Upgrade Your Table Tennis Practice

improve your practiceIn my last post, “Are Table Tennis Drills a Waste of Time“, I attempted to objectively look at the effectiveness of the drills we perform in our practice sessions.

It was quite a long post (“You can say that again!”) but the gist of it was this; drills aren’t always a waste of time, in fact in some circumstances they can be extremely useful, but our reliance on them as players and coaches means that we don’t always use them in an optimal way.

Today’s post is the follow-on from that and my aim is to examine a couple of alternative methods of practice that we can apply to our own training.

You may not have heard of players training like this before (and perhaps you even don’t agree with some of the following methods) but my intention, as with the previous post, is to put out some suggestions that may help get you thinking and questioning your normal routine.

I’ll be tackling two main big ideas that should help you make the most of your practice time and maximise your potential development.

But first, I’d quickly like to tackle an area that I think it very important to your practice in general; time efficiency or productivity.

In most other areas of life we are keen to be productive. In our work, in particular, we make sure that we make good use of the time we have and set ourselves clear start and end times to stop tasks from dragging on. However, my observations from our table tennis practice are quite the opposite and I see this repeatedly in emails I receive. It appears that a lot of the time, in the practice hall, we are waiting around, resting, chatting to others, playing a match with another player (when we want to be practicing something), or blocking for somebody (when we want to be playing matches).

Of course, table tennis is fun and we enjoy ourselves when we are playing or at our club so time doesn’t seem to be such an issue. But…

If we are serious about upgrading our practice then this is something we need to tackle head on. And…

If we are counting practice hours in search of that elusive 10,000 hours (as pointed out my Malcolm Gladwell, Matthew Syed and others), then we need to be making sure we’re not adding any “empty” hours.

Here are a few recommendations to improve the time efficiency of your practice…

  1. Increase the frequency of your practice and decrease the duration. What I mean here is instead of practicing two evenings a week for 3 hours a time (adding up to 6 hours a week), how about practicing six days a week but only for 1 hour at a time. I really believe that this is something that we should be trying out and encouraging. We should work very hard for 60 minutes and then leave instead of working somewhat hard for 3 hours and then having a few days off! I wrote a post about my idea of “60 Minute Table Tennis” a while back which you can read if you’re interested.
  2. Remove breaks. If you are training for shorter duration’s (see above) then you really shouldn’t need to take such long breaks. Take a drink to the table with you and catch 30 seconds or so here and there. The problem with a short break is that often it turns into a very long one before we’ve even realised!
  3. Plan you sessions before you arrive. I think that much practice time is wasted either thinking of what to practice or practicing something that isn’t worthwhile because you couldn’t think of anything else to do. Spend the time drawing up some kind of weekly programme for yourself to follow or at least think through what you want to accomplish in the session before you arrive at the venue. This will certainly save time.
  4. Think about investing in some one-to-one coaching. This can be a huge time-saver and perhaps not as expensive as you think. If you were to pay £5 a time for your 3 hour practice session twice a week, plus a couple of quid in travel each way that would add up to about £18 spent, per week, on your two sessions. There’s a good chance that for £20 you’d be able to get yourself a one-to-one session each week! This could save you five hours of weekly practice time and the one-to-one attention of the coach would probably lead you to improve faster than continuing with your current routine anyway.
  5. Find a club with plenty of tables. I know that many clubs are quite small and have a system where you turn up, have a chat, sit down, wait for a table, and then have 20 minutes or so to practice before you feel like you should come off to let someone else have a go. As “nice” and “friendly” as this is it is not the kind of environment that is going to lead to big improvements in your performance. Find a club with lots of tables where you can turn up with a partner and play solidly for a good period of time.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, lets move on with the bulk of the post.

Here are my two big suggestions for upgrading your practice. They are alternatives to the generally accepted norm of turning up, doing a few drills, getting a sweat on, playing some games and then going home. I haven’t tried everything out myself (or with my players) yet but I’ll be looking to implement them this coming season and feedback on how well I think they have worked.

1. Only play matches… but video them (and analyze them)

This was an idea I had a couple of weeks ago and it stemmed from me thinking about the well-known conflict between the young player and coach.

