For many players in the UK, the new table tennis league season will start in the next 2 or 3 weeks. Some players will be bubbling with anticipation. Other players will be twitching with anxiety at the thought of competing again.
I usually experience both emotions simultaneously. I’m excited about playing competitive matches again, to see if I have improved after a summer of practice. But at the same time I start worrying about how many matches I may win or lose. It’s confusing being me sometimes!
Whether you’re excited or anxious, it’s important to use this period before league matches start to get yourself ‘match-ready’.
Here’s three tips to help you prepare for the new league season…
Tip 1 – Focus on the first 5 balls of a rally
Most points are won and lost in the first 5 points of a rally. To get yourself match-ready, you should shift your focus from general rallying exercises to match-play exercises. This means you practice a lot of service, returning serves, 3rd, 4th and 5th ball attack routines.
Make sure you are serving well. Your serves should be low over the net and have lots of spin and placement variation. Pay special attention to the serves which you know cause opponents problems or set up predictable returns to attack. These are the serves you want to make sure are working well. If you struggle with other parts of your game during a match, you can fall back on a strong serve and 3rd ball to keep winning points.
Spend time practicing returning serves. Many players struggle with returning serves. It’s the number one issue players ask me for advice for. Because players struggle with returning serves, they tend to avoid practicing it. They prefer to practice something they’re good at. The outcome? They never get better at returning serves. The solution? Practice returning serves!
As well as focusing on service and returning serves, you should also practice 3rd, 4th and 5th ball attack routines. To build up confidence before the season starts, do drills which play to your strengths. If you have a strong forehand attack, work on drills where you get to play a lot of forehands.
If your strengths are working well, you’ll probably find you have more confidence with your weaker strokes too. It’s when you lose confidence in your strengths, that your game can begin to fall to pieces.
For ideas of training drills, take a read of my blog post 10 training drill ideas for the first five shots in a rally and 3rd ball attack training drills.
Tip 2: Play lots of practice matches
After you have done some exercises focusing on the first 5 balls of the rally, play lots of practice matches.
It doesn’t really matter if you win or lose these matches, you’re just getting used to competing again – being clear in your mind how you want to play, working out tactics, trying to get your strengths into play.
Who should you play practice matches with? Ideally you want to play matches against players who are of a similar standard to the league division you will be playing in.
There’s not much point playing people from a much lower division. You may get a confidence boost, as you will probably win easily, but it won’t help you prepare for your level of competition.
Similarly, avoid playing people from a much higher division. This may knock your confidence and won’t be a true reflection of the type of opponent you will be playing in your division.
Often the style of play varies hugely in different divisions. In higher divisions you get a lot of attacking topspin players. In lower divisions you get a lot of tricky backspin players. You need to practice against the styles of play you will be facing in your league division.
Tip 3 – Write a list of match-play reminders
Something definitely worth considering is writing a list of match-play reminders to help you focus before matches. This list should include those pieces of advice you have probably been told 100 times, but still manage to forget them in the pressure of competition.
Here’s my list. It includes some of the things I’ve been working on over the summer, but they’re not fully in my muscle memory, so I have to keep reminding myself.
- Get into your attacking zone
- Get your stance right – stick bum out, stay low, keep on balls of your feet
- Attack serves as much as possible
- When playing backhand attacks, use wrist to topspin the ball
- Keep right foot back
- Attack middle as well as corners
- Push aggressively
- Keep low when blocking
- Show people how you can play
This doesn’t work for everyone, but it certainly helps me. I will have a quick read of my list before a league match and I find it gets me in the right frame of mood to compete.
Use your practice time wisely
There’s not much time until the season begins, so make the best use of any practice sessions you have.
If you can get yourself match-ready, then you will start the season better, which will increase your confidence and, fingers crossed, you’ll have a great season.
Good luck to all league players and please do let me know how your preparation is going and how you get on in your first league matches.