Benefits of an awkward training partner

Joachim, Tom and Yordan – The Awkward Squad – collecting runners-up medals for the Cambridge Handicap Competition 2022

When we practice table tennis, it is very tempting to seek out a training partner with a compatible playing style. A player with good control and consistent speed and spin. With this type of training partner you can get into a good rhythm, with lots of smooth drills and eye-catching rallies. And there is definitely plenty of value in this. You get to develop your technique, improve your footwork and gain confidence in your strokes.

But there is also a huge benefit with practising with the most awkward player in the training hall. That player with unorthodox technique, unpredictable shots and disruptive timing. The player who doesn’t look like he can play table tennis – his shots are often weird looking – but is actually really hard to beat. Let’s look at the benefits of training with these awkward players…

Awkward Yordan

Yordan is my team-mate. He’s the tall guy on the right in the photo above. I played with Yordan the first time I visited Cambridge-Parkside Table Tennis Club, nearly 10-years-ago. From what I remember, he beat me 3-2. Since then we must have played over 1000 games, and it’s usually pretty close every time. 

Yordan has an unconventional playing style. He is self-taught. He never bothers with drills. He learns by playing matches. Lots and lots of matches. 

He uses a mixture of weird looking, long spinny serves, sharp pushes, quick blocks, flat hits and the occasional very spinny forehand topspin. He can be a nightmare to play against as he takes the ball early, uses wide angles and makes it hard to find any kind of rhythm. 

When Yordan is on top form, he is capable of beating anyone in our Cambridge league, or at least giving the top players a very tough game. He’s not the sort of player you choose for a nice relaxing training session or match.

What value do I get from training with Yordan? Well, I certainly don’t drill my technique in any structured way. I don’t think we have ever done training drills together. Instead, we do a lot of match-play. Quick warm-up (sometimes), then straight on with matches. 

For onlookers, this may seem like just unstructured play with no real value. But I look at it the opposite way. There’s no real value in doing a structured training drill with an awkward player like Yordan, as this will tame his awkwardness. The real benefit is facing his awkward playing style head on and learning to deal with it.

When I play Yordan I’m actually working on several areas of my game, including:

  • Dealing with randomness
  • Adapting to frequent changes of pace and spin
  • Returning long, fast, spinny serves
  • Attacking heavy pushes and recovering quickly for the next shot
  • Returning flat hits
  • Staying focused
  • Playing positive table tennis

Because we are so familiar with each other’s game, I also develop my problem solving skills, trying to work out new ways to win points. Yordan is doing the same to me. He’s also trying to work out new ways of winning. It always feels like a challenge for both of us.

I rarely finish a session with Yordan feeling I have played smooth, effortless table tennis. It’s often scrappy, ugly and untidy. There is no flow to the play. But I have developed a load of skills which prepares me for similar players I face in leagues or tournaments. My game is more versatile as a result of playing with Yordan. I know how to approach a wider range of opponents.

More awkwardness

Yordan is not the only awkward player I like to train with. I also like to play with Joachim. He’s the guy in the photo on the left. Joachim uses long pimples on his backhand, but uses them in quite a unique way. He likes to attack, prod, stab and stop the ball dead. He takes the ball very early and mixes short, wide and deep balls. He can be hugely disruptive. Like Yordan, when he is on top form, he can be a real challenge to beat. 

And then there is Martin. He can play in a more conventional way, but he also has a range of weird and wonderful shots. He can switch between a normal looking forehand topspin to something completely unexpected, then back to a normal looking backhand topspin all in the same rally. I’m never quite sure what is coming next. Martin is a master at changing the timing, spin and direction of his shots. He’s a couple of levels above me, so if I don’t concentrate when we play, he will destroy me.  

Yordan, Joachim and Martin are my favourite training partners. I have to stay fully alert the whole time I play with them. It sharpens my table tennis senses. It improves my ability to deal with all those random shots, spins and angles. I still find it hard to play them, but I do feel I am much better equipped at coping with other awkward players in league matches and tournaments. 

Embrace the challenge

Some people will avoid playing with awkward training partners. They find it unsatisfying. But these same players then struggle when facing an awkward opponent in a league match or tournament. 

If the only time you face an awkward player is two or three times a year in a league match, it’s not a surprise that it is a very tough experience. You need to spend a lot of time playing with awkward players to really get used to the weird shots and disruptive timing.

There is a huge benefit for having at least one awkward training partner. It can make you a much more versatile player, who can cope with a lot more randomness. The next time you see that awkward player at your club  – the player who prods, chops, hits and spins in weird and wonderful ways – go and play with him and embrace the awkward challenge.

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