Often a passionate and enthusiastic young player will want to play many matches in training. They want to play their friends. They want to compete. They enjoy being able to apply all aspects of the sport (the serve, the tactics, the reactions) and are often less interested in drills which seem a bit tedious and pointless. After all, “Tim never puts the ball only into my forehand-two-thirds in a game, does he?”.

As a coach we tell our players we know better. “Drills are important”, we say. “You’ll never become a good player if all you want to do is play matches”. And it’s true, to an extent. The players that just play matches all the time usually have poor technique and end up losing when they go back up against their peers that spent the time learning how to play.

And no wonder they do… because the players that just play matches never get any feedback and they rarely get much coaching.

This got me thinking…

Is there a way that we could incorporate coaching and feedback into the “I just want to play matches” mentality. And…

If we did give these players feedback and clear instructions on how to improve could they make the same improvements in their matches, if they saw the matches as just another method of improvement, rather than being all about winning. After all, at tournaments we often tell players that it’s not all about winning (it’s about applying the techniques and tactics they’ve learnt) and that results doesn’t determine success. And often it is after tournaments, where the coach analyses a performance in a match-setting, that they really understand what the player needs to improve. Also, it is often following tournaments that players say that they learnt the most about their game and what they should be working on.

All of this has lead me to the following conclusion on matches in practice…

It’s not the playing of matches that is a waste of time, it’s the mindless playing of matches.

The reason we learn so much from our tournament experience is that our performances are being analyzed and we (the players) are more engaged in the mindset of thinking about our performance and receiving feedback.

OK, so perhaps to only play matches wouldn’t be the ideal solution but I think that playing lots of matches in training, and then spending the time to give feedback and reflect on the match (this is the important part), should be a vital element in our practice. We should be playing practice matches… and filming practice matches… and watching our practice matches… and going through them with a coach until we understand our faults and how to correct them completely.

Lets make practice as similar to tournaments as possible and this is one way to do it!

2. Mess around with some deliberate play

Table tennis player, coach and sports psychologist, Mark Simpson, wrote a post all about the idea of deliberate play (on this blog) back in January 2013.

Since then I’ve started looking into it in more detail and even incorporating slots of 15 minutes or so into my coaching sessions, where I give the players free time to spend doing whatever they like. The things they came up with were quite ingenious. You had all the usual loop-to-loop and lobbing and smashing but then some would also invent their own games (such as table tennis tennis, which is played on the floor with a barrier as a net), or spend the time trying out a trick serve or trying to hit a round-the-net winner.

Personally, I feel that this kind of practice is ahead of its time and will be much more common in the future, when we understand it a bit more. However, I still think we should be including it in our practice.

How about, the next time to turn up at your club for a session, decide that you wont do any drills or play any matches. Instead you are going to experiment, be creative and just have a lot of fun.

(You’ll need to make sure you’re there with someone else that’s equally happy to try this out, otherwise you might find the other players at the club find you rather irritating!)

From a personal point of view I have seen this type of practice work wonders in one of my players. Growing up in a smallish club where he was arguably the best (and most talented) player from about the age of 12/13, he spent much of his time messing around, trying ridiculous shots and having fun. Very rarely would you see him actually get his head down and practice a particular drill (and if he did he’d usually lose interest after a couple of minutes). Despite the lack of traditional coaching and practice partners his talent, creativity and general love of the sport saw him continually climb the rankings. He would beat players that took the sport much more seriously than him and he would often be admired by others at tournaments for his unique style of play and flair for the game.

The result of all that messing around was a very confident player with an incredible feeling for the ball and a great understanding of all the spins that could be imparted onto it. He then used this confidence and relaxed playing style to beat many of the top players in his age group (and even a few very highly ranked seniors).

The point is… perhaps messing around isn’t such as bad idea after all. It all goes in somehow.

These guys certainly know a thing or two about messing around in a table tennis hall, so if you are after some ideas then look no further…

I’m going to stop there today, because we’re hitting the 2,000 word-mark again and I know that not everyone enjoys such long posts, but I will be back writing about this whole idea again as it is one I am very interested in at the moment.

I would love you to leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts on these two big ideas (using matches and video analysis in practice and messing around/deliberate play).

Have you done either of these before in your practice sessions or are you going to give them a try now?

As I said, when school starts up again in two weeks time I will be using these methods with my group of players and I’ll let you know how they are getting on with them. I believe that both could really help in the overall development of a player, so if you’re serious about improving… give them a go!