A key habit that you must develop in order to become an expert table tennis player is that of self-analysis. It is not enough to simply go through the motions in the practice hall – mindlessly doing the drills assigned to you by your coach – expecting to naturally improve and develop with very little mental effort on your part.
Instead, you need to be constantly monitoring and analysing your own game. What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? What sort of training should you be doing? It is this kind of proactive attitude that leads to accelerated performance.
But don’t worry if you aren’t doing that yet. Today’s blog post will help you get started on the road to deeply understanding your own game and using that knowledge to improve it.
Just over three weeks ago, on Sunday 27th September, I was at Cippenham Table Tennis Centre near Slough playing in the first week of British League. The competition was fierce, every team in my division was strong, and I was hugely out of practice. In the morning match, I lost 3-0 to the up-and-coming Mitchell Jones (England #94) and 3-0 again to a foreign Greenhouse coach called Renan Wiest who was class. I could feel that my game was starting to come together though and I was looking forward to playing a common adversary in the afternoon, Daniel Fielding.
Ben Larcombe vs Daniel Fielding
Dan is ranked 142 in England (I’m currently 171) and if I’m honest I knew that he was the only person I was playing that day that I had an actual chance of beating. I made sure I had a really good knock up in the gap between our first and second match and I was feeling good. I didn’t want to leave without a win, so I needed to get the better of Dan. Add to that the fact that I’d just watched him lose both of his morning matches, and I was feeling confident.
The match started badly and I lost the first game 11-5. The second game was much better. I came out attacking a lot more and felt a lot more comfortable and in control. I won it 15-13 and it really felt like we had a game on our hands. The third game was very similar. I was playing better and better. I think I even managed to get a bit of lead. A cushion of points.
I remember feeling quite happy inside. “See, you can still do it”, I thought to myself. “You just needed a few matches to get back into it.” If things continued like this I felt certain I’d be able to close it out and win 3-1.
But they didn’t…
During the second half of that third game, Dan started serving long a lot more often. Topspin kicker serves into my backhand to be precise. With every kicker serve he implemented the momentum was steadily moving away from me and towards him.
He had discovered my weakness. To be honest, I was surprised he hadn’t used this serve more – he’d beaten me back in April almost exclusively due to this serve. Perhaps he had forgotten.
I had no reply for his kicker serve. I tried a few backhand loops but found myself top edging the ball or missing completely. I tried stepping round to play a forehand, but it was hard to read when the kicker was coming and even if I did read it correctly I was leaving my wide forehand massively exposed.
I resorted to a combination of nervously blocking/punching the serves which, at this level, is suicide. Dan was able to do a kicker serve whenever he fancied fully aware that I was going to give him a weak ball back that he could loop-kill.
He clawed his way back into the third game, winning 12-10, before winning the fourth and final set 11-6.
I felt like an idiot. You’re supposed to want your opponent to serve long because it gives you the initiative and the opportunity to attack first. Instead, I had stood there like a lamb to the slaughter, playing way too soft and allowing Dan to finish me off at will.
What’s your number one weakness?
I’ve never been good at attacking intentionally long serves. I don’t mind my opponent doing short serves that drift long by mistake, but I really don’t want them serving long, fast and deep at me. Add heavy spin to those serves (a combination of top and side, in particular) and I am feeling very uncomfortable.
This has always been a weakness. I reckon it stems partly from my natural tendency to play a more consistent, cautious game (instead of attacking absolutely everything) but more from the fact that I have spent years practicing drills that start with a short serve 90% of the time and hardly ever do any training attacking fast serves.
If an opponent is able to identify and expose this weakness it gives them a huge advantage over me. A lower ranked player with a strong kicker serve will find themselves 50/50 with me. A similarly ranked player will find themselves able to beat me more comfortably than they thought. It makes that big of a difference!
Attacking fast, heavy spin serves is my number one weakness right now. Sure, I could do with improving the quality of my own serves, adding more power to my forehand, and speeding up my footwork, but those pale into insignificance when compared with my inability to confidently loop long spin serves.
What’s your number one weakness?
You definitely have one – we all do. It might be really obvious or it might be a little more difficult to spot. Have a think and see if you can identify something. If you can’t, ask one of your training partners or teammates. If they have even just half a tactical brain on them they should instantly be able to reveal one weakness in your game that they have picked up on and regularly exploit.
And then once you are aware of your weakness you need to actually do something about it!
Face your fears
I am training once a week now on a Friday morning with Antony Constantinou.
[Fun Fact: He plays for a different team in Div. 1 South British League and was one of the players that I watched beating Dan Fielding in the morning before I played him in the afternoon.]
One of the drills I try and do every week is to get him to do long, fast, heavy spin serves to anywhere on the table and I have to attack them properly with a loop, instead of cautiously blocking or punching them back. I top edge a lot of balls. I miss quite a few backhand loops entirely – that makes me feel like a bit of an idiot. But that is the only way to sort out my number one weakness. I need to practice against it. I need to get used to it.
I’ve got two more Friday training sessions and one local league match before the next weekend of British League matches. Hopefully, that will be enough time for me to at least start overcoming my fear of receiving fast, heavy spin serves.
You may be thinking to yourself, “Why has Ben just shared his number one weakness with the world? Surely he has just given everyone who plays him a big advantage?”
Well, to learn the answer to that question you will need to listen to Episode #22 of The Expert Table Tennis Podcast and part two of my interview with table tennis coach Marc Burman, which will be released on Friday. In it, Marc shares why sometimes it is a good idea to play into your opponents strengths if you are focused on improving your game long-term.
I guess I’m kind of applying the same principle here. The more people who serve long to me, the more practice I get against it, the better I get at attacking fast serves, and the more my game and level should improve as a result.
Share your number one weakness in the comments below…
Have you managed to identify the number one weakness in your game right now? If so, share it in the comments below and perhaps also let us know how you plan to overcome that weakness.
If you can’t think of anything, ask for suggestions. I’ll try my best to reply to each comment and I’m sure other ETT Academy members will be happy to give advice too!
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