Tactics to beat a much stronger player

A situation you can’t avoid in table tennis is playing someone of a much higher standard. At some point in a league match or a tournament you will face someone who is simply a lot better than you.

I remember once playing Sherwin Ramata, a Phillipines international player, in the bottom division of the London table tennis league.

This was a crazy experience. The standard in the bottom division was not great and here I was facing an international player (I think Sherwin had only just moved to London and was happy to play anywhere, for anyone!).

How did the match go? Did I pull off a famous victory? Ha! No chance. I got completely and utterly thrashed and he wasn’t even trying.

But over the years I have had some really competitive performances against players who “on paper” were much stronger than me. Most of the times I still lost but occasionally I have pulled off a shock win.

So what’s the best approach when playing a much stronger player? Is there any way of winning? Is it really possible to cause a major shock?

Maybe, just maybe. But you need to approach the match in the right way. Here’s some things you can try…

Embrace the situation

Ok, you are unlikely to win against a much stronger player. I think it’s important to acknowledge this. The other player may be better than you for numerous reasons – better technique, better shots, better placement, better consistency, better tactics. Or he may have 30 years of playing experience and you have only been playing for 2 years.

But this is fine. It doesn’t matter that you are unlikely to win.

If anything, this means you can play without pressure or expectation, which is quite a liberating feeling.

Treat the match as an exciting opportunity to play against someone of a higher standard. Don’t be overawed or give too much respect or give up before the match has even started. Try to show off your skills.

There really is no pressure. If you lose badly, no one is surprised. The result has gone to form. If the score is close, but you lose, you’ll probably feel really happy and others will congratulate you on a good performance. If the unexpected happens and you actually win, you’ll be jumping for joy for the rest of the week.

Get your biggest strength into the game

To have any chance of causing an upset, you need to get your biggest strength into the game (a lot). There’s no point playing it safe and hoping your opponent is going to mess up. This won’t work. You have to take a few risks and play outside your comfort zone.

For example, my forehand is much stronger than my backhand. I can compete with higher ranked players if I can find a way to play lots of forehand attacks. This means I have to work harder with my footwork, use my serves to set up forehand attacks and take a take a few more risks with my positioning to maximise the space available to play forehands.

Think about your own game. What is your biggest strength? How can you get it into play? What risks are you prepared to take to get your strength into play?

Identify a weakness (or less strong area)

It may seem that your much stronger opponent doesn’t have a weakness. It’s certainly true that he may not have a glaring weakness (he is a much stronger player after all), but he is likely to have areas of his game which aren’t as strong as others.

Your job is to find out what the less strong areas are. Is the backhand weaker than the forehand? Is there a type of serve he returns weaker than others? Does he prefer slow or fast balls? Does he play better against topspin or backspin? Does he move well in all areas of the table?

See if you can pick out some areas where the strong player is not quite so strong.

Apply your strength to the less strong area

This is the key bit, which may help you cause a major upset. If you can get your strength consistently into the game (e.g. forehand topspin) and apply it to one of your opponent’s less strong areas (e.g. wide to backhand or crossover point), you may start to even the match up a bit.

You will be using your strength, which is a higher standard compared to the rest of your game and matching it against your opponent’s less strong area, which is a lower standard compared to the rest of his game.

The outcome? Your playing level is going to become more even.

You may have a chance of winning.

Give them something to worry about

Admittedly, this is easier said than done. A much stronger player may make it very difficult for you to get your strength into play. He will likely have a lot more experience and will know how to stop you from playing well.

But to have any chance of causing a major upset, you need to try and give the much stronger player something to worry about.

If you can put him under pressure, get him feeling a bit anxious, get him doubting himself, get him worried he may lose to a much weaker player, it may have a significant impact on his game. He may start playing more cautiously or the opposite – taking too many risks. He may start getting frustrated and reckless, or start over-thinking his technique.

There’s lots of possibilities, but in each case the outcome is that his level drops.

The match is a bit more even.

Dream big

Of course, we shouldn’t get too carried away. As I’ve said already, you’re unlikely to beat a much stronger player. He is much stronger for lots of reasons. Even if you play your best and apply your strength against his weakness and get him panicked and flustered, he will still probably find a way to win the match. This is why he is a much stronger player.

But at least you gave it a good go and put in a performance you can be proud of.

And you never know. It is a sporting contest after all. Shocks do happen in all sports. You need to give yourself the opportunity to make a shock happen.

You won’t beat a much stronger player very often. But it is possible. And it’s a brilliant feeling when you pull off an unexpected win.

So dream big, take a few risks and give it your best shot!

(You can read how other players approach matches against much stronger players in this discussion on the TableTennisDaily website).

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About Tom Lodziak

I’m a table tennis coach, player and blogger based in Cambridge in the UK. Sign up to my popular FREE monthly newsletter and I'll send you tips, blogs, articles and videos to help you improve and win more points. You can also follow me on Twitter and subscribe to my Youtube channel.

5 thoughts on “Tactics to beat a much stronger player

  1. Hi Tom,
    great advice, as ever. I’m currently playing my debut league season and will be playing plenty of more experienced/better players. Last week didn’t go so well but this week I went in with lower expectations, relaxed and as a result pushed all my opponents to a fifth game. Still didn’t win any though 🙁
    But you’re right about embracing the situation and trying to reverse the pressure on your (stronger) opponent.
    Best, Jon

    • Thanks Jon. The first season is always tough. It does take a few matches to get used to competing. And you will have lots of different styles to get used to. But stick with it and try to enjoy the experience and learn from the losses. Hopefully you’ll get some wins soon!

  2. Great piece! Thanks.

    I’d like to draw a distinction between “raising your game” for a higher level match, and raising your emotional level.
    A common mistake to make is equating offensive intensity with emotional aggression. The easiest thing for a seasoned veteran to exploit is an impatient player who has committed to aggressive high risk shots even before a point begins.
    While taking risks by improving the quality of your shots against a higher level player is crucial to creating opportunities to win, those risks might be on offensive point-winning shots, but equally valuable might be improving the quality of your control type shots such as lowering your short pushes on serve receive.

    For a real opportunity to win emotional intensity must remain optimal.

    • Hi Stephen – I agree. You need to control your emotions. If you can get your mental state into “the zone” – this elusive mindset where you have complete focus, sharpened senses and the ability to consistently play your best – you may have a chance of causing an upset. But getting into “the zone” is easier said than done, for me at least anyway!

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