out. My practice was all about technical training. I would do technique-based, regular drills with my higher-level training partners and look like I was as good a player as them. When we were both doing ‘backhand, middle, backhand, wide’ you’d never guess that I was ranked 70th in the juniors and my partner was ranked 20th. We looked the same. And my training partner was happy to practice with me because I always gave him a good practice.
The problem was, I’d become a table tennis practice robot. I’d become too used to putting the ball in exactly the right place for my opponent’s drill. I had a push that had enough backspin to make it nice to open up but not so much that it was difficult. I’d got into the habit of hitting everything cross-court, diagonally. My serves in matches were just like I was doing a serve and return drill. I’d serve short, pure backspin, to the middle of the table, every single time.
How to train your tactics
I hope that you now have an understanding of why being good tactically is so important as a table tennis player. Players that look good knocking up but under-perform are probably technically strong but tactically weak. Players that don’t look so good knocking up but always seem to get the results in their matches are probably tactically strong but technically weak. I’m sure you can think of players that fit both of those descriptions.
The essence of tactical table tennis is switching the focus from yourself to your opponent. You need to be able to work out your opponents strengths and weaknesses, and then come up with some ideas of ‘plays’ they may struggle against. These ‘plays’ can be general or specific. If you’re interesting learning more about how to incorporate these ‘plays’ or set-pieces into your table tennis then check out my FREE eBook, The Table Tennis Playbook.
General tactics are tools you can use against any opponent you come up against. They are based around the general weakness that all players have and therefore, if used correctly, should be effective against most players. Specific tactics are more difficult to develop as they involve actually analyzing your opponent and working out the particular things they struggle with. I will now go into more detail on both types of tactical training.
General tactical training
There are some tactics that work well against pretty much all players you are going to come across. These include things like…
- Playing into their crossover point (playing elbow)
- Using wide angles
- Giving them deep heavy backspin digs
- Keep everything tight and short so they cannot attack
- Always trying to attack (get in) first
- Varying your serves
- Keeping the ball away from their strongest side (usually forehand)
- Adding float balls as a variation
- Playing short to their forehand corner and then deep to their backhand corner (or vice versa)
- Staying very close to the table
- Adding sidespin to your shots (hooks, fades, sidespin pushes etc.)
If you’ve ever had a corner coach that isn’t actually paying much attention to your game you may well have heard them reel off several of these in the 60 seconds you get to spend together. They may say something like, “You’re playing great! Just make sure you stay up to the table, keep the ball short, and try to get in first if you can. And when you do attack, attack into their crossover point.”
It’s not that any of that stuff is wrong. It’s just that you could have your eyes shut for the whole game and then enthusiastically give that kind of advice to your player. These are general tactics. General tactics, however, are great for tactical training because it’s easy to practice them in drills against your regular training partners. Here are a few ideas of drills you could come up with to work on these general tactics. I wont cover everything, just a few ideas. Use your imagination to come up with more.
- Do a regular or irregular drill but play everything into your partners crossover point. This will be slightly annoying for them but it’s your drill and it can be difficult to find the crossover point of your opponent in a match if you have trained yourself in practice to always attack into the forehand or backhand.
- Put a table tennis barrier behind you, about two metres from your end of the table, and do your drills or matches in that area. This way you don’t even give yourself the option of dropping back or falling away. This used to be a big tactical problem for me which made my shots weaker and gave my opponent more time.
- When doing a service drill, chuck in a long fast serve 10-20% of the time. This will get you used to varying your serves, help you practice deception/disguising your serve, and get you used to the typical return from your fast serve when your opponent isn’t expecting it.
- Vary your return of serve when your training partner is doing a service drill. I used to just give them the same perfect push over-and-over again. This will make them feel like they are playing well in the short-term but it’s no good for either of you in the long run. Instead, if they want you to push long to their forehand, push some heavy and some more floaty, push some wider and some more into the middle, push some really deep and touch the occasional one short.
- Practice your favourite ‘plays’. How about this one; serve short to your opponents forehand, if they push then dig deep and wide into their backhand corner, if they flick then topspin deep and wide into their backhand corner. This kind of tactic, where you use the full length and width of the table, works against most players so practicing it in training is a very good idea.
This kind of training is more variable than technical training and you probably wont feel as good doing it. It lacks the rhythm and repetition of technical training. However, it is probably more likely to have a positive influence on your match performance, so ignore it at your own peril.
Specific tactical training
Improving your ability to devise tactics to beat specific players is more about your mindset and knowledge than your practice drills. All playing styles have weaknesses and it’s your job, if you are serious about becoming a top player, to learn them. You can do this through books (such as [easyazon_link identifier=”1477643788″ locale=”US” tag=”exptabten-20″]Table Tennis Tactics for Thinkers[/easyazon_link] by Larry Hodges) or by match experience and taking notes about what worked against certain styles and what didn’t. I would advise doing both.
I bet if you were to ask Ma Long, or one of the other top Chinese players, how to beat Timo Boll they would be able to tell you from memory. They would have video of him to watch, documents full of tactics that are known to work against him and his weaknesses, and coaches that they can discuss ideas with. That level of detail to specific/individual tactical training is one of the reasons they are the best in the world at table tennis. They spend a lot of time working out how best to beat certain types of players and even specific players that they encounter on a regular basis.
If we are serious about our table tennis then we need this level of commitment to our tactical training too. We should be spending time away from the table to analyze our past matches. To do this we need to be filming our competitive matches. This is something that I think is really important if we are to really learn from our matches and develop our tactics. If you look at the photo at the top of this page, from one of Timo Boll’s matches, you’ll notice his coach Jorg Rosskopf has a camera and rip set-up to record the match.
Tactical training is often neglected and replaced by additional technical training. We must get the balance right between technique and tactics and understand which one is most important for us at our stage of development. If you are a beginner then maybe you should be focused on technical training. However, if you are competing in tournaments or a league then there is a good chance you’d benefit from extra tactical training.
I haven’t written loads about tactical training in the past but I will be covering it in more detail in the future. Thank you for reading a good luck with your tactical development!